‘Not a talent problem but an experience problem’: How one agency is aiming to improve DE&I with a paid fellowship

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Last summer, employees and execs at Media Cause, a full service digital and creative shop with offices in San Francisco, Boston and Washington D.C. with a focus on the nonprofit and social impact sector, were brainstorming what they could do to help fight racial inequity in advertising.

The 50-person agency came up with a four month paid fellowship called RiseUp to help talented individuals, who’ve experienced hiring bias based on their background, get the experience they needed to break into advertising. 

The program is currently running its second class of RiseUP with fellows paid $20 per hour to gain experience working for clients that will hopefully lead to a full-time job. The first session ran at the end of last year with three fellows tapped for the program after the agency received thousands of applications. Media Cause hired two of the fellows from the first round; Isaiah Schutz-Ramon and Benjamin Doherty, joined as associate account strategists. (The third fellow decided they wanted to become a designer rather than work in search engine marketing.)

“We found that it’s not a talent problem but an experience problem,” said Eric Facas, CEO of Media Cause, adding that the aim of the program is to help people who may not have the same access as most people who climb the industry’s ladder. “The talent and ability is there. So how do we give people experience to have the opportunity?” 

The fellowship had fellows engage in learning sessions as well as work on non-profit clients to help them gain experience for their portfolio.

“I had the opportunity to work with an amazing nonprofit that does a lot of great work providing free health resources and free professional development seminars for young women in the greater Atlanta area,” said Doherty via email. “Getting to help contribute to such an inspiring mission, all while getting key Google Ad Grant training, led to an invaluable experience that welcomed me into the digital marketing world.” 

“[It] can be hard to break into,” said Schutz-Ramon via email. “I applied to over 257 jobs before RiseUP, but that does not mean you are not capable and worthy of a chance. Once you get your chance, be sure to make the most of it.” 

Aside from running the fellowship in-house, Media Cause is aiming to partner with other agencies giving out its curriculum to have its fellowship program replicated. While many other fellowships and internships with the purpose of improving the industry’s diversity, equity and inclusion exist, Facas believes there can be a problem with accessibility and that’s why the shop is looking to expand its program. 

When creating the program, Facas said that making sure it was paid was crucial to making the program accessible to people. “We took $100,000, which for a small business like ours is a pretty significant amount, and decided to build a fellowship program specifically designed at giving access and opportunity to those that don’t have it,” he said. “If we’re not able to pay people it’s not an accessible program. People working a retail job after college because they need to pay the bills cannot take a free internship or a small stipend internship.” 

Of course, having a paid fellowship to improve DE&I in the industry is “nothing new,” noted Keni Thacker, founder of 100 Roses from Concrete, a platform dedicated to helping black men in advertising. “I applaud the effort, no doubt, but programs like this have been around for a while.” Thacker added that while working to broaden the program beyond Media Cause makes sense, doing so may be troublesome as each agency has its own issues and financial commitments that may make replicating the fellowship difficult. 

Whatever the case may be, Facas believes creating a fellowship like RiseUP is “entirely possible” for other agencies. “You just have to be dedicated to it happening.” 

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