In Conversation with Bivian “Sonny” Lee, III

Since 2011, Son of a Saint has transformed the lives of more than 200 fatherless boys in New Orleans through outreach, mentorship, education, service and community building. Founder Bivian “Sonny” Lee, III, was inspired to develop the organization’s mission and programming after experiencing hardships following the death of his father, former New Orleans Saints defensive back, Bivian Lee, Jr. With Son of a Saint, Lee strives to provide other young boys whose lives and opportunities have been altered by loss with a pathway to success and prosperity, ensuring that tragedy and circumstance do not limit the potential of local youth. Lee spoke with REGION about his journey so far, his inspirations and the future of his organization.
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Q: How did you get started on your career path?  I was raised in New Orleans, went to St. Augustine High School and went on to graduate from the University of New Orleans. The city of New Orleans is central and core to my identity, so I’ve always been aware of investing in my community because it’s poured so much into me.  Immediately prior to founding Son of a Saint, I served as chief aide to Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints. Before that time, I also served as the Director of Operations for the New Orleans Zephyrs AAA Baseball Team and Director of Programs for the New Orleans Jazz Institute. These collective experiences inspired me to give back to the community, so I started Son of a Saint.

Q: Son of a Saint operates on a very specific mission, which is rooted in community outreach and mentorship. Did you always envision yourself doing this kind of work?  Initially, I did not see this for myself as a profession, but being of service is something that I’ve participated in at some capacity my entire life. Whether it was volunteering for community service through school or summer programs or helping out at a local animal hospital during my adolescent years, to later becoming a youth mentor in my early 20s, I’ve always had a passion to give back to others.

Q: What are some of the biggest lessons you hope to impart on boys entering Son of a Saint program? In turn, what are some of the biggest lessons they’ve taught you?  I hope to teach the boys perseverance and sustainability. It’s all about the long game; it’s not about the short game and instant gratification. I want them to learn that you are the company you keep, and to surround themselves with great people, and to distinguish the difference between good and bad characteristics. I also want them to learn how to be independent, cultivate their natural talents, tap into their uniqueness and utilize their individual voice. They’ve taught me patience and authenticity, and how simple wins are just as rewarding and powerful as the bigger wins. They’ve also taught me to invest in people and to cultivate their best qualities early to yield the best results.”

Q: Who was the most impactful mentor in your life?  I’m blessed that each chapter of my life has ushered in someone who I needed at that time. My Uncle Warmoth Guillaume when I was younger, followed by the collective of teachers and coaches at St. Augustine High School, and then Mr. Benson in adulthood. The exposure, experiences, places and people, unknowingly at the time, have greatly impacted my life and shaped who I am today.

Q: You’re the current monarch of Krewe de Nieux. How did you come to be involved with the Krewe?  In mid-2021, I received an invite to join Krewe de Nieux, which is a collective of like-minded entrepreneurs dedicated to promoting a better New Orleans through business, community and culture. My primary connection was through Michael Hecht and Tim Williamson [Idea Village co-founder]. From there, I got acquainted and more engaged with this impressive and inspiring group of people throughout the remainder of 2021, and began my official term as Krewe de Nieux Monarch this past February, just before Mardi Gras. I was presented with the opportunity to take on the leadership role and I knew it would be something more than worthwhile to pursue, not only on behalf of myself but also as a key representation for the work of Son of a Saint.

Q: Why is it important for you to support other startups in New Orleans?  We have a burgeoning pool of dynamic talent across myriad industries throughout Greater New Orleans. I strongly believe if we can create successes amongst the current startups, and elevate them to their highest potential, it will serve to attract more to enter our area and strengthen our region. It’s what we need, and this is the time to go after it.

Q: What kind of impact do you hope to see Krewe de Nieux (and other local startup development organizations) make on our business environment?  I hope to see all the collective efforts raise the bar for business in this area. Whether it’s Krewe de Nieux or other similar groups, I want to see the successful work of startups and dedicated entrepreneurs create a ripple effect that ultimately elevates our community—economically, culturally, socially and politically. The positive outcomes and impact that could result from this type of work, and its related opportunities, are far-reaching and potentially limitless.

Q: What trajectory do you hope to see for Son of a Saint in the next five years?  I hope to see our mission continually applied to the communities to solve youth issues. I feel that our organization will continue to grow—hopefully doubling or tripling in size—if we continue to cultivate mentorship and support. I hope to see more mentees transform their lives, their families’ lives and their community through independence, self-sufficiency and applying all they’ve learned from the Son of a Saint experience. I want Son of a Saint to become engrained in the culture and fabric of New Orleans and synonymous with the best of the city, like gumbo, jazz, red beans and the fleur de Lis. Lastly, I would love to see mentees return to our program and become Son of a Saint mentors themselves, as well as great fathers to their own children.

Q: What are you most excited about right now, either personally or professionally?  Professionally, I’m looking forward to graduating from the University of Notre Dame with an Executive Master of Nonprofit Administration, and then the grand opening of the new Son of a Saint headquarters, “A Home for Our Boys.”  I’m personally excited for spending time in the pool and grilling out this summer with my son, Tenzin. He’s growing up so fast.