Within the media, tech and advertising industries, ADCOLOR is widely regarded as today’s best in class when it comes to discussing, celebrating and championing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within the corporate sphere. Each year, ADCOLOR hosts the ADCOLOR Awards, ADCOLOR Conference and the well-known ADCOLOR FUTURES program, all with the aim of promoting diversity and inclusion with the creative industries.
The ADCOLOR FUTURES program takes an on-the-ground approach to fostering the next generation of diverse leaders. Each year, the program selects 30 individuals with one to three years of experience in the communications industry, who identify as Black/African-American, American Indian/Native American, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian/Pacific-Islander, Middle Eastern, Arab/MENA, disabled, LGBTQ+, and/or military veteran. Honorees participate in the year-long mentorship program and are given the opportunity to participate in the ADCOLOR Conference & Awards, and in particular the FUTURES Hackathon, during which FUTURES divide into small teams and compete to tackle a marketing problem. For this year’s Hackathon topic “Here For Racial Justice,” teams were tasked with creating a marketing strategy for a fictional client that would authentically communicate their commitment to racial justice.
We sat down with this year’s ADCOLOR FUTURES Hackathon winners Cheyenne Cameron-Pruitt, Karlie Thorton, Madison Y. Li, Meghan Onserio and Zuha Khan, and to talk about their winning strategy and DEI efforts within the industry at large.
Naomi Woolfenden: What are the greatest blockers to racial justice in the gaming industry?
Zuha: Definitely systemic racism, unconscious bias, and the lack of access and awareness of the gaming industry as a pursuable profession. Some of this can be tackled by the recruiting and hiring of people from marginalized communities—but don’t stop there—and by fostering inclusive work cultures that welcome and act upon new perspectives, thoughts, and ideas. It goes hand-in-hand. So why hold back a new idea? As we say in advertising—test it.
Karlie: The same great blockers to racial injustice in any and every single industry. It was built by old white cis men. Therefore, its very constitution is built to benefit….old white cis men. Companies are hiring BIPOC people in mass, but are not training and seeing through that person's entire career to ensure they are heard, feel valued and their thoughts and ideas are actually being implemented. Don’t just hire, promote from within. Do leadership sweeps, and compensate Black employees for the emotional labor they have to endure for filling a diversity quota in a white, toxic space.
Compensate Black employees for the emotional labor they have to endure for filling a diversity quota in a white, toxic space.
Cheyenne: Through our research it was easy to see that there is a severe lack of representation in the gaming industry. The blockers to racial justice in the gaming industry mimic those you find in any other industry. A system that was created to serve those who created it, lack of representation at the decision-making table and companies that are apprehensive about upsetting who they think their largest base is. Unless they make a point to hire more diverse voices in every aspect of their business, create more inclusive and equitable company culture and invest in the future of the industry, like mentorship and education programs, change won’t occur.
Naomi: How did the idea for your winning concept come to you?
Madison: The idea was iterative and ever-evolving. We conducted many interviews with industry professionals and gamers in addition to analyzing a number of industry reports to find qualitative and quantitative data. Our team built incredible psychological safety and shared feedback effectively, with radical candor. It was a playground of ideas! Together, we expanded on each other's ideas, inspired by many of our personal experiences, until we felt our storyline was powerful enough to describe the industry wide systemic injustices.
Karlie: We talked to real people within the real gaming industry while gathering our foundational research and I think that helped quite a bit with helping us develop a holistic idea for a topic we knew little about, because we did not just depend on online data.
Meghan: We had two north stars which influenced our winning concept idea: data and empathy. Starting off, we researched the gaming industry and the problems it faced. Driven by data we diagnosed the necessary changes that needed to be made in the industry. Next, we led with empathy. In brainstorming solutions we tailored our strategy to support Black gamers, seeking to be both innovative and realistic in finding tangible ways to improve the Black gamers’ experience.
Naomi: Why does inclusion in gaming matter?
Madison: Gaming is a $165B global industry, which is bigger than streaming video, music, and the global box office combined. The gaming industry has a unique position of power and influence. Gamers seek an environment to escape their reality, but often find their virtual reality to be equally as compromised by negative stereotyping and harassment. Psychological safety, representation, and respect are non-negotiable in all realities. These recommendations lead to societal change—setting the standard for combating racial injustice for the industry.
Naomi: How did this Hackathon support your career development?
Zuha: For me, this Hackathon brought skills to the top that I have long since pushed away and thought of as not valuable or relevant. It made me realize that the five years I spent in book publishing before transitioning to the advertising industry were not a mistake or hindrance. My Hackathon team praised me for my ability to skillfully polish up language and craft what we needed to convey. And that is a skillset I will no longer consider unimportant.
Cheyenne: This Hackathon was a pivotal moment for me both personally and professionally. I think it is so easy to build yourself into a box, and before you know it, you’re doing the same thing every day and afraid to step out and try something new. When I was creating the Blackout Week campaign strategy, I had a realization that what I bring to the table is more than what I thought. I realized that even if I’m feeling out of my element it's possible to create something that just works. It showed me that, even in those moments where I feel like my voice or input isn’t important, I need to speak up, because I might have just the winning idea that’s needed.
Meghan: I’ve always aspired to manage and lead teams to success, but as someone who graduated college just a year ago, I haven’t had many opportunities to do so. The Hackathon let me flex my leadership skills and it highlighted my strength as a communicator, delegator and project manager. The experience reframed my confidence and let me see that despite my age I already am a leader—and that I should continue to lean into opportunities to further develop these skills.
Naomi: When it comes to corporate DEI efforts, what is one thing no one asks you about that you wish they did?
Zuha: I wish I was asked what makes me brave enough to speak up when often no one else will. Part of the answer is my savings account (something I haven’t always had), which gives me a sense of security. The other part is the fact that nothing will change if no one says anything—and if I have a savings account, what have I got to lose?
Karlie: I’d suggest making my experience as a Black woman (in whatever company or specific job) feel valued, respected and received. Beyond the job, Black women hold extra pressure and are often silenced. Make them feel heard, and don’t just listen but actually implement action.
Cheyenne: I wish that I was able to have more input on goal setting. I understand that often there is a huge focus on increasing the diverse population, or implementing training programs, or publicly showing commitment, but the diverse voices that already exist within companies still feel marginalized. It’s important to ask, how can we support you? How can we work to shift the culture to one that is more inclusive and equitable for you? When folks have the ability to weigh in on the goals set, there is a greater desire to work toward them together.
It’s important to ask, how can we support you? How can we work to shift the culture to one that is more inclusive and equitable for you? When folks have the ability to weigh in on the goals set, there is a greater desire to work toward them together.
Meghan: When it comes to corporate DEI efforts, one question that should be asked more regularly is: What type of support do you need right now? While well-intentioned, I often see DEI programming as a universal “one size fits all” solution. In reality, marginalized folks have different experiences and journeys, and as such, they have different needs. Corporations should consistently be checking in and accommodating for the diverse range of identities, experiences and needs of their users and employees.
Marginalized folks have different experiences and journeys, and as such, they have different needs.
Naomi: In what ways has this year challenged or changed your perception of the advertising industry and your place in it?
Zuha: It’s made me realize how versatile the industry is, and how adaptive some branches of it are—mind you, some more than others. It’s been interesting to observe the tone brands take in their advertising during this pandemic and the movement for Black lives. Some did it better than others and I’m fascinated when brands try to make light of either of these serious topics. It tells me how homogenous the decision-making meeting must have been and reminds me how important my voice is—and also the voices of others from marginalized backgrounds.
Karlie: It's made me realize, it's time for change. It’s time to end generationally traumatic behaviors within the workplace. No more “That's how it is, and that’s how it will always be.” And as young people lead the revolution, and are the number one target market in advertising, we need to lead the revolution within our very own industry and hold leadership accountable for their actions. We should no longer stand to be treated unjustly because of our gender, sexuality and skin tone. You should want a diverse team working at your company with opinions and different thought processes. That's how reality really is.
Naomi: In one sentence or less, what one piece of advice would you give a young BIPOC professional just entering the workforce?
Madison: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find friends, peers, allies, accomplices, advocates, and mentors early who can be incredible thought partners, cheerleaders, and trusted confidants to help you evaluate new opportunities, strategies and approaches.
Zuha: If you’re in the midst of job interviews, ask how the workplace has supported its staff during this pandemic, and ask what commitments the company has made for racial justice and equity in their workplace.
Ask how the workplace has supported its staff during this pandemic, and ask what commitments the company has made for racial justice and equity in their workplace.
Karlie: You are not alone. Just by being a presence here, you are helping them. They need you, so don’t let anyone just walk over you. Stand your ground.
Cheyenne: Not every space will feel like it was made for you, and oftentimes it wasn’t. But don’t let that stop you from going after what you want and deserve. Your unique perspective, experience and voice are valuable and necessary—you deserve to be there!
Meghan: Audre Lorde once stated, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies of me and eaten alive.” As such, my advice is to define yourself early on. The sooner you can recognize and articulate your values, priorities, and identities, the easier it will be to stay true to yourself as you embark on your professional journey.
Naomi: What did you find most impactful about your ADCOLOR Futures experience? What will you take away from it?
Madison: There is such a sense of camaraderie in the ADCOLOR family. It’s special. I feel so seen, heard, supported and inspired by each person in this community to continue to be brave, bold, and push for more. I’ve learned to stop limiting myself and dream even bigger as I’m hearing from industry leaders about their career trajectories and opportunities ahead. I love the authenticity here and that each and every one of us is celebrated for our individuality.
There is such a sense of camaraderie in the ADCOLOR family. It’s special. I feel so seen, heard, supported and inspired by each person in this community to continue to be brave, bold, and push for more.
Zuha: Truly the community. I have never been part of a professional network where I feel so seen and supported. I’ve learned so much from the experience. Sometimes we’re holding on to narratives that no longer serve us., Don’t let others define your narrative. And lift up others as you can.
Cheyenne: I don’t think I have every been surrounded by so many people who not only share so many of the same life experiences I’ve had as a Black woman, but who also are so like-minded in their dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion. The community of ADCOLOR is unbelievable. When it comes to my fellow Futures, the speakers, organizers and everyone else, I have never felt so seen, so heard and so comfortable in a professional setting. This experience was life-changing, and the confidence I have in myself and in the future of the industry with this crew at the helm is immense.
Meghan: The people! The peers and role models I’ve met through the ADCOLOR community all embody the mission to “Rise Up and Reach Back,” and it has been intensely inspiring to interact with and learn from them. This community has not only provided me with lifelong friends and mentors, but it has also challenged and empowered me to rethink how I see myself and the impact I hope to have in my communities and the world at large.
Karlie: Gaining the confidence that comes from knowing our true worth. And knowing your experience is not singular. Gaining hope in the family we’ve built that is our class, that we will be the driving force to implement change in this industry—we have been given the tools and knowledge we need to confidently apply pressure in advertising.