In 2020, Carolina undergraduate and entrepreneur Nehemiah Stewart launched the nonprofit Level the Playing Field. Stewart, now a UNC School of Medicine student, wanted to build a hiring pipeline for diverse students who lack access to professional networks enjoyed by many nonminority students.
Within three years, Level the Playing Field has recruited approximately 50 diverse students from six North Carolina universities 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.”
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,” said Stewart, who gave the keynote address at Carolina’s 2023 New Student Convocation. “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.”