Keni Thacker hasn’t forgotten his first time at Cannes. It was the summer of 2016, and like any other industry veteran, he was thrilled to attend the world’s largest gathering of advertising and creative professionals. But actually being at Cannes was a different story.
“At Cannes, I found myself alone a lot of the time because I was the only person of color at an event or at a party,” Thacker said. “And I remember thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, this is insane, the tiny amount of people of color at this festival.’”
At the airport on the trip home, Thacker ran into another black ad pro who had attended the festival 10 times and broke it down for him: That’s just the way Cannes is. It was another depressing reminder of how lonely the industry can feel when you look around and see the glaring absence of diversity.
That trip is what set Thacker, then an event tech specialist at J. Walter Thompson New York (he left the agency October 2019), on a new path. That September, he founded The Young Commodores, an immersive JWT internship for multicultural high school and college students. And in September 2019, Thacker founded 100 Roses From Concrete, a network for men of color in advertising, marketing and PR.
The group has grown quickly since its creation last fall, with frequent meetings that draw some of its 54 members together to brainstorm, unpack and relate. Member profiles on the group’s website offer visibility and glimpses into some of the obstacles that men of color often have to overcome to build successful careers.
One member, Elijah Lugo, describes living in family homeless shelters years before he found a job at Showtime. Saul Vasquez was a first-generation immigrant with 10 siblings. Tim Austin was born to a single mom in inner-city Baltimore. Several members recall being the first in their families to attend college. All stand as examples of men of color who defied the odds stacked against them.
Thacker spoke with Adweek about 100 Roses From Concrete.
What’s the story behind the name 100 Roses From Concrete?
Thacker: It’s a piece of a poem by Tupac Shakur called The Rose That Grew From Concrete. The thing about being a person of color in this industry is you really are a rose trying to rise from concrete. We have the least amount of access and the fewest amount of the things that help a rose grow: sunlight, soil, fertilizer. Unfortunately, we are behind the 8-ball when it comes to those things because advertising, marketing and PR is just not a career that we’re exposed to.
When it comes to organizations that tout diversity, the word ‘color’ is always in there—and much respect to them. But I wanted to have this narrative behind why men are in the organization, how they’ve overcome incredible things, and are still doing great work.
How does 100 Roses operate, and what has the group been up to?
We have meetings either twice a month or once a month. Last month, we were incredibly busy because we taught two classes at the Manhattan Early College of Advertising. And the day after that, we gave away free headshots to people in the industry that needed them. And the week before that we started our own library at the New York College of Technology. Last December, I said, ‘Hey guys, I want us to create a library, to do a book drive.’ By the end of the month, we had over 130 books. [Members chose books “that either helped professionally or personally” in their own careers.]
Why a group just for men?
I wanted a group that represents just men because there are already some groups that represent women and women of color specifically.
This organization—and I can only speak for myself, but this is also in the many stories you find on our site—we find ourselves constantly alone in the industry. We’re misunderstood and sometimes undervalued. There’s nowhere that these guys can come together and voice whatever they’re going through.
Being able to influence the education sector, creating this library, these are the kinds of things we weren’t able to do just standing alone. But being part of an organization, now you’re part of a team of guys that can stand in front of a room full of students and inspire and encourage them to want to be in this industry— and to know that they’re not alone. Because we are here.