Faces of Marketing podcast: Su Embree, President of DHM Research
Su Embree has this unique skill of listening to anyone talk and getting a profound insight that even the presenter doesn’t know. Su ‘Data Queen’ Embree became President of DHM Research 20 years ago and recently co-founded a non-profit called Emerging Leaders that is creating pathways to leadership for professionals of color from college to company executives.
When Su was 10 yrs old, she wanted to be 3 things — a Spy, an owner of a B and B, and a CEO. She’s on her way!
Ryan: Hey there. Welcome to the Faces of Marketing podcast where we talk about the human stories and lives of different people and perspectives in the marketing profession and entrepreneurs and movement makers. This is your host, Ryan Buchanan, and I’m here with my good friend and community leader, Su Embree, who became president of DHM research over 20 years ago, aka the “Data Queen” and as we know, research data and insights, is at the core of the best marketing campaigns. Welcome to the show, Su!
Su: Are you nervous that I’m here?
Ryan: Absolutely. No, no, that’s just my bald head, you know, doing its thing.
Su: It’s so friendly.
Ryan: Yeah. So the way we usually do this podcast interview is start at the very beginning of your life and tell us where you were born and kind of the early years of Su.
Su: Was that in the question list that you sent me?
Ryan: Yes, it was definitely in there.
Su: I was born in a tiny little village in South Korea. Honestly, no cars because we didn’t have paved roads. We didn’t really have roads and I have really fond memories of growing up just exploring and playing out in the woods and the field and the frozen pond, right? Just all of that, all the different seasons, not having a care and in the world. At age eight, I rode in my first car, I stayed in my first hotel, had pajamas with little footies, you know, the little zip up and I’d run up and down the hallway and just slide ’em with my sister and got onto a plane for the first time and landed in Nashville, Tennessee. And I knew three English words. ‘Hello.’ ‘Thank you.’ And ‘please.’
Ryan: Why Nashville?
Su: My mom was living in Nashville at the time. She had remarried and she and her husband and I was there and his son — so my step brother. We were living just outside of Nashville and he had retired and decided that’s where they wanted to be in a town called Clarksville. Clarksville. There’s a song about that except I don’t know what it is.
Ryan: Is that near Crossville at all? Because my two daughters, my mom when she was little, all of the girls in my family, all the cousins, everyone all goes to Camp Nakanawa a few miles outside of Crossville, TN.
Su: It’s close, it’s driving distance, but yeah.
Ryan: So you have a brother and a stepbrother and sister.
Su: I have a brother who’s a year younger than me. I can look at your eyes and see where you’re trying to take this, where you want this to go. And I have a sister who’s two years younger than I am. Um, and then I have a baby sister who is 15 years younger than me. Whoops.
Ryan: So what, what were you into as a kid? Like did you play with your siblings in Clarksville, Tennessee and like what was it like?
Su: We grew up in a, probably was just barely a thousand square foot ranch home squeeze, three tiny little bedrooms. One bathroom for all. How many was that? How many kids? Four. Five. Six people. And I’m little kitchen, um, that, you know, remember the TVs where you had the big box — it took half the wall, like on the floor.
Su: Yeah. And you had to go actually move off your sofa and go and turn the knob to change the channel. Um, and getting a microwave was, oh my God, the biggest deal I think just having that, it was like we had to put a shining light on that thing on a little pedestal. And that was like the highlight of our house, you know, technology. But we grew up just doing basic stuff.
Ryan: Playing outside?
Su: I grew up in the south so it’s pretty humid in the summer and fireflies and chase after crickets and grasshoppers and you know, crawfish and the Creek — now go explore in the crick and try to get into a little bit of trouble without getting caught. And um, there were no parks, there wasn’t a rec center, you know, couldn’t ride the bus anywhere. We had no bus route.
Su: I lived in a small development and um, my brother and sister and I and the neighborhood kids, if we’re going to play tennis, we just go have an imaginary line, a net and just take a ball and tennis rackets and just play on the street. That was, that was that. I will share though that one of the things I remember that I hated during the summertime is my parents had a gravel driveway and everyone had like kind of a long driveway, right? No automatic garages. Everyone parked in the driveway. But we had one of the few gravel driveways in the community. And we also had one of the longest driveways. I flippin’ hated that thing because it would grow all these weeds — my mom didn’t want weeds growing outside her house even in the driveway. So we would have non-stop labor of her children and we would be out there picking weeds on a weekend, you know, and by the time 10:00 rolled around…
Ryan: I can so relate to that — the weeding on the weekend part. No, no, no, not, not the thousand square foot house and the gravel driveway and stuff like that.
Su: The Sun is beating down by 10:00 AM and I would hate the thought of doing yet, but I look back now and it became, I think more of competition, like okay, I’m gonna beat this little square parcel. I’m going to master it and get at it and get it done. Um, and just stuff like that, I think I can look back and realize that it helped create work ethic and getting up and knowing like when the sun’s going to be hot, right. And so I don’t want to be out there during that time and waking up early and to, to learn and do things like that as a 10, 11, 12 year old think pays dividends. It creates grit.
Ryan: And did your mom own a store?
Su: She had a little market and I mean little. It had two aisles and she sold everything from like frozen fish from the Philippines to coconut milk to Korean food that she would make in the back little kitchen and um, lots and lots of like boxed Ramen. Yeah. That was her thing.
Ryan: And you and your brother and sister helped her with the store at all?
Su: God no. I was talking about my brothers and sisters. The oldest I’m in, like Asian culture just has a lot of responsibility. You’re so by the time I was 10 I was already babysitting after school and being responsible, not just babysitting the two of them because my youngest sister, Rachel wasn’t born yet. Right. So here I am as a 10 year old babysitting my nine and a eight year old siblings and trying to figure out what we’re going to eat in the afternoon until one of the parents came home late and when I was 14 I pretty much would work at my mom’s store a couple days a week after school. And then just about every weekend, just helping her with a cash register, I’m unloading the truck that would come in from Chicago with all the groceries because know Asian food wasn’t being distributed in Tennessee. It had to come from a large city and I’m making food on the weekend.
Ryan: And we’re going to be a little nonlinear here, but you, you’re tight with your mom and your family…
Su: Define tight. What does that mean?
Ryan: I mean — you have a loving family and it has inspired you to potentially start something on your own that is a bit nostalgic around the food that your mom made for you and all of that. Like that is something that you’re looking to potentially start up in the near future.
Su: Yes. I love my mom and I did not hear her say the words, I love you to me or to my siblings until I was in my forties. So I think that tightness definitely different I think than like, like your experience. Um, but for sure we have a, we’ve got a loving family. I consider my siblings to be my best friends. Like, I love hanging out with them. We like, we like to vacation together. All the cousins, once they get together, they’re just off in their own world. We don’t even see them. And it’s super cute.
Ryan: That’s awesome. Um, okay. So going back to maybe the 10 or 12 year old Su, we’ll go 10 years old when an adult asks you, what do you want to be when you grow up? What was your instant response?
Su: Um, I will tell you that I had three things that I wanted to be okay. And I just did not get asked that question a lot growing up and I don’t know if it’s just not having the mentors and the adults in my life at that age looking out for me for just different things. But here are the three things in my fantasy world. I wanted to be a Spy. Okay. I wanted to kill people, so that’s why I’m really into spy movies. Secondly, I wanted to also own a BnB. Neither of two I’ve ever had experience with why I wanted to do those things. I have no idea. They’re not even related to each other. And the third was I wanted to be a CEO of a company.
Ryan: The second one is really easy to do. If you wanted to check that one off the list, right?
Su: B, a, b, a, B, b, and b owner??
Ryan: Own the property. And then maybe someone else rents it. That’s what Airbnb is, you know, it’s in the air …
Su: Okay. But as a 10 year old, yes we’re going back. But yeah, all three of those things. We just lived in my, just in my fantasy world.
Ryan: Do you think you spy on people through data at all?
Su: I can’t believe you’re talking about spying now in the days of Cambridge Analytics, which we are so far from. I love the idea of understanding how people think and behave and being able to use that to an advantage. I don’t want to manipulate people, make people feel bad, but yeah. And I think there’s just something about exploring and traveling and you know being a bad ass. I like that.
Ryan: Okay. So now we’re gonna fast forward to how you made the decision to go to University of Tennessee and the preface of my real interest in that: not only am I really passionate about working with a lot of college students through this ELI — emerging leaders internship program, but also my daughter is looking to make that decision in the next year and a half to go to school — where to go to college. And I’ve gotten some great perspective from, from all the folks I’ve interviewed on this podcast have from wildly different angles on, on how they decided on where to go to college.
Su: Yeah. You know, our, our kids are in a different position, right. We’re like, we’re helping guide them, take them on college tours are right. Um, I didn’t have any of that. So honestly, I winded up going to University of Tennessee purely by mistake and I don’t say that in a negative way or anything bad. A teacher in high school, happened to have been doing a field trip for a day and a half and she invited me to go and she just wanted some of the kids to see what a college campus looked like and so it gave me an introduction. If it wasn’t for her, I would have never visited a college or university campus. Now there was a community college in Clarksville, whether I would have thought of going there or not, I don’t know, but I just thought it was pretty cool to have seen the university Tennessee at the time and it got me excited about about school.
Ryan: So that one moment changed the trajectory of your life even though it was seemingly so random. You probably haven’t seen that person since high school who introduced you to that tour on campus.
Su: It’s the power of teachers. You just never know what that. That small gesture of kindness or understanding or introduction of whatever it may be, or a trip, um, could do to change the life of a student. And I applied. It was the only school that when I think about it, that was kind of dumb of me not to apply to other schools, but it’s the only school that I applied to and I wanted to be a B and B owner. Right. So I checked off thinking that it’s a business program, like you’ve got to know business to own and operate a B and B and I wanted to go to school for that for hospitality and customer service. I had no idea that the university actually had a hospitality department and I didn’t know what that word was so I didn’t check that box off. And instead I checked off business and I got a business scholarship, got a full ride to go to school.
New Speaker: So you did well in high school?
New Speaker: I did. I was a studious student. Yes I did. I joined all the honors club. I took Advanced Placement (AP) classes. I went into my freshman year, I think already pretty close to a sophomore. Yeah, I know you’re smiling, right?
Ryan: You’re always the overachiever. That’s cool. And so you got your degree in marketing and psychology yet somewhat ironic because I am running a marketing agency and I didn’t have a marketing background at all and you’ve used the marketing background but much more towards public policy. And that’s often the case where it’s not a direct correlation between what you study in college and after. Would you say it’s pretty direct for you?
Su: No, but how many of us actually are in the field in which we got our, you know, certain our bachelors or Masters and um, I haven’t, I just am interested in how people communicate and process information. I mean, but I’ve always been drawn to the data piece. Even in university when I took a statistics class or a research class, um, I did pretty well. I would be fascinated to dig a little bit more. I think I just have that mental capacity to just do the due diligence and detective work and find out where’s all this really coming from right before we talk about it and communicate it and do a press release.
Ryan: Yeah. And so, um, so that first job out of college is always this kind of, it’s always kind of a leap of faith. And I noticed you, you moved to Manhattan, like the Big Apple.
Su: Well, Long Island, Long Island. Okay. And people from Manhattan would argue with you. Okay.
Ryan: And were kind of more in a job that was marketing and sales focus, is that right?
Su: Sales jobs are so important to every position that, um, as someone who’s looking to go into any career, if you have even just the smallest amount — a summer of sales experience, it’ll just take you a long way. I’m a big believer, like I learned, in making cold calls. If somebody said no, that was like, it’s a, maybe I’ll just come back to him, you know, next week or couple of weeks down the road. Um, it definitely builds, you know, this. I’m resilient and persevering. Right? Which is critical as an entrepreneur for sure. Those two things. Yeah. So
Ryan: So let’s hear a little bit about the, maybe not DHM origin story, but the Su Embree AND DHM together, how that intertwined origin story of how you got going here and 3000 miles away in Portland, Oregon and you came onto a little market research company and then all of a sudden you became President. Isn’t that how it happened? In my mind, all of a sudden, that’s it.
Su: Is that how it happened? Remember how I wanted to be a CEO. And I thought while I was at University, I was actually hand-chosen by one of the largest staffing companies in the nineties for me to be part of their very first executive program. So is me and nine other students across the country. And that’s why we were in Long Island. We were there for training to interact with the other executives at this large corporation. And that was a hot industry when I was about to graduate. There are so many corporations that were changing their entire workforce to a staffing agency. So I thought this was it for me. I was going to go for it, but I hated it. I hated being there. Once I got in, I didn’t know how to navigate the political culture of a large company.
Su: I didn’t know how to network, right. I didn’t really know even how to be humble. So all these things that if I had parents that could help me navigate or mentors along the way, I didn’t have. I had to learn it on my own, so I was too disruptive and I chose to then go and work with the small business and I found Adam Davis and Tim Hibbitts — two people who have been instrumental in my career and setting me up in a space to just allow me to take risk. Right. They believed in me, they gave me the space to do it. They didn’t necessarily teach me all the steps or map out my career for me, but they gave me the space that allowed me to give myself permission to take risk. And I was employee number three. So it’s a lot easier to have, you know, to be able to rise in a company when you’re number three out of three people in an organization.
Ryan: But you prove yourself. I mean, you still had to prove that you brought enough value as you know, as the two other employees who happen to be owners to promote you very quickly.
Su: They had no other choice because I went to them at the end of the first year and said, look, don’t pay me anymore. Um, let’s let me actually work to increase the revenue of the company and share part of the profits with me. And I started a profit sharing plan with the two owners and we grew the business over a million dollars that first year. And, um, I was able to then come in and look at not just profit margins of the work that they were already doing, but streamline the different. Really important vendors that we had to tighten the turnaround time so we can do more projects with the small staff and we, we got so busy that we either had to think about hiring staff or merge with another company. So I got to experience a merger, I got to also experience bad hires, I got to experience amazing people as well and hiring process. So, um, it was just a really great environment for me to not just take risk but to also learn and just grow.
Ryan: So let me get this straight. You were 25 at the time where you said that?
Su: 24, 24.
Ryan: That is a confident 24 year old. That is impressive.
Su: Well, I feel like I’ve been an adult since I was 10, so yeah, I’ve had some time.
Ryan: Cool. Got It. Okay. So understanding that DHM Research does a lot of — I think there’s a unique way in which you gather your research that I’ve learned from some of the ELI interns like Amani and some others that really captures a representative across ethnicities, gender, all of that. It’d be great for you to describe a little bit of that, but specifically where I’m going with the question is how have, I know a lot of the focus of your work is with public policy, but even that has to be communicated too, whether it’s through NPR, OPB — through media to create a change in behavior and that’s ultimately what marketing is. And so I’m just would love to hear maybe one or two campaigns that you’re proudest of from your work.
Su: Yeah. And I don’t think you’re asking like to get into the technical piece, so we don’t need to do that. Listeners don’t want to listen to a sample sizes and margins of error, right? Really, it’s around how do we actually represent the values of a community if we don’t get a cross section of that community. Right? And we have to be really intentional. So if we want to reach young people, if we want to reach people of color, we’ve got to already identify those specific demographics and very intentional how we go about getting that because just doing a cross section just overall means that we’re gonna get a lot more women and older people and mostly white in Portland or Oregon and even across the country. So we are very, very intentional in knowing which demographic groups that we want to we want to talk to.
Su: I have to think back a little bit, but one that comes to mind is data should not be shared to try to explain how people feel. To me, it should really be used to truly understand people’s priorities and values of an issue. And we’re so dedicated to moving policy in conversations that represent the values and priorities of our community. And one of the projects was to help fully fund Head Start. So state legislators strive for balanced budgets. And one of the first things that get cut is around education. And specifically early education dedicated to preschool and Head Start serves households of color and very, very low income. We were so dedicated to try and help get the appropriate data to help our early learning and education advocates have good information — credible information and not only did the state at that year look at cutting it completely, but with data they not only fully funded it, but they added an Early Head Start component for preschool kids and as a business that you and I lead, if we knew there was a division or a department that could reduce expenses and get a higher return on investment, we would be investing money into that!
Su: And that’s what I felt like Head Start and Early Head Start is for education.
Ryan: I think it was our friend Mark Holloway that told me something of like, or reading levels or reading and writing levels at third grade is a huge predictor of whether or not that student is going to be successful in high school and college and way beyond.
Su: I mean, let’s define success. It’s an indicator of whether a student will graduate on time from high school, the likelihood that a student would have the opportunity to go to college. And so not every student has to go to college and we shouldn’t as a society expect that some people really just want to and may have the need to just go straight into work, right? And so I don’t believe that we as employers and future employers should judge that. It absolutely is an indicator for long-term benefit back to our community.
Ryan: So you and I have been in this entrepreneur group, well, I’ve been in it for seven years with you. You were there before me and you were just President of EO (Entrepreneurs Organization) Portland. And so we’ve known and we meet monthly and you and I have gotten to know each other really well over the past seven years and it’s really been in the past couple years that I’ve seen a shift towards you really finding your voice and being on stage a lot more often — around entrepreneurs of color — and just a lot more advocacy for women leaders and things like that. And I’m wondering what happened a couple years ago or what, why now when you’ve had a, you know, a, a position of leadership for, for a while and now you’re like, you’re flourishing on this topic. You’re really passionate about it and you and I share this passion, but I just, I’d, I’d love to hear kind of what switched for you.
Su: Okay. I have to laugh because it makes me wonder, is this a setup for me to talk about my good friend, Ryan?
Ryan: No, no, no, no. I honestly, I don’t know. We haven’t had this conversation yet about what switched. Yeah. I actually, I really want to know the answer because I have my story. You have yours.
Su: I know. I do give you credit so I’ll come back to you later.
Ryan: Yeah, no, I don’t want credit. I want your story.
Su: Yeah. Um, I, I’m not sure exactly. I mean, I think I, I’ve been living yet, right? So as a person of color, I’m also as an immigrant. I’m an immigrant and that’s a word and a title that I give myself. I’m more recently because when I first came to this country, my family, my mom also told me, don’t speak Korean, like you’re in America, you want to be an American, so you need to only speak English.
Ryan: Basically assimilate to the dominant culture.
Su: Yeah, whatever word you want to use, but to just, I need to blend in. Right? And of course, as a young child, you don’t really know what that means, right? You’re just following instructions. So now as an adult, I recognize that wearing those different kind of or having those titles, and an entrepreneur, a business owner, a board member, you know, a mother, wife, there are certain things that I can talk about and bring different perspective about in — I have this responsibility that I need to take seriously.
Su: I felt like I was just showing up and that’s not enough, right? I’m in my mid-40s now and showing up, I could have done that and I did do that in my 20s, but now I can actually influence where money goes and like big pots of money. You’re talking about, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of foundation money, state money, federal. I’m working on federal legislation now as well and I want to be at those tables and that’s where big influence can happen.
Ryan: So while we’re talking about this, I love for the listeners to know about this new initiative that we’re co cofounding with Ben Sand. It’s the larger umbrella and what that looks like. So Emerging Leaders. Yeah. But yeah, just kind of define what we’re tackling — the broader scope of it.
Su: I absolutely admire the work that you and Ben started with ELI, right? The Emerging Leaders Internship. I’m a believer in that. I’m a believer in giving students an opportunity — students of all different backgrounds, right? The opportunity to be in a professional setting, but at the same time, and I have a “but” here it has to be more than that. It’s gotta be more than that one experience and building a pathway of leadership where it’s an internship and then it continues into mentorship which continues into a, into a leadership development track, right? To help our students see themselves as the CEO, as an Executive Director, as a small business owner, and then to know along the way, here’s how other people did it and here are the options that you have everything from financing and funding to different networks, um, curriculum even. Right? And to know, I think through this Emerging Leaders platform, what you and I have been talking about, it suggests present those resources to the individual so that he or she can choose their own track. Right? We’re not trying to solve a problem for them. We’re just trying to expand their opportunity and access to resources.
Ryan: Yeah. I mean if we go back to data and it’s not just Portland’s data, it’s every metro area in the country there. The data’s not good around how our mid-level management and up across all organizations in a businesses, nonprofit, higher ed, all of that. There’s a huge gap in leadership between professionals of color and — for example, only 15 percent for example, and this is something you helped with, um, of mid-level management and up in Portland are professionals of color, yet the Greater Portland population is 28 percent people of color. And so we have leadership across the entire country that is absolutely out of alignment with the population that we serve because leadership is overwhelmingly male and white. And so that is one of the things that we’re trying to address with the Emerging Leaders is this pathway to leadership and the data is the way it is because there’s systemic obstacles that are in place. I don’t know if you want to comment on that.
Su: Well, maybe just change it. A different perspective. Data sometimes can be used to maybe overwhelm people. It can be overwhelming and I recognize that having been in this field, but that, that should not be just the end or the start. Like, right. That should not be the conversation of, “Oh my God, now we have this data. It just too large of an issue.” We have the data to then recognize, look, we see it, it’s more clear, let’s do something about it. Right? Um, this issue isn’t going to be resolved overnight. We all know that, but there are people in the community, that have been and continue to work on it. I think now we’re collaborating more and that’s what I appreciate.
Ryan: Yeah. I think your perspective of bringing everyone to the table and I’ve seen you do it again and again and again and your positions of leadership that you have on boards and things like that. One of which was a great example at the kind of, at this entrepreneur retreat at Brasada Ranch last year — making significant others of entrepreneurs and the sponsors of the program — everyone feel welcome. It is such a powerful thing instead of the shaming that can happen even if it’s self-induced. And I think that’s a really good message for, for people to hear.
Su: I am a believer that we all have good intent. We may not all have self awareness, but we all have good intent and I’d much rather start there.
Ryan: Cool. This is just the last question. So I’d love for you to tell the audience something they probably wouldn’t know about you and what I’m getting at here is something that happened maybe in your formative childhood years or just after college or something like that where it was a life moment that either gave you the confidence or put you on some sort of trajectory that you’re now this community leader. Like is there one or two moments that happened in your past that were super impactful?
Su: So going, you’re like going back in childhood. I’m going to skip the story of me being in seventh grade having a crush on this boy from California with like, that looked like a surfer. I’m going to skip that story, tell you that offline, but here’s what I’ll share. It took me 40 plus years to appreciate my mom and now I’m going to come back to your early question. And um, she did not say I love you. She did not give physical hugs, like she was very directive and gave instructions and lots of responsibility. Um, and I think I grew up to a degree resenting her. Um, I wasn’t angry with her, but I just thought, okay, I’m going to do my own thing. Like I, when I went to college, that’s the first time I even had my own room and I love the freedom. My mom, I just blamed her for a lot of things I think that I didn’t get to do as a child.
Su: And now I look back and realize that her love language was focused around food. She always cooked meals for us. She was a slave in the kitchen for a day and a half just to make that right vegetable or that soup or whatever the dishes and her excitement was to see all of her kids and now her grand-kids come together around the table and break bread together. And laugh and, and connect and food to me is the primary universal language. We don’t, you and I could speak two different languages, not know how to actually talk to each other, but we can sit and enjoy a meal together and bond and I’m just looking forward to taking that experience that I’ve had growing up and this recognition that I have now as an adult. I know better and start a new restaurant concept. I haven’t started it yet.
Su: It lives in my head. I’m still dreaming yet. But, you know, I did get to play the CEO role. I might still go into some aspect of hospitality with this restaurant. The only thing I haven’t done was I haven’t, I haven’t killed people and been an assassin and been a spy.
Ryan: Oh Su, it’s been so much fun having you on the show. Thank you! Thank you for being here.
Su: Yeah. Well, I’ll continue to just make fun of you as we do this,
Ryan: That’s what best friends do.
Su: But this has been fun.
Ryan: Yeah. Thanks again. Thank you.