Luke Lawal Jr. can talk. Really talk. This super power allows the infectious founder and CEO of HBCU Buzz to not only capture an audience but move and make connections effortlessly in a myriad of circles. Indeed, the Bowie State graduate, who has a degree in biochemistry, has gone from working as a pharmacy tech at Kaiser and jumping into the two-fisted world of Washington, D.C., political lobbying to becoming a respected business entrepreneur. But Lawal has one primary passion: preaching the gospel of historically Black colleges and universities.
“Going to an HBCU was the most invaluable thing,” says Lawal, who earned a spot on the influential “The Root 100” in 2016. “It wasn’t until I stepped on Bowie’s campus that I realized what people from Baltimore, New York, New Jersey and New Orleans sound like. Some of my friends, in those relationships that I’ve cultivated, they’re diverse people outside of our immediate race. That’s an education you can’t get anywhere else.”
It’s that sense of heartfelt community and the need to bring awareness to the legacy, importance and power of historically Black institutions that moved Lawal to create HBCU Buzz in 2011. The Black owned, one-step media outlet has been delivering news, insights and editorials from the Black college experience for nearly a decade. And they are still going strong. One Yard caught up with Lawal to discuss his unlikely path to becoming the most in-demand ambassador of all that is HBCU.
One Yard: Your mother attended Howard University and graduated summa cum laude. What impact did she have on you wanting to attend an HBCU?
LL Jr.: My mom was big on me seeing Howard University every single day, literally (laughs). Her and her friends that went to Howard were always involved in my life. Even when my mom was at school [when] I was about eight or nine years old, I just respected her hustle. I used to go to class with her sometimes just because she couldn’t find a babysitter, or I would hang out with her at Founders Library a lot. She spent a great deal of time just reminding me how important it was to attend a Black institution.
One Yard: When did you finally realize you wanted to attend an HBCU?
LL Jr.: It’s funny. It was on my graduation day when I realized I wanted to join Omega Psi Phi. My mom was being very regular [laughs]. I had ran into some Ques on the yard, and I was like, “Mom, they are out here setting it out. Why didn’t you [join a sorority]?” And she was just like, “When I was in college, all I focused on was getting grades and supporting you guys. But when you get to school you have all the freedom to join a fraternity.” That was my first exposure. But I was already inspired before that.
One Yard: How so?
LL Jr.: After she graduated, her friends were always at the house. It was Howard this, Howard that [laughs]. Even my friends that graduated from Howard the relationship my mom has with them is so unique.
One Yard: So did any beef pop off when you told your mom you wanted to go to Bowie State and not Howard?
LL Jr.: Not necessarily. In high school money was the biggest thing for me. I wanted to go where, one, I didn’t have to pay for school, and two, where it was cheaper. I already knew I could literally go anywhere, and my dad went to Bowie, so there was some legacy there.
One Yard: So legend has it that your 2010 visit to Florida A&M University inspired the creation of HBCU Buzz.
LL Jr.: Once I joined the Student Government Association (SGA) [at Bowie State], I went to this conference called NASAP. I got to meet all the different SGAs. And for me it was like, ‘Wow, it’s a bunch of y’all!’ I had no clue. And then I started networking. My friends [I met] from FAMU were like come pull up. We went a week before homecoming…me and a few of my line brothers. And I was just shocked! I got to hang out in the SGA office and I was just like, “Wow…you guys really have a real political thing.” Our SGA office at Bowie State was just one big office and we all had multiple desk. But [at FAMU], everybody had their own office.
People had real secretaries. Just the level of professionalism made me so inspired. Visiting FAMU made me realize that there are more people out here that look like us and are doing great things that we need to connect with. I had to go back to Bowie like, “Yo, what are we doing? We have to turn this up a notch.” But the most important thing was the catalyst. I started having conversations with my SGA team and my line brothers they were like, “Well, have you ever been to Shaw? Have you ever been to Hampton? Have you ever been to these other schools where there’s some learning curve there. Some of the things they do we don’t do.”
One Yard: And that’s when the proverbial light bulb went off in your head?
LL Jr.: Right. I just thought maybe we should start a [HBCU] group chat. Who is publicizing the HBCU experience? Who is talking about the things the SGAs are able to do on their campus, whether it’s for homecoming to some of the programs we do in our one, two, three, to four years, depending how long you are in SGA. Who is publicizing it? That’s when I realized that nobody was. I couldn’t find anything that spoke especially to my millennial class and to the universities as a whole. And then I started to realize the way HBCU’s were depicted in the media was always negative.
One Yard: What disturbed you the most?
LL Jr.: Whenever something good happened at Bowie, Howard or even UDC, people weren’t talking about it. But if someone died on campus it was publicized. I think that same year someone got killed [at Bowie State]. And that was the first time I ever saw press on campus. So it was just like, Wow, how can we change that perception? That’s why I started HBCU Buzz.
One Yard: In your view what separates an HBCU experience from a predominantly white university experience?
LL Jr.: I mean, I can give you a thousand examples, but my top two are always going to be being around people that look like me, that speak like me and understand me. And the diversity within Black people is one of the things I’ve always loved about HBCU’s. I didn’t always go to public school. I went to private school. I went to school in Nigeria. I went to private school here in Maryland. But after I stepped on a Black college campus, having people that looked like me and who really invested in my future in the sense of understanding my struggles and understanding where I come from and what it means to me as a Black person…that was big.
One Yard: You made a bold move from Washington DC to Los Angeles. How did you go from lobbying in the political world to becoming a full-blown entrepreneur?
LL Jr.: My friends used to always call me a full-time entrepreneur because I had a 9 to 5, but I would still be in the office doing HBCU Buzz work from 5 to 3 am. So I was creating this unrealistic schedule to the point where my 9 to 5 was just five percent of my day. When I graduated I was still trying to figure out if I wanted to stick with the biochemistry stuff and stay on that path working at Kaiser. And if you are in any medical field you know that Kaiser pays the most. It’s the best. But I hated it [laughs].
I remember one time when I was a pharmacy tech and I had an interview on CNN during my lunch break. And as soon as I left the interview my co-worker was like, “Wait, were you on CNN? Why are you here?” I was trying to explain to her that I had this whole other business involving HBCU’s and that I got this and that. And she’s like, “You don’t belong here.” [Laughs.] That’s when it started to sink in.
One Yard: What was the coolest part about being a lobbyist?
LL Jr.: I’ve always wanted to give back. That’s why I got into the whole lobbying thing. But I wanted to do even more. When I left DC to move to LA every single friend I had already moved there. Like literally every collegiate friend, my frat brother moved and started working with Justin Bieber. He literally was on my couch in Maryland.
One Yard: Was there one event that convinced you to move from lobbying and pursue entrepreneurial dreams full-time?
LL Jr.: I remember when John Lewis did his No Fly, No Buy sit-in I was trying to support that. But after the 2016 election, if you were Black on Capitol Hill it hit you hard. I would never forget the day that [Donald] Trump was inaugurated. I went into my office and decided I’m leaving. Two weeks later I moved. That was the push that I needed.
One Yard: What’s the biggest issue facing HBCU’s today?
LL Jr.: I think the biggest issue is always going to be funding and adequate resources. When I was a Bowie State we sued the state of Maryland along with the other four HBCU’s in Maryland for misappropriation of funds in the state. We won but till this day I don’t think we received a check from that case.
One Yard: Okay, so you have HBCU Buzz, Taper, an app that mobilizes the barber and salon experience, and your parent company L & Company. When do you find time to sleep?
LL Jr.: Honestly, I don’t [laughs]. I think now I’ve brought a lot of dope people around me to make sure I balance it all out and to make sure I’m bringing everyone up with me. L & Company was formed because I started realizing the value of having a parent company. I hated waiting in the barbershop because when I worked on the Hill, I only had a 30-minute lunch break. Within those 30 minutes, I could not go to the ATM to get cash. I couldn’t afford to sit [at the barbershop] for a haircut, so I created an app to take away from all that time.
Mental health has been very important to me so when I got to LA and realized the struggles, especially African American people, are facing in California, first thing I did was lobby for a contract here in California with the Department of Mental Health. Now we are starting to provide those services to African Americans.
One Yard: Man, you have your hands in everything.
LL Jr.: I will say that for last 10 years from when I started HBCU Buzz, which will be the 10the year anniversary next March 21, it’s been a tough road. I remember reaching out to the first web developer and him telling me, “Hey, I’ll develop your website for $20,000 and I need $10,000 a month just to maintain.”
One Yard: I can only imagine the look on your face…
LL Jr.: I was like hell no [laughs]! I discovered Word Press and my first site was terrible. It was so bad [laughs]. I’m a biochemistry major. I didn’t know how to write, and my articles were terrible until I found my editor-in-chief. He came on full time and he’s been with us ever since.
One Yard: Now that’s hardcore. Your mom has to be proud.
LL Jr.: My mom was my role model, so seeing her doing what she did at Howard, trying to go back and get her masters, trying to create a better life for me and my sister—that’s what inspired me.