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Missouri School of Journalism

The J-School Magazine

June 2012

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J-School Entrepreneurs: Three Alumni Create a Business and Write Their Own Destiny

Marcus Graham Project iCR8 Bootcamp
Students in the Marcus Graham Project can meet with a professional to receive personal feedback on their resumes and portfolios. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Stephens.

School of Journalism Graduates with Entrepreneurial Aspirations Find Their Education Empowers Them to Identify a Need, Create Their Own Business Venture, and Serve Their Community

By Cole Donelson
Strategic Communication Student

Studies estimate as much as 70 percent of small businesses will fail within their first seven years of operation. However, entrepreneurs with a degree from the Missouri School of Journalism are prepared to be the anomalies to this statistic. They are equipped with a top-rate education, a network of "Mizzou Mafia," and perhaps most importantly a desire to innovate and determination to make their dream a reality.

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"You have to speak things into existence by the way you talk," says Lincoln Stephens, BJ '03, executive director and co-founder of the Marcus Graham Project. "If you keep that mentality, you can see the vision fulfill and manifest itself."

Three Missouri School of Journalism alumni-entrepreneurs have used their journalism skills to work their ideas into existence. Among them they have created a nonprofit organization, a philanthropy project and a for-profit business. Just as their ventures are different, the ways the journalism school inspired and prepared them to succeed are different.

Diversifying an Industry from the Inside Out

Lincoln Stephens was one of three black students out of the 300 total when he began his education at the School of Journalism in 1999. This lack of diversity was something he discussed with Larry Powell, a black strategic communication professor. Powell challenged him to address the lack of minorities in advertising and create a network of diverse professionals in the industry. Stephens says this motivated him even more to excel within the school and learn the facets of the advertising industry.

Lincoln Stephens, BJ '03
Lincoln Stephens, BJ '03, describes himself as the chief visionary officer of the Marcus Graham Project, which provides minority populations with exposure to careers in advertising. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Stephens.

Stephens' first job was at the TracyLocke advertising agency. He saw a lack of minority representation in the workforce, particularly in upper-management positions.

"It made me realize that we have a lot of work to do to make our schools and communities more diverse and inclusive," Stephens says.

Advertisers, Stephens believed, could be best served if the ethnicities represented in ads were created by those in the same group. In 2006 he launched the Marcus Graham Project and gave himself the title of chief visionary officer. The project was named after Eddie Murphy's character in the 1992 movie Boomerang. Murphy played a black advertising executive, and Stephens remembers the actor's role inspired him to consider the advertising industry.

The Marcus Graham Project hopes to inspire young students and professionals from minority populations to consider career opportunities within the advertising industry. It holds advertising boot camps, endows a fund to allow aspiring applicants to attend industry conferences, connects students with mentors who are professionals in the industry and offers other opportunities for aspiring media professionals.

Lincoln Stephens, BJ '03
Stephens (left) says the Marcus Graham Project is growing every year, and it is fulfilling to see his work is making a difference. He left the agency world to become an activist and start the organization with few resources. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Stephens.

Stephens says the journalism school equipped him with of the many skills he needed to grow his project on a limited budget. Creating campaigns, developing messages, designing communication materials - including his business card - and more are some of the ways he has used this knowledge.

Extracurricular activities at the University of Missouri also helped Stephens develop the leadership skills he uses on a daily basis at the Marcus Graham Project. He served as director of student activities, director of the black programming committee and as social director of Kappa Alpha Psi. Through these experiences Stephens also discovered a passion for using his communication skills to advance cause-related initiatives that serve a greater purpose. One such example was the "Buckle Up with Kappa" seatbelt safety awareness campaign.

The Marcus Graham Project website is full of stories of people whose lives were changed when they were exposed to the career opportunities in the strategic communication industry. Success stories include an account executive at Commonground, an assistant account executive at Wieden + Kennedy, a creative intern at tpn and a brand planner at The Richards Group. Other indicators that point to increased growth include a rising number of applications to the summer boot camps, double-digit percent growth in those using the private social networking site and more donations.

"One of our students turned and said to us, 'Thank you for changing my life,'" Stephens says. "That's my favorite part. At the end of the day what's important are the people and the individuals we are able to reach."

Life-Giving Entrepreneurship Spurred by Life-Taking Tragedy

Rachel Ebeling, BJ '92, had every intention of being a full-time copywriter when she started her career. But after one of her closest friends was violently raped and murdered, Ebeling felt compelled to use her talents to honor the memory of Teresa Butz.

Rachel Ebeling, BJ '92
Rachel Ebeling, BJ '92, runs the Angel Band Project with her partner Jean Fox in memory of their friend Teresa Butz who was raped and murdered by an intruder in her home. Ebeling says the three were like sisters. Photo courtesy of Rachel Ebeling.

Ebeling, along with friend Jean Fox, envisioned a benefit album as a perfect tribute to Butz, who was born into a very musical family. The two worked with three generations of the Butz family and several other musicians to create the Angel Band Project. Proceeds from this benefit album are donated to The Voices and Faces Project, a national support and solidarity network for survivors of sexual assault.

"This whole family lives in song," Ebeling says. "We wanted to capture the emotion and energy from this family and share it with others who are in need of healing."

Ebeling, on hiatus from her copywriting career to raise her children, had some time to develop the Angel Band Project. She relied on her professional experience and strategic communication education to communicate with donors and fundraise the $45,000 necessary to make the project happen.

"The J-School gave me a space to find my creative voice," Ebeling says. "The advertising sequence taught me how to sell something, how to market it, how to package it and how to make it appealing to an audience."

One class that has proved very beneficial to Ebeling's project was campaigns, taught by Professor Suzette Heiman. Ebeling learned how to develop a strategic communication plan for a product, and she used this knowledge when creating the Angel Band Project promotion. She also relies on the importance of telling a story as accurately and ethically as possible, principles she learned in an introductory journalism class taught by Professor Don Ranly.

Angel Band Project Band
Award-winning artists, including members of the Butz family, volunteer their time and talent to record the Angel Band Project's first benefit album, Take You with Me, in 2010. Photo courtesy of Rachel Ebeling.

Since its release in October 2010, the benefit album titled "Take You with Me" has raised more than $10,000 in sales for The Voices and Faces Project. The next step is to rally musicians from across the country to hold a concert and live recording in 2013.

Ebeling decided not to return to her copywriting position so she could devote herself fully to the Angel Band Project.

"It has been my work to relay not only the facts related to sexual violence, but to also appeal to the emotional side of the public in order to create empathy for survivors of sexual violence," Ebeling says. "I have tried to remain clear and factual in my efforts, and I oftentimes reflect on my journalistic knowledge when it comes to sharing this message with the public."

Telling Stories One Business at a Time

Amy Rymer's video production company, AR Creative, serves to support small businesses and nonprofits. It's a one-person operation with Rymer, MA '08, doing everything from company promotion to client relations to video editing.

Amy Rymer, MA '08
Rymer uses both her bachelor's of business administration and master's of journalism degrees to run her company, AR Creative. Photo courtesy of Amy Rymer.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in business from Principia College, Rymer started her career in an operations management position with AmeriCorps VISTA in 2004. One day she noticed a picture of a woman using hand tools to plow a field in a United Nations calendar on an office file cabinet. This chance glance changed the direction of her career. Rymer thought how she would love to be the person taking that picture and realized her real interest was in visual work, not operations management.

Rymer had no background in photography but decided to pursue this interest as a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism in 2006. New technologies for combining video and the Web were progressing quickly at the time. Rymer anticipated that mastering these emerging media platforms would enable her to provide a broad range of services. She learned how to build her own professional website using HTML and FLASH to display her photography and used it to apply for her two summer internships.

The most important thing she learned that transcends all mediums was how to tell a story. Brian Storm, MA '95, illustrated the importance of this skill when on campus to present his company, MediaStorm, which uses multimedia platforms to create cinematic narratives. She and a friend were inspired and fantasized about starting their own MediaStorm. They decided to create their own form of MediaStorm after graduation. The two moved to Philadelphia in 2009 and identified their target market as the countless small businesses and nonprofits around the city. Their main product would be short promotional videos.

Starfinder Media Literacy Class
Rymer teaches media literacy classes to teenagers at the Starfinder soccer facility, so they can tell their own stories through video production. Photo courtesy of Amy Rymer.

A year later Rymer's friend decided to devote more attention to her primary job. In January 2010 Rymer took complete ownership of the venture.

After three years in business Rymer has helped a wide variety of nonprofits and small businesses promote their own entrepreneurial ventures, organizations from Philadelphia Mural Arts to the Starfinder Foundation youth soccer program. The method is always the same: create a professional Web video that allows the venture to reach its clientele. Rymer produces stories so her clients can realize their dreams.

"My underlying intention is very different for a promotional video than a journalistic story, but I find that my journalistic skills come through while making the promotional videos to create authentic, truthful stories" Rymer says.

Cole Donelson Cole Donelson is a senior strategic communication and management major with a Spanish minor at the University of Missouri. He was awarded the School of Journalism's most prestigious honor for high-achieving freshman students when he was named a Walter Williams Scholar. Donelson served as president of both the business fraternity Delta Sigma Pi and the service organization Alternative Spring Break. He completed a marketing internship with Lucentum Digital in Alicante, Spain. Donelson will work as a healthcare information technology consultant for Cerner in Kansas City after graduation.

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The J-School Magazine  |  Copyright © June 2012  |  Contact the School
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Revised: June 1, 2012. Copyright © 2012 The Curators of the University of Missouri  |  Contact the J-School