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University of Missouri

The Boomerang Effect

Lincoln Stephens has made achieving diversity in advertising his life’s work.

Stephens portrait

Lincoln Stephens, BJ ’03, accepts a 2015 Missouri Honor Medal. Photo by Lizz Cardwell.

Dreams don’t always come fully formed; often they’re assembled from small pieces — like, say, the impression left by a movie paired with a bit of advice from an elder.

For Lincoln Stephens, BJ ’03, the movie was 1992’s Boomerang, in which Eddie Murphy plays an executive at an advertising agency filled with African-American employees. The advice was from former MU advertising professor Larry Powell, who told the then-new strategic communications graduate to build a network of diverse professionals. The pieces came together when Stephens entered the advertising business, saw the shortage of diversity there and read about potential class-action lawsuits over racial discrimination.

When your eyes are open to a thing, it’s hard to un-see it,” Stephens says.

​The problem was old, but Stephens considered it his responsibility to help fix it. He started dreaming about building not only a diverse network but also a training program to help students of color launch their careers.

Stephens wrote out his dream in black dry-erase marker on the large bedroom window of his Chicago apartment. It was the first thing he saw when he woke up. It consumed him more than his full-time job. One day he was praying, pleading with God for direction. And he found clarity. “I heard, ‘You need to start with this vision you have.’ So I quit my job and two weeks later was on a plane home to Dallas.”

Stephens founded the nonprofit Marcus Graham Project, named for Murphy’s Boomerang character, in 2007. The organization trains diverse undergraduate and graduate advertising students through intense summer boot camps in which they work with real clients, such as Pepsi.

The organization has trained nearly 100 students and is expanding to London, Chicago, San Francisco and Detroit.

Stephens knows he can’t end underrepresentation in advertising by himself, but he won’t let that stop him from doing something. “If we all do our part to the fullest of our capacity, we can do it.”