I met JJ at dinner and loved her immediately. She’s just cool. A few days later we were having drink in a bar in Tribeca, where she lives and where the Studio is – and she told me about her career.
JJ is the EVP of Strategic Marketing & Business Development of Roc Nation. Roc Nation is Jay Z’s entertainment and sports company which he founded in 2008. They represent musicians, producers and songwriters such as Rihanna, Shakira, Rita Ora, Calvin Harris and Timbaland. The sports division represents athletes like Kevin Durant, Victor Cruz, Dez Bryant and Wilson Chandler. In both cases Roc Nation works on everything from talent management to touring to doing endorsement deals. They also just launched a new music service you’ve probably heard about, called Tidal.
She’s been working with him for years, and she started as a lawyer. Her path really resonates for me. First, because she is a self-made woman, then because I’m a big admirer of Jay Z’s constant innovations and new ways to make business – but also because I’ve always loved stories of teams growing together. In a country where people do a lot of job hopping, I find fidelity very inspiring – it makes the quality of work so much better and deeper… Remember? We talked about it here with Jenna Lyons.
I wanted to introduce her to Emily right away. Emily and I have been working together for a while and I knew she would be very inspired by JJ. They had a fascinating conversation, and here it is today.
So how did all of this start for you?
Well I got my start mainly out of complete ignorance because my mom didn’t graduate from high school and no one in my family went to college. So, I literally looked on TV and thought, “Ooh, a doctor or a lawyer.” I knew that I needed to get out and I needed to go to college and I needed to do something. And, thank god I was smart enough and I could do that. I went to the University of Washington on a scholarship, then I decided I was going to go to law school.
So, I literally looked on TV and thought, “Ooh, a doctor or a lawyer.” I knew that I needed to get out and I needed to go to college and I needed to do something.
You grew up in Washington State, right?
Yeah, I’m from Washington State. I started looking around for law schools and didn’t really think that I could get into some of the bigger schools. But you take this test called the LSAT and they get all your test scores, and then Cornell ended up soliciting me to go there and gave me a scholarship; and so did Columbia and Michigan, but Cornell was the only one that gave me a scholarship so I ended up going to Cornell.
But, right before I left, I was in Seattle during the grunge years, and all those bands were like “Oh, you’re going to be a lawyer. We have a lawyer.” And I thought, “Oh, my God, that’s what I’ll do! I’ll be an entertainment lawyer.” When ignorance is bliss, you know. I didn’t know how hard it would be to get in because it’s such a small industry.
So how did you break into the legal side of the business?
So, I went to law school knowing that entertainment law was what I was going to do. Between your first and second year of law school, they do these job fairs for you in big hotels and you literally have three days, back to back, with 20 minute interviews with big Wall Street firms. Super intimidating and very exhausting. And I met with this one firm, it was Hubbard and Reed, and the guy who interviewed me had long hair and a ponytail and he was like “Oh, you want to be a music attorney.” And I was like, “No I don’t! I want to do this!”[trying to impress him]. And he said, “Don’t worry about it. Why don’t you come here, learn how to be a lawyer, and then, when you’re ready, I’ll introduce you to some people because I know them.”
So I got the job to work there between my second and third year of law school, and then they hired me full-time. And, at that point, he had already gotten this job working at Polygram Records. So, then he introduced me to some other people, I got some interviews. For maybe the third interview it was with a firm called Carroll, Guido & Groffman, and they were going through their whole list of artists that were big at the time, and it was Sugar Ray, Marilyn Manson, and Sinead O’Connor, Dave Matthews Band, and then they were like, “We have this young artist named Jay-Z.” And I told them I loved his first album, Reasonable Doubt. So they hired me to be an in-house attorney there.
…and then they were like, “We have this young artist named Jay-Z.” And I told them I loved his first album, Reasonable Doubt. So they hired me to be an in-house attorney there.
So what does that entail?
It was just an entertainment boutique firm, and literally all you do is represent artists. For them in entertainment; the recording agreements, the management agreements — all aspects of their entertainment career. And that’s how I got my start sixteen years ago.
So how did you transition from working there to working with Jay-Z and Roc Nation?
Well, I was working always with Jay-Z’s outside attorney. And, look, he had retired at one point, and then became president of Def Jams at one point, and then he decided that what he wanted to do was start a real multi-media entertainment company. And Live Nation was courting him at the time to do a deal with him and he decided that he wanted to start this entertainment company in conjunction with that. So, we negotiated the deal for Roc Nation, and then, about a year into it, he asked me to come work for him in-house as a general counsel.
So then I came in as general counselor, there were five of us, there were like no cards, no letterhead, no anything, um, computers? [Laughs] Then we grew the company. You know, we have now a management company, a publishing company, a sports agency, and a record label.
Your title now is EVP of Strategic Marketing & Business Development. What exactly is strategic marketing?
Strategic marketing is finding branding opportunities to market artists other than traditional print and public relations. For example, a sponsorship, endorsement, collaboration, co-brand [opportunity].
So how has your role changed now that you’re in this role as opposed to working as legal counsel?
I had to get out of being an attorney because it’s the paperwork and I’ve done it for so long. But, what I really love, because as an attorney in music you kind of are more like an agent, so you help create deals and make strategy around the artist and build brands. So I took that part and when I got promoted to be the EVP, to doing strategic marketing and all business development, I got to just meet with whoever I could and figure out how we could partner with them. With Roc Nation, if it’s with one of our artists, with one of our athletes, or starting a whole new kind of brand or now with the new streaming service, Tidal. Figuring out how you meet like-minded people and what kind of business you can do with them.
Absolutely. I think we’re finding ourselves doing that now. We’re just trying to take as many meetings as we can to see what sort of catches and what doesn’t.
Yeah, because you never know. And a brand that you think might be amazing to partner with might not have the same kind of goal at that same time as you, or they might not think as openly as you, or be more protective. So, you end up meeting people that you never thought you would and doing deals with.
How big is the team that you’re working with, more specifically?
There are about thirteen of us, I think.
And are they working for different artists?
Athletes and the artists, and Roc Nation in general.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you face in your position now?
Well, juggling being a single mom is not so easy.
You know, I think a lot of times I might find a great brand and want to do something really amazing with the artist and it’s not necessarily a great time for them or vice versa. Like, you have an artist that really wants to do something but the brand isn’t really ready yet. You have access to a lot of really great technologies and things, but you can’t really figure out a way to work together that will work for both people, because you always want to do a deal that’s a win-win for both people. The good news is we have so many people coming to us with access [to brands and people], but the bad news is they only have so much bandwidth [or resources] to do everything. So you can’t do it all. Those are like “Uptown problems” but you do want to do it all.
We are very lucky in that we have a lot of access to a lot of people, and I find so many people now are so open to figuring out a different way of marketing their brand. It’s not just “Hey, let’s put that on a billboard, let’s do an ad!” Some challenges are that certain brands really operate with an old school mentality. Like, you have beauty brands… Massive, massive beauty brands, that we grew up with, that literally have no women on their board or executive staff and you’re like “You know everything is digital now and you know you need to market toward a 14 year old girl, so…” So it’s kind of like educating in that way. It’s a little tough because we’re very disruptive in everything that we do.
…we’re very disruptive in everything that we do.
How are you disruptive and what’s your part in thinking creatively?
I work creatively in thinking of ways to pair our artists with brands or other people that are not obvious. We like to take traditional business models and try to do something completely opposite. Like release albums via apps for example.
How do you feel like you learned about all of this and about marketing coming from a law background? Was it just experience?
Yeah, because when you’re an outside attorney you’re vetting a lot of opportunities because no one really knows how to get to an artist. People come to you in all different ways, so you just kind of help the process go along in any kind of business development. So it doesn’t seem like a logical step, but having done all of Jay-Z’s real branding and endorsement deals over the years, too, I also saw what really mattered.
Brands would come to him to be like, “How do you get this audience?” and sometimes they would be like “Well, that’s not how we do it.” But you just came to him to see how you get his audience, so why don’t you listen to see how you get to his audience, you know? And it’s got to be authentic and it’s got to be original. So, from a legal background, I would just see what kind of deliverables really worked, and that’s how I would do it and just kind of watch because I’ve always had a little bit more of a creative side. I’m left handed, I’ve got it both sides.
Working with creative people all the time and trying to be the business side of that, sometimes it can be challenging. You have to try to make sure everything is taken care of so the creative people can just create and not worry about the business stuff.
That’s exactly what we do. We try to get the best that we can possibly get and work around everything, and let the artist just be the artist and create. And then only when it’s absolutely necessary do we say, “Okay, these are the decisions you need to make.” We try to keep them from all the bullshit, basically.
Yeah, you’re like the gatekeepers. The bullshit gatekeepers.
Do you ever find that you have a hard time with artists trying to make these deals happen that you, maybe from a brand point of view, really want to do?
Yeah, because it’s also a little scary to put yourself out there on the line with a brand. I mean it wasn’t that long ago that it wasn’t that cool to do that [work with brands]. So if you are going to do it, you know, you have to put a little caution to the wind and take a business risk because who knows what’s the direction of the brand, or what they’re going to find out, because your name is affiliated with it. So, they think about it very hard and I’ve had artists turn down deals that were extremely lucrative because they just weren’t ready yet to be in that public eye.
Do you think it’s hard now for an artist or an athlete to have that big kind of presence and persona without having brands and these partnerships behind them? Because I think it’s changed a lot.
Yes. I think it’s very difficult. I think it’s like one plus one equals a thousand. So, when you align yourself with something, it might not be hard for a short period of time, but to keep it can be a challenge.
And also, what we’re trying to do is not just to build their brands so they can sell records. We’re trying to build equity for them as people, like Jay-Z through his hobbies and the businesses. We’re trying to do the same thing for them so they can align themselves with things they’re really passionate about. If it’s Shakira’s alignment with her Barefoot Foundation and early education for children; I mean, Rihanna’s super into fashion. All the sports guys have something to do usually with luxury brands or cars. You know, it’s just whatever they’re passionate about. Calvin Harris is a nightlife DJ but he’s super passionate about health and staying healthy. It’s just trying to find those things that speak to who they are because their fans follow them because of their lifestyles. And if they’re more authentic to their lifestyles, like, if they walk around with a Diet Coke can I’m not bringing Pepsi for them.
It’s just trying to find those things that speak to who they are because their fans follow them because of their lifestyles.
Do you ever feel like you hit critical mass and you can’t really work in a particular brand sector anymore for a little bit, like beauty or automotive? It’s a little bit like trying to reinvent the wheel sometimes.
It is because, if you do a big Cover Girl ad that’s all over the place — and they’re a great brand, they’re a great brand to align with — but with Rita Ora, she did Rimmel, so it’s going to take a long time for her to be able to do something else and necessarily so. You do kind of have to put your stake in the ground.
And I guess that’s a part of strategy; it’s knowing that these things are going to happen and being able to anticipate all of that.
So you became a mom two years ago, can you tell me a little bit about what it’s been like having your kids and working?
You immediately start editing out things in your life that just don’t matter anymore. You have to think, “How do I raise these children in a way that makes them better than me, more prepared than me, just well-rounded.” So you have to really focus on what’s important in your life, and I’m definitely more efficient as a worker. I miss my friends a lot more, unfortunately. I miss out on great things like the Met Ball party I could have gone to last night. But, you know what, it’s, “Do I go to that or do I have the morning with them?” And you weigh these opportunities and sometimes I take advantage of them, sometimes…
And I waited until later in life. I’ve done a lot in New York City. I’ve done a lot of late nights, I’ve done a lot of great parties, I have a lot of stories to tell. And this was just ready, my next chapter in life. Because after a while I started getting a little depressed going, “Okay, I’ve been to that party and this party and this party, I’ve gotten in everywhere. I’ve got this bag, I’ve got this shoe, I’ve got this dress. There’s got to be more to it.” And coming from where I came from, I was like, “I need there to be something more,” and they brought me more. So, all the things that used to be important to you, like superficial shit, just aren’t as important anymore.
Absolutely. How do you find time for yourself?
That is very difficult. I actually decided this year, I was like “This year I will take my first mom-only trip without the kids.” So two weeks ago I went to St. Barths for four days with my friends.
That’s great that you recognize that though!
Yeah. You have to. And then, for the first three months, I had a baby nurse that lived with me so I was never alone, and the next six months I had a live-in nanny, the same nanny you just met, but she went home on the weekends. And I stayed with them every day on the weekends and had them all to myself.
Then I was like, “You know what? I don’t want to resent them. I want to be able to go and get my nails done.” That’s a horrible thing to say, but a lot of people have mothers that say, “Do you know what I gave up for you?” And I don’t want to feel like that.
Just this morning, on New York One, it was talking about how so many more women are leaving the workplace now to stay home with their kids. And that’s fine, and that’s a choice, but it’s sad that the workplace doesn’t allow working moms to be working moms. If they do that, please take time for yourself because you need that too, you know. No one can be with their children 24 hours. I mean, everyone needs time for themselves. When you’re by yourself, you need time by yourself. You know what I mean? So that’s not going to change jut because you have kids. The guilt that I feel when working and stuff is way more than I anticipated, but I just have to talk to other moms and be like, “How did you do it?” You’ve got to put it into place. And you know that, at the end of the day, that’s best for them, to see you working, see you fulfilling yourself and your happiness, and only then can you fulfill their wants and needs, too.
They live in your life, you brought them into this world. Let them be part of your life, the world does not revolve around children. They do not know their best decisions. If they did, they’d be running around in the streets.
…it’s sad that the workplace doesn’t allow working moms to be working moms.
So what do you see sort of next for yourself in your career? Now that you have kids and it puts things in a new perspective, and you’ve done so much, where do you see it going?
The great news about Roc Nation is I’ve grown with it. We’ve grown exponentially, so there are no limits to being there, and there are no limits to being an executive there. I’ve known this team forever, we’re like family and we’re constantly growing. So there are always deals that we’re bringing in and buying different companies or partnering with different companies. So they bring new experience and insight and it’s literally limitless.
What do you find most rewarding about your job?
It’s very entrepreneurial. There are certain jobs you go into that are like, “This is what you do, don’t work outside of this box. And, you know we don’t really talk to these kinds of people.” But for me I can really meet with anyone. And it’s not like I’m going to go and do all the jobs… We have people who do creative and people who do marketing. But, in general, if I bring an opportunity in and I get the right team together to have the meeting, and maybe I don’t execute on the deal or whatever, but everything is possible. So that’s what I like about it. And it could be anything, it could be in film, it could be in tech, it could be in sports, it could be in fashion, and there might be a way for us to work together.
Because you have had your career trajectory go through this whole shift into digital, how do you keep up with everything that’s going on?
I don’t. There are a lot of people much smarter than me and younger than me that keep up with it. There’s no way, you can’t, you just can’t. I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses and whenever something comes in in a tech kind of way, I totally vet it through all of our digital people. I bring them in and they could be working there for six weeks, they could be brand new, they could be right out of college, but they’re definitely going to know more than I am. My kids will know more about it than me. You know, it’s not really up to me. I’m over 40, like it’s not up to me anymore. So to predict the wave of the digital future, I really rely on them. They’re a great team.
That’s good. I think that being open to that is so important.
Well you have to.
There are people who aren’t, which seems crazy today.
Yes, but that’s what got the music industry into the place that it did. It was like people who thought they could make decisions for things they knew nothing about. And I think that’s one of the biggest weaknesses an executive can have is thinking they know everything and they’re the smartest person in the room because there are definitely things I know, and I’m really good at, I can be the expert in the room, but there is a lot that I do not know. And having a great team around you is the important part.
I think that’s one of the biggest weaknesses an executive can have, is thinking they know everything and they’re the smartest person…
Do you feel you have a mentor?
Well, I kind of have a few and they’ve been different people throughout my career. When I first got in, the people that were my partners in the law firm were definitely my mentors, and they were great. I find that you then get to a certain level and you get different ones.
Then I joined the organization WIE Network (Women: Inspiration & Enterprise) where I’m the chairwoman of the advisory board, and then I started getting different kinds of mentors and I’m meeting a lot of different women and men who are helping me be a better executive and be better at the work-life balance. I have a few: Cindy Gallop, I will quote her all day long because she is the most fearless woman that’s ever existed; I just met Pauline Brown from LVMH and I was like “Oh my god, you’re so amazing and you have these kids and you live on Long Island because you want to make sure that your kids have this life”; and you know obviously Jay-Z is a mentor, the way he thinks is… He always knows in his instinct, in his gut, exactly what he wants and how it should be executed and he lets the team do what needs to be done, but he always has such a clear vision and I‘ve worked for him for so long I can pretty much tell what he wants and go and execute it for him.
There are some women in my business, Michele Anthony is the EVP of all of Universal who has always totally been there for me, and so, yeah, there are a lot.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Oh my god, there are so many. Well, I always love to quote Cindy Gallow. “If somebody gives you an opportunity and you’re not sure if you do it, all you do is think ‘what would a straight, white single man do?’”
Not single, necessarily, but “What would a straight white man do?” And whatever he would do, do that. Because all the statistics are that when a woman goes into an interview and a man goes into an interview, the man thinks he’s like way overqualified for the job and asks for way too much, and he’s only 30% prepared, and a woman is 130% prepared and thinks she’s totally underqualified for the job.
Absolutely. It’s so amazing to talk to someone who is such a strong female in an executive role because it’s a thing that’s happening right now, this shift needs to happen. I think it’s so important.
Really, it’s kind of sad because here we are, it’s like 40 years later from the 60s and the 70s, and look what’s still going on among African Americans, look what’s going on around gay people in general, and look at what’s going on with women. Like, Charlotte Beers, who is a pioneer in the advertising industry… At South by Southwest, we have this thing called the Raptor House and she was a keynote speaker. I was there with a couple of my girlfriends, we’re all talking, and Charlotte walks up to us and she says, “You girls look like you’re executives and you’re on top of your game and you’re about to conquer the world.” And she goes “Please do, because it hasn’t changed one fucking bit since I started.”
She’s in her 70s! Late 60s or early 70s. She’s like, “It has not changed one bit.” Do you know how sad that is? And all the projections are that women won’t make the same amount as men until 2080, and the United States won’t even be in the top 10 of those countries. So, it’s ridiculous and we need to start making a difference.
Do you feel a responsibility because of the role you’re in?
Absolutely. Of course. Not only the role I am in, but you just saw my two children. I have a boy and a girl. The fact that my girl, Niko, won’t have the same opportunities as Jack is mind boggling to me. And you see it all the time. I see men who are not even half as competent as me getting promoted in roles in the industry and you’re like, “You’ve got to be kidding me right now.”
Do you think the entertainment industry is ahead of other industries?
No. God, no. Not even close. It’s super antiquated. There’s never been a woman in music, actually, that’s run the entire show. There’s always been a man in charge. So, no, we have a long way to go…