As a hub of culture and celebration, it’s only right that New Orleans became the prime location for the Bayou Classic 50 years ago. 

For Southern University and Grambling State University students, alumni and fans alike, the annual event serves as the conclusion of homecoming season each year. This year, however, was especially golden, as it marked a milestone.

“The Bayou Classic is a celebration of academic and higher excellence,” Danielle Robinson, head of community engagement and partnerships at Diageo told Blavity during the company’s on-the-ground activation this year. “Two amazing schools, two amazing football teams, two amazing bands … it’s just the epitome of celebrating Blackness and excellence in New Orleans. It’s important to be a part of New Orleans, the history here, the way that they celebrate spirits, and it’s important for us to show up in a celebration like this.”

In the past two years, DIAGEO has invested over $11 million in 29 schools through an endowment program. During the Bayou Classic, the Grambling State University and Southern University presidents were on the field to celebrate the 50th year, and $50,000 checks were presented to each school to create permanent endowment funds and provide financial aid to thousands of students.

“It was essential for us to reinvest the tax credit that we obtained from making a charitable donation at the initial $10 million,” Robinson said. “We wanted to make sure that we reinvested all of that back into the community, so we took that $1.75 million and put it back into the HBCUs and we were able to add three more schools into the portfolio and then do even more amazing scholarships across the HBCU footprint.”

What’s more, Diageo aims to shine a light on the hospitality industry, which is why the funding will be used to provide additional need-based scholarships to all 28 HBCUs that are included in the company’s portfolio.

Another key aim is closing the wealth gap for students who have to work to support their academic dreams.

The leading spirits company worked alongside the financial aid offices at the institutions to help determine students who match the criteria, and rather than them having to apply for the funds, Diageo and the respective schools pinpoint scholars in need and bring the assistance to them.

“It’s a growing industry,” Robinson said of the hospitality field, sharing that there’s an equitable future for Black students in the space moving forward. “It’s a great opportunity for people to get into it no matter what they’re studying, so we’re going to be doing career fairs around the country. We’re going to be doing tours at some of the HBCU homecomings and making sure that people are aware of our industry and the vast opportunities that you have in it.”

She continued: “We’re tied to other industries within hospitality … maritime, gaming, hotel and tourism, and the world is an oyster. General management and hospitality is the way to go. I would love to see more brothers and sisters and leadership in our industry.”

Although Southern University walked away as the champion for this year’s Bayou Classic, both schools left the weekend as winners.