Historically Black Colleges or Universities have been a staple within the Black community. With most of them forming after the Civil War, they provided a pathway for Black Americans to educate themselves in ways their ancestors would have only dreamed of while enduring the back-breaking, identity-robbing, and inhumane perils of slavery.
Many future scholars and prominent members of society such as W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and others, all attended or taught at HBCUs as they were unable to attend PWIs, otherwise known as predominantly white institutions while dealing with the segregation of their time. Yet as society progressed, others like Oprah Winfrey, Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Medgar Evers, Katherine Johnson, Kamala Harris, and more, have been able to find themselves, the pathway to their careers, build stable networks, and jumpstart their businesses thanks to the lessons they learned at these institutions.
Over the last 10+ years, HBCUs have produced many more famous alumni and have grown in popularity online, but, they have also faced a cornucopia of challenges. From lower enrollment numbers, deteriorating residence halls, athletics being cut, to inadequate or misplaced funding, and some, unfortunately, have had to close their doors altogether.
However, 2020 has come to be quite the saving grace. We’ve seen numerous campaigns and movements that have been pushing for more support for Black businesses and communities. Additionally, that same support has reverberated into the case for why HBCUs remain so important and has spawned its own, similar, movement. Athletes have taken it upon themselves to insert the conversation into mainstream media by publicly speaking about HBCUs, committing to play there, or customizing and wearing their names and colors both off and on the court. While these conversations are great starting points, more of them, and more financial support, will be needed to push them further.
Enter Corey Arvinger & Justin Phillips, who met on the campus of Howard University in 2012 and not long after formed a bond that resulted in co-founding Support Black Colleges. Their company began as a clothing line with the sole mission of uplifting, inspiring, and encouraging others to support their local black colleges. It since has grown into a national phenomenon being worn by celebrities such as Chris Paul, Teyana Taylor, Da Brat, Missy Elliot, and more. The duo even appeared on NBA on TNT Tuesday, at the request of WNBA superstar Candace Parker, to discuss building more awareness and garnering support for HBCUs. Since SBCs inception, they’ve been able to give thousands in donations to HBCUs as well as employ many college ambassadors.
Recently, I spoke with them in an exclusive interview for “The Alternative Road Podcast” about how rigorous the year 2020 has been, what sparked the idea of SBC, how they’re supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and what plans they have in the future for their business.
This interview has been condensed and edited. You can listen, in totality, via the podcast link below.
How has quarantine been for you individually?
Corey Arvinger: For me, it’s been cool, I’ve been chilling. At first, at the beginning of quarantine, I’d do a little painting and stuff, and that kind of went out the door pretty fast. But me and Justin have been growing the business and we’re being super creative. It’s brought us a lot closer to our staff and really understanding what’s going on with our business.
Justin Phillips: Yeah, for me I’ve been on the same. Before quarantine, I really didn’t do too much anyway so it gave me an excuse to be myself even more. I’ve been relaxing in the house and just working. I’m the type of guy who will get on YouTube all day or read all day so quarantine has made it a lot easier to continue to do what I was doing already.
How has quarantine impacted SBC’s business so far?:
CA: For me, I think it’s been one of the best things that can happen, honestly. We’re doing less events which is kind of a bummer but it gives us more time to sit in the warehouse and go through our processes of how things work. On top of the quarantine, with the George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter stuff going on, people are now buying Black and supporting Black so we’re already doing what we were doing beforehand and now it’s helpful to us because people want to support Black businesses. So us, being a small Black business, our business has grown. We’ve been able to bring in more staff and hire more individuals. It’s been great time for us. Unfortunately, this is how it had to happen but we’re grateful that we were able to move forward in this time and not move back or lose out on anything.
Clearly it changed my life because how I make my living is based off my experience at Howard University.
JP: Yeah, at first in the beginning of the quarantine I was kind of worried. I remember the days before everything kind of started off and I remember thinking, are we going to lose sales with people spending their money differently? It was a little tricky but I realize that people…A few days before all of it really hashed out I was worried that we weren’t going to make a lot of money because I thought that a lot of people would be holding onto their money rather than spending it. Turns out that folks got their stimulus [check] and the little money they did have they were being more cognizant of where they were spending it. So they were only spending it with Black businesses. So going from what I thought wasn’t going to happen we ending up making too much and tripling, quadrupling, the business in the first month of quarantine which was very interesting.
What made you decide Howard for college and what in that experience changed your lives for the better?
CA: My mom went to Howard and even though she went, it wasn’t necessarily something I was thinking about all the time. I didn’t know where I was going. My initial schools I wanted to go to were Duke, [North] Carolina, or [North Carolina] A&T. When I was visiting those places I just didn’t feel like it was home. When I got to Howard [University] it felt like home immediately. It was one of things were, I thought, okay I’m out of state so it wouldn’t be cheap but…I had to leave school. I had to leave for a year and was doing this crowdsourcing / GoFundMe thing that I raised $3200 and ended being on BET on TV and it was this really big thing. That experience, the struggle, and success taught me how to be a go-getter and not take no for answer and I think that the HBCU experience, specifically at Howard, really got me to be a dog when it comes to business and getting to the money and the hustle mentality. I think that’s something that you can’t get anywhere else. I definitely think that played a huge role into who I am today, and obviously, starting the business next since it’s an HBCU business. Clearly, it changed my life because how I make my living is based off my experience at Howard University.
JP: I was the first one to go to college in my family at all and I didn’t know too much in general. Before I got on campus I couldn’t tell you like about a fraternity, or I didn’t know that the bands were like a big deal…I knew nothing at all. I actually chose Howard because I got accepted to Baylor, University of North Texas, and Howard, those are the only 3 schools I applied to and I got into all 3. There was a program at Baylor where you stayed on campus for a week and they had us doing some type of wild rocket science and it was just too hard and I said there is a 0% chance I’ll be going here at all. So, that was ruled out. Then University of North Texas I was still debating and I ended up going to get a haircut and my barber, I was telling him I’m either going to Howard or the University of North Texas. He was like, go out of state. You’ve been in Texas your whole life, choose Howard. I don’t know if he knew anything about if it was an HBCU or anything of the nature at all but I just ended up taking his advice and going and that’s really all it was. But as far as it making me who I am or changing anything for the better, I always say that like it just made me more of who I am because coming into college or school in general I was always mindful of myself. I was always that guy who was going to say what I thought and be who I am, and I don’t really care too much what other people think, I’m just being myself. So when I got to a place where there were a bunch of people who look like me I was surrounded by love, you know just black folks in general, I just became more of who I was already. That’s really all the HBCU experience did for me. But you learn so much stuff like business, how to finesse, you learn how to value yourself and who you are, and your history just different things like that. The biggest thing I probably took from it was to continue to be yourself and that’s really all it was.
Howard has been in the news recently for basketball prospect Makur Makur deciding to attend there this fall. How do you guys feel about him attending Howard?
JP: I think it’s pretty cool. It’s one of those things where it was needed to be brought up in conversation. So essentially, the choice that he made was hey, I’m a leader and I’m willing to become a legend. That’s essentially what his choice was. It opened the flood gates and doors for Black kids all over the world to say oh wow this top prospect went to an HBCU. We don’t know if he’s going to pan out or go to the league or anything like that but it’s definitely a possibility since his brothers, or I think 1 or 2 of his family members are in the league already. It just gives hope in general. So now Black kids all over are saying hey I’m a top prospect I don’t need to go to a Duke or North Carolina or a PWI in general. I can go to a school where the people look like me, they support me, and I can go to the league too…I think all of his choices were solidifying him as that pioneer that’s willing to make a change and open the gates for anyone else behind him who’s brave enough to follow in his footsteps.
CA: I’ll talk more form a Howard perspective and less from an everybody perspective. Howard games already be lit and we don’t even be that good sometimes. So to have a player like that?! It’s gonna be super lit! The games already be crazy so I think it’ll give him that fan fare and that true Howard identity that we’re known for it’s going to bring like a lot of people to the Burr [Gynamisum].
What does global outreach look like for SBC?
CA: To me, it depends on a bunch of different things but it comes down to our focus and what you want to do. I think it would be cool to see an HBCU in a different country, that would be awesome. Based off of the merits of the brand we built, and another country saying I think we need one of these over here. That history and culture in a different country and maybe providing programs so that if someone is studying abroad or overseas in that respective country they can get that same HBCU experience. That’s just a random thing that I just thought of that would be super cool. When you talk about outreach on a global level how much more global can you get than a school that fits your direct business and brand in another country?
JP: For me, I always think about, when you talk about the global expansion that it’s more about building the brand as big as possible. Whenever we talk about where we’re trying to take things or how can we be the Black Nike or how can we make as much money as possible to donate it back to a Howard, or A&T, or any type of school so we can fund the programs. At the end of the day, these kids don’t want to go to these schools if they think they can become a better basketball player or student somewhere else. So how can we make as much money as possible to get our students, that look like us, to come to our schools and feel like they’re not losing anything? So our goal, in my eyes, is to make the brand as big as possible so finding big talent, starting our own AAU team, to make sure that kids are seeing Black owners and Black-owned businesses from 5-6 years old all the way until they need to make their college decision because that’s how these Adidas and Nike guys are doing it.
What were some of the early challenges you had with SBC and putting it together?
CA: Ahh, it’s so many challenges ha! Building a brand and growing it from scratch is a challenge itself. For me, early on it was finding the funds to make the stuff you want to make, even for like, samples. You kind of don’t know how that process works so you’re spending a lot of money kind of early. That was my first thing, have the funds and figuring out the right way to put everything together
JP: I’m trying to think because you know whenever people ask me this I feel really blessed because there’s never been a time where we didn’t have enough money to do something or we were super stressed out. We haven’t taken on any venture capital or raised any money or anything like that. We literally started this from our own pockets and grew it, literally bootstrapped it from nothing to something so, like Corey said, I think the biggest problem is literally learning the business day-by-day because it’s so many things you have to learn every single day when you go from not having any staff to having 20 – 25 staff members. You don’t know what that looks like until you are actually practicing it. Everything that is a part of a business is a struggle but you learn it quickly and you keep going.
Corey, can you tell us about that time that you had to leave Howard and how that contributed to who you are today?
CA: I loved Howard. Justin was the most popular kid on campus, I was probably like top 10 popular kid on campus like I knew everybody, I was president of the school of business freshman class. So, it was one of those things where, you know, I was playing basketball with my friends every day, all of that was taken away from me like randomly. On a random day, I couldn’t swipe my card to get into the cafeteria and I was staying in a bunch of friend’s rooms and sneaking into dorms to have places to stay. I didn’t want to leave the world that we call Howard. So, once I had to, I went back home I was working, and my first job was working at another college, High Point North Carolina, and I didn’t know anything about High Point. It got voted as one of the top 10 nicest campuses in all of the world. It’s like a country club there, a bunch fo rich white kids go there. I was a yard worker and I cut grass and stuff and had to go from there, you know? The most popular kid on campus to making 60,000, to like all the girls like you, and all that random stuff to like cutting someone’s grass and no one notices you is like. It’s a real humbling experience. For me, I knew I never wanted to be in that situation again where my has to define what I can do with my life or in life and so I always told myself after that I’m going to go hard in whatever I got going on and I’m not going to take no for an answer and I’ve been living like that ever since.
Corey, overviewing the list of people you’ve worked with before, what’s something you took away from your experience with them? I see you’ve worked with Sean Parker in the past, what’s something you’ve seen from either working with him or someone else that you’ve internalized for yourself and the business?
CA: You know, Sean Parker man I had a really interesting experience with him. One of the craziest things about him is the way he thinks of things. He thinks of things on a much bigger level than the average person. So, we were in LA for a team retreat type of thing and we were at this dinner where he like basically bought out the restaurant, it was no one else there but us, and it was like 30 staff members. We were brainstorming some new concepts for this app and this one guy, who I considered one of the best UX guys he has, super smart guy, they were talking about ideas. So him and Sean are going back and forth about the ideas and Sean kept saying go bigger, go bigger! Like go bigger, and the dude kept going bigger with the ideas and I’m like yo that’s a good idea but Sean was like no go bigger, go bigger! And it was crazy because in my head I’m like, ain’t no way he can go bigger than that and so randomly, out of nowhere, Sean slaps the guy and was like go bigger and slaps him and the guy thought of something bigger. When it came out everybody starting clapping or whatever and it was really weird. I just say that to say like somebody like Sean is a billionaire because he thinks of things on the next level so there’s nothing too big for him in his head so I took some of that, some of that mentality and was like there’s nothing we can’t do. So when things happen to us I’m never surprised I’m always like okay cool what’s next? Nothing surprises me anymore because we are able to do anything that we want to do.
Justin I’d like to ask you the same question seeing as you’ve worked with people like Tyler Perry. What is something you’ve taken from someone an internalized for you and has helped build your skillset and the business?
JP: The biggest thing I think I’ve learned with working for other people is that you kind of have to get what you can out of it while you’re there. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean it more so in a way like, if you’re doing sales at a place you need to educate yourself as best as you can in sales. You need to go to your company and say hey do you guys provide any type of courses or learning or training or anything like that? The biggest, the best way I learned to benefit from other people is like learning as much as possible while I was there. Like taking training or things of that nature, but, on the flip side the other thing that I’ve learned from working for other people because I’ve only ever really worked for two people…One, I worked at shoe carnival while I was 16. Then when I graduated from college I went back to Houston for this Amazon-based business that sold like scales and different homes and stuff like that. I just realized that, and even working with Tyler as well that, they’re great people but it just clicked for me that I’m not meant to be working for others and I’m not built that way. I’m just not happy when I’m doing it so, it kind of always put that bug in my ear that bro, you’re meant for something greater and something that will service a lot of people. Doing it yourself and building something for yourself and building it super big so that you can provide all types of opportunities for others and do it in the way that you want to because any time I’ve ever worked for someone aside from Tyler, it was cool working with them but, I just wasn’t happy so I just wanted to be able to provide a different experience off the merit of building a business myself.
Scholarship, Community Service, Mentorship, and Mental Health. Why did these become establishing bodies/pillars of the business?
CA: I can speak to two of them, I can speak on Scholarship and Mental Health. Scholarship, because that directly affects us. Me, myself, I didn’t have money to go to school. So, building a business I wanted to make sure people were eligible and didn’t have to lose out on that opportunity you know because everybody wouldn’t be able to get back like me. Everybody don’t have the hustle, or the grind, or the know-how, or the resources to do so. That was a pretty easy pillar. You know, mental health, my sister, one of our staff members, even Nasha she has family that like, deal with mental health daily and I think that’s super important. Even Justin said he was dealing with depression. Mental health is so important right now and we live in a society where everybody just like sees everyone else doing things and they think they’re great. You know it’s easy to feel like you’re not where you’re supposed to be at in life or doing what you’re supposed to do. So, I think that’s just so important so that we help those people to know that you are important and you are valuable. What you’re doing is right, and that’s all a part of that unity and that family atmosphere that HBCUs offer to you so we want to do the same as a company.
When I got to a place where there were a bunch of people who look like me, I was surrounded by love, you know just black folks in general, I just became more of who I was already. That’s really all the HBCU experience did for me.
JP: I’ll speak to the mentorship piece because, same thing kind of Corey’s talking about with scholarships, I got 0 scholarship money at all. Luckily, I was raised by the world’s most perfect woman in general. Like, my mom worked day and night to pay for me to go to school. Like she was a real estate broker during the day and she would do bottle service at night and she was just raking in cash for me to go to school. I was blessed there but as far as mentorship, you know it’s always interesting to me because, especially being young, young guys. I just turned 26 yesterday and it was always kind of annoying to me that I couldn’t easily find somebody that looks like me, that was doing something that I wanted to do? And if I did find it, it would be on the internet, and I wasn’t sure that it was real or anything like that. I didn’t have any tangible people that touched base. Like, hey I know this guy is doing something that I want to do, let me follow this guy’s footsteps. That’s really important for us because I felt like I didn’t have that at all. So, for me, I even do that with my friends now from like back home. Like hey, this is what we’re doing we’re doing really good, you can follow the blueprint and do it exactly how I did it and you have me all the way through to ask me about any questions that you need because I didn’t have that…As far as mental health, like Corey said, I struggled a little bit with that after college. I started to learn through reading, and watching videos, and things of that nature, and you know I have a really good perspective with time. There’s a lot of people, they look at what everybody else is doing and they just don’t realize that everybody has their own journey. And time, we have so much time like I’m 26. I can do nothing for the next 24 years and still be 50 and still have 50 years left of life to live and I can start at 50 and still be as fruitful as a businessman as I was at 26. But people don’t have that perspective of time so. Yeah, bro, those are just super important to us.
When you came up with Support Black Lives, when did this begin and where do you want to take it overall? Was this something that began due to the reactions of police brutality?
CA: It started overall when the George Floyd thing happened and you know from us, our company is about Black colleges but Black colleges are about the culture. We’re African Americans, so me and Justin talked about it like how can we give to this cause? How can we help out? So we thought, we’ll do what we do best, and that’s make clothes. So we decided to change our logo and come up with a shirt we can donate all the proceeds to different companies, and organizations, that we know are on the front lines and supporting the people who have been affected, and who maybe got locked up protesting the police and things like that. That was our direct way we felt like we could help and there’s plenty of other ways we can help and continue to help. But, I think that the Support Black Lives shirt is something people can have and they can literally wear those shirts for forever and also have a piece of us and a piece of the cause with them.
JP: Yeah I agree, those ideas for that shirt didn’t come until after all this stuff happened but I think that it just tested our ability to adapt. You know, to being in the culture, especially Black culture, it’s always a lot of moving parts and a lot of different things that are coming up and that are trending this way but this is something that’s obviously way more serious. So we wanted to be able to use our voice and our platform to give back. Once all this stuff started happening we figured that you know, we’ll do something and this is what we came up with. That will raise a lot of money and that we’re going to donate back to all these causes too. I think it’s something we’ll keep around for a long time and we’ll donate a portion of the proceeds to causes that we support, but it’s kind of cool that we can say we’re just a clothing brand but we’re able to match these big celebrities or public figures and things of that nature that give just as much money as they would and we’re just two kids with a clothing brand.
If we look into 2030, what does Support Black Colleges look like then?
JP: I think we’ll both have different answers for this because we think a lot differently but 10 years from now one of my big goals is to make everything Black-owned from start to finish. You know, we hire a bunch of black kids and a bunch of black men and women who went to HBCUs and things of that nature but I want to be creating from start to finish all owned by us all black hands involved all the way until the package is derived to the customer. That comes with owning our own acreage and different machinery where we’re cutting these fabrics our selves and bulldog everything ourselves form the group up and also I think 10 years from now, I want to say a billion-dollar business honestly because I think we have the potential to get a lot of different talent behind us like a LeBron James, an Oprah, and things of that nature and finding different talent of caliber to really get behind the business and is supporting g our community and our causes and our culture. SO that’s what I’m seeing in the future. Black-owned from start to finish and a lot of big talent and being able to donate a lot of many to these different schools and revolutionize the programs that they have especially the sports programs to make it so kids want to, their first bet is to say I want to go to an HBCU and I’m getting the same experience whether I go to Duke or Howard. They got the same facilities, they got the same coaches, and I’m going here because these people look like em and I think we’ll be able to change that narrative. So if I had to say 10 years from now I would say billion-dollar business, everything owned by us from start to finish, and being able to give billions of dollars to different programs to build them up to make these kids want to go to our schools off the rip.
CA: I agree with everything he said. I feel like every day I have a new thought of what 10 years will look like form now because it’s so hard to tell. Me and Justin both said we think we’re operating on less than 10% of our potential. We do no wholesale we do no big accounts, we’re all e-commerce and we really haven’t even scratched the surface. One thing I would say is I would like to either open, re-open, or open our own HBCU I think that would be really cool. A school like Morris Brown or a school that has closed or like Bennett college that is close to closing facilities and things like that I would love to say support black colleges is the reason why it stayed opened or re-opened because we’re literally supporting black colleges. I think that would be dope. I do see us kind of like the black Nike but as far as athletics but as far as brand recognition and I would love to sign some athletes and some actors and actresses and have them represent the brand. We are their sponsors and they’re going to events on behalf of us. I would like to create to see an HBCU summit or like forum or whatever, this really big event. This Coachella like HBCu whatever that would look like, I would love to see and take it way past clothing and make it more everyday household kind of like the big brands. That would be really cool to me.
Who are the top 5 people you want wearing SBC merchandise?
JP: I think off rip, I’m thinking Barack Obama, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Oprah, that’s four, and maybe one more, maybe LeBron…yeah that’s my top five right there.
CA: I know we got the same list essentially, I mean Michelle [Obama], Barack, Jay-Z, Beyonce, LeBron, and I’ll add like a Diddy, I’ll add..yeah that’s basically it, you got the real heavy hitters. I would even say somebody like Kanye West, Kim Kardashian I think they’ll change our business, like a Travis Scott as well.
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