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Trail Blazer: Gabrey Means ’92 Grow Marketing, San Francisco, CA

As co-founder and creative director of Grow Marketing, Gabrey Means ’92 specializes in putting brands in unexpected places.

One might say that she did the same for herself.

A native of Atlanta, Means is living an entrepreneur’s dream in San Francisco, by way of Lexington, New York City and Southeast Asia.

At Grow Marketing, Means and co-founder Cassie Hughes have worked with a Who’s Who of brands: Google, Pepsi, Gap, Levi’s, Sephora, McKesson and many others. Grow Marketing has received media attention from Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Marketing Daily, Fortune, Huffington Post and San Francisco Business Times and won many industry awards.

Means traces her success back to her days at Washington and Lee, where she found a “gentle rigor” that instilled in her “a work ethic and desire to succeed.” Since her father was a 1964 graduate, she grew up hearing about the university and was delighted to be among the third class of women admitted.

“Washington and Lee is not cookie cutter. Students can follow their own paths,” she said.

Her path led to New York City following graduation, where she moved with several W&L friends. She found a job at GQ magazine and stayed until 1996. Then came a nine-month break, when she and W&L classmates Muriel Foster Schelke and Devon McAllister Rothwell backpacked around the world, focusing on India, Nepal, Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia.

“When I returned, I felt that New York wasn’t a good fit anymore.” So she and Schelke moved to San Francisco with no real plan.

With her GQ experience, she obtained a job with Gap-owned Banana Republic, where she was experiential marketing director, coordinating live events, such as store launches and an outdoor film festival.

When she met her counterpart at rival brand Levi’s, the two decided to put their combined experience to work by creating Grow Marketing in 2001. She was changing sides – providing clients with live, interactive experiences that she had been hiring firms to do for Gap brands.

As a two-person start-up, the company worked with all the Gap brands, Visa and other clients in the first two years. Today, they oversee a company of 30 employees housed in a renovated Jackson Square building they purchased and decorated in a Parisian-inspired theme with an extended team of another 30 across the country. The partners and their managing director each take responsibility for a third of the clients. On a daily basis, Means oversees her team and often meets with clients in person or via Google Hangout. She is also responsible for seeking out and signing new clients.

Grow continues to focus on live events that provide hands-on, interactive experiences for consumers. They have organized partners’ summits for Google, bringing in as many as 100 partners from 20 countries, and a statewide mobile tour for University of California, where guests were invited to contribute art, take a photo or try gelato wrapped in UC facts.

For Gap, the company organized a visual take-over of New York City’s Herald Square, with branded products and street teams to re-launch the brand’s global flagship store at 34th and Broadway. A tour by Levi’s to 10 college campuses encouraged women to embrace their shapes and be fitted for their perfect pair of jeans. The campus with the most women participating received a $10,000 grant.

Whether she is creating a pop-up store or organizing a mobile tour, Means said “It’s about putting brands in unexpected places and telling a story. No matter what field you go into, you have to be able to articulate your ideas through written words.”

Means learned to write and tell stories as a journalism major at W&L. She remembers Bob de Maria, professor of journalism and mass communications emeritus, as the perfect blend of “friend and cool young professor. You wanted to do well for him,” she said. She also keeps in touch with Jeff Shay, Johnson Professor of Entrepreneurship and Leadership, and hosted a group of his students for lunch and a panel discussion with W&L entrepreneurs in the Bay area.

The recipient of summer internships at The White House press office and CNN, Means is giving back to the University by reserving two internships positions at Grow Marketing for W&L students this summer.

She wants them to end the summer with confidence in themselves and the tools to succeed — the very things she got from her years at W&L.

 – by Linda Evans

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