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A passion for virtual design, seafood sauce, and Ut Prosim

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Building Construction junior, Tahjere Lewis, distributes his Aunt Carol’s Sauce to customers. Photo courtesy of Tahjere Lewis.

What do virtual design, seafood sauce, and Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) have in common?  All are passions of Tahjere Lewis, a building construction major in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech.

A former Hokie Track & Field athlete, Lewis uses his inherent focus and drive to move beyond traditional campus boundaries. Only in his junior year, he’s already created two successful businesses and is developing creative pathways for young entrepreneurs to connect and learn from each other.

Inspiration struck the Newport News native early in his freshman year.

“Once you get on campus, that whole atmosphere changes your perspective and exposes you to the possibilities and opportunities that Tech offers”, Lewis said. Since then, he’s taken full advantage of those opportunities.

With guidance from Myers-Lawson School of Construction student ambassador Donaghvan Brown ‘20, Lewis chose to major in building construction with a concentration in virtual design and a minor in computer science. He explained the similarities between virtual design and computer science: both have basic rules, instructions, and steps that provide grounding for focus, but “from there you can be as creative as you want. You have the power to create at your fingertips.”

Seeking to hone his creativity, Lewis remembered his aunt, Carol Ann Morgan Scott.  “We always had seafood nights as a family, with a pile of crab legs and blue crab, all with a sauce from Aunt Carol,” Lewis explained.  When he found out that Aunt Carol had been making her sauce by hand for nearly half a century, Lewis promised her he’d get her sauce to market.  But before he had a chance, Aunt Carol succumbed to cancer in 2019, Lewis’ freshman year.

Focused on honoring her memory and fulfilling his promise, Lewis got to work.  This process, too, was full of hurdles.  “We had nothing written down, no recipe. I went completely by taste,” he said of recreating the sauce.

When he finally got the product as close as possible, he was haphazard in his marketing strategy. “I rushed into the process and didn’t do any prior research. I just made a website and put it on there.”

Lewis cooking at Millstone Kitchen in Blacksburg, a commercial facility that supports food entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy of Tahjere Lewis.

That’s when Lewis turned to the Virginia Tech Apex Center for Entrepreneurs, which seeks to “inspire and empower Virginia Tech students to turn their passion, purpose, and ideas into action.”  Executive Director Derick Maggard said accepting Lewis to the center’s Accelerator Program was “a no brainer. . .he has a reputation of being a tenacious entrepreneur and a charismatic person.  It was really easy to believe in him, that he’s able to accomplish great things.”

With help from the Apex Center, Aunt Carol’s Sauce eventually graduated from the small kitchen in Lewis’s off-campus apartment to the Millstone Kitchen in Blacksburg, a commercial facility that supports food entrepreneurs.  Sundays for Lewis are now spent primarily at Millstone, making, bottling, and shipping sauce.

But Lewis’s journey didn’t stop there. His experience with the Apex Center taught him that being successful means crossing traditional boundaries, networking, and exchanging ideas with peers. After teaching himself coding, Lewis create University Link, a cell phone app that connects entrepreneurs to promote themselves and exchange ideas. Today, the app has over 1,200 users spanning from the Virginia Tech campus to as far away as Alabama and New York. His resulting company, TTP LLC (short for “trust the process”), provides guidance to three student interns.

Lewis created University Link, a cell phone app that connects entrepreneurs to promote themselves and exchange ideas. Photo taken prior to COVID-19 and courtesy of Tahjere Lewis.

Seeing his success and the how ideas can be turned into reality, friends asked Lewis to teach them how to make mobile apps. He agreed and started giving one-hour tutorial sessions twice a week. When that time commitment became too strenuous, he made his course available through online recordings.

Lewis finds his motivation through service: “it’s about helping other people and giving back to other people.” In addition to teaching his peers, a portion of the profits from Aunt Carol’s Sauce is donated to the Mayo Clinic for cancer research. He also helped organize a food drive last November, providing hot meals, canned goods, and sauce to the local community.

“It’s really awesome that he’s not only creating this legacy sauce, but that he’s giving his profit back to cancer research and the community,” Maggard said.

The short-distance track athlete learned that the path to success is a marathon, not a sprint.

“It takes time, it doesn’t come over night,” he said. “Whatever you do, you have to stay consistent and committed to the process.”

For those who need help staying consistent and committed, Lewis has apps for that, too. His faith-based Purpose and Manifest apps allow users to set goals, find inspiration through Bible passages, and create daily affirmations to keep themselves focused.

“Be determined,” Lewis advises other students. “Don’t give up. Trust the process.”

 

– Written by Phil Miskovic