An uncanny passion for programming and college store discounts united Jackson State University (JSU) freshmen Mahlangu Nzunda and Khaylah Rose who recently teamed up to participate in the Target HBCU technology challenge. As part of Target’s Black History month initiative, Target launched a national HBCU technology challenge to provide financial resources to HBCU students and diversify the STEM industry by building platforms and spaces for upcoming bright minds to excel within.
The goal of the Target HBCU technology challenge was to “create technical solutions to real-life projects and problems that Target software engineers are working to resolve while further developing their own technical and professional acumen.” Both freshmen received a cash prize of $3,000 to be evenly split, as well as an Apple Macbook, external monitor, and other financial incentives.
Nzunda, a computer science major and exchange student from Lusaka, Zambia was eager to identify more hackathon opportunities in order to diversify his skillset. Upon discovering the HBCU Tech Challenge, he then went in search of a capable project partner with an equally shared passion for computer programming. He became familiar with freshman computer science major Rose and her outstanding programming ability. Nzunda made the initial connection and they became an unstoppable force.
“I just never walk up at all to speak, but I did some research on her and I found hackathons she had done in the past and competitions she’s done before…I just felt like she would make a good teammate for this target challenge,” said Nzunda.
Equally interested in expanding her skillset, Rose was thrilled to receive an invitation to join the hackathon team. Developing her natural affinity for C ++ coding while in early teenage years, Rose saw the HBCU Tech Challenge as an opportunity to test her current knowledge base by engaging in hackathons that require solution based coding experience.
“I was trying to look for hackathons myself to do this semester since I just took computer science in order to enhance my skill with C ++, so when he [Nzunda] approached me offering the hackathon, I was really excited to meet and work with someone just as passionate about programming,” said Rose, a native of Hollywood, Fla.
The task given as part of the challenge was to develop a prototype/code that improves the shopping experience for Target guests. Reflecting on their relationship with Target as college freshmen, the pair identified a solution that would in turn increase both the college-aged demographic base and generate revenue building opportunities for Target.
“When I moved into the dorms and I went to Target to buy all my college supplies, I told myself, man I wish there were discounts available for college students, I’d say that moment influenced a large part of our project,” said Rose, who was responsible for the visual component of the project and provided experiential wisdom in both programming and demographic targeting.
“For example, the movie theaters, like AMC, have college student discounts. If you have your ID, you’ll receive a discount towards your movie and/or popcorn. So we thought, what if Target does that with their students? We already knew Target has internship and scholarship opportunities, what if we created a one-way hub?”
Transitioning into the next phase of development, the duo decided to layer into their project model a free shipping platform that created opportunities for college students to participate via discount programs. Understanding the importance of being able to effectively market the prototype, Nzunda began analyzing the cost-benefit for Target.
“We kind of had to prove to them that they’re actually generating money with this. We presented the free shipping model for students and developed a website to increase student engagement. College students are a renewable market, so every year you will have more students coming in and others graduating out.” He said.
Developing an invaluable skill set early into their undergraduate career, the freshmen attributed their success to the chemistry established.
“At first when we had an issue we would always try to meet up in person, whether that be the library, dining hall, we’d always eat together…Majority of our problems were always solved together, he did his research and I did my research then we found our solutions,” said Rose.
Rose’s passion for computer programming began as a result of a childhood television show that piqued her interest. She later decided to build her talents by pursuing JSU for undergraduate studies.
“I started programming in middle school after watching this show called ‘Game Shakers’ on Nickelodeon and I saw these kids create this fun cool game, and I wanted to do that…I didn’t want to just create small games, I want to go big so thinking about a career in programming, I came to Jackson State,” she said.