EnventU Opens Career Paths for DC’s Students

Collaboration with Ballou High School’s Hospitality Academy

EnventU takes students outside the classroom at Frank W. Ballou High School. Photo by Jai Williams | EnventU

Shanya Lesane thought she would give law a try as a career after she graduates from Ballou High School (3401 Fourth St. SE) in Ward 8. The 11th-grade student has several family members in the profession and it seemed like a reasonable choice.

But she had a chance to participate in the extensive events industry in the heart of DC through a program called EnventU with Ballou’s Academy of Hospitality and Tourism. Now she sees her future taking a new path. “Before I knew about EnventU, I didn’t know anything about event planning,” Lesane said. “It opened my eyes.”

Lesane is one of several students enrolled in the hospitality academies at Woodrow Wilson High School (3950 Chesapeake St. NW) and Ballou who have had the opportunity to work real events in DC from conception to completion. Since EnventU launched in the fall of 2015, the program has offered students 10-week courses that take them on field trips, pair them with mentors in the professional event-planning industry, and show them how to plan everything from cultural gatherings to concerts to full galas.

Program founder and Executive Director Latoya Lewis started the collaboration with DC’s high schools in order to show students a career often overlooked.

Opening the Door to the Events Industry

Lewis has made her life in event planning, but like Lesane she didn’t realize it could turn into a career initially. After researching the industry she discovered many opportunities in event planning, especially in an active city like DC. “I’ve always wanted to reach back and show others a generation behind me that there is really a career path for everyone,” Lewis said. “I love events and I love the event industry.”

Event planning can include multiple paths, from floral arranging, catering, and overall coordination to marketing strategies, lighting, decor, and audiovisual effects. It also incorporates creativity and leadership skills.

Lewis wanted to bring these opportunities to a younger generation through her nonprofit organization, EnventU, and found a partner in the hospitality programs at Wilson and Ballou. The students take courses through the academies and EnventU brings in mentors and professionals to enhance the learning process. EnventU also gives the students a chance to work a real event, which satisfies one of their curriculum requirements.

“They’re constantly working with myself and other mentors,” Lewis said. “When you work with adults you’re pushing that next level of young adulthood: How do you conduct yourself when you’re in a professional world?”

This spring, students at Ballou have started helping Lewis put together a barbeque event with Old Blue BBQ catering in Alexandria. To prepare the event, scheduled for April at the Carderock Pavilion on the Potomac in Maryland, Lewis drops into the Ballou classroom each week to plan a portion of the event. During one session Lewis had the students looking at the invitations and marketing. One student commented that it looked like an ad for Old Blue instead of an invitation. Lewis takes those comments and opinions to heart in the overall design, she said.

This year, event partner Old Blue has given the students even more of an opportunity. “Not only are they hoping to produce it,” said Lewis, “but a couple of the students were hired for summer jobs.” 

With the summer job program taking off, Lewis hopes to expand her partnership to the Columbia Heights Education Campus (3101 16th St. NW) and the Maya Angelou Public Charter School (5600 East Capitol St. NE).

Bringing in New Life, Creativity

Nick Perez remembers when Lewis approached him in fall 2015 about working with high school students in his floral-arrangements business, Multiflor. He had never worked with students before, but the three-month program opened his eyes to the industry’s possibilities and theirs, he said. “Most people, regardless of their background, really aren’t aware of the depths of the industry – how many layers, how many facets,” he noted.

Perez worked with the students from inception to completion. “We started from a very basic standpoint, looking at the florals as part of a larger picture, a piece of the puzzle,” he said. “Whether it’s color scheme, style, budget, we just started from a very basic and general place.” Students came to his shop on the day of the event to help arrange, and then finished with the installation.

Perez viewed the experience as a chance to bring a younger perspective and creativity to the market. It also brings a more diverse cultural background. In DC it sometimes seems most of the event planners who own businesses are white women. Opening up this collaborative program with EnventU could help bring more minority groups into ownership. EnventU and working with students is rewarding, self-fulfilling and does a great service to the market, Perez said. “The interpersonal relationships, how open the students were to me, to the whole program – I was very pleased by that.”

Finding a Path after High School

Lesane had an idea of what high school at Ballou would mean to her at the start. “I just thought I was going to come, do the four years, and leave,” she said. But after entering the hospitality program and participating in four EnventU events, she knows she wants more from her high school education. She wants to explore the events industry. “I can do it,” she said. “I love when we finish and I see the customer’s face.” 

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