If there is one American entrepreneur who seems to thrive across multiple industries and spanning different eras, it would have to be Russell Simmons.
From music production with Def Jam to clothing with the Phat Farm label, to consumer finance with RushCard or even his yoga studio Tantris, Simmons keeps popping up everywhere.
For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, Simmons, the brother of Run-D.M.C.’s Reverend Run, sat down to talk about how he went from a modest boyhood in New York City to becoming a master of all trades.
Q: Your parents were park and school administrators in Queens, New York, so what did they teach you about making a dollar stretch?
A: They taught me to be frugal. My mother and father were both artists really in their hearts. Money was never primary in any of our choices for education or in life. They were very supportive of my brothers and myself. They pushed us to take the route that inspired us, rather than the one that produced the most money.
Q: As co-founder of Def Jam, what did you learn about turning a cultural movement into a successful business?
A: It’s about faith and resilience. It’s about quieting the mind and being more present. When I made a good record, the world moved slowly. When I listened to the record, I’d be engaged and fully awake and present. That is what we want in life: to be more present.
Q: By expanding into other business lines, like clothing with Phat Farm, what lessons about entrepreneurship did you absorb?
A: I’ve learned you have to have faith in your businesses. Hard work, determination, faith and resilience are the nucleus of success. This takes time, and people quit. But I’ve learned you can’t fail until you quit.
People want to see results, but as it says in the scripture, ‘You have control over your work alone and never its fruit.’ I’ve always had faith that it was a better path to enjoy the work, than count the results of that work.
Q: How do you decide where you can have the most impact?
A: I co-founded RushCard, a prepaid debit card company, almost 15 years ago. I wanted to empower those families who had been cut out of the modern banking economy. We helped pioneer the space. Prepaid cards are now a valuable, convenient financial tool for working-class, middle-class and affluent families who want an alternative to a checking account.
I’m also the chairman of the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding, fighting anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, even though I’m not a Jew or a Muslim. It’s because no one else is doing it.
This is why I started my yoga studio, Tantris. It’s a practice, not just exercise. I wanted to teach yoga and deliver those ancient scriptures in a way that’s not esoteric, and make sure I give a full experience to promote ideas and a state of happiness and presence.
Q: With your own portfolio, do you tend to prefer a particular asset class – stocks, bonds, real estate?
A: I don’t invest in any of those. I invest in triple-A convertible bonds. I don’t really invest in any companies I don’t have control over or support in some way. I’m only an investor in my own businesses.
Q: How would you define success?
A: Stable, lasting happiness. We get there through operating from a comfortable seat and having a quiet mind – the state of needing nothing. It is a practice, and you get there by being more compassionate, more giving and less anxious. It’s about being more present – the more present we are, the happier we are.
Q: Does your interest in yoga and spirituality help inform your decision-making in other aspects of your life?
A: Every aspect of my life should be informed by yoga. I promote to anyone wanting to do business to sit still and meditate for 20 minutes one or two times a day. This is the key to creativity and good choices.
Q: What lessons about life and money do you try to pass down to your kids?
A: Don’t waste any of God’s resources. Money is small, but the idea to not be wasteful is big. Not to waste is a much, much greater lesson overall. Having a frugal attitude is what I’d like them to take away.