While an undergraduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, Stewart founded a startup called Vector Rideshare, a carpooling app. Despite positive initial feedback on the pre-launch concept, the actual company was sputtering: the app booked only 10 rides in its first six months. There was no revenue.
“To start the company and app, I took money out of my own pocket. My mom and grandmother helped, too. I come from the inner city, and we don’t have very much,” said Stewart. “I sat in the car riding back to campus with my mom after Thanksgiving break, and the conversation came up about if I needed to leave school to begin working to pay back the loan, because the financial strain had grown so great on my family. In that moment, I realized that entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. Taking risks has true costs.” During that ride, Stewart learned another lesson: entrepreneurship also brings unexpected turns. “As we’re still driving home, I get a phone call at 11 p.m.,” said Stewart. “The caller says, “Are you Nehemiah Stewart? Do you run a company named Vector? I’ve been meaning to reach out. Is it too late to invest?”
A hiring pipeline for diverse students
Stewart says the investment—received just before he “hit the self-destruct button” of leaving school—allowed Vector Rideshare to hire employees and grow. In 2021, Florida-based Lacuna acquired Vector’s technology (intellectual property), giving Stewart his first exit and hard-won wisdom for his next venture: Level the Playing Field.
“Everything I learned from Vector, every failure, built my acumen and network, so when I was called in 2020 to solve another problem—filling the professional opportunity gap for minority students—I knew what to do,” said Stewart, who launched the nonprofit Level the Playing Field as a hiring pipeline for diverse students who lack access to professional networks enjoyed by many non-minority students.
Within three years, Level the Playing Field has recruited approximately 50 diverse students from six North Carolina universities—including three historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) and three predominantly white institutions (PWI’s) to participate in a year-long cohort. Over a 12-month period, students attend career readiness seminars hosted by area university collaborators and corporate partners. They then take a semester-long professional development course at UNC-Chapel Hill. Following the trainings and course, students receive a stipend from Level the Playing Field and are placed into paid, full-time internships at top companies and research labs across the country: Merck Pharmaceutical, Eli Lilly, Parker Lord, SAS, and others.
The program’s successes abound. There’s Alexis Campbell, a former first-generation Carolina student who graduated from Central Cabarrus High School and landed a summer internship at Merck, exploring life outside North Carolina for the first time. Then there’s Janiyah Sutton from small-town Camden who Stewart said was “so quiet she only said 10 words during our first interview.” Stewart watched Sutton gain confidence, obtain a research assistant position, publish and present research on cardiovascular disease, and enroll as a PharmD student at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Stewart recalls the entrepreneurial spark of Jim Appiah, an international student from Ghana who interned at Merck and launched his own startup: a consortium of farmers in Ghana who are creating an economic pool of resources to build one of the first pharmacies near Appiah’s local town and surrounding villages.
Level the Playing Field has expanded its mission beyond the collegiate ranks, adopting a pay-it-forward model that sends its undergraduate students into rural North Carolina high schools. “Our students lead career-readiness workshops just like the ones they were provided to give younger students knowledge and confidence that they can pursue professional careers, too.”
A new hub for professional training, industry collaborations
Level the Playing Field continues to place undergraduates into internships, but Stewart sees its true innovation in the training it provides—something he’s expanding via a partnership with Innovate Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill’s central innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development team. The partnership involves space, training and fundraising. Level the Playing Field will establish an office in the Innovate Carolina Junction, a co-working space and innovation community located on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill. “We’re grateful to have the Junction space for our program coordinator employee to work from,” said Stewart. “It’s a really nice hub for our students to build community in.”
Level the Playing Field will bring its corporate partners to the Junction for regular career fairs and workshops with students. “We’re working with the Innovate Carolina team to plan workshops and lesson plans that will give students the knowledge to move their ideas forward, whether that’s setting up an LLC or simply talking to an expert,” he said. “Everyone has to be innovative in asking, ‘What can I do to make change?’ We’re training our students to be those kinds of thinkers.”
Path to impact: Lessons from Level the Playing Field’s entrepreneurial journey
Stewart’s early funding strategy was driven by small, but critical donations from family and friends and passionate encouragement from people around the University. As the nonprofit has expanded and laid long-term plans, its approach has evolved to include a fundraising strategy for securing sizeable donations from individuals and corporations like Eli Lilly.
“Passion doesn’t pay bills forever,” he said. “If we wanted to build an organization for the long-term, we needed a revenue model that was substantial, recurrent and predictable.” Over the past year, the organization developed a subscription model that helps solve a common problem for commercial entities: efficiently sorting through thousands of intern or job applications to find the best candidates. Subscribing companies describe their recruitment needs, which Level the Playing Field uses to screen the hundreds of undergraduate and graduate student applications it receives for its own program—providing targeted pools of candidates that fit those criteria.
“We do pre-vetting to provide tailored applicant pools to a company’s HR department that decrease the time they spend sifting through mountains of applications,” said Stewart. Stewart says that Level the Playing Field has received donations the Burroughs Foundation and the Sierra Economics and Science Foundation. Applying for grants is also emerging as part of the organization’s future funding plans. The organization is pursuing a strategy to raise $3 million over the next twelve months, which Stewart said would sustain Level the Playing Field for at least five years as it pursues an endowment.
Because Level the Playing Field launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, it started in a virtual mode. As the pandemic eased, the organization moved to a hybrid model, holding in-person meetings and workshops. Because the organization hasn’t had a formal office space “we’ve based ourselves at partnering institutions” so that “if we’re hosting a workshop at NC State, we work with our friends there—we call them our ‘campus quarterbacks’—to find space for the workshop.”
Level the Playing Field’s office space at the Innovate Carolina Junction brings new possibilities. “We’ve had working spaces for events, but I always knew we needed a home,” Steward said. “Now students can study together, work through problems in teams, and develop camaraderie.”
PEOPLE AND TALENT
Although he’s the sole founder, Stewart notes that Level the Playing Field was never a solo endeavor. He garnered support across campus—from entities like the Office of the Chancellor and Innovate Carolina to leaders of the chemistry department, the Eshelman Institute for Innovation and the Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship. “I reached out early, and the response was immediate,” he said. “I felt like I was the conductor of a beautiful symphony of individuals.”
Level the Playing Field’s academic and corporate advisory boards are filled with faculty from UNC System universities and executives from firms like Eli Lilly, Merck, Procter and Gamble, Eastman, and SciVida. Its board members—all unpaid and passionately devoted—are indispensable. “Our board members are hard-working, boots-on-the-ground individuals who understand that we’re a small organization, care about the mission, and work just as hard as paid employees,” he said. “They’re not a board in name, but a board in deed.”
To build talent networks—finding board members, staff or connections for students—Level the Playing Field uses an intentional recruitment method that Stewart calls “trampolining.”
“Through conversation, I extend the boundaries of one person’s network to the next person’s network,” Stewart explained. “We make a networking spider graphic, and on the edge, we list the person you want to ultimately meet. We trace backward sequentially—who they know, and who they know—until we find a path of people that you can build relationships with until you reach the person you meant to meet.”
Level the Playing Field has established strong partnerships and relationships with leaders at universities in North Carolina. As the organization expands geographically—for instance, into areas like Atlanta and Washington, DC—its staffing needs are evolving. Personal capacity also influences staffing plans. Stewart is now a full-time student at the UNC School of Medicine’s MD-PhD program. A neurosurgeon in training, he has no time to run day-to-day business operations.
“A program coordinator was the first full-time staff person we hired, so they can send emails, coordinate with students, and collect data. It’s pivotal,” he said. “On the advisory side, we’ve brought on powerful female leads who provide a national presence. If we want to scale, we can show corporations that we understand what’s going on in their regions.”
For Stewart, a self-described “information gatherer” and “voracious reader,” learning to build a startup has been part academic, part interpersonal. A chemistry-math double major at UNC-Chapel Hill, he took entrepreneurship minor courses through the Shuford Program. He credits his liberal arts education—in particular a proof-based mathematics class—as foundational to both his professional pursuits. Before proof-based mathematics, “there was never a problem put in front where I had no direction to go—there was no way through it or around it. You had to build a mental ladder to climb over it,” he said. “When I learned how to think like that, I realized that I could approach any problem.”
Stewart tried to “exhaust everything the University had to offer,” including courses, entrepreneurial programming and especially the expertise of its people. “Before I sent the first email about Level the Playing Field, I talked with hundreds of faculty, students, university leaders, corporations, community and church leaders, YMCAs, and Boys and Girls Clubs about what is going on,” he said. Current lessons are less objective and more anecdotal. “Today, I ask students in the program, ‘How did you feel? What did you gain? What were your struggles?’ And I ask corporations: ‘How were the students? Was the experience smooth? What more would you have wanted?’” he said. “By gathering customer feedback, we refine and improve our product.”
How to get involved
Ready to start leveling the playing field? If you’re a student who would like to apply to the program, please complete the LTPF 2023-2024 application. If you are an academic faculty or staff seeking to become a Campus QB or initiate a new campus partnership OR a company with a desire to bridge the divide for diverse talent, please send an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss ways to partner and subscribe with the team. If you are an individual who is curious to learn more about the organization or seeks to provide financial support, visit the ”Donate” page and browse the Level the Playing Field website.