2023October 2023School of Diplomacy News

CEO of Direct Digital Holdings Speaks to Buccino Leadership Institute

Madeline Rowe
Campus News Editor 

On October 13, Mark Walker, the CEO of Direct Digital Holdings, a NASDAQ-listed digital marketing company, visited Seton Hall University’s Buccino Leadership Institute to discuss his journey to entrepreneurship in America. 

Walker began his presentation sharing that based on the United States census, 40 percent of the U.S. population is diverse. Only 5 percent of marketing within the U.S., however, aims to reach the diverse population of the nation. As leaders, Walker called upon the Buccino students to cater to diverse ranges of people. He then shared that the average age of entrepreneurs in the U.S. is 49.9 years old, which begs the question: why does it take so long for an individual to become an entrepreneur within the U.S. workforce? Walker drew upon his own experience to comment on this question, sharing how his experience, including his mistakes, led to his success. 

In 1998, he attended the University of Texas, which allowed him to make connections, network, and create lifelong friendships. There, he joined the Texas Union Council which gave people of various races, cultures, and backgrounds a space to engage in valuable discourse. As a first job, Walker worked as an Assistant Buyer for Macy’s, which taught him the importance of paying attention to details. 

He realized while working there that the digital revolution was unfolding. Using a connection through his wife’s roommate at the time, he exited his job at Macy’s and began a position as Marketing Manager at Questia, a technology startup. There, he shares, he gained many of the skills that have proved invaluable throughout his career: presentation skills, product and business development, and market research, among others, he explained. Walker then entered Deloitte working in recruiting and marketing management, where he learned how to recruit people that are a perfect fit for his company based on company culture. Learning people skills, an indispensable skill, was empowering, Walker shared. 

Emphasizing that “one hundred roads lead to Rome,” Walker explains that although there are many opportunities to reach one’s goals, he believes that each of his experiences led him in the direction for which he aimed. Realizing that he should demonstrate that he is capable of staying with a company for a long time, Walker joined NRG, an energy company, as the Director of eCommerce, Business Development, and Alternate Channels. This helped him form a solid track record, he shared, leading him to his next position as Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Ebony. This role taught him ultimately what not to do in business, which he advised is just as important as knowing what to do in business.

He then summarized his lessons learned in corporate America, advising first that it is important to network before one needs something. Leaving networking until the last minute excludes opportunities. He shared also that it is important to make 5-year decisions and display attention to the long-term. He explained that details matter, and that it is important to be kind to everyone. Last, he shared that it is valuable to master a domain or niche, explaining that digital is his niche, which grants him a field in which he can display comfort. His company provides targeted ads to viewers of websites by showing the advertisement of the “highest bidder” of a group of companies to consumers based on information of website users. 

Walker shared several stories, including one commenting on the drinking habits of his Ukrainian business partners, humorously including a lesson he learned of the necessity of adapting to the culture and expectations of those one is interacting in within business. Understanding and navigating nuances between cultures and expectations in international settings are important when interacting with others, he points out. As companies grow, those within the company must have an openness toward interacting with and learning about other cultures, Walker flags. He explains that his own business model includes a diverse team, with 66 percent of his team a minority and over 50 percent female. To get the best result in a business transaction, it is pivotal to understand the cultures and backgrounds of those with whom business is interacting. 

The five cultural pillars of Direct Digital Holdings, Walker concluded, are integrity, authenticity, diversity, servant leadership, and continual learning. These were developed through the many lessons he has learned in his experience within corporate America, he shares. First, he has learned that reputation matters; one can always find a leader based on who follows that person. Next, he shares that being an entrepreneur is an “all day, every day” commitment. He explains also that it is vital for an entrepreneur to be comfortable with the unknown: the last 20 percent of the easily understood 80 percent is where money is made. He ended his presentation with a call to action toward the students: be curious.

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