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A Retrospective on Black History Month from NexusLA and The Louisiana Technology Park

February is a special month for us at NexusLA. In addition to all the beginning-of-the-year projects we’ve got going on, we fully embrace any time to celebrate the achievements and successes of people of color inside and outside of our industry. Black History Month is a time where we honor innovators and legends; staunchly call for diversity, inclusion, representation and belonging; and emphasize the necessity of a diverse workforce and the ways in which NexusLA can encourage and ensure it materializes.

Hard Work Pays Off

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Courtney Sparkman comes from a long line of doers, not talkers, and he doesn’t hesitate to attribute his long-term success to this familial trait. Being taught to work hard and fully dedicate himself to doing what needs to get done forced him to see the relationship between success and commitment.

“As an entrepreneur, you have to be totally dedicated to what it is that you’re doing,” Sparkman said. “Side hustles and residual incomes are cool, but you will never be able to scale those without full commitment to your company.”

Not only has Sparkman committed to everything he’s done, but he’s been able to beat obstacles, overcome failures and adapt himself to many different situations. The lessons he’s learned and information he’s gathered have brought him where he is today as the CEO and founder of OfficerReports.com, a startup with several hundred large-contract customers around the globe, based right here in the Louisiana Technology Park.

The origin of the business is rooted in accident, an accident, he said, that was the best thing he’s ever done. While working for a security guard company, he lost a bid to a larger firm that offered specialized software. He knew what he needed to do to catch up to the competition, so he taught himself to code and write his own software. He was building the foundation for OfficerReports.com; he just didn’t know it yet.

When the security guard company was acquired by a larger business, Sparkman was faced with the decision to become a branch manager at the company or take a risk and start his own company, something his knowledge in was extensive. He had already run four businesses before starting OfficerReports.com: a landscaping company, a video-on-demand company too ahead of its time, a security guard company and an online business. Because of these experiences, he knew he had a good idea, but he also knew that wasn’t everything.

“Just because you have a good idea, [it] does not mean you’re going to have a good company,” Sparkman said.

Lucky for Sparkman, OfficerReports.com took off, and as a native Chicagoan, the Baton Rouge community welcomed him with open arms. He had nothing but kind words to say about the capital city.

“Baton Rouge is the place to be,” Sparkman said. “Here, you actually engage with people. [You] sit down and have conversations with somebody you’ve never met.”

He contrasts this with his hometown of Chicago, where he says everyone minds their own business. Sparkman describes Baton Rouge as warm, something he ties to the city’s strong community. He first realized this when he saw first-hand everyone coming together in the wake of the Great Flood of 2016. His neighborhood wasn’t affected, so he helped work at some of the shelters and was impressed by the way people were helping each other.

As far as obstacles he’s had to overcome, Sparkman said he doesn’t like to focus on if he’s been treated differently as a black entrepreneur.

“As we know, there is racism in the world,” Sparkman said. “There is. But how do you really know? Someone might not like me because I’m taller than they are. Or I didn’t go to the right school. Or maybe it’s because I’m black…There are going to be obstacles in your life. Period.”

Sparkman acknowledges that there are some people who likely don’t have any obstacles to face, but he prefers not to dwell on that. Instead, he said the most important thing one must learn about obstacles is how to get past them.

“If you’re not able to get past an obstacle, you will never be successful,” Sparkman said. “There’s no one in this world that has not faced the obstacle you face. If they can do it, you can do it too.”

Stories like Sparkman’s serve to inspire the new generation of black entrepreneurs to break down established barriers and tell their stories that reaffirm that everyone – no matter their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious beliefs, age or socioeconomic status – belongs.

Identifying a Problem and Helping Solve It

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Forty-one percent of Louisiana’s population is made up of minorities. That makes Louisiana the state with the 14th highest minority population in the nation. Louisiana is also a state where only six percent of businesses are owned by minorities, a statistic that’s even lower when looking specifically at STEM-related businesses. When the staff at NexusLA first saw these numbers, we knew we needed to create a program specifically geared towards increasing the prevalence of minority students and entrepreneurs in the workplace. That’s why, in 2016, NexusLA teamed up with the Bayou Classic and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to launch the Bayou Classic BizTech Challenge, a tech-based business program that has, since its inception, awarded black students from ten Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the South with over $45,000 in monetary winnings and over $75,000 when combined with travel stipends and other expenses.

The Bayou Classic BizTech Challenge involves teams of HBCU students designing technology that solve problems in the marketplace and creating successful business models around that technology. The top five teams attend a pitch competition in New Orleans during the Bayou Classic, a historically significant football game between two of Louisiana’s most important HBCUs, and there, the teams are judged on innovation, business model development and technical achievement. The first-place team wins a grand prize of $10,000. 

As the program has expanded, it’s become a space where HBCU-enrolled students can showcase their innovations, experience the competitive aspect of entrepreneurship, make long-lasting relationships with their peers and industry professionals and present their business models in front of an audience of investors and expert professionals. The students do all the work themselves; our program just provides them with the resources necessary to reach their full potential and maximize synergies. This program gives students the opportunity to write their own stories, stories that are often overlooked or not given the chance to be told.

The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

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Here at NexusLA, we strive to be champions of diversity, inclusion, appropriate representation and equal opportunity. A diverse workforce is a productive workforce; it diversifies ideas and prevents business decisions that only benefit exclusionary populations. While we can’t change the behavior of bigots or reverse years of systemic racism, we make conscious efforts to build a community, one where everyone belongs, and engage in activities and programs to help build that community. It’s not enough to give people of color seats at the table, the unmarginalized must utilize their privilege to make minorities feel like they belong at the table.

To do this, we’ve further elaborated on the skills learned and opportunities offered by the Bayou Classic BizTech Challenge to create a new program for 2019 called the BizTech Fellows Program. This fellowship leverages our connection with Louisiana State University’s iCorps Sites program, which provides students with an appropriate travel stipend and its extensive network of experienced entrepreneurs, mentors and industry experts.

We decided to supplement the BizTech Challenge with this summer-long program to expand our outreach to the black community, increase the number of minority entrepreneurs and foster a growing sense of belonging within the high-tech startup world. Let’s work together to change those statistics and assure representation of minorities in the business world starts to align with the minority population of our state.

For the full Courtney Sparkman Interview, click here.

Bobby Crane