Allie Danziger: “Ampersand is an opportunity”

Ampersand is an opportunity to really change diversity in America and give opportunity to young adults that otherwise wouldn’t have access to quality mentorship, coaching, and internships that can help them get on the right career paths. As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” […]

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Ampersand is an opportunity to really change diversity in America and give opportunity to young adults that otherwise wouldn’t have access to quality mentorship, coaching, and internships that can help them get on the right career paths.

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Allie Danziger.

Allie Danziger, Houston-based entrepreneur, is the co-founder and President of a full-service digital and traditional marketing agency, Integrate, and has recently co-founded a new venture, Ampersand.

Over the last 15 years, Allie has had the opportunity to help companies of all sizes grow, pulling from her background starting, scaling and selling the marketing agency she founded, Integrate; her deep understanding of brand communications and public relations, consulting with over 600 clients in the widest range of industries and sizes imaginable over the last decade; and her experience hiring, training and mentoring dozens of employees and professionals.

It is cultivating life-changing accomplishments for those around her that motivates Allie each day. Whether that is witnessing clients’ businesses thrive because of the agency’s marketing initiatives, coaching mentees through career paths that change the trajectory of their lives, or seeing employees flourish that motivate her to keep going.

Don’t let her 5-foot frame fool you; Allie is driven, full of passion and a completely open book (poker is not her game!). Fueled by Diet Dr. Pepper and an unwavering commitment to helping ambitious people succeed, this thriving entrepreneur started one of the city’s top PR and social media agencies in 2009 and has been changing the marketing game in Houston, ever since.

Integrate was founded on the idea to “integrate” any communication tactics necessary to achieve client goals by authentically connecting with target audiences where they are. Jumping into the fire in the presence of a challenge, Allie courageously goes where others won’t. In 2009, she noticed a gap in the marketplace as businesses struggled to understand social media — hence, Integrate was born; in 2012, Integrate shifted its focus to include digital marketing through Facebook advertising, staying far ahead of competitors’ focus; in 2015, Integrate led the way on blogger and influencer relations; and in 2017, the company produced stellar multimedia content to supplement its creative output. In 2018, Integrate was acquired by Spark, Wright & Colgin and Allie stayed on board to help run the agency and leads the sales arm of the company. Allie remains laser-focused on innovation in order to exceed client expectations and keep employees on their toes.

To decompress after an energizing day, Allie finds joy in yoga, running and spending time with her 2 daughters, Milly (3 ½ years old) and Eve (2 years old), her pug, Waffles, and husband and fellow entrepreneur, Eric.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Throughout the early part of the pandemic, I offered my time and services to basically anyone who needed help — both businesses who could benefit from a 30-minute free consultation on how to pivot their marketing, and professionals who had recently been laid off, had internships rescinded, or were deciding whether or not to take a gap year with their education turning online.

I wanted to find a way to scale all of these conversations and help as many people as possible, and at the same time my cousin, Scott Greenberg, was working on a business plan related to online curriculum, so he and I collaborated to come up with Ampersand as a program that could 1) give young professionals something productive to do with this bizarre time; 2) teach entry-level employees all of the skills that could benefit them in their future career paths, and find a way to democratize access to this mentorship and coaching; and 3) help businesses find resources to help them with tasks necessary for their business, while also giving back to their communities.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In 2018 I sold my PR and social media agency, Integrate, to a digital marketing agency. Hurricane Harvey had just hit Houston and even though Integrate was helping a lot of locally-owned businesses with the PR and social media services that we offered, I knew in my heart that our clients truly needed digital marketing to really grow their businesses out of the crisis we had all just encountered. I knew that it was only by partnering with true experts in the space that we could become a fully integrated agency to really help our clients succeed.

The craziest part… I sold my company on a Thursday to Spark, Wright and Colgin, and on the following Monday I found out I was 10 weeks pregnant! It threw my world for a total loop, mostly because it was so unexpected. I had literally just put together a 90-day and 4-year plan for how I was going to grow the business; and the next 9 months ended up being a completely different experience than I had ever imagined.

But… it was a great lesson. I had this whole like planned for myself, my family, and my business that I was working towards, but selling my company — and having this surprise life-changing moment happen right in the middle of that — really changed my outlook.

It awoke in me this feeling that things really do happen for a reason. Keeping your eyes, heart and brain open to those unexpected, awesome surprises can take your life in a completely different way, and that’s usually how it was always supposed to be. You just have to be open to it.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

I live by a motto: experience the experience. To me, that means trying to be fully present in each moment and take the experience for what it is. Learn from it, grow from it, find joy, or sorrow, in it; but be there.

When COVID hit, I think all of us were in shock for a couple of weeks on what to do with this new reality, but I tried really hard to turn to my motto and change my perspective as quickly as possible. I looked for ways to embrace this flipped world and help people through it, to find the positives for my family, my company, and for myself. I had to turn off social media, and question: “How could I use this time to harness my strength and use what I know as a way to really help people?”

I’m driven by seeing others succeed and creating opportunities for the people around me, whether they’re business owners or young professionals. Finding ways to do that, whether it’s through a marketing agency, through public speaking, individual mentorship, sitting on advisory boards, helping charities fundraise, and now through Ampersand — that has certainly guided my life and career.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

That’s my latest venture developed with some key partners: Ampersand — a three-month career readiness bootcamp, eliminating the education to employment skills gap and giving young professionals a head start on their early career development.

We are supplying students and graduates with the necessary skills to enter the workplace through curriculum sessions, ongoing 1×1 mentoring, and guaranteed three, one-month rotational internships.

A 2017 study found that only a third of students believe they will graduate with the skills and knowledge to be successful in the job market (34%) and in the workplace (36%), which the pandemic has only exacerbated.

By providing the program to individuals from any and all backgrounds, and democratizing access to workforce development and internships, Ampersand is an opportunity to really change diversity in America and give opportunity to young adults that otherwise wouldn’t have access to quality mentorship, coaching, and internships that can help them get on the right career paths.

How do you think this will change the world?

A Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study published in 2018 suggests that the diversity of management teams leads to greater innovation, which, in turn, can drive significant revenue increases.

And, just a few weeks ago, Nasdaq announced that they were seeking mandatory board diversity for listed companies and has proposed that companies must have at least two diverse directors.

With Chief Diversity Officers as the #1 trending new job posting on LinkedIn, there is definitely a new awakening to the importance of workplace diversity, however as it comes to the implementation, there is no playbook on how to turn this into reality at every level within an organization. Hint: it is NOT by hiring your CEO’s neighbors’ son to be the new intern, or going to your existing network of alumni peers to hire your next CMO.

How is Ampersand changing the world? By upskilling our entry level workforce and helping young employees from a variety of backgrounds enter their first jobs and internships more prepared, educated, experienced, and connected, Ampersand is empowering our participants and the participating businesses to change the world through whatever means they have.

We are changing the way connections can be made, shifting the life and career trajectory of individuals, and evolving the range of opinions and thoughts throughout the company.

Ampersand shifts the diversity paradigm in corporate structures, in a way that’s manageable for businesses and beneficial for young professionals from any and all backgrounds.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

The only potential drawback I can think of is a more competitive, more able and prepared workforce, since Ampersand would be increasing the quantity of qualified individuals looking for entry-level jobs.

In our current system, so many students find internships through personal, familial connections, or some other early access to professional mentorship. When Ampersand broadens that, and we are able to truly fulfill our mission and provide that service to thousands of young professionals around the country, and globe, then ultimately we’ll have more qualified people competing for the same jobs.

That said, if there are more qualified employees, I can only imagine that a handful of these creative, talented young professionals would have an entrepreneurial spirit that would then be hiring and continuing to grow the economy.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

There were multiple things happening at the same time that led to the creation of Ampersand.

At the beginning part of the pandemic, in April and May, Integrate was offering free consultations to any small businesses that wanted marketing help. I was able to talk to dozens of small business owners around the country who wanted to pick my brain about things they could do to pivot their marketing or shift their operations due to COVID, so I was seeing what small businesses all over the country wanted and needed.

Simultaneously, a lot of young professionals in my network (and the networks of those around me) were reaching out to me for help: what to do now that they got laid off or their internships were rescinded, or if they should take a gap year with college going online.

Through both types of conversations, we really noticed this gap where these businesses could use the young professional’s help and the young professionals, who didn’t know what to do with this gap in their career path, could be of great asset to these businesses.

One evening, where all great ideas are born: sipping wine outside of a Greek restaurant with my husband, we thought of Ampersand as a way to scale the conversations I was having with these young professionals and find this marketplace solution for the businesses and young professionals so that they could each benefit from each other.

However, it couldn’t stop here. The businesses were too busy to just take on any interns. They needed to be coached and mentored in order to be productive on day one.

I’ve mentored over 100 young professionals over the past decade, spoke to thousands of students at universities around Texas, and hired dozens of recent grads and I’ve seen a real gap in how higher education teaches and trains graduates to enter the workplace. I’ve been frustrated by it for some time, and as I interviewed >100 business owners regarding Ampersand, I was able to confirm the same dissatisfaction in almost everyone: they want to hire interns, they want to support their communities and develop young professionals to enter their respective fields, and want to increase diversity in their workforce at the entry level; however they do not have the time to teach them the most basic soft and job-related skills.

Enter Scott Greenberg, who had been working on a different business plan related to online curriculum for students, and also has a background as a career counselor and resume writing. He and I teamed up to quickly (when I say quickly, I mean within weeks!) launch a beta program in September 2020, to prove concepts with 10 young professionals from around the country and match them with 10 businesses, and the results were overwhelmingly positive.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Awareness. Every single person we talk to about Ampersand — businesses, professionals, students, friends, professors, potential investors — can identify with the problems we are solving and wants to get involved: they either know someone who could benefit from the program, want to take on an intern, or fund a scholarship for a young professional.

It’s so validating to hear people say they wish this program existed when they were entering the workforce. However, in order to actually get the adoption that we need, it’s really just more marketing, more awareness, more buzz to the right individuals who can benefit from the program and then the success stories will sell it!

What are your “Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I started Integrate when I was 24 years old. I wasn’t married, I didn’t have kids, I basically had zero responsibility. It was so much easier to start a business at that stage of life when I could work as late as I needed and take any and all risks required for success. I wish I had realized at that young age how much easier it was then! I was working 15-hour days without even blinking. Now, I’ve got two young kids and other life responsibilities (plus COVID stresses!) so it’s a lot harder to find those weekend hours, early mornings, and late nights to get this off the ground (alongside my full-time responsibilities with Integrate!).

Also, it’s ok to pivot. The first idea is rarely the best one, so keep your ears and brain open to the best answer, and make the adjustments necessary. Egos are not for early business founders.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

So much of what we teach the participants in the Ampersand program is about a growth mindset and habits to deliberately transform into a productive, proactive and growth and solution-oriented individual.

Some of these include:

  • Get to know yourself and your superpower. What can you do better than anyone else in the world and how can you spend as much of your professional career doing this?
  • We start each program orientation with a Myers Briggs assessment and career mapping. We help participants figure out how to overlap their passions, skills, learning and work preferences/styles and personality type. We help participants understand that you are working where you’re supposed to, you will be unstoppable.
  • Learn to take and give feedback. Understanding the intention of the person on the other side of the conversation (usually good!) can help make this a less difficult conversation, but the sooner you can implement these changes, the faster you’ll move past it.
  • Keep learning; do not get stagnant after this program or once you land the role.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

In 2018, 26% of college students (or their parents) spent an average of 4,000 dollars on a college admissions counseling or SAT tutoring. That means that each year, 5.2 million Americans are spending an average of 4,000 dollars to get their kids into college (that is 20B dollars annually!!). However, approximately 10% will graduate without jobs and more than 40% will take jobs that do not require a college degree.

Enter Ampersand — a virtual career readiness bootcamp offering career assessments, resume coaching, and 5 hours/week job skill training, coupled with three automatic internship placements.

While we cannot guarantee job placement (just as college counselors cannot guarantee acceptance to your dream school) if we can get just 0.25% of this audience to invest in their careers/futures in the same vein, that could impact 13,000 students per year, ultimately generating 40 MILLION dollars annually.

On top of that, Ampersand is emerging at the same time as president-elect Biden has committed 50 billion dollars to workforce development and an increasing number of conversations about corporate diversity. The timing is there. The need is there. And the scalability of the program is there.

We are confident that Ampersand could be at the heart of a larger movement to eliminate the education to employment skills gap and increase the pool of prepared young professionals.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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