Lerner Graduate Student Stories: Lavar Thomas

Lavar Thomas, native of Brandywine, Md., is an environmental justice coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and co-founder of the non-profit organization Leaders of the Free World. He earned his master’s degree in international business (MSIB) in May 2022. Thomas shared why he chose Lerner for his grad studies and his plans for the future.

Lerner: Why did you go back to pursue your graduate degree? Why did you choose the Lerner College for your studies?

Thomas: I decided to pursue my graduate degree because it allowed me to bridge my professional experiences and international experiences with the theory of international business. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and Coverdell Fellow, Lerner College afforded me the opportunity to bring my Peace Corps experience into the classroom and understand international business from a social impact lens while developing my non-profit organization, Leaders of the Free World.

Lerner: What did you learn through this opportunity that you wouldn’t have learned anywhere else?

Thomas: I learned how to apply theoretical concepts to the work of my non-profit organization as a social entrepreneur. In my courses, I worked with classmates on different areas that benefited my organization, from international marketing, strategic plans, acquiring mentorship, and developing a sustainable business model. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to participate in Hen Hatch and receive mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs on growing my organization.

Lerner: Please share an example of a course or concept that you were able to apply directly to your life and/or career.

Thomas: I had the opportunity to take Prof. Vince DiFelice’s ENTR 455 – Startup Experience I course. It was extremely valuable because it helped me to understand how to develop a sustainable business model, validate a problem, identify my customers and source capital. This course also provided me with a framework to pitch my non-profit concept to investors and advisors to garner support. As a result of this course, I have been able to acquire institutional and corporate partnerships by leveraging our mission to create social impact and increase access to international education and global experiences for young Black men.

Lerner: Describe an important connection you have made through your graduate program (personal, professional, peers, mentors, professors, etc.)

Thomas: Through the Lerner Executive Mentoring Program, I had the opportunity to work with John O’Connor, who served as a Senior Vice President at Bank of America at the time. As a mentor, John was highly encouraging and insightful. Throughout my time at UD, he offered his personal and professional experiences, connections, and feedback to support my personal and professional aspirations. Beyond a role as a mentor, John became a friend which I continue to remain in contact with to this day. I have benefitted tremendously from his mentorship.

Lerner: If you were to describe your classmates in one word, what would that be and why?

Thomas: I would say supportive. I chose supportive because they served as my village at UD. We supported one another, whether it was through group projects or navigating life as a graduate student during COVID.

Lerner: How do you balance your career with your studies?

Thomas: I balanced my career with my studies by identifying opportunities to apply what I was learning so it didn’t feel like I was juggling two separate worlds. While working full-time and pursuing graduate school part-time was challenging, I became more effective in managing my time, setting boundaries and prioritizing my mental and physical health.

Lerner: Fill in this sentence: “My graduate program helped me become…”

Thomas: A lifelong learner and clear on my purpose and impact as a social entrepreneur.

Lerner: What was the most impactful hands-on project or case competition that you were able to participate in?

Thomas: I participated in the Hen Hatch competition. The process challenged and forced me out of my comfort zone as I learned how to pitch my ideas in front of investors. It provided me an opportunity to understand the art of pitching.

Lerner: What are your plans or next steps for the future?

Thomas: My next steps are to continue to scale and expand the work of Leaders of the Free World to increase the underrepresentation of Black males in International Education and Global Leadership through institutional and corporate partnerships. We are committed to strengthening our international programming and building upon our internal organizational capacity.

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