Def Jam Recordings, Rocawear clothing, Club 40/40, a New Jersey Nets basketball game, lunch with Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow at The Spotted Pig, a concert produced by Roc Nation, and an interview with Oprah Winfrey all have one thing in common: Shawn Corey Carter, also known as Jay-Z.
At some point during your day, whether you realize it or not, you encounter, hear or touch something that is a part of the vast empire that Jay-Z has built by being both a shrewd businessman and a revered rapper.
Musicians want to be him; women want to marry him; business moguls envy him; and fans throw themselves at his feet. Jay-Z's journey -- from among the poorest of Americans to the wealthiest, in a very short time -- makes him one of the most intriguing figures of the 21st century.
"I think the ultimate take-away from this book is WOW," says Zack O'Malley Greenburg, author of 'Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office.' "It's the total rags-to-riches story."
A book is born
Whether you are drawn to his personal journey as a drug dealer-turned music impresario, are a rap fan, or are an aspiring entrepreneur, Jay-Z embodies all of these attributes. He has it all and appeals to many with ambition, in some way or another. Most of us can learn something from his story.
"I wanted to create something that was accessible to people who weren't [music industry] insiders, but I also didn't want to talk down to insiders who were in the know. I wanted to give them an insider look into something they didn't know," says Greenburg, 26.
In his debut book, Greenburg hits the mark. 'Empire State of Mind' is an easy read that packs an informative, motivational punch for anyone who is trying to improve their situation, land a job, or advance their career.
Greenburg says that the three most important lessons from his book are:
- Always ask questions. "Everyone I spoke to said that that was one of things they most noticed about him; Jay-Z was always asking questions. He has a thirst for knowledge and he is extremely shrewd, so he picks it up fast -- but you cannot pick it up if you don't ask."
- Identify mentors and learn as much as you can from them. His entire life, Jay-Z has always had a teacher or big brother figure in his life teaching him the ropes.
- Don't give it away. "He does not let people leach off of him and what he has built," Greenburg notes. Some may view this as a positive attribute and the sign of a savvy businessman, and others may view it as cold and calculated; but from Jay-Z's perspective, it is necessary.
These lessons are universally applicable to anyone and any situation or life. It's not so much that other people or entrepreneurs are doing things incorrectly or wrong, it's that Jay-Z is just doing it better and smarter. Real estate developer Bruce Ratner told the New York Daily News in 2005 that "any preconceived notion I had about rap artists -- the lyrics made me wonder -- changed ... You could see right away, you spend 10 minutes with [Jay-Z] -- he is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered, intelligent guy who really knows what is going on."
As Greenberg says, "There are a lot of smart people out there, but not all of them catch the right breaks or have the ability to pair their intelligence with another skill to set themselves apart." Jay-Z has raw, lyrical talent and has been able to combine that with his innate desire to learn about anything and everything, which has repeatedly raised the bar in terms of his endeavors and accomplishments. That is how the Brooklyn-born Jay-Z is different, and that is how he has leveraged his brand and come to build an empire worth an estimated $450 million in less than two decades.
Learning from his failures
Even with all of his successes, Jay-Z has some blemishes on his business record too -- namely a failed vodka label and the custom-made Jay-Z Jeep. But the reason Jay-Z is not known for these failures is his ability to recognize when it is time to cut his losses.
Jay-Z always keeps it fresh and works toward business deals that he is interested in and passionate about; he constantly raises the bar. "The Jeep deal and the vodka deal didn't work out, and one of the marks of a shrewd businessman is to know when to get out," says Greenburg. "Jay-Z takes that to heart. The vodka deal fell through because Jay-Z saw he wasn't going to profit off of it."
Jay-Z declined an interview for Greenburg's book because he did not see how it would benefit him in any way.
If there is no profit to be made, then Jay-Z is not interested. A cutthroat business tactic? Definitely. An effective one? Absolutely. The driving force behind Jay-Z's rise to power? Without a doubt -- because for this public figure it is always about the money.
As Jay-Z puts it, "I'm not a businessman ... I'm a business, man!"
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