Class of 2022: Tahjere Lewis shares a family legacy
The entrepreneurial journey that Tahjere Lewis began as he left home for Virginia Tech takes its next big step with his graduation this month from the Myers-Lawson School of Construction.
“I'm from Hampton, Virginia, right on the water, from a big seafood family," said Lewis. "Every Saturday night when we would come together around the table, my Aunt Carol always served a sauce with our blue crabs. I never asked where she got the sauce or how it was made. I just knew that I didn't eat crabs 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 have it on campus," he said. "I was astonished when she told me that she made it herself.”
That surprise led Lewis to make a commitment that continues with his graduation.
"I promised her that once I graduated from college, I would turn her sauce into a business,” said Lewis. “I don’t think she really believed me, and maybe I didn't really believe myself. But it was something I wanted to do for her because she always supported me, and I knew she had something special."
His commitment deepened when he lost his aunt unexpectedly during his first year at Virginia Tech.
“It didn't feel real when my family told me that she was diagnosed with cancer,” said Lewis. “I was focused on maintaining grades for my Presidential Scholarship and doing my part on the track team. In our conversation just months earlier, she looked great. When she passed away that November, I was distraught.”
Instead of holding onto his grief, he thought about how to carry his aunt’s legacy. “My family came together around food, and her sauce was part of that bond,” he said. “I wanted to share her sauce as a way to bring people together with their loved ones the way it always did for us.”
Without a written recipe, Lewis relied on his family’s help in taste-testing. “I’m no chef,” said Lewis. “The entire plan was that once I graduated from college, my aunt would make the sauce and I would market it. It's still not as perfect as she made it, but at that point, it was a worthy memorial to hers.”
With the recipe ready and his commitment affirmed in his sophomore year, Lewis increasingly found Virginia Tech’s resources and networks aligned to help him on his path.
In a dinner event sponsored by the Residential College at West Ambler Johnston, Lewis’ living-learning community, he shared the sauce with the first group of people beyond his family. Their positive feedback encouraged him to bottle small batches. But without the required nutritional labeling, he couldn’t sell the product.
That is where Virginia Tech’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem came in to help kickstart the effort.
Through the Apex Center for Entrepreneurs, a platform of Pamplin College of Business available to Virginia Tech students in any major or year, Lewis was able to access business mentors and learn about enterprise structures and product regulations. The center also connected him with the Food Innovations Program of Virginia Cooperative Extension.
That program helped transform his business from concept to reality. “They analyzed and tested the recipe to create a nutrition panel and an expiration period based on its acidity level. They also referred me to a local commercial kitchen where I could produce the sauce for approval from the Virginia Department of Agriculture, which let me start marketing the sauce,” he said.
With revenue from Aunt Carol's Sauce came the opportunity and obligation to give back, said Lewis. “My aunt had a giving heart, and I had to make sure that spirit was part of the business.”
Early proceeds went to St. Jude Children’s Hospital and Mayo Clinic. In 2020, Lewis got the help of friends and teammates to serve hot meals to over 80 families near Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus out of the kitchen where he makes his sauce. Lewis returned to his hometown last year to conduct a food drive for communities in the area.
"I've gotten so much support from my family, peers, and the university,” said Lewis. “It’s an amazing feeling to give back to the community.”
Lewis’ purposeful enterprise and commitment to service have continued to help him build relationships that support his venture. Virginia Tech Dining Services recently hosted a tasting event pairing wings and skewered shrimp with Aunt Carol’s Sauce in West End Market at Cochrane Hall.
Chef Scott Surratt said, “Tahjere is energetic and passionate about what he’s done. We wanted to broaden his scope with the campus community and give more students a chance to learn how the Apex Center can support them to launch their own ventures.”
Between greeting patrons at the event, Lewis reflected on the community that has enabled him to learn by doing.
“I'm blessed to be a part of Virginia Tech with all the opportunities it’s given me,” Lewis said. “The women who raised me showed me the importance of gratitude for everyone you meet. You never know where those relationships will lead you.”
After graduation, Lewis will be training at NUMA Speed Elite in Gainesville, Florida, with an eye on the 2024 Olympics.
He will be working as a software engineer for a construction management firm. Lewis said his wide-ranging background – a bachelor's degree in building construction with a minor in computer science – made him the perfect candidate for the role. "I can understand their clients' needs and can work with a team to create software to meet those needs."