351: How CultureCon CEO Imani Ellis Went From Side Hustling VP to Full Time Entrepreneur

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351: How CultureCon CEO Imani Ellis Went From Side Hustling VP to Full Time Entrepreneur

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This week in the guest chair we have former Side Hustle Pro guest Imani Ellis, CEO and Founder of CultureCon and The Creative Collective NYC. While working as Vice President of Communications at NBC Universal, Imani founded The CCNYC and began her journey to becoming the full-time CEO of her company and CultureCon. 

In this episode she shares:

  • How CultureCon and The CCNYC has hugely expanded since we last spoke
  • The steps she took to firmly make the decision of becoming a full-time entrepreneur
  • How she effectively built and manages a team of 25 people 
  • And so much more, you don’t want to miss this episode!

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Guest Social Media Info

Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/imaniimani/ 

TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@heyimanigirl 

Nicaila Matthews Okome 0:00

Tech is hosted by our desio swinside. Hey and Michael Berhane is brought to you by the hotspot Podcast Network, the audio destination for business professionals. Now this is a podcast by two Millennials talking about all things tech pop culture and life. I recently checked out their AI special episode where they talked about if Chet GBT is a job killer predictions and so much more. And like all of us, I'm still learning how to best leverage AI. So I found this episode really enlightening, and I think you might too, so listen to tech ash wherever you get your podcasts. You're listening to side hustle Pro, the podcast that teaches you to build and grow your side hustle from passion project to profitable business. And I'm your host Nicaila Matthews Okome. So let's get started.

Hey, guys, hey, welcome back to another episode of side hustle Pro. I'm your host Nicaila. And today, we have an update episode with Imani Ellis. Now you may remember meeting Imani back in episode 187 of side hustle Pro. And while she was here she shared about how she manages being a side hustler juggling her role with culture calm and the creative collection with her full time role at NBC. Well, wouldn't you know it here we are three years later, and Imani is now a full time entrepreneur. So she is back to share with us all about what goes into that decision and that planning and preparation to go from having a side hustle or as she would call it to full time jobs to a full time entrepreneur role. So let me give you guys a little bit of background in case you haven't listened to that episode. So Imani is the CEO and founder of culture con and The Creative Collective. That is a community dedicated to facilitating brave spaces for black and brown creatives. It was born any monies one bedroom apartment as a means of fostering meaningful connection. And since then the CCNY has since parlayed into the fastest growing community devoted to creatives of color. The CC NYC is marquee event is culture calm, a conference celebrating the impact diverse voices have on culture. past speakers include Tracee Ellis Ross, Will Smith, Regina King John Legend, Spike Lee, and more. Culture con is the first of its kind ideas conference that caters to all aspects of creative and young professional life. So today, we're gonna get into all that culture con and The Creative Collective does, as well. As you Monty's perspective now, being on the other side of side hustling, let's get right into it. So Imani, welcome, welcome back to the guest chair. I'm so excited to have you here. You've done so much since we last spoke. So I had to have you back for an update episode. I'm so excited to be back.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 3:12

It's so much I was listening back. I love doing that too, like right before. And I'm like, wow, this is so different. So for those of you who don't know, Monty was in the guest chair, February 2020. What a time right before we it's so funny listening back, we didn't even know what was coming. We have big plans for that year. Now. At that time, you were still working full time as a publicist, while building the CC NYC and the culture con a signature events. What went into your decision to leave publicist life and become a full time entrepreneur,

Imani Ellis 3:49

so much like went into that decision? You know, NBC was actually the first job in only job I had had post college. And so that was a third of my life and a lot of what I knew, and I think what was happening was I was in a dream position. Like I loved my job. And I think what was happening because I started to feel this kind of tug. And it started as a whisper. And it was like, You're not going to be here forever. And I really suppressed it because I said What are you talking about? I'm very happy, I'm very satisfied. But it continued to get louder and louder. And I think a seed was planted that kind of said, you know, this is a beautiful chapter. But you know, I have something waiting for you. And that's to do culture con and Creative Collective full time. And so I definitely wrestled with it because it wasn't comfortable. But ultimately, you know, left in November of last year and now I'm you know, full time CEO of culture con and Creative Collective which is still so unreal to say,

Nicaila Matthews Okome 4:57

Wow, I know that feeling. I remember those early These days I left around the end of the year too. So I want to know a little bit about how it felt as your stars started to rise, and you're working in an industry and people know what you're doing. Your co workers know what you're doing. Was that ever a conflict? Or did that ever get awkward or weird?

Imani Ellis 5:18

You know, I think one of the things that I was super fortunate to have was a really incredible relationship with my boss, I started. Yeah, I started as an assistant, her coordinator, and grew to be her vice president. And so we were friends. And there was a lot of trust there. And as creative culture was growing, I was sharing with her in real time, hey, we're growing. So I think that helped me that it wasn't this like big, little secret. It really was about transparency, which I feel like is always the way but I also had to remember, you know, to put on the hat where I was. So when I was at NBC, I had my NBC head on, I think that's why so many people were like, how are you doing both because I was really, really tunnel visioned on growing that brand. And then after work after school, on the weekends, I was culture cod, and I was on that hat. And so for me, I think it was absolutely the like balance tightrope game until it became clear. When I did Bravo con and culture con a week apart. It just, it was yeah, it was time

Nicaila Matthews Okome 6:33

it was yes, if you wanted to have your sanity and a life. It was time. And I know that that can be scary. Thankfully, you were able to be open and transparent. Because that takes some of the stress off when you're trying to hide your side hustle, which thankfully, I wasn't in that position. So I, you know, I support and send much love to those of you who feel that you you have to be in that position. Because it's tough. But when you're able to if you're able to, you know, share this side of yourself, and like I always say position it as an asset to the company. Like I'm learning so much about this, because of this thing I did that culture kind of I decided to weave the sense of Bravo con or, Hey, why don't we try this? It worked really well, that can be so helpful.

Imani Ellis 7:20

Absolutely. And, and to that point, just making sure that nothing the work is not being compromised. Right, right? Because if my work had been starting to drop, if my attention to detail was starting to slow down, it would have been caused for Okay, that's a distraction. Yeah, I love what you said in terms of like iron sharpening iron, like I'm actually in this world. I'm in culture, I'm learning what people are talking about, and I can bring those insights to my work, then it's a win win. It's a win win. Yeah, yeah.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 7:57

How did you prepare for it? How did you prepare to leave your job and become a full time entrepreneur?

Imani Ellis 8:03

Gosh, there's so many things I think first, you really, you know, my dad is like, first things first, which is like, are you covered financially? To leave your job, right. That's what parents are for right to make sure that we're keeping our head on straight. And once you've answered that question, then I think it becomes more of a matter of the heart, and less of a matter of the mind. Because if financially, you're covered, and you've planned ahead, and you've saved, check, I think next it's like the uncoupling. And so for me, that took the longest amount of time because I was emotionally attached to this part of my life. And, you know, I was talking to one of my good friends who said, you know, we mourn and we grieve relationships. But you also need to mourn and grieve chapters of your life. Oh, yes. And I don't think I had really thought about it that way, and how hard it would be to mentally reconcile, but I wouldn't be going into a place that I had gone into for a third of my life. And so that was the longest chapter was like, going through the exercise of what it would feel like to wake up and not be like, looking at Google Alerts. I couldn't. I was like, Yeah, am I and so after that, it just came, you know, setting a date, right. And I wanted to be considerate with my date. And I wanted to, you know, make sure that I didn't leave anyone in a pickle. But by the end of like my deciding and grieving period, I had decided, like I had just decided I had really said pros and my cons, I would say, and for me, I'm someone that like I take a long time in the what are my options phase? It's annoying. I take a long i ruminate.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 9:58

You describe that as you Are What am I option phase but like my indecision phase, but you know, it's important to frame it more positively to it. Because you don't need to know your options. You do need to have a plan,

Imani Ellis 10:10

you want to have a plan, because then you can stand in your conviction with the decision. And when people try to challenge it, or you go through the fire, you're not having to be like, Wait, did I think about that? So Right. Usually, once I've gotten to a decision, I've ruminated on it so long that like the fire, I'm like, oh, no, I've decided like thank you for but I've decided, so that's where I got. And you know, I ended up having a conversation and it was welcomed with so much love and so much grace. And Andy, my buddy was just sent me off with love and watch what happens live saw you there. It was a beaut. Like, I feel like that's how it should feel is so bittersweet, like you're crying and you're sad, because you're gonna miss it. And yet, you know, that like, this is the beginning of something really special.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 11:05

It's literally like life, you know. And as a mom, I can say, it just reminded me of something I'm going through now, like the next transition in our son's life, you kind of are a little sad, like all my little babies growing up, but at the same time, it's beautiful. And it's what needs to happen next, like you can't crawl forever, you can't you know, be in diapers forever. So similarly, you can't stay at one company forever. I mean, you could but yeah, I mean, that was my plan. I was like, here forever. It's got a nice to experience something else, especially when I feel that life, and God are showing you signs that, hey, this is really something that I've you you've been given a gift, this is something I've gifted you with the skills and the talent and just the innate wisdom to do. Like I was telling you before the show started, there, just some people you see, and you're like, she's a star, that's a star and you have that, you know, I see you and I immediately I'm just like you're a star, and you need to go out there and shine. I love that you touched on the uncoupling. Right? So a lot of us who inadvertently make our job, our personality, our worth. taking that away, is something you have to be comfortable with, in order to be an entrepreneur, people are not going to get what you do, it's not going to be as impressive, you know, immediately for those people who don't know, of your company. So saying, I work for NBC Universal, you know, I know Andy Cohen is different than saying, Hey, I started this company, I'm like you, you get a different look in the eye and you have to uncouple that need for validation. And that need for feeling like your worth is based on where you work.

Imani Ellis 12:49

Oh, absolutely. And especially when you're living in a big city where it's all one big sentence. My name is Barney, I live on the DA and I work at the duck. It's just kind of in a city with millions of people how people kind of interact. But I think I had to remember that the reason of building Creative Collective was to build a different kind of culture that wasn't so transactional. And so it really wasn't uncoupling. And I was like, who am I? Without these titles without these things? You've got to spend some some time there. And it's been really refreshing, I think, and, and it's active work. It's work that you're doing constantly. But I really think it's so important, especially as black women, you know, we are there's just so much pressure to over deliver and be so consistent. And I think as I looked through just like all the years of like sacrifice and all of the things that led to being a vice president at NBC Universal, like, I'm so happy that I was able to have a beautiful chapter and I keep saying chapter because it's the same feeling you get when you say goodbye to your parents, and they've left you at college, right? It's like the beginning of something so fresh and new. And at NBC, I can honestly say that I left it all on the field. No regrets, like there weren't these big like, Oh, if only I had stayed and gotten Right, right. I really felt like I learned from it. But I think it is so important to do the work of what's your hobby? What are your interest? And what are things that you do that you're actually not making money for? You just enjoy it. For me. Those are estate sales, I gotta I gotta eat food. I got to do all those things. And so again, those are the those are like the becoming outside of like your career.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 14:43

And I also like that you touched on that decision making process and how you need to be in it. You need to be locked into your decision. And understand truly like innately just embody that decision because it's going to keep coming up. I was surprised by that but how Many people, after I told I was leaving, that you're almost kind of getting into these conversations where you're kind of defending your position. And I'm like, wait a second, that's not up for debate. I, this is what I'm doing.

Imani Ellis 15:13

Right? Right.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 15:16

Well, you really have to be convicted in what you're doing. You have

Imani Ellis 15:19

to be convicted. And, and again, I love the phase of like, you know, walking around your house of your brain in your robe, you got the ice cream, you're like this, that those are the messy days, and it can go on and on. Because some days it felt right. Some days, I felt scared. Some days, I'm under thinking it, I'm overthinking it. But by the time it came to leave the house, by the time the announcement was made, I was so convicted. And so I think people will reflect the energy that you're giving. And they can sense if you don't believe what you're saying. And so, I believe, but I will say and sometimes this is the case is people can see it in you before you can see it in yourself. I had people that were like, wait, you still worked at NBC? World. So there were people on both sides, there were people that were surprised I was leaving, you know, and then there were people that couldn't believe I was still there. But yes, I loved it. I loved I would, I would if I could go back, I would do it the exact same way.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 16:37

And I love that about you. I love how long you did both because we talked about this in your first episode, how you give others permission to show up and say, Hey, I'm a banker. But I'm also a musician, and showing people that you can fully stand in your multi passions, you can show up in this whole other space as like the CEO of an entirely other business, but then also show up at work on Monday as vice president at NBC, and just showing people that for as long as you did. It's like, if why not me, you know, there's no more excuses for it. It's like, you know, this actually can be done.

Imani Ellis 17:17

Oh, it's absolutely possible. And I thought it was so important to tell the whole truth. Because I think as entrepreneurs, if you're seeing this vision, and someone, again, it has a whole other, you know, income stream, they have a corporate role, but you're just seeing the entrepreneur side, it just gives, you know, I think partial storytelling and I think it's important to say, Hey, it's okay, if you don't want to jump out the window, you start a business from scratch. And so I hadn't seen a lot of representation of that. And so I just decided from the beginning, I wasn't going to hide the fact that I had a corporate job, I was just gonna, this is this is the life that I'm living.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 17:59

And you know, I'm all about that representation, because it's like not, it's not realistic for most people to just jump out like that. It's a very hard and uncomfortable world if you do, and then it becomes shame about going back. And so it's all this rigmarole just keep your job

Imani Ellis 18:18

as long as you can. And be careful. Be careful with shame, right, this shame storm, you know, so much of that comes from like our own, I think, you know, understanding of what people might think but like, you can always change your mind like and I think that's what I learned about being a publicist is that we are ever evolving. And so the story doesn't have to end with you left your job, you could never work in corporate again, it could be I took all these skills from entrepreneurship. And now I'm going back to Apple Music to show them how they can grow. So I think a lot of times we're stuck in our own heads with like the stories we tell ourselves but I believe in redemption, you can always go back you can always change your mind. You know, the story is never over.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 19:05

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You also touched on the financial security piece, having savings having things in place so that you can have insurance, you know, and all the things that you're stepping away from, what did that look like for you? Was it like six months of backup savings? What was that for you?

Imani Ellis 21:17

Yeah, I think one of the things about me, I've always been a saver. And my habits, I don't really have expensive habits. So my habits are like lemon pepper wings on a Friday. I'm not really like, Oh, I've got to go. You know, that's just not my personality. And And don't get me wrong, I love nice things. But I have not a ton of expensive habits, and I would just been able to save. And then when I do want something, then I'm able to get it because I know that oh, if I'm feeling that I really want this thing I say that because I had been saving for so long, just for a rainy day. And so by the time it came to look at finances, yeah, I think I had like four months, five months of just like, you can take care of yourself, whether you take time off, whether you decide to do entrepreneurship full time. And that gave me a security blanket of okay, like, what's the worst that could happen? I'm not going to not be able to pay my bills. So with that kind of being like a foundation safety net, I was able to take the lead.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 22:27

And what were the revenue streams at that point in your business so that you felt secure enough to now rely on this business to pay you?

Imani Ellis 22:36

I think one of the great things about what we've seen with what we've built is that we were only scratching the surface. And so I think I've been partly surprised with how quickly it's grown. But I have to remember that like authenticity and like just like true community will always grow because we were built for community. And so culture con was growing really quickly. We went from having one conference with 200 people to a three city tour last year in Atlanta, New York, and LA, and we were turning away sponsors, we were running out of inventory, we were still

Nicaila Matthews Okome 23:15

send them to me.

Imani Ellis 23:20

Next year, there's no more space. And so it really reminded me of you know, the Israelites in the desert. In the manna from the sky. It's almost like God was like, don't have this scarcity mindset you are spoken for you are covered for and I went and found that culture con was thriving. And so you know, that's kind of been a blessing. I think my dad always says go from something to something. So I don't feel like I went from full time job, you know, to a part time job. I feel like I went from two full time jobs to one full time,

Nicaila Matthews Okome 23:59

just one full time job. What's changed in your business structure and how you approach the company now that you are focusing on it as your only full time job? Oh, my gosh,

Imani Ellis 24:11

I have more time to dream, which feels so good. I think when I was doing both, I was very in like operational mode. Like, how can we just keep the oil in this machine chugging? And now I'm able to think about 2024 and 2023 2025 and 2023. So I've got like two year plans, which is super exciting. And then we've also just been able to really focus on team culture. So there's 25 of us and, you know, we're really thinking about, you know, how do you feel when you show up to work, you know, how we have internship programs, and it's just been really great to spend time on some of the I think priorities that might get pushed to the side when you're focused on operations. So like team culture and team retreats, and what are some of the nice to haves and want to have for our community, I still wake up and I cannot believe that like, this is my job. Like, yeah, it's great. Yeah,

Nicaila Matthews Okome 25:17

it is. I completely relate to those moments like, Wait a second. And I can't believe that your team is 25. Deep now. Okay, how are you managing that operationally? Is there like, are you using an HR system company? to kind of manage all that comes with the big team?

Imani Ellis 25:35

Yes. So I, you learned I and again, this is another benefit of working in a corporation is the osmosis of understanding leadership structures, right. And so I have a team of direct reports, senior leadership, and then they have their respective team. So I'm not really meeting with 25 people, I'm meeting with five. And then they're meeting with all of their teams. But yes, we have an HR team who does the onboarding, and the insurance and all of the things that you need to have covered. And then we have an amazing coo nephila, who really is my right hand in terms of like, chugging along, and is everyone feeling good. And then I really lean on my direct reports to really keep me apprised with like, what's happening, what are the flags, but I've had to like, fire myself from a lot of the tasks that I used to be so obsessed with, that are no longer CEO task. And so I was like, on all of the social meetings, and my CEO was like, Imani, why are you on the social meetings? And I was like, well, because I need to know what we're posting on. It's and she's like, prying the phone out of my hand. And so it's been a breath of fresh air, I think, to take a step back and ask myself, do I absolutely need to be on that meeting? And if the answer is no, empowering leadership to like, leave their pods.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 27:07

That is a word.

Imani Ellis 27:11

But it takes practice. And I think I'll see you the caveat to that is, for newer businesses, or better still establishing the quality control. And sometimes you, you can't pull back as quickly as you'd like to, or I'm sure your team would like you to, because there does need to be a standard. But once you've established the standard and the expectations, and I think you can pull back I think sometimes CEOs are like just like figure it out. But if you have an established what the KPI is, what does a win look like? You're kind of everyone's lost?

Nicaila Matthews Okome 27:52

And how did that transition from a group of people in your bedroom to these amazing events to culture con, to going from freelancers to actual employees? How did that come about? How did you as you know, a younger person who is still working and figuring life out, figure out how to actually have a salaried employee with insurance and HR onboarding system.

Imani Ellis 28:20

Yeah. It really, really starts with like, baby steps. And so I think I love the metaphor of like dating, right? Because I think it's a win win for everyone. What I mean by that is, you know, to your point, we did start off with volunteers. But through every journey, we had very clear expectations so that people could agree, because I think sometimes that's where that's the rough Foundation, a founder in their minds. So passionate, loves it so much, is expecting that to just like translate to everyone. But everyone has a different understanding of what success looks like. So even with the volunteers, it was like, Okay, our expectation is about eight hours of volunteer work a week. These are the tasks you're going to be doing that these are the benefits we can give you so that people can decide, do I want to do this? Do I not want to do this? Then we graduated to contractors. So here is the budget that we can provide here are the deliverables of what we expect. Do you want to hear is the term we're going to do a three month contract? Do you agree to this? And so it really was allowing people it was a double opt in, like, does it work for you? Does it work for us? And then it got to the point where culture con was growing so quickly, that contractor commitment. We needed more, we needed more of their time. And so we were able to start having employees and I remember when, you know, I was like I think we're ready to hire our first employee. You know, and all of this was very rare. I recently because I think it was a mind shift for me, I was still like we're in the living room. And it really took a lot of my mentor saying, No, you're running a business, for me to really understand that this was something that was formalizing, and that was growing. But it's a lot of trial and error, which is why you do want to bring in, you know, maybe it is an HR consultant before you're really bringing them in house, so that you don't need to do every piece of that you want to make sure that you're compliant and you're paying the IRS, you're doing it the right way. But all that information doesn't have to innately come from the CEO, I think one of the best things you can figure out very early on, are the things that you are very good at, and the things that you need support in. And I think for me, I objectively I'm like, these are the things we're at, here's where I thrive, I can build really great teams. But only that's only because I can recognize, hey, I'm not really great at the production budget. Yeah, so I'm gonna bring someone in who could build that out for me.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 31:07

Yes. And as you were growing, are there other people who are side hustlers, who then became full time employees of culture con and The Creative Collective?

Imani Ellis 31:17

Oh my gosh, we were all side hustlers. It was a side hustle. It was me, I guess. I think that's why it's such a special thing, because it was supposed to stay a side hustle. I mean, this really was going to be a potluck for me and my friends, to enjoy each other's company and to network. But absolutely, there's been a group of us, my dearest friends who I was like, Hey, do you want to like do this thing? And when I'm sure, you know, we got to they would chuckle about it. Because when I went to them, it was very much like, the volunteer framework. Like, it's not we don't make any money. We're just doing it for the people. It was just very like, do you want to do this thing. And now, a lot of those individuals are full time employees. And sometimes we just look at each other like, blink, blink, blink, per play. It's it's been the honor of a lifetime, I think, to see the same individuals from my living room. Now in the board room, and us just continuing to scale.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 32:30

What do you think it takes to truly go from starting something as this Fallens here, it just feels good. I'm working with my friends organization, to a real business where everyone's bought in, you know, no one's like holding on anymore to something else, because they don't believe in it, like everyone's bought in everyone's now full time in it. What does it take for that transition to happen?

Imani Ellis 32:53

I think it takes three things. I think it takes a large vision that has to be seen by the leaders that there can be a buy in. But that vision has to be paired with actual results and execution. Because if I was just telling people, Oh, I know, we can do this thing, I promise. And no one came to culture con ever, ever grew? Yeah, you know, it's like delusion at that point, right. So you need a vision, you also need execution. But I think the third piece is radical empathy and recognition. And so along the way, people need to understand that like their ideas and their needs, and that that is just as important to driving the company, as anyone else's ideas that were a collective that we moved together as one. And so, you know, I think I am careful with using the word family because I think sometimes like it's thrown around too much. But I

Nicaila Matthews Okome 33:55

know that don't you know,

Imani Ellis 33:59

but actually, we're actually friends. And so there is a

Nicaila Matthews Okome 34:03

real level of respect. I see what you're saying. Yeah.

Imani Ellis 34:07

Yes, because I think that it's not just vision, it's people also feeling like they're respected and they're seen, and they're a part of it. And so I think those are the things I think it's the vision match with the execution match with respect for the people who are building this alongside of you. And, and it's been working for it's been working for us.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 34:28

I love it. I wish something like this existed when I was, you know, younger coming up in entertainment industry in my 20s in New York, because yeah, that's, that's just a dream to me to be able to impact culture in a way that makes sense for us. And it's your target audience. And so what a beautiful, beautiful thing that you're doing and able to create for so many others. I'm curious though, again, because the last time we spoke it was February 2020. You are preparing for culture calm. On October 2020, I want to know what happened. How did you pivot your business in the pandemic, and still come out on top?

Imani Ellis 35:09

Oh my gosh, our business grew during the pandemic. But I didn't know that after we spoke because we just announced and we were selling tickets. And we were gonna do New York in October, and we were gonna do Atlanta in May. And so I was a little in denial, like, I was seeing the ripple and I, and people were texting me like, What are you going to do? And I was like, What do you mean, this has nothing to do with us? I was like this. I said, it's February, like, Relax, guys. And so I was a little late to the party. And then I started to see things like the Democratic Convention being canceled, and the all star game being canceled. And that's I think, when it started to feel like close to home, when these like, larger than life institutions were canceling. I was like, oh, what's happening? And so yeah, and 2020. Actually, it was it was interesting, because we cancelled, and I think I got permission in a way that I had before. To just sit back a little 2020 was a really interesting year, I went back to visit my parents in Atlanta, I went back to the museums that I had kind of not had time for, I went back to like watercolour painting. And just, we just did a lot of pivoting and 2020, and a lot of like, learning. And then in 2021, we launched we launched culture con at home, which ended up 25,000 creatives. and 131 countries came to culture con at home, and I think we were What's

Nicaila Matthews Okome 36:53

that entail? What was that about? What

Imani Ellis 36:57

we basically were like, Okay, we didn't do a culture con in 2020. And we were asking our community, like, what do you all want? Do you want virtual happy hours do you want they were like, No, we don't want our zoom, they're like, but what we do want is for you to take the energy of culture, con, and bring it to a campus. And so we did. And I think it's to date, one of my most proudest moments, our team completely pivoted and built an entire 3d Campus of culture con, and it had different buildings, you could go in the buildings, it had live chat, you could chat with people all around the world. It was three days of programming. Presented by square, it just had a string quartet playing Beyonce. It just it had a like, at a culture garden that had all different types of like black history, cultural things. And so that was our pivot. And then in 2022, we were we were back outside.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 38:10

Back outside, I was there and boy, Were you outside. I was like, This feels like that even go to HBCU. But I was like, This feels like a homecoming like Howard homecoming.

Imani Ellis 38:21

Yay. So that became our new tagline my son goes, culture con Loki feels like a homecoming. And yes, we called it a homecoming. It was

Nicaila Matthews Okome 38:31

awesome. And that's why I'm even more impressed by you know, the transition, you making the shift from side hustle or, you know, one full time to the to full time. So just went full time because you've just gone through like probably two of the hardest years in the business that any of us have ever seen. And then to still be able to leave. After that just really shows a level of tenacity holding on pushing through the storm. Did you ever think like, alright, well, we're just getting back on our feet. So let me hang in one more year. Before I leave.

Imani Ellis 39:03

I always think that your mind wants you to be safe. And and safety sometimes means just do what you've always known. And I think what what was happening was it was getting to a point and and I said uncomfortable earlier to describe it because it was uncomfortable because what was starting to happen was I knew what I needed to do. And so therefore, because I knew what I needed to do, I knew that I could blame no one but myself if I didn't do it, right. And so it gets to the point where you know, I was reading this book about resistance. And it said that procrastination is the easiest form of resistance. Because procrastination, right? Procrastination doesn't say, I'm never going to write my symphony. Procrastination says I'm going to write my symphony. I'm just going to do it tomorrow. And then you just keep doing that for years and you look up, and you've never done it. And so I knew that, you know, I would just be lying to myself if I said, Oh, you just need another year. Because the data points told me that I didn't need another year. The data points told me that last year culture, Khan had 2000 people. This year, culture con had 4000 people, and we had to turn people away. And so I just kind of was looking at and I said, Okay, you can tell yourself, you need another year. But you're lying to yourself. And so I try to not lie that myself and I knew that I wouldn't be less scared if I waited another year. And so I thought that it was very symbolic. It was my 10 year anniversary. It had never been bigger. And I think it just felt in my heart. It's time

Nicaila Matthews Okome 40:52

It's time 10 year anniversary of being with culture con or at work at NBC. That NBC. Okay,

Imani Ellis 40:59

so yeah, so I had come in 2012 it was Wow. 2022. Yeah. And I was like, okay, yes,

Nicaila Matthews Okome 41:09

yes, it's shout out to you for being at a company that long, you know, they say we can't do it. They say people our age don't. Some of us who and still side hustles. So Snap, snap to you. I love it. And now, all of this, I have to admit, sounds really expensive to me and money. So funny, we talked about this last time, too. I just dipped, like one pinky toe, one pinky toe nail in the event space business. And I'm like, Man, this is really hard. Because you truly have to manage what you're spending and what the profit will be. Right? You really have to see, you really have to make sure in your excitement that you don't start, you know, oh, well, we could do this. And we could do that. And then at the end of the day, like, you know, you end up breaking even. So for you, how do you go about managing that, like, I know, you have amazing sponsors and brand partners. But of course, you still have to balance like all that you're doing. And making sure you're paying yourself and your team.

Imani Ellis 42:08

You know, coming from a PR background. Our goal is to really tell stories, and we don't get budgets for those stories. So when you're pitching something, it's really coming from this imagination, this place of like, I can see this as a headline. Can you see it too? So I think I brought that mindset with me, as I look at the budgets, I look at what's possible, because you're right, you don't want to have this caviar dream. You got a shoestring budget, and now trying to like keep up with the Joneses. You have completely blown through it. And so for for culture con, it really is okay, this is the budget. This is what's going to be covered. And then everything else. It's really getting scrappy. And so our first year culture con, there were no sponsors at all. But I knew that if I could just write enough, like, Please saw our email. At least for free, right? Yeah, that was the beginning of culture. Cod was really not even understanding what a sponsorship was. But knowing that I didn't want to come out of pocket for things. So for people who are starting in the events business, I always recommend having a goal of breaking even because you can use that proof of that concept. And that proof of case study for momentum, but the first year, it was just like, Okay, let's just not lose money. Yep. And then you gain that you gain that momentum. But yeah, it's definitely a juggling game. Because you know, as you start thinking about employees, I mean, they're just all the fine lines and the workers comp. And yeah, it's been really, it's almost like an MBA. I'm learning something new every day, but

Nicaila Matthews Okome 43:54

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Oh, yeah. This is the true MBA, like I always say, you know, when people reach out to me, and they already have like, a thriving business going, I'm like, girl, you know, if you don't just stay What's your business? Like, you are profitable, you're making money, an MBA, there's nothing like actually doing so for all education all of us gets, it's wonderful. It's very important. But then don't think that you can skip the learning curves when you actually start doing because you can't, and just don't know what your business will what will happen that a pandemic will come up, you know, yeah, you

Imani Ellis 44:27

just don't know. And you should assume that everything is going to take longer and be more expensive than you've imagined. If you just keep that in mind. There's not too many surprises, right.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 44:44

So how do you now as you I know, you do a lot of do you call them coffee chats or office hours? Office hours? Yeah, so you do a lot of office hours now with and these are? These are events, you guys these are not like pinging her on the side of your brain. especially as I love them, how do you advise folks now who are like, Oh, she did it, she quit like I should quit, too? How do you really help them? Think through that planning aspect of it and really making sure that you do it smart?

Imani Ellis 45:17

Yeah, I think the number one thing kind of goes back to your question about, you know, did you ever think about staying another year? I think the number one rule is to not lie to yourself. What I mean by that is, you know, sometimes there were a lot of ideas I had before culture con. And before the Creative Collective, me and my sister joke about it all the time, I wanted to open, I wanted to have a crown business, we were going to make crowns for people. We wanted to open up a children's museum. I say that because every idea is not a business. And so I think before you're thinking about quitting your job, sometimes you just have to objectively look at the data points. Meaning, is there any industry need for what I'm trying to sell? Has there been any indication that people want to purchase or pay for what I'm trying to sell? Can I try to workshop it, you know, to see if I can get a viable product. And I think you kind of have to test all of these things. Because the truth of the matter is, you could be super passionate about something. But if you don't have a single customer, you're not a business, not yet. And sometimes I think that can be really hard, especially for creatives, and entrepreneurs who are passionate, because I think sometimes I was talking to my friend Alex Wolff about this. Sometimes we can conflate passion with like, well, if I care about it, someone has to care about it. And so nobody cares about it. Yeah, I might need to pivot a little bit. So that's my first piece of advice is, have you gotten any indication that someone will spend money for this? And if even if it's not money? Have you gotten any indication that you can build a community around this? Yes? If the answer is no to both of those things, we might need to experiment or pivot a little bit more. And then the other thing I kind of tell people is, do you really want to start a business? Or are you just frustrated at work? Because I think sometimes people are like, I can't stand my boss if I was my own boss. But again, it's like, Wait, be careful, because you're about to go from working nine to five, to working 24 hours a day. Are you sure that the trade off you want? And so sometimes the answer is Wait, you're right. I don't want to work for myself. I just don't want to work for Sallie Mae, Sallie Mae. And so that's an important distinction. And then the third piece of advice, I would say is just like the baby steps, which is, when I was building creative collective culture, Khan didn't exist yet. And I know that that's kind of hard to imagine. But it really was at first, let me build a community. And then let me ask the community what they want. And that's how culture Khan was, was born.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 48:09

Those are all such excellent points. And what I love about point number one about you know, is there any evidence that people want this or will pay for this is because I see so many people who have an expectation that someone will want to pay them and make decisions before they've gotten that payment? Because they are assuming that someone wants to pay them you cannot do that. That's where experimentation that other keywords you said that's where that comes into play. You have to prove your concept. You have to test it out first.

Imani Ellis 48:42

Absolutely. And and do it while you're doing it while you're safe? Do it Yes. To have income like yes, you know, if you want to play in dinner parties, you don't have to quit your job to plan a dinner party. You know what I mean? And I think there's something so like, refreshing about knowing that every two weeks you're getting paid while you're experimenting with you know your passion. So that's just my advice, because money stress is a different kind of stress.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 49:10

Oh yeah. Money stress stifles creativity and it stifles your opportunities to grow as a business owner so you have to take some time even after you've proven the concept you have to make sure you take some time to prove that well this will stay this way like this is viable it will continue to remain like this I can continue to expect this amount of demand and if something shifts I can pivot this way or that way. So that is the beauty of remaining safe for a while as well. Absolutely. So we're going to shift into the lightning round but before we do I'd love to know what are you working on right now for the next phase of a creative collection am culture calm?

Imani Ellis 49:54

Oh my gosh we're so excited so we're present amor future so right now we are working on cool What's your con la that's going to be Juneteenth weekend, just did a beautiful site visit gonna be in LA, it's gonna be great. And then we're gonna do culture con New York, our biggest one yet in October, we just got a third buildings with the campus is humongous. As I mentioned, I'm getting a play in 2024. So we're gonna have some really exciting announcements about what we're doing next year. But it's all good things.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 50:31

I love it. And I expect nothing less. I hope to be a culture Con this year, we'll see. And I just like I was just so impressed being there and seeing that vibrant energy, like, you know, we're just magnificent when people are just amazing, magnificent, colorful, dynamic, beautiful. And just being around that energy is wonderful. But then you also are able to really tap into getting to know someone else. And for anyone who's overwhelmed sometimes with like bigger experiences, if you're like, oh, I don't have anyone to go with, who will I talk to? Like I just always used to make it a goal of connecting with one person. You do not have to leave somewhere with who I met 20 people and I gave my business card and blah, blah, blah, like, take all that pressure off of these events. And truly go enjoy yourself and then just connect with one person. If you leave with one connection if you speak to only one person. Like that is worthwhile. Yeah,

Imani Ellis 51:25

that too. And you know, culture con is built for introverts. I'm an introverted person, I actually can't stand the idea of walking into a room and everyone just like, was like looking at me, right? We do a lot of icebreakers to circumvent that awkwardness. So yeah, culture con is for you if you're introverted or extroverted. Yes.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 51:47

And you'll probably bump into someone you know. Absolutely. Now, let's jump into the lightning round. I'm interested to see how it has evolved since we last spoke. So you know, the deal just answered the very first thing that comes to mind. Are You Ready? Ready? All right. So what is a resource that is helping you in your business right now that you can share with the side hustle pro audience?

Imani Ellis 52:11

Oh, I would say score the score website. It's for mentors. It's a free mentorship program where you can get matched with mentors and have like speed dating for different like business operation questions.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 52:23

Okay. Number two, who is a black woman entrepreneur who you would want to switch places with for a day and why

Imani Ellis 52:31

I would absolutely switch places with Aurora James for a day. She's the founder of the 15% pledge, and brother vile, her clothing company, and I just think she's an example of someone who is ever evolving and doesn't fit inside of a box. And if I could slide in a male entrepreneur, absolutely. Donald Glover, he is like my North Star for reliability. And I just think he's a genius.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 52:59

Oh, good ones. Okay. Number three, what's a non negotiable part of your day these days?

Imani Ellis 53:05

Drinking coffee. I need coffee in the morning.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 53:09

Yes, I need that caffeine. Number four, what's a personal habit about you? That has significantly helped with your success in business?

Imani Ellis 53:19

I would say okay, I I'm good at I'm very decisive. And so I don't spend a lot of time like going back and forth. Once I've made a decision. I can stand behind it. Yes. I

Nicaila Matthews Okome 53:31

love that one. That one is so important when you have that. Oh, that's, that's, that's it right there. Okay, number five. What is your parting advice for fellow Black Woman side hustlers. Now that you have made the leap from side hustle to full time? What's your advice for those who want to be their own boss truly want to be their own boss, but are worried about losing a steady paycheck?

Imani Ellis 53:53

My advice to my fellow side hustlers would absolutely be set tangible goals. And when you make those goals, celebrate yourself, when you miss those goals, take a step back and just ask yourself what's not working, become obsessed with what's not working. And as you continue to refine it, you're gonna grow your business.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 54:13

Love it. So Imani, thank you so much for coming back into the guest chair. Where can people connect with you now and also with culture, calm, and everything else?

Imani Ellis 54:24

Absolutely. So you can follow us culture calm and all the social handles. And then I'm Imani Imani on Instagram. And hey, girl. It's Imani on tick tock.

Nicaila Matthews Okome 54:36

All right. And you guys there you have it. I will talk to you next week. I hope you enjoyed this conversation. I know I did. Hey, guys, thanks for listening to side hustle Pro. If you like the show, be sure to subscribe rate and review on Apple podcasts. It helps other side hustlers just like you to find the show. And if you want to hear more from me, you can follow me on Instagram at Cy At hustle Pro, plus sign up for my six bullet Saturday newsletter at side hustle Pro, that CO slash newsletter. When you sign up, you will receive weekly nuggets from me, including what I'm up to personal lessons and my business tip of the week. Again, that side hustle pro.co/newsletter to sign up, talk to you soon

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Meet the host:

Nicaila Matthews-Okome

Hi! I’m Nicaila, the Creator and Host of the Side Hustle Pro Podcast. I started Side Hustle Pro when I was a side hustler myself. I was a digital marketer at NPR by day, side hustler by night. Through the powerful stories shared on this show and the courage to launch my own initiatives, I was able to quit my own job and go full time with Side Hustle Pro.

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