Monday, Sept. 15, 2014
When the commissioner of the NBA told Pam El in late June that she had been hired as the NBA's chief marketing officer, El waited until he left the room – and then she did a happy dance. Landing the job, she said, was a dream come true.
"I knew my dream. It was first to be a CMO. And then to work in sports. And [then to work in] my favorite sport," she said. "There's only one job and I just got it."
El, a 1983 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Mass Communications – which is now the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences – visited VCU last week as part of the VCU Brandcenter's Friday forum lecture series.
El's talk, "Finding Your Passion: Words of Wisdom from an Old Lady," outlined her career path and the lessons she's learned along the way.
"I didn't get from Lynchburg, Virginia, to the CMO of the NBA by wishing for it overnight. It did not happen that way. It happened through a lot of hard work," she said.
El urged the students in the crowd to figure out what they're most passionate about, and then to work to spin it into a career.
"Think about the people who have the passion that they want and are actually doing what they want to and are actually getting paid for it," she said. "What we have to figure out is how to take that passion and bring it together with what we're actually really good at and what we can get paid for. Think about Oprah. Oprah gets paid for her passion. She likes to talk to people, she likes to analyze people's problems. She gets paid for it."
The key, she said, is to find the common ground between what you love and what you can get paid for.
"It's so much easier to not solve that problem. It's so much easier to say I'm just going to do [what I love] part-time," she said. "Think about how to bring those things together."
Growing up in Lynchburg, El was one of six children in a household with a single mother. She did not see college even as an option, so she started working two jobs – at an engineering firm and at a grocery store. After a couple years, however, she decided she wanted to get a college degree.
"I'm working for 26 engineers and there's me," she said. "I looked at them, and I said they're here and I'm here. The difference is college."
El enrolled at VCU. And, knowing that her passion was public speaking, she decided to pursue a public relations degree – though that only lasted a single day.
"I signed up for PR and went to one class," she said. "I heard them say you can work on a story and work your butt off, and the next day that story might be in the paper or it might not. Or you can go into advertising, and you can make an ad, and you can pay for that ad, and the next day that ad is going to be in the paper. I was like, 'Done. I'm done.' That day I changed my major to advertising and the rest, I kid you not, is history."
Following graduation, El took a job as a secretary in a Richmond advertising agency just to get her foot in the door. Within a few months, she was hired as an assistant account executive and was put on the Virginia Tourism account, launching a long career in which she has been recognized for more than 30 years as an industry leader for her expertise in brand management, marketing strategy, creative development and media and sponsorships.
El told students that they need to have a positive attitude if they want to be successful.
"Don't you hate mopey people?" she said. "If there are people in your life that are bringing you down, get them out. There's room for other people. And if you are one of those, you need to look at yourself and say 'I have to get over this.' You are not going to get anywhere in that frame of mind. So get over it. And have a little fun."
She also urged the crowd to refuse to settle. Find your passion, she said, and do not raccept anything less.
"If you want to go do something, go do it," she said. "Settling leads to complacency. Complacency leads to boredom. And boredom leads to death. So don't settle."
At the same time, she said, be willing to abandon a path that turns out to be the wrong one.
"We're all entitled to take a turn," she said. "Be in tune with yourself. If it's not working for you, it's not working for you. And you need to find what does work for you."
Finally, El said, it is important to be yourself.
"You are a brand. Your brand is very unique. There's only one of you. You have to protect that brand," she said. "The worst thing you can do to that brand is try to change it into somebody else's brand.
At her talk Friday, El came out dancing to country music, and danced with a person from the crowd.
"I don't know what my mother would think if she saw me come out acting a fool like I did at the start of this presentation," she said. "But I know what she would say. She'd say 'That's just Pam.' She might worry about how she raised me but she shouldn't. That's just Pam. Be yourself."
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