In high school, Cheryl Grace spent a lot of time in the principal’s office.
“Not because I was in trouble,” she said, “I was always the head of some club, and I needed the principal to be on our agenda and to come out and greet the committees.”
She spent so much time there that she became well acquainted with the principal’s secretary. “She told me I would be great at public relations.”
Unsure of what that meant, Grace went home and researched the profession.
As head of several committees, including the student council and the African American Club, she devoted her time to advocating for students’ needs. With the secretary’s encouragement, Grace discovered that her communication and advocacy skills could make her money one day.
After graduating from high school, she majored in public relations at Purdue University and earned a degree. “Everything I’ve done since then has been rooted in communications and public relations, but that’s how that started,” she said.
Grace began a corporate career that spanned over 25 years as a global brand strategist, managing high-stakes projects and providing strategic counsel to Fortune 500 clients, C-suite executives and elected officials.
Long before it was trendy to do so, Grace, formerly senior vice president of global marketing, shopper and consumer engagement at NielsenIQ, known best for its TV and radio ratings, changed the way corporations regarded Black America’s spending power and cultural influence. Along the way, she learned being bold pays off, making her the powerhouse she is today.
In 2007, Grace discovered something no one was doing. She recognized that relevant data could have a major impact on how companies looked at the purchasing habits and behaviors of multicultural consumers in a positive way.
So, she suggested to her boss that the company should do a report on multicultural consumers’ spending habits, behaviors and more. When her boss said no, she decided to do it anyway. “I knew it was something that was missing in the industry. So, I worked with a couple of analysts on the side, and we did the report,” she said.
The report won awards, brought a lot of success to that company and helped make Grace known as the Beyoncé of corporate America. When Grace tells this story she is not telling people to ignore their bosses. “For me, it’s an example of being bold and taking a risk, because when you believe in who you are and what you’re doing, it ultimately pays off,” she said.
Today, Grace is helping women all over the nation to do just that as CEO and founder of Powerful Penny LLC, a transformative lifestyle firm that provides empowerment resources, online courses, worship and executive coaching services.
Since 2017, Powerful Penny has coached and mentored over 1,000 women. “When I started my career, no one would help me,” said Grace, “So, I vowed to become the mentor and coach my ‘22-year-old self’ needed back then.”
Although Powerful Penny is available to anyone, Grace wants to help women in particular.
“We often underestimate and undervalue what we’re capable of,” she said. “Sometimes, we just need to hear who we are from outside sources until we can believe it for ourselves.
For women who are not feeling empowered to grow professionally, Grace believes they have a right to change jobs and go where they feel valued, respected and visible.
“A lot of people aren’t going to want to hear that,” said Grace. “It’s easier to complain, but you have a choice: You can either make them see you, you can take your ball and bat and play on someone else’s field, or you can create a different game entirely.”
What matters, in the end, is fulfilling your own destiny.
“Life is too short to spend it being comfortable,” she said. “When we’re stuck, it’s easier to point the finger, but if you’re not willing to make them notice you or change roles to where someone will notice you, you’re doing yourself a disservice. I know because I got comfortable, and nothing great comes from being comfortable.”
After rising through the ranks, Grace sued and settled lawsuit with Nielsen
Cheryl Grace, then senior vice president of U.S. strategic community alliances and consumer engagement, filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Nielsen Holdings in October 2020, as reported then in Marcom Weekly.
The suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois alleged that the company denied her a promotion to executive vice president and “significantly marginalized” her as she raised concerns of discrimination.
The Chicago Tribune reported that Grace, who founded Nielsen’s widely respected Diverse Intelligence Series reports on multicultural consumers, said in the lawsuit that in 2019 she requested an expanded role in the company and a promotion to executive vice president. She also spoke out against perceived discrimination within the company against herself and others.
As a result, the suit alleged, she was passed over and retaliated against before being offered a buyout package.
Nielsen settled the lawsuit in March 2021. It did not disclose the terms, and the Chicago federal court dismissed the case. Grace left the company that month after almost 17 years and did not comment on the outcome at the time, but issued the following statement on LinkedIn:
“I’ve resigned from Nielsen to focus full-time on empowering others at the highest level possible through my executive coaching and consulting business.”
Nielsen had hired Grace in 2004 as vice president of communications and community affairs.
According to her LinkedIn profile, she rose to senior vice president of communications for packaged goods in 2007, senior vice president of government affairs and public relations in 2009, and senior vice president of global marketing, shopper and consumer engagement in 2021. She also served as senior vice president of U.S. strategic community alliances and consumer engagement, 2004-2021.
A national civil-rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had become involved in the issue, advocating for Grace, as part of a broader campaign against corporate racism, in meetings with Nielsen’s board and executives, but withdrew its protests after the settlement, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Grace lists previously held positions as director of station relations at NBC Chicago, account executive at RJ Dale Advertising, vice president of Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago, and director of marketing and communications, YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, before joining Nielsen.
Black Enterprise magazine named her as one of its 50 most powerful women in business in 2017, noting that she pioneered “NielsenIQ’s award-winning African-American Consumer Report, which led to the company’s historic creation of NielsenIQ’s Diverse Intelligence Series. Each report, released annually, focuses on the rapidly growing Hispanic, African-American or Asian-American consumer base and is a tool used by some of the largest businesses and brands across industries to aid in their understanding of the consumption behaviors of multicultural populations in an increasingly diverse consumer landscape.”
Additional reporting by Karen Javier and Angela P. Dodson
Rae Onwumelu is a correspondent for Marcom Weekly. Onwumelu's writing and reporting have appeared in The Huffington Post, Blavity and CityBeat. She previously served as a feature writer for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and content specialist for The Educational Theatre Association.