by Lucy Vernasco
Quin Bowen is going to change the world.
She’s a bubbly South Philadelphia native with a background in nonprofit management, entrepreneurship and corporate compliance. Bowen describes herself as a lover and advocate for quality innovation and education.
Earlier last year, while Bowen was putting together her own website, she got a message from one of her friends.
“She sent me a text and said, ‘Hey! There’s a program I think you should apply for,’” Bowen said. “She knows that entrepreneurship is my thing. That’s where my heart is.”
The program, enticingly named the Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship (IHHE), piqued her interest.
“When I went to read about it,” Bowen says, “I was really excited… It seemed a little bit different in that it was more about the creative and the innovation, and putting that all together with entrepreneurship.”
Bowen, along with 300 other hopefuls, applied and interviewed. She was elated to be in the program’s inaugural class of 24 students, evenly split between men and women.
IHHE is not a workshop created to roll-out the next best emcees. Instead, it may help Bowen with her goal of helping people break the cycle of poverty or lend support to another student who wants to create a nonprofit that uses break dancing to stop youth violence.
Born from a Knight Foundation grant and the minds of co-creators and Little Giant Creative partners Tayyib Smith and Meegan Denenberg, IHHE is designed to pave alternate routes to entrepreneurship and business training through mentorship, networking and a carefully created curriculum aimed at students ages 19 to 35. The program was one of 37 winners in the Knight Foundation’s national Cities Challenge, and a $300,000 grant allows all participants to attend for free. Four other winning projects also hail from the City of Brotherly Love.
Before entering the program, Bowen already had ideas for her individual project. Recently, her focus has been teaching fiscal literacy—saving, investing and budgeting—to minority children. She’s already piloting her project for first-graders and sixth-graders, and they love it.
“The state that our country is in when it comes to minority children, be it Asian or Latino or African-American, [is] a state [of] economic decline and not really being able to get out of that vicious cycle,” Bowen said. “My goal is to teach [minority children] financial literacy early on and to make it as embedded as it can be, like the basics, and really scale it, so if they’re kindergarten or 12th grade there’s a program that helps them learn the keys to financial literacy. You get a chance to break that cycle of poverty.”
Bowen is driven. When she’s not working on her business plan or collaborating with her mentor and fellow entrepreneurs, she’s daydreaming about making that final pitch to potential investors.
IHHE co-founder Tayyib Smith is a third-generation Philadelphian who has a GED and also attended a year at Temple University. Though he may be soft-spoken at times, Smith’s opinions and passions are bold. Since growing up in Philadelphia, Smith spent time in the military, in Colorado, and traveled around the country with musicians. No matter where he went, hip-hop music was the underlying current.
Hip-hop gave him a new perspective on how to achieve his goals: Instead of performing as an emcee, Smith worked in public relations, tour management and production. Now, he’s a partner at Pipeline Philadelphia, along with his leadership roles at Little Giant Creative and IHHE.
“I have had a very untraditional trajectory into several different careers,” Smith said. “My formative experiences were in the music industry and being a fan of music. [Hip-hop] gave me conceptualization of business practices or how it could be a lifestyle of financial independence. A lot of colleagues that I have now may not work in music, but how either we met each other or how I’m aware of them is from hip-hop or the experience of hip-hop. If you think of modern marketing—what people consider guerrilla marketing—that’s the original street teaming that came through hip-hop.”
Thoughtful and composed, fellow Philadelphia native Meegan Denenberg—a co-founder of IHHE and also a principal at Little Giant Creative—is a marketing guru who has made her mark in Philadelphia’s creative scene. She understands the tug Philly creatives feel from other cities. She previously spent time in Manhattan specializing in guerrilla marketing for media companies and brands including Discovery Channel, HBO, Clorox and Citibank. Guerrilla marketing strategies are nontraditional and are often interactive or engage with people where they wouldn’t expect, such as storefronts and street corners.
“We created an actual archaeological dig in a mid-city, vacant storefront, Manhattan location, where a replica of a dinosaur skeleton was buried at intervals for kids to dig up to promote a show,” Denenberg said. “For the show ‘BIG,’ a gigantic popcorn maker was made to hand out snacks to passers-by in New York and L.A. For the robot toy Robosapiens, we had people in life-sized costumes dance on street corners while street teamers would show people how the actual toy worked—in five different cities.”
The founders have comfort around each other that’s only seen in long-time creative partners. They’re relaxed and let their conversations play off each other, adding to the other’s insight. Denenberg’s academic-like speech is a function of the depth of her knowledge of brand development and of popular culture, which she gleaned from more than 20 years of experience.
“I think there’s a large portion of people out there who learn in different ways, and hip-hop contextualizes certain things and practices that allow people to move forward in a way that they’re not scared and there’s no fear involved,” Denenberg said. “When you use case studies, Jay Z, the big names, and you break down how they actually broke certain paradigms in business, that’s a much easier way—especially [for] people from underrepresented communities—to understand business.”
Smith first thought of the idea in May 2015 at a Chicago workshop named Cultivating Amenities sponsored by the Knight Foundation, Rebuild Foundation, The University of Chicago, Arts + Public Life and Place Lab. According to the program’s website, the workshop “gathers creative, visionary people to collectively generate and work through provocative, functional ideas for ethical and cultural destinations and enterprises that could spark investment in neglected districts and increase the economic integration of neighborhoods.” As a participant, Smith brainstormed ways he could impact Philadelphia positively with creativity and music.
The Knight Foundation invests in cities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Philadelphia is one of those cities. Philadelphia projects and organizations have received considerable grants for providing economic leadership opportunities, increasing civic engagement and community relationships.
“IHHE is an idea which focuses on a number of key drivers of city success,” said Patrick Morgan, Philadelphia’s program director for the Knight Foundation. “In particular, it helps to expand economic opportunity by providing youth with new skills and an outlet to express their creativity. It provides a framework for up-and-coming innovators to build ideas according to their unique vision and turn their ideas into reality. Through entrepreneurship they are also able to give back to their community and engage with others.”
Morgan believes that as Philadelphia grows it’s “important to make sure everyone can be a part of shaping the city’s future,” and that IHHE will help a new generation of leaders learn skills and build networks to become successful in Philly.
Smith and Denenberg are both active participants in the creative community and have brought their professional relationships into IHHE to develop an engaging curriculum that’s like no other.
IHHE’s students meet once a month for an intensive weekend from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Pipeline Philadelphia, a co-working space near City Hall where Smith and Denenberg are partners.
After just two sessions, Bowen is still excited about the institute. Not only has she been impressed by the speakers who have visited, but she also loves the community.
“The energy is just really high,” Bowen said. “There are creative, innovative people bouncing ideas off one another, and people are coming up with things you may not have thought of yourself. So far I haven’t been disappointed. One of the things about the program that I think is different from a lot of others is, instead of telling you how to be an entrepreneur, it gives you access to resources and access to capital, and I think that’s where that hustle comes from. We’re in this position where we have crazy contacts and resources from all kinds of industries with all different kinds of components that can help move forward on our idea.”
Sessions with hip-hop-inspired titles such as #SquadGoals—and others, such as Disruptive Leadership—teach the students about financial modeling, fiscal literacy, business and marketing proposals, and social impact. The instructors relate lessons in the entrepreneurial world to lessons learned by musicians as they’ve built their careers with hustle and self-starting attitudes.
Each weekend features an array of guest speakers sharing narratives of what they’ve learned through music and entrepreneurship. Past speakers include Bahamadia; Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo; CEO/President of WURD Radio Sara Lomax-Reese; Yusuf Muhammad of the A3C Festival; allhiphop.com’s “Grouchy” Greg Watkins; producer for Pandora’s “QuestLove Supreme” podcast Laiya St. Clair; and Executive Director of Coded by Kids Sylvester Mobley.
On “Alternate Weekends” the students visit nonprofits, companies and innovation centers in and around Philadelphia, including the Pennovation Center and Spotify.
“We have them going to beautiful spaces where they can do their independent work but also get to meet the founder of the space,” Denenberg said. “They also get to meet people that are doing interesting things and to make sure at the end of it they’ve actually built a Rolodex, and they’ve met significant people that are doing great things in Philadelphia.”
The program also includes a mentorship component and culminates with the opportunity for students to pitch their ideas to investors.
“We want to make sure that at the end of this course that they will walk away not feeling as if, ‘Well that’s one and done,’ go forward and just whatever. We want them to feel that they’ve actually developed some roots in the professional community here,” Denenberg said.
Redefining Success—and Millennials
What sets IHHE apart from other entrepreneurship programs is its focus on training young adults between the ages of 19-35—loosely, millennials—who may not have a traditional educational background. According to a Pew Charitable Trusts report from 2014, Philadelphia’s millennial population increased by 100,000 from 2006 to 2012. Smith hopes the program will address a broader definition of this generation.
“When people speak of millennials, whether they’re cognizant or not, they’re oftentimes speaking in code,” Smith said. “There’s one definition of millennial that, within tourism, or within marketing or retention... means college-educated white people from a different place. But by definition ‘millennial’ means what year you were born. There’s all kinds of black, brown, Latino, Asian, African-American millennials who are not included in the new plans of what the economic future of the city holds.”
Smith and Denenberg want IHHE to be a counter narrative to the expectation that young people can only go “to college and get a job” in order to be successful. They hope the program will “move the needle” for underrepresented groups, especially in business fields. Smith said that having lists to celebrate outliers—such as the Forbes 30 Under 30—romanticizes our relationship with age, as if people are not successful if they aren’t accomplished by a certain age.
“A lot of people don’t have the luxury to be able to go to school,” Denenberg said. “They have to immediately go to work. We constantly talk about taking into account women who have had a couple children and then at the age of 26 or 27 think that their life is over, and [wonder], what are they going to do now?”
The two founders have designed the institute to be easily digestible and don’t rely on reading textbooks and other more traditional methods of education.
The 24 students come from very different backgrounds, but have two things in common: their love for entrepreneurship and enthusiasm about the program. David Brooks, a student at IHHE, is a 25-year-old musician under the name YKNC from Mt. Airy. When he was accepted to the program he was as ecstatic as Bowen.
“I’ve been involved in music for a long time, the majority my life,” Brooks said. “I have an entrepreneurial spirit. I knew what I wanted to do at 8 years old. This is the perfect way to get myself in alignment with my dreams.”
Brooks believes the deep connections with the staff, speakers, his mentor and fellow students will help open doors for future opportunities. He finds one connection between hip-hop and entrepreneurship to be the music’s impact on other industries, such as technology and sportswear.
Some of his favorite artists have collaborated with clothing lines and technology companies. Brooks is impressed by hip-hop artist Travis Scott’s collaboration with Apple Music through the launch of his own show “.wav radio” on Beats 1 Radio, a 24/7 online radio show. What impresses Brooks is Scott’s venture into another “lane.” He compared it to having one of his favorite athletes begin working for a television network like ESPN. He described the new radio show as “getting an exclusive listen into a dope artist’s playlist.”
The IHHE student hopes hip-hop music’s influence will continue into other industries and promotions, such as cable commercials and additional podcasts and radio shows.
“[Advertisers] sell country music [with] cigarettes,” Brooks said. “So why can’t we sell hip-hop music and clothes or hip-hop music merging with Comcast commercials?”
Though he doesn’t want to reveal too much yet about his final project, Brooks hopes to bring together hip-hop music, gaming and a lounge atmosphere.
“It can be entertainment, but at the same time it can be something that’s giving back to the community and enriching everybody that’s a part of it. I feel like this program is giving me the tools and the space to achieve these goals.”
Born in Germany but raised in Philadelphia, Dom Landry, founder of Common Ground Management, housed in Pipeline Philadelphia, is a mentor for IHHE. Landry became an entrepreneur six years ago at the age of 24 when he and business partners James Burks and Sherman Washington began their company, which offers branding and marketing services for Philadelphia businesses.
Web design and logo creation are among the specific services Common Ground Management offers to Philadelphia-based clients such as Mint Pillow, a high-end cleaning service, and Diafora, a locally made clothing line. Most clients come to Common Ground Management to jump-start their businesses with commercial activity registration or formation of limited liability corporations. Others need help navigating a period of substantial growth.
Landry called Philadelphia an “entrepreneur’s paradise” because of its low cost of living, high amount of resources and opportunities, and the close-knit community.
“[My team] always thought that Philadelphia is the perfect storm for entrepreneurship,” Landry said. “People come to Philly or they’re from Philly, and they want to build it up, which is entrepreneurial in itself.”
He said the ability to easily make connections during the program will be helpful for his mentee, Ben Barnes-McGee, who is developing a program to use break dancing to combat youth violence in Philadelphia.
“I would like him to learn [that] if you start a business, it starts from you yourself, your cause, your experiences,” Landry said. “It’s going to take trial and error. It’s going to take persistence. It’s based on the quality of the entrepreneur, and I think that’s what IHHE is trying to do.”
While starting Common Ground Management, Landry and his partners learned about “not being a hero” by focusing on the greater community and giving back. Looking back, he sees how he would have greatly benefitted by working with a mentor like Smith.
“Value isn’t a dollar amount. It’s a perception, and I think I would have learned that from Tayyib six years ago,” Landry said. “Not that we wouldn’t have been further along than we are now, but we wouldn’t have gone through as many growing pains.”
Student Quin Bowen is also excited about the opportunity to have an experienced mentor to work with her in developing her ideas and final project that will help break the cycle of poverty for children in Philadelphia.
Bowen’s mentor holds her accountable. “Just in the way that I work and function, [he’s] going to push me a little bit harder,” she said. “It’s going to require me to dig a little bit deeper or really look at aspects that I didn’t think about.”
As IHHE supports Philadelphia’s next generation of socially minded entrepreneurial leaders, it’s also creating a narrative of who these students are.
“It’s not so much how [the students] treated us or the instructors or facilitators but how kind, thoughtful and engaged they are and supportive they are of one another,” Smith said. “It kind of contradicts everything you hear or see in media or written about young black youth. It was really rewarding.”
Smith is hopeful not only about the individual students but also about how IHHE will enrich the city’s larger creative community. Smith said his colleagues who live in Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Chicago have encouraged him to seek opportunities in other cities. But by building businesses and opportunities in Philadelphia, Smith has been developing pathways for other creatives to thrive.
Denenberg agrees. “We want to start retaining the creative community here,” she said. “We’re really dedicated to making sure we create an ecosystem here where people can actually thrive and have a professional life… We also want to make sure we have avenues for creative people to stay in Philadelphia. It’s important for the city for [that to] happen.”