Black Voices at Elmwood

NewsMar 05, 2024
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To celebrate Black History Month, we chose to shine a light on the Black teammates at the heart of our New York studio. Throughout February, our colleagues were asked to share their career experiences and offer guidance to other Black professionals entering the creative industry. Their voices span across every corner of our studio—from Creative, to Project Management, to Executive Leadership and we are honored to share their stories.

Natasha Young, Head of Client Services:

I’m an “Account Person” and I head the Client Services team in our New York studio. It’s interesting to look back at how I got started in this industry, it was truly random. My mom was a Jamaican trailblazing saleswoman who was often smashing sales records and winning trips all over the world because of it. She knew the reputable, wealthy, and important people all over the Philadelphia Main Line, and she made it a point to build positive relationships with everyone. The SVP of Comcast and chairman of NBCUniversal was her customer. One day while selling him a vacuum, she mentioned that her daughter was just out of college and looking for an internship. After a couple informational interviews, I was hired as an unpaid intern at Comcast’s advertising agency, Red Tettemer.  And here I am today, after a few twists and turns, going strong!

I grew up in an industry (especially in the first half of my career) where I was often the only black person in my agency. Quite honestly, this was normal for me and mirrored my experience growing up—in school, in dance class, in orchestra, in acting class, in swimming class. I’m also Jamaican, and a lot of times people don’t understand the nuance that a Caribbean culture adds to one’s outlook, positivity, tolerance, and drive. Our parents were ambitious to get here, so better believe they expect the same kind of excellence from their pickney (that means children).

Being an account person is not all the glitz and glamor that our creative counterparts seek and gain from great work. Sure, we bask in the glory internally for the part we play, and there are perks once in a while (like traveling on the IBM Jet to help finalize the CEO’s presentation for the next day’s event, or traveling abroad for special projects), but I’ve found that it takes a service mentality to survive and succeed in the account management practice. You are in service to your clients, your team, and the needs of everyone else. In our world today, most people want to be in the spotlight, to be the MVP, or the star in their line of work. I think it’s a dying thing to help others and be happy for their success—there’s a lot of that in my role, and that’s OK. I’ve just seen the Bob Marley movie (so maybe it’s his voice in my head), but I say lead with love. And that’s the advice I’d offer young black folks in the creative industry. As you grow your toolbox of skills, experience, passion and ambition, sometimes it’s OK to be in service to others.

Chris Borelli, Senior Project Manager:

I am a Senior Project Manager at Elmwood but also a Producer / “Music Guy” in the creative industry. Initially, I had no intention of tapping into this industry, but it has turned out to be one of the best things to happen to me. Before my senior year in college, I started as an intern in the Broadcast Production department at Hill Holliday in my hometown of Boston. The opportunity was given to me directly, unexpectedly, and very publicly, by the CEO, Karen Kaplan. I am eternally grateful as she took genuine interest in me and my family when she graciously offered me a paid internship, setting the foundation for my ten ongoing years of experience in this industry.

My background is colorful. Dee1, a black creative I admire, says; “I don’t look like where I come from.” This couldn’t ring more true for me. Growing up, I’ve experienced the effects of systemic misfortune: poverty, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Child services and custody court hearings. Foster care and adoption. Thankfully, my biological family and I have blossomed from the mud of these happenings ever since. The struggles of my upbringing will forever be fuel to the fire of who I am today.

This story isn’t uncommon for Black people. Broken homes, child neglect, and substance abuse still run rampant in our communities. And yet, so does resiliency and pride in our struggle. Through mentors and loved ones, I’ve learned that it’s this same pride that creates the beautiful contrast of being Black in this industry. Our stories of pain and triumph both provide our power, wisdom, and creativity that help move the needle not only in Black culture, but in the entire creative industry. This alone keeps me here and empowers me to stay true to who I am, no matter how much it may contrast with my immediate working environment.

For Black people in this industry, my advice is to love what makes you different. Use what makes you stand out to your advantage. It’s those very differences that set us apart. Those differences that position us to have the most influence on the most unassuming of situations. The influence our unique traits have is absolutely poetic and beautiful to me. This industry needs to hear from us. We will continue to be the tastemakers that contribute to a more creative and socially conscious world – just by being our most true selves.

Simply put, being Black is a superpower. I wouldn’t change it for anything. For that, I am truly blessed.

Dee Dalencour, Senior Designer:

My name is Dee Dalencour (yes, it’s short for something) and I’ve spent the entirety of my 6 year design career at Elmwood New York, but my creative heartbeat started way before.

A few facts about me so we can get comfortable with each other:

  1. I’m a born and raised New Yorker hailing from Jamaica, Queens. If you’ve ever flown out of JFK, it’s likely you’ve driven past my childhood apartment.
  2. My parents immigrated to NYC from different parts of Haiti at very young ages. I‘ve been raised quite American but with a deep connection and love of where my roots lay.
  3. I was homeschooled from Pre-K to High School graduation. This does not make me “smarter than you” (mainly because I was a terrible listener). But it did spark my passion for design because of the freedom I was afforded to play and discover what makes me happy.
  4. I love being a Black woman. I’ve never wanted to be anything else, even though growing up, media told me I ought to.

I have been creative for as long as I can remember. My mom always encouraged and cultivated creative expression in my siblings and I. Creativity was my safe space, and still is, but when I got to college things shifted for me.

Even though my university was in the city, I had never been around so many White folks in my life. I’m from Queens, the most diverse district in the world. I had a total of two Black design professors in my four years (both men) and was only one of two Black students in my Bachelor’s program. This lack of diversity in school made it tough to create projects from my POV, especially when I was being critiqued by those who didn’t desire to understand my lived experience. At those moments, I had never felt more like a minority in my entire life.

Though this was surprising to me then, I can see how this kind adversity came to be. Black kids, especially children of immigrants, are not encouraged to pursue certain artistic careers. Certain members of my family doubted me when I chose design as my future. Undergoing this lack of diversity in college prepared me for a similar experience when I became a professional in the creative industry. It’s still not a surprise, but it was and still is lonely sometimes.

Though my career hasn’t been very long, I’ve learned so much about myself. About what’s changed in the industry and what still desperately needs to. I’m just one super cool and talented Black girl from NYC. Blackness is not monolith, but you did ask my opinion. So here’s some advice to young Black creatives and the industry at large.

Black folks to the front first please:

  1. Get a therapist and start unlearning code switching. Your unique voice, perspective and style needs to be represented amongst your team. Who you are authentically is not inherently other or unprofessional. FIYTA?
  2. Solidarity and community with other racially diverse members of your team is paramount to keeping on. A safe space around kinfolk is better than a non-existent space around skinfolk.
  3. The weight of DEI conversations and racial education is not on your Black shoulders. Keep your leadership accountable and informed about what needs fixing or building in your agency.
  4. If someone makes a comment about your hair, you don’t need to laugh it off.

Industry folks, it’s your turn:

  1. Listen
  2. Listen
  3. Listen
  4. I’ll leave you with this quote I heard recently at an agency-wide DEI talk: “There is a notion that focusing on DEI is not focusing on business. This is not true.” Invest in your people. One Black voice is not every Black voice.

Click the following links to learn more about and connect with Natasha, Chris and Dee.