A few miles from Charlotte’s gleaming office towers, David Tann (’02) paces around a roomful of high school students, most of them Black or brown. His goal is to get them to practice pitching business ideas.
At first, some seem shy, retreating into their hoodies, shoulders hunched.
But Tann, who made a name for himself in marketing by building brands for NBA teams, major corporations and nonprofits, urges them on, eventually persuading one girl to stand on the table to make her pitch, “because it’s a good idea. Say it out loud.” As he encourages her, she breaks into a smile.
Tann is telling students at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, where many come from low-income households, about careers in marketing, design and creativity. But he’s showing them so much more.
“It’s really hard to want to be something that you can’t see,” says Tann, CEO and founder of the 5-year-old Tantrum Agency. “The minute someone shows you and explains to you, and you’re able to see it, that thing now becomes tangible.”
“David talks with them, and he answers their questions, really drawing them in, and that’s the impact,” says Nakesha Merritt Dawson (’02), who knows Tann from their time together at Wake Forest. She reached out for his help designing and teaching marketing courses for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools after hearing about the programs he led in Atlanta.
"As a business leader, I can create a space that celebrates diversity, authenticity and talent."
The Atlanta Business League, a 90-year-old trade group started as an affiliate of Booker T. Washington’s National Business League, recognized Tann for his financial success and commitment to service by naming him its 2023 Entrepreneur of the Year. He joins a prestigious list of honorees, including real estate mogul T. Dallas Smith and the late baseball star Hank Aaron. In a statement, Leona Barr-Davenport, the group’s president and CEO, noted Tann’s “unique vision and valuable impact,” adding that he “will inspire other talented entrepreneurs to make a difference and achieve success.”
Tann is trying to provide the example he lacked when starting out. “Working in all of these different companies and for all these different brands, I didn’t really see many other people in the industry that looked like me,” he says. “I felt if I didn’t do well, there was the likelihood that another person like me getting that same opportunity might be slim. Now as a business leader, I can create a space that celebrates diversity, authenticity and talent.”
Growing up in Kennesaw, Georgia, Tann says he focused largely on basketball until Wake Forest awarded him a Joseph G. Gordon Scholarship — a merit-based award for students who show exceptional promise and achievement and who are members of traditionally underrepresented groups at the University. “Getting this academic scholarship really forced me to sort of redefine who I was as a person,” he recalls. “Wake was the perfect place to do that.”
Tann majored in communication, attracted to the program by two Black faculty members who served as mentors: Nate French (’93, P ’23, ’24) and Eric Watts. Creating flyers for his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, sparked Tann’s interest in design — but he still didn’t see it as a professional path.
That changed at a Wake Forest career fair, where he picked up a packet about Atlanta’s Portfolio Center, now part of the Miami Ad School. While studying design there, he quickly discovered that his undergraduate communication studies helped him stand out while pitching ideas.
His early work for agencies included branding for such household names as Hallmark Cards Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch and Bath & Body Works before he became vice president and creative director for the Atlanta Hawks and what was then called Philips Arena. In 2018, he struck out on his own with one goal for his startup: surviving the first six months.
Five years later, Tann has built a boutique creative consultancy with six full-time employees in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood, home to the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park. They deliver branding, content, digital media, packaging and strategy for U.S. clients ranging from professional sports teams to prominent nonprofits.
Tann worked with one such nonprofit, Share Our Strength, which runs the successful No Kid Hungry campaign. No Kid Hungry played a large role in ensuring that children in need would keep getting free meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the nonprofit that created and still operates it has to raise money for other initiatives as well.
Pamela Taylor, Share Our Strength’s senior vice president and chief communications and marketing officer, says that Tann and his team reframed the nonprofit’s brand around its original purpose and strengths with a knowledgeable, empathetic approach. “He understands our audience, which is children and families who are facing and living with hunger, because of his involvement in the community, because of his connection to young Black folks that live in Atlanta,” she says.
Now Tann is expanding his community involvement, recently crafting a curriculum with practical approaches to digital marketing, sports marketing and event planning.
But his heart is still in classrooms like the one in Charlotte, where he moves from coaching students to making a pitch of his own: “You guys are the ones who set the trends. You guys are the ones who have all the power. … So, if y’all are setting the trends, you might as well pursue the jobs, too, so that y’all can influence the culture.”
You can see students straighten up and start paying closer attention as he continues: “You can do PR for the NFL team. You can do graphics. You can run the website. You can run social media,” Tann says. “There’s a bunch of stuff you can do in the creative, in the marketing, in the digital space that y’all didn’t even know existed.
“That’s why I’m here.”
Amber Burton (’15) is the manager of research and education at Lean In, a nonprofit research organization created to help women achieve their career ambitions. Previously, she was a writer at Fortune, Protocol and The Wall Street Journal.