Hampton Alumna, IBM Program Manager Kayla Lee Reveals Just How Important HBCU Partnerships Can Be

Last fall, IBM launched an HBCU-centered quantum center designed to increase HBCU research and training pipeline from underrepresented universities and communities.

In February, the company announced that the initiative had expanded to include 13 more institutions, with nearly a quarter of all historically Black institutions nationwide now connected with the global tech conglomerate and discovering new technologies and workforce development opportunities.

The program is headed by Hampton University alumna and IBM Project Manager Kayla Lee, who as the face of the program and the brain trust behind its potential shared or led on most of the national media attention for the expansion announcement two months ago.

But in an interview with the HBCU Digest, the Harvard-trained Ph.D. shared a secret that speaks to the core of student exposure and success in fields like quantum computing, and other emerging professional STEM areas.

“I would start with the fact that it’s okay if you don’t know anything about quantum computing today,” Dr. Lee said. “You’re always allowed to learn new things and be open and excited about that. Then seek out people who are willing to support you. I had amazing mentors that I still work with and who are involved with the center now, and they exposed me to the research experiences. That’s how I started thinking about ‘what would a program look like, what if I could impact a lot more people in the way those professors impacted me?’”

She continued:

“Step one is knowing that the technology exists and that it will impact a lot of things. Quantum computing leverages math, physics, and computer science and really figuring out where you fit in the space. The thing that will make students really stand out is not just thinking about it in your courses. We’re opening this huge new field of technology, and it requires some new skills, some new thinking, and a lot of new partners.”

This is the future of workforce development; a nebulous approach to skill development and theoretical training that allows students from all kinds of academic, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds to discover fields and make their talent and curiosity fit for employment.

Lee earned degrees in biology from Hampton and Harvard, but now describes the quantum computing field as an industry for thinking about how problems can be solved differently. While some select HBCUs are highly productive in the applied and natural sciences, imagine the power of HBCUs leveraging other areas of strength in quantum computing to address disparities in healthcare, education, criminal justice, communications, and agriculture?

But what if our schools took it a step further? Imagine the inter-industrial pairings just among Black colleges and the impact they could have on industry and society? What if Shaw University’s divinity program worked with North Carolina Central University’s criminal justice program to develop conflict mediation and community engagement best practices?

How would Southern University at New Orleans’ pipeline for Black male educators pair with Xavier University’s doctoral program in clinical psychology? Or Paul Quinn College’s fundraising and philanthropy degree with Prairie View A&M University’s master’s program in juvenile justice?

Some governments are thinking about how schools and industries can be better served through partnerships. Kentucky lawmakers recently approved a bill to fund partnerships between Kentucky State University and Simmons College of Kentucky to strengthen teacher certification programming for Black educators, and to address food insecurity in Louisville.

IBM is one big star in a galaxy of companies moving beyond the traditional thinking about degrees and training and focusing on skills that can push the limits of industrial development. The company believes that it can evolve with non-traditional approaches to training with candidates from schools and programs outside of their typical recruiting orbits, which now include public and private HBCUs with land-grant, liberal arts, metropolitan and rural missions alike.

HBCUs have to move towards this line of thinking in their admissions, retention, and training infrastructure. While official Census numbers won’t be out for a few months, data from 2019 shows a Black American population that is growing, increasingly younger, increasingly earning college degrees, and living in the South.

With these numbers, HBCU enrollment should be thriving, but it is falling. The White House has proposed expanded research for HBCUs, but will it involve the kind of cross-pollination in majors and missions that the schools will need to bolster brands in a hyper-competitive marketplace for Black students?

HBCUs don’t have to do something ground or bank-breaking to create seismic shifts in opportunities for minority students and communities. They just have to think of ways that they can solve problems differently.