The Build Black Fellows and mentor Dawn McGee stand in front of the Build Black at UC Davis logo.
The Build Black Fellows and mentor Dawn McGee stand in front of the Build Black at UC Davis logo. From left: Elijah Yeboah, Shelby Dioum, Dawn McGee, and Jaden Melton Dreher.

Build Black at UC Davis: Fostering Black Student Success at the Student Startup Center

Founders Shelby Dioum, Jaden Melton Dreher and Elijah Yeboah worked together to create Build Black at University of California, Davis — a social venture studio determined to increase Black student success. Through their collaborative efforts and the resources at the Student Startup Center in the College of Engineering, Build Black at UC Davis launched in April of last year.  

Aware of the socioeconomic disparities faced by students of color, Shelby Dioum, a third-year student majoring in economics, was determined to tackle these problems head on.  

"I wanted to find a way to at least work towards resolving it," Dioum explained, "though the issue is too large and nuanced for only one person or team to solve."  

Build Black at UC Davis provided just the avenue she was looking for. As a Build Black Fellow, Dioum worked to provide solutions to these disparities by investigating issues experienced by Black students during their time at UC Davis.  

Identifying specific problems required direct insight from students, which proved to be a struggle.  

"The most challenging part of the experience was figuring out how to reach Black freshmen directly," noted Elijah Yeboah, a third-year student majoring in cognitive science and African American studies.  

Yeboah played an active role in filling these gaps by conducting interviews with staff members, including Vice Chancellor of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Renetta Garrison Tull, to determine the problems Black students were dealing with, and then addressing these obstacles.  

"Compiling resources that I truly believe will help students succeed has been the most exciting part of this experience," Yeboah said.  

Jaden Melton Dreher, a second-year student majoring in economics and African American studies, also provided insight as a first-year student at the time Build Black at UC Davis launched.  

"Build Black at UC Davis could be a transformative foundation and service for underserved higher education students, guiding them in navigating the early moments of school," Melton Dreher said.  

The collective efforts of Dioum, Melton Dreher and Yeboah culminated in the Build Black Excellence Challenge during Fall Quarter 2023. Every week, Black students enrolled in the challenge received tasks like going to office hours with a professor or setting up time management software — activities known to facilitate student success.  

"[The fellows] signed up nearly 20% of Black first-year students and communicated with them by email each week, achieving an impressive average email open rate of 77.9%," explained Dawn McGee, an administrator at the Student Startup Center.  

Now comes the hard part for the Build Black Fellows — analyzing the impact of the challenge and assessing how they can ensure Black student success in the future.  

Putting the Team Together 

McGee recalls coming up with the idea for Build Black around six years earlier while directing a university entrepreneurship program in Brooklyn, New York.  

"I noticed a number of Black students did not connect with the idea of entrepreneurship, even when they were actively doing the work of entrepreneurship," she recalled.  

This disengagement was also present at UC Davis — but now McGee had an idea to change things.  

"After joining the Student Startup Center and struggling with recruiting Black students to our activities, I dusted off my old hypothesis: involving Black students in solving problems that matter to them will teach them important entrepreneurship skills and keep them engaged," McGee said. 

McGee first heard about Dioum and Yeboah through their participation at a case competition hosted by the Economics and Business Student Association at UC Davis. Dioum recalled McGee inviting her to visit the Student Startup Center.  

"We talked about socioeconomic disparities, its prevalence in higher education, and our want to alleviate these issues in some way," she said. 

For Yeboah, the premise of Build Black at UC Davis convinced him to make it a reality. 

"I was presented with the prospect of improving Black student life at UC Davis," he said. "At the time, the exact implementation was uncertain, but I joined because I was interested in the vision." 

Dawn McGee, center, stands between Shelby Dioum, left, and Elijah Yeboah, right, in the lobby of the Diane Bryant Engineering Student Design Center.
Dawn McGee, center, stands between Shelby Dioum, left, and Elijah Yeboah, right, in the lobby of the Diane Bryant Engineering Student Design Center.

Dioum and Yeboah weren't the only ones that caught McGee's attention in their quest for solutions. Melton Dreher demonstrated the same resolve before he learned about Build Black at UC Davis. He had been enrolled in McGee's class, ENG 108 – "Launching a Company." 

"My mission in the class was to provide resources to students of color," Melton Dreher recounted, "which didn't quite translate to the focus in class, but Dawn had an alternative."  

McGee introduced him to Build Black at UC Davis. Like Dioum, Melton Dreher was eager to make a difference.  

"I joined and was all in," he said. 

Yeboah credits McGee for bringing the team together: "She's also been an incredible resource throughout the process, allowing us to express our thoughts, creativity, and to learn from her."  

In addition to McGee's mentorship, Build Black at UC Davis benefitted from the sponsorship of Chevron. The company's philanthropic support allowed Build Black at UC Davis to get off the ground both speedily and successfully — launching a web platform by October, only a couple of months after starting out in April.  

With McGee's support, Dioum, Melton Dreher and Yeboah were able to combine their efforts to promote Black student success.  

"I'm most proud of going from having a vague idea of what Black students face, to coming up with a specific problem, then creating the solution for that problem," Yeboah shared. "We've come a long way since we first began Build Black at UC Davis, and I'm proud of how we're still continuing to evolve." 

Making a Difference Through the Student Startup Center 

In the Student Startup Center, Build Black at UC Davis began contributing directly to Black student success in just a few short months.  

"It was all cool to see and be a part of, from being in class and making a fake company for a project to doing it with impact for UC Davis students," Melton Dreher agreed. "Our ability to have an idea in April and a service by October is a huge accomplishment, let alone to have grown professionally in the entrepreneur space." 

The Student Startup Center offers passionate students like Melton Dreher, Dioum and Yeboah the perfect environment to develop their ideas. Located in the newly renovated Diane Bryant Engineering Student Design Center in Bainer Hall, the center is open to all students, regardless of major, and advertises, "We are a community of entrepreneurs — students and mentors — interested in using innovation and entrepreneurship to make the world a better place." 

Students benefit from the experience of mentors like McGee, but also collaboration with other students. For example, Ashley Bilbrey, a fourth-year computer science major and technology manager at the center, played a crucial role in launching the web application that tallied points and provided resources to students participating in the Build Black Excellence Challenge.    

With so many skilled individuals ready to offer their expertise, it can feel daunting for students new to the Student Startup Center to take the first step. 

"I actually was a bit intimidated by the Student Startup Center at first," Dioum shared. "But going to the [center] provided me with encouragement and guidance in brainstorming solutions to this issue, and nurtured small ideas into a larger finished product. If a student is even slightly interested in business, entrepreneurship or research, I highly recommend that they check out the Student Startup Center." 

Moving forward, Build Black Fellows are using the results of the Build Black Excellence Challenge to develop their approach to Black student needs. This stage of their social venture is supported by a Vision Grant award from the UC Davis Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. 

"We're continuing to draw insights from last quarter and also ideating ways in which we can serve the Black student population at Davis," Yeboah said. "Part of this involves us interviewing Black students about their experiences here, so it would be amazing if we could get volunteers for these interviews."  

Build Black Fellows started as three, but the team is looking to expand with new members. 

Yeboah encouraged other students to reach out, get involved and make a difference: "We will be recruiting this quarter to have people join the team, so be on the lookout!" 

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