Gates Scholar Winner Akayla Brown is Bringing Her Talents to Howard University
Gates Scholarship winner Akayla Brown of Southwest Philadelphia. Photograph courtesy of Akayla Brown

Akayla Brown, the 18-year-old, highly sought after Bodie High School senior, went viral after receiving a prestigious scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A Southwest Philadelphia original, Brown applied to more than 25 universities, including several HBCUs and Ivy League schools. And after much deliberation with herself, family members, and friends, Brown has chosen Howard University as the school of choice she will be attending in the fall.

“I love the feeling of being around my own people and the community,” Brown told KYW Newsradio. “In my heart, I always knew that being at a HBCU was where I belong.” As ESSENCE reported, Brown received acceptance letters from more than 18 colleges including Lincoln University, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Grambling State University, Villanova University, and Philadelphia’s Drexel and Temple Universities. 

With a 4.19 GPA, high marks as Bodie High School class president, and an entrepreneur with her own nonprofit organization at the age of 13, Brown is pretty fantastic and forward-thinking. In fact, her youth-led Dimplez 4 Dayz Inc. has supported more than 10,000 families in Philadelphia, while hosting back-to-school drives, community outreach programs, and catering events that deal with homelessness.

ESSENCE was fortunate enough to speak with the future International Business major about how she plans to build upon Howard University’s storied legacy, why she’ll forever be indebted to influencing the hood, and what the competitive Gates Scholarship taught her about “adulting” at such a young age.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Congratulations on selecting Howard University as your choice for higher education. Out of your top three picks, why choose Howard and what do you hope to bring to the table that builds up the prestigious school’s legacy?

Akayla Brown: Thank you, thank you. I chose Howard because since the fourth grade I knew an HBCU was where I needed to be. I was always into investing in my community and what better place to invest, grow, and learn than at Howard University. I’m majoring in international business, so I needed to be at the best HBCU for [that subject]. Being around my peers of the same race and striving to be the best has always pushed and motivated me. Far too many times I hear people say, “I wish I would’ve gone to an HBCU,” and I won’t be the one to make the same mistake.

Once I arrive at Howard, I plan on bringing not only my knowledge, but my nonprofit [organization] and resources [to the table]. The urban community is so powerful, but they need strong hands to guide them. I plan on being that hand and bridging the gap. A lot of youth have the desire to attend college, but do not know where to start, how to apply for scholarships, and I want to be an example to my community that anything is possible. I want to be the person helping to create change, while sharing the importance of [attending] an HBCU. I know my future Howard peers will assist me in all of my endeavors.

The people that have graduated from HU have influenced everything from Hollywood (Debbie Allen, Chadwick Boseman) to science (Patricia Bath, Mamie Clark) to literature (Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston) and more. How do you see yourself and Dimplez 4 Dayz Inc. aiding in influence and inspiring others while attending the school as a student?

AB: I plan on influencing the hood, if I am being quite frank. I do have a lot of ideas about programming and clubs I want to begin once I settle in [Washington] D.C., and managing a nonprofit with school is not the easiest thing [to do]. But I will do whatever needs to be done because I believe in Black America. There are so many disadvantages for African-Americans inside of this country, but as I’ve come to learn while reading this book called Seeing Things in Black and White by Antoine Stroman, those disadvantages can be advantages.

It is all about perspective. Once at HU, I will be doing a lot of things to encourage my peers to take action inside of our communities, but also doing my part to ensure it is not just talk. Howard, as one of the top HBCUs, will be doing a lot more community engagements once I arrive because we are too good not to. I want to do more than be inspiring, I want to showcase the power of knowledge and how to use it. My nonprofit right now is only in Philadelphia, and we have done an amazing job of being a resource to the families. But now is the time to expand and Washington, D.C. is a perfect starting point to do so.

What were those talks about taking your skills and talents to an HBCU like between your family and friends after earning the Gates Scholarship? Ultimately, what should others coming up behind you consider when faced with a similar decision between going to an HBCU or a PWI?

AB: Our conversations were very blatant. They made it clear that my talents, passion, and drive were simply too amazing to be given away at a PWI. I needed to be around people who come from similar struggles and backgrounds. It was stressed that we must continue to create change together. I have nothing against PWIs, [but] I knew in my own heart that my talents needed to be at an HBCU, where they would more than just be encouraged, but people would actually jump on board to participate because they understand how hard it is to survive in this country as a Black American.

[My family and friends] made it clear that my talents, passion, and drive were simply too amazing to be given away at a PWI.

-Akayla Brown

The odds are naturally set against Black people, which is no secret to anyone, all you have to do is look at everything that’s taking place within the country. With this in mind, I felt as if [going to Howard University] was a win-win situation. Being accepted there for international business allows me to remain close to home for my nonprofit, while being around the people who are genuinely excited to grow with me and see the success of my future when it comes to being a philanthropist. 

My advice to others is this: take a tour, talk to students, do your research, and go with your gut. Do not shy away from PWIs if those are the best for your future careers, but also look into which HBCUs can give you those same amazing opportunities. This was the best decision for me and I felt that as soon as I received my acceptance.

Talk a bit more about your entrepreneurial goals and how HU will help Dimplez 4 Dayz Inc. to blossom and grow.

AB: I prefer to be called a philanthropist rather than an entrepreneur. My whole life’s mission is dedicated to ensuring the urban communities have resources to accomplish their desires and goals. I want to save kids from the mentality that the streets are the only way to go when they are lost, because honestly the streets love no one, and we see that everyday with all the killings that are occuring.

My future will be Dimplez Dreamz recreational centers in communities all across the country. I want to be that helping hand to guide youth when the odds aren’t in their favor. I want to be known as a resource and as a backbone to the community, because life does not give everyone lemons, and struggles are hard. I know Howard will help me not only with forming lifelong friends to support me and to network, but also to expand my thinking and knowledge of what it takes to run a nonprofit and the rules that go into being in the business world.

In your opinion, what did you learn about yourself and the “Adulting” world after winning the highly competitive Gates Scholarship?

AB: I always knew I was different, not just my mentality, but my love for anything I put my mind to. I love to read, but I read Think and Grow Rich, and it taught me that nothing was ever going to be given to me in this world. I also learned to not depend on motivation to be the guide to secure my dreams, but discipline. I personally don’t believe it was the Gates Scholarship that helped me recognize things about myself, but more so my books and constant conversations with my parents.

Up until the day I received it, I was convinced I wouldn’t even get it, and I had multiple plans in action as to how I was going to pay off my debt. What I did learn about this scholarship was to never doubt myself and believe in literally any and everything I put my mind to. It showed me even more that with consistency, hard work, dedication, prayer and manifestation, I can go where I need to be [as long as I] never give up.

Last question, Akayla. How will you connect your major — international business — to remain connected to your Bodine HS and Philadelphia community ties?

AB: Simple, sharing my knowledge. Knowledge is meant to be shared, so I plan on making multiple trips back to Philadelphia, my high school, and anywhere I am needed to be to express what I am learning, and put my newfound knowledge into effect!

Kevin L. Clark is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and curates ESSENCE’s The Playlist. Follow him @KevitoClark.


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