Will.i.am, Jimmy Iovine Speak on Entrepreneurial Spirit At USC's Iovine & Andre Young Academy Commencement

DO NOT REISE
Ziva Santop
Jimmy Iovine, Dr Dre and USC graduate Caitlin Tran.

“We all know that if the reality of this new style of education is even close to the vision, it can change the world."

As the first graduating class of the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy at the University of Southern California filed in for their commencement Friday afternoon (May 11), it was quickly clear this celebration would be as unique as the academy’s education when the familiar march of Edwin Elgar’s "Pomp and Circumstance" segued into Tupac Shakur’s "California Love."

“It’s good to have new traditions,” quipped Erica Muhl, the academy’s founding executive director, as she welcomed the students and their families.

Iovine and Young (Dr. Dre), with their history of success as record producers, entrepreneurs (with Beats By Dre) and digital music pioneers (with Apple), endowed the academy in 2013 with a $70 million gift to USC in Los Angeles. The program has since gained attention for its groundbreaking curriculum and collaborative educational model.

On Friday, the first 30 students graduated from the academy with its one-of-a-kind bachelor of science of arts, technology and the business of innovation -- a mix of disciplines that Iovine has called essential to industries of the future.

“We all know that if the reality of this new style of education is even close to the vision, it can change the world,” said Muhl.  “In my 30 years as a educator, I have stood at many graduations and I have never before felt so assured, so at peace, with passing the torch,” she told the students. “We are all so proud of you.”

Iovine and Dr. Dre attended Friday’s graduation ceremony, seated on the stage of USC’s Bovard Auditorium alongside the day’s commencement speaker, will.i.am. The co-founder of the Black Eyed Peas reflected on Iovine and Dr. Dre’s long record of creative achievements, his own experience as an entrepreneur and his belief in the academy’s educational style.

“Before this class there [already] was an Iovine Young class -- people like Eminem, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Trent Reznor, Gwen Stefani, they all graduated from the Iovine Young academy,” said will.i.am to appreciative laughter from the audience. 

He went on to explain that artists like these, who had collaborated with Iovine or Dr. Dre, also had transitioned from being performers to entrepreneurs, combining the skills of art, tech and business at the heart of the academy’s educational model.

“Right when you get some success, don’t bathe in it,”  will.i.am told the graduates. “You have to have that desire, that fire in your belly to continue to burn -- to find new areas to set your flame upon.”

For academy students, will.i.am’s presence brought a reminder of their arrival at college four years ago. The artist, entrepreneur and philanthropist met with them the day before their first freshman class at a barbecue at Iovine’s home.

The Iovine Young Academy opened its doors in 2014 as a program within USC’s Roski School of Art and Design. In August 2017, it announced the launch of an online masters program, and last October the academy broke ground on Iovine Young Hall, a permanent home on the USC campus. In recognition of that expansion and growth, the program will become the 20th stand-alone school within USC on July 1 while retaining the "academy" name that sets it apart. Muhl has been named the dean of the new school.

In the days leading up to the graduation ceremony, Iovine agreed to an interview with Billboard about the importance of the academy’s work -- but insisted students share their stories first. 

In conversations before their commencement, when asked to describe the academy, the students used words like “freedom,” “community,” “limitless" and “bombastic.”

“There’s nothing else like it,” said Macki Alvarez-Mena, 22, of Miami. After graduation, she plans to work in consumer products for children, perhaps for a company like Disney -- or maybe through her own business, Macki and Company, that she launched in the sixth grade and developed further at the academy.

The varied fields of pursuit of the graduates are testimony to the academy’s multi-disciplinary approach. Nathanael Wallace, 21, of Honolulu will do software design while Serene Boachie, 22, of Frisco, Texas, will do instructional design. “I want to help train people and to teach people in any way that I possibly can,” she said. 

Kimari Jones, 22, of Durham, N.C., said: “I’d like to redefine the gaming industry industry, instead of it being mostly shooters. I’m inspired by video games that are very story-driven [that] can educate as well as be fun.”

Sara Ma, 21, of Palo Alto, Calif., and classmate Parker Malachowsky, 22, of Los Altos Hills, Calif., are both exploring different tech solutions in medicine, even new paths in the fight against cancer. 

Caitlin Tran, 21, from Chino Hills, Calif., spent her final semester working in Washington, D.C. and plans to pursue “tech policy. "Equitable access to technology is really important to me,”  she said.

Tran later addressed her classmates. She noted that she is the granddaughter of Vietnamese immigrants, who left their homeland and successful engineering careers behind some-40 years ago. They arrived in America with six children and worked “cleaning houses and delivering mail,” said Tran. “I am here today because of the bravery of my family.”

One by one, the names of the academy graduates were called and each walked across the stage of the Bovard Auditorium to receive their diplomas from Iovine and Dr. Dre, whose ideas sparked the creation of their school and whose philanthropy made it possible.

Less than an hour later, Iovine and his wife, Liberty, were in the fourth-floor conference room of the Garage, the current home of the academy on the top floor of a building at the center of the USC campus. From this perch, a student can look out and see the skyline of Los Angeles, the San Gabriel mountains on the horizon -- and the future.

Long before he entered a recording studio with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Tom Petty or Stevie Nicks, Iovine was a Brooklyn school kid. In the neighborhood known then as Red Hook and now as gentrified Carroll Gardens, Iovine attended a Catholic elementary school, Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and then Bishop Ford Central Catholic High School in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Windsor Terrace. Inspired, he says, by the character of Batman’s butler, Alfred, he enrolled in John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan “for a minute.”

But for most of his career, Iovine had never expected to be at the forefront of a bold experiment in higher education, nor to present college diplomas alongside Dr. Dre.

With all the things you’ve done, you’ve never done this. How did it feel to hand out those diplomas?

I was just telling LIberty, I went up there, very casually. Then halfway through, I started getting nervous. I’m not sure why. Whenever something [that begins with an idea] actually happens, it’s kind of overwhelming, because it’s so hard to get an idea done. This was different because it was these kids. They believed in us. I still didn’t get a chance to thank all their parents, which I wanted to do. It’s the biggest moment of their parents’ lives, sending their kids off to college... But they took a shot on us, you know?

How did Dre react?

As Dre and I are standing up there… I can feel Dre, you know what I mean? I feel him. And that was a different Dre.  Because he's very guarded and he just opened up. And he said, “You know what? This is cool.” And that he doesn’t say every day.

You’ve said you had a very specific idea of what you wanted the academy to be. How did that idea begin?

It started with the record business getting in trouble through technology for the first time [with the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing]. Usually technology helps the record industry. This time it was biting it back, so I went on a journey [in 2002] to meet these tech guys. I was a little naive. I got to meet Steve Jobs and I noticed the difference between him and everybody else. I never met someone where it was so [clear] that he spoke both languages, liberal arts and technology. I was shocked by that. I went home and I remember calling my friend Doug [Morris] and saying, “This is a different kind of cat, man.”

Then in 2008 we started Beats. We were interviewing people to work there and we were getting [applicants] with tech or arts [skills], either one or the other. And Dre kept saying to me, “You know, a lot of these engineers don’t understand me.” Dre and I are like a band. We talk like... you get half an idea and I get the other half. And I just said, “Why don’t we start a school and we’ll blend these disciplines?” And he said, “Man, I don’t know about starting a school but it sounds good.”

So what was your next step?

I came up to USC, probably hoping they were going to say no. And I pitched it to [university president] Dr. C.L. Max Nikias with Paul Wachter, who does a lot of our business stuff for me and Dre on Beats.

Erica [Muhl] was in the room, and Dr. Nikias got it -- but Erica really got it. And she just started [saying] what it would be, what it could be. The miracle of what Erica did, really, was getting [everyone at USC] to work together, to actually understand this idea. We made a big personal commitment. We made a big financial commitment.

Of course, Dre and I are humbled by it because we just said something and all of a sudden it happened.

Other prominent executives have endowed schools focused on the music business.

That’s not me. That’s the last thing I wanted to do. Everything that we do is driven by an idea. If there’s a group, or musicians, or something else that is just exists without a real idea [behind it], I try to stay away from it.

I didn’t want to start a music school. I didn’t see what the point of that was for us. I’m happy that everybody [else] did it, and it’s great that they did. But that’s not what we wanted to do because that’s not an idea. This is something that [had] never existed.

The academy is teaching a new approach to problem solving. What’s the core problem to solve, as you see it?

Media is inept at tech. And tech is inept at popular culture. Period. End of story. They are completely inept in the other disciplines. I see AT&T trying to buy Time Warner. These companies have to get together in language and philosophy. They have to understand each other.  A lot of these kids are brought up with both disciplines and both languages, but nobody was teaching it. Nobody was having them work together in an undergraduate school. So I said, that’s got to happen.

I guess it’s a success because I’ve seen the kids that lean toward [tech] and the kids who lean toward the arts understand what the other person is doing and really get the why of it.

Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Records and all the Virgin companies, recently wrote a blog about HBO’s documentary The Defiant Ones, about you and Dre. He quotes your advice: "Make fear a tailwind instead of a headwind." How do you want the academy graduates to react to setbacks?

That’s a whole other idea that I think about, which is that lesson. You get to go to USC and all this stuff -- I’m not sure how many setbacks they’ve had [yet], but I hope this gives them the confidence to walk in a room and not be intimidated because an engineer is talking to them about something they don’t understand. Or the engineer feels I don’t understand what these [creative] guys are talking about.

Beats By Dre and Apple Music now have people who understand the arts and tech, right?

Luke Wood [president of Beats By Dre]  is a good example: he’s a guitar player, was in a band, made a record, and ran a record company for 10 years. One day, I just looked at him and said, “You know what? You should run Beats. You have it.  You live with both languages.” Larry Jackson is another one, who works with me at Apple [as the head of content for iTunes/Apple Music].

The formal name of your school is the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. Can this mix of disciplines and collaborative educational style spread widely?

I remember Steve Jobs telling me he was really angry when people would copy him. I’m the same way and Dre’s the same way. You don’t want people to copy something you came up with.

I hope they copy this one.  I hope other schools just say, we’re copying this. And I would be proud of that.

When I was speaking to the academy graduates earlier, it was astonishing the range of fields they plan to pursue.

That’s astonishing to me too.  When I met the student working on cancer and she was telling me about the data and what she was doing. If that can come out of this….

A lot of times, when you do something, you think it’s going to be good, or successful or big or whatever. And then it goes beyond your expectations, to see this type of thinking going into other areas... I only know the ones that I know, tech and media.

You’ve said that you always wanted to move the needle on popular culture.  Do you now want to move the needle beyond popular culture?

Only if somebody comes to me with an idea, or I get an idea, or something else that I respect gets an idea, and I’ll go after it. But right now, education is something I never thought I’d be interested in. And if we can be moving the needle in education, that would be big for me. That would be amazing.