At some point I realized a lot of the people in the corporate world are really great people, but I’m not sure they’re my people.”
On one of Campion’s frequent visits to the Minneapolis-based hip-hop record store Fifth Element, she liked a poster in the window and bought the record. Campion has a habit of buying albums with no prior knowledge of the artist. The record was Manifestations, M.anifest’s first solo album.
Campion really liked the album and that summer she attended a M.anifest performance at the Walker Sculpture Garden. Rainfall coupled with the outdoor venue turned it into a fairly intimate show, so Campion decided to connect with M.anifest after he left the stage. She had been mentoring students at St. Paul’s High School for Recording Arts and thought M.anifest might be a good guest speaker.
“I wanted M.anifest to come and talk to the students about what it means to be an independent musician. So, in the rain, after the show, I had my business card and I’d written the HSRA web address on the back. I went up to M.anifest and I said, ‘Hey, I know you don’t know me, but I’d really like you to talk to these students at this school.’ And he said that one of his producers went there and he’d love to.”
Both M.anifest and Susan were skilled business minds with a love of hip-hop and a belief that innovation and creativity functions no differently in business than it does in the arts. These two dichotomous people found they had a shared point of view.
“In the lead up to M.anifest talking with the students, we had a series of conversations about work, business, life, and looking at what could we learn from each other.”
They wanted to carry their conversations into a bigger one, so they started dreaming up an event called Giant Steps. Due to the recent economic collapse, 2009 was a frustrating environment for work and for finances, which made the idea of building something feel really good. Five months after deciding to put together a conference, the first Giant Steps was held on Friday, October 1, 2010, at the Wellstone Center.
The tagline for Giant Steps describes it as an “interactive conference for creative entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial creatives.” The event is a day-long conference made up of panels, workshops, and unexpected conversations. There are practical presentations from artists on how to develop professional skills. It features panels made up of business owners like Maurice Blanks, entrepreneurs like Brent “Siddiq” Sayers, media stars like Andrea Swensson, and powerhouse creatives like Maria Isa.
Maurice is a Minneapolis-based maker of modern home furnishings. Along with his cofounder, John Christakos, the Blu Dot goal is to bring good design to as many people as possible.
Brent “Siddiq” Sayers
Rhymesayers is one of the nation’s most successful independent hip-hop labels. The strong roster of artists include Atmosphere, Brother Ali, I Self Devine, and Grieves.
Andrea Swensson has had an ear and a heart for Minnesota music since 2005. Prior to joining The Current she was the music editor of City Pages, and she has championed countless careers forward.
Maria Isa is a singer, songwriter, emcee, instructor, and performing artist. In 2009, Maria and her brother Harrel Perez formed SotaRico to focus on Urban-Latino music through distribution, events, management, and booking.
Giant Steps attendees certainly notice how their minds and lives are different. But that’s not the point. To Susan and M.anifest, what’s more important are all the ways creative business owners and artists are similar. Susan and M.anifest wanted to celebrate radical creativity and keen business acumen, no matter the shape, look, or size of the project or person.
Giant Steps is an application of how Campion sees the world.
“For better or for worse, I have zero compulsion to treat someone differently because of their position. Whoever you are, if I think what you’re doing makes sense, I’ll tell you that. And if I think it doesn’t make sense, I’ll probably tell you that, too.”
This flattening out of respect based on actions rather than status is highlighted in how many conversations happen at Giant Steps between hip-hop heads and small business owners.
“My filter was always smart people with good ideas who are doing something. There was no shortage of those folks in the hip-hop community and, as it turns out, nobody else was asking them to talk about their business. I think I was a little naïve. It didn’t occur to me that people might not respect how much entrepreneurship was a part of hip-hop.”
What you’ll see at Giant Steps, more than anything else, are people with expertise who don’t call themselves experts. Campion largely rejects self-billed experts and will fight hard to prevent anyone from calling her an expert. But, expert or not, she’s brilliantly skilled at bringing together unlikely people and unlikely ideas with surprisingly compelling results.
“I see certain people or ideas that would be beneficial together that maybe others don’t see. That’s the way my brain works. There aren’t a lot of boxes in my brain, which makes it easier for things to move across boundaries. When I see those potential benefits, I want those people to connect. It’s up to them if it makes sense or if something happens. Usually, if I’m connecting people, I believe in what they’re doing so I want them to have what they need to do more.”
They understand the power of iteration. The question is never “Did it succeed/fail?” It’s “What else can we do?” and “What can we do to make it (even) better?”
They’re vulnerable. Their work is up for judgment every day. Their work is directly linked to them. They’re often put in financially precarious positions. They have to fight for every single win. If a collaborator lets them down, it has a real and significant impact on their work and even their livelihood. They’re misunderstood by family and friends. But there is an upside to this vulnerability: they’re intrinsically motivated.
And they’re motivated not to waste time or money. They know the power of authentic relationships in their professional lives. And they know how fantastic it feels to be seen, really seen, and to be valued for their talents and what they bring to a situation.
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