6 things I learnt about entrepreneurship from Grammy winning rapper will.i.am

- September 17, 2021 4 MIN READ
will.i.am Photo: Sterling Hampton
It goes without saying, we have all felt the dread of Zoom by now. I felt the Zoom doom logging on recently, a double-shot coffee by my side.

As it turns out, that call was one I will never forget.

Entering the session to be met with the seven-time Grammy winning rapper, songwriter, and producer will.i.am was an experience no amount of coffee could prepare me for. While famed for his music will.i.am is also a tech entrepreneur, philanthropist and member of the  World Economic Forum’s Global AI alliance.

There was a lot to soak up during the discussion, hosted by Andrew N. Liveris, and the UQ Liveris Academy scholars, but I managed to summarise his wisdom into six key takeaways.

Here they are:

1. Trust is a currency 

We’re living in a world where consumers are no longer solely interested in the product you sell, but the faces behind it. Not only the faces, but the company’s intentions.

Carbon footprint, exploitation of workers, shady marketing strategies: you name it, consumers can access this information and are not afraid to use it against you. Transparency is everything.

So, according to will.i.am: “if transparency is everything, then trust is currency”.

He introduced this as a new business model, and how it’s seeing us into a new market which values, what he calls, “communiting”.

Your company is part of the consumers community – it’s not as simple as ‘needing’ your product. How will associating with you make them feel about their role in society? How will it affect their reputation?

This is where companies should be seeking leverage.  


2. Lean into the younger generation, use cancel culture to your advantage

If you can’t achieve number 1, then there is no way you’ll surpass number 2.

You will simply (as the gen Z-ers call it) be cancelled. Cancel culture is a thing and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Gen Z and Millennials are the most interconnected people our globe has ever seen. They can uncover a company’s ‘intentions’ (see no.1) with the click of a button and will happily share this for ‘clout’.

But as will.i.am discussed, we can’t let this scare us. We must let this be our motivator. We have come to a point where companies exceed their competitors based on their ability to not only be good but do good.

Accountability is important, so let us be held accountable. 


3. Be a verb 

“Companies the size of Coca Cola need to be verbs in society, if you don’t believe me Google it.”

Will.i.am showed us that if you can transform your company into an actionable phrase, you know you’ve made it.

A truly successful venture is one that aids society in such a way that consumers can’t live without it, reaching a point where it becomes embedded into society. How do we do this? I don’t know, google it. Kidding – you simply find a consumer need and fill it.

Better yet, create more and fill those. 


4. One day you won’t be the talent, so collect the talent

If you can’t beat them join them. Companies can’t afford to waste time basking in the glory of sudden success, because as we know, cancel culture is always lurking around the corner. It is important to invest and expand your area of thought.

Nurture young thinkers – will.i.am himself said he’s going to invest in app developers, roboticists and teams in AR. You need to prep for the future of your company by investing in the leaders of the future. 


5. Think global, expand your scope of thought 

will.i.am was in London last year, panicking when Covid-19 interrupted their development of Bluetooth glasses.

This, in turn, spurred them to pivot towards developing a high-tech face mask, XUPERMASK.

The following question came up: “what do you do about the people who say you’re late to the market”?

To that, all you really need to do is look around and count the number of people still wearing facemasks.

will.i.am’s response was to look deeper and wider. Masks have been embedded into Asian cultures long before the outbreak of Covid-19, as a result of an outbreak of SARS in 2002.

Who’s to say masks won’t emerge into Western cultural practices as well. 


6. Don’t leave humans behind

The call ended with a fairly lengthy discussion surrounding the development of AI. It’s evident that our technology is developing at an extremely rapid pace. Faster than we can keep up with. That’s where the question, “what can we do to keep young people as smart as our machines?” arose.

To this, will.i.am shone a light upon how investments in AI are quadruple what governments are putting into people.

We are entering a new era where we need to be fighting for human rights against AI, despite “only just starting to understand equality”.

Perhaps we can’t outsmart AI, in fact, that’s kind of the point.

Instead, we need to work with AI to leverage our own capabilities in order to “allow them to be our liberators”. To do this ethically, we must ensure those creating the machines are a “colourful team”. In future businesses, a diverse range of humans, and now AI need to be involved in order to be successful, transparent and ethical. 


AI is the way of the future, and socio-economic trends only reflect this. will.i.am showed us that if we want to be successful entrepreneurs, we need to harness the power of technology and work as a community.

There was a lot to learn from will.i.am, and I think he showed us that lesson number 7 is: we have a lot more learning to do. 

  • Ella Proberts is a Liveris Academy Associate Scholar at the University of Queensland, studying Journalism/Arts.
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