Alumni Profile: Adrienne Smith '01 Brings Education and Hip Hop Entertainment Together
1. Tell us about Harlem Hip Hop Tours and how you came up with the idea?
Harlem Hip-Hop Tours is an entertainment company that specializes in tours, field trips, and events relating to Harlem and New York City’s hip-hop industry. We focus on providing our services to large groups, ranging in size from 40 to 300 people at a time. The majority of our customers are school groups coming from states on the East Coast, as well as international youth groups from Canada and Europe.
I came up with the idea for Harlem Hip-Hop Tours with fellow Columbia Business School graduate, Ms. Shannon White ‘01, while on vacation in the Caribbean. We were on the beach talking about how much fun we had on an ATV tour that we had taken earlier in the day, and how it would be great to have similar jobs where we could have fun all day showing people around. As we began discussing the idea more, I realized that during my two years working in Japan I had provided similar services by planning trips for Japanese groups to visit Canada and the United States, as well as creating itineraries for American groups that I hosted in Japan. Shannon and I tinkered with the idea more and realized that New York City was a mecca for tourism and that Harlem was a unique neighborhood in which we could specialize. Additionally, I knew how much the Japanese loved hip-hop culture and I initially thought the company could focus on providing tourism services solely to Japanese customers. We then came up with the super descriptive name of Harlem Hip-Hop Tours and I designed the logo for the company right there on the beach!
From then on our customers helped shape Harlem Hip-Hop Tours into what the company is today. Despite my initial thoughts of having a Japanese focused tour company my entire customer base shifted when I received a call out of the blue from Harlem Park Middle School in Maryland. An administrator for the school asked if we could provide a field trip for their students to New York City. Without hesitation I replied, “Yes!” and then worked creatively to put an itinerary together for a group of 50 junior high school students. I had no idea at the time that school field trips would become the bread and butter of my company.
2. What makes you most proud about what you offer to your consumers?
I am most proud that Harlem Hip-Hop Tours is a pioneer in edutainment (i.e. educating through entertainment). All of our tours, events, and activities focus on educating our customers about Harlem and hip-hop culture while entertaining them at the same time. We have numerous letters and emails from parents, teachers, and principals who say that their child/student now has a greater interest in history, entrepreneurship, or the arts after having participated in one of our trips. Additionally, we often get feedback that students want to attend Columbia University after taking the campus tours we provide. I know Harlem Hip-Hop Tours is making a positive difference in the lives of young people from around the world and this is a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
3. What impact has your Columbia MBA education had in the way you approach your business?
My Columbia MBA has been invaluable to the success of my company. The education I received placed me in prime position to simultaneously see the “forest” and the “trees” when developing my company. I learned a tremendous amount about the entertainment business through my participation in the Media Management Association and Motion Picture Financing Club. Professor Gita Johar’s marketing class really came in handy when I needed to devise a strategy for targeting elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the East Coast. While I was taking her class I remember thinking, “What is this woman talking about?” but later when my company’s very survival depended on the success of my marketing strategies I was very thankful for the rigor with which she taught the subject.
Additionally, Professor Bruce Greenwald’s ‘Economics of Strategic Behavior’ is a lynchpin to my success. His class opened a whole new world of thinking for me and gave me an almost overwhelming insight into the world of business and how money moves.
As an alumna, I have taken advantage of Columbia’s Executive in Residence Program and The Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center. Both of these entities have made it possible for me to get one-on-one time with successful and knowledgeable business leaders who have helped me in carving my own road to success.
4. Do you collaborate with other business school entrepreneurs?
I often work with Sharon Joseph ’97, co-founder of Harlem Lanes. Harlem Hip-Hop Tours includes bowling as one of the many activities we offer to student groups.
5. How do you use the internet/social networks to promote your business?
Every month we send an eblast to our proprietary database of schools updating them on new tour offerings or other information pertinent to children’s education. We also use Twitter to update followers on what activities our tour guests may be participating in at any given time, and Facebook is always a good method of updating the public about the company.
In addition, we have invested a significant amount of effort into creating a website that serves as an interactive sales tool. Customers can go to www.h3tours.com and see video footage of our signature tour, the Hip-Hop On. Hip-Hop Off. Tour, as well as segments from shows in which Harlem Hip-Hop Tours was featured on Black Entertainment Television (BET). The website also provides free price quotes for field trips and allows customers to make reservation requests online, which vastly shortens the sales cycle.
We also have an exclusive partnership with HOT 97 radio station to provide behind-the-scenes tours of their facilities and studios to school groups. HOT 97 has a dedicated page on their website that promotes our company and the HOT 97 Experience Tour.
6. How has the economy changed the way you manage your business?
Harlem Hip-Hop Tours is a young company and in the 4.5 years we’ve been in existence we have maintained our lean, entrepreneurial infrastructure and attitude. We have always been hungry and have aggressively sought after business. These characteristics have prepared us well for a harsh economy that requires tenacity and consistency in order to thrive.
7. How are you growing the business?
Our main strategy for growth is to increase the size of our proprietary customer database. The database is the primary tool through which we secure the majority of our tour groups. Additionally, we are in the process of hiring additional sales staff to focus on specific territories throughout the East Coast.
8. What advice would you give to a graduating Columbia student with entrepreneurial aspirations in this new climate?
Clearly, clearly, CLEARY define who your customers are and determine MUTLIPLE methods for reaching them. In today’s economic climate businesses are scrambling to reach consumers and their ever shrinking dollar. A successful entrepreneur must know their customers inside and out, and must have a truckload of ways to contact those customers and keep their attention.