Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Who's The Alma In Your Life?

The year was 1977. I was a terrified little girl rushed into surgery for an emergency appendectomy. The memories are still very clear, almost as though it happened just yesterday. I remember being treated like royalty while I recovered in the hospital, receiving cards, flowers and calls from friends and concerned relatives. Father Smith, my grade school principal, even came to visit giving me instant street cred among my classmates when I returned to school. As if that wasn't cool enough, I was allowed to indulge in an obscene amount of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup.
A Get Well Card I Received from Alma Hopkins That I Still Have 37 Years Later. Can you see that she wrote my name over the picture of the 
brown girl, third row, middle column?

While recovering, a simple yet memorable card was delivered to my hospital room. I love this card and have kept it in a special place for 37, yes 37 years. It came from a woman who would, hands down, have the single greatest influence on my career and by default, my life. This woman was --- and still is --- one of my mother's close friends. Her name is Alma Hopkins. She was a beautiful, hotshot female advertising executive at J. Walter Thompson and remains an important figure in Chicago's advertising community to this very day. Alma speaks in a sweet, almost whispery voice and has such a gentleness about her. As a little girl I looked up to her. I loved visiting her stylish home. I admired her air of sophistication and her grace. I didn't know much about what she did at JWT but I knew she was a respected African American women in a competitive field. She was what my mother proudly called a rising star in the ad world. Through her upward trajectory, she carved out an illustrious career eventually becoming chief creative officer for Burrell Communications, an agency I would join many years later as vice president and group director.  Call it irony. Call it kismet. Call it what you will. I call it a blessing and credit Alma with introducing me to advertising.

One particularly humid, summer day when I was ten-years-old, Alma, my mother, a couple of their close friends and I were lounging leisurely around the swimming pool in Alma's posh high-rise apartment building. Though she was relaxing, she was also in work mode with her notebook on her lap and papers strewn about.

"Leslie, can you help me think of some ideas for a Coca-Cola campaign?" Alma asked.

"Who me?" I wanted to ask and look around to see if there could possibly be another Leslie sitting by the pool that day who knew something about ad campaigns.

"Sure," I said as I jumped up with feigned confidence, moving my chair closer to Alma's. The challenge intrigued me and I was giddy that she asked for my help. She went on to explain in layman's terms what the campaign was all about and I remember writing notes on a yellow notepad. I can't recall if I added value to her campaign (probably, no... definitely not), but I remember how I felt that day. Important. Worthy of being asked for my ideas. Happy that she saw something special in me. As a little brown girl, I was often told I was articulate, sometimes pretty and even athletic. That particular day, I felt just plain smart.

Two years later when Alma and her creative team were in search of models for a Coca-Cola print and out-of-home campaign featuring a mother and daughter, she booked my mom and me. I was thrilled to land my first modeling gig but I was perhaps more excited to have behind-the-scenes access to a photo shoot for Coke. Amazing, I remember thinking, even as I held a frozen smile while the Coke bottle threatened to slide from my hand under the photographer's hot studio lights. By this age I had developed a passion for writing. Yet Alma's encouragement and this experience ignited a fire in me. I knew I wanted to go into advertising. This sealed the deal.

Well, my career didn't go quite the way my fiercely determined adolescent self planned. I went to college to study this field that intrigued me and earned a bachelor's degree in advertising. Upon graduating from college, however, I decided to go into public relations instead and later earned a master's degree in humanities. Less sexy perhaps, public relations made sense for me as a writer with the gift of gab and dare I say, persuasion. Public relations has kept me close to the ad world and more often than not, I am at the table with my advertising counterparts setting strategies and bringing national campaigns to life. To this day my passion for advertising remains a constant in my life and shines through in much of my work.

Ask anyone who knows Alma Hopkins and they too will tell you she is a powerhouse in the advertising industry. She has pushed boundaries and stands tall in a field of giants. I have Alma to thank not just for telling, but for showing a little brown girl that she was special, smart and worthy. She set a high standard for me to follow. I think of Alma and her incredible influence a great deal. Because of her influence, I have made a commitment in my own life to pay it forward as a mentor, advocate and resource for a host of talented people.

So I ask you, who's the Alma in your life? Call them today and tell them what they mean to you. I'm picking up the phone to call MY Alma right now.

Visit my Website: LeslieWrites

Follow me on Twitter: LeslieWritesNow

Like my Facebook page: LeslieWrites

1 comment:

  1. Love this story. Alma sounds like a wonderful mentor.
    - Michele