Hopkins team wins marketing contest

November 03, 1994|By Joel Obermayer | Joel Obermayer,Sun Staff Writer

The three talk of ad campaigns and product packaging in the jargon of marketing pros -- a vocabulary they hope will become more familiar to others in the African-American community.

So proficient are these Johns Hopkins University graduate students that they developed a $50 million consumer marketing campaign in just one month, presented it to industry experts and beat two dozen teams of other African-American students from the nation's top business schools.

While the marketing campaign was hypothetical, their business acumen is not. Helen Holton, Blair V. Johnson and Jerome A. Alston, business students at Hopkins' School of Continuing Studies, will be honored for their work at a reception in Baltimore this evening.

All three say their perspective as African-Americans makes them better business people because they look at problems from multiple points of view.

"When I look at a [business] problem, I look at many approaches far outside of the majority view," said Mr. Johnson, 33, a Bowie resident and a computer consultant for Potomac Electric Power Co. in Washington. "That comes from my culture. And frankly, that's the way you need to be in the global [competitive] environment."

More executives will have to come to the same conclusion if minorities are to be better represented in Maryland's corporate suites. The proportion of whites who work in executive, managerial or administrative positions in the state -- about 18 percent -- is half again higher than that for blacks -- about 12 percent -- according to 1993 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ms. Holton, 34, who lives in Baltimore and runs a financial consulting firm, said she plans to push for change by helping young business people in ways that were not available when she was getting started.

"I hope to provide business opportunities to other African-American professionals who have similar aspirations, but maybe not the courage to take risks. Those people are underserved," she said.

The three students met in August, when their school chose them to participate in an annual case-study competition of the National Black MBA Association. Each team received the same assignment: figure out how to manufacture and market a brand of shampoo. They had one month to develop a comprehensive solution, present it and defend it to a panel of industry professionals at a conference in San Francisco.

Unlike most other participants, the three Hopkins students work full time and only collaborated on the marketing project in the evenings and on weekends. That often meant working past midnight, going home to sleep a bit and returning to their jobs early the next morning.

The result of their efforts: a proposal for an advertising and promotional campaign to broaden the shampoo's appeal to consumers of different races and different economic levels.

Mr. Alston, 28, a Randallstown resident who works as an international account executive for AT&T Corp. in Silver Spring, said broadening a product's appeal -- to African-Americans, for example -- should be a strategy applied by businesses across the board. "If you look at the amount African-Americans spend on consumer goods, about $4 billion a year, how can you afford to ignore them?"

Apparently, the contest's judges felt the same way. For beating the competition -- including teams from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkeley -- each of the three Hopkins students received a $2,500 scholarship.

Mr. Alston, a graduate of Woodlawn High School in Baltimore, said the experience has boosted his confidence that he can one day own a business.

"I'd like to take my shot at entrepreneurship," he said. "It is something that is very important in any minority community, that there be more people [owning their own businesses]. I feel like I have a responsibility, to show that if I can do all this, maybe someone else can too."

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