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The Brandcenter Class of 2023 celebrates Commencement

A group of graduating students in their graduation regalia pose outside together

On Friday, May 12, 2023, the Brandcenter at VCU celebrated Commencement, graduating the school’s 26th graduating class, the Class of 2023. As always, this momentous occasion marks both our graduates’ successful completion of the Brandcenter master’s program—an incredible accomplishment in and of itself—and the beginning of their next chapters. It’s a day of both endings and beginnings, accomplishment and anticipation, holding tightly to all that has been gained while knowing the best is yet to come.

This year’s graduating class is unlike any other in the school’s history; the Class of 2023 includes members who transferred from The Creative Circus to the Brandcenter. In April 2022, following the announcement that The Creative Circus—Atlanta’s renowned advertising portfolio school, would soon close—the Brandcenter offered Circus students the opportunity to transfer and complete their education at the Brandcenter. Interested students applied and were integrated into the existing second-year cohort in the Fall 2022 semester, joining the Art Direction and Copywriting concentrations.

We were honored to award Brandcenter certificates to these incredible students. The certificate is a meaningful representation of their unique educational journey and encompasses their time at both institutions. Students who completed the full, two-year program earned a Master of Science in Business with a concentration in branding and their chosen field of study—art direction, copywriting, strategy, experience design or brand management. Although the transfer students received different credentials at Commencement, they are members of the Class of 2023, and we look forward to continuing to celebrate them as alumni in the years to come. It was an extraordinary privilege to have played a part in their story. (More on the Circus students below.)

Brandcenter Executive Director Vann Graves delivered the opening remarks, applauding the Class of 2023 for their work and dedication that brought them to this moment. “We’re here to celebrate you and your impact on the world and what you’re going to do—not today but once you leave the Brandcenter and go to all corners of the world,” Graves said. “We’re here for you. We’re your people, and you’re our people.”

A distant photo of the executive director at the podium delivering his opening remarks
Executive Director Vann Graves delivers the opening remarks

Joining us as the emcee was Roben Farzad, the host of Full Disclosure. “Congrats, Brandcenter 23, you beautiful, creative problem solving, freakazoids—and I mean that out of nothing but respect and admiration. Thank you for being you,” Farzad said in his first address to our graduates. He continued to infuse his personality, energy, and enthusiasm into the ceremony each time he stepped up to the podium, through captivating storytelling, relatable stories and jokes, and even short musical performances of ʼ80s and ʼ90s music.

In a more serious moment, however, Farzad shared with our graduates a few of the lessons learned and dogmas and rigidities unlearned in the 25 years since his own graduation.

“Life moves fast,” Farzad said. “In 1998, I took a prestigious name brand investment job right out of college, one that I ended up detesting daily. It took me years to have the guts to transition to my passion—journalism—and yet another decade to discover that public radio was my true passion. It’s a constant journey, constant learning.”

He continued, “What I do know is that life happens. And life, at least in my recollection and everyone who I share notes with, is so fraught with obstacles. I don’t know what to tell you honestly other than to please help each other along the way. Please help the 9 out of 10 out there who are not as fortunate, as privileged. Remember this, if you are struggling yourself, and you will struggle, ask how you can help someone and show the courage and vulnerability to ask for help.”

The emcee stands at the podium smiling while faculty and staff seated behind laugh and smiles in response to his jokes
Roben Farzad, Emcee and Host of Full Disclosure 

Sofia Hernandez, Global Head of Business Marketing at TikTok, served as the Keynote Speaker. In her address, Hernandez shared some of the most important things she’s learned throughout her career to better equip and empower our graduates to be the change our industry desperately needs. Being that change, however, might be challenging. Ahead of our graduates is an industry hesitant and resistant to change—one, Hernandez said, fraught with rooms of sameness.

“You’ve just spent the last two years sharpening your skills and honing in on your values and purpose. Now, it’s time to actually go out and live it. Guess what? Living up to your values and purpose every day is really hard in practice, and it’s going to make people uncomfortable. Let me tell you why. Three words: Rooms of sameness,” she shared.

“You’re walking out of this amazing school—a place where you’ve been encouraged to explore, experiment, and push your creative minds to new levels. And, you’re walking into many, many, many rooms of sameness.” These rooms of sameness, she said, “will try to spit you out as paper dolls. You have to promise yourself today that you’re not going to let this happen.”

She then shared two pieces of advice with our graduates to help them not only resist these rooms of sameness but transform them.

“In my 20-plus years in the industry, the people who have pushed boundaries, who have made us think differently, made us really feel something, have two similar traits: One, they choose to be authentic. And, two, they value creating purposeful connections with people.”

“The values you built over your whole life, the things you passionately believe in, the person you are in your most comfortable surroundings, that is who you need to bring to the table,” Hernandez told our graduates. “When you exist in a place of true authenticity, the world opens up for you. Only then can you really start to make purposeful connections with people.”

To close she urged our graduates to “Create an environment where you shine so bright as your authentic self that it makes people feel like they can shine, too.” “That’s real leadership,” she said. “That’s what the industry needs. So walk in every single door and sit at every single table as you.”

You can read the full excerpt of her keynote address here.

The speaker stands at the podium delivering her keynote address
Sofia Hernandez, Global Head of Business Marketing at TikTok, delivers the keynote address

Ahead of the presentation of diplomas and certificates, Ali Wysong, Brandcenter Director’s Council Member and Senior Account Executive, Waze Brand Partnerships at Google, took a moment to speak on behalf of the students who transferred from The Creative Circus to the Brandcenter.

“Passion takes persistence,” Wysong said, and the students who transferred from The Creative Circus made “significant adjustments to pursue their passions.”

“The students who began their further education at The Creative Circus had to pivot when the program announced its closing in spring of last year. Upon the news, the Brandcenter worked tirelessly to offer students of its peer institution opportunities to bring their talent and experience to the creative community here in Richmond. The overture provided Circus students the ability to complete their education and lean into the Brandcenter resources for continued career enhancement, but it still demanded change. These students would have to pick up their lives in the middle of their program and move to a new city with new peers, classrooms, professors, and communities—and learn how to thrive.” “To these students,” Wysong said, “you are stronger for it.”

She then read a note from two of the transfer students’ former professors at The Creative Circus, Jen and Kelley. The message read:

“A sad, and unexpected thing happened in Atlanta a little over a year ago. Our beloved school, The Creative Circus, announced its closure, and you were left with lots of questions and few answers. Students and teachers alike were unsure of what would come next. For those of you who began at the Circus and are sitting here today with shiny portfolios in hand—you chose a brave and tenacious path. In true Circus fashion, you dug in deep, got scrappy, and found a way to drop everything to move to a new city and a new school. And here you are. As your very-official Circus sherpas and moms, we are certain you are better for it. We’d like to offer buckets of gratitude to the Brandcenter team for opening your hearts and your classrooms to this special group of students. The school’s generosity was a spot of sunshine amidst many clouds. Knowing our Circus “kids” would be well-taken care of was a tremendous comfort. We remain so grateful. There is so much more we could say, but just know we send big love from Atlanta and are beaming with pride. The Circus may be no more, but YOU are the Circus—and now, also—part of the Brandcenter fam, and we can’t wait to see that one-of-a-kind legacy shine on.”

A group of graduating students pose together in their graduation regalia
Students who transferred from The Creative Circus to the Brandcenter wear red cords to honor their unique journey.

Vivian Tran (Creative Brand Management, 2023) was the student selected by her peers to speak during the ceremony. Tran served as President of Brandcentral, Brandcenter’s student organization, and facilitator of Skill Share, our professional skills seminar series.

Strategy and brand management professor Kevin Rothermel introduced Tran, mentioning that he “couldn’t have been less surprised or more excited” when he found out who the students had voted to represent them as speaker.

“One of the things that we take pride in at the Brandcenter is teaching our students to think critically, to always look for better ways of doing things, a better problem to solve, and to go the extra mile to make something as good as it can possibly be. Sometimes students arrive with that mindset already built in. Vivian Tran has been that student from the day she stepped foot in the building,” Rothermel said. “Whether in service of the school or her classmates, Vivian has spent much of her two years with us working to make the Brandcenter experience as good as it can be for all of us. She is the consummate leader.” 

In her speech, Vivian Tran (Creative Brand Management, 2023) reflected on a quote creative professor Berwyn Hung shared with her: “Stop looking at everyone else to figure out where you are.”

“Being a student in an esteemed program with talented and brilliant classmates, faculty and staff who have years of experience and wisdom under their belts, and an alumni network who are out in the world doing the things that we all hope and dream of doing can easily get you caught up in the comparison game,” Tran said. “It’s easy to doubt yourself and have the feeling of imposter syndrome. Especially now in a time of uncertainty when you feel like a chapter is closing but you don’t know what’s coming next in your journey.”

Tran reminded her classmates that should they ever feel this way in the days and years to come, they need only return to this moment and remember how proud they felt. “We remained steadfast and confident that we could do it—this crazy, wild, mentally draining yet fulfilling thing called the Brandcenter. And not only did our class rise to the expectations of this program, I believe we far exceeded our own expectations of ourselves,” she said.

Tran thanked her class for their care for the work, the school, and for each other and reminded them they are always connected. “Just like a traditional family, together, we’ve laughed, cried, bickered, and pushed each other to become our better selves. Though we may all end up far and wide from each other, our bond will remain.”

The executive director poses with the student selected to speak outside in front of trees
Commencement student speaker Vivian Tran (Creative Brand Management, 2023) with Executive Director Vann Graves following the ceremony

Two students were recognized for their character, leadership, and contributions to the school and to our community.

Mark McColey (Copywriting, 2023) was the recipient of the Brandcenter Initiative Award, which is presented annually to a student who has made significant contributions to the Brandcenter experience through selfless acts of leadership.

Professor Holly Hessler shared, “Creativity is often rewarded in our industry. However, it is not always common to offer an award to someone who is both creative and a good person. I feel very privileged to offer this award to someone who is both creative and generous. Someone who is both creative and patient. Someone who is creative and a leader amongst his peers. Someone who is both creative and kind. Someone who is creative and driven by an unwavering desire to star in every one of his classmate’s commercials.”

Paul Noonan (Experience Design, 2023) received the Matt Mattox Award for Leadership and Impact, which honors the legacy of the late Brandcenter alumnus Matt Mattox (Strategy, 2005).

Experience Design chair and professor Andrew LeVasseur shared, “Matt Mattox was a well-respected colleague and cherished member of our creative community. He had an amazing influence on so many due to his strength of character and spirit. Our honoree today embodies the spirit of Matt Mattox, who was known for his generosity, humility, and commitment to serving others, both within the Brandcenter community and beyond.”

The executive director and the two student award winners pose together
From left, Paul Noonan (Experience Design, 2023), Executive Director Vann Graves, and Mark McColey (Copywriting, 2023)

Finally, Executive Director Vann Graves honored longtime professors Caley Cantrell and Peter Coughter, as they retired at the end of the school year.

The executive director poses with longtime faculty member
Executive Director Vann Graves with longtime professor Caley Cantrell who is set to retire this year

Congratulations to the Brandcenter Class of 2023. We consider it a tremendous honor to have been a part of their journeys, and we look forward to seeing what they do next and in the years to come.

Even more:

Guest Speakers

Keynote Speaker: Sofia Hernandez, Global Head of Business Marketing / TikTok Sofia Hernandez is the Global Head of Business Marketing at TikTok, where she helps brands around the world tap into the power of TikTok by challenging them to build innovative marketing strategies that drive culture on and off the platform. 

Prior to TikTok, Sofia was the Chief Client Officer at consumer insights platform Suzy where she was responsible for driving revenue retention and growth, informing the product roadmap, and ensuring the entire company was rooted in a ‘customer first’ approach. With over 18 years leading some of the most iconic global marketing campaigns for Fortune 500 companies including P&G, J&J, Netflix and Spotify, Sofia’s passion for people and what makes them tick continues to fuel her keen understanding of how to drive successful connections between brands and the people that love them.

An activist at her core, Sofia recognizes her role as part of the 1% of Latina Executives in Tech and is committed to fostering inclusion in the tech industry by incorporating DEI into everything she touches–from a company’s hiring practices to its advertising. Sofia is a passionate advocate for social justice and co-founded a unique apparel line, Black on Black BK, that’s dedicated to spreading messages of equality and empowerment. 

Emcee: Roben Farzad, Host of Full DisclosureRoben Farzad hosts the public radio show Full Disclosure. He’s a regular on NPR, MSNBC, PBS NewsHour and C-SPAN.

He is the author of Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied and Plotted to Control Miami (Penguin, 2017).

Formerly senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, covering Wall Street, international finance and emerging markets, he has reported everywhere from Mozambique and Botswana to the Mideast and Medellín, Colombia, to the Dominican Republic and the Niger Delta. Farzad started his career at Goldman Sachs. His bylines have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Boston Globe.

Born in Iran and raised in Miami, Roben is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School.

Student Awards

Brandcenter Student Initiative AwardThe Brandcenter Initiative Award is presented to the student who has made significant contributions to the Brandcenter experience through selfless acts of leadership. This individual will have demonstrated a commitment to individual leadership, while displaying an overarching dedication to collaboration. Through innovation, motivation, initiative, and perseverance, this student will have gone above and beyond, demonstrating a commitment to creating positive change in our community. This student will also have an outstanding academic record. Recipients are selected by the Brandcenter administration in collaboration with concentration chairs.

The Matt Mattox Award for Leadership and ImpactThe Matt Mattox Award for Leadership and Impact honors the late Brandcenter alumnus Matt Mattox (Strategy, 2005). The recipient exemplifies some of Matt’s key characteristics and embodies his generous and humble spirit. The recipient will demonstrate exceptional leadership skills in collaborating with team members, managing projects, and inspiring others; exhibit a commitment to mentorship, taking the time to guide and support peers in their professional and personal growth; show a dedication to giving back to the Brandcenter as well as the advertising/creative communities, volunteering time and resources to support the success of others; and embody the spirit of Matt Mattox, who was known for his generosity, humility, and commitment to serving others, both within the Brandcenter community and beyond.