A group of students stood in the ballroom of the Carl M. Hill Student Center at Kentucky State University as they prepared to give an elevator pitch — a succinct and persuasive sales pitch — to a panel of three judges.
Customizable Cases, or CC Inc., was the name they had decided on for their business. Their idea was to make sports-inspired phone cases, but with a twist. The cases would be made of leather taken from different sports balls. The hypothetical selling price for CC Inc.’s product was around $60.
The students were competing in the “Elevator Pitch Challenge,” as part of Innovative Learning Program for Minority Males sponsored by Verizon. The two-year program’s purpose is to empower young minority males by giving them skills in science, technology, engineering and math — otherwise known as STEM — and entrepreneurship.
The program has partnered with four historically black colleges and universities, including KSU, to facilitate science courses to give students experience in STEM fields. For the past year students have been learning computer code and to use a 3D printer.
The goal of the program was what interested former Def Jam Recordings President, Kevin Liles who headlined the “Entrepreneurship 101” lecture. During the lecture, Liles took question from Jay Alexander, radio program/music director at 107.9 The Beat in Lexington, and students in attendance.
Liles, a graduate of Baltimore’s Morgan State University, received his degree in electrical engineering and has been involved with the program since last year. He has served as executive vice president for Warner Music Group. He now runs his own artist management company KWL Enterprises.
“Any creation, app, it’s all around STEM and we need more kids knowing about the opportunity,” he said, adding diversity is greatly important in all STEM fields.
In the last year, the students from all the partnered universities have created 600 products, app or codes for the program, he said.
In 2013, the National Science Foundation reported that black men represented just 3 percent of scientists and engineers.
“Since 2000, underrepresented minorities’ shares in engineering and the physical sciences have been flat, and participation in mathematics has dropped.”
Also, proportionally, the number of black men who have received a bachelors degree in science and engineering has almost remained unchanged with 6.1 percent in 2002 and 6.2 percent in 2012.
“I always tell people where you have a problem where there’s a 97 percent majority and a 3 percent minority is catered to who I am,” Liles said. “I have to have a war on that and that war is to turn that number into a double digit number.”
Liles said he’s been impressed with the students who have wanted to spend their time this summer learning coding and how even though they’ve just finished the regular school year they want to come back and learn.
Jason Rogers, an eighth grader from Frankfort’s Bondurant Middle School, became involved with the program last year and had an interest in STEM before the program.
Rogers has been working on a fishing game where a shark eats the fish and the game player get points depending on the number of fish that are eaten.
While his big dream is to become a professional athlete, Rogers said his backup plan is to be a mechanical engineer which coding will be useful for..
His favorite part of learning coding has been able to see the outcome of what he makes, but he’s not a fan of all the typing involved.
“There’s a lot of it, I can see how people who actually do it on games get paid a lot because that’s a lot of typing,” he said.
For Liles, partnering with Verizon was about offering students today what he wished he could have had growing up. He said when he was their age he was given a stick and ball to go play with outside. In reflection, he said he wishes he knew he could have created the ball.
“I believe that somebody in this room will create something and change the course of their families life based on an idea,” Liles said to the crowd of students.