LIGHTNING RELEASES (10/30/3014) – Vonda White, a tenacious entrepreneur, Entrepreneur Organization Member of 13 years, and single parent of three, has accomplished what most only dream of – realizing what she wanted as her living legacy and turning it into reality.
Several years ago, she was inspired to do something amazing with her life, to create a business that really made a difference. “I have had a successful insurance brokerage business that I started in 1996 after leaving a former employer”, Vonda states. “While I grew that business to $30 million in sales, it was never my true passion.” She shared that the insurance business can be very “cut throat” and highly competitive. She dreaded every bid season. Changes in health care reform significantly changed her industry and added even more stress. “I knew I needed a Plan B. I wanted to find a business that I loved that also could really make a difference.”
For Vonda, raising amazing children is a huge priority for her. Several years ago, she researched “sleep away” camps for her kids that would provide an awesome experience and have a lasting impact on them. She found one that really excited her, but it was extremely expensive. After negotiating a significant discount, she sent them off. Flash forward two weeks…she was astounded by what hers and other children could learn and accomplish in such a short period of time, if given the opportunity. Even though she was impressed with this camp, her entrepreneurial mind saw things she could improve upon. She believed she could provide young people with an opportunity to push their boundaries in camp as well as in an academic setting. This created the spark that years later, would be ignited by her realization that she wanted to do something truly impactful.
Armed with a dream and a never quit attitude, this tenacious entrepreneur, who never takes NO for an answer, set out on a quest to build her dream.
For three solid years she searched for the perfect location for what would become home to a place where kids could realize their potential and expand upon their talents…a place where entrepreneurs of tomorrow are encouraged, and where children have the opportunity to grow and succeed personally and academically. “I set out to find the perfect location”, she said, “yet it had to make financial sense and be viable year round instead of just a summer camp”. Initially, she located a camp in upstate New York. She ended up walking away as it was overpriced and the seller would not budge. “I started to wonder if this was going to ever happen”, Vonda admits. “I then reflected back to something I learned from an acquaintance, Brian Scudamore from 1-800-GotJunk”. He advocated the use of a white sheet – “take an empty sheet and fill it with what your business CAN be or what you would like to accomplish without thinking about your limitations.” “So” Vonda says, “I pulled out a blank sheet of paper and went to work”. “I realized that a college campus would be the best fit for my vision.” She started to do some research and found that there were actually 3 colleges for sale. Two of these were priced at over $10 Million and required an enormous amount of repairs to become operational. The third campus, appeared to have been sold. The property, located in Owatonna, Minnesota, was listed in a newspaper article as “Sale Imminent”. “One thing I have learned in business”, she stated, “is that it is not sold, until the deal is closed”. So she contacted the bank named in the newspaper and found out the sale had fallen through. “What had begun to seem impossible, was now suddenly sounding too good to be true”, she shares with a smile across her face. What Vonda had found was a 19 acre campus with 13 buildings totaling over 300,000 square feet and an asking price of $2.2 Million. She thought. “Could this really be true?” So, in the dead winter, she left her warm Florida home to visit the campus in snowy Minnesota. “What I saw was a beautiful, historic, 140 year old campus. I could see the potential. I knew I had found the place where I could build my dream”, she said, her eyes lighting up the smile that never left her face.
After having closed five years earlier, this vacant college campus was purchased on April 14, 2014 for $1.8 million. Vonda figured out a way to buy Pillsbury College with no money down. The bank financed $2.5 million and another $1 million for the remodeling. “I put everything I own, including my home in Florida, on the line with the bank for the loans.”
“I didn’t want to waste any time”, she asserted, “I had less than 8 weeks from purchasing the property, to transform a campus that had been vacant for more than 5 years, to reach my goal of opening the doors of “Camp Pillsbury”. With complete determination and a vision, I rolled up my sleeves, went to work hiring contractors, and pushed a broom, emptied garbage, whatever it took. And while sweeping floors and coordinating contractors, was part of her everyday routine, she also needed to find people that wanted to come to this camp.
It was not easy. While the town’s people were glad to see the school come alive again, they were very skeptical about the time line. There was talk around town where many people thought they misunderstood and that she would open in June of 2015, as there was no way she could pull it off any sooner. Well these nice people from Owatonna had not met anyone like Vonda White.
On June 17, 2014, a large crowd gathered for Camp Pillsbury’s ribbon cutting and grand opening celebration. Amazingly, in its inaugural summer, a total of 240 kids attended camp, 140 of which were from outside the state of Minnesota. Overall, 20 countries were represented with many kids coming from France, Brazil, the Netherlands, Columbia, Mexico, and Spain.
“My big plans for bringing both a school and summer camp for international and domestic students, which offers traditional and not so traditional camp programs, is well on its way.” She beams. “Camp Pillsbury is a multi-program summer camp for kids to explore music, theatre, dance including ballet, jazz, hip-hop, modern and tap, sports, magic, multimedia arts, visual arts, extreme sports, equestrian, technology, circus arts and several other activities. What? Circus Arts? The week prior to opening, a full blown trapeze had been erected in the middle of campus where kids would learn to fly, do tricks, and catch and release. This trapeze would remain as a focal point of Camp Pillsbury throughout the summer, and Circus Arts became one of the most popular activities offered at Camp Pillsbury. (www.CampPillsbury.com)
At the beginning of each two week session, campers select three majors – courses they will take every day for one hour in a specific area to improve their skills, as well as 3 afternoon minors that they can take once or as often as they like for fun. Every day the children are receiving 6 hours of instruction. At the end of every 2 week session, campers show off their abilities and talents to their parents and the local community. It is a different show every two weeks, so if the camper stays for more than one session, they are learning and performing different acts and skills. “I wanted the kids to be able to choose all of their own activities. My goal is to give kids an experience they love and help them build relationships that will last throughout their lifetimes.” Campers come for the entire summer, or for a single two week session.
Lynn Peterson, a teacher, sent her shy, 13 year old son to Camp Pillsbury over the summer. “Evan originally planned on staying one session. He ended up spending another five weeks. It truly has been life changing for him. He’s got friends from all around the world that he is in frequent contact with,” she said.
Ridgely Goldsborough, a professional worldwide motivational speaker, sent his children to Camp Pillsbury and found the experience he had wanted to give his kids. With emotion in his voice, he said it was “a priceless experience that my kids talk about frequently…to this day they text and communicate with friends from multiple continents…”
Rounding off her dream and vision to expand the use of this campus year round is the opening of Pillsbury College Prep, slated for grand opening September, 2015. The boarding school will provide a top notch education to student’s grades 6 – 12 with mini-camp accredited electives for after school and weekend activities. Pillsbury College Prep’s curriculum is nationally accredited and provides small classroom sizes with personalized attention with online instruction and pacing. (www.PillsburyPrep.com) It will offer an entrepreneurial environment and teaches kids to thrive both educationally and personally. For many international students, an American education is a highly valuable commodity.
“Following my dream and never giving up, I have begun my legacy, helping kids and inspiring them to be all they can be. We are changing the world one camper and one student at a time.” – Vonda White