BrandLab ‘experiment’ proves a marketing success for students and business

The BrandLab began five years ago as an experiment with one high school classroom and one summer intern.

This year, the BrandLab, which introduces students from diverse backgrounds to marketing careers, is serving more than 400 young people in 23 Twin Cities classrooms – and will provide 40 paid summer internships at marketing agencies and area corporations.

In an age when even summer jobs — much less paid internships — are increasingly hard to find, it’s an impressive achievement.

BrandLab is the creation of John Olson, whose eponymous agency provided its first home and startup funding.

Now BrandLab has gathered support from a Who’s Who of the Twin Cities agency world – more than 30 agencies, including Carmichael Lynch, Fallon, Colle + McVoy and JT Mega. (My agency, Fast Horse, is also a BrandLab supporter.)

Alfredo Martel
Alfredo Martel

Two new board members have recently joined: Alfredo Martel, senior vice president of marketing and product management at Caribou Coffee, and Sonya McCullum Roberts, vice president of salt sales and marketing at Cargill.

High school students who take BrandLab-sponsored courses at their schools learn such marketing basics as research, strategic thinking, presentation skills and working in teams.

Partner high schools include Richfield, Bloomington Kennedy, Minneapolis South and Como, Harding and Johnson in St. Paul. Summer interns spend eight weeks at an agency or company and have the opportunity to be involved in a variety of real-life marketing activities.

Sonya McCullum Roberts
Sonya McCullum Roberts

BrandLab soon will see some of its early interns graduate from college as marketing majors, said Ellen Walthour, the program’s executive director. And as the number of participants grows – interns as well as classroom participants – BrandLab is increasing its efforts to be an ongoing resource for them.

This year, 10 of the 40 internships are reserved for returning students. The organization is launching a new program, Connect, which will offer networking events and career development resources to all students who have come through the program.

The BrandLab is a remarkable example of an industry that’s putting its money where its mouth is.

In an era when public cutbacks have left private industry to pick up the slack — which it often declines to do — the BrandLab is showing consistent growth and offering real opportunities to an underserved population.

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