Ellen Walthour is CEO of The BrandLab, a Minneapolis non-profit dedicated to increasing diversity in the marketing industry. She is bringing real change to an area that has long had much discussion and little action. She’s bringing the action. I have tremendous admiration for what she does and how she does it, with high energy and tremendous passion, and I loved learning about her fascinating career path.
Q: How does your previous career in teaching inform your work with The BrandLab?
I believe that marketing is really at the top of the inequity food chain. I saw how students were so influenced by perceptions of themselves and of their peers by the messages they interact with every day in media. If the industry truly reflects the mosaic of our diverse cultural experiences, we may begin to unravel the systems that have perpetuated inequality. Marketing communications has the power to change hearts and minds.
Q: How satisfying is it to see young people find their way in the industry and move into full-time positions? Can you share a story of a Brand Lab alum who is knocking it out of the park?
When I first began at TBL I was so struck by how high schoolers’ eyes would light up when they realized that creativity can lead to a viable career. There was one young woman I met when she was only a junior in college. She is a first-generation American. She applied and was accepted into our internship program. After that, she was in community college and looking to transfer to a larger university. To get into the college, she leaned on TBL to mentor her through the complicated maze of higher education. At every turn, she was hungry for more and we were able to provide the right level of support for her to reach her potential. Today she is first in her family to graduate and already two years into her professional career at a top agency. Her story is just one of many that we are starting to see. Our program is comprehensive and long term. We want to encourage all of our participants to reach their dreams with a team of support. Today, this young woman is now paying it forward by making a donation to TBL. She is already supporting the kids coming up. There is nothing more powerful than watching an individual discover her power and lean into it.
Q: What lessons from the classroom have you been able to bring with you to the business world?
When I was a teacher, I managed rooms full of distracted hormonal middle schoolers. I can’t think of a bigger challenge than that. When my classrooms were humming, I knew my students’ hopes and dreams and what made them tick. Relationships are what matter. I use that same strategy when it comes to working with business leaders. What do they care about? How can our mission match their needs? How can they be the idea generators, not me? Those same strategies worked with pre-teens and the nice thing about business folks is they don’t roll their eyes at me. Or maybe some do when I turn around. I will catch them one day and send them to study hall!
Q: I’m a big believer that companies can “do well by doing good” by making a meaningful, positive impact on their customers’ lives while improving their bottom line. Is that what you’ve found, too?
I can’t even imagine it any other way. I was taught as a young girl to stand up for what I believe in. This value will always attract folks to your cause or your product. My bottom line is all about justice and equity in a country where zip codes and color so sadly determines unequal access to opportunities, which leads to income inequality. I want to do my small part to eradicate that. And that to me is worth millions of dollars.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
I have gotten so much great advice from so many leaders I admire. I think the best one came from my mom: “Be curious.”
Q: I think you are a rock star in the business world. Is there a musical rock star you relate to?
How about Debbie Harry? She always seems tough and she likes to break rules. I am not much for rules, either. And while I’d like to think I am tough, everyone around me knows I am just a softie.