Follow the Leader: A Conversation With CultureCon's Founder Imani Ellis
The Creative Collective NYC has celebrated Black culture-shifters in entertainment, tech, beauty, and more. Under the Creative Collective umbrella, CultureCon was birthed in a one-bedroom apartment and has evolved into a must-attend event for creatives of color presented by HBOMax. With guest speakers such as Will Smith, Tracee Ellis Ross, Billy Porter, Quinta Brunson, and other A-listers, CultureCon aims to empower multicultural creatives across the country. EDITION spoke with the founder Imani Ellis about leading a cultural phenomenon with empathy, her competitive nature, and everything in-between.
You're a very purpose-driven woman. What was your motivation in starting CultureCon?
I didn't see a representation of the brilliance I see daily on larger platforms like conferences and educational spaces. I noticed there were a lot of segmented opportunities, so there were places we could go to network and spaces for us to find a new love interest, but I didn't see one place where we could go and be our full selves; somewhere we could go and talk about an episode of Insecure but also talk about how to get a promotion.
Essentially, a diverse place for diverse people.
Exactly! I've always hated being confined by a box that I never asked to be in. I feel like we're such multifaceted people, and I wanted to create a space where we can take off our cool and just show up in the totality of what makes us who we are.
As a Black woman navigating this space, have you run into any obstacles?
I guess I never thought about obstacles that way because I've always been an athlete at heart and a solution-oriented person. People will tell you that even from a young age, when I set my mind to something, I'm a dreamer and an executor.
So, not only are you a solution-oriented person, you're a goal-oriented one as well.
I never focus on failures. I view everything as challenges because I think that anyone who has a concept in mind has to overcome transfer and trust. Everyone has great ideas, and in the beginning, it's really hard to get that momentum and get people to believe, but I believed and saw it before it was real.
That's manifestation at its finest.
Yes! Some may call it naivety, but I thought, ‘Why can't we have our own conference with thousands of people?’ However, in the interest of honesty, had I known what I know now about all of the moving pieces, I probably would have been more horrified, but I went to it with the mindset of multiplying what we do for 20 people for 3,000 people.
Where does that mindset stem from?
From a young age, my parents gave me this mentality of being limitless, and I'm extremely grateful for that and them. I didn't realize it was such a blessing until adulthood because I better understand the values they instilled in me: if you work hard consistently, are kind to people, and keep God first, good things will happen! And I truly believe that.
Earlier, you mentioned being an athlete at heart. Is that where you get your competitive spirit?
Absolutely! I did ballet for 14 years, which gave me incredible self-discipline, and I also ran track, which taught me to not stop when the job gets hard but stop when the job gets done. I am relentless when it comes to seeing things through, and to make it even better, I'm surrounded by my friends, who are also gladiators. When you put a team like that together, it's a well-oiled machine and fun!
Working with your friends sounds like a dream scenario. Was that something you planned or fate?
It was on purpose, with a purpose because our iron sharpens iron. As I said, my friends are all champions in their own right, so it made the most sense.
How does having a handpicked team keep you from burning out?
I'm nothing without my team. I'm nothing without the people who stand beside me. They are the battery in my back that keeps me going. And even though I'm super competitive, I'm competing with myself because, at the end of the day, I ask myself, ‘Imani, did you give today all you could give it?’
They make you your best self.
For sure! If you don't give it your best, what's the point? If I don't leave this life doing the best that I can, then I might as well be on an island giving it the least that I can.
Do you ever find it hard to pivot from friend to leader?
I think in the beginning, it was because I was trying to navigate a new space without ruffling feathers, but my friend Jonathan Jackson said something that I always keep with me: "Leaders are actually in the business of service." I'm in service to my team, and when you think about it that way, you're leading with empathy and humanity.
Empathy over ego is important.
I'm never going to be the loudest in the room or beating my chest, calling myself the boss. I don't ever call myself the boss and can't think of anyone who does because I respect everyone's perspective and lean on them for such. Our team doesn't have an ego, and we don't tally who did or does what – it's a collaborative effort.
The energy you're speaking of is we before me.
A lot of times, when people are leaning heavily into their titles, they're overcompensating for something else. People should be able to tell that you're a leader because you're leading.
Going back to how competitive you are, do you feel any pressure leading CultureCon into a three-city tour?
When it comes to pressure and performance, everyone has a choice: would you rather feel a little pressure and discomfort now, but it's more beautiful than you could ever imagine, or are you going to be comfortable and small then regret it for the rest of your life? And I don't want to live with regrets. I don't want to look back and know I could've been better and stronger, so I just decided the cost for greatness is temporary discomfort. Eric Jones Jr. (CultureCon's talent booker) says, "The pressure is a privilege." So, don't run from the situations you used to pray for.
Wow! The pressure is a privilege is a mantra we should all use moving forward. How does your work at NBC translate to your work with CultureCon?
It goes back to being a whole person. People are shocked when they realize I do more than one thing, and it confuses me because we all should have more than one interest. Also, for me, community has always been a priority because both my parents are pastors, and I grew up around a lot of people feeling loved. Being tapped into my community makes me a better leader and makes me better in my role at NBC (Vice President of Communications).
What would you say is your dream CultureCon panel?
Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Beyoncé talking about their peaks and valleys. Talking about the nights they cried themselves to sleep, talking about the days they put something into the world, and they weren't sure how the world would react because people would be really inspired by the in-between moments of how they became the icons that they are.
Are these people your idols? You've spoken highly about your parents' influence on you, but who are some others?
Oprah because of the way she decides what she's interested in, and that's what she follows. She wanted to have her own channel and got it. She wanted her own podcast and has it. Oprah never limits herself. I also think Maverick Carter is a genius because of how he's taken the storytelling of sports and breakthrough that proverbial glass ceiling. Barack Obama, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Elaine Welteroth, and honestly, I just love people who refuse to be put into a box.
Your influence, through CultureCon, can't be understated. Have you gotten a moment to bask in it?
It's a feeling of gratitude. I'm so thankful to have the opportunity to orchestrate something with my friends that's in the service of our community. When I feel the energy at CultureCon, I can feel that we really needed this space to love on each other. I wouldn't say pride, but I feel joy gratitude, and I'm so excited to see everybody in the three cities we have lined up this year!