His suits were professional and trendy, his meetings led with short, efficient agendas, and his smile toothy and genuine. This was my first marketing boss—now the V.P. of Diversity and Inclusion for US Bank—but then, he was the manager of a two-person team, in a spacey corner cubicle of Target’s massive marketing department, who had found time to take on an intern from Howard University to shadow him in an up and coming niche of marketing called, “Multicultural.”
My summer internship days under Greg Cunningham were full of incredible brainstorm sessions, impressively talented people, and constant note taking—wherever he went, I went. Rarely was there a meeting or conversation I wasn’t invited to. He would prep me for meetings while we power walked to them, refreshing me on names, projects, key market insights to consider, timing and budget. My days were happily exhausting. We were movers and shakers. Up stream fish in the corporate current, carving paths no one had trekked, and making ripples that everyone could feel.
I was in the office by 8:30 am and left around 6 pm. Those 8-9 hours in-between were full of firing electrons igniting ideas and questions, and probing market research. I worked out at the downtown Minneapolis YMCA after work, still downloading the day and processing my ideas and to-dos for the next: the next holiday happenings that others wouldn’t think of for months, recaps of calls with agencies “that had the next best thing,” meetings with internal teams that needed nuance perspective on general marketing plans, strategic planning with project management to ensure our campaign ideas could actually come to life… I would catch the 22 bus back to my Grandma’s house—my head nodding against the glass.
There was the time Greg put me in charge of creating a company fashion show; I worked directly with Rae Mackenzie Group to pull off everything from lights and cameras, to outfit choices and runway beats (we even had a halftime choreographed hip hop group!) Or the time my end of summer project around possible HBCU partnerships included a surprise step show presentation by the University of Minnesota Alphas.
After my first internship with Greg, I changed my emphasis in school from print journalism to advertising and returned a second summer to intern under him. I went on to perform well in my industry classes and won the AAF most promising award, opening the door for a full-time offer with Target post-graduation.
The company allowed me weigh-in on where my first marketing placement would be and while in-decision, I found myself once again sitting across from Greg, seeking counsel. “I am not sure if I want to come back into multicultural marketing” I said, hoping he would tell me if this was right thinking or not. His stare asked me for more, so I continued, “I mean, I don’t want people to think I only do multicultural marketing because I’m black. I want broad experience, and I want to prove that I am as good at general marketing as anyone.” He looked down and took a bite of his food. I felt embarrassed. “I mean, I would love to be on your team, but I just don’t want to be pigeonholed.” He kept chewing and looked at me, swallowed his bite and said, “Then you should do general marketing.”
Looking back, I can only imagine how many responses were swirling in his head. How much advice. His whole tenure flashing before his eyes. Every experience filled with learning that I had yet to have. I am still not clear if Greg had a direct impact on the fact I landed in the coolest general marketing area of Target my first year in— Entertainment. As cool as it was, the pace was different, and my influence limited. The trailblazing I had experienced for two summers prior, felt suffocated by templates and sponsor tier agreements and predetermined mass market media buys. Meetings with packed agendas that had no space for brainstorm, or at least not brainstorm I was invited to. All of my big ideas that had seemed to fly with Greg, or at least be seriously entertained and inform something else, were met with kind nods and little action. Whole proposals I had crafted, lost in piles of budget drafts and routine status reports. Every so often, I would pass Greg flying down the hall to another meeting and feel regret rise up in me. “Hey Alyssa!” he’d say with that smile, hopping into the elevator just before the doors closed. And I’d be left standing there, with my super cool team, who didn’t feel so super cool anymore. I moved around to various areas of marketing, each requiring further cultural assimilation that ate away at my soul, let alone my creative juices.
I lasted three years in general marketing at Target. I resigned in 2011, in the thick of the recession, looming lay-offs that I had so far survived, and the largest restructure Target’s marketing had ever seen. I was in need of a reset. So, I sold my personal possessions, and enrolled at language school in Costa Rica to pursue fluency in Spanish, in hopes that it would serve my skill sets for potentially reentering the industry in, you guessed it, Multicultural Marketing.
Ten years later, bilingual, a sole proprietor, and more recently a co-founder of one of the nation’s few black and woman owned design firms, I am thankful for that moment when Greg took his time to chew his bite and swallow his advice. Being black and woman in business can only be experienced, not taught. There was nothing he could say to help me live it. There was no counsel to give me resolve. And he was never one to impose his story onto mine. Partly due to that pivotal lunch, I would learn what he knew I would, and what Queen Latifah so eloquently discovered: “I am a strong woman with or without this other person, with or without this job, and with or without these tight pants.”