Merging the Classroom with the Community

Javier Garcia has been a professor for a little more than two years. The spring of 2017 was his first time teaching COMM 414, Advanced Advertising Strategies, and his first semester teaching for Manhattan College’s communication department. Inspired by the capstone courses he completed during his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the City College of New York (CCNY), Garcia designed the conceptual framework behind this 15 week course to mirror a real client pitch situation, and three students were able to intern for SoHarlem, a nonprofit business incubator for apparel brands.

“I remember my situation vividly: During my last semester of undergrad back in the fall of 2009, I was a scared senior doing my one and only internship right before graduating, while participating in the capstone class, the toughest classroom experience I’d had to date. I was incredibly afraid of what awaited me after I graduated, since I had no idea how or if I would be able to land a job – my first job – in the aftermath of a recession,” he said.

Garcia landed a full time position at Young and Rubicam, where he had been interning. It was one of the few advertising agencies that still held offices on Madison Avenue. Here, Garcia worked with large global brands such as Colgate, LG and Dell. This very first job would be the catalyst for his own entrepreneurial endeavors, as well as this SoHarlem partnership many years later. However, he credits his education first.

“That undergraduate capstone course set me up for life, instilling me with a heroic work ethic that I have carried with me ever since. When it came time to return to CCNY to complete my Master’s degree, I once again found myself in similar capstone environment, albeit we were now a classroom of young professionals, and several of us had years of experience and award winning projects under their belt. The experiences, as you could imagine, were incredibly competitive, but incredibly rewarding, and resulted in strong portfolio pieces and even work opportunities,” Garcia said.

When he became a professor, he was well-aware of how competitive the advertising world would be for his students.

“My goal in teaching the advanced advertising strategies course is to provide the kinds of knowledge and intensive work experience students might encounter by having them pitch for a client’s business in their own in-class communications agencies,” he said.

Lauren Kalina, a senior advertising major, was one of the students involved in this project.

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“It all started when Javier decided that instead of doing a fake client and going through the motion of a campaign, we were going to meet with a real life company that needed our help. In class we worked in groups getting down in the weeds about this company and what they were about,” Kalina said.

Kalina’s group and the other groups of students presented their final media campaign to Janet Rodriguez, the CEO and founder of SoHarlem, at the end of the spring semester. Rodriguez chose Kalina’s group.

This is where Garcia explains that running this course with SoHarlem was “a case of the stars aligning.” Rodriguez was searching for interns for the summer, and it just so happened that the students whose project she had chosen were all searching for internship positions as well.

“She offered us a summer internship at SoHarlem and I was so excited to get to actually put in place all the work we had done that semester,” Kalina said.

Over the summer, Kalina worked four days a week.

“We did a range of tasks for SOH, we organized a full brand refresh, put together a photoshoot for Pur Sol Miami, helped conduct a Telemundo interview that has been submitted for the Emmys, assisted with putting together the mural outside our building, organizing a silent auction and just so much more. I loved being able to run the little things and have a say in what was going on. On a day-to-day we would focus on the online presence that SoHarlem had, as a non-profit, social media is super important for getting grants, and other types of government funds,” she said.

Kalina’s love for fashion also flourished at this internship.

“I have always been obsessed with the fashion world so this was a great opportunity for me to really get a glimpse of that space. I loved meeting the designers and learning how they came up with their designs, sourced their fabrics, and manufactured their product,” she said.

Kalina also met a woman named Kate, who taught her a great deal about the industry.

“Kate travels to India to where she employs many women to sew beautiful cross stitches, beading, and any other amazing embellishments on fabric. All her fabric and garments have a story and that’s something that is super rare, but amazing,” Kalina said.

As far as what she wants to do with her career, Kalina said this internship was right on the mark.

“Through this experience I’ve gotten a more clear understanding of where I would like to be in the advertising world. I’ve learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses and how to best cope with both,” she said.

Garcia wanted to create a sense of autonomy within the students, so his supervision was minimal. The team was given full independence to work with SoHarlem in producing quality work and strategy.

“They even worked on a bigger, even bolder request: a rebranding effort that included the development of a new corporate identity – a new logo, color palette, tone of voice, typefaces, and other creative elements for the non-profit, which was using branding elements that hadn’t been changed in over ten years,” Garcia said.

Senior Patrick Estanbouli was especially thrilled about this part.

“My work at SoHarlem was focused around a creative strategy/directive role. I spent the first month of our internship rebranding the company with a new logo and style guide. From that point on, I was in charge of creating and designing all content as well as brainstorming with my teammates what strategies would be most effective for SoHarlem publicity and mission,” he said.

For Estanbouli, who is an advertising major with a minor in digital media art, this kind of work was right up his alley.

“This was a great opportunity and amazing way to get a starting grasp of working in the creative advertising and strategy fields, and really helped me foster an understanding of what kind of creative work I love and want to do in the future within the field of advertising and design in general,” he said.

Marissa Fox, another member of the class, reflects on the summer with gratitude as well.

“It was important that the organization keep up to date with the modern era through active social media sites and promotion. I was able to really implement my new ideas because I understood the company’s foundation after working on a semester-long campaign for them,” she said.

Fox’s work included acquiring a digital audit of the company, to see what worked and what didn’t when it came to their online presence.

“After that, with the help of other interns, I was able to manage the company’s social media. The job was an ongoing task that required some time so I spent two to three days working at SoHarlem,” Fox said.

Fox especially enjoyed the collaborative effort that the job required, because she learned the importance of working in a team setting. However, she was also able to develop her own independent sense of her work.

“The work at hand was very liberating because it was like building an image of the organization through one’s own sense of vision or direction. It was a great experience that also introduced me to people who love their community and want to see it thrive. The designers were amazing along with the head of the organization, Janet Rodriguez. Seeing them so passionate about their line of work was truly inspiring,” she said.

She is skilled with digital media, and SoHarlem allowed her to get hands on experience where she could apply these skills.

“I would currently love to continue working in the digital ad space and will hopefully be able to contribute to its advancements thus far,” Fox said.

However, going back to Garcia’s first job at Young and Rubicam, it is compelling to see how all of this fell together, both for the professor and his students.

“Back in 2013, Michael Dell was determined to privatize Dell Computers, the global enterprise he had founded. To help tell this story, Y&R successfully pitched a campaign that was centered around the humble beginnings stories behind large brands, and the entrepreneurial spirit, which, interestingly enough, struck me with a dose of inspiration to explore my own entrepreneurial spirit,” Garcia said.

By the end of 2012, Garcia had been overworking himself relentlessly for years, and found himself in the wake of an incredibly difficult time in his life, including a near-death experience.

“It was then that I realized I needed to do some soul searching, live healthier, I started running and began exploring my physical, personal and professional potential. Fast forward to the fall of 2013 – I was walking down the street one day and it dawned on me how uninspired I was by the athletic apparel brands that I buy, leading me to see that there might be a gap in the category. It was at that time, while walking down the street, having been working on this campaign for Dell, that I had an incredible light bulb moment – I could have a humble beginnings story of my own. I could start my own business. The idea of being an entrepreneur never occurred to me, but starting my own business – in particular, an athletic apparel/lifestyle brand – was something that I knew right then and there, that if I didn’t try to make happen, I would live to regret it for the rest of my life. And so the earliest fragments of my athletic apparel brand, Suyo, were born,” he said.

Garcia entertained the idea for a few years, and then took a break from working full-time at advertising agencies to teach part-time and get Suyo off the ground. It just so happened that his partner in Suyo is a non-profit grant writer and SoHarlem was one of her clients.

“After months of conversation, Suyo was enrolled in Harlem’s business incubator and we began producing prototypes of our first round of product – sustainably produced leggings – right there in Harlem. Several months later I interviewed for a teaching gig at Manhattan College for the Advanced Advertising Strategies class, and when the course was pitched to me, it sounded awfully similar to the capstone course I had completed in my undergraduate and graduate classwork, and knew that I needed a client. SoHarlem, being a diamond in the rough, needed to build its name in the world, and so they seemed like the perfect client for the class,” he said.

Garcia pitched the idea to Rodriguez, who happily agreed.

Garcia reflects on the experience with fondness: “And the rest, as they say, is history.”