In Philadelphia, teaching entrepreneurship through hip-hop

     Tayyib Smith (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Tayyib Smith (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    This fall, a program funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will use the lessons of hip-hop entrepreneurs to teach 18- to 32-year-olds how to start their own businesses.

    The program, called the Institute of Hip-Hop Entrepreneurship, won nearly $309,000 in the 2016 Knight Cities Challenge

    The man behind the project is Tayyib Smith, founder of the creative agency Little Giant Creative. Smith, 45, is a third-generation Philadelphian and serial entrepreneur who used to manage artists for Axis Music Group. “I feel really fortunate that I escaped poverty and I’ve been able to be a serial entrepreneur,” Smith said. “I want to offer people an opportunity to gain fiscal literacy or financial independence.”

    He’s using hip-hop as a means to that end. He says he knows many successful entrepreneurs who used hip-hop as a gateway to opportunity. “If you look at the ethos of hip-hop, it’s usually someone trying to take what they have, take their own narrative, their own life experience, and make it into something larger,” Smith said. 

    The program will focus on the stories of people like Troy Carter, a music executive and West Philadelphia native who has managed the recording artists Eve, Lady Gaga, John Legend, and Meghan Trainor, created an angel fund and technology consultancy that invests in Dropbox, Lyft, Spotify, Uber, and other tech firms, and recently became the global head of creator services for Spotify. Carter began his career working for Overbrook Entertainment, Will Smith’s entertainment company, and Bad Boy Entertainment, the record label started by Sean Combs, also known as Puff Daddy/P. Diddy. 

    Smith said he’d also talk about entrepreneurs like Nasir Jones, or Nas, the rapper who has invested in several technology startups in recent years, and Sean Gee, whose firm SEFG Entertainment manages The Roots, Jill Scott, Common, and other artists.

    The idea isn’t necessarily to teach students how to become music executives or promoters, but to help them learn the tools of business, using the successes of an industry they may be familiar with.

    The founders are looking for students who have “a genuine desire to learn new things,” as well as a bit of hustle: “in the best case scenario, people who have maybe already started something and need resources to get it to the next level,” Smith said. Students don’t need to be hip-hop obsessed, he said.

    The tuition-free, nine-month program will consist of one weekend of classes each month, as well as independent study and meetings with entrepreneurs from various industries in the region. It’ll include between 25 and 36 students.

    If the program goes well, Smith hopes to expand it to Detroit and Miami, two other cities eligible for awards in the Knight Cities Challenge. “All three face similar challenges with onboarding people in poverty into the modern economy.” And at some point, Smith hopes to create an open-source license for the curriculum so people could teach it anywhere, he said.

    Does he think a course like this would resonate in other Pennsylvania cities that don’t have the same rich hip-hop history as Philadelphia? Of course.

    “Hip hop exists in every corner of the planet in some capacity,” Smith said. “I don’t think you need to be in close proximity or drinking the same water as Schooly D or Jazzy Jeff did in order to be genuine in hip-hop.”

    Disclosure: The Knight Foundation supports WHYY.

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