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News | March 29, 2024

Women’s History Month Spotlight: Thurgood Marshall College Fund Founder Dr. N. Joyce Payne Discusses Equity in Education and Corporate America

As part of Women’s History Month 2024, Sands is spotlighting women leaders who are driving success in their organizations while advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). As the founder of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), Dr. N. Joyce Payne has made breaking down barriers her mission and vision through establishment of the nation’s largest nonprofit organization exclusively representing the Black college community.

Sands has partnered with TMCF, which marked its 35th anniversary last year, on Sands Cares programs that encourage Black college students to consider hospitality careers, while aiming to cultivate a diverse workforce in the industry. Through scholarships, capacity building and research initiatives, innovative programs and strategic partnerships, TMCF is a vital resource in K-12 and higher education.

Dr. Payne founded TMCF in 1987, building on and extending her distinguished career in education and politics, which has included posts as executive director of the National Alliance for Public Trust, an organization committed to advancing principled leadership in American institutions, and vice president of the Office for the Advancement of Public Black Colleges of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU).

She also was a senior staff member in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, which included positions with the President’s Advisory Committee for Women, the President’s National Advisory Council on Women’s Education Programs and the White House Conference on Families. In addition, Dr. Payne taught at the former Federal City College and George Washington University. A recognized authority on women’s issues in relation to higher education and labor force participation, she has published and presented several papers on the pursuit of equality for women and African Americans in higher education.

With this wide range of experiences, Dr. Payne relayed her views on the needs of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the evolution of DEI initiatives and progress toward the creation of a more democratic society.

What inspired you to enter the field of education and become an advocate for advancing educational resources?

“Because of segregation, we had teachers with Ph.D.s in Black schools. When you see that caliber and that quality of professional educators in your elementary, junior high and high schools, teaching became a revered profession. I always admired my teachers and their deep commitment to education despite nearly insurmountable barriers. They even lived in the same apartment building we lived in because they couldn’t live anyplace else. Consequently, these personal relationships inspired me to pursue higher education as a profession.”

After completing her studies in education, Dr. Payne joined APLU, a research and advocacy organization representing more than 300 public universities. It was in this role that she found her calling to improve higher education resources and options for Black students. While visiting HBCUs, Dr. Payne observed wide disparities in resources for these schools and noted the lasting impact of unchallenged 19th century legislation that ratified segregation in higher education.

“Believing that our communities deserve the same quality of resources that other institutions had, I felt the need to address some of the inequities,” she said. “But the lack of endowments at Black colleges had the greatest impact on my decision to explore ways to generate sustainable support. Activism has always been in my DNA. When I see a problem, I feel compelled to solve it. What’s the value of human knowledge and experience, if you don’t use it to improve the quality of life for those excluded from the mainstream of American society.”

Dr. Payne gathered research into the buying and consumer power of Black communities and began to approach major corporations and companies with the data to challenge them to give back to Black communities, who contribute to their bottom line, by supporting HBCUs. There, the idea for TMCF was born.

Why did you start TMCF?

With some initial contributions secured by 1987, Dr. Payne had the backing to set up offices for her work and the momentum to secure naming support from Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall. As the Court’s first African American justice and a prominent civil rights leader, Justice Marshall could propel a major step forward with his name attached to the organization and her goals. She began to plan events to galvanize further contributions and incorporated the organization in 1990.

“We have been in the business of education since the creation of Cheyney University in 1837 (the oldest public HBCU in the United States). Students, faculty and administrators lose life and limbs in the struggle for equal education and civil rights.  Those challenges come to mind when I think about the mission of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. We think it is especially important to not just produce students who have credentials, but to educate leaders who have a deep commitment and passion for making a difference in the world.”

More than 35 years after beginning this work, Dr. Payne is proud of the progress TMCF has made. “We have generated millions of dollars and awarded more than $400 million in scholarships. We have been able to make an enormous difference in the lives of students with limited resources.”

What is the primary work still to be done in educational equity, as well as in advancing diversity principles in society as a whole?

Citing an analysis from Forbes magazine that found a $12 billion gap in funding for colleges and universities that serve Black students, Dr. Payne noted that this number is likely much lower than the real difference. Data such as this drives her – and TMCF’s mission – to spur impactful change.

“How do you incorporate fairness and diversity into your agenda? It’s not just diversity theater,” she said. “It’s about how you embrace and bring individuals to the table who may have a different view of the world?”

Dr. Payne also predicts that monumental change will be needed to make the next leap in achieving a more equitable and diverse society.

“In 2024, we have to build our own table and decide whose voices will be heard,” she said. “We have gone far beyond simply bringing a chair to the table. The young people today will not accept a minority approach to inclusion.”

While she acknowledges arduous work is ahead, she also notes the potential benefit is expansive, including for corporate America.

“You can change your profit margin when you have diversity in thinking, diversity in perspectives and views,” Dr. Payne said. “This isn’t simply just a good thing to do, it’s a critical part of your mission, your agenda, and your future growth. The only way you can thrive is to embrace diversity for a broader and more creative perspective.”

Why are corporate partnerships like the one Sands has created with TMCF important?

“It is so important that African Americans have a presence in the hospitality industry. It’s a billion-dollar industry,” Dr. Payne said. “I think it’s extremely important that we have greater presence and prominence in that industry. I am so pleased that Sands is collaborating with us to make that a reality. They had our students at Sands for more than a week and gave them an opportunity to examine the talent and tools needed for certification in the hospitality industry. We were extremely impressed with the engagement and look forward to creating more expansive and long-term opportunities with Sands.”

What is TMCF’s vision for the future, in terms of closing resource and opportunity gaps in education?

Dr. Payne’s steadfast optimism for TMCF and its member universities only continues to grow.

“I hope we can devote more time, energy, and resources toward the continued advancement of public HBCUs,” she said “We must look at those 11 universities that are on the cusp of becoming Research 1 institutions and provide them with the tools they need to get that classification. We’ve got to have Nobel laureates on our campuses, strong research institutes and graduate programs in emerging fields that offer a competitive advantage for growth and development.”

Even more than 30 years after his passing, Dr. Payne continues to take inspiration from Justice Marshall.

“Justice Marshall often talked about the poverty of vision,” she said. “With the right vision, the right resources and the right minds at the table with respect to diversity, we can make a difference in the future. I am quite optimistic.”

Read about additional Sands Cares work with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund here: or to learn about the company’s other diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, read the latest environmental, social and governance report: