People of Color had the honor of being a sponsor of the 2023 Miss HBCU Teen Pageant, where we donated towards the winning queen's scholarship prize, as well as nail care packages for the participating contestants, winning court, and judges. This year we congratulate Miss HBCU Teen, Ssanyu Lukoma!
Congratulations Ssanyu on being named the 2023 Miss HBCU Teen Queen! What a beautiful name you have. Can you tell us more about you, where you come from, and what your name means?
Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my story! One common theme throughout my projects is that I am passionate about highlighting diverse stories. In fact, I have been a literacy advocate and avid reader since I was 4 years old and now, all of my projects incorporate books! Beyond the books, I am bold, outspoken, and unafraid to use my voice to leave a positive impact on the world. I love to smile and encourage others to use their strengths and interests to help their communities as well.
My background is a beautiful combination of the African diaspora. Before my mother was born, my maternal grandmother moved to Brooklyn from Trinidad and Tobago. Soon, she met my grandfather and my mother was brought into the world. For the last 15 years, I lived in New Jersey with my mother, father, and maternal grandmother, so the African, Caribbean, and African-American influences on my life have been substantial. Thankfully, this has contributed to my ability to connect with my peers who come from all over the world, especially now that I’m studying at Howard University.
My father’s side of the family is ethnically Ugandan, however, he was born in Kenya and raised in Botswana. Therefore, my name reflects these countries! My full name is Ssanyu Lerato Namirimu Lukoma. Ssanyu means “joy” in Luganda and I’m glad that my parents had the foresight to name me Ssanyu, because I try my best to embody joy in my daily life! Lerato means “love” in Setswana and Namirimu is my clan name, meaning “hardwork”. Again, all of these names are representative of the young woman that I am today. And lastly, Lukoma is my surname – illustrating which family I belong to. My name is a part of my power. It is unique and a rich, cultural demonstration of the person I am. I am proud to be Ssanyu Lerato Namirimu Lukoma.
We hear that you are an entrepreneur! Do you currently run a business? What types of businesses have you tried in the past?
Yes, I have been an entrepreneur since before I was a teenager! At age 12, I started my first business – Jewelz by Ssanyu. I sold handmade earrings and bracelets, locally, and that’s when I recognized that I wanted to be my own boss for the rest of my life. I was 13 years old when I founded a non-profit organization called Brown Kids Read Inc. and our mission is to motivate all children, but especially children of color, to read more diverse literature. Brown Kids Read had an online and pop-up bookstore called The Brown Reads Bookshelf, where all of the books were written by and/or featuring people of color. I am so grateful that Brown Kids Read has been able to impact thousands of children throughout the last 6 years and now, I’m working on restructuring the way that Brown Kids Read serves communities!
When I was 15, I started a podcast called The Book Junkie, that was specifically created during the Covid-19 pandemic to serve teenagers and encourage them to express themselves through the lens of diverse literature. Then, at age 16, I used my Sweet 16 birthday money to publish my first children’s picture book, Suubi’s Sunny Smile. This story focuses on three main themes: dental hygiene, cultural appreciation, and anti-bullying. I use it as a tool to teach elementary-aged students about the importance of intentional kindness! At age 17, I founded a publishing company called Share a Smile Books to help kids, teens, and college students to publish their stories. Now, I have published 2 other teenagers’ books through SASB and I am publishing my second book, Chi-Chi’s Toothy Grin under SASB as well!
As you embark on your journey to Howard University, what are you most excited about?
When I was in the 8th grade, my best friend Christian and I made a promise that we would attend Howard University together. Throughout high school, we focused on our schoolwork, grew our resumes, and did everything in our power to prepare for Howard’s admissions committee. In December 2022, our dream came true: Christian and I were accepted, Early Action, into The Mecca, Howard University! Now, we’re both flourishing in Washington D.C. as college freshmen and starting our lives as HBCU students.
Before I got into Howard, many people asked me why it was my top-choice institution. My answer always consisted of these three points:
Now, I am about a month in and these three points still stand. My peers are innovative, outspoken, creative and always willing to support each other. I am learning so much from my professors, all practitioners in their respective fields. Each day I meet someone new and have the opportunity to hear their story. And overall, I am most excited to build more bonds with like-minded people who want to change the world.
Do you have a vision as to what you'd like to do after college?
When I graduate from Howard University, my goal is to host a talk show and found a broadcast media company that highlights diverse narratives. My ultimate goal as a future broadcast journalist is to give a platform to those who often go unheard and provide a safe space for them to share their stories – authentically. I would also like to continue Share a Smile Books and make Brown Kids Read the non-profit sector of the publishing company.
The pageant was such a blast! How was your experience? Any challenges during pageant season that you had to overcome? How did those challenges help you during the overall experience?
During my senior year of high school, I had to manage playing on a varsity basketball team, applying to 20 different colleges and universities, submitting applications for scholarships, being a competitive and professional public speaker, writing my second book, Chi-Chi’s Toothy Grin and competing in the Miss HBCU Teen Scholarship pageant. I can confidently say that I was forced to develop my time-management skills and that was a significant challenge.
Throughout high school, I juggled so many extracurriculars in combination with my academics that I often became very overstressed. In fact, I have gray hair and I’m only 18 years old! However, participating in the Miss HBCU Teen Scholarship Pageant contributed to my decision to change my behaviors. I acknowledged that as a college student, the stakes were higher and the habits that I solidify will be harder to rid in my adult life. Since part of the requirements to compete in the pageant was attending various online workshops and sessions, I was forced to schedule my life very meticulously, to ensure that I didn’t double-book or miss any events.
Now, as a college student, I am so grateful that I started working on those skills months ago because even though I am not perfect now, I am progressing. My new time-management behaviors are working towards not creating unnecessary stress and ensuring that I take care of my body.
What would you like to bring to light during your reign as Miss HBCU Teen Queen?
Individuality! Part of my strategy while participating in the Miss HBCU Teen Scholarship Pageant was to be unapologetically myself. Whether that was highlighting african print in outfits for various appearances or connecting my platform to my passion projects/businesses, every part of my campaign represented something I love.
Now, as Miss HBCU Teen 2023, I am continuing to show how powerful it is to be yourself. I am so glad that I have been blessed with this platform because it is allowing me to positively impact so many other people by simply doing what I love.
Any advice for other young girls who may be interested in participating in the Miss HBCU Teen pageant?
Always think about the bigger picture! The Miss HBCU Teen Scholarship Pageant is a phenomenal way to network, build life skills and prepare for life as an HBCU student. Not only is the experience a wonderful way to meet other like-minded young women, but it is also a way to establish a personal brand while having access to a network of professionals who want to see you succeed.
Even if I didn’t win the pageant, I would have still walked away with a larger following on social media, amazing sister queens who are flourishing at their respective institutions, and mentors who have my best interest in mind. The pageant isn’t only about winning or taking home the crown, it’s about the journey and connections made along the way.
People always ask others, what would you tell your younger self. However, with a bright future ahead of you, what would you like to tell your future self today?
Future Ssanyu, please take a spa day. You probably need a break. Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup. So, fill yours up and then share it with the world!What's your power color, and why?
Yellow! I love anything bright, but yellow (especially in African print) really pops against my skin and makes me stand out in most environments.
Thank you Ssanyu for sharing your story, journey, and a glimpse into your bright future. We are so excited for you, and hope you reach beyond your wildest dreams! Congratulations again, and we look forward to watching you reach the stars. You can follow Ssanyu on Instagram @ssanyuspeaks