Pensole Founder D’Wayne Edwards to Reopen a Historic Woman-Founded HBCU in Detroit

Pensole Design Academy founder D’Wayne Edwards is out to make history in the field of higher education.

The Lewis College of Business, a Detroit-based historically Black college and university founded by the late Violet T. Lewis, closed in 2013. Edwards, who is now the school’s controlling stockholder, is reopening its doors and transforming the closed institution into the country’s first HBCU to focus on design.

To achieve this, the school — now named the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design (PLC) — proposed draft legislation today for state authorization to be recognized as the lone HBCU of Michigan. And it also could soon stand out as the first-ever reopened HBCU in the country.

“We’re going down uncharted territory in two different lanes,” Edwards told FN.

Although the process is not complete, Edwards his interaction with politicians in the state of Michigan has given him confidence that his vision will come to life.

“I am not a politician. I am not even interested in politics, and this is really my first time meeting politicians, and they’ve been phenomenal,” Edwards said. “They all knew about the school and were sad that it closed, and now they’re excited that someone wants to take it on and reopen it because of how much it meant to the city of Detroit. GM and Ford and Michigan Bell, all of their first Black office employees came from this college. To be able to reopen a college that had so much significance to the city and paved the way for diversity within its largest industries, that’s part of history that should have never went away.”

The school, according to a statement, will work in partnership with College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit to gain legal and legislative approval needed to establish the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design, which includes designation as an accredited educational program. Also, an agreement is being drafted to establish a joint venture between CCS and PLC to allow PLC to offer accredited educational programs.

Before it moves to a permanent campus of its own in Detroit, PLC will be located in CCS’s A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education.

It will open in March 2022, and enrollment for its program is expected to open in December.

“CCS’s partnership with Pensole Design Academy is driven by our strong commitment to develop diverse creative talent and long-standing commitment to the City of Detroit. Together, CCS and Pensole will create a new resource to support the aspirations of Detroiters,” College for Creative Studies president Don Tuski said in a statement. “The fact that Pensole chose CCS, Detroit and the Lewis College of Business is a testament to CCS’s robust alumni network of minority footwear designers, Detroit’s design legacy, and the impact of this historical HBCU on Detroit.”

Although the school is a new venture for Edwards, he explained that some things started with Pensole in Portland, Ore., won’t change, such as the approach to curriculum.

“I like to refer to us as an industry college, so we’ll create the curriculum the same way we’ve done it before, we co-create with our brand partners. But the programs will be a bit more diverse,” Edwards explained. “It’ll expand beyond footwear to include graphics and packaging, brand design, we’ll even get into furniture design as well.”

The furniture design portion will be done alongside Herman Miller, which Edwards said is also donating all of the furniture to the college. Other partners include Dan and Jennifer Gilbert via The Gilbert Family Foundation and retail giant Target.

According to a statement, the Gilbert Family Foundation investment is part of its ongoing $500 million commitment to drive access to economic and social opportunity in Detroit, and to and increase equity for the city’s residents. As for Target, the move is part of its Racial Equity Action and Change (REACH) strategy that was formed last year to advance racial equity, as well as its $100 million commitment over five years to fuel economic prosperity of Black communities.

“This partnership represents an important part of our broader commitment that aims to support the next generation of Black talent, expand the impact of Black-led movements and voices, and create economic opportunity in Black communities across the country,” Amanda Nusz, SVP of corporate responsibility at Target and president of the Target Foundation, said in a statement.

Edwards emphasized the importance of telling the story of Lewis, who created the Lewis College of Business in 1928 as a secretarial school for Black women, and relocated to Detroit in 1939.

“She is one of three women to have found an HBCU, and no one knows that. Of the 120-plus HBCUs that have ever existed, only three were founded by women. The other were Bethune-Cookman and Voorhees College,” Edwards told FN. “I thought it was a travesty for this woman’s history and her impact on the HBCU community to just disappear.”

On Lewis’ huge contributions, Edwards said, “She has a story of raw entrepreneurship. She started the school with $50 and then she bartered for typewriters, she bartered with Black business leaders to donate their time to speak to and teach students and teach students. She was the epitome of an entrepreneur, and I think that message needs to be heard.”

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