Gibson was born in Japan, and his family moved around a bit before his dad’s Army Band assignment landed them in Hawaii when he was three years old. He would mostly live in Hawaii — except for short stints in El Paso and summers in his parents’ native New Orleans — until he was 20 years old.
“I didn’t have the military experience, because if you’re in a band, you don’t really have a duty station, you’re just constantly moving,” said Gibson. But he also didn’t have a Black experience.
“Because Hawaii is such a young state, they still teach Polynesian history and culture over American history,” he said. It wasn’t that there weren’t any Black people — there are a lot, he said. But there weren’t many dark-skinned Black people. Hawaii has become almost a melting pot of cultures, thanks to its position as a major military hub and doorway to the East.
I wanted to come to the (mainland) and be in a room full of Black people who were as dark as me
“Because they’re trying to preserve their own culture, far be it for them to share that they’re also of African descent,” Gibson said. “I was growing up around all these different variations of myself and not knowing it. There’s this word in Hawaii, Papolo, and it translates to blackberry. It’s what Polynesians would call Black people, but not in a derogatory way. I realized they’re not insulting me, but they are classifying me (as different).”
“A lot of my Black experience, or at least what I thought was a Black experience, was more clinical (from books),” he said. “So I wanted to come to the (mainland) and be in a room full of Black people who were as dark as me.”
Gibson decided he was moving to Austin three days before he left Hawaii. His girlfriend at the time was moving to be closer to her family in Austin. “I was kind of just chasing love,” he said.
He mailed himself two boxes of belongings and left Hawaii at the age of 20 with one suitcase and $14 in his pocket. He enrolled in the engineering program at the University of Texas, but quickly decided neither UT nor engineering was for him.
“I hated the culture,” he said. So Gibson applied to St. Edward’s University, a Hispanic-serving institution as a transfer student, and his love for minority-serving institutions was born.
“Coming from Hawaii and then dealing with UT, and then applying and being accepted and then still being courted after the acceptance is something that the shiny budgets and the big buildings of UT didn’t do,” Gibson said. “The first communication I got after I was accepted was from the Black students association at St. Ed’s, which told me they were intentional about their information sharing, and about communicating with who’s coming to their campus.”
Professors took a personal interest in his goals, and would lend themselves to help him, he said. He changed his major to business and would continue on at St. Edward’s to earn a master’s degree in entrepreneurship.
Six months after completing graduate school, Gibson, who had been working all through school to support himself, quit his job to go out on his own.
It seemed like every Black nonprofit or entrepreneur was working with me to support my business
“It really didn’t click for me until I passed on my first job post-quitting, and that’s when it became real,” he said. He started a brand consulting firm called Dashing Foot, and said he received a tremendous amount of support from Austin’s Black community. “It seemed like every Black nonprofit or entrepreneur was working with me to support my business,” he said.
Soon, he secured a couple of large government contracts, which he said covered the bills for the foreseeable future, and allowed him to be creative about what he wanted to do next. “That gave me the ability to make long-term, versus short-term decisions. The building-the-business decisions, versus the paying-the-rent decisions,” he said.
Gibson realized he wanted to make a bigger impact on the Black community. He thought about the career fairs he had attended, both as a job seeker and a company representative, and how, even when the job fairs were supposed to be for Black students, they’d be co-opted by other groups. So HBCU Battle of the Brains was born to both showcase the academic prowess of Black students and put them in an environment where they would have more meaningful and personal interactions with prospective employers than a ten-minute interview slot on a trade room floor.
I wanted to create something that I knew would always stay in our community
“HBCU students should be desired and wooed and supported and catered to the way other top students are,” he said.
“I decided to focus on the HBCU community because as long as the focus was on the Black community, my impact would be Black,” continued Gibson. “I wanted to create something that I knew would always stay in our community.”
As someone who didn’t graduate from an HBCU, Gibson realized there was a narrow margin to slip up; “if we were doing it wrong someone would check us immediately,” he said. In the first year, seven schools participated. In its fourth year in 2020, over 40 schools participated, making it the largest HBCU academic competition in the country, in spite of the changes forced by the pandemic.
“One of the things I realized with my dad being a musician is as a musician, you’re sharing your art, sharing your craft, but you’re also sharing it in a way that elicits a response. You’re keenly aware of how people respond to you,” he said. “Hawaii and New Orleans are my biggest influences, and they’re both hospitality-focused. And I try to create that for our events, for our students.”
As such, the goal is not for HBCU Battle of the Brains to expand to fill a trade show floor. “It’s not an event where we try to get 10,000 people,” he said. “It’s an event where we can get 200 of the best HBCU students in the country, and those students can compete with anybody.”
Gibson recently announced the addition of an HSI Battle of the Brains — an homage to his roots at St. Edward’s.
“To be able to lend that to my alma mater and to be able to lend those opportunities to Latino students around the country, and it doesn’t take anything away from our HBCU students or our Black community, I feel blessed to be in that position,” he said.