The Connecting Point
The television’s blaring; my mom’s watching Wheel of Fortune, screaming letters of the alphabet in an unsystematic order. I hear a noise coming from my brother’s bedroom. He’s either absorbed playing video games or cheering for the Twins. I’m parked at my desktop comparing John Steinbeck’s The Pearl with another significant short story. This is life, night after night, for my family. In many ways, I am an average 17-year-old African-American male being raised by a single parent. Life has its challenges, and I’ve spent most of my energy attempting to overcome and rise above them ...
So begins 18-year-old Travon Sellers’ essay for the BrandLab, a Minneapolis-based initiative seeking to “create opportunities in the marketing industry for students with diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Sellers graduated from Bloomington Kennedy High School in the spring and is now attending Minnesota State University, Mankato. He wrote the essay during his senior year as part of his application for a BrandLab internship and scholarship; but he was also charged with reading it at the BrandLab kick-off gala at General Mills last spring—in front of 200 of the top marketing and advertising professionals in the country.
It’s pretty impressive stuff. Even more so, since most students who end up in a BrandLab class don’t even know the program exists when they register for high school marketing.
Walk into an advertising agency, a PR firm, a marketing shop, and take a good look around. Chances are you’ll see an eclectic group. But don’t let the colorful personalities and collective flair of the staff fool you, because it’s not about the sprawl of humanity you see, it’s about the sprawl of humanity you don’t see. Notice many people of color? How about many people from socioeconomic backgrounds that aren’t, well, middle class or higher? Chances are you don’t. That’s where the BrandLab comes in.
The BrandLab began in 2007 as an initiative of Minneapolis-based agency OLSON; it was originally known as OLSON Brand Academy. In the first year, a single classroom of students from Minneapolis South High School had the opportunity to explore the marketing world—not just through a dry textbook, but through the lens of industry veterans. The idea was simple enough: to expose a new sector of kids to the world of marketing who might not otherwise have had the chance, and in so doing, also diversify a marketing workforce that badly needed it.
It comes down to a basic sentiment: if you don’t know about it, how can you do it? “You can't pursue a job that you don't know exists,” says Jim Cousins, the BrandLab’s first executive director, “so our initial strategy is simply [to grant] exposure to the fundamental concepts of branding and the many career aspects of marketing,” continues Cousins. “And for those who apply themselves and are interested in pursuing this career path, we provide access to these companies through internships and future job opportunities.”
Accordingly, the BrandLab has provided unfiltered access to the numerous facets of the greater marketing and business world to minds that might not otherwise have had the chance.
A brilliantly simple idea—but like all such ideas, making it actually work was more complex. And not free. The initial investment is estimated at nearly $1 million; now, the program—which expanded to six classrooms by the 2009-2010 school year—costs as much as $300,000 a year to run. The money comes largely from donors. Among the inaugural sponsors were General Mills, Land O’ Lakes, Target, the Schwan Food Company and Best Buy. Sponsors for the 2010-11 school year include 3M, Gabriel deGrood Bendt, Medtronic, UnitedHealth Group, Carmichael Lynch, Colle+McVoy and U.S. Bank, along with a host of industry sponsors and individual sponsors including OLSON founder John Olson.
Then there’s the who’s-who board of directors: John Olson; Mark Addicks, CMO, General Mills; Sue Williams, VP director of operations, OLSON; Eric Erickson, VP creative director, Target; Barry Wolfish, SVP, corporate marketing and communications; Howard Liszt, senior fellow, University of Minnesota; Chuck Porter, chairman, Crispin Porter + Bogusky; Jeff Duffin, VP marketing, Schwan’s Food Service; Sean Gallimore, VP structural heart marketing, Medtronic; and Christine Fruechte, president and CEO, Colle+McVoy.
It’s an impressive collective, to be certain, but what’s really impressive is what this collective is enabling the BrandLab students to do.
Although Travon Sellers has lived his 18 years almost exclusively in a world far removed from that of the high-powered board members, more than once in his life he’s been savvy enough to recognize when a door has opened, and walked through it.
“It goes back to when I was chosen in third grade to be part of the Cargill Scholars program,” says Sellers, from his conference-room perch in the Tunheim offices overlooking Bloomington, with a faint glimmer of the Minneapolis skyline in the distance. “I had a lot of exposure to the business world and various people from Cargill,” he says. Sharply turned out in all black, with a confident, serious demeanor to match, he continues, “And then there was the Big Brother Big Sister program, where I was exposed to a very business-oriented gentleman. I got to observe what kind of lifestyle he had and what kind of man he was. He was a role model to me.”
Sellers was speaking during the early stages of his summer internship with Tunheim, a Bloomington-based strategic communications and public relations firm, which he earned because of his stellar performance in the BrandLab just months before.
Having stepped through his first door as a child, and drawn inspiration from another, in high school Sellers took all the business classes he possibly could, which is how he happened upon the BrandLab, and with it a facet of business he had never fully fathomed.
“The BrandLab is trying to get the word out about what marketing is,” says Sellers. “What I knew about marketing was very basic. Like when you walk by a window in the mall; I thought that was marketing. Before the BrandLab I didn’t even know the different aspects of business.”
Although Sellers had determined his future would lie in the more entrepreneurial arm of business well before entering a BrandLab classroom, his innate ability and desire to sell proved invaluable. His BrandLab teacher Opal Singleton—also the BrandLab’s student services director—describes Sellers as charismatic, well-spoken and bright, and credits him with a real knack for networking that “not many young people possess.” And, she notes, he has the desire to make the most out of any opportunity. Given all that, you begin to understand why this teenager with sales on the brain was one of the more creative thinkers in his class.
“In the classroom Travon always seemed to think outside of the box, with his creative ideas and expressed interest in the marketing/advertising world,” says Singleton.
By our second interview, Sellers was still adamant—perhaps more so than the first time we met—that owning his own business was still his primary focus. But he definitely gained a lot from his stint dissecting the public relations business.
“I really wanted this internship to feel different, so we decided to make this about opening the horizons to what we do here and make sure that Travon experienced all that we do,” says Noelle Hawton, Travon’s supervisor at Tunheim.
Consequently, Sellers’ schedule and duties were fluid, based on which events, brainstorms, meetings and presentations he could get the most out of and contribute the most to. Hawton wanted Sellers to get an up-close idea of what PR people do for a living, what they do for clients and the business behind it, even as she realized that it can be a challenge for anyone to get a sense of what really happens in such a nebulous industry.
“I was happy to get him in on a client call that was our very first with that client,” says Hawton, “but even so, he’s still coming in without a lot of context for what it is we’re talking about and what it is we’re doing. We had him at a brainstorm and a lot of it was about electronic communications and social media; he’s the right age to have a lot to say and a lot to offer in that way.”
The Tunheim internship and overarching BrandLab experience has given the budding entrepreneur a critical look into the behind-the-scenes complexities of selling a product and positioning a brand.
“The BrandLab has helped me uncover a view of the business world that I wasn’t aware of. I knew that I wanted to go into business and that I wanted to sell things, but I wasn’t thinking of it like I do now,” says Sellers. “For example, my [old notion was that] I would own a company that sells, say, basketballs, but now I understand how to actually market basketballs.”
Like Travon Sellers, Mai See Vang was a senior when she first set foot in a BrandLab classroom and, like Sellers, she had no idea what she was getting herself into.
“I wasn’t sure what it was until the classes started,” says Vang. “In my mind, I didn’t have that picture of all the opportunities [it was going to afford me]. At first I thought it was just going to be another class teaching me from a textbook. [My BrandLab teacher] taught me more hands-on stuff.”
Vang, one of the more polite and polished 18-year-olds you could imagine, was speaking from a conference table deep within 3M’s corporate campus. At the time of our first interview, she was just beginning her internship with the Integrated Marketing Development sector of the St. Paul-based technology giant.
Singleton was also Vang’s BrandLab instructor.
“Mai See is a very motivated, self-directed young woman who always goes the extra mile towards her betterment,” says Singleton. “She is thoughtful in her processing of information and eager to learn to get the most out of opportunities and experiences. In the classroom I found Mai See to be a leader, a creative and thoughtful thinker in her marketing/advertising ideas.”
But if Singleton describes Vang’s and Sellers’ stellar personal qualities similarly, their career goals are taking widely diverging paths. For Vang, marketing is much more than a functioning subset of a larger career arc; it’s the field where she pictures herself working.
“Ever since my freshman year I’ve been looking into marketing,” says Vang, who was a member of the final class to graduate from the now-shuttered Arlington High School in St. Paul. “I was the only one that came into the [BrandLab class] interested in marketing. It was something new for everyone else. But once they told us about the scholarship and the internship, everyone felt like they should really take advantage of it. We had competitions about who could make the best ad, the best commercial.”
Vang’s ability and passion were evident; BrandLab staffers also recognized her knack for analytics and market research, and placed her at 3M accordingly. It seemed a bit of an odd choice to the high school senior who, like many her age, had no idea 3M did anything other than make Post-it Notes. “I was really surprised by that. I was like, ‘3M? Is there even such a thing as marketing at 3M?’ So I didn’t know what to expect coming here.”
Lindsay Schultz, marketing supervisor in 3M’s Integrated Marketing Development, was Vang’s advisor during her two months there. Schultz refers to her department as mainly a post-MBA group, so her interns are typically MBA-level. She understood that the only way to assure Vang of a legitimate experience at 3M was to hold her to a similar standard, scaled down to Vang’s shorter timetable.
“We definitely have invested time in this because for it to be a fruitful experience for the interns as well as for the company there has to be that time investment, especially as we try to grow future marketing leaders from within the Twin Cities community,” says Schultz. “We like to pull from a local talent pool if we can. That’s really inspiring and I think it’s worth any investment of time we put into it.”
“It’s a big challenge,” says Vang. “I was given three projects, mainly having to do with brand research. I’m doing an innovation project. I’m doing another project that has to do with Nascar, and I’m doing a lot of market research best practices.” Her projects required that she make a weekly status report, and when her internship culminated, a presentation about each, which gave her the chance to practice the most practical skill the BrandLab has given her. “The biggest thing I learned was communications skills and I’ve been able to bring those to 3M. That’s the broadest skill that you can use and I feel like I have to use those presenting and communications skills [in my internship] every day.”
Beyond simply doing her assigned work and effectively communicating her progress, Vang pushed herself beyond the Tuesday-through-Thursday schedule originally allotted to her, leaving her superiors impressed with her initiative and creativity.
“I think it shows how driven Mai See is, because she’s adding elements to these projects and really trying to make them their own,” says Schultz. “I would say the progress has been phenomenal.”
Vang’s next challenge? She is currently honing her marketing chops at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
“The BrandLab is the connection point between students and the marketing world,” explains Cousins, returning to the notion that birthed the initiative nearly four years ago.
Whether the student has focused plans to work within the industry, like Vang, or simply wants to use all the tools they’ve learned from the program, like Sellers, the BrandLab experience introduces and articulates a world that can mystify even college seniors. That’s the crux of the matter: Regardless of what Sellers and Vang do with their bright futures, what the BrandLab has given them is crucial.
It’s good for schools as well. Qualifying schools have to do little more than open their doors and let the BrandLab experience unfurl.
“We are a program that works for schools,” says Ellen Walthour, a former teacher and the BrandLab’s current program director. “We bring all the resources [instructors, volunteers, field trips, curriculum, office supplies, color printer, binders for each student]; the things schools have to pinch pennies for. We pay for a sub to cover the class when the class is on field trip, bus cost and even lunch for the kids. This is very unique.”
Unique, too, because it gives voices like Travon Sellers a way to be heard—and amplifies those voices so others can hear:
... I hope the mistakes I’ve made in high school do not keep me from achieving my goals because I can honestly say that my grade point average does not reflect my desires or my hopes for the future. I don’t want to be another statistic of an African-American male in today’s society who doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to get an education. I want to make value out of my life and help change the way people view black men. It’s not about where I come from, but where I want to go and what I want to achieve that’s important. I am applying to the BrandLab knowing in the back of my mind that my record isn’t what I hoped it would be at this time. However, I believe that if I work hard and put my best effort into things, the result will be excellence. I know that I have what it takes to illustrate my ideas and succeed through the BrandLab.
The quest going forward? To find more voices and turn up the volume.