Growing up, Olita Mills was certain of two things: she would receive a college education and she would make a difference.
“I believe in the phrase ‘you can’t be what you can’t see,'” says Mills. “It’s hard to believe there are still so many firsts in 2021. I look back at my own childhood and realize I was so lucky to be surrounded by so many strong role models”
Mills’ first role models were her parents. For 30 years, Mills’ father, who was the first black teacher at Hempstead High School in Long Island, taught economics and business administration while coaching Hempstead’s championship basketball team. Mill’s mother who was also a teacher spent the latter part of her career as a school counselor ensuring students went on to college.
Because of her parents’ background in education, there was no doubt in her mind she would receive a good one.
“What do you want to be when you grow up was not the only question I constantly got from my family, but as young as the age of six we were all constantly asked, where do you want to go to college?” says Mills.
Her siblings went on to attend prestigious universities including Howard University, Princeton and USC. Mills received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Dayton before attending graduate school at Fordham University.
For Mills, receiving her education was as innate as breathing. “The thing is, our paths felt natural because we were raised with a goal in mind at every step of the way.”
What felt less natural to Mills was her life after college.
“I knew early on that I loved the media. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the media landscape, but I knew I wanted to do some type of work in the communications field.”
Although she enjoyed interning for a small ad agency during undergrad, she decided to pursue law. Until she found her roommates’ work at a PR agency far more interesting than her job as a legal assistant.
“She would come home and tell me about her day. She got to work with different brands and I thought it was so interesting,” says Mills. “ I started to look at all my prior positions and I happened to have a lot of experience in the communications sector, so I began to apply to entry-level PR agencies in New York.”
Mills landed her first job at a boutique agency. A place she described as getting her foot in the door. Then she happened upon LaForce, previously known as LaForce + Stevens, a notable full-service marketing communications agency that provides strategies for the world’s top brands in retail, technology, fashion, luxury, home, design, beauty and wellness.
As excited as Mills was to be working at the agency, she didn’t plan to stay long. “It was always meant to be a stepping stone,” she says. I didn’t go to LaForce saying I was going to stay there for 15 years. I wanted to expand and get more exposure and that is something they promised and that’s why I took the job.”
Growth may have been Mills’ draw to LaForce, but the people she connected with made her stay. Fifteen years ago, the young publicist was assigned a desk next to the agency’s founder James LaForce. When she first discovered she would be sitting next to the company’s CEO, her stomach dropped. “At first this was very intimidating, but I look back now and know it taught me so much,” said Mills.
She recalled listening and learning from the CEO of the company at such a young age as nothing but transformative. “I was within an earshot of calls and was able to hear him handle tough situations,” says Mills. He was tough, compassionate, genuine and nonhierarchical. “
Although she would not have been considered qualified by industry standards, LaForce brought Mills to meetings with notable brands and personalities looking for PR representation. “My experience was limited at the time, but he overlooked that and gave me a shot. My learnings at this phase, under James, are immeasurable,” she says.
This is why after 15 years with LaForce, Mills remains. “There are so many wonderful things about LaForce. The culture, the leadership, the clients, but mostly the people.”
Last July, Mills was promoted to president of LaForce, shifting her focus to client service, brand strategy, collaboration with the all-woman executive leadership team, and direct internal diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives — a program Mills is particularly excited to take on.
The agency counts Target, Banana Republic and Veuve Clicquot among its client list.
“We are making strides here, but we have a lot more work to do,” Mills tells Marcom Weekly. “I want to help create opportunities to hire more people of color in the organization. Ensuring it’s a priority and knowing it’s about making a deliberate effort to not only recruit and attract diverse talent, but to create internal systems and structures where everyone feels like they belong.”
Because LaForce has always supported and embraced being on the forefront of change, Mills hopes to build off the organization’s foundation, so people like her will want to stay and grow with LaForce as she has.
“Getting to this side makes me happy. I look forward to supporting someone else,” says Mills, who is excited to be a role model for a generation of folks in marketing communications just as people have been for her. “Ideally change happens and know that by being at your organization as it changes, you hopefully will have the opportunity to be there for someone else who starts and looks like you as they change and grow.”
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.