Thursday, March 3, 2011

THE REAL PEPSI CHALLENGE: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier in American Business



  By Stephanie Capparell
     This book tells the riveting story of some of the first African-American professionals to enter Corporate America: the all-black Pepsi-Cola sales team that sold the soft drink to the so-called Negro Market, beginning in the 1940s. It was the dawn of niche marketing and these professionals--the department had 12 men at its peak in 1951--helped define it. These were business pioneers in ways that went beyond issues race. They helped modernize WWII-era American advertising and democratize U.S. business.
      Substantial Films Inc., is offering rights to the book for a film or for a television mini-series. It is a story that has to a be told: a bold, early chapter in the civil-rights movement---the move to recognize African-Americans' competence at every level of employment and their economic power.
      The Pepsi marketing-team member, led by the onetime Hollywood singer and actor Edward F. Boyd, were the black Mad Men, as my readers often like to point out to me. It's the prequel to the popular show, with the men having entered Madison Avenue some 20 years earlier. They were just as smart, just as sassy, just as  creative, and just as popular with women as their fictional counterparts.
     But their problems and challenges weren't self-inflicted. They were traveling salesmen in the time of vicious and chaotic U.S. segregation laws, forced to sit at the back of the bus, dine behind curtains on trains, stay in separate hotels and avoid most restaurants. One of the salesmen, Alexander Jackson, who was ordered to move to the back of a bus during a Southern marketing campaign was a Harvard graduate, the son of a Harvard graduate, and the brother of a Harvard student. The experience was devastating and he left the team.

Pepsi-Cola Co.'s Negro Market team, 1950
       This is no rags-to-riches tale. There are no victims to patronize. These men were well-educated and polished, part of the black elite that had emerged a mere two generations after slavery. Others in their circle started lucrative businesses in the black community and lived comfortable, affluent lives in segregated America. But these men were after a slice of the real economic and political clout of the newly booming corporate world. They had everything to lose as they ventured into new territory, demanding integration, opportunity, and professional recognition on the broadest scale. The men helped to push open doors in the work force, but it wasn't entirely a happy ending. In the end, the team members gave more than they got, and most left their corporate careers for other fields, continuing to break down barriers in international relations, journalism, education, medicine, and fund-raising.
     One salesman, however, did see the story to its inevitable conclusion. Harvey C. Russell, who joined the sales force in 1950, became in 1962 the first African-American promoted to vice president of a major corporation when PepsiCo named him vice president for special markets.


  “ To the ranks of the unsung  civil rights pioneers, add Pepsi’s first special-markets sales staff. Instead of schoolrooms or lunch counters, their struggles and victories took place in offices, storefronts, and factory floors.”
                                      ---‘The Real Pepsi Challenge’

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