BrandLab: Opening up the marketing industry to fresh views

Top: BrandLab students get a chance to mingle with marketing professionals from Target and other Twin Cities companies at a speed networking event. Photo By: BrandLab

Wa Yang showed zero interest in anything related to school. The 16-year-old from Harding High School often skipped class, drawing the attention of truancy officers.

Then came BrandLab.

The youth internship program at Minneapolis College of Art and Design offers Yang and other high school students of color an opportunity to study marketing in the classroom. This summer, several dozen teens from across the metro attended workshops at MCAD, learning the ropes directly from working marketing professionals.

Now, Yang shows up for his classes.

For more information about BrandLab, call (612) 483-0167 or visit

“BrandLab was the thing that kept me going. It’s motivating and a really fun program. That’s why I enjoy school,” said Yang, a junior at Harding.

Thanks to his newfound focus, Yang plans to become a marketer.

My “dream job,” he said. “We feel like we are actually going somewhere.”

BrandLab has been around since 2007 upon its founding by John Olson of Olson Advertising. The program partners with Twin Cities schools that enroll at least 50 percent students of color. Teenagers take marketing classes at school and also compete for internships at major companies like Target, Land O’ Lakes and 3M.

Bottom: BrandLab interns listen intently to professional advice. Photo By: BrandLab

There isn’t a “typical day” at BrandLab, said executive director Ellen Walthour. Students work outside of MCAD, directly with professionals, by taking field trips to local agencies and corporate marketing departments. The classroom work allows students to hone introductory skills, while the best and brightest who earn internship opportunities are given specific marketing projects under the supervision of an agency mentor.

“The goal is for students to say, ‘Now I have a future to believe in. I believe in myself,’” Walthour said. “This program gives hope to students.”

BrandLab’s overarching goal is to diversify the marketing industry. A more diverse culture in marketing means more opinions and perspectives, which broadens the information, Walthour said.

“We’re working to change the face and voice of the marketing industry … through racial diversity and different socioeconomic groups,” she said. “We are all about giving the next generation a creative class, and the tools to be really successful.”

The big push, Walthour said, is to reach students who might not be aware of their marketing potential. Instead of “them coming to us, we go to them first,” she said.

Upon joining BrandLab, Yang said he has grown emotionally and socially. BrandLab gave him “a path to walk on, a push, a new start,” he said.

Likewise, Chakira Edwards, 17, of New Hope said BrandLab is moving her closer to the goal of becoming an editor of her own magazine. The program helped her attain an internship at the University of Minnesota, where she’ll be working in the marketing department by assisting with writing and campaign development.

“The best part is that they prepare students for corporate (life) … instead of just throwing us out into the world. They let us test ourselves, and that gets us thinking about where we could go,” Edwards said.

“And also to use our creativity to our advantage. It’s really shocking how much they put into this, it’s really awesome … to see that they really want to help youth.”

And the growth keeps coming.

In 2007, BrandLab worked with 27 students from one classroom and placed a single intern in Olson. Now, they boast more than 500 kids as part of the classroom program, including 40 interns for 2014.

“Minorities have been underrepresented, and that’s not the landscape of our country. So, marketing is good business,” Walthour said.

“BrandLab keeps me hopeful and inspired. It makes me think that even with as much trouble in the world, that individuals truly want the best for others.”


Daniela Garcia is a junior at Edina High School. Her story on BrandLab is part of a package by 12 high school students who participated in ThreeSixty Journalism’s residential Intermediate Camp from June 15 to June 27.

Their stories are centered on youth organizations in the metro area that are cultivating the “next generation” of leaders.  Click here to read more from ThreeSixty’s summer camp series.