Last November, as contemporary Christian band Big Daddy Weave was setting up for a concert in Woodbridge, Virginia, a group of unfamiliar faces milled among the crew — more than 40 teenagers in matching black t-shirts emblazoned with a splashy “EnventU” logo.
It was the ﬁrst behind-the-scenes experience for many of the high-school students, but ideally not the last. They were helping produce the event — hanging signage, working registration, pitching in on sound and lights, and staffing the band’s merchandise booth.
“The [crew] was showing us the audio-visual and the lighting, how to make sure it was all perfectly correct,” said Wilfredo Argueta, 17, a junior at Woodrow Wilson High School in nearby Washington, D.C. “It was a fun experience.”
Argueta and his fellow students weren’t paid for their efforts. Instead, they earned credit as part of their enrollment in EnventU, an innovative curriculum created by event planner Latoya Lewis two years ago that has introduced dozens of disadvantaged students in the Washington, D.C., area to the ins and outs of event planning — and possibly a whole new career path. “In our communities, there are many kids that don’t know what they’re going to do, don’t know what they’re interested in doing, or don’t even know where their talent and skillset lies,” said Lewis, Envent U’s executive director. “The live-experience industry is an industry that has something for everyone. It’s fairly new and expansive, with so many opportunities.
“A lot of students in public schools, some go to college, but a lot of them don’t,” Lewis said. “Many business owners I know do not have that traditional degree. We have a responsibility to give our youth multiple paths to success, and not just from high school to college.”
WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE?’
How young people ﬁnd their way to careers in meetings and events is a question that has interested Lewis for years. “We’re starting to see degrees for [planning] now,” she said, “but most of us fell into it.” Lewis herself majored in music-industry studies at California State University, North-ridge, but after spending a few years in the music business after college, she found herself contemplating a career change. It occurred to her that she’d always been drawn to events. “I was that person always teetering over to events and logistics, or in high school, organizing the prom and the dances,” she said. “I’d always liked planning, but just did not know that there was a career path for it.”
Lewis moved from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to earn a master’s degree in tourism administration from George Washington University (GW). During her last semester at GW, she was tasked with conceiving her “dream business,” and created a plan for an events-based community center. But the career world, rather than the nonproﬁt world, beckoned. After earning her master’s, Lewis was hired by the ﬁrm Events by Andre Wells, where she worked for ﬁve years. “I had to really spend more time honing my skills in the industry and becoming a stronger professional,” Lewis said. But she never forgot about her phil-anthropic goals. “After ﬁve years with Andre, I said, ‘Okay, now’s the time. What does this look like?’”
Lewis reﬁned her plan, moving from a brick-and-mortar events-education center to an after-school program for public schools. It would be called EnventU, and would teach disadvantaged teenagers the basics of what Lewis identiﬁes as “the seven pillars” of event planning: event production, catering, décor, audiovisual, ﬂoral design, lighting production, and graphic design. She envisioned augmenting classroom education with hands-on experience via ﬁeld trips and live-event production, as well as face time with industry leaders.
Lewis’ idea dovetailed with the aims of the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism (AOHT), part of the nonproﬁt National Academy Foundation (NAF), which is dedicated to educating high-school students in one of ﬁve career tracks. NAF programs are built around work-based learning, and EnventU’s vision ﬁt that plan perfectly.
Lewis chose Ballou High School, one of four AOHT schools in Washington, D.C. — “in a very-much-underserved community,” Lewis said — to be EnventU’s pilot school in the fall of 2015. Then she had to sell students on the idea. “It’s a new program,” Lewis said. “Kids are like, ‘What is this? Is it cool? Is it not?’” After a lunchtime recruitment session and a few drop-ins to regular classes, Lewis assembled 20 Ballou students for her ﬁrst program.
TO CONNECT AND SERVE
Three-quarters of the students continued with EnventU into the spring semester, and Lewis added a few more, for a class size of 30. “The students really sold it to each other,” she said. “The returning students are able to speak about what they’ve done and the experiences they’ve had. The kids are, I think, my best ambassadors and my best sellers. I’ve seen their eyes light up. I took a group of kids to an audiovisual production company, and their eyes were lit up. They were so drawn to what was being shown to them.”
In 2016, Envent U added a second school, Woodrow Wilson High School, and classes shifted to the school day. Participation across EnventU grew to about 80 students, including Argueta, who had become interested in events the previous summer while working at the JW Marriott Washington, DC. “I was trying to make sure that everything was in shape, everything was under control, and everyone was happy,” he said of his summer at the hotel. EnventU showed him that events might be something he can continue pursuing after high school. “I like event planning,” Argueta said. “It’s something that really got my attention, and got me in really high hopes.”
This school year, EnventU students have participated in a convention, an expo, and that 3,500-seat Big Daddy Weave concert. On tap for this spring are a gala at a local school and another concert. “The students haven’t planned a meeting, but they deﬁnitely will,” Lewis said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
Although Lewis has personally bankrolled the program until now, she’s seeking grants, corporate sponsors, and private donors to fund EnventU in the next few years — and is also working on aligning the curriculum with college-level hospitality courses, “making it more substantive.” Recently, BizBash founder David Adler signed on as an adviser.
“The industry has been amazingly supportive, and I think one of the reasons is because they all relate to the story,” Lewis said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, I was in theater,’ or ‘Oh, I was in some Boy Scout troop,’ or something that had nothing to do with meetings, but in which they exhibited leadership skills or some other transferrable skill that this industry has. The industry relates to the story, and because they want to reach back and help others in ways that they weren’t able to get direction.”