Russell Simmons is recognized globally for his influence and entrepreneurial approach to both business and philanthropy. As co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, founder of the Phat Farm clothing line, and author of the best-selling book, Do You! 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success, Simmons is the quintessential serial entrepreneur. He spoke with Inc.com's Tiffany Black about his controversial financial services business, the return of Def Comedy, and how he finds balance through meditation.
You have started a lot of businesses. How did you know when it was time to sell or to walk away?
I start a business and no one understands it. I work the hardest and then somebody else comes along and they start to get it. Eventually there are a few people that share the vision, then a whole team who get it. Usually a few people on the team emerge and they are much smarter in that business than me, which is exciting. My attention or focus may change a bit and then I have those guys telling me what to do more than me telling them. And that’s usually about the time I start making phone calls to set them up because they are really doing a better job at it than me or they have a handle on it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I'm going to sell, it just means I’m less attached.
I’m attached when I’m really building something. I am attached to my financial services company. I see all kinds of creative things that have to be done. I wish I had 10 times the development team. I’m always looking to hire people to help develop programs for my financial services company [UniRush Financial Services], which is my virtual bank and financial well-being business.
Your financial services business recieves the most criticism. How do you respond to that?
If I adhered to criticism or controversy I wouldn’t be here today. My financial service business is the absolute best thing I have done to empower the poor. I run many charities and fight many political causes, but my financial service company is the greatest gift I’ve given. Now people are starting to figure out that there are a lot of other ways besides paying the bank a fortune to manage your money. A free bank account costs twice as much in many instances, certainly for most of my customers, than having a UniRush account. We also sell discount healthcare, we offer discount prescription drugs, we provide financial well-being products like budgeting tools, which 75 percent of our people use. The banks are like Tower Records and I’m a lot like iTunes. They can kiss my ass. I don’t care what they think. I do care that the consumers are educated because when the consumer is educated they just laugh at the criticism.
You just got involved with Skinny Water. What’s your vision for it?
Skinny Water is a vehicle to create super foods and really healthy alternatives. The first product we are going to do is alkaline water. It’s used to balance the pH in your system. And that’s the reason why I invested in Skinny Water—so I can help give them direction and support in building the kind of products that really make a difference in peoples lives.
I saw on Twitter that you were going to make an announcement related to Argyle Culture, can you share it?
I am going to have a lot more distribution. I have a design partner who is very famous and who really gets my vision. And more than his fame is his experience. The fabrications he showed me and his manufacturing sources are superior to what I have had. And I’m very excited about it because we have always done a great product but now this is going to step it up a lot. And also the distribution will be stepped up tremendously, which is a big deal for me.
Are you going to revive Def Comedy Jam or Def Poetry?
I shot eight episodes of Russell Simmons Presents Stand-up: The Ruckus for Comedy Central with J.B. Smooth, the guy from Curb Your Enthusiasm, as the host. And a lot of the guys who I think are right under Chris Tucker, Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac and Steve Harvey are all guys that came off Def Comedy Jam. Those guys made it from Def Comedy and credit Def Comedy for their success. And there hasn’t been a show that gave comedians the kind of rise and opportunity that Def Comedy gave. So I felt after watching the build up of talent that it makes perfect sense and I shot it for Comedy Central. And that show is coming in January, maybe February 2012.
What are some other projects you are working on?
I’m going to buy a TV network, so I guess there will be another season of “Running Russell.” I’ve been working on buying a TV network for about a year. I have great partners. I am very aggressively pursing it.
When taking on new projects or starting new businesses, what factors play in to your decision?
I want to get involved in things that makes a difference in peoples lives and lifts them up. I don’t want to be apart of anything that’s not inspiring or helpful to the community that I’m serving. Second, I want it to move me. I want to feel like I’m doing something that is fun and creative.
Any advice for someone who has an idea for a business and wants to know how to get started?
There is a great yogi that says, ‘the imagination is God. Faith, dedication, and resilience is God realization.’ Just have faith in your idea and you ain’t gonna starve. You have to have a little courage. You have to take your thoughts and put them into a business plan—then you are on your way. But you gotta do the work. A lot of people have ideas, but ideas without effort are worthless. Resilience, hard work and dedication is what makes those ideas reality. You have to start, have courage, continue down the path and you can’t quit. There is no reason why an imagined idea doesn’t come to work except that you don’t come to work.
Art for Life has been going on for 12 years. You get a lot of requests to be involved with different charities. How do you pick which ones to support?
It’s about where you are best able to serve. You have to be open minded in finding where you can do the most. You want to do as much as you can with limited resources. The Rush Philantropic Arts Foundation underwrites art education. I have experiences and relationships within the industry. So it makes sense to serve as the liaison between the money and the people. Wherever you find natural resources in Africa is where you find the worse devastation. The Diamond Empowerment Fund (DEF) came about because I was in the jewelry industry and there was a crisis. The DEF aims to provide funding for higher education for Africans in countries where diamonds are a natural resource.
How do you balance your entrepreneurial endeavors and your philanthropic projects?
I am very lucky that I have talented and creative people around me. Also mediation has been a very big part of my freedom, because it allows me to watch all the things going on and allows me to focus. So that for me is a great tool. Everyday, no matter what, I leave and go to yoga. I take care of my first shakra. You take care of yourself so you can serve others.
What’s the biggest mistake you have made and what did you learn from it?
I don’t have a biggest mistake. As you evolve you learn that you are more connected to the eye behind the eyes, as much as you can, than the stuff on the outside. The things on the outside have nothing to do with happiness. And that perception always comes and goes. If you keep your mind in your work and in your service, that is your happiness. Most people believe that results matter. The idea that results matter is one that you have to keep letting go of. And most of the time I believe it. So I have to keep reminding myself. I tell people if you are doing it for the money, how lost they are. You should be doing it for the service.
Your first book was a bestseller, do you have plans for another one?
I’m going to write another book. This one will focus on the subject of worldly success but also on the core subject of needing nothing. It’s another way of saying Christ consciousness or Nirvana.
How do you do so many things?
I keep my mind in God always.
Russell Simmons will be speaking at the 2011 Inc. 500|5000 Conference. To attend, click here.