UNC School of Media and Journalism alumnus Allen Mask ’10, the VP of marketing, intelligence and partnerships at Santa Barbara, California-based smart speaker company Sonos, was recently named to the 2018 edition of Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” in the marketing and advertising category.
Mask’s career track crackles with a creative and intellectual curiosity. Since graduating from the MJ-school in 2010, he’s released hip-hop albums while investment banking with Goldman Sachs in New York and led marketing teams in Silicon Valley with Google, Connect and Airbnb — all before joining Sonos in February 2017.
GROWING UP IN CHAPEL HILL
A Chapel Hill native and 2014 recipient of the N.C. Media and Journalism Hall of Fame’s Next Generation Award, Mask has come a long way since his days as a self-described “small, introverted and bullied” kid whose grandmother would meet him at the bus stop every afternoon. The fifth of six children (four of the six are Carolina grads), he credits his maternal grandmother with being his rock — there for him on a daily basis as a grandmother, teacher and friend. Both parents are physicians and his father Allen Mask Jr. — another Tar Heel — is on the air three times a week as WRAL-TV’s longtime health team physician.
“I remember being with my Dad on set … in an anchor chair jumping up and down, really before I had most memories,” Allen Mask III recalls.
Young Mask built up his confidence by saying “yes” to every new opportunity to perform in front of an audience, whether reciting slam poetry in a national competition while in high school or leading teams of college classmates at the MJ-school or performing hip-hop for live audiences in New York, California and North Carolina.
“I’m incredibly introverted,” Mask says. “But I’m comfortable leading teams, in front of audiences, in front of cameras — because of those opportunities.” He insists that he still has a lot of growing to do.
KEEPING IT FLEXIBLE
When he came to UNC on a North Carolina Association of Broadcasters scholarship, Mask quickly focused on business reporting and digital media, moonlighting as a hip-hop performer and creative consultant and starting a nonprofit business, Vinyl Records, with another Carolina student. Looking back, he is grateful to MJ-school leadership for being flexible and creative about his ideal curriculum, allowing him to pursue many interests and graduate with a degree in journalism and mass communication and minors in jazz music and entrepreneurship.
“[Dean Jean Folkerts and interim Dean Dulcie Straughan] were really kind with me. They were flexible with my craziness,” he explains. “… and gave me opportunities to do things I couldn’t have done if they hadn’t opened those doors.” His experiences have informed his deeply held belief that the best college preparation for today’s economy encourages a similar open-mindedness and flexibility.
“Being exposed to a lot of different things forces you to learn how to solve a problem,” Mask says, pointing out that he has been valued in a corporate setting not for the facts he memorized in school, but for his ability to creatively problem-solve under pressure. He elaborates, “College teaches you how to think. What are the core components of a problem? How do you work together as a team? How do you decipher between fact and fiction? How do you solve a problem? ... Everything in my background allows me to simplify really well and feel native in a bunch of different disciplines.”
'TEACH THEM TO BE STORYTELLERS'
His ideas for the MJ-school’s future are controversial, he admits. “Stop teaching them to be journalists. Teach them to be storytellers,” he says. “Teach them to be creative. To analyze the world around them. To understand the evolution of technology and what that means.” He’s certain that great storytellers will find journalism. But they’ll also find business development, financial analysis or graphic design.
His favorite professor at the MJ-school was Donald Shaw. “He taught me that every tactical thing we did,” says Mask “was tied to a much larger concept that was way more applicable [to my career as it has evolved], well beyond journalism.” And, Mask admits, one of his important lessons came from Professor Chris Roush, who gave Mask a C grade on a paper during his last semester at Carolina. “He wouldn’t let me get away with anything half-baked,” says Mask. “Make great work. The work is what matters.”
Now a towering 6’6” executive married to fellow MJ-school graduate and UNC homecoming queen Carly Brantmeyer Mask '10, this Carolina graduate is as comfortable on stage performing — as he did in Chapel Hill this February at TEDxUNC — as he is leading his corporate teams (which includes creative platforms; product marketing; consumer intelligence; and strategic partnerships) at Sonos. He’s passionate about the current work they’re doing at Sonos developing high quality voice-activated wireless home sound systems. But Mask also finds time for other things. He and his wife started a small agency which allows him to keep his hand in on the designing, writing and storytelling work he loves. He’s working — albeit slowly — on a third hip-hop album, and just produced a record for another UNC alumnus a few months ago in Los Angeles. He says the extracurricular work keeps him sharp.
He’s a 29-year-old with a deep respect for the classics, rereading authors like Fitzgerald and Salinger for their storytelling chops and, as he puts it, “to have some fun when no one is looking.” His musical tastes are influenced as much by his pianist grandfather and Carolina jazz professors as by the latest hip-hop. When asked about a favorite Donny Hathaway song, he says, “The lyric ‘someday we’ll all be free’ paints a picture of hope. Growing up as a young black male who is fairly senior in the marketplace, my experience is pretty different from some of my peers in ‘30 Under 30,’“ he says. “Discrimination is real. One of the reasons my grandmother is so important to me — and my parents are so important to me — is about paying respect to the people who came before you. There are people who literally died so that I could have this conversation with you right now.”
"[The lyrics gave me] a sense of pride amongst our community and our people. They give me inspiration and purpose.”
HIS NORTH STAR
His boundless energy springs from deep within. “The most important thing to me in my life is my faith … My career has been not only God-given, but God-driven,” he explains.
Belying his 29 years, he is both grateful and humble about the professional successes he’s achieved so soon in life. “I have no expectations … life is so fragile,” he says. “‘One minute you’re on top of the world, next minute the world is on top of you,’ as Cam Newton put it.” Mask will keep the music playing, taking advantage of every moment his career has to offer him. But faith remains his North Star.