Why a camp on a college campus?

Vonda White — a longtime insurance broker and now the founder of Camp Pillsbury — came to Minnesota in 2014.

Her journey started about six years ago when she was living in Florida and looking for summer activities for her three kids. She wanted something to further their interests in the arts. 

Her administrative assistant suggested a camp in New York that offered arts, sports and more.

“I had never heard of camp,” White said.

That summer, her kids had an outstanding time participating in theater productions, music lessons, circus arts and skateboarding sessions, among other things. 

When she flew up to attend the end-of-session performances, she was floored.

“I was amazed to see everything they could do after a 2½ week period,” White said.

Her son had learned how to play the drums and how to skateboard (including how to safely fall). 

More important, her kids came back with confidence, thanks to everything they found they could achieve in a matter of weeks.

“You think, ‘If I can do that, what else can I do?’” White said.

White was inspired. How could she help more kids discover camp — and have those kinds of experiences? 

And was there a business opportunity here? Her entrepreneurial spirit said yes.

“They teach you to always be looking if you’re a serial entrepreneur,” White said.

White immediately set out to see if she could purchase a camp of her own.

She didn’t find much inventory, despite looking all over the U.S.: Few camps were for sale. And the ones on offer were too remote for year-round activities or they were far too expensive.

Then — by Googling “college campus for sale” — she found the Pillsbury campus, a former Baptist bible college that had been sitting vacant since 2008 in Owatonna. 

In April 2014, she bought the historic property for $1.8 million — with no money down — with a dream of creating the ultimate summer camp.

Hoping to host her first camp that very summer, White upgraded one of the dormitories and managed to have the old dining hall, kitchen and gymnasium remodeled as well.

Few folks believed she could launch a camp on such a short timeline. But she did. 

Now entering its third summer this June, the camp is growing. More than 250 kids attended last summer and more are expected this year. 

Most campers attend for at least four weeks, White said. Many sign up for two weeks and end up staying longer. 

All of White’s children, who now live in Minnesota, too, attend or work at the camp. 

Meanwhile, White continues to revamp the campus facilities — which boasts 13 buildings in all and historic-register status — and she’s slowly launching a boarding school, which is now in its first year with 15 students in grades 6 to 12 who attend a variety of local public and private academic programs.

She’s also still running her Florida-based insurance company, Collegiate Risk Management, which specializes in health insurance for students.

White, recently featured in a story about female entrepreneurs on Inc.com, has been honored with multiple awards in her central-Florida community for her women-owned, small-business successes.

She said the can-do spirit found at Camp Pillsbury has proven equally powerful in the business world.

“I’m a dreamer,” White said. “I believe you only have one life. Allow yourself to dream and think big.”


Sarah Jackson is the editor of Minnesota Parent