ST PAUL, Minnesota — In downtown St. Paul, you don't have to go far to be inspired to travel.
Inside the Historic Hamm Building, Donnie Gardner's store carries everything from travel bags to scale model airplanes.
"I think the urge for travel is definitely there because we were cooped up for nearly two years with the pandemic," Gardner said.
Gardner, who has worked as a commercial airline pilot for 16 years, found himself with extra time on his hands during the pandemic when air travel nearly came to a halt.
He decided to use that time to build his business, DGPilot. The company has been around since 2015 but during the pandemic, online sales surged and DGPilot outgrew its 300-square-foot warehouse in Lowertown. By August 2020, Gardner had opened a storefront in the Historic Hamm Building.
"I've always had that entrepreneurial spirit," Gardner said.
The travel lifestyle store is one of a few stores in the country to sell items from Red Canoe's Tuskegee line.
"The Tuskegee Airmen were actually the first African American pilots to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces and they paved the way for many, many people to be commercial pilots," Gardner said. "I certainly wouldn't be an airline pilot if it hadn't been for the sacrifices, and the resilience, and courage of The Tuskegee Airmen and what they did during the Second World War to open the doors for African Americans to become airline pilots."
But even now, only about 2 percent of commercial pilots are Black, according to a Zippia report.
"There are not a whole lot of us at all. Matter of fact, one of the reasons that I wanted to be a pilot ... is my dad wanted to be a pilot," Gardner said. "I realized that he lives vicariously through me. That was something that he just didn't have the means to achieve. He didn't know how to be a commercial pilot ... I don't want anyone to go through and not know how to become a commercial airline pilot."
Gardner is one of three Black pilots who now run an aviation camp in hopes of inspiring more BIPOC youth to pursue careers in the aviation industry. The Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals' Aerospace Career Education (ACE) Academy Twin Cities will take place this year from June 19-23. The week-long camp is designed to expose teens to a wide variety of career opportunities in aviation and aerospace.
Gardner added, "Really that is my passion, I would say, outside of flying airplanes is really giving back and helping others and make sure that they know how to pursue a career in aviation."
406A St. Peter Street
St. Paul, Minnesota 55102
Wednesday-Saturday: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Know a local business we should feature for our Behind the Business segment? Email Heidi Wigdahl at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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