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Russell Simmons: Keeping that entrepreneurial spirit alive

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in Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

At first, Russell Simmons just wanted business partners.

The chief purveyor of hip-hop culture saw opportunity everywhere, even in the earliest days of rap. “You’d be happy to work with somebody,” he says, “but nobody wanted to work with you.”

The result was a template for hip-hop ventures. Since then, Simmons has made millions launching businesses nobody else believed in—including Def Jam music and Phat Farm clothes—across media, fashion and banking, all catering to an underserved market.

Simmons denies looking for gaps to fill. “I don’t think I look for white space,” he says. “I think the world is a white space.” In the same breath, he acknowledges giving fans what they want.

“I’m a servant to the hip-hop community,” he says. “No one wanted to make a movie about rap, so I had to make a movie.”

He signed his first rapper in 1979, and broke into the big time in 1984 with Def Jam, which fused hip-hop with rock for a crossover hit, “Walk This Way,” written by Aerosmith and covered by Run-DMC. The movie came a year later.

Simmons’ fashion ventures followed: Phat Farm (sold in 2004 for $114 million), Baby Phat, Argyle Culture and others.

He is relentless. When he couldn’t swing the purchase of a rap magazine, he partnered with Time to launch Vibe. When that went south, he started another publication, plus a web company and an ad agency.

Some work, some don’t. Simmons doesn’t sit around waiting to find out.

Now he has a website called Global Grind where he says celebrities want to blog “because we’re positive.” (A recent headline: “Don’t Hate On Me … It’s Unbecoming.”) The blogosphere is another hole Simmons is rushing to fill because other media outlets are too cynical and negative.

Not Russell Simmons.

“He’s a visionary who knows how to get things done,” says Donald Trump.

What better description of a leader?

— Adapted from “The Endless Flow of Russell Simmons,” Josh Dean, Entrepreneur.

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