What are they giving back to the community?
It is a question often asked by African Americans of the stores that do business in predominantly African-American neighborhoods from coast to coast, and often the answer is unsatisfactory.
This is not the case, however, with Philadelphia-based urban apparel retailer Villa. With 11 of its 32 stores (with locations also in Harrisburg, Lancaster, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, Reading, York, Allentown, Camden, Cleveland and Toledo) located in Philadelphia, the company has initiated a new marketing campaign — “Dream Project” — aimed at inspiring and “awakening the dreams within Philadelphia’s youth.”
Late last month at Benjamin Franklin High School, the Dream Project brought together more than 500 local high school students for a day of engagement and mentoring from more than 70 business executives representing companies such as Nike, BET, American Express, Fannie Mae and others. Mayor Michael Nutter was in attendance, as was former Def Jam president Kevin Liles. Liles has played a major role in the success of artists such as Jay Z, Ludacris , LL Cool J and Ashanti, to name a few.
Students participated in panel discussions with the various professionals. They were given exposure to potential career pathways outside of the norm, such as in sports, entertainment, banking and finance, business and marketing, E-commerce and real estate.”
“I enjoyed interacting with all the kids, and as the day progressed, I personally saw kids’ lives were being impacted positively, said Hezekiah Griggs, managing partner at New York-based H360 Capital. “I received several emails that impressed upon me the importance of what took place during the day.”
According to Patrick Walsh, vice president of marketing at Villa, the company will continue to gain more visibility but not just as a retailer. Next Wednesday, Villa will host a screening of CNN’s Black in America 4. The event will be held at Shoemaker Mastery Charter in West Philadelphia. Four hundred students from the Mastery charters will screen the show and then have a chance to pepper Emmy Award-winning producer Jason Samuels, an African American, about his career path. Samuels is the producer of the show.
Joining Samuels on the panel will be Navarrow Wright. Wright is one of the featured success stories in Black in America. He is the chief technology officer at Interactive One, the nation’s largest digital media company serving African Americans.
“It’s imperative — and it’s our obligation as African Americans, that we do all that we can to expose the future leaders to all different sorts of opportunities,” Wright said recently.
And on Jan. 1, at the Liacouras Center, Villa will host a high school basketball tournament, bringing together nationally ranked teams from the New York and Philadelphia areas with the proceeds being funneled back into the Dream Project.
All of these ventures are under the directorship of Patrick Walsh, vice president of marketing at Villa. Before he embarked on the project, Walsh spent time going throughout the city and talking directly with students, wanting to find out exactly what their aspirations were for the future.
“Everyone who has seen the struggles of the last 12 months knows it has been hard on the youth,” Walsh says. “Flash mobs, bullying, problems on public transportation. We’ve seen a lot of negative stories in terms of our youth.
“I wanted to interact with the kids and see what they were doing, and you know what?” Walsh continued, “I walked away with the understanding that the bulk of our kids are not doing these things. A lot of the kids looked just like me and others who are being successful. But they wonder who is going to help them get to their destiny.”
Walsh knows that as the director of marketing for a growing company, his job is to drive business to Villa. But he grew up in the hard scrabble neighborhoods of Queens and Harlem watching African Americans struggle to get ahead.
“We are going to do more,” Walsh said. “The Dream Project is just a launch pad. It is a launch pad for sharing success stories in the community. There are so many stories of successful minorities in non-traditional businesses. We have connections to phenomenal people. It’s our obligation to get the message out so that our kids can aspire to be just like them.”