Ellen Walthour, the BrandLab

Title: Executive director

Age: 40


Once a teacher who was curious about business, Ellen Walthour now is helping introduce diverse students to marketing and advertising as career options as executive director of the BrandLab, a Minneapolis nonprofit.

Walthour’s focus is finding agencies and corporations to host high school students on paid internships this summer. She hopes to place 40 students this year, up from 32 last summer.

The internships begin in June and continue for eight weeks. Students spend the first week in the BrandLab Summer Institute, a boot camp in work readiness and marketing concepts that takes place at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design campus. Students work 12 to 20 hours a week on specific projects under a supervisor and a mentor who works with both the student and the supervisor.

Walthour joined the BrandLab in 2009 as program director before succeeding Jim Cousins as executive director two years ago. The program began in 2007 at Minneapolis agency Olson before becoming a nonprofit organization in 2008. Last summer, 18 agencies and corporations hosted BrandLab interns. Many interns come from BrandLab programs taught in 23 classrooms at a dozen Twin Cities high schools.

Walthour worked as a teacher in elementary and junior high schools in the Twin Cities before joining the BrandLab. She also spent two years teaching at an international school in Tokyo. When her interest in business, inspired by her husband’s work in marketing, prompted her to interview for a position at Olson, a manager there recommended her joining the BrandLab.

Q: Why should an agency or corporate marketing department consider bringing in a BrandLab intern?

A: It’s a good business decision. We have to create opportunity, and businesses are struggling to hire and retain people of color. You don’t need to go to New York or California. We have a growing, diverse community here in the Twin Cities. And it can fill your soul to mentor a young person.

Q: What influences the students who go in the BrandLab classroom programs or summer internships?

A: It’s creative communication. To be in a high-school classroom and learn there is a way to be creative in business is exciting for students. It’s often a job they’ve never heard of. You can’t ask for a job you don’t know exists.

Q: What do BrandLab summer interns do?

A: We want them to experience what it feels like to be a researcher or a strategist. We have them make presentations. A great day is when the students have completed their work and they have their campaigns on boards and present their strategy and why they came up with the idea they did. Then there’s a panel from the industry giving them feedback. It’s a fun day.