Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Lionel Sosa cuts a striking profile. White hair. Regal smile. Eyes that belong to a prince. He looks like a man who could be wearing a crown.
In the hardscrabble neighborhood of his youth, Prospect Hill, Sosa is a dash of Hispanic royalty. The kid who did not go to college but wound up teaching at Harvard. The son of elementary and middle school dropouts who rose from painting signs for $1.10 an hour to running an advertising firm that logged $130 million in annual billings.
In this same neighborhood, one of the city's most impoverished, Sosa might be considered an enigma: a golden boy who grew up in a Democratic enclave, moved out, and helped put three Republicans in the White House. And yet he works and moves comfortably among such Democrats as Henry Cisneros – another Prospect Hill native – and Julián and Joaquín Castro, who grew up near the West Side neighborhood.
If some wonder about Sosa's politics, no one questions his genius. He founded an ad agency – Sosa, Bromley, Aguilar & Associates – that helped Coca-Cola and Bud Light secure a large share of the Hispanic market. As a political consultant, Sosa orchestrated the marketing strategy that helped George W. Bush capture a historic haul of the Latino vote in 2000.
Almost a quarter century after retiring from the largest Hispanic ad agency in the nation, the 79-year-old Sosa remains a great persuader but with a new target audience: children learning their ABCs. Drawing from a lifetime of messaging and marketing, the Prince of Prospect Hill has launched a campaign to reach the next generation.
Sosa and his nonprofit team at Yes! Our Kids Can, or YOKC, are attempting to persuade students as young as 4 and 5 to consider college. More broadly, they want to transform the mindset and aspirations of students who speak English as a second language. Ultimately, YOKC intends to redirect low-income students from minimum-wage expectations to professional-class ambition and beyond.
“What we want to do,” Sosa said, “is disrupt the cycle of generational poverty.”
By merging the science of advertising with scholarly teaching and digital technology, YOKC has created a 15-minute, video-game-based curriculum that is taught in 30 low-income schools – 16 in Bexar County, 14 in Harlingen. Three times a week, more than 6,400 students from pre-kindergarten through first grade watch videos, read flashcards, and play games on electronic devices, with each activity designed to create an expectation of success beyond high school.
One flashcard offers the message, “I am smart.” In one video, animated characters sing, “I want to be a doctor so I can take care of you.” Another invites students to sing along: “I will go to college, I will earn a degree. I will be successful because I believe in me."
To reinforce the message, YOKC engages parents. Weekly messages are sent to them on an app in English and Spanish. They are told what their child is learning and how to initiate conversations about curriculum topics at home.
In-class instruction will continue through early May. In the next two years, YOKC will expand to second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students.
The potential impact?
“If you get the right message often enough to 100 percent of the target audience,” Sosa said, “I believe you can convince them of practically anything.”
He puts it another way: “If poverty is a state of mind, then why not change that state of mind? You can do it through advertising.”
A few years ago, Sosa approached an advertising friend, John Andrade, with whom he had partnered on multiple projects and clients. Recognizing the potential of Sosa's vision, Andrade volunteered to help, using his own money to hire employees and pay for equipment.
“This is the most important advertising campaign that’s ever been developed,” Andrade said. “Because we’re not selling one product over another, this retail choice over that. We’re selling a future – a future that’s obtainable, if you just believe that it is. And if you make small, easy choices and build on those choices, you can realize that future.”
Two pilot studies conducted by Texas A&M-San Antonio and data analysis nonprofit CI:Now show intriguing results. Six weeks after the pilot began at Somerset Elementary in 2016, 95 percent of economically disadvantaged first graders said they planned to attend college. After 11 weeks at six San Antonio-area schools and one Harlingen school in 2017, 82 percent of first-grade students said they would earn a college degree.
A parental survey also proved revealing. Before the 11-week pilot began, parents identified lack of money and peer pressure as barriers to a college education. After the pilot, parents said they foresaw no obstacles to higher education.
“Poor kids are as smart as rich kids,” Sosa said. “It’s just that their parents have put different expectations in their heads.”
Parental engagement is proving effective. Andrade heard from a mother who gathered her children at the dinner table. “She said, ‘We had the most incredible discussion after we watched your video because my kids sat and talked about what they wanted to be,’” Andrade recalled. “The mother said, ‘I learned things about my kids that I never knew. About their desires. About their dreams. They’re only 6 years old and younger, but they have all these ideas.’”
Sosa understands how video can spark an idea, how audio can shape a young mind. At the age of 13, he watched Dwight Eisenhower's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Sosa was struck by how much Eisenhower sounded like his own father, how the five-star general echoed values shared by his parents, both Democrats.
When Eisenhower spoke of "fathers and mothers working and sacrificing to make sure that their children are well cared for, free from fear, full of good hope for the future," he could have been referring to Robert and Anita Sosa, who started a dry cleaning business to support Lionel and his siblings.
The boy asked his parents to explain their political affiliation. Democrats are the party of the poor, Robert and Anita said. "I don't want to be poor," their son replied. "I guess I'm a Republican."
The GOP paved a road to wealth for Sosa. In 1978, U.S. Sen. John Tower (R-Texas) was locked in a tight race with Democratic challenger Bob Krueger. The Tower campaign asked Sosa's ad agency, Ed Yardang and Associates, for help in reaching Hispanics. Tower captured 37 percent of the Hispanic vote – a Republican record – to win a close race. He credited Sosa's agency in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
"Almost overnight," Sosa said, "Yardang and Associates tripled in size."
When Bacardi, Coors, and Dr Pepper became clients, Sosa saw an opportunity. Instead of competing with three dozen local ad agencies for the same San Antonio accounts, why not compete against a handful of Hispanic agencies for Fortune 500 accounts?
Just like that, Sosa became a pioneering ad executive, a powerful political consultant. "If we had not gotten John Tower's business, I would never have gotten Hispanic accounts," Sosa said. "If not for John Tower, I would have never met Ronald Reagan, and I would have never gotten into presidential politics."
After the 2000 presidential election, Harvard invited Sosa to teach a class, a non-credit offering in which students would select the topic. It was there, in Cambridge, that Sosa was inspired to start YOKC.
His students were puzzled by Latino success and failure. They wanted to know why 18 Latinos made it to Harvard despite coming from impoverished families, why the siblings of those students dropped out of school, wound up in jail, or took minimum-wage jobs.
After interviewing each Harvard Latino student, Sosa and his class made a startling discovery. Virtually every one of those students said that a teacher or influential adult expressed a strong belief in them and inspired them to work hard. As Sosa put it, “‘Somebody told me I could, therefore I thought I could. One day I believed, and that was my destiny.”
The mind of an ad man began to churn like a social scientist. What if every teacher repeated the same mantra to every student? That you have what it takes to go to college? That hard work and determination will lead to success beyond high school?
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized, ‘I've been in the business of persuasion all my life,’” Sosa said. “I’ve lived the life of these students. I grew up poor. I understand Latinos because I did research on them for 25 years.
"What if I could persuade them that they could have a successful life? That their lives could be different? That ‘you can, therefore you will,’ and they believed it? Could we prove that it would change lives?”
Sosa enlarged his thinking. If student ambition could change in one low-income school, what about in two or three schools? What about a dozen or more? The possibilities elevated YOKC’s original mission.
“As a team we were talking about what are we really here to do,” Andrade said. “And we realized, we’re actually disrupting the cycle of generational poverty. We all kind of sat back and let that sink in a little bit."
Sosa’s background is not unlike the kids he is trying to reach. The son of Mexican immigrants who dropped out in sixth and ninth grade, Sosa never considered college in his youth. He worked for his father’s dry cleaning business, graduated from Lanier High School in 1957, joined the Marines for six months, then entered the Reserve. An aspiring artist, Sosa took a portfolio of his work to Walt Disney Studios in California. “They turned me down,” he said.
After returning home, Sosa applied his brush to signs and trash cans. Years passed. At 26, he heard about a “School of Personal Achievement,” a 17-week program that promised to show its students how to become millionaires. He secured a $250 bank loan and enrolled in a course based on Napoleon Hill’s best-selling book, Think and Grow Rich.
Sosa set specific goals, put them on paper, declared them out loud multiple times a day. He devised a plan to achieve them and carefully followed course instructions. “It changed my life,” Sosa said.
Within a year, he started a graphics design business. He knocked on the doors of large ad agencies, obtained work, and launched a remarkable career. In 2015, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History acquired broadcast campaigns from Sosa, Bromley, Aguilar & Associates to feature in an exhibition.
“Lionel,” said Cisneros, the former San Antonio mayor and U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary, “is an extraordinary human being.”
If Sosa got his mindset from the "School of Personal Achievement,” he got his work ethic from his parents. Roberto opened a dry cleaning business at 21 and hired Lionel when his son was 13. Lionel waited on clients, pre-washed clothes, and delivered them in a panel truck without a driver’s license. “I got caught by the police at 14,” he said.
He also sold corn on the cob at Market Square and worked for a printing shop that belonged to Cisneros’ grandfather Romulo Munguia. At 15, Sosa designed a paper book cover for Centeno Super Markets and made $25. “I thought I was the richest kid on earth,” he said. “For sure, I was the richest kid in the neighborhood.”
In Prospect Hill, predominantly Anglo at the time, Sosa drew inspiration from Anita. His mother made it clear: If he and an Anglo applied for the same job and had the same qualifications, he’d lose every time. Sosa: “My mother always said, ‘Because you’re a Mexican, you have to work twice as hard.’”
Hard work alone did not propel Sosa from neighborhood entrepreneur to legendary CEO. It took vision and aspiration, a transformative way of thinking. After he achieved what he believed, Sosa wrote a book, a Hispanic version of the Napoleon Hill bestseller: Think & Grow Rich: A Latino Choice.
To illustrate the principles he learned from that 17-week course, Lionel wrote stories about Latinos who succeeded. By showing how Alberto Gonzales rose from a humble home with no telephone or hot water to become the first Hispanic U.S. attorney general, and how Linda Alvarado overcame racism and sexism to head the nation’s largest construction company run by a woman, Sosa sought to inspire Latinos to believe.
He’s doing the same with YOKC. Initial results appear promising. Consider the students in Jessica Queen-Tremillo's first-grade class at Woodlawn Hills Elementary School. They did not know the meaning or purpose of "college" when the pilot program was introduced in January. But five months later?
"They knew what college they might want to go to and what they wanted to be when they grow up," Queen-Tremillo said. "It was very exciting. They went home and told mom, 'You can still go to college. You can still get a degree.'"
In Prospect Hill, the pilot was implemented last spring at American Sunrise, an after-school literacy center. More than 40 at-risk students participated. In Sosa's view, that's one step from poverty toward a future bright with possibility.
Louie Barrios, an acclaimed restaurateur and Sosa's cousin, recognizes a poetic symmetry. “The Prince of Prospect Hill became the king of advertising,” Barrios said, “and comes back to serve his people.”