The entrepreneurship journey that Tahjere Lewis started when he left home for Virginia Tech is taking its next big step with his graduation this month from the Myers-Lawson School of Building.
Lewis said, “I’m from Hampton, Virginia, right on the water, from a big family of seafood. Every Saturday night when we got together around the table, my Aunt Carol always made sauce with blue lobster. I never asked where she got the sauce from or How it was made.I just knew I hadn’t eaten lobster without it.
“The day I was leaving for Virginia Tech, I stopped by her house to ask where I could find the sauce so I could eat it on campus,” he said. “I was amazed when she told me she made it all herself.”
That surprise prompted Lewis to make a commitment that will continue as he graduates.
Lewis said, “I promised her that once I graduated from college, I would turn the sauce into a business. I don’t think she really believed me, and I probably didn’t really believe myself. But it was something I wanted to do for her because she was always so supportive of me, and I knew she had something special.” .
His commitment deepened when he unexpectedly lost an aunt during his freshman year at Virginia Tech.
“It didn’t feel real when my family told me she had cancer,” Lewis said. “I was focusing on maintaining the scores on my presidential scholarship and doing my part on the track team. Speaking just months ago, she sounded great. When she passed away in November, I was in a daze.”
Instead of holding on to his grief, he thought about how he would carry his aunt’s legacy. “My family got together around the food, and their sauce was part of that bond,” he said. “I wanted to share her sauce as a way to bring people together with loved ones the way she’s always done for us.”
Without a written recipe, Lewis relied on his family’s help with a taste test. “I’m not a chef,” Lewis said. “The whole plan was that once I graduated from college, my aunt would make the sauce and I would market it. It still wasn’t as perfect as I did, but at that point, it was a monument worthy of it.”
With the recipe prepared and his sophomore commitment confirmed, Lewis increasingly found Virginia Tech’s interconnected resources and networks to help him along his path.
At a dinner sponsored by the Residential College in West Ambler Johnston, Lewis’s Living Learning Community, he shared the sauce with the first group of people outside his family. Their positive feedback encouraged him to fill out small batches. But without the required food labels, he cannot sell the product.
This is where Virginia Tech’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem came in to help launch this effort.
Through the Apex Business Center, a Pamplin College of Business platform available to Virginia Tech students in any major or year, Lewis was able to access business mentors and learn about organization structures and product regulations. The center also linked it to the Virginia Cooperative’s Food Innovation Program.
This program helped transform his work from concept to reality. “They analyzed and tested the recipe to create a nutrition panel and expiration period based on its acidity level. They also referred me to a local commercial kitchen where I could produce the sauce for approval by the Virginia Department of Agriculture, which allowed me to begin marketing the sauce.
With the proceeds from Aunt Carol’s sauce, Lewis said, came the opportunity and the obligation to give back. “My aunt had a heart of soul, and I had to make sure that soul was part of the work.”
Early proceeds went to St. Jude Children’s Hospital and the Mayo Clinic. In 2020, Lewis enlists the help of friends and teammates to serve hot meals to more than 80 families near the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg outside the kitchen where he makes his own sauce. Lewis returned to his hometown last year to run a food drive for local communities in the area.
“I’ve had a lot of support from my family, colleagues and the university,” said Lewis. “It feels great to give back to the community.”
Lewis’ purposeful project and commitment to service has continued to help him build the relationships that support his project. Virginia Tech Dining Services recently hosted a tasting event combining wings and grilled shrimp with Aunt Carol’s sauce at the West End Market in Cochrane Hall.
Chef Scott Surratt said, “Tahjere is energetic and passionate about what he has done. We wanted to expand his reach with the campus community and give more students a chance to see how the Apex Center can support them to launch their own projects.”
Among the cheering sponsors at the event, Lewis thought of the community that enabled him to learn by doing.
“I am fortunate to be a part of Virginia Tech with all the opportunities I have,” said Lewis. “The women who raised me have shown me the importance of gratitude to everyone you meet. You never know where these relationships will lead you.”
Upon graduation, Lewis will train at NUMA Speed Elite in Gainesville, Florida, with a focus on the 2024 Olympics.
He will work as a software engineer in a construction management company. Lewis said his extensive background — a bachelor’s degree in building construction with a minor in computer science — made him the ideal candidate for the job. “I can understand their clients’ needs and I can work with a team to create a program to meet those needs.”