Since 2014, the UNCF/Koch Scholars Program (UKSP) has awarded thousands of scholarships to first generation, low-income Black students who have a passion for developing an entrepreneurial mindset and applying it to all aspects of life. But helping individuals is not what most impresses UNCF’s president and CEO Dr. Michael Lomax about the program. For Lomax, the biggest upside is UKSP’s focus on enriching communities, not just individuals.
“It’s really about the entrepreneur providing something of benefit to the community,” says Lomax. “I think that young people have been intrigued by that—the notion of principles-driven entrepreneurship. Since the program’s inception, the amount of interest on the part of students has been extraordinary. We receive thousands of applications every year.”
The program has grown more than tenfold since it was launched six years ago, from 44 students to nearly 600 today. As the program experiments with fully online programming this fall, it will prepare to welcome its sixth cohort of students within the next year.
It’s an impressive result for what Lomax once called an “unlikely alliance” between UNCF and the Charles Koch Foundation.
“Charles and I were ahead of our time. As a nation, we finally recognize that this extreme partisan ideological divide that is a part of America today is not productive, not constructive, and it is harmful,” says Lomax. “Labels are not helpful. They divide people in ways that are unnecessary, and I think the country is beginning to lose patience with that approach. I know I am.”
Sending 110,000 new students to college
Lomax would rather focus on solutions and results, both of which are hallmarks of his career.
Before joining UNCF, Lomax served as president of Dillard University in New Orleans and taught literature at Morehouse College and Spelman College. Those experiences provided valuable insight into the challenges facing Black students: the fact, for example, that twenty-one percent of Black children who enter the 9th grade do not graduate from high school, and, of those who enroll in college, only 40 percent finish within six years.
“Our students are graduating from high school without the skills to enter the workforce or to pursue postsecondary education,” he says. “Too many low-income Black students are in that position. And those who go on to college or a postsecondary degree, are not always academically prepared at the level they should be.”
Since Lomax’s arrival at UNCF in 2004, the organization has helped more than 110,000 students develop their interests into passions, earn college degrees, build skills for future success, and live enriched lives.
The UNCF/Koch Scholars Program awards up to $5,000 per year to incoming freshmen at universities across the country, including the 37 UNCF-member Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The program, which focuses on how entrepreneurship, economics, and innovation contribute to the well-being of individuals, communities, and society, also offers opportunities for professors, universities, community leaders, and professionals to support students through mentoring and university grants.
About 50 percent of UNCF/Koch scholars are the first in their family to attend college. For these first generation college students, the path to graduation is especially difficult. UKSP pairs the financial help with support needed to navigate their unique hurdles and pursue a life of principled entrepreneurship, which is applicable to any part of life, or any career – from business to the arts.
Take Jacey Stuckey, who wants to pursue private equity or real estate in hopes of becoming the next Warren Buffett. She came to Indiana University having lost both parents and with only $300 to cover any additional expenses. Her sister told her about UKSP because she thought the program could help Jacey realize her dreams of a college education and entrepreneurship.
Another participant, Tanisha Mugwimi, is a budding philanthropist. Mugwimi created the Githure Primary School Restoration Project, which raised money to install new windows, doors, and floors in the primary school her father attended in his native Kenya. Charmin Woods, meanwhile, created a nonprofit that teaches financial literacy to individuals struggling with poverty.
In their own ways, these three students demonstrate what motivated Lomax and the Charles Koch Foundation to partner six years ago: empowering learners to not just get to and through college but to realize their potential in ways that matter to them and their communities.
Photo credit: Fred Siegel