Trust Your Gut: Co-Founder's Advice on Journey From West Point to Agency

West Point was at times tough for Dionna McPhatter, as it is for every cadet, male or female. But as a black woman graduating in the class of 2004, and playing on West Point’s women’s basketball team, the experience served her many lessons.“I got exposed to things I never would have, “ says McPhatter, co-founder and managing partner of BLKBOX, a creative branding agency with clients including Samsung, Facebook, Covergirl, French’s mustard and Frank’s Red Hots.“I was already pretty confident, but it instilled in me a different confidence and resilience to get to the end goal,” McPhatter says.Others would agree.Mary Tobin, chair of West Point’s Board of Visitors, and in the graduating class of 2003, told The Guardian in 2016, “To be a black woman at West Point is essentially to make a choice going in … that the majority of the time, you can never fully express your womanhood or your blackness,” Tobin said.With the expectation of serving five years of active duty after graduation, McPhatter needed to shift her plans sudddenly when she got a medical discharge due to injuries from playing basketball.[bctt tweet=“Dionna McPhatter, BLKBOX co-founder and managing partner, says to trust your gut. #womenleaders” username=“takeleadwomen”]“I already had the assignment of where I was going, but now I had to find a job,” she says. The West Point network helped her there. “I went to a job conference and I was one of only a few females and one of only a few minorities, so I talked to everybody.”Casting a wide net, McPhatter says she ended up taking a job at Procter & Gamble, doing market research, insight and analytics on site for Walmart in Arkansas. Following leadership training, she moved to Boston and after three years with P&G, deciding to follow another dream. She became head coach for the women’s basketball team at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. in 2007.“That was my dream, because I had played Division I college basketball. But it didn’t quite stack up with life balance,” McPhatter says.She had noticed other coaches talk about how they did not see their spouses or their children often. But it wasn’t until she was on a date and the police called her to come and retrieve a few of her players who they were arresting, she says, “That didn’t match up with with the vision I had for my life.”She went to work for a European marketing agency, Reckitt Benckiser, based in New York, where she concentrated on analytics. For five years, she traveled the world, living in Amsterdam and London, servicing major global brands, McPhatter says.Since graduation from West Point over the years she had maintained a friendship with Keanan Beasley, who was in the same group of cadets at West Point, though a year younger. “We were next door neighbors,” McPhatter says. And they decided to start a company together, The Strategy Collective, in 2013.Self-funded with a strategic partner, McPhatter says there were growing pains, and it led to the renaming and creation of BLKBOX, the marketing agency featuring the new data analytics platform, Ouantum.“We are helping close the gaps between the brand and the consumer,” McPhatter says. “The difference is made with better intelligence.” She adds that Quantum “brings people’s lives into the decision making so a brand will grow with fewer vendors, fewer retail connection points. That’s where the magic happens.”Because of her background in the military and in business, McPhatter says she is able to be “humble and empathetic because of how I have felt.” She adds, “I had a lot of assumptions placed on me. I am sure others see it as a challenge, but I try to flip that. I can use that point of view to get to that end objective and I won’t let it discourage me.”[bctt tweet=“Because of her background in the military and in business, Dionna McPhatter says she is able to be humble and empathetic. #womeninbusiness” username=“takeleadwomen”]As the architect who builds the technology at BLKBOX, McPhatter says she sets aggressive goals for the company. “I want us to transform the way marketing is done. I imagine a world without advertising as we know it.”Over the past decade or so, she says she has made mistakes, but the biggest one was not trusting her instincts. “If my gut says something is off, I can’t be distracted by something detrimental.”With the mission to be the change in the world she wants to see, McPhatter says, “I’m one of those idealists. I can make data tell any story I want, but it requires the humanity in it. So the story is the reflection.”And as the best stories always do, this one has a happy ending. West Point alums McPhatter and Beasley have as clients West Point’s new sports and wellness complex in Washington, D.C.“It’s awesome to come full circle.”Like what you see? Sign up for more and receive the Take The Lead newsletter every week.