Michelle Horton grew up in Rocky Mount and was the first in her family to go to college. She earned her undergraduate degree in industrial relations at UNC Chapel Hill and an MBA in marketing at Wake Forest University.
But education provided Horton, 40, with more than just a ticket to good-paying jobs and a better quality of life for herself and her family. It inspired her to start her own for-profit social enterprise, YOUniversity Drive, in 2011. It has also given her an enduring legacy.
“When I leave this world, they will say about me that I changed people’s lives. And my children will know I did good in the world.”
She was recognized in the Charlotte Business Journal’s 40 under 40 program in 2011.
Horton recently spoke to the CBJ about her business, which she describes as “having fun.”
“Every morning I get up, and it is like love at first sight every time. I am spreading knowledge, creating a movement that says being smart is hip and cool.”
What does YOUniversity Drive offer?
I prepare high-school and college students for the real world of work by offering training, professional-development programs and high-impact events that bridge the gap between academics and the real world of work by providing career readiness and work-force development solutions. I also work with experienced professionals, so my programs are for the classroom to the boardroom. I also speak at conferences and help organize them. Typically, I work with a sponsoring organization or company.
My programs help students discover what they are passionate about and then become educated in it so they can be the best they can. You can’t go through life not being educated or trained.
The first program I developed — and it’s still the most popular — is “Masterminds, Millionaires and Moguls.” That first time, I publicized it with fliers I made on my computer, and it attracted 250 students.
This February, at UNC Wilmington, I introduced another program called “Collegiate Freshman Week.” It’s a weeklong, professional-development program that not only includes a fashion show at the end and a discussion about what to wear when you start your professional career, but also covers a well-designed résumé, a tailor-made network and customized career goals.
I’m now working on a seminar for seasoned professionals that focuses on the importance of having your own professional brand.
All my programs include music and entertainment features that I call “edutainment.” This generation likes to be entertained. But I also tell them that there is nothing cool about being broke. A high-school graduate lives, on average, 9.2 years longer than a high-school dropout and earns about $260,000 more in the course of a lifetime. So if you want to live longer and have a good quality of life, get educated.
Why is there a need for this?
I worked in human resources and marketing in the corporate world and then taught at Johnson C. Smith University. It was an eye-opener to see the things that the education system does not teach: soft skills and relevant, real-life stuff that can help you keep a job, like how to work in teams, receive and give feedback, and what to do if you don’t like your boss. Knowing how to play the game is just as important as any technical skills.
Many students who are the first in their family to go to college lack access and exposure to things many others take for granted — like knowing what a business meeting is or having a passport at age 5. They are behind from the start, and I tell them the world is not going to give them a pass on it. By being accountable and responsible, you can gain access and exposure. Without that, you won’t survive.
What has inspired you?
My parents had a phenomenal work ethic, and they taught me the importance of education. Not going to college was not an option. My grandmother taught me how to spell my name before I was 5. I worked in marketing at R.J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem for four years, and although I had a good salary — more than I make now — I felt something was missing.
Then I left to start a family, relocated to Charlotte and started my own consulting company in 2007. Then I spoke at a class at Wake Forest about marketing, and I had an out-of-body experience. I felt, “I gotta do this (teach).” So I taught marketing and retail management at JCSU for 3½ years.
But I saw the need to do even more and started YOUniversity Drive in January 2011. I had my first client three months later and in six months was consulting for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. I left Smith in 2012, but soon afterwards became director of experiential learning and leadership development at Wake Forest. I also teach a class there. It is aligned with what I do with my company, and I love being in the classroom. I never take my eyes off my company, and the Wake Forest work inspires me to create new concepts for it.
Bea Quirk is a Charlotte-based freelance writer who can be reached at email@example.com.