In May, when legendary rapper Dr. Dre and music industry mogul Jimmy Iovine arrived at the University of Southern California, they brought a check for $70 million … and a problem.
The influential pair founded Beats Electronics in 2006, prompted by advances in technology and an opportunity to create a mass market for high-end headphones. When the first “Beats by Dre” headphones appeared in 2008 priced at $300, industry watchers were skeptical. Would there be a market for headphones at prices normally reserved for gear aimed at the professional studio technician?
The answer came quickly. Beats by Dre caught fire and grew quickly, capturing 64 percent of the $100-and-up headphone market by 2012. And their little startup, privately held, reportedly has skyrocketed to more than $1 billion in annual sales. Beats by Dre had the cachet of celebrity, worn by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Will i. am, Michael Phelps and many others, and the brand has stayed hot. But is it sustainable?
So successful has Beats Electronics become that its founders have confronted a new concern: finding enough talent to grow and expand the business. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company is not unlike any of its Silicon Valley counterparts: Without the creative talent to mine new territory, the future threatens to become stagnant and bleak. At the intersection of technology, the arts and business, the talent pool can never be deep enough.
Dr. Dre is an iconic figure in the rap world whose real name is Andre Young. Iovine, chairman of Universal Music Group‘s Interscope Geffen A&M Records, has guided such artists as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, U2 and Dire Straits. Given that neither went to college, they came up with a surprising solution. In May, the pair announced a donation of $70 million to U.S.C. to fund a new academy aimed at educating and preparing the kind of employees they want to work at Beats.
“They came here with a problem,” says Erica Muhl, a composer, dean of U.S.C.’s fine arts school and director of the new Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. “They needed to find kids with a certain skill set and a certain way of looking at business and of handling creative problem-solving. They said, ‘We’re coming to you. We know we need this and we believe it would be terrific if there was someplace that was dedicated to training kids who would be able to look at these types of problems in any industry and be able to come up with creative solutions.’ ”
To that end, the new U.S.C. academy is an undergraduate program slated to begin in the fall of 2014 with its first 25 students. Not unlike such innovative academic centers as M.I.T.’s Media Lab and U.S.C.’s Institute for Creative Technology, the new academy is embracing the cross-disciplinary approach required in today’s business world.
The goal of the academy, according to U.S.C., is “to shape the future by nurturing the talents, passions, leadership and risk-taking of uniquely qualified students who challenge conventional views of art and industry.”
Muhl will be in charge of creating the curriculum, selecting professors and identifying qualified students. She says the program is “a tremendous opportunity at the undergraduate level to train students at the intersection of technology, the arts and business, where we believe the most cutting-edge innovations are occurring.” Muhl notes that while other programs have similar goals, they are usually graduate programs and they generally bring in individuals with a focus on engineering or design or business, and form teams to find solutions.
“We see it differently here,” Muhl says. “We see that one of the problems when these teams come together is that they don’t all speak the same language. There is a jargon and vocabulary that exists in design, in engineering, in computer science and the business world, and the language of one discipline is often not understood by the others. We are aiming to create an all-around innovator, an all-around entrepreneur who has a fluency of language that cuts across all these disciplines.”
In an interview with The New York Times, Iovine expressed excitement about the academic venture. “If the next start-up that becomes Facebook happens to be one of our kids, that’s what we are looking for,” he said. Iovine discovered Dr. Dre and signed him to his first contract, and the pair used their talents to launch the careers of Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Gwen Stefani, among others. Crossing the bridge between the music business and the technology industry produced unexpected but welcome results. And with that success, the pair has higher ambitions: to change the educational landscape in order to cultivate a new generation of innovative thinkers and doers
“I feel like this is the biggest, most exciting and probably the most important thing that I’ve done in my career,” Dr. Dre told the newspaper.
The first order of business, beyond coordinating the professors involved and setting a curriculum, will be finding 25 high school seniors who will make up the academy’s first class. The expectations, Muhl says, are high.
“We are expecting certain levels of understanding in all these areas,” she says, “and perhaps some expression of having already looked at the world in terms of breaking molds. We are really looking for students who are questioning the existing assumptions.” Given that there has not been a similar program for undergrads, the prospective student profile is a work in progress. In choosing the 25 students, Muhl says the academy would look for experience and achievement in areas like visual studies, math and science. The program won’t require background in all three of those subjects but will expect achievement in at least one. A student must have demonstrated initiative and entrepreneurial drive, and if she or he is proficient in an area such as design or math, “the academy will allow you to stretch into that area,” she says. “The curriculum is fairly adaptive and flexible. The basic component we are looking for in all of our students is creativity, and undoubtedly that will manifest itself in different ways.”
The fourth year of the program is called the Garage, which is what Muhl describes as “a prototyping year.” Instead of focusing on a new product, Muhl wants the students to think about prototyping a new technology, art form or mode of business that will lead to solutions in a wide range of areas such as the environment or health care. These are big ambitions, but she is confident that given the right structure and mentorship, the students will achieve lofty goals.
“We have a very strong industry component in the academy, meaning there will be industry mentors along with faculty,” Muhl says. “We hope the Garage component is going to be extremely powerful in getting students across that goal line.”
For Iovine and Dr. Dre, steering some of these students into creative and productive roles at Beats will signify success. Given the dearth of great candidates in engineering, technology and marketing, it simply made sense to fund a talent source. According to The New York Times, the two partners are looking not only for employees for the Beats headphone business but for a new venture into streaming music called Beats Music, which is expected to debut in late 2013. For the entrepreneurs, funding the U.S.C. academy was a straightforward approach to a typical business problem: “How do we make the best product?” “In this case,” Iovine told the Times, “the kids are the product.”