The program is designed to help student-athletes take advantage of new opportunities through Meta’s Facebook and Instagram platforms.
The experience falls under Meta’s We the Culture initiative, where the company committed $25 million to Black creators in 2020. Thirty-seven athletes across 21 different schools have been selected for the second edition of the program. The athletes attend virtual workshops that cover topics such as account safety and fan engagement tools — including Instagram Reels — and monetization products on platforms. In addition, within the sessions are Meta’s own sports leadership executives, sports industry experts, and more.
“We brought this cohort together so that [student-athletes] can not only build relationships within the industry but with their fellow HBCU student-athletes,” said Omar Wilson, Meta’s strategic partner manager over sports league partnerships. “We hope that the bonds they build in Go Lab 2.0 will allow them to continue to collaborate and support each other well beyond the program.”
Wilson attended the Atlanta-based HBCU Morehouse College. (Morehouse was ranked fourth amongst 79 HBCUs in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings.)
“HBCUs have a rich community and culture and a strong history of athletic prowess. However, they often don’t get the media exposure they deserve, which can limit the NIL potential of their student-athletes. We want to help fix that,” he added.
The exposure Wilson speaks of is often linked to media rights and athletic budgets. There is little room for the conferences in which HBCU programs compete because broadcasters shell out billions of dollars for rights to spotlight the Power 5 conferences in primetime slots in college sports. As a result, most HBCU games are buried on ESPN+. On the monetary side, there is an astronomical difference between the athletic budgets of even the lower-level Power 5 schools and HBCU schools.
Schools trying to trampoline their athletes to the pros have to turn toward networking and relationships. The same can be said for HBCU athletes. But when it comes to NIL deals and cashing in while the athletes are still in school, they have to get creative.
Boardroom spoke to four Go Lab 2.0 participants to learn more about navigating this new landscape.
Rayquan Smith is a former Norfolk State running back who has since entered the transfer portal seeking an opportunity to play HBCU football elsewhere. To Smith, the NCAA‘s July 1 ruling allowing college athletes to make money off their name, image, and likeness was a rallying call. Since then, Smith estimates he’s inked between 65 and 70 NIL deals.
Smith is no stranger to building his brand. He’s amassed 99,000 followers on TikTok, 18,000 on Instagram, and 3,900 on Twitter. His deals include BodyArmor, Goat Fuel, Eastbay, EA Sports’ Madden franchise, Arby’s, Church’s Chicken, Champs Sports, and many more. With as many deals as Smith has, one could argue he didn’t necessarily need Go Lab 2.0 to continue succeeding.
“I’m not afraid of rejection,” Smith said. “I always take a chance on myself and better myself every day, [and] it has worked out as I wanted it to work out. The only nos I get are when companies don’t read my message. I’ve probably reached out to 200 companies altogether. Either they are eventually going to say no and the worst thing they can do is say no.”
Go Lab 2.0 and Wilson reached out to Smith at the end of last year to begin conversations on what it would look like to be a part of the program and conveyed that it could be mutually beneficial for both sides. Meta was looking for HBCU athletes from different paths to partner with. With Smith having over 50 NIL deals, he was a veteran in the NIL world. But still, the resources that Meta could provide him were things that he didn’t have.
Smith said Go Lab has helped him become more organized and strategic in how he builds his brand and shed light on what he can do to enhance it.
Not everyone in the program is like Smith, though.
Aiseosa Sarah Woghiren
Kentucky State University basketball guard Aiseosa Sarah Woghiren represents the complete opposite side of the spectrum. She has 1,400 followers on Instagram, 150 on Twitter, and 56 on TikTok. Woghiren is still finding her footing as to how she wants to build her brand. She does not have any NIL deals yet but does have a braiding business, Seosa Styles, that she says has been very popular on the KSU campus.
Her goal is to eventually leverage her skills in braiding and hair to enter the influencer space. Go Lab 2.0 found her through a mutual friend. “I was fangirling too much when I found out that they wanted to work with me,” she said. “I was skeptical at first because I have been scammed in the past looking for the right people. [But] once I realized this was legit I immediately took action and let them know I was serious about this because I didn’t want to screw this up.”
One of the people who helped her overcome those suspicions about Go Lab was Omar Wilson.
“When he said he went to an HBCU it made me feel more comfortable,” she explained. “I don’t think people realize the obstacles and challenges of going to an HBCU, so to have someone who gets it and has been through that experience was comforting.”
With Woghiren still laying the foundation of her business, the program has helped her gain the knowledge she may not have been able to get otherwise.
“My task manager that I’m working with has already helped me with creating my own personal website. They showed us how to create a creator account where we can monetize our account,” she said.
Beloti tested positive for COVID-19, and while he was social distancing, he began making TikTok videos that went viral — describing how his account has grown in the time since as a “quarantine dream.”
After seeing people were interested in his content, he continued creating. When Meta messaged him on Instagram, he and Aiseosa Woghiren had a similar reaction.
“I didn’t even pay attention to [the message],” Beloti admitted. “I ignored it until my brother told me to check out the program. So I gave it a shot. I’m only in my fifth week, and I’ve learned so many things when it comes to protecting myself, building my brand, getting my brand out there, and catering to what my specific situation is.”
He continued: “I’m not at the point where I’m still trying to get my feet wet and trying to establish myself. I’m trying to take my brand to the next level, and I’ve done fairly well when it comes to monetizing my content. Now it’s time to focus more on long-term things rather than just short-term campaigns.”
Before joining the program, Beloti thought that with his following, an app would eventually message him letting him know that he had the opportunity to be paid. That was not the reality — until Go Lab 2.0 instructed him to switch to a “creator” account.
“What really stuck out to me is the fact that they weren’t taking the typical route,” Beloti said, noting the “inclusion” involved with Go Lab 2.0. “A lot of companies only shine a light on the well-known HBCUs, but not everyone is Howard or NCAT. There are so many small HBCUs like Elizabeth City that have so much to offer, and that’s huge to me.
“From my own personal experience, Meta has been completely authentic in the process because they haven’t asked me to do or change anything about myself. They want me to take pride in being who I am at my HBCU.”
Beloti feeling that way — as did every athlete Boardroom spoke with — isn’t a coincidence. The experience Wilson gained attending Morehouse has given him and Meta the ability to understand the culture at an HBCU. He communicates with athletes in a way that feels like home, which enables them to trust him.
“Even if you’re not a star athlete at a huge program, you can still win in the NIL era if you have a strong social media presence, but it can be hard to build that presence if you don’t have access to the latest product tips and best practices,” Wilson said. “HBCU student-athletes can reach a national — or even global — audience and partner with brands that go well beyond the borders of their college towns. We hope our program can help these athletes develop the necessary skills to capitalize on the opportunities our platforms provide.”
Go Lab 2.0 wouldn’t exist without 1.0.
The first edition of Go Lab launched last year with 44 different creators across fitness and journalism. One of the participants was Ariel Belgrave, a former flag football player turned collegiate rugby player — and now, an influencer and content creator. Belgrave’s Instagram fitness account “GymHooky” boasts 127,000 followers.
“I was good at producing content, but I never tapped into things like ads,” Belgrave said. “For me, it was exploring the things that I didn’t or had never used before that I felt like I had to use. It was timely for me to join Go Lab because they were able to speak about what the platform was leading into. The absolute big one for me was launching my e-commerce [offerings].”
Belgrave had the idea of re-releasing a collection of merchandise for her “4 G’s” motto: goals, growing, glowing, and gratitude. Go Lab assigned her a marketing strategist. She then walked that person through her business and the goals she’d like to achieve within the timeframe of the program. So while Belgrave’s business was already booming, Go Lab gave her the capability to monetize her merch.
After Meta’s first class of Go Lab finished, they repositioned themselves to aid HBCUs.
“Our intent with this program is to support this group of historically underrepresented athletes with education and resources that can help them thrive as creators on our platforms,” Meta’s Wilson said.
There is a lot of room for 2.0 — and the versions to come — to grow.
Belgrave wants Meta to keep in mind that the potential positive impact the company can have on HBCU athletes is limitless.
“This is just the beginning for what it means to support Black creators,” she said. “For Meta, I want to continue to see this type of support and scaling it. Use these experiences with these current groups as opportunities to scale it beyond because there’s so many Black creators. This is a huge role they are playing. My hope is that [they] scale [their] impact here. I’m excited. I know they’re capable. I know the power [Meta has] in this world and to know that Black creators can be a part of your mission is really dope.”