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Tom Burrell Biography

Created Jobs As A Child, Struggled For Success In College, Developed Self-confidence In Business


Advertising executive

Tom Burrell was first directed toward a career in advertising by a high school aptitude test. However, it was his own independent spirit, creativity, and courage that guided him from a working-class childhood on the south side of Chicago to a position as chairman and chief executive officer of the company that would bear his name, Burrell Communications. Though for much of his life, Burrell was unsure of his own abilities, he not only worked his way up from the mailroom to the head office, but he also pioneered an advertising philosophy that acknowledged the economic power of youth and communities of color, and showed an understanding of the unique cultural characteristics of both.

Thomas Jason Burrell was born on March 18, 1939, in Chicago, Illinois. His father Thomas was an entrepreneur who had come to the large Midwestern city from Tennessee during the 1920s. Because he had little faith in banks, he did not deposit his money in bank accounts; instead, he saved it on his own. When many banks failed in 1929 at the beginning of the Great Depression that would ravage the country throughout the 1930s, Thomas Burrell Sr. did not lose his money as so many others did. With cash on hand, he found himself able to make money by buying buildings while prices were low. Soon he owned and operated his own tavern, a "blues joint," which featured famous musicians such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King.

Young Thomas' mother Evelyn had also come to Chicago from the South. One of ten children, she had left her family in Alabama, following her other sisters and brothers who had sought opportunity in the North. Evelyn Burrell had attended beauty school, and while she cared for her children, she worked as a beautician in her home.

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