Whitney Cunningham needed no introduction when she started work at a New York City marketing company with Harlem’s Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Cunningham, a Benjamin School and Dartmouth College alum, was just trying to be helpful when she brought a colleague her papers from the printer on her second day of work. But when she started to introduce herself, her colleague issued a snarky reply: “I know who you are.”
That’s because Cunningham was a contestant on Cycle 8 of Tyra Banks’ “America’s Next Top Model.”
“I think they thought that I came in and wasn’t going to work as hard as everyone else. That changed quickly,” Cunningham said before a speaking engagement at The Benjamin School Thursday.
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The school presented Cunningham, a 2003 graduate, with its 2017 Distinguished Alumnus Award at a ceremony with seniors, parents and alumni. Cunningham rose from a marketing assistant at Sean “Diddy” Combs The Blue Flame Agency/Combs Enterprises to an associate director of brand marketing.
She led campaigns for CIROC Ultra-Premium Vodka and Guinness North America, and developed strategic partnerships with the NBA, Twitter, NBC Universal and The Grammy’s, according to her Benjamin bio. In 2014, she founded the New York City business development firm Brainchild.
Talking to students Thursday, she encouraged graduating seniors to figure out who they are. Their teachers describe them as kind — a trait that makes them unique and in-demand, Cunningham said.
“Who you are is kind, so be that now, and be that in the future,” she said.
In New York, Cunningham exposes minority youth to science, engineering, technology and math — and teaches seniors how to use technology. She is a member of The Links, Incorporated and The Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem. At Benjamin, she co-founded the Respecting All Cultures Equally Club.
Consistently being herself paid off for Cunningham. She auditioned for Cycle 7 of America’s Next Top Model but didn’t make the cut. Cunningham was at a Dartmouth football game the next season when the casting director for the show called her on her cell phone.
She said Tyra remembered Cunningham and wanted her for the next season. It turns out being “normal” is unique in the world of reality TV, where “everybody else was clawing to be someone they were not,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham cautioned the graduating seniors that college will feel like a reality show sometimes, but they should stay true to themselves.
“Use your kindness as your torch. Go out and be different,” she said. “That’s who you are.”