If entrepreneurs are people who persevere in the face of doubt and criticism — and they are — then Adarsh Alphons, the founder of ProjectArt, is definitely an entrepreneur.
Expelled from school as a seven year-old for drawing in class, by the time he was fifteen he was painting portraits for Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and the Pope.
And that’s why he’s another in my series of interviews related to the Strayer University Readdress Success program, an initiative intended to redefine success as “happiness derived from good relationships, and achieving personal goals.” (Strayer has launched a petition through Change.org to change the Merriam-Webster definition; sign the petition and Strayer will donate 50 cents to Dress for Success, a non-profit that promotes the economic independence of disadvantaged women.)
Here’s my conversation with Adarsh on balancing work and life, success and relationships, and a lot more.
First tell me about ProjectArt.
ProjectArt is a national solution to the arts education crisis. We're working to solve a crisis that has developed due to the lack of arts access in public schools, especially in underserved communities. We bring stakeholders such as universities, libraries, city infrastructure, etc. together to put art education directly in the hands of kids that don't get any.
It's four years old — I founded it in New York City, and we have 26 locations now and are expanding to Miami and Detroit next year.
It’s a fully scalable model: collaborative, innovative, and cost-effective. We're using ideas from lean startups and the sharing economy to help people that don't have a voice by giving them art.
What do you hope to achieve through ProjectArt?
Our goal is to unleash the creative power in every child and change the way the world values art education. By bringing art into their lives, we're able to seismically change things from self-esteem to scores and attendance in school.
We're using art as a way to emotionally develop children and try to give them tools that help them get out of poverty.
Your personal artwork has put you in front of people like Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Pope John Paul II… and that’s after getting expelled from a school for doodling. How did your perception of yourself change after that?
It's shown me that anything is possible — if I had stopped creating art, none of that would have happened.
One teacher encouraged me to keep doing art, and I did. Two years later I went from being a school dropout to showing my work to Mandela. Had I stopped creating work, based on what that quite uninspired teacher had told me to do, I would have been put on ADHD medication to calm down, but then someone said, "Do what you want but also study, because you are totally fine the way you are..."
If we don't have the right to express ourselves it takes away the candle of the soul, and that's what art does. Art has no right answer, there's no one way to do things, it's constantly an exercise in discovery and questioning and challenging… and that is the spirit of life and the spirit of progress.
You’re an artist but in essence you’re also a businessman, albeit in a non-profit. How did you develop those skills?
Around my junior or senior year I realized I wanted to learn the art business. There are a lot of systemic issues surrounding art, so I went to grad school to study art administration and now I am a fellow at Columbia primarily studying economic politics.
What I realized was that I can't influence dialogue by only being inside a studio. I need to go out and have conversations about the economic impact of art and art education, I need to understand the political history behind those issues, because we really have to change the conversation and make art our priority — and that means addressing the economic and political issues as well.
An art teacher saw your passion for art, encouraged you to follow your dream, and inspired confidence in you. How important was that experience?
It was extremely important. I encourage all of my entrepreneur friends to find mentors. One of my mentors is Scott Harrison of Charity Water; he founded Charity Water about ten years ago and it's been a big success, and he's been a tremendous source of information on how charities work.
Once in awhile I meet someone and I think, "I really need to spend more time with you because everything you say makes so much sense and I want to take all of it and transform it into emails, work, and projects."
Mentors have your best interests in mind and see the big picture. Mine decided that little old me was worth giving advice to.
Wealth, power and fame are usually not things than can easily be achieved by children. But according to Merriam-Webster, those three words are what defines success. From your viewpoint, what does it truly mean to be a success… and is it achievable at any age?
For children and for adults, success is creating something that is authentic, building something that is authentic, and then taking it the distance. Success is coming up with the idea that is truly yours, that is original and authentic, that is a reflection of your soul… and then to pursue it in ways that are collaborative.
Collaboration and being authentic is key to success. Authenticity doesn't have one answer; there can be many answers as long as that is how you truly feel. We have exhibitions for student art work in actual galleries--we just had our thirteenth one--and it's very important for us to celebrate their achievements. So, to be authentic, to really go the distance in achieving it, and of course to be celebrated for it, you have to put your expression out there for people to see... and it takes guts to do that.
Confidence helps children (and adults) be successful. How does art redefine and promote that?
Art gives children tools to make a positive impact in their lives. (Our website provides interesting economic data that shows this.) We want to give them tools to express themselves in an area where there isn't that framework.
Art is the only field where the answer is not definitive; it is the only subject where there is interpretation involved and we are encouraging that. That has a tremendous impact on how their confidences, willingness to make mistakes, take chances, and challenge systems.
Art teaches you how to challenge. Art is a foundation of progress.
What makes art or an artist successful?
That it is a true reflection of their expression, and that their work is contextually aware, authentic, and has the ability to connect people and spark dialogue and move people.
Looking forward, what would the pinnacle of your success look like?
The current system doubles down on testing as the only way for children to learn, and that kills the spirit of true learning. Even a limited involvement in the arts has proven to have dramatic impact on children’s future, from academic performance to likelihood to start their own business. (Here’s some staggering data.)
For us, success would be to give millions of children who don’t currently have access to arts education the means to do so.
Others in this series: