"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Sunday, July 20, 2008,11:53 AM
Inside the Business Mind of Russell Simmons Creating a Business Legacy
By Jean A. Williams

The Rockefellers. The Carnegies. The Mellons. The Pritzkers. The Hiltons. These are among America's most renowned entrepreneurial dynasties. They collectively represent billions of dollars of wealth that was built, often by lowly, bootstrapping, entrepreneurs of yesteryear, and passed down through several generations to their heirs, many of whom have never known a day of financial struggle or need, thanks to their lineage.

Today a new entrepreneurial dynasty could be in the works – this one within an African-American family: the Simmons family. The patriarch of that family – at least in its entrepreneurial ventures – would be Russell "Rush" Simmons, who currently is chairman and CEO of Rush Communications, a conglomerate with interests in fashion, filmed entertainment, finance, music and philanthropy.

Though his business and personal interests are many and varied today, they share a common denominator: their roots in the music and culture known internationally as hip hop. In fact, Simmons' focus on the music in its early history is credited with its evolution into the powerful cultural force that it is today, over a quarter of a century later. He is considered to hip hop what Berry Gordy was to R&B music when he founded Motown Records in Detroit in 1959. In fact, Simmons is recognized as the "godfather" of hip hop. Few would effectively argue against this moniker. However, he has blazed paths that even the storied Gordy did not.

His success begat success, so much so that today not only does he have the proverbial Midas touch with his business dealings, but it has spread through his family, with younger brother Joseph "Run" Simmons, older brother Danny Simmons, Run's children, Vanessa and Angela; and Russell's now estranged wife, Kimora Lee Simmons, joining him in the family businesses.

Simmons may not have seen it all coming, but he is at the core of where it is all going.

Humble Beginnings

Like many earlier captains of industry, Simmons had a rather inauspicious start. Born in 1957, Simmons and his elder brother, Daniel, and baby brother, Joseph, grew up middle class in Queens, N.Y. Their father was a teacher and their mother was a recreation director. When their middle class neighborhood began to experience the effects of the burgeoning street drug trade, young Russell flirted with a career in that illegal, not to mention deadly, industry. In fact, he admits that he sold fake coke on the streets before his run-in with the new sounds of hip hop sent him careening in another direction – that of club and concert promoter.

Spectacular successes followed. In short order, Simmons famously co-founded Def Jam Recordings with Rick Rubin from their dorm room while students at City College of New York in the mid-1980s. He systematically sold his pieces of Def Jam for hundreds of millions of dollars, selling his final stake in 1999. But his entrepreneurial empire had been fast evolving in other, non-music directions since 1990, when he founded Rush Communications, which served as a holding company for various ventures rooted in hip-hop culture. Rush Communications has encompassed Phat Fashions, including the trendsetting Phat Farm clothing for men and boys, Baby Phat for women, and Run Athletics; the Simmons Lathan Media Group; the HBO's "The Def Comedy Jam" and "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry"; the Tony Award winning stage production "Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway," and in the financial services industry, UniRush and its RushCard and Baby Phat RushCard debit cards.

All in the Family

One of the remarkable things about Simmons' business empire is the involvement of family in his pursuits, from the very beginning with Run DMC, a trio of Joseph, friend Darryl McDaniel and the late Jay "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, as one of Def Jam's founding acts. Today Run is an ordained minister and is co-owner and an executive with Run Athletics, while Danny works with both of his brothers in the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, established in 1995.

In March 2006, Simmons and wife Kimora Lee separated. However, they remain business associates, as she is the creative force behind Baby Phat, a Phat Farm offspring, as well as parents to their two daughters, Aoki and Ming Lee, who are models for Baby Phat Kids' Collection.

In 2005, MTV debuted "Run's House," a now popular reality TV series based on the interactions between Joseph "Run" Simmons' blended clan of his kids from a previous marriage and current marriage to Justine Simmons, all co-existing in his Saddle River, N.J., home. The show provided a platform for the family to extend its entrepreneurial pursuits, with Run's daughters Vanessa and Angela establishing a wildly successful line of sneakers for women that they named Pastry Footwear. Angela also founded a magazine, and Justine has introduced her Brown Sugar jewelry line. Run's son Joseph "JoJo" Simmons, Jr., is taking a stab at the music side of the family dynasty by trying to establish a career as a hip-hop performer.

Keys to the Kingdom: Do You!

Just how does Russell Simmons and his family keep their fingers on the pulse of what's hot enough to move markets? No doubt, they draw a page or two from Simmons' book on the topic of success. In early 2007, Gotham Books published Russell Simmons' "Do You: 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success." In the book, Simmons espouses the hip-hop idea of doing you, which means follow your heart. Even when faced with peer pressure, you have to hold fast to the concept, Simmons suggested.

"You have to have faith that the only success anybody will ever have is that they listen to their inner voice," Simmons told THE BLACK COLLEGIAN in January. "It doesn't mean to be withdrawn or anything. It only means that you have to have a real appreciation inside for what you're doing. How does that happen? Somebody might say meditation. That might sound like a foreign concept. But really the time alone that you spend and the still time you spend allows you the freedom to make decisions. For example, the world is full of people following like sheep and for the most part the main driving force in their unhappiness is their lack of quiet time, the lack of stillness. The happy experience you have is when you are still or when you are here, the present. The past and the noise from the outside are what make you unhappy."

By being still and quiet, Simmons, a yoga aficionado, was able to tap into the power that he needed to take his initial business pursuits to higher heights. In the process, he also learned that he did not want to harm animals, and he became a vegan and an animal rights activist. "You know, you're selfish then, when you get to look inside," Simmons said. "It's to protect the self. So by doing harmful things to the world, you receive harmful things back."

Advice to College Students

Though Simmons started his business in college and didn't go on to earn his degree, he is adamant that education is key. There are plenty of success stories where entrepreneurs carved out lucrative niches. But launching and maintaining a successful venture is a tougher row to hoe without higher education, Simmons said, so he mostly surrounds himself with people who first proved themselves by accomplishing an academic degree.

"All the young people I work with came out of school," Simmons said. "I don't really end up with people that didn't come out of school. If you're not educated, you're really not useful. You can maybe become an artist, but you can't be a businessperson. It's very difficult."

Having an education doesn't negate your individual value. In fact, done right, education can heighten one's individualism, Simmons suggested. "College students—the most important thing about young people is that they are less followers and they ask more questions than the adults," Simmons said. "So they're more connected. They have a greater opportunity. It's much easier for them to say, ‘Wait a minute. I don't want to go along with that.' They always see the contradiction. They see the adult say one thing and do another. It's up to them to try to make a path."

"You can always find individuals in college. You can't find them at the workplace all the time. But in college you find a lot of independent thinkers and those people are the ones who not only change the world, but they build their own businesses, they start their own way to contribute to the world in a way that sometimes is really good for them, and they receive what they give."

For the Entrepreneurial Collegian

Even – especially, perhaps – if you intend to go into business for yourself, the value of an education cannot be overrated, Simmons says. "I think everybody that's an entrepreneur is enhanced when they have an education," he said. In "Do You" Simmons warns about becoming too docile upon receiving a formal education at the collegiate level.

"The caution about education – I didn't mean that you shouldn't go to school," Simmons said. "I meant that you shouldn't be trained; you shouldn't be put in line. You need to be able to be a cultural hero. In other words, you think inside box – which is inside the heart. The world would say it's outside the box, which is where the whole world exists. The little bit of stuff that's being told to you everyday is a small part of the entire picture. If you live in that little bit of stuff, you'll be stuck out of the big picture. Don't be controlled."

If you want to establish and build a business for the long haul, here's a big tip: know your market and your customer, Simmons said. Really, know them and don't limit yourself with marginal thinking, he suggested. For instance, your customer may not be limited to one demographic category, such as a specific race.

"It depends on your business, but you have to remember that 80 percent of the world is not black," he said. "If you're working on something that's kind of for black people, you have to then look and see the other 80 percent you're usually not marketing to might need it even more."

Passing the Torch

With his own family getting more and more entrenched in the business empire he founded, Simmons said he sees a day when the younger generation of Simmons are founding their own ventures.

"They'd better be!" Simmons said. "Diggy and Russy better run something. What? Mingy and Aoki are going to run the Aoki Lee Foundation and they're going to be like a big foundation that has an endowment and they're going to give, one of them, and the other one's going to run a business. That's what I think. I really do have faith that they're going to be still doing it, of course."

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