"Last year I came here with a suit and a dream. Now I have five suits, and I'm fulfilling my dream."
The young man's voice boomed over thousands of students, donors and celebrities who gathered in the Sheraton Hotel in New York City Monday night for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund's 24th anniversary awards dinner.
The fund is named for the first black Supreme Court Justice ("Mr. Civil Rights"), and in the service of his legacy, the organization provides scholarships and other support to talented black students attending historically black public colleges and universities. So far, the fund has given out over $100 million to support students and their college programs.
The fund also brings hundreds of its scholars every year to New York City to study leadership skills and network with representatives from some of the nation's top companies. "It's Match.com on steroids," explains Johnny C. Taylor Jr., the president and CEO of the college fund, who was wearing a purple crushed velvet tuxedo for the occasion.
"So many of our students are first generation college students. They don't know how to navigate corporate America," he told AOL Jobs. "You say 'Walmart,' and they think, 'Oh, I'll work in a store.' And it's like, 'No, Walmart hires corporate lawyers, doctors. We're exposing them to the world."
The relevance of TMCF has perhaps never been greater. While America has experienced a recent recession, black Americans have been plunged into an economic depression. They represent 12 percent of the nation's population, but 21 percent of the unemployed.
How can you make a dent in those disturbing statistics?
"Education," say three TMCF fellows in unison, who are training to be public school teachers with some help from the fund. "If you know better, you do better," says Raymond Beamon. "We want to be the example -- 30 kids at a time."
"It's great for young males like myself to have this chance," explains Corey Eaton, a graduate student at Cheyney University Pennsylvania.
"The black male crisis," as Taylor calls it, "isn't just tabloid stuff, that's real." He believes it is central not only to solving issues facing the black community, but America in general. "You fix the black male problem, you fix a lot of problems."
Taylor was at first resistant to taking the role of CEO last year, and moving out of a successful career in the private sector. Economically speaking, it wasn't the ideal time to become "a professional beggar," and with graduating seniors entering a job market with the highest youth unemployment rate in history, convincing children and parents that four years of time and tens of thousands of dollars is worthwhile is, in his words, "a tough sell."
But TMCF has not been a tough sell to donors. "I don't approach people with 'please give us $100,000, or $1 million,'" Taylor explains. "I say, 'This is a problem facing your corporation or America's competitiveness -- we dont' have enough STEM majors, for example -- and this is how Thurgood Marshall solves this problem.'"
The central problem that TMCF tackles is a very real one. "America is browning and graying at once," he says. "I say to employers: 'This is the time now to diversify your organization. These really are the consumers of the future.'"
Some of the stars studding the event echoed Taylor's sentiment. Even Camille McDonald, whose successful career as a model wouldn't, on the surface, seem to require a college degree, couldn't emphasize enough the value of her time at the historically black Howard University.
McDonald left Howard in 1997, before her graduation, and five years later became a finalist on "America's Next Top Model." But she returned to Howard a few years ago, hiding out in the back of lectures in a baseball cap, to complete her B.A. in advertising and minor in fashion design from the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Howard requires all students to attend its jobs fair to graduate. McDonald shed the headwear for the day, and was quickly recognized by three young women, all first generation college students in their families. They told McDonald that they had applied to Howard after hearing her wax nostalgic about the school on TV.
"I'm known as being hard as nails," McDonald says, "but that brought tears to my eyes. Mascara was running down my face."
Grammy-winner Blair Underwood of "L.A. Law" and "City of Angels" says that he only gets involved in philanthropic causes that have touched his family and friends. He donates time and money to diabetes, HIV/AIDS and mental health campaigns. ("I watched my mother go through depression. Assistance, therapy -- it's not really talked about in the black community.") But with three children inching toward college age, the work of the TMCF suddenly seemed critical.
"I'm on a fact-finding mission," he jokes. Later in the evening, 15 TMCF scholars march on stage, modeling suits from Underwood's new menswear line. He's donating a chunk of the collection's profits to the fund.
The corporate partners that keep the fund afloat also see immense benefits to investing in the education of our nation's young, and gaining privileged access to talented scholars.
At the leadership conference, the students have an average GPA of 3.71, and are hand-picked for their leadership qualities.
"These are the best and the brightest of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities," explains Taylor. "A number of employers have said, 'this is amazing.' This is a human resources strategy."
"It's really all about the kids," insists Rollin Ford, the executive vice president and CIO of Wal-Mart, and winner of the TMCF's Community Leadership Award. "Education is the genesis of everything we're about."
"Some help can be provided in a philanthropic way," explains Jesse Calloway, the vice president and general manager of tobacco processing and manufacturing at Philip Morris USA, and recipient of the evening's Corporate Leadership Award.
In his speech that evening, Calloway announced that Altria, Philip Morris' parent company, would be donating $1 million to the fund. The crowd exploded into cheers.
"But individuals with their own initiative need to also do it for themselves," Calloway added.
The corporate world, Taylor claims, is the ideal place for young talented black students to gain the experience and contacts necessary to succeed in any field. "We think the best bang for the buck is to get these students into complex, major organizations," he says, which includes large governmental instituions also. The CIA just became one of the fund's premium partners.
This current period of high unemployment is "time to focus on sharpening the saw," adds Colloway, to study more and refine skills, but so many people, he says, are missing out on ways to improve their lot. "People should look for scholarships, look for opportunities." His message to young black students is "you've got to get the grade."
If you're below a certain GPA, after all, you'll never get that coveted Thurgood Marshall grant.
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