Before Anthony Frasier became a startup founder, he says he was a “fake rapper.” The New Jersey native had always been interested in hip-hop, and when he wasn’t working the night shift at Kmart stocking shelves, he was recording mixtapes and putting them online, hoping they’d get noticed.
It was only when he stopped rapping that he got called into 50 Cent’s office.
Frasier, an avid gamer, had launched a video game website called The Koalition. It took off, and 50 Cent’s team wanted to do a content deal for ThisIs50Cent.com. “When I was rapping I couldn’t get near these people,” Frasier recalls. “Now here I was, sitting in 50 Cent’s office like I never would have imagined.”
This was a lightbulb moment. Frasier realized he didn’t have to be a famous rapper to be successful. He decided to pursue entrepreneurship. “I’m not saying I’m a bad rapper, but that lane is crowded,” he says. “I got a lot further doing business than I did being a music artist.”
But he wasn’t quite sure where to start. Without a college degree and no real network to lean on, he knew he was at a disadvantage. So he holed up in the library, taught himself to code, and landed an internship at a New Jersey social media startup. Then he headed to Silicon Valley to join an accelerator, was featured on CNN’s Black in America documentary series, and launched a mobile gaming app that garnered 30,000 active users in three months. When that eventually shut down, he didn’t let failure defeat him. Instead, he returned to Newark and started thinking about how he could use all he’d learned, in combination with his love of hip-hop, to help other entrepreneurs, particularly other African-Americans, who are appallingly underrepresented in startup leadership roles. One report found that, of tech startup founders that receive major funding, just 1% are black.
Today, the 29-year-old Frasier is the cofounder of The Phat Startup, a company that uses hip-hop’s values of determination, creativity, and confidence to educate young people from urban communities who, like Frasier, aren’t quite sure how to break into the mostly white world of entrepreneurship.
The company began in 2013 as a Tumblr blog where Frasier and his cofounder James Lopez shared hip-hop lyrics they thought were relevant to business and has since expanded to include a speaker series, a weekly newsletter with 10,000 subscribers, and webinars on everything from how to create a social media presence to how to find a mentor, all rooted in candid conversations that start and end with hip-hop.
“You’re speaking a language they understand,” says Sheena Allen, founder of Sheena Allen Apps and a regular speaker at The Phat Startup events. “Growing up, you’re taught two things if you wanna make it: You’re gonna be an athlete or a musician. Nobody says you can be the next Mark Zuckerberg.” So the Phat Startup doesn’t start the conversation with Zuckerberg, they start with people like Allen, who launched her app company alone in rural Mississippi using Microsoft Word and now has close to 3 million downloads. They start with rapper-turned-entrepreneur Divine, who went from selling drugs to founding a tech startup. The conversations feel refreshingly relaxed, are usually full of expletives, and touch on topics that kids from urban communities can relate to.
Frasier says hip-hop is also inherently entrepreneurial. “Hip-hop was created by hackers,” he says, citing DJ Kool Herc, an artist largely credited with launching hip-hop in the 1970s by isolating and looping parts of funk records. “These were people who took a small part of something larger and made a whole new thing out of it. That’s what entrepreneurship and innovation is all about.”
It’s also about having a thick skin and believing in your crazy ideas until someone else does. “Fake it til you make it is a big part of hip-hop,” Frasier says. “They’re rapping about their million-dollar houses. Sugar Hill Gang was rapping about stretch limos and Biggie was rapping about how he went from ashy to classy.” These messages are all over The Phat Startup’s Instagram account, run by cofounder Jesal Trivedi. Images of expensive cars and mansions and Rolex watches that look like they came straight out of a music video are overlaid with inspirational quotes about working hard for what you want. “You can’t microwave success,” Frasier says. “A large percentage of people took their time getting there and struggled and failed their way there.”
Last year, after seeing the attendance of its monthly speaker events surpass triple digits, The Phat Startup launched its Tech808 Conference, providing a platform for speakers who reflect the diversity of America’s population, started with a disadvantage, and built a successful business with minimal resources. (It’s billed as “The only hip-hop-inspired tech conference.”) There are no dumb questions, Frasier says, and nobody is singled out for being the only person of color.
“I’ve done a lot of speaking engagements,” says Allen, who spoke at this year’s Washington, D.C., and Oakland conferences. “The engagement at the Tech808 conference is amazing. It’s not one of those conferences where I’m speaking and then leaving. The crowd isn’t below me just because they came to listen to me speak.”
The fourth Tech808 conference hits New York City today, and speakers include big names like Aubrey Flynn, VP of digital for Sean Combs Enterprises, and Tristan Walker, former entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz whose startup, Walker & Company, just raised $24 million. As of last week, 200 people had registered for the event, and Frasier says they will have to cap it at 300.
When he’s not working on The Phat Startup, Frasier is nurturing entrepreneurs in his hometown of Newark through his monthly meetup group, Brick City Tech, which has 2,000 members. “There’s a lot of new economic activity happening in the city,” Frasier says.
Indeed, Panasonic and Audible.com both have new HQs in Newark, and this past summer Newark Venture Partners announced an accelerator raising $50 million to invest in local tech startups.
And all this is happening in a city where African-Americans make up 52.4%, and Hispanics or Latinos 33.8%. (Whites represent 26.3% of the population.) Moreover, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2045, whites will be the minority in America. The Brick City Tech meetup is creating a network of techies that could be tomorrow’s game-changing innovators.
“Now that there’s an economic boom happening, we wanna take advantage of that and get young people excited for how they can be part of this,” Frasier says. “That’s the biggest message we want the people of Newark to hold on to: Be a part of this change. Don’t let it happen without you.”
One of the problems, though, is that while a lot of people are talking about the race gap in entrepreneurship, the conversation rarely goes beyond that. “I get it, we’re black,” Frasier says. “I wake up every day and look in the mirror. But let’s talk about something else besides the obvious. How do I get a business started? There was nobody in the black community talking about growth hacking. Nobody talking about how do you get email subscribers. If I’m a single mother, how do I learn how to code? We wanna dig into the nitty-gritty and teach people real, actionable things that will help them take their business to the next level.”
Frasier still sees himself as the kid trying to catch an ear with his rapping, or learning to code alone in the library. But now he measures success in the messages he receives from people who say one of his conferences or blog posts changed their lives.
“I don’t ever want to get used to that,” he says. “To know that we’re making a change, that’s all that matters.”