Recruit, retain and graduate. These are the goals of the University of Akron's Black Male Summit.

More than 1,000 people — a mix of high school and college students, with about 200 more attendees than last year — registered to attend the two-day development conference exploring the challenges facing African-American males and underrepresented students nationwide.

The 12th annual event kicked off Friday at the John S. Knight Center in downtown Akron and concludes Saturday at the Student Union on campus. Conference organizers Jolene Lane, UA's chief diversity officer, and Antoinette East-Jenkins, the university's assistant program director of Upward Bound math and science, assembled a lineup of national and local speakers with creative approaches to engaging the audience.

When participants walked into the Omnova Solutions room for a presentation in the Knight Center on Friday, they noticed how it resembled a barbershop.

The room was filled with the sounds of R&B and soft jazz. Hair clippings were scattered on the floor and hair products were placed on a table.

Cleveland native Rodney Dennis stood up to speak up and was astonished to see a crowd of more than 40 people.

"I'm flabbergasted," he said. "Thank you all for coming."

Dennis, 32, grew up in Cleveland's Garden Valley neighborhood without a father. He attended the University of Akron, where he earned a business degree. Upon graduation, he served six years in the Army.

After returning home to Cleveland, Dennis felt as if he needed to do more. He was homeless at the time and had his son, Rodney Dennis Jr. Then, one day, when he was listening to the radio, he heard something that changed his life forever.

"Do what you want, and you'll never work a day in your life."

"One day, I was listening to a song on the radio and I heard that message," Dennis said. "I don't know why or how, but hearing that just moved me on the inside."

Dennis then remembered his interest in wanting to cut hair. Shortly afterward, he enrolled in barber college.

Fast-forward to today. Dennis has been cutting hair for four years. In addition, he owns four barbershops in the Akron area, including Levels Barber Studio and Kingdom Kutz, and recently signed a lease to open a barber college in Canton.

He is also the youngest African-American to obtain an instructor's license in Ohio, according to downtownakron.com.

Dennis hopes to continue giving back to the community. He plans to open more barber schools in the area and make them tuition-free for anyone to attend.

During the summit, Dennis wanted to show young black males how they can overcome anything and become successful.

He introduced his friend, who referred to himself as "Mr. Ace." Ace described himself as "an artist who does a lot of stuff."

He encouraged participants to think using the entrepreneurial mindset.

"Think like an entrepreneur, and remember that the greatest product is yourself," Ace told the audience.

Frank Miller and Preston Clark of Akron took nothing to create something. From starting off with used T-shirts and hats, the two entrepreneurs created a clothing line with original designs. Their fame kicked off when NBA star LeBron James sported their hats on social media. 

"You may fail and you may fall, but it's important you get back up," Miller told the audience.

Clark stressed the importance of chasing dreams.

"Pray and be fearless," he said.

The two entrepreneurs encouraged the audience to stand up and raise their hands if they had a dream they wanted to pursue.

"As you pursue your dream, don't just stop at where your hand is raised," Miller said. "Aim higher."

 

Brandon Bounds can be reached at 330-996-3762 or bbounds@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow Bounds on Twitter at brandonbounds_.