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Princeton’s First Black Valedictorian

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Nicholas Johnson, an operations research and financial engineering concentrator from Montreal, has been named valedictorian of Princeton’s Class of 2020.

Johnson is the first black valedictorian in Princeton’s history.

He said he appreciates the encouragement he has received at Princeton in developing his academic interests. The University’s support through opportunities including international internships and cultural immersion trips to Peru, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom were especially significant, Johnson said. But most of all, he treasures his relationships with his classmates.

“My favorite memories of my time at Princeton are memories of time spent with close friends and classmates engaging in stimulating discussions — often late at night — about our beliefs, the cultures and environments in which we were raised, the state of the world, and how we plan on contributing positively to it in our own unique way,” Johnson said.

Johnson plans to spend this summer interning as a hybrid quantitative researcher and software developer at the D. E. Shaw Group before beginning Ph.D. studies in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in fall 2020.

Along with his concentration in operations research and financial engineering, he is pursuing certificates in statistics and machine learningapplied and computational mathematics, and applications of computing.

His research has focused primarily on sequential decision-making under uncertainty, optimization, and the ethical considerations that must be made given the increasing role of algorithmic decision-making systems.

His senior thesis, “Sequential Stochastic Network Structure Optimization with Applications to Addressing Canada’s Obesity Epidemic,” focuses on developing high-performance, efficient algorithms to solve a network-based optimization problem that models a community-based preventative health intervention designed to curb the prevalence of obesity in Canada.

This work, supervised by Miklos Racz, assistant professor of operations research and financial engineering, also has applications to public health interventions designed to increase adherence to strict social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Johnson has another ongoing research project supervised by Yacine Ait-Sahalia, the Otto A. Hack ’03 Professor of Finance and professor of economics, in which he is developing a reinforcement learning agent to execute large financial trade orders with minimal market distortion.

During his junior year, Johnson conducted an independent research project, “Generating Privacy Preserving Synthetic Datasets,” supervised by Prateek Mittal, associate professor of electrical engineering, in which he developed a machine learning system to more robustly anonymize datasets than existing alternatives. He presented this work at the spring 2019 Electrical Engineering Symposium and the 2019 Center for Statistics and Machine Learning Symposium.

Among his other professors, William Massey, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, and Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, a lecturer in African American studies, were also influential.

“Professor Massey inspired me by sharing his ever-present love for operations research and through his advocacy for black and African American students in STEM fields,” Johnson said. “He encouraged me to pursue increasingly ambitious research projects and to share my work at academic conferences. Professor Gutarra introduced me to academic writing during my first-year Writing Seminar. She was instrumental in helping me develop my skills as an effective academic writer and communicator, and she motivated me to become a writing fellow.”

In addition to serving as a writing fellow at Princeton’s Writing Center, Johnson is editor of Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy. He is a member of Whitman College, where he has served as a residential college adviser. He is also a member of the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders and served as its co-president in 2018.

As a rising senior, Johnson worked as a software engineer in machine learning at Google’s California headquarters.

He previously interned at Oxford University’s Integrative Computational Biology and Machine Learning Group, developing and implementing a novel optimization technique under the supervision of Aleksandr Sahakyan, principal investigator and group head. He presented the project at Princeton’s inaugural Day of Optimization in October 2018 and at the 25th Conference of African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences in June 2019, where his project was recognized with the Angela E. Grant Poster Award for Best Modeling.

Johnson has interned at Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, and he participated in Whitman’s exchange program with Morningside College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in March 2017.

Among his academic honors, Johnson is a recipient of the Class of 1883 English Prize for Freshmen in the School of Engineering, a two-time recipient of the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence, and co-recipient with Sommers of the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in fall 2019 and to Tau Beta Pi in 2018, where he served as president of the Princeton Chapter in 2019.

Johnson is a graduate of Selwyn House School and attended Marianopolis College, both in Westmount, Quebec.

By Denise Valente, Princeton University, Office of Communications

Photo by Lisa Festa, Center for Career Development

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Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.® Continue Giving HBCUs A Financial Boost

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Despite progress and national focus, historically Black colleges and universities across the country still need public support

 For the fourth consecutive year, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated® will earmark on a progressive goal to raise $1 million in 24 hours for their national HBCU Impact Day initiative.  Set for Monday, September 20, 2021, the annual fundraiser is a part of the sorority’s four-year, $10 million commitment to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) led by AKA International President and CEO Dr. Glenda Glover. The organization’s more than 300,000 college-educated members, corporate partners, and donors are challenged to make contributions to assist with the ongoing fiscal sustainability and operations of the more than 100 HBCUs around the country.

Dr. Glover, who is also president of Tennessee State University and an HBCU graduate, says while HBCUs are currently experiencing a renaissance that has brought about a new level of awareness, more must be done for their survival and long-term sustainability.

“The contributions of HBCUs can no longer be overlooked. Just look to the White House or the United States Congress.”Tweet this

“Despite the recent national attention given to HBCUs in 2021 and incremental state and federal funding, HBCUs still lag far behind other institutions of higher education when it comes to ongoing and sustainable support,” adds Dr. Glover. 

In 2021, the sorority gifted $1.6 million to 35 eligible four-year HBCUs.  The endowments on these campuses will grow in perpetuity and help schools reduce student debt through scholarships, fund industry-specific research, and provide much-needed infrastructure maintenance. Those funds are proving to be extremely crucial during the current climate in higher education.

HBCUs continue to be under-funded and now have an added burdened of operational challenges with the impact of the ever evolving COVID-19 pandemic.  

“Now more than ever is the time for Alpha Kappa Alpha to step up, as we have done for more than 113 years, along with our partners and continue our call to action for our historic institutions of higher education,” Glover contends. “The contributions of HBCUs can no longer be overlooked or minimized. Just look to the White House or the United States Congress. HBCUs account for nearly 25% of bachelor’s degrees granted to African Americans. I cannot imagine a world without HBCUs, but I can imagine how much stronger the world would be if we all supported the HBCU community.”

Members and supporters have surpassed the $1 million goal for the past three years. Last year’s Impact Day raised $1.3 million in 2020.

HBCU Impact Day is part of the sorority’s recognition of HBCU Week.  On September 20, chapters around the globe will host fundraising events in support of the $1 million fundraising goal. Interested donors can make contributions by giving by mail or online at http://donate.akaeaf.org during the 24-hour campaign.  For more information on the sorority’s commitment to HBCUs, visit www.AKA1908.com

About Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated®
Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated (AKA) is an international service organization that was founded on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1908. It is the oldest Greek-letter organization established by African-American, college-educated women. Alpha Kappa Alpha is comprised of over 300,000 members in more than 1,000 graduate and undergraduate chapters in the United States, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Liberia, Bahamas, Bermuda, the Caribbean, Canada, Japan, Germany, South Korea, South Africa, and in the Middle East. Led by International President and Chief Executive Officer, Glenda Glover Ph.D., Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated is often hailed as “America’s premier Greek-letter organization for African-American women.” Visit www.aka1908.com for more information.

About the AKA Educational Advancement Foundation
Over 40 years ago, the Educational Advancement Foundation was established by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. to promote lifelong learning.  It is now the largest minority-owned women’s foundation in the country with assets totaling over $22.7 million.  The foundation has donated over $6.5 million for scholarships, fellowships, and community assistance grants and is an organization with a rich and distinguished history of service that spans nearly a century.  Creating the Educational Advancement Foundation was the method by which Alpha Kappa Alpha. Inc. sought to ensure that there would always be support for education, its oldest program of service.  Today, the Foundation, a financially strong and viable organization, is a powerful tool for good, pooling the resources of others who share this vision of providing a perpetual source of support for education. 

Alpha Kappa Alpha implements an AKA HBCU Endowment Initiative in partnership with EAF, in which an endowed scholarship will be established at each accredited four-year HBCU.  The goal is to stamp the Alpha Kappa Alpha brand of financial support on each HBCU campus to help students remain in school, complete their course of study, and receive their college degrees. For more information about the Educational Advancement Foundation, please visit www.akaeaf.org.

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Claris Launches Entrepreneur Training Program

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Claris Launches Entrepreneur Training Program with First Partner EonXI, Focused on Improving Tech Diversity Through Low Code

 Claris International Inc., an Apple company, today announced a groundbreaking initiative with Venture Fund and Startup Studio, EonXI – combining the power of low-code software development, business training, mentorship, and community networking with one unified goal: expand diversity in technology and business ownership.

The lack of diversity in technology and Black-owned startups is well-documented and long-standing. According to Pew Research, Black workers comprise 11% of all employed adults, but just 5% of engineers and architects, and 7% of workers in computer occupations. Entrepreneurship within the Black community also struggled this past year – 40% of businesses that closed due to the pandemic were Black-owned, compared to just 20% of all active U.S. businesses. Finally, data released by McKinsey also shows that 42% of Black workers currently hold jobs that could be subject to automation by 2030.

“The need to invest and increase diversity in tech broadly, and in Black entrepreneurs specifically, has never been greater,” said Claris CEO Brad Freitag. “At the same time, the massive growth and tremendous power of low-code technologies represent some of the most significant opportunities to close this gap that we’ve seen in generations. This partnership with EonXI affirms a deep commitment on the part of both companies to not just talk about or study these problems, but to give Black entrepreneurs what they need to be successful, both as business owners and software developers.”

Gartner forecasts that, by 2024, 75% of large enterprises will be using at least four low-code development tools for IT application development. In part, this is due to the fact that current U.S. demand for IT workers stands at roughly 500,000 open positions, but with only 50,000 computer science graduates per year. This translates to a significant gap not only in tech diversity, but pure IT talent – a gap which can be filled with a more diverse workforce educated in low code.

“Narrowing the racial wealth gap starts with access to technology and resources, hence why we are building communities of diverse developers and diverse entrepreneurs,” said Aaron Wilson, General Partner at EonXI.

The Low Code Accelerator program from EonXI and Claris will provide graduates with the operational expertise and mentorship to form and scale a business as well as technical training on the Claris low-code development platform. Mentorship, both business and technical, will be provided by a large network of program partners, including Cris Ippolite, a 25-year Claris developer and President of iSolutions, as well as Cathy House, 15-year entrepreneurship Adjunct Professor in the Executive MBA program at Howard University.

“Every day, I work with brilliant Black entrepreneurs who have industry-changing ideas, but no technical training to bring those ideas to life through software,” said Cathy House. “While we must invest in closing the educational gaps that led us to this point, I see tremendous opportunity in low-code software development to empower these entrepreneurs today. The team at EonXI is world-class not only in the companies they help build, but in the partnerships they forge that help them accomplish their mission. Working with an organization that has the pedigree and history of Claris to lift up Black entrepreneurs is a tremendous win, and I’m proud to be a part of this program.”

With today’s launch, The Low Code Accelerator program is accepting applications for the program’s first class. Applications are due by October 15, 2021, and individuals interested in learning more about the program can visit the Claris website.

About Claris International Inc.
Claris International Inc. is the creator of the world’s leading low-code development platform, offering a suite of services that drives digital transformation in companies from every business sector. Best known for its FileMaker app development solution, the company has more than one million active users globally across SMBs and the Fortune 500. Claris, an Apple company, has an unmatched record of business success for more than 20 profitable years. Claris is headquartered in California with operations worldwide, including London, Paris, Munich, Tokyo, Beijing, and Sydney.

About EonXI
EonXI Ventures is a venture capital firm focused on investing in innovative founders and disruptive Web 3.0 companies. EonXI’s domain expertise includes but is not limited to, blockchain, gaming, interactive media & artificial intelligence. The EonXI portfolio consists of early-stage companies with a focus on underlying technology. With access to a robust limited partner network consisting of illustrious executives, family offices, and top-tier influencers, strategic partners & consumers can be reached in a matter of seconds. EonXI Ventures is the true definition of going beyond the traditional venture check.

The EonXI Startup Studio is the incubation engine of EonXI, where concepts are created, developed, and scaled into disruptive businesses in the Web 3.0 ecosystem. With a robust developer community and access to top resources, the company helps elevate the best ideas from pre-seed to market and beyond. Upon finding product-market fit, the team at EonXI Studio then activates a deep network of other founders, influencers, advisors, investors, and talent to continue to support founding teams throughout the life of the business.

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Nikki Giovanni Named PVAMU’s 2021-2022 Toni Morrison Writer-in-Residence

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One of the most celebrated and revered African American poets, Nikki Giovanni, has been named the PVAMU 2021-2022 Writer-in-Residence in the Toni Morrison Writing Program. The appointment will officially begin with a virtual series taking place September 27 – 29.

Nikki Giovanni

Ms. Giovanni has won numerous awards, including the Langston Hughes Medal and the NAACP Image Award. Named a “Living Legend” by Oprah Winfrey, her diverse body of work includes poetry anthologies, poetry recordings, nonfiction essays, and children’s literature.

Giovanni’s early work gained attention as part of the Black Arts Movement; she was called the “Poet of the Black Revolution” because of her forceful and passionate writing about civil rights. Her varied activism has included providing support for other African American women writers. Giovanni currently serves as a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech University.

Established by PVAMU President Ruth Simmons, The Toni Morrison Writing Program seeks to bring visibility to African American writing in the literary canon. Led by Provost Emerita and Professor E. Johanne Thomas-Smith, the program will feature writers reading from their works, conducting masterclasses, teaching, and mentoring other writers. The program will also focus on opportunities to develop the literary interests and talents of young writers. Components include a partnership with area high school English departments, an annual writing contest for K-12 students, and elementary school readings accompanied by informal book discussions with the author.

About Prairie View A&M University: Designated an institution of “the first class” in the Texas Constitution, Prairie View A&M University is the second-oldest public institution of higher education in the state. With an established reputation for producing engineers, nurses, and educators, PVAMU offers baccalaureate degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degree programs through eight colleges and schools. A member of The Texas A&M University System, the university is dedicated to fulfilling its land-grant mission of achieving excellence in teaching, research, and service. For more information regarding PVAMU, visit www.pvamu.edu.

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