Published Dec 06, 2023
This Grad is Rethinking How Dining Meets Education
Grad Daniela-Gabrielle Smallwood is developing unique dining experiences at HBCUs as Marketing VP at Thompson Hospitality.
By the time Daniela-Gabrielle Smallwood completed a decade-long career in the United States Air Force, she already had an impressive portfolio in design under her belt.
“When I went to the Air Force, I wanted to be a cop and wanted to do a lot more physical things and somehow, just kind of got thrown into the job of graphic designer,” she shares. However, applying her educational grants from her time in the military to more time learning about creativity didn’t sit well with the seasoned designer.
“At that point, I had probably a good 12 years of creative design behind me… most of my formal education was already kind of heavily leaning that way.”
Backed by an entrepreneurial sprint, Daniela decided to consider a pivot that could benefit from her years of creative experience while propelling her into a more business-focused career.
Working a full-time role as Director of Marketing and Communications in the campus dining industry, Daniela balanced motherhood, work, and her education, taking on another full-time role by studying entertainment business at Full Sail.
“Understanding how [business] things worked was really important at that point in my career. I [wanted to] understand the entertainment business… and how to drive culture, versus just driving sales,” she says.
Daniela’s desire to drive culture didn’t end with her time at Full Sail. After several years spent working in senior marketing roles in the campus dining industry, she started to notice something was amiss.
“I always ended up [working] with one historically black college or university, or maybe two or three out of 15 or 16 [colleges]. I always kind of had them sprinkled into my portfolio and I started to notice a pattern,” says the grad. “The first region that I was in, I noticed a pattern of just certain things that they didn't have, things that didn't fit because marketing is not a one-size-fits-all approach… It just didn't make sense for HBCU communities. They didn't honor the legacy or the history that was behind them.
“I had just gotten to a point where I said, ‘I really want to do something where I can be intentional about helping these schools have similar experiences to what some of our larger schools experience when it comes to campus dining.’”
And with that, Daniela began an initiative to bring more authentic and curated dining experiences to HBCUs. Landing a role at Thompson Hospitality, the grad was empowered to begin to drive culture at the HBCUs under her purview.
“When COVID happened, we couldn't do events in the dining halls so we couldn't do events with the students, so how do we engage with them? I was able to use the stuff I learned at Full Sail about how to create a television show, to make a television show that we turned into a podcast and turned into a magazine. Those are things that most companies probably wouldn't have thought to do, but just being able to plug those types of programs in actually elevated our program and it made us different from our competitors.”
But pandemic pivots aren’t all that Daniela’s rich creative background has lent to her time with Thompson. Under the grad’s leadership as Vice President of Marketing and Programming, she’s seen the development of several unique eating experiences on HBCU campuses including Virginia State University, Florida Memorial University, and Hampton University. Creating full-fledged restaurants on college campuses, Daniela and her team have crafted menus, created branding, and more, providing memorable and accessible dining options for college students around the US.
“Studies have shown us that there is definitely a tie to success and the campus experience. Food is always kind of like the core center of most people's lives. We all have to eat. It's something that we have to do, and when it's an enjoyable experience, it also becomes a memorable experience.”