One of the unique things about hip-hop as a genre and a culture is its focus on being an entrepreneur. All of the great success stories, from Diddy to Dre to Jay Z, come from people who started their own businesses, often in the face of firing or rejections from established businesses.
Now, a program in Philadelphia is taking that focus and passing it on to the next generation. The Institute for Hip Hop Entrepreneurship is a nine-month program that is using the principles of hip-hop to teach a group of young adults between 18-32 how to build a business. The organization is bringing in figures from the music industry to instruct and inspire the students as well—people like rapper Bahamadia, Ruffhouse Records co-founder Joe Nicolo, Penalty Records founder Neil Levine and more.
I called up IHHE founders Meegan Denenberg and Tayyib Smith, who run the agency Little Giant Creative, to find out more about hip-hop, entrepreneurship and passing on lessons to the next generation. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Shawn Setaro: What philosophical connection do you see between hip-hop and entrepreneurship?
Tayyib Smith: I don’t know of anything in my lifetime that’s given more people fiscal independence or created a pathway to a career. When I was younger, being a quote-unquote “at-risk youth” living in an underserved community, there were a lot of programs, whether they were academic or governmental or non-profit. I don’t know that many successes from those programs in comparison to people I know how found fiscal independence through careers in hip-hop.
Setaro: Meegan, anything to add to that?
Meegan Denenberg: A couple things. First, so many business practices actually came out of the hip-hop industry—a lot of what we know today in the mainstream as entrepreneurship. Diversification, street teaming and marketing—there’s so many practices that were lifted directly from hip-hop. Secondly, with the cult of personality kind of environment that we live in right now, the narrative of people who started out in hip-hop, where they ended up in the professional landscape, is really powerful. That’s what we’re using at the Institute to contextualize some seemingly hard concepts into tangible learnings that people can easily digest.
Setaro: In addition to the Institute, your main business is in the ad world.
Denenberg: It’s more of a creative agency, and we’ve always dealt with more of a diverse, multicultural perspective. We like to call it “culture competency.” We work with brands to connect to their audience, and because we understand that the audience is more multicultural and diverse than a lot of people address, we work on authentic communication with America as the demography exists.
Setaro: That kind of trend in advertising has a lot to do with the hip-hop world and people who come from it. You think of Steve Stoute, for example, who literally calls his agency Translation. I was just reading something about [recording engineer] Young Guru getting involved in the ad world. What connection to do see between these trends in the ad world and hip-hop?
Denenberg: There’s so many factors to that. Clearly, there’s something about hip-hop. I think it’s the story, the fact that people can come from nothing and end up with everything. That’s a compelling language, and in a lot of ways, it’s very closely tied to the American story. To translate that for want and need and desire, which is what a lot of these creative agencies are trying to induce, makes a lot of sense.
We understand that within the next couple of decades, this country is going to be majority-minority. So at the end of the day, we need more people who reflect the population that comprises this country.
Setaro: Tayyib, you started in the record business at BBE Records. How did you end up in this current job?
Smith: I was selling loosie cigarettes and Meegan picked me up off the street [laughs].
I had a very untraditional trajectory. Prior to working with BBE, I worked for a production company called Axis Music Group. That was a partnership between James Poyser, who’s now a keyboardist for The Roots on the Jimmy Fallon Show, Chauncey Childs and Vikter Duplaix, a music producer and DJ I was managing in the late 90s/early 2000s. Around the Napster years, I wasn’t enjoying the direction the music industry was going. I started doing more event production and consultation for brands like Scion, Toyota USA, Triple 5 Soul and Nike. In 2007, I launched a print magazine which was associated with Little Giant Creative, which is the company that we run now. It was called 215 Mag. All these different experiences came from the passion of hip-hop and music in general. Meegan and I linked up in 2007 and we’ve been working as a team ever since.
Setaro: What was the genesis of IHHE?
Smith: I was at a retreat in Chicago that the Knight Foundation invited me to. They asked us to come up with three ideas that, from your personal experience, could have a positive impact on cities or a community. This was one of the three ideas that was developed.
Denenberg: I think the genesis actually came before that. Tayyib and I, through our agency, work with a lot of young people. We saw the pathway from school to your profession isn’t always as straightforward as everyone makes it seem.
So we always had this question of, how are people going to be able to compete in this rapidly changing world, and especially rapidly changing cities, in a way where they’ll be able to create their own thing? We started talking about it and fleshing it out, and it really made a lot of sense. We were actually surprised it hadn’t happened before.
Setaro: IHHE is a nine-month-long program. What skills do you intend to pass on to the kids who are there?
Smith: It’s important for people to see someone succeed who looks like them, who they can identity with, who has a personal narrative that they can learn from. Each participant gets assigned a mentor who has some kind of life experience in creating their own business or having a successful career.
It’s partly about creating an ecosystem of support, so they have other people who are like-minded. They can learn and grow and bounce ideas off of and share their fears or optimism with.
Denenberg: It’s also access to resources. A lot of men and women that we’re working with are incredibly smart, and they have a lot of hustle and they have a lot of ideas. But the idea of taking their concept and making it into something tangible was like swimming an ocean in a day—it’s really hard for people to see that pathway.
What we want to do with this program is not only arm them with the necessary tools that come with our entrepreneurship curriculum, but we also want them to have access to this ecosystem that exists in Philadelphia, and in cities in general, where they’ll be able to understand fiscal responsibility and they’ll be able to understand social impact. They’ll be able to understand why sustainability is important if you’re going to have your own company. But even further than that, if they don’t want to start their own company, having verticals and having an entrepreneurial sort of way of working is valuable, even working in larger companies. So we want them to have the tools and the skills to be able to navigate in a contemporary professional environment.
Setaro: How have the first few sessions been going?
Smith: [Pause] We've exceeded our expectations.
Denenberg: The reason why there was a silence there is because this is our baby. But we were genuinely moved. The first weekend was post-election—it was very closely post-election—and people were feeling raw. The students exceeded our expectations in almost every single way. They were present, they were kind to each other, they were ambitious, they had great ideas, they were respectful to each other.
The team that we put together is really pretty tremendous. It’s been an honor to be part of it and to witness it.
Setaro: Who have been the guests that students have most responded to?
Denenberg: We’ve had a lot of guests. Our opening was Bahamadia.
You could hear a pin drop as she was speaking, because she was so authentically talking about what she was living. Her story really resonated with the students, because it is powerful to those who are starting out, and she had a lot of lessons that she gleaned from being in the industry.
We’ve had a couple record label heads, Joe "the Butcher" [Nicolo] from Ruffhouse Records and Neil Levine from Penalty.
Smith: Neil Levine did some of Jay Z’s first distribution. Joe the Butcher was engineer and label head for Cypress Hill, the Fugees—I think Ruffhouse sold like 250 million records throughout the course of the label. So the fact that these people are in Philly, are local—even giving out their personal email addresses to the students—it’s very rare that you would have someone who’s in your city who has that level of international acclaim and access who’s saying, “I’m interested. I want to help you.” That’s one of the things that’s humbling and fulfilling.
Denenberg: We’ve brought in people who have ranged in industries, but have all developed their professions because of hip-hop or as a result of hip-hop. We have publicists, managers, writers. We’ve had promoters. To the very last one, the speakers were very moved and humbled. For them to be able to see these 24 young men and women, some of the smartest men and women that we’ve come across, I think it made them feel good knowing that there was an ever-expanding ecosystem within the creative community.
Setaro: What else do you want people to know about IHHE?
Smith: First and foremost, we’re looking for philanthropic and corporate partnerships so we can make this a sustainable program. Also, for any people who the mission may speak to in terms of personal experience, to contribute, either their personal narrative or their resources, and hopefully if we do find a sustainable pathway to continued funding, future applicants.
Denenberg: I really would like to emphasize who this is for. We chose an age range that was very specific. We aren’t considering students who are under the age of 18, because we feel as if resources are generally geared towards kids. We feel that, due to a variety of reasons, people have very, very different pathways to their careers, and we accept that life gets in the way. So we really feel that there needs to be more attention paid to men and women who are slightly older who, for some reason, once they get out of high school, are just considered adults and should navigate their own way by any means possible. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a realistic perspective in the world that we live in, when people are living way longer than we ever expected to. So that’s the first thing.
The second is something we’ve been talking about recently. A diverse workplace is really important to innovative and good outcomes. The best things come from cross-pollination.
If you have people that have same background, who always have MBAs or graduate degrees, doing the thinking for the rest of the country, I don’t know if that’s going to a. be reflective of who they’re serving, but also b. it’s not necessarily going to be from a perspective that will help the majority of the people who live in the country. So programs like IHHE are important because we need to make sure that the ecosystem is really reflective of who this country is comprised of.