On a Sunday afternoon in January, a sleek co-working space overlooking Philadelphia’s City Hall is abuzz with mostly twenty-something students building models of their business concepts with paper and string.
“Prototypes are bullshit meters,” says their instructor Natalie Nixon. “If you’re not able to physically and visually show your idea, you really don’t understand it.” Earlier in the day, Nixon gave the students 90 seconds to come up with a list of unique uses for a paper clip. “Aim for 20,” she challenged them.
This is the third weekend session of the Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship, a new nine-month, tuition-free program that seeks to equip young people with the tools to succeed in business. The lessons are not based on a modified MBA curriculum, but rather are informed by best practices from the genre that produced artists-turned-industry-titans such as Dr. Dre, Sean Combs, and Jay Z.
Tayyib Smith, who co-founded the Institute with Meegan Denenberg, his partner at Little Giant Creative, came up with the concept at a Knight Foundation-sponsored retreat in 2015 and the duo secured a $300,000 Knight Cities Challenge grant in 2016. (Little Giant began as an agency specializing in multicultural marketing, but Smith and Denenberg have since expanded their work to include social impact initiatives like IHHE. Two more of their proposals were recently named 2017 Knight grant finalists.)
Smith and Denenberg say their own unorthodox professional journeys and their agency’s work connecting with millennials inspired them to address the changing landscape of how young people decide what to do with their lives. “Normal pathways from college to first job to second job—that whole thing has been disrupted,” says Denenberg. “We think it really makes sense to have more programs like this.”
Chosen from 300 applicants based on their ideas, drive, and ambition, the cohort’s 24 students come from neighborhoods across Philadelphia and range in age from 19 to 35. Their skill levels run the gamut from just starting out to already making a living from their own businesses. They meet one weekend a month to hear from speakers like rapper Bahamadia, Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo of Ruffhouse Records, and Neil Levine of Penalty Entertainment.
Classwork is based on a nontraditional teaching methodology—often with a hands-on, kinesthetic bent—to help develop students’ creative processes.
The paper clip exercise, for example, was designed to improve lateral thinking, or connecting the dots. “Rappers have that ability to constantly draw connections between things,” says Nixon, director of the Strategic Design MBA program at Philadelphia University and founder of the consulting firm Figure 8 Thinking. “Working improvisationally, which is what jazz musicians do and also what hip hop artists do, is really a critical foundation to entrepreneurship.”
IHHE’s strong emphasis on practical financial and legal guidance, including mentorships with local businesspeople, was a big draw for many of the students.
“I’m good with the creating content part, but the business side and the numbers I don’t know much about,” says Rahman Wortman, 26, a music writer who dreams of creating a digital platform to promote underrated local talent. “Coming here, I meet people who can help me where I fall short.”
To foster networking and sustained relationships among the students, IHHE programming is heavy on group work. Ben “Box Won” Barnes, 24, a b-boy with international competition experience, says he’s already learned a lot from his team members.
“I’ve met some people in here who’ve inspired me to look at myself differently,” he says. “I came with the approach that I’m just a dancer. They’re helping me to see that there is a professional angle to what I do.”
Smith and Denenberg envision future IHHE cohorts supported by a thriving alumni network. “A measurement of success is seeing them create businesses together, do business together, share information,” says Smith.
At the end of the program in July, students will participate in a Shark Tank-style pitch session to a panel of judges. Smith and Denenberg set aside $30,000 of the Knight Foundation grant to be used for seed money for the top presentations.
Ultimately, the hope is that IHHE will identify, develop, and retain community-minded local talent who will give back to their city as they put their business plans into action.
Keira Stevenson, 31, a mother of four who plans to start a mobile spa service where she lives in Southwest Philadelphia, says one of the reasons she applied to IHHE was because she didn’t have anyone in her circle who shared her interests.
“I want to be someone that people in my community can come to, whether it’s for some level of financial support, or whether it’s to learn a new skill or craft for them to be more self-sufficient, or just a safe space, especially for women of color,” she says.
Noting that the first IHHE class took place the weekend after election day, Smith and Denenberg say that accessible programs that empower young people to become viable members of a professional community are now more critical than ever.
“My mother taught me that no one is going to look out for your best interests more so than you—not an institution, not a government, not anything,” says Smith. “So giving people the tools to be self-sufficient at this time just seems really, really important.”