UT Tyler Graduate Turns Classroom Idea Into Successful Business
When Michael Lujan chose a career in teaching, he wanted to make a difference in the classroom. He had no idea he would make his greatest impact on students’ education from the world of business.
The University of Texas at Tyler graduate and his wife Lisa were named Texas Small Business Persons of the Year for 2011 by the Small Business Administration for their Tyler-based Mentoring Minds: The Critical Thinking for Life Company. It is the first time the honor has been awarded to an East Texas business.
As award winners, the Lujans represented Texas at the National Small Business Week celebration in Washington, D.C. While there, they also were among five companies honored as Champions for Change for their contribution to job creation and the recovery of the nation's economy.
With $11 million in sales last year and 50 employees, Mentoring Minds is a success by any standard in the corporate world. But the company’s mission takes Lujan full circle – right back into the classroom.
Mentoring Minds develops learning tools designed to help teachers empower children to think critically for effective problem solving.
“Our mission is to help children succeed by helping those who teach children to be successful,” said Lujan, former assistant principal of Tyler’s Douglas Elementary School. His wife was a bank vice president before working full-time with Mentoring Minds.
Lujan said his journey from the classroom to business has always been about the student.
“Coming from the education world, I was a teacher and never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I’d be in business,” he said. “Now, I don’t just serve one classroom or campus … we’re literally impacting millions of kids nationally. Over 2 million children have used our math and reading books – just in Texas.’’
Lujan taught at T.J. Austin and Douglas elementary schools after moving to Tyler from Albuquerque, N.M., in 1995. When he was ready to go to the next level in his career, Lujan turned to UT Tyler.
“I had a full-time job, I knew I needed to advance, so UT Tyler gave me that opportunity to go back and get my master’s degree,” Lujan said. “The flexibility of the UT Tyler master’s program in educational leadership allowed me to do that. And now the program is even more flexible because it can be completed online.”
As a UT Tyler student, Lujan was inspired by Dr. Ross Sherman, chair and professor of educational leadership and policy studies.
“When he would be in front of that classroom, I would think, ‘I want to be like him,’ ’’ Lujan recalled. “Dr. Sherman is such a great leader and teacher. If Mentoring Minds did not exist, I’d be a principal or superintendent somewhere right now, because of him.”
After earning his master’s degree from UT Tyler in 2001, it was Lujan’s turn to inspire.
A Life-Changing Idea
As assistant principal at Douglas in 2002, he was looking for fresh ideas to equip teachers and students for state assessment testing.
“I had made notebooks containing all the state standards for our teachers,” Lujan said. They all brought their notebooks to our first meeting, but as the meetings continued, they quit bringing the notebooks. They just kept them on the shelves. So I thought, there’s got to be a way to get our teachers to really start looking at the standards without having to go through this big notebook.’’
Then an idea hit him – use flip charts featuring standards and other teaching aids, all in one easy-to-use tool. It was revolutionary.
The teachers loved the idea and word soon spread. Other principals across the school district wanted flip charts for their campuses. The Lujans took a chance and maxed out their credit cards for the first printing. And after the Lujans took their idea to an educational conference in Austin, the demand exploded across the state. They came home with $6,000 worth of orders to fulfill.
The Lujans went to work, filling orders in the evenings from their garage. From those humble beginnings nine years ago, the couple grew their business. Now, they work out of four warehouses at their Tyler headquarters with plans to expand. The company is a full educational publisher, producing hundreds of innovative learning tools for use in kindergarten through 12th-grade classes across the nation.
“We are in all 50 states now and have been for years,” Lujan said. “It’s a blessing and I just attribute it to faith in God and to just treating the people we work with nicely.”
Making a Difference
Community service, particularly as it relates to children and education, is a major focus for the Lujans. They support the East Texas Food Bank, the Literacy Council of Tyler and other local organizations that serve children.
“Giving back to the community is a big part of Mentoring Minds,’’ Lujan said. “The Food Bank’s BackPack program is huge on our list … Anything that has to do with kids and education, we’re wrapping our company around it and putting our personal funds into it as well.’’
He is a board member of several organizations including the Tyler Chamber of Commerce and Tyler Economic Development Council. He also serves on the UT Tyler College of Education and Psychology Development Council.
Lujan believes the partnership of UT Tyler and the community is vital to the Tyler area’s future.
“I love Tyler, I love UT Tyler and I truly believe in building the community,” he said. “I want to do all I can to promote UT Tyler and the community working together. A good university is essential to community growth.’'
In 2009, UT Tyler honored Lujan as a Distinguished Alumnus for his innovation, business success and community involvement.
“The community has been excellent for me,” he said. “I’d like to turn around and help build this community to be the very best it can be.”
Lujan hopes to continue making an impact on the community through education, from the world of business.
“The transition from educator to businessman – with one foot in education and one foot in business – has been a true, true blessing,” he said.
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