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JMC alumnus Howard Akumiah to receive MSU Young Alumni Award

September 21, 2022 - Beth Brauer and Jesús Hernandez

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On Friday, September 23, the Michigan State University Alumni Office will recognize Spartan alumni who have made a profound contribution to society during the Alumni Grand Awards, held in the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center. The event begins at 5:30 p.m. and concludes at 9 p.m.

The program recognizes Spartans who have made an impact in their communities, career fields and Michigan State. James Madison College alumnus Howard Akumiah (IR ’15) is one of two honorees to receive the Young Alumni Award, one of the university’s most prestigious awards bestowed upon MSU alumni under the age of 40 who have achieved a high level of professional success early in their careers.

Headshot of Howard Akumiah

Akumiah, the founder and CEO of Betty Labs, is a mission-focused entrepreneur. As a student, he interned with Google, TechSmith and Venmo. His professional career in the tech industry began soon after he graduated with a degree in international relations and specialization in science, technology environment and public policy. Akumiah worked for Facebook and Pinterest before establishing Betty Labs in 2018. What began as a startup focused on building consumer social apps for sports fans turned into a lucrative initiative as he grew their Locker Room app into a viable product that, in just three years, was acquired by Spotify.

Those who knew Akumiah when he was a student are hardly surprised by the success he’s found. Max Olivero, JMC’s field experience coordinator, describes Akumiah as very resourceful and one who always took initiative. “Every time Howard came in, it was refreshing. He was engaged with the policy focus of his degree, and at the time, he was paying close attention to how markets and industry were changing, especially in tech. It was clear he planned to forge a path that looked different than typical JMC students,” Olivero said.

Faculty members who knew Akumiah as a student described his contributions as passionate — in the best way possible. Assistant professor Rashida L. Harrison said, “I had the pleasure of meeting Howard when he was a junior enrolled in my course on global citizenships. I remember that in addition to caring about schoolwork, he wanted to push the limits of what we expected from faculty.

There is one moment I had with him that changed my purview of my teaching and responsibility. We had a conversation one day about why he seemed a little off the past few classes. It was then that he shared he was wrestling with tough reflections on the deep inequities in education in this country. Here he was a junior in college, and I was the first Black teacher/ professor that he had — a discouraging reality —and its lasting impact was deeply hurtful. As we processed together and crafted an ongoing mentoring relationship, he became deeply resolved, and I too, developed another layer of commitment particularly to students of color in predominantly white institutions.”

Akumiah’s career trajectory was unique, proving that a career in the tech world with a degree from a public affairs college, is more than possible. A full-circle Spartan moment occurred for Akumiah when the TA for the first computer science course he took at MSU, Matt Ao, was hired as CTO for Betty Labs. Ao is now a senior engineering manager at Spotify.

JMC’s Matthew Zierler, associate professor of international relations, nominated Akumiah for the Young Alumni Award and saw early signs that Akumiah would make his mark in technology. “In addition to his interest in international relations, he has always had an interest in technology policy. These are discussions and thoughts he had 10 years ago — what an increasingly online world means for human interactions and individual liberty,” Zierler said.

“I’ve used him as an example to students. He took risks. He was aggressive. He did what he said he wanted to do. I saw his passion as an undergraduate student. There’s no doubt Howard is deserving of this award and, as a college, we are so incredibly proud of him and his accomplishments.”

Akumiah will be in East Lansing to accept his award this Friday. “I’m honored to receive the Young Alumni Award this year,” said Akumiah. “My postgrad path has been a bit different than the typical Madison student, but in many ways, it has worked out. Hopefully, my story will serve as a reminder to JMC students that our career options are plentiful, and we can tackle any problem.”