In an exclusive Q&A with Renée Ward, popular celebrity event promoter and serial entrepreneur Jacob York shares how work in his youth shaped his innate drive to build businesses.
York is the founder and CEO of Jacob York Presents (JYP), a celebrity-driven events and marketing company which produces an endless array of events for Jay Z, Lil Wayne, T.I. Kim Kardashian, Diddy, Snoop Dogg , Jamie Fox, Jermaine Dupri, Ja Rule, Nelly, and LeBron James to name a few.
He’s also the founder and CEO of Electric Republic, a full service media entertainment company responsible for the production and release of the critically-acclaimed 2015 movie, Brotherly Love starring Keke Palmer, Cory Hardrict and Romeo Miller. The company also represents Model/Actress/Host Karrueche Tran, Actress/Acting Coach Lalanya Masters, Model/Social Media Influencer Chantel Jeffries and others.
This is another in a series of articles about the “first jobs” of successful people, their advice for today’s teens, and reflects the value of work early in life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ward: What was your first paying job?
York: At about the age of 10, I had the desire to work. So I told my mother about it. My mother did bookkeeping and accounting for businesses. She said I could work with her. So I worked side by side with my mom keeping track of the accounting ledgers and after I learned all of that, I found it to be boring.
Shortly thereafter, I went to work at my grandmother’s restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. I found the work to be more challenging. It was physical and mental at the same time. She paid me 50 bucks a week. My mother took most of the money I earned and gave me $11.50 that I had to learn to budget so it would last the whole week.
Ward: What work did you do?
York: She didn’t allow me to do too much because I was very young. I was 11. My grandmother was an old school woman who believed that I needed to learn responsibility and not to be spoiled. She made me do all the menial, trivial manual labor like sweeping the floors and cleaning up. In the summers I would go work at her place. I went from sweeping the floors to eventually learning how to cook. One day one of the cooks didn’t show up and there was a rush of customers. I asked my grandmother if I could fill-in, I think I was about 14, and I did. After that my grandmother allowed me to cook for the restaurant. That’s why I love to cook to this day. By 15 I was able to get on the cash register too and run the place.
Ward: Besides the fact that it was your grandmother why do you feel she gave you that opportunity?
York: Nepotism is why I got the opportunity. After that first summer, my grandmother realized I had the chops. I was the kind of kid that if I wasn’t given something to do, I would invent a religion. I was that kid.
My dad owned a local event hall with a projector and screen. At 15 I started what was like a local movie theater for the neighborhood. I used my relationships from the restaurant to get wholesale candy, a popcorn and hot dog machine. I got movies to show and went door-to-door with my brother, because I was too young to go by myself, to get people to come out and pay 5 bucks to watch the movies. Where other kids preferred to play basketball, I preferred to build businesses. That was me. Subsequently I ran the event hall for my father. He also had a recording studio and a video production shop. I got into editing videos of local events. I was creating content in my teens.
Ward: How did the fact that your grandmother, father and mother were business owners shape your entrepreneurial spirit?
York: They gave me access and knowledge but the desire I was born with. I have siblings that have not pursued entrepreneurship at all. I believe I was born with that drive. They gave me an outlet for my drive. My mother was great with numbers and understood business. My grandmother was great with numbers and understood business. My father was less great with numbers but was a hell of a sales man. That played a huge role in me being able to decipher the personalities and pick up what I needed to pick up.
My parents would always tell my siblings and me that we could do whatever we wanted to do. I promise you that I believed it. They overly encouraged us. They would give us speeches about how far we could take the world. A good friend of mine said recently that one of my greatest skills is having the ability to see what’s not there and the wherewithal to make what’s not there happen. I attribute this to my parents who taught the sky is never the limit.
Ward: What kinds of things went wrong as a working teenager and how did you handle the challenges?
York: I decided to run away when I was 17 and I never went back home. Dad’s rules and regulations didn’t agree with me. I wanted to be away from him. I went to live with a friend who was older by a year and he was staying with his girlfriend’s parents. Working for and with my family, I realize now that I got away with stuff.
Out on my own now, I got a job working for Conways, a cheap retail store back in the day. My supervisor was giving me orders and I bristled. I questioned why someone would tell me to do something that was inefficient. I wanted to do it my way. I didn’t understand to just follow orders. That didn’t make sense to me. I never understood the concept of a boss. I worked there for two weeks and they fired me. I was horrified that I was so abruptly not needed.
I called home to mom and she broke out laughing. She thought it was the funniest thing in the world. She said Jacob, you have to understand that not everyone will treat you like your grandmother did. You have to understand that you can’t just say what you want. You have to understand that not everybody is going to want you to work for them.
Getting fired woke me up. It taught me a lesson. I had to accept that my supervisor was the boss. I went on to working at the Columbia University Math Science Library, and I did a very good job there and they loved me. I feared the rejection of being fired. I learned after a while that to lead was to follow. To me, to be a good boss, you have to have been a good employee. You have to be able to relate to the people you are leading.
Ward: Was there anyone in your life as a teen that you would consider a mentor?
York: My mother was my greatest mentor. She taught me everything. She was a practical businesswoman behind the scenes. My father was the face. During the 70’s and 80’s being a man conducting business was a lot easier than for a woman. My mother was the brains whereas my father was more like the guy who knew how to sell it. My mother would be the one to negotiate the deal but my father would be the one to meet with the guy to present the deal.
She taught me how to budget. She taught me the value of money. She had this philosophy that if you had to go to use a credit card to buy something, you may not be able to afford it. My mother was like a Sam Walton. She didn’t believe in mortgages. She didn’t believe in loans. Everything was cash business. Even up into my 20’s, if she saw me mismanage my money, she would scold me by saying, you will lose everything by going beyond your means. She would always get on me. And, she was right.
Ward: That’s a great segue to my next question. What did you learn from all your youthful job experiences that has prepared you for what you are doing now?
York: Well, first you have to know that I interned with my cousin Kedar Massenburg at his new entertainment company because I wanted to see what that was all about. He paid me $600 a month. I had to run his errands and do the most menial work my ego was beat down to a bloody pulp by that. He made me clean his toilets. At one time he had become the President of Motown Records, so he obviously had something to teach. Turns out, he was a very hard person to work for. He yelled at me all the time. He was very mean spirited. I always questioned whether he meant well. Six months into working for him he told me there couldn’t be two kings in one castle. I took that as flattery. Wow, he was considering me to be a king like him! Perhaps he meant it in a more derogatory way but that’s not how I embraced it. I stayed a few more months because of the clients who didn’t want me to leave. Eventually I moved on to start my own company. I met a guy while working for my cousin that became my partner.
I would say that was the job that taught me how to be a really good follower. This job tested me. This job taught me humility. I learned how to keep my mouth shut. I learned how to think without emotions. And I left there with the belief that I could pretty much take anything.
Ward: What advice do you have for teens today seeking their first jobs?
York: There’s a sense of entitlement from some of today’s youth. I get on my younger brothers and nephews about why they expect the world to hand them something. And I say, from what, from where? No one owes them anything. You have to go out and get yours. So here’s what I say; learn to drop your ego and go out and get what you need to get. We’ve got to go back to old school nuts and bolts like when I grew up. Every kid should get a job, make $11.50 and have to have it last a week.
There are jobs out there but it’s almost like the kids just want the glorious ones. It’s good and bad. Many want to be entrepreneurs which I respect. But, there’s a disconnect. Youth today don’t want to clean the toilets to become the entrepreneur. That’s the issue. I say, don’t be afraid to clean the toilets. I did. When I first started my marketing company and until today, for example, I’m doing a big event for Diddy and I will still walk the streets to give out flyers and talk to people. Nothing is beneath me. I don’t lead from the front. I lead from the back. There’s nothing in my company that any of my employees can do that I do not know how to do or I am not willing to do. I lead by example.
I’m not saying to compromise your integrity. I believe employees will respect you better when they realize that you’ve gone through the same things they are going through. People can relate to that. So I say to these young kids today, don’t let anything be beneath you. You’ll gain more that way.
Ward: What would you say to the self-motivated ones who want to work but are finding doors closed to them simply because of their youth?
York: In my case, when I got that contract from Coca Cola back in the 90’s they thought I was a lot older. I would say, find a loop hole. Act older and your age may be overlooked.
Ward: What advice do you have for employers who may be reluctant to give a teen a chance?
York: That’s easy. Do it. It gives you an edge. If you’re in a business and you want some future to it, they have to be part of the team. The owner doesn’t get any younger. For technical purposes, you’re the past. Why not invest in tomorrow?
I remember reading the book, The Prophet when I was 12. The takeaway for me was that there will always be a future outlook that those younger than me will see that I will not. This is a power that should be harnessed and will give a company an edge.
I am always surrounded by young energy. I want to know what tomorrow is thinking. I can tap into a young audience because I embrace it. I would say that 60% of the up and coming promoters out of Atlanta, GA have come up through the schooling of Jacob. I am humbled by what they bring to the table.
What are the top 3 takeaways from this interview for today’s teens?
1. Relatives may be willing to give you some work to perform and pay you for it.
2. If they do hire you, they may treat you more leniently than other workers as you learn.
3. You have to be proactive and go out and ask for an opportunity.
Not sure what you want to do or what kind of job to pursue? Take The Career Clusters Interest Survey. This may help give you focus and direction in your job hunting today.