Stillman College’s Dr. Cynthia Warrick: Tech touches every discipline

The first-ever HBCU technology conference aims to deepen the partnership between tech companies and students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

By Laura Petrecca — September 23, 2021

Staff and students at more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities have an unprecedented opportunity to learn from some of the nation’s top tech and education leaders this month. The first-ever technology conference for HBCUs kicked off on Sept. 14 and runs through Sept. 30, with an expansive program of virtual sessions that includes specific tracks for students, IT staff, and faculty/administration. 

HP is presenting the conference, which is centered around the overarching goal of helping HBCUs prepare the future Black workforce for success, with Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Intel, and Microsoft sponsoring the event. Attendees will hear from a wide range of data scientists, chief technology officers, and college presidents, including Dr. Cynthia Warrick, president of Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s 145-year-old Stillman College. Warrick is a pharmacist and health services researcher with 20 years of higher education experience as faculty and an administrator. She hopes students and faculty from non-tech majors such as English, history, or criminal justice will join in as well. They may think, “Oh, that doesn’t involve me,” she says. “But technology touches all of our lives and certainly all of our disciplines in higher education.”

Dr. Cynthia Warrick, president of Stillman College.

Dr. Cynthia Warrick, president of Stillman College.

Other notable speakers include Dallas Martin of Asylum Records and executive vice president of Atlantic Records; Lanre Gaba, executive vice president of Urban A&R at Atlantic Records who has advanced women in music, including Cardi B and Lizzo; and Congresswoman Alma Adams (D-NC-12), founder and co-chair of the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus.


RELATED: The business case for a diverse workforce.


The conference is one of several HP initiatives to support HBCUs and build a pipeline of diverse talent. For five years, HP has conducted an annual HBCU business challenge, where students are asked to solve real-life business problems. Previous challenges attracted more than 380 students, with select participants later joining HP as interns or full-time employees. The HBCU partnerships are part of HP’s broader diversity objectives, which include closing the digital divide between those with and without access to technology. HP recently pledged to a sweeping set of goals to achieve gender parity and racial equity among its employee base and to accelerate digital equity for 150 million people by 2030.

“The diverse talent that HBCUs foster are integral to driving innovation not just in the tech industry but across all sectors,” says Lesley Slaton Brown, chief diversity officer at HP. 

The Garage met with Dr. Warrick to talk about the need for more diversity on company boards, gives suggestions on how tech firms can better partner with educators, and hear her advice on recruiting HBCU students.

This conference takes a holistic approach. Why is it important to include programming for varied groups?

What we’ve learned, especially through COVID-19, is that you need everybody’s perspectives included to solve problems. Many people see the world through their discipline. But it’s important to understand how your actions impact other parts of an organization. Otherwise, you’ll just make one-sided decisions.

“We need to have a seat at the table, so we know what to include in the curriculum.”

How will students benefit from attending?

We need to change the perspective of students when it comes to technology jobs. It isn’t just computer science and engineering. Technology touches everybody. It impacts everybody. I hope students and faculty in non-science and non-engineering disciplines will attend and then be able to say, “Now I see my role in this conversation about technology.”

In addition to conferences like this, what can tech companies do to better collaborate with colleges and universities?

They need to facilitate more partnerships with institutions of higher education so we can give them an injection of new ideas. At the same time, we can receive information about new, up-and-coming technologies and how we should integrate that into what we do. Most faculty don’t have a way to interact with corporate America. We need to facilitate better ways to keep up as advances happen very quickly.

Have multi-disciplinary advisory boards with educators on them. We need to have a seat at the table, so we know what to include in the curriculum. They need to help us integrate new ideas and new ways of working into how we teach students of today.

Dr. Cynthia Warrick at a podium speaking at Stillman College

Stillman College President Dr. Cynthia Warrick urges the business community to forge deeper ties with HBCUs, as it's a relationship that benefits students and academics as well as corporations.

How can having educators on an advisory board help a company achieve greater success?  

College presidents should serve on the boards of tech industries, and some do. But they don’t have many HBCU presidents. As we know, these corporate boards of directors lack diversity. If you don’t have representation on your boards and in national leadership — and that’s who directs the vision and the strategic goals of the company — you’re missing a big segment of people in the United States.

Any other suggestions on how businesses can form stronger ties with HBCUs?

They can create more opportunities for learning, not only through student internships, but also through summer residencies for faculty. That’s training the trainer. If you have a faculty member as a resident, researcher, or employee, they can then train a large number of students and help you build a pipeline.

How can tech companies recruit more HBCU students to help them meet their diversity goals?

Most companies do what they’ve always done. They look at traditional institutions where they have existing relationships. Many in HR don’t know what an HBCU is. If you don’t have someone in your organization from an HBCU, you won’t have knowledge about HBCUs. Companies can come to presidents like myself and ask me to recommend someone to serve on an advisory committee, which will help increase diversity in a specific discipline. Additionally, instead of a college recruitment fair, which isn’t the best way to recruit talent; make a presentation about your company to the classes at HBCUs with students who would be interested in your field.