Vanessa McCullers’ entire career path changed with a single question. She asked her 18-year-old son if he was OK one morning in July 2016. Instead of getting ready for his college class, he was staring into space.
“Mom, why did they kill that man like that?”
He was talking about Alton Sterling, who was killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And Vanessa had no idea what to say. She was supposed to be his mother, his protector. But she didn’t know what to say to him.
Then a few days later, she watched in shock as Philando Castile’s mother talked to CNN about how her son was murdered 24 hours before. Later that morning, she joined a Facebook group for moms of Black boys. Before she knew it, she was an executive director for an organization of more than 200,000 moms across the country with chapters in various states: MOBB United.
She had started her career in integrated and product marketing at MTV on The Real World and Road Rules, and worked her way through a list of well-known networks: OWN, E!, and NBC. But when she got the opportunity to step into the role of Vice President, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Strategy at BEN, she knew that it was time to follow her passion.
Are there any other moments in your own life that impacted your passion for DEI?
I moved to the United States from Jamaica when I was eight years old. When we lived in Jamaica, I got teased that I didn’t sound Jamaican. But when we moved to the United States, I was teased because I didn’t sound American. I have always felt like I was on the outside.
I was in my 20s the first time I was called the N word and I bawled like a baby. When my husband asked ‘Why are you crying? That’s normal,’ I said, ‘Not for me. It’s not normal.’ I never faced anything like that before in my life. I grew up in an Irish neighborhood, went to school with Hispanic kids, and my best friends upstairs were Chinese. I am the United Colors of Benetton here. I’ve always had just this natural desire to be inclusive.
What are you working on internally to drive DEI at BEN, and in the company’s work with creators and brands?
I’m going to be very transparent with you. I think that if I were to say that our company and everyone in our company had no biases whatsoever, it would be an outright lie. Bias is everywhere and I’m working to change what I can. Last year, I focused on setting up the foundation for the DEI initiative. This year I am focusing on providing individuals within the company with the tools to understand and recognize and correct biases and microaggressions, which is the very first step. I am also focusing on training our leaders to lead with empathy. Not only can this affect what we communicate with coworkers, but also how we communicate and connect with our content creators, our content partners, our brand clients, and our vendors. If we start on a granular level, then it seeps to the outside, and the company’s investment in diversity and inclusion really starts to show.
Can you think of a time when working in product placement where you saw the need to be more inclusive?
When I looked at the slides for an RFP for a beer company where they wanted to target upper middle-class professionals, I noticed that it lacked depth—not enough women and not enough BIPOC. It almost felt like we were saying that BIPOC and women don’t properly represent the upper middle-class beer drinker. But I’m an upper middle-class beer drinker; I love my Heineken and my Corona on a good hot day. We went back and revised the images so that it spoke to every person who would go to the supermarket and pick up a six-pack of beer. It needed to speak to everyone. It’s our responsibility to educate the brands that their demographic, their audience, and their consumers are much wider than they actually think they are.
How does BEN prioritize DEI when engaging with brands and creators?
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about D&I. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about a singular demographic. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about our technology or a singular brand. It should still look the same across the board. We should always see diversity in every segment that we’re touching. It is our responsibility to make sure we are training our employees to look for biases and to recognize biases. If we don’t fix the biases in us, we will share that in other ways.
What content creators do you follow religiously?
Babies, puppies, babies, puppies, babies, puppies. I do follow a number of creators, but I just have a love for babies and puppies.
In all seriousness, I think that most of the content that I dive into is made by content creators who speak to my heart and speak to my soul and the essence of who I am as a Black woman. I really enjoy how LaToya Shambo at Black Girl Digital shares her secret to the trade. She shared things like how to work with brands and follow brand guidelines. As a Black woman, I firmly believe in lifting as you climb. There is no better way. When you see other Black women sharing how to follow brand ethics, you have to applaud them.
On the funny side, I love Abiola, who we recently highlighted for Black History Month. His content is just so real and so authentic, and it completely speaks to me. Embracing Black Culture is another funny one. Each time I look at their posts, I think they created it just for me and we are family just laughing together at the same thing, such as their video of “Things Black People Do.” It spoke to me.