Claflin University President Dr. Dwaun J. Warmack Holds “Fireside Chat” featuring California Congressman Ro Kanna
Apr 19, 2022
From Left - California Congressman Ro Khanna and Claflin President Dr. Dwaun J. Warmack during Claflin's Fireside Chat
California Congressman Ro Khanna returned to Claflin University’s Ministers’ Hall recently to participate in a “Fireside Chat” with President Dwaun J. Warmack. The event featured a question-and-answer session with Khanna, Dr. Warmack, and audience members.
In 2018, South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, and Khanna led a delegation of elected officials and venture capitalists on a trip to campuses at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Their purpose, which was part of the “Comeback Cities Tour South,” was to see how HBCUs prepared students to become the next generation of entrepreneurs and technology professionals.
“When I visited Claflin back in 2018, I remember meeting two young men who were starting a business,” said Khanna, who represents the 17th Congressional District of California, which encompasses cities in Santa Clara and Alameda counties known as Silicon Valley. “They had so much energy, ambition, and enthusiasm, that I was struck by their level of determination.
I thought these are precisely the types of people who make it in Silicon Valley.”
Khanna’s Claflin experience was the catalyst for a five-year partnership between Claflin and Zoom Video Communications, Inc. The partnership represents $1.2M in educational and financial investments.
AaLeeyah Housey, a senior from Columbia, S.C. (Irmo High School), and Harris Roach, a senior from Atlanta, Ga., (Marietta High School), were Claflin’s first Zoom Scholars. The scholars receive paid internships, scholarships, and real-world experiences with a global leader in the video communications technology industry. Both students will graduate in May before starting full-time jobs at Zoom in July.
Housey is a computer science major with a minor in cyber security/criminal justice. Roach is a computer engineering major with a minor in cyber security.
“Their accomplishments speak volumes,” said Warmack. “These talented students received an opportunity to work at Zoom. Their outstanding performances led to them accepting
full-time, high-salary jobs and stock shares with the company that will create generational wealth. Thank you, Congressman Khanna, for all you did to make this partnership a reality.
This partnership is only the beginning.”
Warmack was the facilitator for the “Fireside Chat.” The discussions covered a wide range of topics, including college loan forgiveness, tuition-free college, Claflin’s Zoom Partnership, and the confirmation hearing for Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first African American woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Warmack also announced that Claflin will soon launch its new master’s in biotechnology with a concentration in climate change program.
“At Claflin, we always want to be part of the solution, not the problem,” Warmack said.
“We know the importance of climate change mitigation, especially in rural areas. We want Claflin recognized as a thought leader in this space, and our science faculty has done a tremendous job in developing this program. We are looking for corporate partners for this program, as well”
Despite the early success of Claflin’s partnership with Zoom, Khanna is acutely familiar with Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity. He sees this as a crisis that extends beyond what is considered the global center for high technology and innovation.
“I looked into it and discovered that African American students in college have a greater interest in computer science than other students,” Khanna said. “And yet, we as a country are not taking advantage of this tremendous talent. Silicon Valley is so deeply underrepresented by all the talent that exists. My district’s net worth is $11 trillion.
To put that in perspective, the Russian GDP is $1.6 trillion. We have Apple, Intel, Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Tesla, and Zoom. The reality is that we will never overcome the racial wealth gap and give people with this talent an opportunity until we begin to democratize opportunities in Silicon Valley. That’s why I am so passionate about working with Claflin and Jim Clyburn to ensure the success of the Zoom partnership.”
Khanna was born in Philadelphia, Pa. His parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s from India. Khanna’s commitment to public service was inspired by his grandfather, who was active in Gandhi’s independence movement and spent several years in jail for promoting human rights.
“If not for the Civil Rights Movement, my parents would not have been allowed into this country,” Khanna told the audience. “And at one time, when professors from India were unable to get jobs at majority institutions, they were hired on the faculty at HBCUs. We see that many Indian Americans have succeeded in technology, and they are now the heads of Google, Microsoft, and Adobe. They want to open the doors to opportunities in technology for HBCUs and pay back the debt for what they owe to the Civil Rights Movement.”
Khanna received applause and cheers from students when he stated that President Joe Biden needs to forgive no less than $10,000 and up to $50,000 of a student’s loan debt.
“We are the only democratic country where students get an education but find themselves $40,000 in debt,” he said. “We can afford free public college in this country.”
Lauren Tolbert, a junior majoring in African and African American Studies with a minor in history and political science, asked Khanna if tech companies could be encouraged to invest not only in black students but also in their neighborhoods and in projects that support social justice? Tolbert is president of Claflin’s Student Government Association (SGA), a member of the Alice Carson Tisdale Honors College, and a Presidential Scholar. She is a native of Chattanooga, Tenn.
“The big tech companies conducted research and discovered that Black employees and interns are more interested in designing apps about social justice than some of their peers,” responded Khanna. “If these companies invested in a diverse employee base, they would invest in the things that the employees cared about. You will not get tech companies to do that organically unless you change the composition of their presidents, vice presidents, and directors of their foundations. Ultimately, the solution is to have people from diverse backgrounds in leadership positions at these companies.”
As a devoted advocate of women’s empowerment and equality, Khanna believes women are crucial to driving innovation, growth, and prosperity. He is a steadfast supporter of women’s rights both nationally and internationally. His insight and perspective of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s treatment during her confirmation hearing reflected Khanna’s admiration for Jackson and the historical significance of her selection to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I thought the insults she endured were beyond the pale. The insults were designed to demean her intelligence, her belonging, and suggest that she was not smart enough to serve on the court,” Khanna said. “But she sat there with so much grace and dignity. She will open the door for so many people and inspire them to dream that they not only can have a seat at the table -- but a seat at the head of the table.”
Khanna graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in economics from the University of Chicago. He earned a law degree at Yale University. Khanna and his wife, Ritu, reside in Fremont, Calif.
“Some students feel some mystification when they come from a smaller college. I have met Claflin students, and you have in your midst enormous talent, Khanna said. “Don’t let people cut short your dreams. Believe in yourself. They need to understand that recruiting outstanding students from HBCUs is in their best interest.”