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AFP Founder Recognized for His Role in Groundbreaking Corporate Diversity Effort

March 11, 2007

(March 12, 2007) AFP’s only living co-founder, William R. Simms, was recognized for his role in an African-American marketing initiative at Pepsi in a new book about the program.

The Real Pepsi Challenge (Free Press), by Wall Street Journal reporter Stephanie Capparell, details the changing face of American business in the late 1940s through the stories of some of the first African Americans to work in corporate America and target black consumers as a distinct market.

Simms is profiled in the book as one of a dozen African-American professionals who were hired by legendary Pepsi CEO Walter Mack to market Pepsi nationwide in one of the first comprehensive marketing efforts aimed at African Americans. The campaign succeeded in growing Pepsi’s earnings and market share. As the author notes in the introduction, “America succeeded as well, as long-standing stereotypes were chipped away and African Americans were recognized as both talented employees and valued customers.”

Breaking the Color Barrier

The book details the strategies of this groundbreaking team of sales professionals. Their advertising campaigns portrayed fun-loving African-American middle class families rather than "the one-dimensional Aunt Jemimas and Uncle Bens used in many other advertisements." They also used targeted outreach to the community through visits to African-American churches, women’s clubs, fraternities and anywhere else they could make contact and spread the word about Pepsi.

This group of professionals became role models in the community, a handful of men with corporate business cards. They were true pioneers in niche marketing, employing techniques that are commonplace today but were unheard of in business in post-World War II America.   

In addition, Simms shares his personal history growing up as a child of unknown ethnic origin who was adopted and raised in an African-American family. After he left Pepsi, Simms went on to a 27-year career as a fundraiser for the National Urban League in New York.

Forming AFP

Simms also describes what he considers his most lasting contribution to the field of fundraising: the formation of the National Society of Fund Raisers, the organization that is now the Association of Fundraising Professionals. In 1960, an informal dinner with some friends—Benjamin Sklar of Brandeis University, Harry Rosen of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropy and Abel Hanson, who later became the organization’s first chair—led to their desire to form an organization to set and enforce standards for ethical fundraising.

Simms and the other five living members of the Pepsi team were recognized at a book launch party held at the Michelangelo Hotel in Manhattan by The Wall Street Journal and its parent company, Dow Jones. Capparell interviewed each of the men at the event, inviting them to share their remembrances.

Simms related a life-changing meeting with W.E.B. DuBois, where the great American thinker and human rights advocate ordered him to get an education and to go to college. “I’ve kept that moment with me throughout my life,” he said. “Whenever I was faced with an obstacle or challenge, I remembered the force and wisdom of DuBois’ words.”  

The Real Pepsi Challenge can be ordered at the AFP Online Bookstore.

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