The Marcus Graham Project (MGP) started as a seed planted in the mind of one of its founders Lincoln Stephens. However, MGP and other similar efforts stand on the shoulders of Advertising Legend and industry diversity pioneer, William “Bill” Sharp. His Basic Ad Course, created in 1967 and lasting devotion to helping young African American students find careers in the advertising industry was the inspiration for the creation of the Marcus Graham Project, after learning about it in Jason Chamber’s book, Madison Ave and The Color Line.
As Stephens prepared to graduate college from The University of Missouri-Columbia, one of his mentors Larry Powell suggested that he start a network of diverse professionals in the industry. Stephens kept this in mind as he began his career and noticed that in the agencies that he worked for , he was one of the only African American males in the company (a common sentiment shared by many African American men in the advertising business). In fact in the city of Dallas at the time, he noticed that he was actually one of the only African American male account executives that he knew of. Another young man, Joshua Key, then an account executive at another agency met and said, “we need to start a group to bring more of us in the field.”
Upon leaving Dallas to Chicago, Stephens found a job with Carol H Williams Advertising, where he was truly inspired to bring this idea to life. One day, during the summer of 2007, Lincoln spent a few hours writing out a vision for The Marcus Graham Project as a network of professionals and students. This vision included the creation of an online social networking site to begin bringing people together. The vision was first shared with Stephens’ roommate Jeffrey Tate. Upon reviewing the initial concept, Tate agreed that further development of the idea should be considered.
Stephens and Tate garnered the support of several industry colleagues in the Chicago and Midwest area to assist in further developing the vision and structure for what The Marcus Graham Project should become. Meetings were held in the office of Courtney Hill, owner of Market M. Attendees in several of the strategy sessions included John Casmon, Mike Tresvant, Richard Harvey, Jamil Buie and Brandon Byrd. The growing idea was also shared virtually with Stephens’ longtime business partner Larry Yarrell, as well as Kenji Summers, Malcolm Gillian, Ralph Lee, Will Davison and Rudy Duthil, all working professionals who also saw the need for more mentorship and development amongst African American males.
In November 2008, after watching the successful election of our country’s first African American president, Stephens stepped out on his balcony and prayed (photo below), asking for divine inspiration on what the next step of his life and the next step of the Marcus Graham Project should be. Little did he know that the step out on the balcony would be the step out on faith. God’s response was to move forward with launching MGP. Within two weeks, Stephens has immediately quit his job in Chicago and moved back to Dallas to bring this idea to fruition. Stephens, along with one of his mentors Will Murphy began to garner community support to secure office space and pilot the iCR8 Boot Camp, MGP’s first training program, which launched in the summer of 2009 with 7 participants. Since then the program has garnered an incredible amount of attention both in the media, the industry and amongst current and future professionals and expanded to Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland.
The rest of the story is up to all of us to define. Will we talk about diversity or will we act? Will we invest time and fiscal resources to programs that seek to inspire change? Will we mentor? Will we speak up and out? The Marcus Graham Project asks the same question to you, what will you do to create change, in our industry, in our community and our country?