When Sarah Torres knows what she wants, nothing gets in her way. The Brooklyn-born daughter of Puerto Rican parents, she put herself through University at Buffalo by working as a full-time nanny during the day, waitressing on weekends, and matriculating at night. “I’ve always been a hustler beyond belief,” she says.
It’s little surprise then, that at age 22, 16 months after joining CNN, she became the network's first and only multicultural sales planner. “Typically, you don’t become a planner as quickly as I did, but I pitched myself,” says Torres. “I didn’t grow up with the same mentality as many people in the workforce. I had to get it done, no matter what.”
Now just 24, Torres spends her days facilitating communication between global consumer brands such Toyota, Verizon and Procter & Gamble with a diverse array of multicultural communities. “I go to meetings to have conversations about multicultural content. The response we often receive is that it’s breathtaking to see sales reps that represent the community authentically,” says Torres.
Torres points to a spot done for Ford as an example of her work at CNN. The news network profiled Dr. Steve Perry, principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., in its “Black in America” coverage. When Ford learned that Perry was personally picking up students so they wouldn’t have to walk to school through a tough neighborhood, the car maker donated a van to help. That was “the coolest promotion we did,” says Torres.
Torres’ advice to diverse candidates who want to follow in her footsteps? “Don’t be intimated by a big company, a CEO’s name or face,” she says. “If it’s something you want to do, find a way to make it happen… If you have to work three, four jobs, it’s clearly possible.”
For Kenji Summers, community manager at BBH ZAG, the road to professional success has been paved with inspiration from those who came before him. This 25-year-old doesn’t hesitate to identify the experiences that led him to champion diversity in the workplace and mentor other young people. “The community is ultra-competitive. There are a lot of talented people and AdColor introduced me to that intelligence,” Summers says.
At age 21 while interning at Converse, Summers had an auspicious encounter with Dan Cherry III, then brand strategy director/marketing partner at Anomaly and currently CMO of the New York Cosmos. “Cherry stressed don’t use being young, black and cool as your competitive advantage, because you’ll get surpassed. Your intuition isn’t enough,” Summers recalls. He came away thinking, “My race doesn’t make me a better person to talk to black people if I don’t understand the strategy.”
He took that message to heart and passes it on to others today. He recommends books, case studies and more to those he mentors, and urges them to use their intuition to figure out why they work. One with great meaning to Summers is The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism. A discussion of Droga5’s viral video for the urban sportswear brand Ecko—which featured graffiti artists tagging a plane that looked like Air Force One with the words “Still Free”—resonated with Summers, a Brooklyn kid with an appreciation for street art. “I realized great work could be done by anyone if he brought his experience and insight to it. I could maybe even make it better,” says Summers.
After paying his agency dues, Summers knew he wanted to get with a creative shop where he felt he could make more of a difference. Last year, he got that opportunity at BBH ZAG, working on branding for emerging brands. He is now serving as community manager for Playground Sessions, a music-teaching program from YouTube piano sensation David Sides. “We can change the way music is taught and learned—that’s my goal as community manager,” says Summers. “I use it now, and I didn’t know how to play piano. I can play a little bit of a Bruno Mars’ ‘Apologize.’”
“I feel a strong responsibility to be an ambassador for diversity,” says Zoë Bell, copywriter at Publicis. “As a double minority in this industry—I’m black and a female—we need to reflect that in the work, but I think of myself as a copywriter, period. I have been really lucky to have not felt that I stand out or I’m different.”
She acknowledges, however, that minority headcounts in advertising don’t yet reflect society. “That’s something we need to strive towards more.”
The 29-year-old puts her money where her mouth is when it comes to mentorship. Since arriving in New York with a masters from VCU’s Brandcenter program, she’s been active in Adfutures, a program that works with New York City public high schools to pair students (frequently minorities) with an agency. The students are immersed in the creative process from strategic goals to execution, seeing their efforts come to life from the brief all the way through to creating an actual print ad.
Bell understands the need to do hands-on work, and attributes her success to the work she did building a portfolio at VCU. “Getting into creative advertising is incredibly difficult, but I was very supported by the faculty of my school. They really encouraged me. VCU is the reason I have a job today,” she says.
Although she has only been in the industry for three years, Bell is serious about promoting diversity. “It’s something that, no matter who we are, we should all feel a sense of that responsibility,” she notes. “The more we can connect with all different kinds of people, the more we can create better work that changes the world.”
Bell acknowledges that today’s workplace challenges are different for a minority than they were a generation ago, and she sees her background as an asset. She has felt empowered when she’s working on assignments related to what it feels like to be the only person in the room who is different. That is a perspective she understands. “I know that I try to bring diversity to my work because it’s important to reflect all different kinds of people in your advertising,” says Bell.