Women in Philanthropy is an ongoing blog series in celebration of Women’s History Month, featuring some of the incredible women Network for Good has the pleasure to work with.
Latoya Lewis is Founder and Executive Director of EnventU, a one-of-a-kind workforce development initiative designed to create a pipeline to professions in the event industry for youth. The initiative has served more than 100 students in Washington, DC public high schools since its 2015 founding. Prior to founding EnventU, Lewis produced high-end corporate, nonprofit, and private events as an account manager with Events by Andre Wells (EAW), including the opening for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and its 2,400-attendee Dream Gala, and a celebratory dinner for more than 250 major donors of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A Los Angeles native, she received her Bachelor of Arts from California State University, Northridge, and a Master of Tourism Administration from George Washington University. Lewis has been profiled in the Washington Business Journal, and was named a 2017 MeetingNet Changemaker, as well as a 2018 Connect Corporate 40 Under 40 honoree. She recently accepted the 2017 BizBash Rising Star award on behalf of EnventU.
What role does EnventU play in your community?
EnventU is a workforce development program that creates a pipeline to professions in the event industry for youth. We give professionals the opportunity to help cultivate the next generation of caterers, AV/lighting professionals, event planners, and décor designers through hands-on learning experiences both inside and out of the classroom. At the same time, we reach young people at a critical stage in their lives where personal and professional development must be cultivated and encouraged to ensure productivity in society.
East of the river, neighborhoods display a poverty rate that is three times higher than the rest of Washington, DC Research shows that where poverty exists, opportunities for higher education are scarce and the pipeline to prison is reinforced. EnventU addresses these social issues, opens alternative pathways of higher education, and advances national efforts to close the workforce skills gap through the untapped talent of young people.
Addressing the effects of poverty is key to unlocking opportunities and closing the achievement gap in the District. Investing in workforce development programs that go beyond classroom instruction, such as EnventU, is a proven way to increase attendance, raise grades and test scores, and reduce behavioral problems. Expansion of these non-traditional supports is critical to removing barriers to learning, unlocking opportunities, and revealing the full potential of young people living in poverty.
One of the wonderful things about this initiative is that it opens a viable pathway to professional event career opportunities for high school students where one previously has not existed. EnventU helps young people discover new skills, talents, and career possibilities while making it easy for event professionals to reach into the community and bring others in.
Every young person has a uniqueness to offer this world. The only “difference maker” is an opportunity to explore it. At its core, EnventU is opportunity.
What inspired you to begin this organization?
My motivation to found EnventU was based on a deep desire to make a lasting positive impact in the lives of others. My father always said, “When you ‘make it,’ reach back and help others the way someone helped you.” EnventU is my father’s words in action. To provide opportunities to those where few exists inspires me beyond measure. Each day I work to make a positive impact in the lives of others through an industry I love, and I feel very blessed to do it.
What’s involved in your position?
As founder and executive director, everything! Self-sustainability and scaling strategically are my top priorities. Program expansion would allow us to fill requests we currently cannot which is why diverse revenue streams are so important. Over the next two years, EnventU strives to implement our custom curriculum at three added locations, bringing workforce development training to an additional 100-150 high school students in the DMV area.
The live events industry in Washington, DC has embraced the EnventU initiative and businesses that represent several sectors within the industry have been eager to partner. We’re excited to recruit more students to bring these partnerships to fruition, ultimately engaging and directing young people towards these vibrant career paths. Rife with possibility, my job is to ensure EnventU reaches its full potential.
How did you get started in nonprofit work?
My path to the nonprofit sector began with my belief that I was meant to “run something”! I have always known the path of entrepreneurship was for me. The first concept for EnventU began during my graduate program at George Washington University when I was encouraged to dream without limits. My assignment was to construct a business plan for my “dream business” and right then the seeds for EnventU were planted. Once this business plan was written, it was all a matter of holding myself accountable and deciding when to “plan my work and work my plan” as my mother always says.
After working for and observing an entrepreneur for over five years, I knew my next step was to become one. I have a philanthropic heart…I’m a giver by nature. In hindsight, it’s clear social entrepreneurship specifically has been my calling for far longer than I knew.
What keeps you in the nonprofit sector?
EnventU works with public school students in Washington, DC, so most of our participants are young people of color. As we educate and expose young people to the industry, we can be a driver in creating a more diverse field of professionals.
It is fulfilling to be able to do my part to give more women and other groups the chance to not only step onto the ladder but also climb past the invisible ceiling that exists in society across far too many industries.
I believe we all have a responsibility to infuse greater diversity within the industry that is reflective of the world around us, and we are proud to be a part of that work.
What do you enjoy most about fundraising?
Full transparency: fundraising doesn’t come naturally to me! The act of asking for donations is still something I struggle with. However, as I’ve grown in my role, I have come to the revelation that fundraising at its core is simply telling a story. And I love telling the story of EnventU. I enjoy sharing our mission, the impact of our work, and consider it a privilege to build awareness of what we do.
Creating fundraising campaigns that tell our story in a unique way, that is also mutually beneficially to our supporters, is something I have a lot of fun with. As I’ve realized that fundraising is, at its foundation, inviting others to champion our worthy mission, I can focus more on building relationships with our supporters and less on reaching a specific dollar amount.
What’s your proudest accomplishment with EnventU?
My proudest moment to date occurred June 2017 when EnventU was awarded the BizBash Rising Star award. As the premiere media publication and certified “Bible” of our industry, I have been a longtime fan of BizBash and subscribed to the magazine for as long as I can remember. In addition to having my students be invited to participate, the enthusiasm and support of many veteran industry colleagues in attendance reaffirmed for me that this program is truly needed in our industry as well as in our communities.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give someone who was considering starting their own nonprofit?
Where do I begin!
- Make sure your mission is rooted in passion and purpose. Entrepreneurship is one long “faith-walk”. You don’t know if your “labor” will bear any “fruit”, it can be very thank-less, and nothing is for certain…not even your resilience! The fortitude it takes to start and grow a business requires you to dig deep. During the late nights and long hours, feeling passionate and purposeful in your mission is the only thing that will pull you through. Make sure it’s soul-stirring!
- Prioritize yourself…the work will always be there. I’m a strong believer in self-care and mental wellness. It’s so easy to get caught up in a never ending “to-do” list; especially in a city as ambitious as Washington, DC You can’t be a changemaker and “pour into others” if you are pouring from an empty cup. Feed your spirit and find the balance!
- Seek true freedom. For me, that means truly owning your time. Time is precious and once it’s gone, can’t be regained. To own our time, we need to be financially free—not tied to debt that restricts what we do. When we own our time, we own our life’s journey, experiences, and choices, and that’s priceless. Having financial freedom allows you to chase your dreams freely which you can’t do if you’re burdened by debt. It’s never too early for financial planning and it’s always a worthy investment.