“If only Daddy had known about the power of Pepsi,” Bernice King tweeted out with a photo of her father, Martin Luther King Jr., being roughed up by police during a peaceful protest. Amidst a storm of controversy, Pepsi pulled its three-minute, $2 million ad.
“Was anyone on that advertising team of a diverse background?” Raquel Melo ’88 wonders. “I’m not saying only a person from a diverse background could have caught the error—but the likelihood would have been higher.”
For Raquel, the Pepsi ad was only one very high profile example of a problem she’d seen over and over as in her two decades as a marketing executive for major food corporations. Currently senior innovation lead for Kemps, a major dairy manufacturer in Minneapolis, she has held marketing leadership positions at Land O’Lakes and General Mills.
“Golden grahams and butter—it’s not only white suburban moms in Minnesota who serve those to their kids,” says Raquel, whose parents moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was small. “As a person of color, I was struck that in the world of marketing and advertising, the industry itself is not reflective of the consumers I am looking to reach. But I didn’t see any on-ramps for people to get into the industry.”
That’s why, when her then-employer Land O’Lakes gave a grant to a social justice start-up called the BrandLab, Raquel became intrigued. Dedicated to diversifying the marketing and advertising workforce, the BrandLab originally provided high school students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds with an opportunity to gain exposure to the industry through summer internships. As a volunteer for the nonprofit, she helped it develop a more advanced, more hands-on internship program for college students.
“Many of the kids are either first-generation Americans or the first generation in their family to go to college,” says Raquel, who stepped up to chair the BrandLab’s Board of Directors last year. “These internships expose kids to a world they didn’t even know existed.”
By now, the BrandLab’s first crop of high school interns are old enough to enter the job market, and Raquel says a recent survey of the marketing and advertising industry in the Twin Cities showed some demographic change. “Is it solely because of BrandLab? No, but we are seeing change, we are starting to see some movement,” she says.
The key to the program’s success, she says, is the long-term mentoring it offers—the same kind of support she says she felt at Winsor. “As a very disadvantaged young person, Winsor was for me an amazing experience,” she recalls. “I had culture shock—the young girl who walked in the door was definitely a deer in the headlights. But people held my hand.”
Now, Raquel is the one offering out her hand to the next generation. She’s looking to extend the BrandLab’s success beyond the Twin Cities. Kansas City, Atlanta, Boston, London—all these cities look like fertile opportunities to her.
“It’s not just about my market,” she says. “If we can replicate it in one market, why not ignite it everywhere? Why not dream big?”
Jacqueline Mitchell ’92 is a writer based in Brookline, Mass.,