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April 28, 2023

A successful businessman — and high school dropout

A journey from independence at 17 to small business owner

by Lewis Donald


Lewis Donald on stage at the 2023 StrEATs Festival. Ryan Allen/UP

At 17 years old, I dropped out of high school and moved across the country. Today, I’m the owner/operator of Sweet Lew’s BBQ, a successful restaurant in the Belmont neighborhood of Charlotte.

When Unpretentious Palate editor Kristen Wile asked if I would write about what it’s like to own a business without having graduated high school, I really had to take some time to think about what’s most important to communicate without getting off track.

There’s 25 years between that Lewis Donald and today’s. I learned some valuable real life lessons very early as a result of my young independence. I’ve been thinking about how not having my diploma (I have my GED) has held me back in life or changed my trajectory. As far as I know, it hasn’t. I may have had to work harder in kitchens, learn faster, and be more willing than others, but none of that held me back — it likely helped me succeed.

Owning a business doesn’t require a high school diploma, it requires structure. That is what I didn’t get in high school. Instead, I got plenty of structure as an apprentice, line cook, sous chef, and executive chef. Owning your own business comes with many daunting challenges that sometimes you get to pay people to manage, like an accountant. Having the right structure is putting all of the pieces together in order to be successful.

I’ve been fortunate to work under great chefs in great culinary establishments with opportunities that a high school drop out who didn’t go to culinary school wouldn’t have normally had. I’ve held positions at prestigious country clubs in the area and I was able to be a part of growing a large local company, without a diploma. In 2017 when I began working on a business plan for Sweet Lew’s, I was able to lean on many people who taught me what it really means to own your own business. Lawyers, financial advisers, corporate executives and local restaurateurs all said the same thing: hard work.

I’m not at all saying that a high school diploma doesn’t matter; what I am saying is that whether I had one or not, I would have needed to adapt, overcome, and improvise to get to where I am today. That’s how I live my life inside and outside of Sweet Lew’s. Both of my sons graduated high school, and one is in college. My youngest son got a little bit more of me in that regard — he too was told, “Son, school just isn’t for you. Find something to do with your hands.” He did.

I’ll never forget those words from my grandpa Murphy. That has been the hardest part of being a high school drop out that owns a successful business: getting my sons to understand they have to graduate high school. Not letting them or anyone use me as an example of why they don’t need to finish high school may seem hard to defend. Call me a hypocrite, but it was important to me that they graduate because I didn’t.

I have a lot more left to do to build more successes in life, so check back in a few years and I’ll let you know if I ever needed that high school diploma.

Lewis Donald is the owner/operator of Sweet Lew’s BBQ.

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