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“Hip-Hop Is A Huge Equalizer”: Young Entrepreneurs Get Business Inspiration From The Music Industry

Philadelphia’s Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship takes best practices honed by successful music moguls and imparts them to young founders who have been shut out of more traditional business education.

“Hip-Hop Is A Huge Equalizer”: Young Entrepreneurs Get Business Inspiration From The Music Industry
“Best practices–particularly in marketing, street teaming, the contemporary concept of guerilla marketing–most of those things came in their embryonic stage from hip-hop.” [Photo: courtesy Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship]

At the Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship in Philadelphia, traditional business school professors have been replaced with the hip-hop artist Bahamadia, the DJ Rich Medina, Ruffhouse Records cofounder Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo, and more than 20 industry insiders. But students aren’t trying to make it in the music world. Instead, the program’s goal is to share lessons from hip-hop that students can translate into their own successful startups–and to make a typically dry curriculum both more interesting and culturally relevant.

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“What’s unique about hip-hop is the number of entrepreneurs that music may have been the first door that they went through, but now they’re involved in multiple industries,” says Tayyib Smith, one of the co-founders of Little Giant Creative, the agency that created the new program, which won a Knight Cities Challenge grant to launch in 2016. Diddy earns millions from his clothing line, Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones sold to Apple for $3 billion, and Jay Z’s empire includes clothing, sports management, champagne, and the streaming service Tidal. The industry has also pioneered new business practices. “Best practices–particularly in marketing, street teaming, the contemporary concept of guerilla marketing–most of those things came in their embryonic stage from hip-hop.”

“We use a lot of the language, narrative, and contextualization to basically take pretty standard practices in building businesses and entrepreneurship to bring the concepts to life.” [Photo: courtesy Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship]
In November 2016, a group of 24 young Philadelphians–all of whom are ambitious and want to start businesses, but face barriers because of their backgrounds–began meeting one weekend each month to learn about audience segmenting, managing finances and staff, and everything else needed to create their own solid business plan and be able to pitch it.

Each session pulls in leaders from hip-hop to illustrate textbook concepts. For a session on value proposition, for example, Yusef Muhammed, a music festival guru, talked about how he assessed the need for his services and innovated to become more valuable to companies like Live Nation.

“We use a lot of the language, narrative, and contextualization to basically take pretty standard practices in building businesses and entrepreneurship to bring the concepts to life, and to underscore the ways that you would basically take that concept and apply it to your own business,” says Little Giant cofounder Meegan Denenberg.

“It’s kind of like a built-in mentorship program.” [Photo: courtesy Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship]
One student is working on a plan to modernize the neighborhood barbershop with gaming, to make it a stronger community center for a new generation. Another student is building a vegan food business, making juices and other healthy foods targeted at food deserts. Someone else is building an app to teach financial literacy to children in underserved neighborhoods.

In each weekend session, the students have the opportunity to get to know multiple people who have succeeded in hip-hop. “The sheer amount of people that it exposes you to, people who are really willing to say ‘Hey, here’s my email address, here’s my cell phone,’ and they’ll really be an ear to listen and help guide you–it’s kind of like a built-in mentorship program,” says Amira Smith, one of the students, who is developing a business that can help TV shows and films accurately represent diverse characters.

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The hip-hop industry is important as a model, she says, in part because it showed that it was possible to succeed in the business world without losing authenticity. “Hip-hop brought in so many people who were disenfranchised because of the ways that wealth is distributed and the roadblocks, especially for people of color, in this country,” she says. “Hip-hop broke down that barrier, and did it in such a way where it wasn’t saying, ‘I’m going to put on a mask to conform or to assimilate to what people think a businessperson should look like.’ You had people like Russell Simmons coming through and unabashedly be themselves. He said, ‘Okay, I’m here, I have a multimillion dollar company, and I can speak Ebonics if I feel like it, I can act however I feel, because you want what I am offering. That’s all that matters. So hip-hop is a huge equalizer.”

“Everyone still has this idea that the pathway to success goes from graduating to going to college to getting a job. There’s something missing there.” [Photo: courtesy Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship]
At the program’s second-to-last session, on the weekend of June 10, students heard from angel investors and venture capitalists about the best way to pitch their ideas. (In a previous session, illustrating the program’s focus on active, non-traditional learning, students practiced their elevator pitches while riding up and down actual elevators.) In the final session in July, students will each have 10 minutes to present their business plan to a panel of judges. The three highest-scored plans will each win $10,000 in seed money.

Though the Knight Foundation grant only covered a year of the program, Smith and Denenberg are seeking funding to keep it going, and potentially later expand to other cities. In part, it’s a response to the fact that traditional education isn’t working well for many students; in some Philadelphia schools, fewer than 50% of students graduate from high school. “You see the numbers of students that are actually graduating, yet everyone still has this idea that the pathway to success goes from graduating to going to college to getting a job,” Denenberg says. “There’s something missing there.”

“To us, using contemporary language and contextualization of something that’s really a common connector, and something that really compels people to want to learn, was almost a no-brainer,” she says.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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