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Here’s the transcript:
Welcome to another episode of the Widest Net podcast. I am your host, Pamela Slim, and I am joined today by my guest, Hajj Flemings. Hajj is a Detroit based serial entrepreneur and brand technologist. He also founded Rebrand Cities and Prompt Camp. Hajj operates at the intersection of brand design, fashion, technology, and Web Three.
He has raised over $1.5 million for his startups and has worked with some of the world’s most iconic brands, including Cadillac, Nike, AT&T, Disney, JPMorgan Chase, the Detroit Pistons, and WordPress. As an international keynote speaker, he has spoken at Harvard University, Instagram, and to the US. Department of Defense. Hajj’s story was chronicled as one of the eight entrepreneurs selected for CNN’s Black in America for the New Promised Land Silicon Valley documentary with Soledad O’Brien, which was watched by over 1 million people. During the filming of that documentary, he came to understand the lack of access to technology that was creating a permanent underclass in communities of color.
This led him to launch Rebrand Cities, a global civic design initiative that has digitally transformed over a thousand small businesses in ten cities, including Mesa, Arizona, and three countries, including Haiti. As well as becoming an original investor in PlayVS, an e-sports platform founded by Delane Parnell that has raised $107,000,000. Hajj’s life has been built on disruption. He is most proud that he is the husband of Cassandra and father to Kennedy, a world changing young lady, and that the work he is doing is creating a more human world that is accessible to all people. So, Hajj, thanks for being on the podcast. Well, I’m excited to be here.
I love the work that you’re doing, and we’ve had a chance to work together for years, so it’s always good to be able to reconnect. It is always good. And when I said Mesa, Arizona, we were lucky enough to have Hajj here in person, as we did some all day live website builds as part of the Rebrand Cities initiative that we’ll get into in just a minute. But before we go there, I wanted to start just by hearing some of the mission related anchors. I call it an anchor that really makes the work that you do, day in and day out, meaningful.
Why do you do this work? Because we know that accessibility is critical. And what we found is that there are lots of times there are people, especially people of color, we believe that we’re part of the most creative community on the planet. But lots of times there is a connection that needs to be made from a technology base. And in many cases, we don’t start coding until high school, when other communities start in middle school and elementary.
And so it’s really trying to connect those dots and make sure that we either make our own tables or make sure there’s room at the table. So those are the things that are probably the most important source. Yeah and they’re so powerful I think it’s manifested so powerfully in a lot of the work that you’ve done and documented that we’ll make sure that we link to. In the show notes, I mentioned that you’ve done a lot of brand partnerships with some really iconic brands like Cadillac, Nike and WordPress. What are the different kinds of brand partnerships for folks who aren’t familiar with that world?
Yeah. So I’ll give a couple of examples. So one is Cadillac, after George Floyd was tragically murdered, what we realized is that a lot of brands were doing a lot of performative kind of marketing. We were in conversations with Cadillac about other projects that we were doing and we mentioned, look, there’s a lot of opportunity to extract from our community. Can we now look at an opportunity to be able to give back to Black business?
And so we formed a partnership where we created an accelerator. And with that accelerator, what we ultimately did is that we’re able to give away $50,000. So there was funding for our project, plus we have to give away $50,000. And what it did is it created awareness for these actual entrepreneurs that went on to get probably about another half million dollars. And they won the biggest pitch competition in the city of Detroit, which is ran by Dan Gilbert called Demo Day.
He gave away a million dollars and they gave it away to three entrepreneurs, two of those entrepreneurs came from our accelerator. So it’s that type of partnership that makes the work that we do so meaningful. That is amazing. Congratulations to those entrepreneurs and to the program.
It is the delicate line that you walk, as you said, where there has been extremely problematic ways that brands have interacted with Black communities in particular, but also many communities of color. How do you discern as they’re approaching you as to when there’s a signal for you that it is a genuine, strategic, well meaning partnership? As opposed to, as you said, what we saw a lot, especially after the murder of George Floyd. People who were just wanting to be partnering with folks to demonstrate that they were doing something without really doing it.
So we try to take the thought process that most people are well meaning and we start there and we try to find if there’s a common ground. So if you get a lot of stakeholders involved or the bigger the brand, there’s going to be a variety of interest. Right. The goal is, can we align enough of our interests? There’s enough stuff that we don’t have in common and I’m not going to worry about that kind of stuff.
What I’m going to worry about is, can we find alignment? And if we can find alignment, then I try to go down that path. It doesn’t always work. Right? And then the other part is that I’m trying to make sure that we don’t compromise our mission for somebody else’s mission.
Right. But in that work, what we need is we need partnerships, like working with you. So when we were working with WordPress and we were trying to find or identify different cities, the work that we do doesn’t work if we don’t have partners on the ground like yours, who understand the community, who are connected. So when I go to a big brand, I can go with confidence, knowing that we’re going to be able to execute because I have partners on the ground. So both of those are critical.
We need the big brands because they bring resources. But if we don’t have you, then we don’t have that connection to the people who really need the resources. Yeah, that’s definitely something we found. I know you’ve done deep, deep work in Detroit, just like my husband Darryl and I have done here in Mesa. And it takes a really long time to be developing trusting relationships with folks.
We found the same thing, that for good reason sometimes, people are weary of participating in something, but it was in the case of Rebrand Cities and maybe just bring us a little bit into that project that you and I have been talking about. It was just so neat to have you show up, having watched what you were doing in Detroit, seeing the story, seeing the footage from it, and then have you walk into the room and introduce you to folks that, for us, are very beloved community members. And through that process, we were able to build a number of websites.
So bring us into the Rebrand Cities initiative that you’ve been working on. What is it and who’s it for? How does it work? Yeah. So we started the Word we started with WordPress because we share with them.
Our goal was to be able to reach small businesses in communities all over the world, and we wanted to be able to have diverse communities. And even when we started working with you, you opened up our base to a totally different world. So when you started talking about the Navajo Indian community, that was a community that we weren’t familiar with. Right. The beauty of diversity is that it allows even though we’re in the work and we’re doing the work, there are still blinders that we have.
Right. The beauty of coming into different communities is that we’re able to learn. So what we did with WordPress is that they’re really good at website platform hosting and those kinds of tools. Right. What they really needed assistance with is identifying small businesses and partners that could help these businesses navigate, you know what I’m saying?
Like this digital transformation process. So what we realized when we started the project is that a lot of people did not have websites, which means that there’s other admin challenges and back office kind of stuff, right? And so we identified partners in different cities and started going in and doing the work in terms of digital transformation, getting them online. What that has evolved into now is that now we’re looking at AI and looking at how we can help scale actual businesses, right? So when we started the work, we did 1000 businesses, and I’m talking hand to hand combat, I’m not talking about going online and just being able to check the box.
Our goal moving forward is that we believe that we can reach 10 million businesses with AI and we can do it with empathy and understanding and being able to make sure that we can then pull in businesses that are afraid of these actual tools. So we started out just doing websites and now we’re starting to evolve. But again, I’ll share this. We’ve had a chance to work with businesses that are with owners who were homeless, unbanked, who were tech startups. So we ran the gamut and one example and now let you chime in.
Did the gentleman in Detroit 313. It was staffing, B3L1EV3 313 Staffing. So he had an idea of forming a staffing company. We helped him build a website. Now they clean every professional stadium in the city of Detroit and now they’re going into Houston.
But who knew that a guy working out of his, living in his, car was going to be able to do that kind of work? So we’re super excited. That’s just one example or one case. That’s right. And one of the things I learned as we were planning and as we actually executed that day, and the way that it worked for us is we had volunteer web developers that were using some of the standard templates…
…from WordPress and we engaged our community folks that didn’t have a website where in the process of a day, you were sharing things around, branding. They were working on copy, and they actually had a functional working version of a basic website at the end of the day, and one of the things I learned through that process is all of the assumptions that those of us who have been online for a really long time might make about how easy it is or is not to jump on and to create a website. We found you probably found this other places too. For some folks, just signing up for the website, putting in the information, understanding the different parts of what they needed to set up, could feel super overwhelming.
Whereas right, we may be sitting there in five minutes and just clicking through a number of different screens because we’ve done it for so long. But you realize the currency in today’s world of what it means if you’re able to show somebody your website, as you said, regardless of your situation, temporary situations that people find themselves in, which is what we want it to be, right? If they’re unhoused or unbanked, it can just open up so many more possibilities for people through a website. So that was one thing that really struck me, is just never make any assumption about how, quote, “easy” it is to start something if you have not grown up in a digital environment.
And also, another great thing that happened, too, is something we call, Economic Garden. And so part of it was identifying creatives in your community, right? So we had a photographer, we had developers, and even the developers that volunteered, we ended up using them on paid projects afterwards. And so, there were relationships that were created, and it wasn’t like we needed to go fly developers in or fly photographers. And so it was being able to make small businesses aware of the resources that already exist in the community.
Lots of times, we don’t know those who labor among us. And so it was amazing to be able to tap into your community and then for people who didn’t know each other to know, we have writers here, we have thought leaders, we have authors, we have developers and photographers. And so that they become more aware so that then they can continue to work together. Because at the end of the day, the work still needs to go on when we’re not physically there. Because at the end of the day, business is still moving.
That’s right. And there still are I see it to this day, that was a few years ago that we did this, and there are still really strong relationships that were built from those initial connections. It was just such an energizing, wonderful day here. So you’ve talked about really linking the mission that you have for bridging the digital divide to really be centering the leadership of creatives that come from Black and Brown communities. When people are thinking about partnering with brands as part of an overall business strategy, I’m curious what you have learned about what you actually need, or another way to look at it is, what are they looking for?
If they’re out there looking to partner with thought leaders like yourself or influencers, what does somebody need to be prepared with in order to be an effective brand partner? All right, there’s a few things. So one is that I think having a strong mission, there needs to be proof of concept. So you need to be able to show the work that you’ve already done. You need to be able to show real ROI.
So if they’re going to invest the type of money that you want to extract from these brands, I’m talking six, seven figures, you’re going to need to be able to show them some real stuff. Also, too, there has to be a vehicle or vehicle for the money to go, right? So we make it real easy. So they are philanthropic dollars, they’re corporate dollars. However you want to get the money to us, we got you covered.
We got a for profit, we got a nonprofit, and we make it easy. And the money is not all the same because we’ve talked to really big tech companies, they’re like, okay, we can allot this amount of money but if you’re 501, we can do that times ten. Right. Making sure that those are set, making sure that you have financials that you can share with them, all of those things become important because they want to be able to mitigate risk. They want to make sure, especially.
And so one of the challenges is that sometimes when they look at projects that are for Black and Brown communities, they don’t use the same filter. So maybe there’s another community that they work with that if they get caught on the carpet they don’t get questioned as much, right? They don’t worry about all the details as much, but sometimes the layers and the details that we have to provide is a little more intense. Right. Making sure you have all your paperwork in order is critically important.
Yeah, that’s really important. And in terms of what they’re looking for, in terms of reach or social profile or anything like that, do you deliberately focus on things like that to be demonstrating your connection with community, demonstrating followers, all of that? Or is that more you are an influencer to me and all the good ways of ways that you influence good work. But I see it as a little bit differently than like an influencer, just somebody on the internet. I’m curious, in your deep brand partnerships, does that dimension matter to them?
It does depend on the brand. So I know when we work with certain brands there were certain expectations from a social view so even like on our project with Cadillac, we had to be able and this was written in a contract, we had to reach X number of impressions based on the work that we did. So it was one thing to do the work and the work was amazing, but there was somebody looking at the reach and we had to be able to show all of the data on the back end and so that was critically important. Sometimes the contract with some of these brands, when it goes through legal, it gets super intense. We spent months going back and forth just on that.
We spent a lot of time just in terms of the money being allocated. We had to pay a broker to allocate the money because they didn’t want to get put in a position to say hey, we’re promising $50,000, we give it to Rebrand Cities and then something happens to the money and then all of a sudden they’re still responsible here. And so there are all of these other things that on smaller projects you don’t really think about as much but when you get big brands involved, then there’s a lot of additional red tape and things that have to be managed. Yeah, I sometimes have had the experience of just noticing a difference. Some of it can be policy, as you said, especially with bigger brands that just have a bigger legal department.
But I’ve also noticed sometimes an approach by brands, one that is more transactional and one that’s more relational, where you might be called much more specifically to the carpet, to just deliver on the numbers or even in the nature of the communication is less relational. It makes me think about your longtime connection with John. Is it Mehta or Mehta who was at WordPress? And I think now, is it Microsoft? That feels to me like a very strong relational partnership.
Have you had any of that experience of the difference between somebody who’s kind of just looking at transaction versus a relationship? Totally different. My relationship with John changed my life. And the interesting part is that he was in rooms that I wasn’t in. He’s Asian, I’m African American.
And he went in there and advocated for me like I was his son. And the deal we did with WordPress would not have happened without him. And now we’re having conversations with Microsoft, because he really got me thinking about AI right, relational capital is super important. I believe we do good work. I believe I’m smart.
I got all these things we can check boxes with. But without somebody like John, it wouldn’t happen. Right. And I think people have to be self aware. Sometimes people start reading their own press club and they think it’s them, and it truly takes a village.
That’s right. I found the same thing. And the neat thing is in the way that the world works over time as people move throughout their careers. And I know I’ve had in now 27 years in business, just great long term relationships with people as they’ve gone from company to company. It’s really a true joy.
And that is the part to me where a lot of that good creativity can come and the work itself can be more enjoyable and, I think, more impactful. So where can people find you? And also, what’s your favorite way to connect with folks? So people can find me in a couple of spaces. They can find me on LinkedIn.
So LinkedIn.. Or you can do a search and I’m the only Hajj Flemings in there. And I love connecting with people in IG, and so they just use my handle. Hajj Flemings.
H-A-J-J-F-L-E-M-I-N-G-S-I love that. Well, thank you so much, Hajj, for sharing your time with us today. Knowing you’re at a conference so it’s fun. Folks won’t see the video, but I’m watching him smile and shake hands with people as they’re walking by the ever Networker, even when doing a podcast interview. I just really appreciate you so much and thank you for all the beautiful work that you do.
Well, thank you. I love seeing the work that you do. I love that you are committed to making sure that everybody has a seat at the table. And I can say that not just from you, from afar, but I’ve seen you do it, and I know your heart is genuine. And I really appreciate that because lots of times people do it.
People do stuff for a variety of reasons. But I can honestly say that you do it because you want to make the world better. You want to make the world more human. And I can really appreciate that because you could do stuff only from a self-serving standpoint, but I see you make room at tables and create tables for people that don’t look like you. And I appreciate that.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I do. And like you, I do it for my family and my community. It’s very enjoyable on my side.
So for those of you who are listening, you can make sure to check out the show notes at pamelaslim.com. We will make sure to link to everything that Hajj was talking about and to my 31 Marketplace production team, La’Vista Jones, Tanika Lothery, Jose Arboleda, and the award winning Voice of God narrator, Andia Winslow. Until next time, be sure to subscribe to the show and enjoy building partnerships, organizations, and communities that grow our ecosystem.