Inside opening weekend at Philly’s Institute of Hip-Hop Entrepreneurship

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At the IHHE's inaugural session | photo by John Morrison for WXPN
At the IHHE’s inaugural session | photo by John Morrison for WXPN

Early Sunday morning, two dozen young creatives and aspiring entrepreneurs are gathered at Center City’s Pipeline coworking space, with a 15th floor view from the Graham Building overlooking a clear and crisp view of the Philly skyline.

At a glance, the room is like any other working space: boxes of coffee and bagels, half empty plastic bottles of water placed throughout the room, folks typing away at their Macbooks. But the energy is different today.

The facilitators of today’s session —  poet Erica Hawthorne-Manon and Dr. Bruce Campbell Jr. (aka DJ Junior) — are speaking to the group, which ranges in age from 19 to about 35, about the fundamentals of listening and conversing with others in a business / networking environment. The conversation is loose but intentional, the questions and observations coming from the group are probing and insightful.

This session marks the end of the Institute of Hip-Hop Entrepreneurship’s inaugural weekend. A recipient of The Knight Foundation’s Cities Change grant, IHHE is a unique business school for creative entrepreneurs of the hip-hop generation. Over the course of a nine month period, the program will include a series of lectures, projects as well as Q&As with artists as well as music and business luminaries across disciplines.

The IHHE program was created by Meegan Denenberg and Tayyib Smith (also co-founders of Pipeline and Little Giant Creative). Part of the IHHE’s stated mission is to “…use the ethos of hip-hop to empower enterprising young people from non-traditional backgrounds with the skills necessary for entrepreneurial success.” It taps into some of the more common practices of a traditional business school — building networking skills, drafting mission statements — and combines them with an unorthodox, often project-based / experiential educational style.

Speaking with curriculum developer Annie Chiu-Mccabe, she lays out the some of plan: “So, we took this book called Business Model Generation [by Alexander Osterwilder and Yves Pigneur]. It’s a book that lays out the basics of developing a solid business, and we built it into our own. We also thought about key speakers, because we wanted to create a non-traditional learning platform. This is not like an MBA program. We’re not just doing lectures where you just sit back and absorb. In an MBA program, you may talk about theses abstract concepts, but you have no idea of how it plays out in the real world. We try to give them real, practical advice from folks who have been there and done that.”

After completing a rigorous application and interview process, IHHE students have embarked on a nine-month educational course consisting of independent study and mentorship ,as well as one intensive weekend of classes, lectures and group work per month. Co-founder Tayyib Smith explains that the program was designed to appeal to learners who have unique educational needs.

“Our focus is on people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to be a part of an incubator or a traditional entrepreneurship program,” he said when I interviewed him for the Philly Voice earlier this year. “People who might be in school, already have their own small business or have kids or whatever and don’t really have much time for experiential learning.”

Although the curriculum is reaching towards a pedagogy rooted in hip-hop values such as independence and entrepreneurial hustle, IHHE’s inaugural class is made up of young artists, musicians, organizers, designers and more, from across disciplines. Imowo Udo-Utun, aka Veli, is a Philly-born event curator who also works as a manager for some up and coming rappers in the city. When asked what he hopes to get out of the IHHE program, he is focused and business-minded: “I really hope to secure some partnerships to help push what I’m doing forward. I want to continue to create a platform for artists and help them build a following and do that at a higher level.”

With a weekend full of talks with music business legends and industry luminaries like Bahamadia, Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo and author Brian Coleman, IHHE is arming its students with real world business knowledge and molding some of the city’s brightest young minds into its future leaders.

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