From behind the popped collar of a black wool jacket, hip-hop clothing mogul Marc Ecko sat center-stage at a United Nations panel of entrepreneurs a few weeks ago, pontificating on the mechanisms for incorporating private-sector innovation into U.S. grade schools. He appeared alternately at ease and impassioned. Probably, he was glad to be back in the spotlight again, talking about a cause for which he is passionate—and not his company's financial woes.
It's been a hell of a year for the airbrush-weilding cultural kingpin since Inc. interviewed him for a cover story last March. At that point, Marc Ecko Enterprises was the country's biggest urban wear company, with global retail sales of $1.5 billion, according to a report. Just months later, several of Ecko's brands were struggling against the undertoe of a sharp retail recession, and reports circulated that Ecko faced debts of $170 million.
The entrepreneur responded to the crisis by shuttering several stores, selling his watch trademarks to Timex, and letting Kids Headquarters buy out Avirex, a young men's brand he had developed. By last fall, Ecko had scrapped plans for a Times Square flagship store, put his lavish Chelsea headquarters up for rent, and sold a controlling stake in Marc Ecko Enterprises for $109 million to the company that owns Rocawear and Mossimo. He's largely shied away from the media since then.
When we caught up with Ecko after his panel appearance, we asked him what exactly happened to his company over the past year. He shrugged that one off: "Yeah, I sold half of it." He says more recently he's focusing on cultivating fresh ideas, as well as dedicating a lot of time to his social entrepreneurial projects, including one dubbed Sweat Equity Enterprises.
The premise behind SEE is to build professional collaborations for young people in poor communities, with the goal of helping students to unlock their creativity and demystifying potential career paths. Through the organization, Ecko is aiming to give teenagers the ability to design and create goods—from sweatshirts to skateboards to sneakers—for production and sale.
That's a goal that resonates for Ecko, who is himself a college dropout. He cites one advantage he had growing up in New Jersey: In middle school, he was given a photography book on subway art, which inspired him to start designing airbrushed t-shirts for himself and his classmates. With that, he says, "I found the first thread in my narrative. I think what draws entrepreneurship is for folks to find that narrative, because so much of life and the abililty to pay attention in a situation is being motivated by something intrinsic." After that exposure to art, Ecko says through the vocational, hands-on work of applying himself in business, "the learning came passively."
In classic entrepreneurial fashion, Ecko sees himself as an underdog and SEE as a sort of David up against the Goliath that is the U.S. education system. "When you explain it to the educators or the legislators, they just kind of look at you cock-eyed," he said. The group educates outside the classroom, by pairing students with design and apparel companies in a contemporary version of an apprenticeship program. With previous funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's preferred high school reform model and a new grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Ecko says his organization is growing fast, and he's going to work hard to make sure that continues.
What's his goal for the next couple years? "To scale it, man," he says. "I want to have 50,000 kids [in the program]. I'm putting some skin into making this a model that works."
That's because, he says, the public education system fails too many students whose passions don't fit into traditional education fields. Giving creative students a hands-on outlet for experimentation with a craft is mostly lacking for middle- and high-school students. And even providing that for high schoolers can be too late to loose a potential designer or lifelong learner. "If we hit a kid in eighth grade, and he's tuned out, it's a rap for him," Ecko says.
"It's a systematic issue we … have a false sense of achievement about," Ecko says of Americans having faith in their public education system. "If we were to ask of our students what we ask of our mobile device carriers or remote control makers, that would be a huge step."
For Ecko, this project represents a step of a different kind—back out in public after a year that very nearly saw the demise of his company.
Watch the full U.N. World Entrepreneurship Day education panel at Fora.tv: Developing the next generation of entrepreneurs.