To recruit workers, big employers team with historically Black colleges

Under pressure to diversify, companies are investing money and mentorship in HBCUs

As it did in workplaces worldwide, the police killing of George Floyd — just a few miles from its offices in Minneapolis — led to deep introspection about diversity and fairness at the Solve advertising agency.

The company was more than 80 percent White and part of an industry in which Black and Hispanic employees are greatly underrepresented in comparison with their proportions of the general population.

“It obviously pushed the entire industry to reflect, ‘Are we doing enough?’ ” said Andrew Pautz, a partner in the firm and its director of business development. “And the answer was really no.”

To respond, Solve looked 1,100 miles away, to Baltimore. That’s where it found a historically Black university, or HBCU — Morgan State University — willing to team up to create an entry-level course that would introduce its students to careers in advertising.

“Advertising isn’t on the radar of diverse candidates when it really counts, when they’re trying to find a career to engage in,” Pautz said. So he and his colleagues asked: “Where is there a high concentration of diverse students? And that’s what brought us to HBCUs.”

It’s not only Solve that has come to this conclusion. So have some of the nation’s largest employers, which are descending on HBCUs to recruit the workers they need to meet diversity promises or are expanding collaborations that already existed — often underwriting courses and programs and the technology needed to provide them.

These employers include Google, IBM, Northrop Grumman, Novartis, NBCUniversal, the airlines United, Delta and Southwest, and even the NFL, which teamed up last month with four historically Black medical schools to boost the number of Black team physicians and medical professionals.

“At many HBCUs, the phones have been ringing off the hook,” said David Marshall, a Morgan State professor and the chair of the university’s Department of Strategic Communication. “Given that these institutions are producing some of the highest numbers in terms of Black and Brown students in some professions, it’s a natural development to come to where the students are.”

About 1 in 11 Black college students are enrolled in the nation’s 101 HBCUs, which produce more than a quarter of Black graduates with degrees in math, biology and the physical sciences, the National Science Foundation reports, as well as 50 percent of Black lawyers, 40 percent of Black engineers and 12.5 percent of Black CEOs, according to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

“People who have attended HBCUs, we know the value,” said Cheyenne Boyce, a graduate of historically Black Spelman College and senior manager in the Education Partner Program at the software developer and marketing company HubSpot, which also teams up with HBCUs to find interns and employees. “We’ve always known that. But it does help to have additional external validation.”

No one tracks how many companies are collaborating with HBCUs to find workers. But many such affiliations have been announced over the past two years. There’s been “a significant uptick,” said Marshall, at Morgan State.

“It’s been deeper over the last couple of years,” said Lydia Logan, the vice president for global education and workforce development and corporate social responsibility at IBM. Added Yeneneh Ketema, the university relations diversity program leader at Northrop Grumman: “From what we’ve heard from our campus contacts, yes, there are a lot more companies coming there.”

This expanding pipeline to jobs with top employers could attract more students to HBCUs, whose enrollment overall declined by 14 percent in the 10 years ending in 2020, according to the Education Department — although about a third of the schools have seen a record rebound in response to racist incidents at predominantly White institutions, the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions reports.

“Having companies really be willing to make investments, it benefits the students. It’s great for the parents. It’s great for the universities,” Boyce said.

For HBCU students who are lower-income or the first in their families to go to college, closer relationships with corporate recruiters and mentors also could help offset the advantage long enjoyed by wealthier counterparts who can network their way to jobs.

“What’s exciting to see coming out of the HBCUs right now are these opportunities to build real relationships,” said Jeffrey Moss, the founder and CEO of Parker Dewey, which helps employers and colleges arrange short-term internships.

That’s because many employers are investing more than an occasional campus recruiting visit. They’re showering HBCUs with technology and other support, mentors and money to help develop talent.

IBM announced in May that it would underwrite new cybersecurity centers at six HBCUs: Morgan State, Xavier, North Carolina A&T State, South Carolina State, Clark Atlanta and Louisiana’s Southern University System.

In addition to supplying academic content, the company will furnish experts to conduct guest lectures and even simulated hacking events.

“This is our next new big thing with HBCUs,” said Logan, at IBM, which already had a program to recruit students from historically Black schools.

“We’ve had a long commitment to diversity. For other companies, it’s newer. For everyone, it’s gotten deeper over the last couple of years,” Logan said.

There’s now not only a social imperative for these companies, but there also is an economic one: a huge demand for workers — not just in cybersecurity, but also in other fields that require education in science, technology, engineering and math.

“We have a talent shortage,” Logan said. And “if you’re looking for diverse talent in STEM, it’s a natural fit to recruit from HBCUs.”

The Grow with Google HBCU Career Readiness Program provides digital education and funding to help expand the pipeline of Black tech workers, who represent only 4.4 percent of Google employees in the United States, even though 13.4 percent of the U.S. population is Black. Last year — facing criticism, including from one of its former diversity recruiters, that it previously didn’t seriously consider Black engineers from HBCUs for jobs — the company’s CEO met with the presidents of five HBCUs. Google has now added a program called Pathways to Tech to provide those universities with technology resources.

To recruit airline pilots — fewer than 4 percent of whom are Black even as the Bureau of Labor Statistics says 14,500 openings will need to be filled each year through at least the end of this decade — United Airlines has teamed up with historically Black Delaware State University, Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina and Hampton University in Virginia. Delta has formed a partnership with Hampton, too, and Southwest with Texas Southern University in Houston.

The NFL announced last month that it would offer month-long clinical rotations to students from the historically Black Howard University College of Medicine, Morehouse School of Medicine, Meharry Medical College and Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science as a way to increase diversity among NFL physicians, only 5 percent of whom are Black.

“It’s really important for us to have that pipeline” from HBCUs, said Ketema, at Northrop Grumman, which also has collaborations with HBCUs and this fall will hold its fourth annual “HBCU Invitational,” during which it invites students to interview for jobs and participate in workshops and other activities.

It’s important that employers give more than lip service to these partnerships, Ketema’s colleague, said Chris Carlson, Northrop’s director of university recruiting.

“One thing that we all know from working with HBCUs is the students can truly tell if a company is there to check a box — just showing up at a career fair to collect résumés — or if the company is in it with a school,” Carlson said.

Marshall agreed that the onus is on employers to live up to their diversity goals.

“This is not a story about HBCUs,” he said. “It’s about companies and corporations that are under increased pressure from their stakeholders, their shareholders, their customers saying, ‘You can no longer sit on the sidelines. You’ve got to do something.’

“I don’t think the burden is on the HBCU side. I think the burden is on the corporations that suddenly woke up and found Jesus.”

In the meantime, HBCUs are indisputably enjoying a surge of employer interest.

“It’s great for HBCUs to get this attention,” said IBM’s Logan. “For a long time, I think they were overlooked, and now they’re getting the recognition they’ve always deserved.”

This story about historically Black colleges and universities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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09 / 19 / 22

Solve Reels In Craft Beer Industry Leader Bell’s Brewery

Brewers Of Two Hearted Ale – America’s Highest-Rated Beer – Tap Indie Minneapolis Agency To Fuel Growth

Leading craft brewery Bell’s recently hired independent Solve as its creative agency, following a competitive review.

Founded in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1985, the brand is looking to stimulate further momentum and growth behind its iconic flagship beer, Two Hearted Ale. In addition to being a craft staple, Two Hearted – which launched in 1997 – is the consistently top-rated beer in the country as voted by the American Homebrewers Association. 

“We’re truly excited to collaborate with Bell’s to spread the love of Two Hearted,” says Solve President Ryan Murray. “Partnering with one of the most beloved craft beers is a tremendous opportunity we don’t take lightly. We can’t wait to do breakthrough, remarkable work with the brewery’s ambitious brand team.”

“Solve impressed us at every turn,” says Scott Powell, Senior Director of Marketing at Bell’s Brewery. “We saw a lot of interest and excitement from agencies wanting to work on a legendary brand like Bell’s, but in the end, Solve’s passion and big idea thinking made it clear they were like-minded partners.”

First campaign work is set to break in early 2023.

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08 / 26 / 22

Solve Hires Kevin Sypal As Director Of Account Management

Wieden+Kennedy, CP+B, TBWA\MAL Vet Will Lead Agency’s Account Department

Kevin Sypal is joining Solve’s leadership team as Director of Account Management.

During a career that spans W+K, CP+B and most recently TBWA\Media Arts Lab, Sypal has spearheaded client teams on a host of world-class brands. He’s led the charge on high-profile work for Apple iPhone, Coca-Cola, adidas, Spotify, Kraft and Hershey while helping build formative account management training programs.

“We’re delighted to have Kevin on board,” says Solve President Ryan Murray. “His blend of curiosity, determination and collaboration makes for an optimal combination. He’s a true pro who brings experience from award-winning, a-list agencies that will help us build a best-in-class account group and fuel remarkable work.”

“I was truly excited when the opportunity to join Solve came about – relocating from Portland was an easy choice,” says Sypal, Solve Director of Account Management. “We’ve got a fantastic team in place, and I look forward to helping the agency continue – and build upon – its current momentum.”

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07 / 13 / 22

Solve Names Rebecca Underwood Director Of Connection Strategy

Seven-Year Agency Vet Will Lead Media Department

Rebecca Underwood has been named Director of Connection Strategy at Solve. Underwood, who’s been with the agency for seven years, will oversee all aspects of media at Solve – including strategic planning, audience identification, cross-functional ideation, plan execution, measurement and social media.

In her time at Solve, Rebecca has amassed a broad range of expertise allowing her to contribute across multiple fronts on all the agency’s clients. She started her career in digital media and quickly evolved her role to encompass audience insights, connection strategy and media planning.

“From the moment Rebecca joined our Connection Strategy department, she’s made an impact,” says Solve CEO/Founder Corey Johnson. “Her gears are always turning; she’s constantly going above and beyond in search of newer and better ways to solve our client’s challenges. This promotion is well-deserved.”

“It’s been amazing being part of Solve’s growth the last several years,” says Underwood, Solve Director of Connection Strategy. “I’m excited to be among such a smart, talented team, and can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future as I step into this new role within the agency.”

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06 / 07 / 22

Solve Hires Kathleen Tax Wille As Chief Creative Officer

VMLY&R, FCB, DDB Vet Will Lead Agency’s Creative Department

Kathleen Tax Wille is joining Solve’s leadership team as Chief Creative Officer/Partner, a new position at the agency.

Wille has worked on some of the world’s most iconic brands at agencies in Chicago and Seattle. She’s developed high-profile campaigns for Skittles, Intel, State Farm, McDonald’s, Anheuser-Busch and Gatorade. Her work has been widely recognized by Cannes, Effie, D&AD and the London International Awards, and featured in the Super Bowl.

“Chief Creative Officer is one of the most critical hires for any agency – finding the right person is essential,” says Solve CEO/Founder Corey Johnson. “Kathleen’s creative vision, impressive track record and team-oriented approach made her an easy choice.”

“This is one of those rare opportunities – to help define the next chapter for a strong independent agency,” says Wille, Solve Chief Creative Officer/Partner. “I’m thrilled to be joining such a talented team that shares my belief in restless creativity, curiosity and empathy.” Wille’s creative portfolio can be viewed here.

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