The Power of The BrandLab
The BrandLab builds bridges for diverse students, from classroom to career. It grew out of concern that the Twin Cities’ overwhelmingly white advertising community didn’t reflect increasingly diverse audiences. John Olson, founder of Olson advertising agency, started The BrandLab in 2009, teaching marketing to students at South High School in Minneapolis. Today, The Brand Lab works in the Twin Cities and Kansas City with hundreds of students each year—opening their eyes to careers they might not have known existed and placing them in internships that often lead to job offers.
Since The BrandLab’s inception, the number of people of color working in advertising in the Twin Cities has increased from 6 to 10 percent. The Twin Cities BIPOC population is approaching 25 percent.
It’s widely known as one of the only U.S. programs of its kind that starts so young. The BrandLab supporters include agencies such as Colle McVoy and Weber Shandwick, as well as many of the Twin Cities’ largest employers, including Target, General Mills, and 3M.
But it wasn’t until this summer’s awakening about systemic racism for many of us white people who mistook silence for progress that it feels like The BrandLab is constantly popping up in conversations about workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion. I don’t know about you, but I know I’m having a whole lot more conversations about these topics. Lately, when I ask business leaders whose companies have come out in support of Black Lives Matter what they’re doing to push for tangible progress, more often than not I’ll hear, “We’re working with The BrandLab.”
“They show students opportunities and the power of connections.”
—Ingrid Sabah, vice chairwoman of the board, The BrandLab; BrandLab alumna
The BrandLab is so busy that the only time CEO Ellen Walthour could speak to me was at 8 a.m., before a full day of working with interns via Zoom and fielding inquiries from businesses. The calls are coming from nearby, as well as from companies in Atlanta, Seattle, New York, and Boston that want to build more diverse and equitable teams. Walthour makes clear that the demand was there long before a Minneapolis police offer pressed his knee into the neck of a Black man the world now knows was George Floyd.
What’s changed, Walthour says, is how her organization reacts to those calls for help. “We’re raising our voice as a nonprofit to say, ‘What we really need is sustainable support—three-year commitments.’ ” That way, The BrandLab can spend more time on the work, and less time fundraising.
“We want them to think about the long term,” Walthour says. “You’re not going to fire half your team overnight, so how do you put the ecosystem in place to build an equitable workforce?”
The BrandLab has long believed it starts in the classroom, and that’s why Walthour introduced me to Ingrid Sabah, who got connected to The BrandLab when she was a student at Bloomington Kennedy High school. She applied and landed an internship at Tunheim strategic communications agency and that led to opportunities with ad agency Mono and Buffalo Wild Wings. The great thing about The BrandLab’s approach to mentorship is it sticks with its students. Three years after graduating from the University of Minnesota, Sabah is a senior analyst in talent operations at Ovative Group.
“I owe so much of my career to The BrandLab,” Sabah says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do in business. They show students opportunities and the power of connections.”
The BrandLab has seized this summer to set lofty benchmarks for the next three years:
- Work with an additional 3,000 students.
- Expand to five markets.
- Secure 500 internships across those five markets.
- Grow its “Fearless” program nationally; the program works with businesses on cultural competency and inclusion of diverse identities.
“This is the moment to start treating people as more than numbers,” Sabah says. “It’s so important to see people in your organization as whole, complete. That’s what’s been most challenging in Covid-19—you don’t really know what’s happening behind the Zoom screen. You can’t assume people are coming in [to your organization] on a level playing field.”
Sabah didn’t. She’s an immigrant who grew up in a single-parent household without strong role models in the business world. “I was underrepresented from every angle,” she says. Now, as her career blossoms, it’s why she’s still so loyal to The BrandLab. Sabah serves as vice chairwoman of the national board. She’s the youngest board member to hold an executive officer position, and the first BrandLab alumna to serve.
“Our ultimate goal,” Walthour says, “is that everyone on our board has come through the program.”
What are your diversity goals?