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The Student Freedom Initiative has announced a partnership with Cisco and American Virtual Cloud (AVC) Technologies to make sustainable investments in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are currently 107 HBCUs with 228,000 students enrolled. Fifty-six institutions are under private control, and 51 are public colleges and universities.

“Collectively SFI, Cisco, and AVC will bring meaningful and measurable opportunities to advance the HBCU ecosystem,” said Keith B. Shoates, chief operating officer of the Student Freedom Initiative (SFI).

Launched in March 2020, the SFI is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring freedom in professional and life choices for junior and senior students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees.

The SFI aims to enable social mobility with an alternative to fixed payment obligations used to finance college, internships, mentoring, tutoring, and other student services, as well as targeted HBCU capacity building.

According to the statement, Cisco, the worldwide leader in technology that powers the Internet, has committed $100 million in networking, security, and collaboration technologies.

In addition, AVC, a technology solutions provider offering cloud communications, cybersecurity, and enhanced connectivity, will provide support.

Cisco will also invest $50 million to support SFI’s alternative to college loans. This $50 million investment is the first step to helping SFI reach its goal of a $450 million endowment supporting 4,500 students in perpetuity.

“Cisco is proud to support SFI and all HBCUs in this endeavor, which reinforces our purpose to power an inclusive future for all,” said Maria Martinez, executive vice president, and Chief Operating Officer, Cisco. “This partnership is an investment in our workforce, empowering AA (African American)/Black STEM students and equipping them with the financial and technology tools to be resilient and successful long term. We remain committed to this community – to be seen, heard, valued, and invested in.”

In collaboration with the UNCF and Thurgood Marshall College Fund, this partnership will be an initial step in the digital transformation of HBCUs and assist them as they fortify their underlying infrastructure against cyber threats.

AVC Technologies will work directly with HBCUs to identify gaps between their existing infrastructure and the requirements identified by the education department’s Federal Student Aid and install the necessary solutions to address these gaps.

Cisco will provide the solutions to be installed by AVC Technologies and provide one year of support following installation. SFI will provide end-to-end project integration and management to ensure a seamless transition.

“We are thrilled to welcome Cisco and AVC Technologies as strategic partners for SFI in addressing the digital divide faced by our HBCUs,” said Robert F. Smith, chairman of SFI. “Their expertise and generosity will ensure that HBCUs are secure and robust institutions that empower Black students. And Cisco’s added financial commitment to students, making them the first anchor corporate partner of SFI, will help liberate students from crushing debt and allow them to make their own life choices. Their gift to SFI’s endowment is a call-to-action to other corporate leaders to join our cause.”

Smith, the keynote speaker at Morehouse’s 2019 Commencement, surprised graduating students with a multi-million donation.

There are those who dismiss our brothers and sisters as not having the training or the skills to take part in this Fourth Industrial Revolution, the 21st-century tech-based economy. This is not true and this belief is not acceptable,” Smith said at the 135th Commencement exercises at Morehouse.

After graduating with a chemical engineering degree from Cornell University, Smith earned an MBA from Columbia Business School with a concentration in finance and marketing. He worked at Kraft General Food before joining, in 1994, tech investment banking.

Smith is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Vista Equity, which manages equity capital commitments and oversees a portfolio of over 50 software companies that employ over 60,000 people. He is also the founding director of an organization working to advance social change and preserve African-American culture, human rights, music education, the environment, and American values such as entrepreneurship and innovation.

“With our teams already on the ground to lay initial groundwork with HBCU staff,” said Xavier Williams, CEO of AVC Technologies. “Wee are eager to deliver on our commitment and status as a Cisco Gold Triple Master Partner to enable compliance with cybersecurity requirements (and) collaborate with SFI and the HBCUs as they define their strategy for leveraging these solutions to meet other HBCU-unique objectives.”

Added Mark A. Brown, executive director of SFI: “Their corporate response further exemplifies the principle of paying It forward put forth by Robert F. Smith at the May 19, 2019, Morehouse Graduation Commencement. Collectively addressing the challenges faced by HBCUs, this strategic partnership will enable expanded opportunities and address the issues that affect these institutions which have served as a beacon of hope for many students seeking higher education.”

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