Make no mistake. Travis P. Jackson, the lively founder and CEO of HBCU Pride Nation, is an unabashed homer when it comes to representing his alma mater. When asked to name the best historically Black college campus in America, he doesn’t hesitate to answer with a certain storied Greensboro institution he attended. “North Carolina A&T, of course,” he laughs as if there could be any other response. But it doesn’t take long for you to discover that Jackson stands as a heartfelt spokesperson for not just the HBCU experience, but HBCU culture and Black history.
When Jackson started HBCU Pride Nation eight years ago it began as a social media platform set out to promote and educate the public about the significance of historically black colleges. But soon the outlet amassed an army of more than 200,000 followers. Jackson came up with a brilliant idea. Not only would HBCU Pride Nation wave the flag for the glory of ALL historically Black universities, and connect HBCU alumni from across the country, it would evolve into the premier destination for high-end school apparel. Whether it’s hoodies and headgear or sweat suits, Jackson wants HBCU students, past and present, to look good when representing their school. One Yard caught up with the enterprising businessman and motivational speaker and discovered a truly serious whirlwind of a force that lives and breaths HBCU life. Buckle up.
One Yard: You seem to bleed HBCU culture, HBCU history, and HBCU life. What it is about HBCUs that have fueled you to become such a passionate advocate?
TPJ: What makes me a passionate HBCU advocate is that there have been passionate HBCU advocates before me. These are the people that graduated from HBCUs such as Martin Luther King Jr., Nikki Giovanni, Phylicia Rashad, and W.E.B. Du Bois. They paved the way for African-Americans in general today. North Carolina A&T gave me what I needed in order to be a scholar, a leader, and a man. HBCUs gave our ancestors an opportunity when opportunities weren’t being presented to our people. HBCU’s gave them freedom of their minds, freedom to learn. HBCU’s changed their lives forever. This is the reason why HBCUs were founded.
One Yard: In a previous interview you explained the genesis of HBCU Pride Nation after seeing negative news reports that talked about low enrollment and whether HBCUs were still needed. How did you envision HBCU Pride Nation being the remedy to such talk?
TPJ: I thought that HBCU Pride Nation could become a remedy because I envisioned us being a visible answer as to why HBCUs are still relevant today.
One Yard: Social media has also played a huge role in getting that message out. Twitter really became a game-changer for HBCU Pride Nation.
TPJ: Right. Twitter became an outlet for people to say why they love their HBCU schools. We would go on campuses and hold these events called Tweet & Greets where we did events at the Morehouse’s Kilgore Center, Johnson C. Smith University and a couple of other schools. People would be able to meet us as HBCU Pride Nation. We had a tool called the Twitter Screen where we were able to connect and network with alumni and students from those schools. And that was powerful.
One Yard: But you guys also have a lot of fun with HBCU Pride Nation’s message of empowerment. How important is that?
TPJ: That’s very important. We had an initiative called Pride Wars where people would debate why their school is the best and upload pictures in their best HBCU paraphernalia…a lot of love. We try to educate people and show them why we have such great pride in these institutions. Sometimes some of the schools could do a [better] job in their storytelling. There are so many stories within these 101 institutions. The fact that there were 107 HBCUs when I started 10 years ago shows you that there is tremendous need for the pride, love and financial support of HBCUs right now.
One Yard: You mentioned elevating HBCU paraphernalia, which seems to be the biggest thing that separates HBCU Pride Nation from other HBCU media outlets. Your company actually distributes HBCU apparel, correct?
TPJ: Yes. Right now we are using a drop-ship method. People pay and we will get an order, but eventually, we want to have the HBCU Pride Shop.
One Yard: Why did you decide to make HBCU Pride Nation a place for high-quality HBCU wear?
TPJ: Fashion is a major staple within the HBCU community. And also when it comes to the quality in which we produce our own apparel we recognize not everyone can afford what we produce. But when you get your sweatsuit or hoodie or your crewneck it gives you so much pride in the institution that you attended. We’ve already released the Pride Collection. We have been making sweatsuits for a while but now we are creating sweatsuits for every HBCU in the country. We have three manufacturers and we work with a company in Richmond, Virginia called Haberdash that focuses on our embroidery. And we get our headgear from Fresh Prince Jr.
One Yard: Okay, you guys are serious.
TPJ: We are [laughs]. People tend to look at HBCUs as one market. But when you start to look at us as 101 markets that’s a whole lot of support, pride and maximizing of financial opportunities. The goal is to become integrated vertically, very similar to what Nipsey [Husstle] did. He owned everything and all the processes came from the Marathon Clothing shop. We eventually want to get into smart clothing as well where you can just do a QR Code on the merchandise and it sends you to the story of that HBCU that the merchandise represents.
One Yard: What school apparel is amongst HBCU Pride Nation’s biggest sellers?
TPJ: I would say my alma mater North Carolina A&T, Winston, and we just dropped our Pride collection. I think when winter comes we will have more of an idea of which schools are bringing in more. But HBCU Pride Nation deals with more than just clothing. We also do social media marketing.
One Yard: You also do motivational speaking. What kind of experience has that been for you?
TPJ: It’s been an amazing experience. I love speaking. I love hosting events and I love being a panelist. Whenever God has given you something to use to affect his people you have to use it in the right way. Everything comes from heart…from the top of my head. But sometimes my right-hand and chief operations officer Ebonee Funderburk, it kills her because my talks can come off as unstructured [laughs].
One Yard: So we know that you graduated from North Carolina A&T in 2011. What kind of kid were you before you found yourself in that school?
TPJ: I was born in Durham, Carolina. My father is from High Point. When I was coming up, I was raised by an amazing single mother named Janice Jennings. She worked three jobs to make sure we always had a roof over our heads. She did what she had to do to make sure we survived. But I knew that I was going to A&T after I watched Drumline.
One Yard: Of course!
TPJ: [Laughs] Yeah. At the same time, I was looking at old episodes of A Different World…I was looking at [Spike Lee’s] School Daze, and I just felt like I was supposed to be at A&T. But there was a deeper reason I wanted to attend North Carolina A&T. I didn’t have my father in the beginning of my life because he was on drugs and alcohol. He’s been clean for 16 years. A&T gave me the opportunity to build a relationship with my father because he lived 10 minutes from the school.
One Yard: Wow…
TPJ: Yeah, that was dope. You know how when you are from the ‘hood or the projects you always have that one kid that everybody knows is going to make it.
One Yard: Right…that don’t mess with that kid he’s going to do something in life!
TPJ: That’s it. That was me. I was always protected. Even when I thought about doing some crazy stuff people would stop me in my tracks. Sometimes I was my own worst enemy, but the thing that changed my life forever was my childhood friend getting killed in a drive-by shooting. When I tell you that his death changed me forever…it really, really did bro.
One Yard: So you pretty much knew the direction you wanted to go?
TPJ: I’ve always viewed myself as a leader. My organization was student government and the campus activities board. I love advocating for people. I just love creating experiences for people. Over the years, I’ve been freshman class president, vice president of external affairs that planned the homecomings at A&T…and we have the greatest homecomings in the country [laughs]. That’s just who I was.
One Yard: Talk about the Hillman Experience, which gives kids the opportunity to experience what’s it like to be a part of HBCU campus life and participate in HBCU college fairs.
TPJ: The Hillman Experience is about bringing the HBCU experience to campuses to where some guidance counselors may be persuading students not to go to HBCUs. Case in point, we did the first one in 2017 at a North Carolina urban high school and we had almost 50 HBCUs come out, and they received $1.7 million in scholarships to go to historically black universities. We included a pep rally that featured bands, cheerleaders, and an alumni panel discussion. It was an opportunity for these people to talk to former students about their personal HBCU experience. We also did a college fair.
One Yard: So HBCU Pride Nation really loves the kids…
TPJ: And that’s only one aspect. In the future I want to have tailgating, a Black HBCU Pride business expo, and a career fair. My ultimate vision is to encompass all HBCU culture.