MC Hammer Offers Tips to “Innovate the Hood” at Detroit Event
Detroit Pistons fans of a certain age will always have a place for MC Hammer in their hearts, since his song “U Can’t Touch This” will forever be associated with the triumphant Bad Boys era of the early 1990s.
But not many of us, perhaps, have kept up with Hammer’s career since then. It turns out the Oakland, CA, native got in on the current tech boom early, and has reinvented himself as a savvy investor and consultant. He also spends time traveling the country to speak while promoting urban entrepreneurship, which is what brought him to Detroit last Friday.
The event, at Cass Tech High School, was called “Innovate the Hood,” and it was sponsored by a New York-based organization called digitalundivided. Kathryn Finney runs digitalundivided, a social enterprise focused on getting more urban entrepreneurs into the tech industry.
Finney said she had no idea how the event with Hammer would resonate in Detroit, but, by her count, about 275 people came and packed the space at Cass Tech. As storm clouds began building outside and attendees coped with the late-summer heat wave by fanning themselves, Hammer took to the stage looking cool and collected despite his suit jacket and long pants, and Finney began asking questions before opening up the floor for a lively question-and-answer session.
The tech world, Hammer cautioned the crowd, is like the NBA—only the best of the best blow up to Zuckerberg proportions. “What we want is people with great ideas,” he said. “Everybody is not going to be on the team. If 10 percent of those that are here tonight can launch a company, that’s big.”
When asked what advice he had for Detroiters as the city is in transition, Hammer said, “As you go, the city goes. The right word isn’t transition, it’s what are the opportunities going forward? Look at how outsiders view Detroit. What companies have left? You should start a company to fill that void. Detroit is ripe for innovation. You’re from here—you know what’s missing. You see it better than anyone. Take your position and maximize it, because what this city needs, Oakland needs, L.A. needs, and New Orleans needs.”
Hammer told the crowd that he has learned more from his failures in life than his successes (a cliché, perhaps, but still useful to hear): “With failure, you have to lift up the hood and see where you went wrong. Out of failure, I’m here today.”
He also said the technology he’s most excited about involves innovations around the electric car and generation of power. He also mentioned an app he thinks will change the way we consume videos; it’s called The Network, and could allow users to create personal TV stations on their smartphones.
He warned startups not to spend money hiring a public relations team too early. “That’s an old-school concept,” he said. “The Internet doesn’t believe in traditional advertising—it’s all about virality. Don’t spend your money getting feedback because if something is great, it’s going to get pushed out. If you’re not getting feedback, then they just aren’t feeling you.”
The next question from the crowd, which happened to be from a PR professional, involved Hammer’s penchant for rebranding, from dancer to rapper to minister to tech geek to in-demand conference speaker. How does he do all those things?
“I’m from Africa,” he said, as the crowd erupted in applause. “Who built civilization? I’m just tapping into my roots and ancestors. And I don’t let anyone limit me to one thing. I don’t even understand that thinking. If they’re trying to get you to buy into that mentality, it’s strategic.”
After the Q&A convened, a reception featuring Slow’s Bar-B-Q was held. It turns out Phil Cooley, whose family owns Slow’s, is one of Finney’s local allies. Her husband is from Detroit, so she married into the city more than a decade ago, she said, and that means she cares what happens to it.
“We’d been thinking about how we could help as people who have resources and who know people,” she added. “We had an opportunity to come this time because of relationships with Phil and Maria [LaLonde] at Bizdom. This event with Hammer is part of a longer-term plan.”
Though her first official tech startup, the Budget Fashionista blog, launched in 2003, Finney said technology has always played a big part in her family’s life. Her father lost a factory job in the 1980s and soon enrolled in a workforce development course. From there, he started his journey in the tech world, and he’d eventually work for Microsoft “back when it was cool,” she said.
“Technology totally changed my family’s trajectory,” Finney explained. “I went to school to be an epidemiologist, but then I became one of the first fashion bloggers. Seeing the growth of blogging and the rise of social media put me in an interesting position to see the growth of this new space.”
Finney became especially interested in bridging the digital divide after a stint at a startup incubator in New York. “I was the only black woman participating,” she said. “It was the first time in my life that there were no expectations of me, and that really stuck.”
Now, with digitalundivided, Finney travels around the U.S. holding events and conferences in an attempt to connect local networks with her huge, national network. Time and again, Finney sees people who are interested in founding startups falter because they don’t have access to resources or power players. (Digitalundivided’s annual conference is coming up on Oct. 3, and she says she’ll give Detroiters a discount on ticket prices if they want to attend.)
Digitalundivided will be back in Detroit in November to conduct a lean startup workshop. Finney advised those who are interested in participating to watch digitalundivided’s Twitter page for details. Check out the hashtag #innovatethehood to see conversation from the Detroit event.