Professor Michelle Sullivan begins her first semester of teaching advertising this year, but her affiliation with the College of Communication started much earlier. A 1995 COM graduate, Sullivan has since stemmed in her field, due in large part to her positive attitude and also her knack for networking. She was the senior brand manager at Boston Beer Company for the past 17 years, and was selected as the one of the recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Awards in 2015.
While you were in COM, what were you involved in?
Michelle Sullivan: I was a journalism major as a freshman, so I worked for the Daily Free Press, and I did an internship at a newspaper back in my hometown. That helped me tremendously in deciding that I wanted to look into other aspects of communication.
I also had a work-study job, and I was the president of my sorority for a while. I think I did not realize how important the network that I built would be. So many of my contacts that I have now, I met through the BU Greek Life. I’d encourage [students] to get involved in a variety of organizations.
So after you realized that journalism might not be for you, what made you choose advertising?
MS: I did another great internship! Professor Powers (Gerald Powers, retired PR professor) made the connection for me. I thanked him then, and I would thank him again, because that internship was instrumental in helping me decide to change [my major] from journalism. It helped me get an understanding of what advertising was, and what types of work you do in an agency.
The firm was owned by two women who both graduated from COM. Since then, they have gone on and done separate things, but one of the partners still has a very successful practice, Solomon McCown. I actually became a client of hers while I was at Boston Beer [Company] several years ago. First, I was an intern at Solomon, then became a full-time employee, and then signed on as one of their clients. For more than 20 years now, I’ve had an amazing relationship with the people I met at the firm.
After you graduated, how did you grow from an advertising intern to becoming the senior brand manager at Boston Beer?
MS: After I interned at Soloman McCown, I graduated and worked there immediately. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to pursue, so I worked for a non-profit for a year. This was at a time when I was still considering higher education opportunities, like law school or an MBA. During that time, I got a call from a recruiter at Boston Beer.
Talking about the importance of networks again, one of my supervisors from the firm I had worked for, who was also a COM grad, was doing PR for Boston Beer. They asked her if she knew anyone in Boston who might be interested in working in their brand development department, and she gave them my name. I got a phone call from Boston Beer, asking if I’d ever considered working on the client side. Boston Beer has a philosophy of “hire slow, fire quickly.” So I was in the interview process for about four and a half months. I had 11 interviews before I got the job. But the past 17 years have been a wonderful ride. I did more in business and marketing than I had ever realized possible.
What led you to return as a professor?
MS: Two words: Tobe Berkowitz. He was one of my professors while I was at BU, and we have stayed in touch since. He had asked me several times if I had any interest in returning to COM. While I certainly had interest, my workload and being a mom, and other demands had kept me from teaching. Doors have opened for me because of COM, so I wanted to give back. Having been at Boston Beer for 17 years, I started to think about whether it was the right time for me. I decided that I was going to leave the company on a full-time basis and start my own agency. Jim Koch (the founder and chairman of Boston Beer) decided to be my first client. I’m able to maintain my ties, while at the same time, build my own business and allow myself the flexibility to teach.
How are you enjoying this new phase of your career?
MS: I love it! When you take a new job, particularly one that is so different, you really can’t be sure. But it has been one of the most pleasant surprises of my life. To students: Be sure to thank your faculty members, because I had no idea how much work this entailed. I’m putting as much of myself into being a professor as I can. I’ve woken up every day and felt excited to take on this new challenge. Being here and teaching right now has made me think about my place in the world, and what I want to do to make it a better place. If I can play even a tiny role in the development of future leaders and communicators, I know I’m leaving my mark. It’s a great privilege and a challenge, and I want to pass on the passion and the knowledge that is necessary to be successful in this field.
What is your advice for students graduating this year?
MS: Internships—do them! An internship led to my first job. Look for opportunities while you’re here. And networking –don’t underestimate the value of this network of COM students. It’s easier now, with social media, to keep in touch with people, and it’s amazing what COM graduates will do to support each other. Make sure you soak up every possible moment. We all come here to add to our career potential, but I think that what I didn’t realize as an undergrad was that COM played an important role in my personal journey as well.
Dera Silvestre, Staff Writer
Dera Silvestre is a junior in the College of Communication studying mass communication with a minor in Spanish. On campus, she is involved in WTBU and the Student Philanthropy Center. This semester, Dera is completing a research and communication internship with Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. She is from Rhode Island.