Cloudflare TV

Afroflare: Black History Month: HBCU Smart Cities Challenge

Presented by Kevin Fomengia, Ayinde Simon, Earl Turner, Cory McGowan, Nikole Phillips
Originally aired on 

Join Afroflare's Nikole Phillips as she discusses how the HBCU Smart Cities Challenge enables students from HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) to solve infrastructure problems using technological solutions.

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HBCU Smart Cities Challenge

Transcript (Beta)

Hi everyone, welcome to Cloudflare TV. Today I have the pleasure of being able to provide more context into our HBCU Smart Cities Challenge.

We have founders, board members and also participants.

So we have a lot to dive into today. Just so you all know who we're speaking with, I want to do a round robin on introductions, just to let you know who I am at Cloudflare.

My name is Nikole Phillips. I lead and manage the data analytics team here within the business intelligence team at Cloudflare.

So I'll go over to Ayinde.

How you doing, Nikole? Thanks for having me. Thanks to Cloudflare.

My name is Ayinde Simon. I'm the co-founder of the HBCU Smart Cities Challenge, also the director of partnerships, really focused on how do we build ecosystems in these communities and come to this work with a passion to support entrepreneurs.

Dr. Earl Turner. Yes, hello, everyone. My name is Dr. Earl Turner.

I'm a board member here at Pathway Community Foundation where I support the Oregon driving outcomes through research and education.

Corey. Hello, I'm Corey McGowan.

I go by Corey. I'm representing Granville State University. I participate in HBCU Smart Cities Challenge representing Team Vision.

And Corey, what's your major?

Oh, computer science. No worries. No worries. And finally, Kevin.

Hey, everyone. My name is Kevin Semenjia. I'm the director of innovation. And I'm the one that get my hands nitty and dirty on working with the students and the cities trying to make sure that the projects are feasible.

Thank you so much for those intros.

So that we can get context on who you are before we dig into the great work that you all are doing at the end of this week.

I want to know how did you all grow together to build out HBCU Smart Cities Challenge?

And what was the gap you're trying to fill?

And Ayinde, I'll go to you for that question. Thank you, Nicole.

I think for us, it was really important that we focus on building ecosystems in these communities.

Just to take a step back, a lot of our focus came out of the 2017 Acts, the Jobs Act, which outlined distressed communities as opportunity zones.

We use that as a guide for us and found that over 50 HBCUs were located in opportunity zones.

But usually what you see is a focus on real estate, mixed use.

For us, we wanted to cultivate entrepreneurship and support entrepreneurs in the same areas.

So the challenge came as a way to how do we create a collective brain and cultivate entrepreneurship, whether giving them access to tools and skills, resources and funding, anything that helps elevate the entrepreneurs in these communities.

So that's really how we started the challenge. And with that start, we kind of started to expand our reach to different HBCU communities, and really create a collective brain and bridge the gap of what we see of a lack of ecosystems being built in these communities.

So I want to dig a little bit into what types of like majors and students do you all work with within, so to build that collective within the challenge?

Yeah, so we initially when we focused on this, we had computer science majors, students focused on STEM.

But what was really interesting is we started to talk to more universities and more students, we wanted people who were just passionate about these problems and passionate about these communities.

So we really opened it up to any major. If you cared about the cities in these communities, be involved in this challenge.

And we kind of wanted to drive that home with all students at all universities.

Okay, that is great to hear. So does anyone else have anything to add? Because I want to go into the type of model you all have built out for this channel.

Yeah, um, I would like to add on what Ayinde says that we truly believe that we are experts in our community, you live in your community, you, you know, the problems.

So whether if you are a political science major, or if you sociology, you see the issues that's going on in the community.

So you can add those insights to help bring forth solutions.

Okay, that's good to hear. And I know a lot of those insights come from Dr.

Turner. So Dr. Turner during your research, and as the board member, what insights did you glean to focus on these HBC, on this HBCU talent to bridge this gap?

Yeah, the majority of the problems that we wanted to address is some of those historical ones that usually play themselves out by way of leaky pipelines, career opportunities, graduate school access, and also access to entrepreneurship opportunities.

So when we think about the landscape and the world economy that we're in now, there's a huge desire to bridge the gaps and feel or resolve problems around diversity, equity and inclusion.

So if that's the case, then we need to look directly at how we are able to create durable pipelines that ensure that our students are not falling out of opportunities along their journey.

I'm glad that you said that. Because I know, unfortunately, we live in a society where we've been culturally conditioned to think that and I got that from Joe Madison, the Black Eagle, but we've been culturally conditioned to think that certain institutions provide a better education than HBCUs.

And it wasn't until now after an epiphany, even though all of the people that we celebrate graduated from HBCUs, and it's statistically known that HBCUs produce the most engineers, doctors, nurses, economists, educators, whatever you name, we are top tier in that area.

So there's a lot of untapped talent that come out of HBCUs, even though we can actually do the job.

So I wanted to understand why was it important for you all to focus on the tier two and tier four cities when engaging with HBCUs?

And Kevin, I'll go to you and then Dr. Turner. Sure.

I think it'd be great for the audience to really understand what a tier two and tier three cities are.

I know, Ayinde, you have been really on ground to focus on that.

Yeah. So when you think about these tier two to tier four cities, these are usually cities that haven't reached their full growth potential, sometimes under 500,000 in population.

But also what we think about as it relates to smart cities, these are areas that have been untapped and not necessarily developed and focused in smart city initiatives.

So usually that's, like I said, a smaller population, not reached full growth yet in room to experiment around smart city technology.

That's good to hear. Graduated from that. No, no, go ahead.

I'm sorry. Go ahead. No, no, continue. Oh, go ahead, Kevin. I'm sorry. No, no.

And just leading towards that, we were super intentional of targeting cities that a lot of times are overlooked.

We believe any city can be smart. It doesn't have to be the Miamis or the Los Angeles or New York.

We were super intentional when we thought about this challenge.

We said, let's get the city of Tuskegee on board.

Let's get the city of Winston -Salem, the city of Greensboro, Tuscaloosa, Memphis.

These are the cities that have a lot of talent and also have a lot of intellectual talent as well.

So let's bring them together and unlock all the true potential and put HBCU's talent at the forefront of solutions.

And I love to hear that because I graduated from Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, and that was an extremely rural community.

It was like an institution in the middle of nowhere.

So the fact that you all are really being intentional and focusing on outreach in those communities, it helps to not only get into the breadth, but the depth of what HBCU talent is, what's available.

So now Corey, you've had the opportunity of participating in HBCU Smart Cities Challenge.

So first, what piqued your interest to join the program?

Um, actually, excuse me. Actually, when I first saw it, I think it was on Handshake, and I got a message from Mr.

Kevin. And then I was like, oh, you know, set up for me.

I'm like, okay. So he was just explaining to me the challenge and everything.

I'm like, okay, this would be cool.

This would be something that can, I guess you can say, give me that real world experience.

Real problems of actually getting that experience and applying everything I'm learning in school.

So that's kind of one thing that definitely pushed me to be like, okay, I'm gonna join it.

Um, it kind of kept going as things started to progress and got more serious.

And I didn't realize how serious it was until we were like, three.

And then it's like, oh, yeah, we're gonna, you know, me for the showcase.

I'm like, a showcase? And it's like, yeah, we're gonna see y'all in North Carolina.

And then eventually I'm starting to realize, oh, this is actually like a thing.

Like I got to actually be here.

So it just kind of, um, along the way, it just kind of, I guess you could say it gave me that real world experience.

And then actually like interact with people instead of just like learning textbook stuff.

Yeah. And that's definitely a plus.

And that's why I say if this program was around when I was in school, I'm talking 25 plus years ago, how beneficial it would have been.

So that's why I'm so happy to partner with you all, because you really don't know the impact that you're having on, um, on these students with that being said, Corey, I know you didn't know how serious it was.

So from the time that you started to where you're at now, like what, how do you feel that you've grown throughout this program?

Cause that's always important.

I feel like I definitely learned, especially like from like these three right here, they definitely have like pushed me to like really break down a problem and not just break it down to like, oh, this is the problem.

And this is, you can find a quick solution. It's like, no, like really break down the root cause of this problem.

It's going to affect this problem in the right way to where you actually like helping, you know, it's not just like, oh, I'm just going to, we can do this real quick.

It's like not a bandage. Let's just go ahead and like fix what's going on.

So definitely I just learned to like really assess problems and definitely look at all factors of your problem.

But I guess you could say like the problem, how it started, uh, you know, saying, looking back, however, you know, the track record, stuff like that, just deep into stuff.

Um, and then also too, just like the connection of like connection with my teammate, uh, connection with these three, like learning from them and how they assess problems and perspectives and just really like diving deep into something.

And actually like, this has became my baby in a little bit.

Like my solution is like my child.

It's like, I'm really passionate about it. So it's just being able to have that passion is definitely grown me to the point where like now I'm attached to it.

It's, I don't know.

No, that's, that's good to hear because I think a lot of times in college, we're so focused on like our technical skills.

And I think the biggest void that we have in academia is, um, problem solving.

And that's one of the things that we definitely need to focus on is the problem solving aspect is you can create the most savvy app or savvy analysis or savvy predictive model, but if it's not actually addressing a problem, then it is completely useless.

But I wanted to around Robin to everyone, because he said he tapped into each of you in order to be able to build out these problem solving skills.

So I'm going to go to you, Dr.

Turner, first on what is your concept on trying to teach students or people that may have a little less experience of you, how to address that.

And I'm going to go around because that's, I think it's good context for everyone to know the different approaches to take.

Yeah. You know, I'm so proud of Corey right now.

I could almost cry because he internalized some of the points that we were really trying to drive.

Most importantly, when you think about a solution, it one needs to be user centered.

So understand the person and the individual is actually being a problem.

So that as you're incorporating those specific considerations into the product.

The second thing was ensuring that they all understood that there's simple systems, which Corey kind of alluded to where you can just come with a bandaid and that probably put aside for a period of time.

But what we're looking at is like very complex systems where you have layers to it, right?

It's federal level layers, state level layers, city level layers, institutions, academic education layers, resource layers.

So once you think about what all factors are affecting or driving this problem and what level they're are impacting this problem from, that lets you know, or gives you the opportunity to evaluate what resources do I really have and how I'll actually impact this problem?

Because we don't have, you know, a billion dollars to just say, we're going to do R &D.

We actually came into this, we introduced our students to this opportunity with zero resources other than their minds.

So with your mind, how can you create something with, you know, almost nearly nothing?

And so you got to think about it.

Like you can't go in and say, we're going to build a completely new water system.

Like we don't have those resources. So that was the beautiful part of it.

No, that's definitely good to hear. And that's a plug that we need support and resources for HBCU Smart Cities Challenge, just to everyone watching.

Kevin, how about yourself?

Yes. So for me, I would say I'm, I'm pretty very like pragmatic. I'll always think about from like zero to one, you know, and, and this is probably why I love working with Dr.

Turner and everyone else because the way Dr. Turner just spoke from a higher level, I actually was learning from him.

This went every time he was discussing with students.

And then it allowed me to pretty much dissect it.

It was like, okay, what can be practical? What can be implemented? You know, you don't have to, when you think about building MVPs or like proof of concepts, it's through iterations.

It's through different features. And like people want to see small wins.

The students want to see small wins. The city wants to see small wins as well.

Yes. So, so when, so when, when I was working with students, such as Corey, always tell them, Hey, what can be implemented right now?

And then later on, you can build upon like your roadmap to get these great, smart, they do victories, but it builds up that momentum.

Yep. Because often as entrepreneurs, we think of so many great ideas.

Yes. And then we get overwhelmed. Let's take a step back and, and think about the problem.

You'll say, okay, that makes sense.

Because when you, when you build that foundation, now you guys should like build upon that.

So, so that, that was like my perspective when looking at the different city problems and having the students be so intentional and pragmatic when they are embedded, like the MVPs and the proof of concepts.

Thank you. And that's really good to hear.

Keep it simple first. And Yayinde, I'll go to you. I mean, I'm, I just love these answers because I just love working with them because they do the exact things that these students need.

They focus on different angles.

I think for me, one is of course, customer discovery. That's what Dr.

Turner talked about. Kevin talking about iterations. I'm really into the journey of the problem and making sure the mindset and the esteem of the entrepreneur is set in the right direction.

So I told Corey multiple times, week in, week out, do not let perfect be the enemy of good.

Work through your problem and understand that it's okay.

It's going to go through iterations and then trust yourself. I'm very into making sure entrepreneurs trust themselves.

You've done the work, you've done the research, trust yourself.

So that's the part that I really love to come in and focus on.

And when I have Dr. Turner and Kevin focusing so much on the nitty gritty and then the 3,000, it just becomes a beautiful situation.

I think our workshops that we've done every week has been some of the most fulfilling time that we've spent together working with these students.

So I'm sorry to go off on a tangent.

I just love hearing them. No, no. I love it because it all comes down to keeping it simple and to add to that, one of the things I tell my team is you all have hit the nail on the head about building out the foundation.

Don't try to do everything at once, but it's also so you can learn and pivot if it doesn't work and you can pivot quickly and then continue to iterate because it's a test and learn as you're building out any type of solution.

So trying to build the end all solution all at once is not always the answer because it may not actually address the business needs.

So I love that. So another question I have is I heard about HBCU Smart Cities Challenge through Afroflare and it's because you all are partnering with Cloudflare.

So Kevin, how did that partnership begin with Cloudflare?

Yeah, so the partnership actually started from Impact Cloud. So Impact Cloud is this coalition of different companies that are committed to digital transformation.

So I was doing my Googling and trying to find like different organizations, correlations that came up and just I was like, why not just reach out?

And then someone reached out to us and then we was on a call with about 10 other organizations and Cloudflare was one of them.

And Cloudflare has been so supportive.

Cloudflare actually participated in one of our Smart Town Halls, Smart City Town Halls where we have one of, it was Mike.

He's also on infrastructure.

Yes, so he was sharing his insights, but especially from a, to allow city officials to understand a lot more about IP infrastructure.

So, but that's how the partnership started and we have been so grateful ever since.

Yeah, and it has been so great partnering with you all and just continuing to learn more.

One of the things I didn't ask you, how long has HBCU Smart Cities Challenge been around?

Just so everyone has context.

This is our inaugural year. First year running this challenge, but the challenge runs for about six months, but this is our first year.

Perfect, perfect. I just wanted everyone to be able to get that context. So I have two more questions because I really want to give time for us to really focus on what the showcase is about.

So I'll go to Ayinde about the types of problems that we're actually trying to solve based on the lack of equity as well as the digital divide that impacts these tier two and tier four cities.

Yeah, I think for me, I mean, I was definitely boots on the ground.

I've run our partnership division, so I'm focused on working with cities closely and figuring out ways that they can actually work better.

And I think one thing I've seen that's really been a gap for cities is just working in silos.

There isn't a real connection sometimes between departments.

And it's really interesting because some of our students have identified that through the challenge.

And as they kind of talk with city officials and do research, they recognize that there needs to be more communication amongst groups.

We recognize, especially in tier two to tier four cities, even smaller cities with smaller bandwidth, there's actually much more of a need that you can work with different departments.

And that's kind of where we come in as far as the problems we help solve.

That's one thing that I've seen.

That's, I mean, across all, not all, I wouldn't say all, never say all, but I would say the majority of cities that we've dealt with have had some of those issues that we love to aid in and help in and bring solutions to.

Okay, perfect. And that's super important because, you know what, I don't even think working in silos, that's everywhere.

I think where some people just, you know, work in silos and don't communicate.

So that's good that you all are actually enabling them to have that communication.

But I also wanted to go to Dr. Serner to see if you have anything to add.

Yeah, I would say, I think a lot of it revolved around, you know, there was the big picture problems like infrastructure deterioration over time.

But one of the things that was most important and special in a lot of ways is just the emphasis on the equity and inclusion.

Yes. So a lot of the way our cities were designed were designed from an ableist perspective, from a dominant cultural perspective, from a mainstream perspective.

And as cities, you know, begin to offer opportunities for, you know, all citizens to engage, they have to be considerate of individuals in wheelchairs, individuals who may not have the same level of access as everyone in the community.

So seeing that was very special because when we brought it to the forefront for some cities, it was an experience.

And it was like, you know what, we really need to figure out how to prioritize these type of designs.

And then we just pass that information along to our students and say, hey, make sure as you're designing, you're considering all people, which also leads to that direct communication and partnership in developing the solution.

Like we're hearing from the folks who this decision is being made for.

And I think the evolution for us will be figuring out how to get those individuals actually involved in supporting us and supporting the students as they build the solutions also.

Because you don't, you know, what you don't know until it's actually surfaced.

So we have three minutes and I want to make sure that we can talk about the showcase, because this is huge.

It is your first one. So Ayinde, I'll go to Ayinde, Kevin, and then Dr.

Turner and Corey to give your grand excitement about the Smart Cities Challenge Showcase.

Yes. I mean, we're really excited. We are less than what, five days away from the challenge.

It's really going to be a celebration of the work the students put in.

We have over 30 students coming in from 12 different HBCUs flying into Winston-Salem.

We have a reception event hosted by the city, which is going to be welcoming them a Friday night for Saturday.

We're going to have a pitch competition as well as a tech showcase focused on some WSSU students and a smart project they've worked on.

We have a career fair as well as a cash prizes for the students who are pitching.

That includes one of Corey's teams. So it's going to be a full day of festivities and really it's just about celebrating these students, celebrating the work, and really showcasing a city like Winston-Salem and what's possible when we kind of take these initiatives and go boots on the ground or the things we can do together.

So that's really the focus of the event, but I know Dr.

Turner and Kevin can add more. Mm-hmm. So Kevin and then Dr. Turner. Yes. Yeah, sure.

Yes, I think Ayanda just said everything, but one of the things I'm really excited about is this.

It's the intergenerational community. Like we are bringing together students, the current generation, the previous generation, all focusing on a North Star and that's amazing.

That's fun. You know, so that's all I can say right there.

I'm just excited to see every different perspective, but coming together for like one common goal.

And learning from each other.

And then Dr. Turner and Corey, we can close it out. Yeah, I think I'm most excited about the energy and the momentum.

So we're still, still, some folks have had the opportunity and the blessing to recover pretty quickly because of the access to resources, the way things are designed for them.

And then others are still reeling and trying to gather themselves and get back to some normalcy.

So this type of event gives folks who are eager to be engaged and evolve that hope and that spirit and that drive to constantly realize that, you know, COVID didn't take everything from you.

There's still light at the end of the tunnel and we're going to rebuild stronger, faster, and better than we've ever done.

Yep. I love that. And Corey, let's close it out.

We got 30 seconds. I'm excited for everything. I'm not going to lie. I ain't never been to North Carolina, so I'm like, okay, this is a big deal.

I'm just now getting outside of Texas, so I'm excited to see everybody and meet everybody and just really just be in the moment, honestly.

And compete, I guess. You know, I'm ready to compete.

So I'm excited to see how everything goes and plans out. Well, thank you all for coming on Cloudflare TV and participating and telling us all the great stuff about HBCU's Smart Cities Challenge.

To everyone, they need mentors, support, partnerships, so please reach out and provide that support because they're a great organization.

Thank you all for joining.

I really, really enjoyed this talk. Thank you. Thank you so much, Nicole.

We really appreciate it. Of course. Have a good one. You too. Bye-bye. Bye.

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