A behind-the-scenes investment from the Ford Motor Company Fund has earned praise from one prominent venture capitalist who said the company’s strategy is recognition of Black Girl Magic.
What began as a pilot project at Spelman College — a prestigious, Atlanta-based school known for its commitment to educating Black students since the late 1800s — is now an established success story, Darryl Holloman, school vice president of student affairs, told the Free Press.
The Dearborn-based, 119-year-old automaker, which has a long history of investing in diverse and underserved communities through its charitable arm, created a program at Spelman College to help first-generation college students get the support they need to flourish. Ford Fund’s continued investment is a recognition that Black women are in the spotlight as a fast-growing segment of entrepreneurs, major decision-makers and community leaders who are shaping and changing America’s political landscape.
Since it began in 2018, the project has mentored more than 200 women; two of them graduated at the top of their classes as valedictorians and another led campus initiatives as senior class president.
“First-generation college students come to college equipped with the intellect and the social mobility,” he said. “It really, sometimes, comes down to them having the right support and wraparound services. The money from the Ford Fund allows us to do that for some of our first-gen students who come from all over the country,” Holloman said.
Mary Culler, president of the Ford Fund, said investing in ambitious young women of Spelman is a priority.
“By pairing first generation college students with Ford female executives, we hope to expand their network of support to help ensure their success throughout their college experience and beyond,” Culler said in a statement to the Free Press.
The Ford Fund has spent $830,000 on the program so far, Ford Fund spokeswoman RoNeisha Mullen confirmed.
“Kids born in the bottom half tend to stay in the bottom half,” said Pamela Alexander, former community relations director who coordinated philanthropic partnerships for the Ford Fund, told the Free Press after creating the program.
“We’ve had a longtime relationship with United Negro College Fund. You hear a lot about large populations of first-generation students going to college. Well, graduation rates for them are lower than they were 30 years ago,” she said. “We have to have programs like this emergency fund to support these students. If we don’t work together, these students won’t succeed. That’s not acceptable. If we’ve learned anything in recent weeks, we don’t want to lose these doctors, these nurses and these engineers of the future.”
Spelman sees the tutoring and mentoring as invaluable.
“We are very humbled and grateful to accept an increase in funding from the Ford Fund this year,” Holloman said, adding that it “will allow for us to also provide scholarship support for the Ford mentees.”
He credited Spelman board member Suzanne Shank, of Bloomfield Hills, for her ongoing leadership as a mentor and liaison to Detroit. Shank, a former engineer at General Dynamics, is known as an investment bank titan who has managed hundreds of billions of dollars in deals for state and local governments nationally.
Closing the gap
The Ford Fund initiative is good for society and smart business, said venture capitalist Melissa Bradley, because “it demonstrates the significant role of engagement by people who care.”
Bradley is a Georgetown University business professor and founder of the 1863 Ventures program — designed to create $100 billion in new wealth for the minority entrepreneurs now called the “new majority” by 2030.
Providing skill sets and support to ambitious people who lack access to resources yields extreme leadership and academic performance that can exceed expectations, she said.
“For companies, there’s clearly a talent gap at the executive levels when it comes to diversity,” Bradley said. “This is a recognition that the provision of mentorship, expansion of social capital and access to opportunity creates a potential affinity for that brand.
“Therefore, it is not surprising that Ford Motor Co., and the Ford Fund, like many others, want to be part of what we call Black Girl Magic,” Bradley said.
Alyssa Cabezas, 22, of Vicksburg, Mississippi, graduated from Spelman in May as class president. She was not only the first generation in her family to graduate from college but high school as well. The summer after her junior year, she won an internship with an asset management firm and reached out to her mentor at Ford immediately.
“I was really worried about what it was going to be like, the learning curve, if people in the office were going to look like me,” Cabezas told the Free Press. “She spent time just telling me what to expect in the office, how to carry myself not to close myself off from different people.”
Cabezas, who now works at J.P. Morgan in New York as a commercial banking analyst, was reared by grandparents Emma and Sylvester Parker, who worked on an assembly line at Boeing. They loved her without limits but had trouble guiding her professionally.
Enter the mentor.
“She was very helpful in helping me figure out what to look for in an offer letter, and once you have a job how to sign up for a 401(k),” Cabezas said. “Your parents are your first exposure to what’s possible. Graduating high school is a very big accomplishment. but when you don’t have someone that’s able to show you how you need to be focused in high school to get to college, or taking an ACT or SAT (college board) test or what to look for when choosing a college. I had to figure that out on my own.
“When I first came to high school, I was very in my shell. I didn’t want to be involved too much. … The biggest thing for me is understanding my situation growing up doesn’t have to be my future. I don’t have to be a product of my circumstances. I feel like I had to acknowledge I wanted more for myself. I couldn’t make excuses for why I couldn’t get it done. Ultimately, it’s my life.”‘
‘Oh my God’
Cabezas worked multiple jobs when she started and learned what it means to build relationships with professors and go to their office hours. What came natural to others was foreign to her, she said.
It was a known fact you were going to have internships. And everyone is so diligent about applying for jobs in the fall,” Cabezas said. “I’m like, ‘oh my God, I didn’t think about doing a summer internship.’ That was one of the biggest realizations. Everyone is so proactive and determined and ambitious and audacious. Being around those types of women encouraged me to be like that.”
Being nurtured by the first-gen program created by the Ford Fund, building friendships with others who shared their experiences, created a feeling of possibility and safety.
“The program definitely does make a difference,” Cabezas said. “From freshman year, you’re automatically connected with other first gens in a class of, like, 50 of us. You can feel like an imposter being with people whose parents who have been to college. They have a straight and narrow path versus those of us trying to figure it out.”
Cabezas hadn’t heard of Spelman before a high school counselor suggested applying, she said.
Her dream is to return home and work in politics to make life better for families, one day becoming the first Black and first female governor of Mississippi.
“I went to a public high school in Vicksburg that, when it rained, the windows leaked. Our textbooks were more than 10 years old and outdated. Most of our teachers were long-term substitutes,” Cabezas said. “It wasn’t a good place for student development and achievement.”
She wants to see students taught how to file taxes, apply for college loans, shadow professionals.
“I’ve never met her but I really like AOC,” Cabezas said, referring to New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “She’s very unapologetically herself and not afraid to push the envelope — definitely a rebel, definitely audacious.”
Learning through the first-gen program allowed Cabezas to help her brother Brandon apply for, and win, a four-year community service-based scholarship to Morehouse. And now she’s focused on her two youngest brothers. Her grandmother, at 81, is all smiles. Her grandfather died at 88 in August, three months after seeing his granddaughter earn her college diploma.
Steve Harvey’s role
Watching a six-minute motivational video by Steve Harvey “helped change my life,” she said, adding that Harvey preaches, “You’ll never know the life God had for you if you don’t trust him and just jump.”
It was that advice that inspired Cabezas to “pursue something audacious like Spelman, which is like $60K a year and the No. 1 HBCU in the country,” she said. “But I remembered I missed the deadline.”
The high school counselor who recommended Spelman told Cabezas that God has no deadlines.
Pandemic inspires remote support
Charese Mignon Morrisette-Eason, 44, of Detroit, is a former math teacher who switched careers to become a project manager with the Ford global supply chain innovation team. She wanted to do something to help during the COVID-19 pandemic and volunteered to mentor Cabezas.
The rest is history.
“I was able to give her some pointers and tips merging from the collegiate world into the professional world. She had two internships,” Morrisette-Eason said. “Alyssa worked at a capital management company in New York and I was helping her navigate the corporate environment and culture and setting her own personal goals. There’s a job that has to be done, a goal and result they’re looking for. But you need to set your own personal objectives to grow.”
Tips for life
She worked to keep Cabezas from being overwhelmed by a corporate setting though she had the skills to succeed.
The two communicated by phone, email and text. They talked about how to find jobs, perhaps reaching out to judges or lawyers or local officials for internships.
“If you have already established that you have the knowledge and have been trained from a skills standpoint, that now is the time to build yourself personally as a professional,” Morrisette-Eason said. “How do you like to led by your leader? Pay attention to things your leader is requiring of you and how they deliver, both good and bad. A leader doesn’t always mean it’s somebody you like. … You may not like the person but they push you to be the best or able to work around adversity. Sometimes, when you get into the professional world, those support systems aren’t always apparent.”
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Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-618-1034 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid