One of a Kind
Brian Rikuda is, to be perfectly literal, one of a kind.
Half-Japanese, half-black. Stanford drop-out. Hip hop entrepreneur. Winner of BET’s Ultimate Hustler competition, Wharton MBA. Even his name, fashioned by his mother to be a kind of hybrid moniker—a combination of Riley (his father’s last name) and Ikeda (his mother’s)—has become a token of his singularity, and a dual identity.
During his talk for the Wharton Diversity Week + Peer Perspectives in Leadership series, “Lessons from Hip Hop and Going Against the Grain,” Rikuda leaned on this idea of “always having one foot in this world, and one foot in another” and how being true to himself has been his guiding principle.
As if to emphasize this point, Rikuda orchestrated a wardrobe change midway through his talk. He started by wearing a blue blazer and khakis, a uniform every MBA male has in his closet, and changed into a pink and red sweatshirt with a backwards baseball cap emblazoned with the Oakland A’s A. The business student moonlighting as a hip hop mogul, or vice versa.
Long before he arrived at Wharton, Rikuda was a biracial kid living in a tiny studio with his mother in South East San Diego, a prep school kid without the silver spoon. The unifying thread through the self-discovery of his youth was hip hop. According to Rikuda, the “songs were more than entertainment, and more than youthful angst. They became a positive blueprint,” and inspiration for him to find himself, and make change in society.
But, the word “blueprint” suggests a much more structured trajectory than what Rikuda embarked on for the next several years.
The Blueprint for Success
Enrolling as a political science major at Stanford, Rikuda saw himself as a grassroots community organizer. But, Rikuda said, “Going to Stanford made my world so much bigger,” and as he learned more about the tech scene that buzzed around him in Palo Alto, Rikuda decided to drop out and pursue an opportunity at LoudCloud, a software venture founded by Marc Andreesen of Andreesen Horowitz.
After he was laid off from LoudCloud, Rikuda returned to hip hop, joining up with a friend to start a record label called Conduit Entertainment. With passion for the music but no relevant experience, Rikuda learned by doing, believing fervently in the power of music to inspire young people to make a difference in the world.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I mean, forget branding or whatever. You know, you have Nike… What I thought of when I designed the Conduit logo was mostly, ‘what would look good hanging off a gold chain?’” he told the crowd.
Selling CDs in parking lots while his classmates were taking jobs at Google and Amazon, Rikuda became an expert in a brute force form of business—hustling.
In fact, the Black Entertainment Channel (BET) had a competition for just that, the Ultimate Hustler, described as a “hip hop version of The Apprentice.” Stumbling upon an open-audition, Rikuda competed and won against others hoping to make money and make it big. He was the Ultimate Hustler.
Brave New World
When I asked him about whether or not he ever had any plan for how he saw his life and career unfolding he said no. There wasn’t ever a plan, and there really isn’t one now. “I think more about what do I want to learn right now? It’s less about what success should look like, and more about what drives me,” said Rikuda.
If you survey most Wharton students, the decision to go to business school was a foregone conclusion. Many of us knew we would return to school because it was “the natural next step” after a few years of finance or consulting. But for Rikuda this decision had nothing to do with what he was supposed to do. It felt right and it made sense. Business education was an active decision he made in order to further his goal of affecting change through music. To learn more. To be a better leader.
Imagine making decisions with such clarity of purpose. “If there’s anything I’d want people to remember from this [talk], it’s that I hope people think about their passion and their principles. Why are you here at Wharton? What is it you actually want to do? What will be your legacy?” asked Rikuda.
Rikuda wants to challenge us to be bold, brave, and to live without fear of judgment of fear or expectation. For most of us, that’s a tall order.
At the very least, no one can say he doesn’t take his own advice.
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