The Leap: Talking growth and leadership with CCNYC founder Imani Ellis

Every other Wednesday, Wethos CEO Rachel Renock hosts The Leap, an IG Live series highlighting the stories of creative entrepreneurs who took the leap to work independently or start an exciting project.

For the inaugural episode of The Leap, Rachel sat down with Imani Ellis, founder of the Creative Collective NYC (CCNYC) and Culture Con. Part creative community, part creative agency, the CCNYC provides resources for emerging talent. They discussed Imani’s leap toward building an online community for creatives of color and kickstarting a conference curated for up and coming talent in the music, film, art, marketing, and tech industries. The CCNYC’s 2021 Culture Con is happening June 7–13. Redeem your free ticket to join in on this virtual playground for creatives.

Note: The following interview has been edited for clarity.

RR: Welcome, Imani! I’d love to kick things off by hearing a bit more from you about your background and your business.

IE: I feel like it’s so ironic because I never thought I was starting a business. I really just thought, “Why don’t I see this in the world and how does this not exist already?” So I got a bunch of my friends together and it really was to pool resources. I really just couldn’t believe that there wasn’t this kind of ecosystem where we could pull things together and learn from each other. So I invited some friends over for tacos. We saw a lot of the things and my friend asked me, what are we going to call this? And I was like, well, we’re a collective of creatives. And that was how it was born. And I feel like once you say something out loud, it becomes true.

We’ve since grown into this community of over one hundred thousand in a creative agency. And it’s been so fun because it’s been authentic. And I think the reason it feels that way is because it was born out of community. I think a lot of great things are born that way. 

RR: Tell us a little bit about the evolution of the CCNYC community. How long have you been running the business? How has your team evolved over time? 

IE: We’re four years old and it’s an incredible team. I mean, we’re friends first, which makes it super special. In the beginning, it was just kind of like a group chat. I remember when we did our first Culture Con and Spike Lee got there and we were all texting each other. You look back and laugh at like, wow, we have come a long way. But I think as you start to formalize anything, you need structure and process and all of those less sexy things. But it’s the engine inside of a very nice Maserati — you need the engine. The fine-tuning is bringing in talent and putting them in the right seats. 

RR: How did you handle that in regards to thinking about formalizing things and setting those processes up? Like did you look for a partner counterpart there or did you just tackle it yourself?

IE: I’m an efficient person. I’ve always been the kind of person who’s frustrated if I leave a meeting and there’s no next step. So I think that’s kind of inside me. But again, I’m surrounded by really brilliant people who are problem solvers. So we’ve really been able to move through things together. And I love not being the smartest person in every arena. So if I need advice, I’m able to look to my right, to my left, and I’m really surrounded by some game-changing folks. 

In the beginning, there’s sometimes this pressure that you’ll fix the problem and bring it to the team. And I’ve just realized that I would prefer to just drop the problem in our group circle and then we can kind of digest it together. That’s what we’ve done: We try something, but we’re not married to it, so if it doesn’t work, we’ll pivot super quickly. 

RR: Delegating is such a harder skill to master than just being the one who constantly comes up with the solutions. As a CEO, I definitely resonate with that. What do you think people get wrong about starting a business today and some of the language that we use around “keeping your full time job?”

IE: I think we’re living in this time where people are getting more comfortable with redefining what things look like because I had heard for so long, “Oh, until you quit your 9-to-5, you’re not an entrepreneur.” I’ve always been someone who says, “Why not?” If anything, my role in corporate has made me a stronger founder. Coming from a really big and successful company, I knew that process and communication is how you can grow and scale. And if all of the ideas are inside your head and you can’t communicate that, it’s super frustrating for people who work with you. They don’t want to be chasing you all around. Looking in from the outside, a lot of folks might think, “It’s just a bunch of friends who create these big things.” But Culture Con doesn’t happen just because we like it. It happens because there’s really smart people who have a lot of processes set up together.

For me, or for anyone who’s doubting themselves because they don’t feel like they’re ready, it’s a little ironic because until you put something out into the world, you can’t critique it until it gets critiqued. It can’t be better. So you’ve just got to start.

RR: I feel like this whole idea of a side hustle kind of diminishes what a lot of people are doing, which is running full-fledged businesses, regardless of whether or not you’re full-time somewhere else. So in thinking about labels, you call yourself the founder of CCNYC. Is that something that you thought about or decided on? Did you ever consider saying “CEO” or a different title?

IE: It’s funny that you say that, because I just graduated to founder and CEO and I realized that it was all about my mentality. I had imposter syndrome, questioning myself: Am I a CEO? Did I earn that right? I don’t want to be a “girlboss.” When you walk into a room, do you believe you are who you say you are? And if you don’t believe you are that person, that’s how you show up in the world. So a lot of people saw things in me before I saw things in me. My dad was like, “You have a business.” I was like, “No, Dad, it’s not.” He was like, “Please get an LLC.” I’m glad I listened to him because I didn’t see what he saw. So sometimes you have to borrow other people’s power until you start believing you’re what other people say you are. 

RR: That’s such a gold nugget right there. I totally agree. No one’s going to take you seriously until you take yourself seriously. Throughout all my years, I’ve gotten a lot of advice whiplash — one person says this, another person says that, and then suddenly you’re like, “what the f*ck am I going to do?” So, what’s the worst advice anybody’s ever given you? 

IE: Oh, man. I’ve gotten some bad advice. Some really great advice, too. But I think one piece of bad advice I got was that we should be growing a lot quicker, or we should do Culture Con in South Africa. But sometimes people are vicariously living through your vision or your dream. You just have to discern in terms of where the advice is coming from and has this person gone where I’m going? Sometimes people are scared because I’ve gotten advice that the venue was too big for Culture Con last year and there’s no way we were going to fill it. And this person was more senior than me. So I was terrified that we couldn’t do it.I remember almost having an anxiety attack because we had signed the line at this huge venue. But we did it. So, no matter who’s giving you advice, you just kind of have to ask yourself: Have they done this before? If not, maybe just take it with a grain of salt. 

RR: Yeah, it’s all about considering the source. Before our time is up, I do want to touch quickly on what the next year is looking like for y’all? What’s on the docket for CCNYC?

IE: Creative curriculum is going to come back. We’re excited to reimagine a Culture Con. She took a little hiatus in 2020, but we’re excited to figure out what it looks like in this new world. Also, just continuing to be a resource for the community. So I think one of the things for us is just asking the community what they want more of and then building it.

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