D'Wayne Edwards was one of just two Black designers he knew when he started in 1989.
He ascended to the level of senior designer at Nike, before leaving in 2011 to open Pensole Design Academy in Portland, Oregon.
This spring, Edwards expanded his mission by uniting his institution with the defunct Lewis College of Business to form the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design. Classes started on May 2, making Lewis the nation's first HBCU to reopen.
Edwards notes Detroit's strong history in design and creativity, from automobiles to arts, music and more. Lewis, like most HBCUs, also has a colorful past. The Detroit location debuted in 1938, replacing the Indiana branch. It was Michigan's lone HBCU in 1987, but it closed in 2013 after serving 40,000 students.
Decades before the Higher Education Act of 1965 officially coined the designation, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) began sprouting up all across the country. They were vital at the time in providing education to Black Americans excluded from conventional institutions.
Today, HBCUs remain popular among students of color because of their diverse faculty and celebrity alumni like Vice President Kamala Harris, director Spike Lee, and music legends like Gladys Knight.
Because of its concentration, historian Ken Coleman believes Pensole Lewis might have a significant impact on Detroit's Black community. And it all began when Allen Largin, a Pensole alumnus, inspired Edwards by mentioning Lewis College, an institution the designer had never heard of.
Edwards knew he “could finally establish a design focused HBCU, while marrying that with business to honor Violet Lewis’ legacy.”
Violet Ponders, a Lewis granddaughter and the school's third and final female president, lent him her support. Edwards also contacted Detroit's College for Creative Studies, which agreed to donate its accreditation and classrooms while Pensole Lewis built its own facility.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reestablished the HBCU on Dec. 29. Edwards said the classes will be five to six weeks long and designed in partnership with design firms.
Companies like Nike, Asics, Adidas, and New Balance have sponsored students at Pensole, making it a tuition-free model with job assurances.
Pensole Lewis is launching biweekly recruitment sessions this month for local high school students.
Currently, only 5% of big design firms' workforce are Black, according to Edwards.
“It implies that you need a ball or a microphone to be successful in life,'“ Edwards adds. “I want to show them that there is more to life than what they see on TV.”