At the ripe old age of 21, Russell Simmons flew coach to Amsterdam with a rising rap star named Kurtis Blow--on a mission to share with the world a little thing called hip-hop. When they landed, the college dropout turned would-be impresario stepped off the plane and found himself being addressed as Mr. Simmons. "That was the best payment," says a man who can touch down on the tarmac in a private jet these days. "It reminded me that I deserved it, that I was doing something worthwhile. I haven't gotten anything better than that since."
For many bootstrappers, the seminal, I-know-I've-made-it moment comes when the company they built from scratch enters the black for the first time. For Simmons, the turning point came much earlier, with a small sign of respect that convinced a kid from Queens, N.Y., that he could chart his own course in the business world. A quarter century later, having built a half-billion-dollar music and fashion empire, it's a message he's delivering to young entrepreneurs, particularly young black entrepreneurs, simply through his very presence in corporate America.
Forget Def Jam, the pioneering record label he co-founded, which brought hip-hop to urban and suburban teenagers alike and made household names of Run-DMC and LL Cool J. Forget Phat Farm, whose sweaters and jeans now share shelf space with Polo and Tommy Hilfiger. Forget the energy drink, the debit card, and every other venture bearing his stamp. Forget even the charity and political outreach. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Russell Simmons will be something he never set out to do. Simmons has emerged as an entrepreneurial role model, providing guidance both directly and indirectly. If nothing else, he serves as the very case study that was missing when he started out. "All of the businesses that I've gotten in," he jokes, "I got in because I didn't know I couldn't."
The Russell Effect has spread elsewhere in hip-hop, with a new class of serial entrepreneurs led by the likes of Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. But even more significant is Simmons's example for entrepreneurs in industries with little or no connection to music.
"It plays a great role having an African American figure who has taken business and entrepreneurship to the next level," says T. Lynn Jones, co-founder of Dallas-based Ethno Images. "Many of the role models right now for the community are athletes and celebrities, but Russell is saying, 'Hey, you can be successful, you can be in business." Jones and her husband, Troy, both veteran advertising executives, decided to hang their own shingle after noticing a dearth of multicultural stock photographs that they could use in their ad campaigns. Today the company provides access to more than 500,000 images for giants like McGraw-Hill and is looking to spread into ethnic-driven greeting cards and commercial voice-overs as companies place a greater emphasis on diversity. "Russell Simmons saw a need, and once he became established, he moved on to other areas," says Jones. "And that's key for entrepreneurs--you need to realize it doesn't stop with one idea."
Simmons is reluctant to wax philosophical on his role as an accidental motivator but is happy to be playing a part in what he calls "the dramatic shift in consciousness." "I'm not telling people anything that's a shock," he says. "Maybe I'm telling them things they've already heard before. But maybe because of my luck and success, they believe me."--Rod Kurtz