Build It Yourself: The 2020 Bond Lecture

Jaylen Bledsoe has packed a lot into his 21 years. An entrepreneur, he leads the Jaylen D. Bledsoe Global Group, an investment company with a portfolio of companies including technology, real estate and consulting. He created the Bledsoe Foundation to partner and invest in economically-challenged communities, and serves on the boards of several nonprofit organizations including Mathew-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club, Multitasking Hearts Corporation and Notes For Life A&T.

He’s the rare individual who can constantly take in his surroundings, process them, and store the information for productive use later in different situations with different people. He can rattle off several examples from the year he spent at MICDS as a freshman in 2012-2013, ideas that took root and then sprouted years later in ways that help Bledsoe help his clients.

By the time he arrived at MICDS, he already owned his own business and employed 150 people. Despite his early success, he was still reprimanded for overspending in the bookstore. “It was so easy,” he laughed. “Every morning I’d get fruit snacks and a banana nut muffin and it would be charged to my student account.” He admits he also had quite a collection of hoodies from the store.

A Saint Louis Country Day School alumnus first introduced him to the School, convinced that Jaylen would benefit from the same experience he had. While he was here, he fostered solid relationships, some of which still last today. He cites Mr. Rappleye as his most memorable teacher, saying, “He has an exciting mind for education and teaching and the brain. That class was 80% brain conversations and 20% English. We dove into psychology and how we think. Coming at English from a place of science was really cool.”

Outside of school, he looked to noted figures such as Bill Gates and Martin Luther King Jr. for inspiration. He observed what Gates “had done in tech, building a significant business with his goal to somehow impact and help people,” and he watches Gates continue to live that mission through the Bill Gates Foundation. “That’s inspired how I built my company,” said Bledsoe. “I use it as a platform to help people.” King’s work is more obviously rooted in philanthropy. “His heart, desire and selflessness to help people and give communities a chance when they weren’t given one by society” continues to motivate Bledsoe today.

Through his partnerships with community organizations in a variety of cities, he knows he’s already making a difference. He shared a story about meeting one young boy who was in 6th or 7th grade. When asked to share his goal, the boy said, “I want to be a drug dealer.” Bledsoe said it broke his heart, and he explained that in the boy’s impoverished neighborhood where money, clothes and cars were signs of success, the best way to achieve those was to deal drugs. Through a partnership between Mathews-Dickey Boys and Girls Club and the Jaylen Bledsoe Foundation, the boy was enrolled in a young entrepreneurship program where he learned to harness his energy in positive ways. “He’s on a different path,” Bledsoe said. “He’s an entrepreneur now.” He also talked about another young, thriving entrepreneur from an impoverished background who matriculated out of the program and was accepted into the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) fashion program. 

Given Bledsoe’s nature, it’s no surprise that he has a wide variety of projects going at any one time. “I’m a builder,” he explains. He told students in the AP macroeconomics class that he’d much rather repaint his bedroom walls every day and move the furniture around than keep it clean. He tends to create a new business, and then pass it off to a trusted colleague to run so he can jump into building something new. “The only things about my days that are alike is that I wake up at the beginning and go to sleep at the end,” he said, before grinning sheepishly. “Oh, and the trainer at 5:30 in the morning.”

He embraces each new opportunity with passion and clarity. Who is his dream client? “All my clients are dreams,” he said. “I am honored by every opportunity I am given to work with companies and brands and nonprofit organizations. I believe in meeting the needs of them and their customers or clients, benefactors, shareholders and community members. I value solving a need. I’m a problem solver and that’s what makes me happy.”

Bledsoe encourages all students to find their passion, their calling. “It’s so important that we know what makes us happy and what we are called to do. If we’re going to spend a lot of time doing something, we can’t do it for others or for social acceptance, we have to do it for us and for what we believe is right.” He also stresses that students should not wait for opportunities to come to them. “If you aren’t getting hired because you don’t have experience yet, build it yourself. Don’t wait for someone to hire you.” He believes that students owe it to themselves to create their own opportunities, to build out their resumes as fully-formed people. “The mission for students should be to take what they’re learning in school and apply it real-time.”

It’s pretty good advice from a young man whose parents had him when they were 16 years old, and who was raised largely by a single parent. “I came from a crazy poor household,” he explains. “I was chubby, I had cornrow braids, and I wore a blue shirt with stains on it.” His dream in kindergarten was to become the first black president of the United States. “Obama changed my life plan when he took that title,” Bledsoe laughed.

Talking to the Upper School students at the Bond Lecture this year, Bledsoe shared many examples of the people who influenced him and who opened doors to opportunity over and over, even when they didn’t know him. He admits that without their help, he wouldn’t be where he is today, and he encouraged Upper Schoolers to seize their own opportunities to make a difference. “You have such a critical role; you’re going to cover every part of the globe. Doctors, lawyers, athletes…you’re going to be everything. Think to yourself, ‘How can we support the next — not Jaylen — but the next me. How can I support a community? How can I support a mission?’ It can start in a few years, or it can start right now.”

Many thanks to Jaylen Bledsoe for coming back to campus as the 2020 Erik L. Bond lecturer, and for spending additional time meeting with the MICDS African American Support Committee, the Black Student Union, our AP Macroeconomics class, and the Entrepreneurship Club. 

Every February, in observance of Black History Month, MICDS holds the Bond Lecture, in which a noted African-American comes to campus to speak with students, parents and alumni, as well as spend time in our classrooms. Past participants have included authors, lecturers and civil rights leaders. The Erik Lyons Bond ’77 Lecture is named in honor of the first African American graduate to complete all eight grades at Saint Louis Country Day School. During his years at Country Day, Bond distinguished himself in scholastics, athletics and student government. He served as student council president, captain of the varsity football team and was selected by his team as the league’s most valuable player. Bond was named a National Merit Scholar, and he was also an accomplished musician and artist. He died unexpectedly in 1984.