Our differences enrich the world, our businesses and each other. It is these differences that lead to better, more creative solutions in our communities. We have seen firsthand how diversity makes us stronger, which is why we embrace varied perspectives and strive to create a culture of inclusion at Burns & McDonnell.

This does not happen without intentional effort and investment, however. Generating diversity awareness and finding diverse talent is a key focus area for organizations today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

As we work to continue building an inclusive workforce, we are establishing relationships where diverse talent thrives: at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

To understand how companies can better invest in, market to and recruit diverse students and graduates, we turned to our partners to learn what they need and what they see as best practices.

Recognize the uniqueness of each partnership. Today, there are over 700 MSIs in the U.S. Each of these educational institutions is different and should be approached uniquely. Seek first to understand what a successful partnership could look like and ask how your company can align with the institution’s vision and mission.

“Take time to get to know an educational institution instead of coming in with what you want to do and how you want to recruit or develop this pipeline of talent,” says Tamera Ziglar, director of corporate engagement at North Carolina A&T State University, an HBCU.

Foster mutually beneficial relationships. To engage with the talented students that attend an HBCU or another MSI, companies must invest to engage. No matter the size of the company, there are ways to adapt a relationship so that it is mutually beneficial. Many educational institutions will work with companies to tailor an engagement plan based on a shared vision.

“We want two-way engagements and strategic interactions that lead to win-win scenarios for the students and the companies,” Ziglar says.

From capstone projects and collaborative research initiatives to career fairs, scholarships and internships, there are numerous opportunities for companies to engage with students and support their success.

“We are here to prepare our students for the marketplace,” says Zhengtao Deng, dean of the College of Engineering, Technology, and Physical Sciences at Alabama A&M University, an HBCU. “It’s ideal to have companies invest in our students through hands-on, experiential learning projects.”

Authentic and engaging relationships require open communication and feedback. Many educational institutions welcome suggestions on how to create the strongest partnership possible. Companies should also communicate expectations with educational institutions about what successful interns at the company look like or how students can be prepared to enter industries.

Bolster a mentor and employee referral program. HBCUs and other MSIs welcome students from across the U.S. and commonly see their graduates establish careers wherever they feel it is the best fit for them. Determining whether a company or location is right for an individual is a complex decision, but mentor and employee referral programs can help.

Internships are ideal opportunities for students to get a feel for a company, get to know the community where it is located, and decide whether the field and office culture are the right fit for them. It is also critical to connect interns and new employees with mentors and different organizations within the company so they have trusted resources to turn to for support.

“We have to make sure that the support systems are in place for students so they do not feel alienated,” Ziglar says. “Students need this, and they also want to know what the region offers and what life outside the office is like.”

Word of mouth goes a long way as well. A company should seek to capitalize on its employee network by sending a deliberate message about the need for a diverse and inclusive workforce.

“When you hire our students, bring them back on your recruitment team,” says Yvette Clayton, director of career development services at Alabama A&M. “This shows our students that a track record exists, and students can hear personal experiences about what it’s like to work with your company.”

Have patience. Over the last year, there has been significant growth in interest from company recruiters as they establish workforce diversity initiatives and goals. This acceleration in demand has not always been met with an increase in university staff to respond to and engage with companies at the same pace. It is essential for companies to have patience. Relationships take time to build, so maintain this patience as your company increases its brand recognition at an educational institution.

“We want to help you build your brand, but any sort of solid relationship is something that is going to build over time, rather than right on the spot,” Clayton says.

While each partnership between a company and an educational institution will have a unique pathway, the core focus for HBCUs and other MSIs is on student success. With a shared vision of qualified students entering the workforce upon graduation to serve as productive, contributing members of society, the opportunities for partnership are endless.


This post is part of Together By Design, a quarterly business diversity newsletter published by Burns & McDonnell to advance a community of inclusion. This newsletter features stories of great opportunity, leaders who bring out the best in others, innovative approaches, and diverse perspectives that shape the business community and the world at large.

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