Newly endowed scholarship celebrates diversity in marketing and sales

Nov. 9, 2020 - Wendy Martin

Over the last several months, as stories of social justice have dominated the news, an inspiring story of friendship, admiration and loyalty that bridged a racial divide has emerged from the VCU School of Business.

In October, VCU Marketing Professor and retired Verizon Group Vice President Dennis Elwell quietly finalized plans to create an endowed scholarship in the name of his longtime colleague and mentor, Eric Cevis, president of Verizon Partner Solutions.

It’s a story that Elwell and Cevis might never have imagined when they first met in 1986 as entry level sales representatives for Bell Atlantic … and one that came as a surprise to Cevis when the School of Business development team approached him with the good news.

Starting in early 2021, the Eric D. Cevis Scholarship Fund for the Advancement of Marketing and Sales will support deserving students with financial need in the VCU School of Business. Preference will be given to students with a demonstrated commitment to the principles of diversity and an interest in the field of marketing or sales. The scholarship may be awarded to more than one student, annually, when sufficient funds are available. 

“He mentors, coaches, and affirms everyone around him”

Elwell and Cevis first became friends in the 1980s. For decades, the men alternately enjoyed promotions at Bell Atlantic, the founding corporate entity that evolved and ultimately became Verizon Communications, a Fortune 15 company.

“I came to recognize in Eric an incredible commitment to the company but an even greater commitment to diversity and inclusion – although they didn’t call it that back then,” Elwell recalls.

“Eric is an advocate for everyone. As he climbed the corporate ladder, he made it his responsibility to mentor and coach people from all walks of life and to give them a voice and opportunities for exposure and learning. Today he’s one of Verizon’s most senior officers and one of just a few senior leaders of color. I was his direct report for 12 of my 34 years and he’s had an amazing influence on me – seeing how he mentors, coaches, and affirms everyone around him.

“There are no words to describe his level of passion and energy for fairness and equity. In these times of unrest, he continues to be a beacon for what can happen in Corporate America when things are done right and when there is respect for individuals and mutual trust.” 

“Students need help like never before”

Over the last 26 years, while employed at Verizon, Elwell also served as a VCU adjunct professor, regularly teaching evening courses in marketing and selling. This fall, as a result of the pandemic, Elwell saw enrollment fall at VCU and universities across the nation.

“I know that most of our students have part- or full-time jobs. So many are active contributors to the cost of their education,” Elwell says. Recognizing his students’ sincere need for financial support, Elwell, having recently retired from Verizon, accelerated his long-term plan to create a scholarship that addresses students’ financial needs while also embracing diversity and inclusion. 

“Students need help now like never before,” he explains. “By giving back to these students in Eric Cevis’ name, I hope they are inspired to learn who he is and what he stands for. If someone gets a scholarship in the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela, it stands for something. That’s what I want to build here.”

A VCU School of Business board member, Eric Cevis frequently lectures at the school. To Elwell, the endowed scholarship in Cevis’ name is just one more way to advance Cevis’ powerful lessons. 

“Having Eric’s voice inside the halls of VCU offers a huge advantage for business school students. His business units almost always outperformed others in our company. That had everything to do with the diverse team he built and the environment he created where people felt truly appreciated for the unique perspectives they brought to work.”

Cevis “emotional” to learn of scholarship

Cevis learned of the endowed scholarship in his name in late October. “It was so humbling,” he recalls. “I found myself getting emotional. I suppose we all want our life’s work to reach some level of appreciation or respect. For Dennis to create an endowed scholarship in my name meant so very much. All my life I’ve been trying to give back and to promote equity, so this touched me in a big way.”

In his 34-year career with Verizon, Cevis served in a variety of sales, business development and marketing roles. Today he is president of Verizon Partner Solutions for Verizon’s Business Group, responsible for domestic and international wholesale strategy, including marketing, sales, strategy, customer service and global wholesale business operations.

Eric Cevis’ inspiring story

Cevis was raised in Baltimore and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in marketing management from George Mason University in 1986. “I came from a lower-middle class family and my parents raised me to appreciate the value of an education,” Cevis recalls.

“I graduated with a whole bunch of student loans. I’ll never forget signing that last student loan check. Verizon later sponsored me to continue my education at The Wharton School [of the University of Pennsylvania] for Executive Leadership Development; the Yale School of Management CEO Challenge, Chief Executive Leadership Institute; and Duke Corporate Education. I’m an African-American male and it hasn’t been an easy road, but my company gave me access to those opportunities and each one of those educational pieces helped me.

“If this scholarship lightens the load for a deserving student and affords them the advantage of an education they might not otherwise achieve on their own, I’ll be the happiest person in the world.”

While at George Mason, in 1984, Cevis helped establish the university’s first Black fraternity. He celebrated in 2020 when his alma mater named its first Black president. “I didn’t expect to see that in my lifetime. What we’re seeing happening now isn’t a moment, it’s a movement, and that’s gratifying to see.”

Cevis has long promoted diversity and inclusion at Verizon and throughout Corporate America. He is the executive chair of Verizon’s Black Employee Resource Group as well as the former chair of the Disabilities Issues Awareness Leaders employee resource group. 

As a member of the Global Leaders’ Forum, Cevis led two year-long initiatives to examine gender imbalance and racial injustice in the technology industry in partnership with 32 telecommunication providers from across the globe He has been named to Capacity Media’s Power 100 List, Savoy Magazine’s list of the “Most Influential Blacks in Corporate America” and Carriers World’s “Global Wholesale Personality of the Year”.

“I’ve been known at Verizon for helping people develop. When I retire, one of the things I’ll be most proud of is the number of people I helped take lateral roles or get promoted in their careers – white, Black, Hispanic, Indian, Asian, veteran, women, LGBTQ, people across the entire spectrum. If we each do our share of that, imagine the difference it could make.”