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The Self-Made Man: Jay-Z

Well, now that we’re all rested from our food comas and rid of our families (at least until Christmas rolls around in a few weeks), let’s return to the business of profiling self-made men and their successes. This week’s subject is quite a turnaround from the born-rich workaholics we’ve been profiling lately, but he’s accomplished just as much as they have, and has done so largely through his own initiative. I’m talking, of course, about Shawn ?Jay-Z? Carter.


Jay-Z grew up in pre-Starbucks Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York City, and probably the whole country, during his childhood. Jay-Z would have easily qualified as an ?at-risk youth,? a term you heard a lot in panicked news articles about what crime had done to New York, for things like shooting his brother in the shoulder for stealing jewelry and dealing crack (but only briefly).

Luckily, he developed an interest in music after being given a boom box, and started freestyling and writing lyrics, which blossomed into cameo appearances on several recordings by mentor Jaz-O, and then a stint as the hype man for rap legend Big Daddy Kane. He cut his first solo single, ?In My Lifetime,? in 1995.

So far, all this just sounds like the start of a promising rap career, but it was the seed from which Jay-Z’s myriad business accomplishments sprouted. His charisma and willingness to hustle led him to start his own record label, Roc-A-Fella Records, when no major labels would give him an opportunity. Alongside partners Damon Dash and Kareem Biggs, Jay-Z built his label up into a profitable subsidiary of Universal Music Group, and would use it as a springboard for a profitable relationship with Def Jam Records, a company he would later helm as CEO.

Jay-Z is also the founder of the urban clothing brand Rocawear, which he sold to Iconix Brand Group for $204 million while retaining his stake in the company and his role overseeing marketing, licensing, and product development, and he is the minority owner of the Brooklyn (formerly New Jersey) Nets. I don’t know if he still owns the 40/40 Club, but I attended a party there after the second season premiere of Rescue Me, and left after I got my belt buckle caught in someone’s purse and suffered a mild panic attack. That isn’t meant to reflect upon Jay-Z’s ownership of the club, or the impressive catering spread therein, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

In any case, Jay-Z’s remarkable business success?which parallels his success as a rapper, producer, and songwriter?comes down to a few key things. He’s a natural hustler, which is to say that he’s an energetic go-getter type with a lot of ambition, he learns quickly from mistakes, he knows what it is to work hard and sacrifice in the name of future success, and he didn’t come up in an insulated, gladhandling MBA culture where failure is, to some extent, rewarded.

I mean, if anyone is an example of the benefits of transferable skills, it’s Jay-Z. Having to make money on the streets gave him an education in sales, management, and promotion, and it supplied him with a killer work ethic and endless reminders of what could happen to him if he strayed from his goals. He doesn’t have the background that’s typical of a TSB-approved entrepreneur, but he’s definitely one we admire.

Here’s an interview he did with CNN Money after the release of his book, Decoded, in which he talks about working hard and smart.


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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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