THE DISRUPTORS: Lincoln Stephens talks industry evolution, AI and inclusion and the future of Dallas startups
A disruptor is any entity that effects the shift of fundamental expectations and behaviors in a culture, market, industry, technology or process.
Lincoln Stephens has lived a very predictable life. But not in the traditional sense of the word.
His journey has predictably been a lesson-filled exploration of the human experience – joy, pain, excitement, uncertainty and love, with his fair share of ups and downs sprinkled throughout. And as he has navigated his way through the maze that we call life, he has always found himself on the path to a new discovery, a new business and ultimately, a new perspective as a founder.
Stephens’ entrepreneurial story did not start in the summer of 2009 with a daring crusade to disrupt the advertising industry with the debut of The Marcus Graham Project, a nonprofit on a mission to develop a diverse pipeline of talent in the media & creative fields. Nor did it begin when he and a team of fellow innovators began to reimagine the world of diversity recruiting with the creation of an AI-powered platform Locomotus in 2011.
No, Stephens’ first peek into the world of innovation came from a very familiar source – his dad. Calvin W. Stephens started SSP Consulting in the early 1970’s. A young Lincoln was taught at an early age to always look for problems to solve.
The ability to look at problems in a forward-seeking way has influenced many of Stephens’ game changing endeavors which have not only disrupted an entire industry, but have positively impacted the lives of many for years to come… and he’s just getting started.
In this inaugural edition of “The Disruptors” we get up close and personal with one of the city’s leading innovators as he shares his blueprint for disrupting the advertising industry, the many lessons he’s learned along the way, the current passions fueling his innovation and his candid thoughts on the Dallas startup community…in his own words.
IN HIS OWN WORDS: Lincoln Stephens
Thinking about entrepreneurship in general and thinking about how you solve a problem or meet a need is something I grew up with. My dad has had his own company here in Dallas since the early 1970s. The drive to start and run something long lasting as well as what it takes to be an entrepreneur, I learned from following the example of my father.
I was named after the Father of Modern American Journalism, Lincoln Steffens. I was inspired by some of his work and so I borrowed his name for my social media. People think it’s actually the way I spell my last name.
I have a passion for capturing stories and telling real stories. I grew up watching TV, looking at the credits at the end of TV shows and wondering what all those careers were about. The stories where I could see myself represented in were especially of interest.
I studied journalism at the University of Missouri. My concentration was in strategic communications, which was essentially advertising.
After I graduated college, I was looking at a variety of careers in PR. There were two ad agencies here in Dallas that I ended up getting interviews with, TracyLocke and The Marketing Arm. I ended up getting an offer from TracyLocke.
I was a managing executive at TracyLocke for a year. I worked on the Frito-Lay and PepsiCo accounts. I left there and worked at Martin Jay Retail Group. I did advertising for Cadillac and Hummer which was an interesting experience.
A new opportunity with Carol H Williams Advertising brought me to Chicago. I started volunteering on the side for Rock the Vote, a City of Chicago initiative created in 2008. That was the year President Obama was elected which impacted my life and career in many ways. I returned to Dallas two weeks after the election to get my nonprofit project off of the ground.
The Birth of The Marcus Graham Project
With the first couple of jobs I had after college, I quickly began to recognize the lack of diversity in the industry. I also recognized that this wasn’t anything new for me. I had gone to school at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. It wasn’t incredibly racially diverse and neither were any of the other schools I attended. I started seeing a pattern in these places. There were not very many other people that looked like me or had a similar background. It made me curious as to why and if there was something I could do about it.
I started having conversations with friends who worked in the industry to find out what career paths they took, and what were some of the challenges they faced. At the same time, I was really passionate about mentorship and was heavily involved in my fraternity which was extremely focused on leadership building and preparing individuals for achievement in all endeavors.
“It’s a Chicago idea, Dallas homegrown.”
For the nonprofit idea, I decided to create a program that combined mentorship with community and career training. As my team and I were thinking about the name for it, it came to our attention that a number of people got interested in marketing and advertising because of the 1992 film Boomerang which starred Eddie Murphy who played a marketing executive. We named the organization after his character’s name, Marcus Graham.
Our current team mainly consists of myself and my co-founder, Larry Yarrell, who’s our Chief Operating Officer. We’re really the two individuals that keep everything moving forward. We had a full-time staff at one point in time, but economically, we had to shave the team down to be smaller than we like. We still deliver our programs the same way.
The Evolution of MGP
I started the Marcus Graham Project in Chicago and a year later I returned to Dallas to keep the organization moving forward.
It’s a Chicago idea, Dallas homegrown.
I left Chicago after Obama’s election. I was standing on the roof of my balcony and kind of asked God what I should do with my life. He responded “you need to go get this nonprofit up and running.” I left for Dallas and just started doing the work.
In the first year, we had nothing; no money, but we did have a lot of passion towards what we wanted. It was all self-funded. We began to recognize that our approach to education in terms of a real true hands-on experience is what was missing from the current educational system. Reimagining how to provide learning to individuals was the impetus for starting MGP’s training programs. Our first boot camp was an actual program that brought individuals together over the summer to create and run their own ad agency. The “agencies” worked with a variety of clients, toured various companies and received mentorship.
Two executives at AT&T learned about our program through a write up in Ad Age, our industry’s trade publication. They ended up supporting the program for several years.
Our alumni have pledged to support and take over the organization in order to keep it moving forward. I think the thing that I’m most humbled by is the thought that individuals that have benefited in some way from our organization have decided to figure out how they can help in a deeper way. We have now 15 alums that have taken over a variety of tasks and responsibilities for the organization. That spreads across what we do here in Dallas and across the country, in New York, Atlanta, LA, and Chicago. I am really humbled by their wanting to step in as volunteers and servant leaders to help move the organization forward.
We grew our board of directors and continued to find really amazing talent from within the program. We’re able to help facilitate many of them getting their first jobs and we’re so excited. By and large, all of the individuals that have come through our program are employed, freelancing or starting their own businesses. We keep track of them so it’s really fantastic.
“I think it’s all about having a clear vision and sharing that vision and accepting the type of support that your family and friends can give you.”
Support From The Community
When I moved from Chicago back to Dallas I told my dad that I had this vision of creating something. My dad and my mom let me come home and live at their house, on their couch specifically, for six years as I was building the organization.
That level of support is undeniable in terms of the length that parents would go to for their children that are grown. I moved back to Dallas on my 29th birthday. The same love and support I give to my son who is three is the same love my parents gave me even as I approached 30. My parents felt the same way about me.
I’ve also received support from friends and other family. I think it’s all about having a clear vision and sharing that vision and accepting the type of support that your family and friends can give you. And not being afraid to ask for it either.
The community’s response? They say we are doing great work. They love what we are doing. It is something that is needed for the community. For a lot of parents, MGP has opened their eyes and educated them about the types of careers that exist in the creative industry. We have had pretty good success in terms of fundraising too. We have been embraced by our community of friends and family members and the industry overall.
The Future…And AI
In thinking about the future of the organization, It took a lot of self-realization in order to ask myself, “am I keeping MGP from growing to the next level? What if I am the challenge?” That’s what led us to think about a new model of growth for the organization as well as the strategy to rely on our alumni to take us into the next decade of our operation.
If you can get to a point where you can ask yourself if you might be impeding your organization’s progress, and admit that you might be, then the next step is figuring out what to do next. Transitioning is important. I am in the middle of this right now. Even the transition is a challenge.
We’re working on a lot. First, we are expanding our programs. That expansion is going to be led by a new board of managers that are alumni of our program. They are spread out all over the country, so we’re getting that up and running so that we can expand our impact. This also ensures that we have the right infrastructure in place to continue building engagement and success for our alumni network and MGP’s network as a whole.
Second is the launch of Locomotus, a social enterprise component of the Marcus Graham Project.
It was the continued ask of corporations looking to find diverse talent that led us to create Locomotus. Utilizing artificial intelligence, it’s a diversity recruiting platform and database that will make recruiting, specifically for racially diverse candidates, a lot more turnkey for hiring managers in this industry (advertising, marketing, media) across the country.
For the last seven to eight years, the Marcus Graham Project has always been asked by individuals and corporations alike for our help and guidance in finding professionals and talent to fill gaps in terms of their needs for hiring. Rather than just combing through emails, our personal LinkedIn connections and our alumni database for qualified candidates, it just made sense to build an actual robust platform.
The AI component will assist with making sure that it’s easier for channel managers, talent acquisition managers, and recruiters to access our talent pool and database based upon their interest in finding people that have a very specific category experience or skill set. We are at the base level of building the technology that will support that.
My Current Passions
South Boulevard Park Row
The current home that I live in was built in 1921. It was historically a Jewish neighborhood that was home to several prominent Jewish families that helped build Dallas from the early 1900’s to approximately 1940. The neighborhood evolved and eventually became one of the most prominent African American neighborhoods in our city. Doctors and professional business owners lived in the area. They still live there along with their families.
“I think about legacy when I think about my neighborhood.”
There has been some decline in the surrounding area in terms of crime and vacancy of property and so forth, but despite this, there is a resurgence of interest and support. I see younger families, new families and diverse families moving into our neighborhood with no intention of going anywhere. We get to see another generation of young leaders, entrepreneurs, professionals and civil servants be in the neighborhood. It’s exciting.
As the current chair of the neighborhood association, I enjoy providing my thoughts on the marketing side of it. Generally speaking, I like being involved with neighborhood revitalization and helping other communities like ours that have the need for startups and entrepreneurs. I am always happy and willing to talk to folks, to give them some of my time to share some tips on how to get their message out. I do this for a lot of the small businesses, especially those that have a very limited budget. I probably should be charging people for it, but it is a passion of mine.
In just three short years, my house will be 100 years old. 100 years later, will my family still own this house? What family will own this house? Will they know about the great conversation that is happening inside of this house and in this neighborhood?
I think about legacy when I think about my neighborhood.
A friend of mine that lives in California and I have been working on Bootstrap Kitchen, a hobby and now event series that shows people how to bootstrap their way around the kitchen and bootstrap their way through being successful in whatever entrepreneurial community they live. It is an invitation-only, exclusive opportunity for individuals to dine with us at home.
We prepare a meal and leave people with recipe cards for how that meal was prepared and then also include some tips and tools as a recipe for success for the topic area that was discussed throughout the meal. That is something we have been doing for fun. It has been sporadic but we will be doing more dinners over the coming year.
My last and greatest project that I’m most excited about is raising my three-year-old son. I pick him up usually around three o’clock and we’re together and having fun until he goes to sleep. Unfortunately, sometimes he doesn’t go down until 10 or 10:30 pm, so that’s fun. I am trying to get him prepared, even at a very young age, to be the best little boy that he can be.
Diversity and Inclusion
In 2004, the opportunities in Dallas were different from those available in 2018. There really wasn’t a creative community. There were several ad agencies, but it didn’t really feel like a community. Back then I didn’t really see a plethora of job opportunities in my field. Even now, there still aren’t many cities that offer the same level of opportunities that exists in New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago or even overseas. I was kind of feeling stifled in my market and stifled in my career path. It probably led me to consider going to another city.
“Particularly in our industry and in media, you can walk into pretty much any major or minor advertising agency in this city and count on probably one hand how many people, especially African Americans, work at that company.”
I don’t know if this is a Dallas thing or a Texas thing, I don’t really know what it is. It’s particularly troubling since North Texas boasts the most corporate headquarters than any other city in our country. There doesn’t really seem to be an earnest movement towards ensuring that our companies here reflect the population of the city, now and in the future, and reflect the population of the country. Particularly in our industry and in media, you can walk into pretty much any major or minor advertising agency in this city and count on probably one hand how many people, especially African Americans, work at that company. This is versus what I’ve seen in other cities where there is some level of earnest activities addressing the issue. Whether they’ve hired a Diversity Inclusion Officer or someone that specifically focus on that for company internally and for their recruiting activities. Dallas doesn’t have that. I don’t actually know of a person in our industry that is in a diversity inclusion role in this city.
What that signals to me is that it is not a priority for corporations here. MGP has received much more support and attention and do more business outside of the city than we do inside of the city of Dallas. The value of what we do seems to be greater outside of the city of Dallas than inside. You can look at that also purely from levels of support and the type of support from companies here in the city versus the type of support the company outside the city has given to our program over the year.
As I talk to colleagues and friends that do similar work but not in our industry, they tend to deal with some of the same kinds of things. When we talk about diversity and inclusion and how we address it, I think there’s conversations taking place, but more is needed. I don’t say that to spite people that are working and are passionate about it, but when you compare that type of activity to cities have a similar size with a similar makeup of industries, it’s not there. It sometimes takes me and our organization longer to explain what we do and why we’re doing it to folks in Dallas than outside of the city. That has got to change.
The Dallas Startup Community
Let’s change the definition of what we think about in terms of a startup. When most people think about the startup community, lot of people are thinking about something that is tech related. There so many types of businesses starting up. So really you want to talk about entrepreneurship in general.
We have so much vernacular that we use for the startup community. And this prohibits some people from being involved in conversations because much of the language being used feels exclusive rather than inclusive. I tend to look at the startup community and entrepreneurs as one in the same here. Whether it’s the latest app creation or it’s my fraternity brother’s son’s startup, Step Stool Chef, the city is seeing an increased interest in entrepreneurship. There has always been a significant interest in entrepreneurship among minority communities.
But one of the greatest challenges that many minorities face is banking relationships and access to capital which is critical for growth. We also have to recognize that there is a disproportionate amount of financing that goes to underrepresented communities because, at least for us as African Americans, we’re constantly in a 400-year catch-up game.
For 400 plus years our communities have been economically deprived. Think about the impact of that generationally speaking. You don’t have the generational level of wealth and/or knowledge that can open the types of doors that other communities have at their immediate disposal. That means we have to constantly play catch up.
It’s our responsibility to fix this. In our society, we are always so competitive. I think that if we really begin to look at ourselves as a global economy, we’ll realize that it’s not about competition as much as it is about collaboration. Startup, entrepreneur, it’s all the same. The more we can collaborate and partner strategically, the more we can help activate a plan to begin dealing with the inequities and challenges the city currently faces.
Dallas needs new businesses. With new companies comes economic growth and job creation. I absolutely know that if we don’t produce more individuals skilled in technology, data science and cybersecurity, we’ll continue to have to rely on other countries for that. We’re going to be left behind. I don’t want us to be left behind.
It’s gonna take time. It’s going to take an honest assessment and a plan. Most importantly, it is going to take a vision.