When the announcement was made that the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) had accepted a lump sum donation of $25 million from the Koch Industries Inc. and the Charles Koch Foundation, UNCF president Dr. Michael Lomax received equal support and criticism about the donation. While some folks recognized the impact the donation will have on the education of HBCU students, others remained stuck on the political aspect of things, pointing out the history of the billionaire businessmen usually aligning themselves with conservative political causes.
Lomax took time out of his schedule to talk to BlackEnterprise.com about what this contribution will mean for the next generation of business leaders and what he has to say to all of his critics about UNCF’s newest scholarship program.
BlackEnterprise.com: What type of impact will this donation have on creating the next generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs?
We were in discussion with the donor for over a year and a half as we worked through what this program should be like and their background is obviously in business. Koch Industries is the second largest, privately held conglomerate in the United States, and they have over 60,000 employees in the U.S. and a 100,000 employees worldwide. We wanted to link this scholarship program with their expertise in building a business, and managing a business, as well as creating jobs for the future.
About 23% of our students at UNCF member institutions are majoring in business-related fields. It’s the largest single academic area of concentration across all of our institutions and when you couple that with the percentage of students in STEM discipline, you get well over 40% of our students engaged in business, science, technology, engineering, and math. These are areas where we believe there won’t just be jobs, but opportunities to create businesses and build wealth. So many of our students don’t just want to go work for somebody, they want to create their own businesses and build wealth. We’re sending students this year to Silicon Valley in record numbers from HBCUs to work in enterprises that were founded by science, technology, engineering and math people who also monetized their knowledge into creating major businesses. [The program] will focus on innovation and entrepreneurship, and we think this will begin to open up new vistas for our students so they can not only get a job on graduation, but they may actually move into some sort of an incubator and start their own business.
How will the program be run?
Students will begin in their freshman year applying for these scholarships, which are $5,000 a year. They will get an on-campus faculty member to have somebody working with them. The students will then engage via technology in learning communities across institutions in areas of shared interest around the big themes of innovation and entrepreneurship. There will also be an opportunity for us to bring in incredible speakers across the network and people who have started businesses and people who have helped design businesses. While we’re saying this is focused on certain disciplines, I want artists in here because not only are we creative people, but we’re creative people who can take popular culture and turn it into huge fortunes. So who knows we may be having a Dr. Dre or P. Diddy talking to our kids. There are so many entrepreneurs in the entertainment sector that they are aware of, but in addition, we want them to know that the lead director at Microsoft is an African American who has run businesses in Silicon Valley and is a graduate of an HBCU.
This whole program is designed to open up their minds, and one of the other features is that it’s not just for undergraduates. We will be opening up $10,000 scholarships for graduate school students and $25,000 scholarships for PhD students as well.
It’s clear that this donation will have a huge impact on helping HBCU students, but of course it has come with some criticism. What do you have to say to those who criticized UNCF’s acceptance of the donation?
I just have to remind them that UNCF for 70 years has urged all Americans to support our cause. At the end of WWII when we were founded, our first campaign chair John D. Rockefeller, Jr. reached out to business leaders who were the wealthiest and most powerful Americans all across the country. The notion was the work of UNCF should have universal support. We’ve never had an ideological or post-partisan political filter on soliciting support for what we do, and I’m confident that in the 100,000 donors we have today, they represent every possible point of view on the political spectrum.
So what I say to the critics is I hear you, but the toughest questions I have to answer don’t come from the pundits, or those in academics, it comes from the students who say to me “Dr. Lomax I’ve done everything right. I’ve graduated high school. I’ve identified my college. This is where I want to go, but I just don’t have the money. Can UNCF help me?” That’s the question I have to answer. This isn’t going to help everybody, but it’s going to help a bunch of students and I think it’s going to be an incredible experience for them. And what I would say to the critics is if this isn’t the scholarship program you would create, then help us create that one.