Gilbert, Big Sean share lessons with Detroit students

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — Several hundred Detroit Public School Community District students got a break from their typical math and science lessons and started their school day rapping as a deejay spun Big Sean’s “One Man Can Change the World.”

On Monday morning, 400 middle and high school students packed the Gem Theatre in Detroit to hear billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert and rapper Big Sean share career lessons and advice. The event, called “Mogul-2-Mogul,” was part of the Sean Anderson Foundation Mogul Prep program, founded by native Detroiter Big Sean (Sean Anderson) and his mother, Myra Anderson, to expose students to career pathways in the entertainment industry.

Myra Anderson, executive director of the foundation and a retired teacher, kicked off the event, encouraging the students to pursue their passions.

“Quite frankly, not all of you are going to be rappers or performers, but if you love music, there’s hundreds of jobs in the music industry,” she said.

During the conversation, Gilbert and Big Sean addressed successes, failures and how losses are lessons in disguise.

“All the times you worked hard to have good grades, and all the times you failed a class, and had to come back and really boss yourself up and get it right, that’s what it’s all about,” said Big Sean, who attended Cass Technical High School. “It’s not looking at a loss as like a loss. It’s looking at it as like a lesson.”

The two moguls shared personal stories of how they started from nothing. Big Sean told the students that he worked summers and after school as a telemarketer selling prosthetic limbs.

“I used to get hung up on all the time,” he said laughing. “I got death threats.”

Gilbert, meanwhile, delivered pizzas during and after college to make money.

The point in relaying the stories was to show that making it to the top takes work.

“Anybody can do anything,” Gilbert said. “You’ll find your way as long as you’re willing to fail.”

While driving to Cass with his best friend every morning, passing iconic concert venues, Big Sean said he’d discuss his dreams.

“I used to think, ‘Man when we get to Joe Louis Arena or when we get to the Palace or when we do this or we do that.’ I already knew it was going to happen, I just didn’t know how,” Big Sean said. “When you have unbreakable faith ... I think that’s the quickest way to get to where you got to go in life.”

Joseph Hines, a social studies teacher at Davison Elementary-Middle School, helped coordinate the Mogul Prep program at Davison, which involves 44 students this year. The curriculum, he said, shows students career options “beyond the performer with the microphone” — from sound and lighting technicians to custom designers and stage managers.

“I told the students, ‘To expose you to all these jobs in the entertainment industry is a great opportunity for you to make a choice about what you’re going to do with your knowledge and interest in the entertainment industry. Everyone’s not going to become a great performer,’ ” Hines said.

The course helps students learn how to produce a live performance, which they did this summer with a show on the 1967 rebellion, Hines said. Upcoming shows include a holiday concert and other productions.

Eric Lindsey, a seventh-grader at Davison, is in the Mogul Prep program. He doesn’t want to pursue the music industry; rather, he dreams of becoming a basketball star.

“I like that Big Sean told everyone to embrace themselves and don’t be scared to get your name out,” Lindsey said.

Big Sean and Gilbert both stressed that it’s OK to make mistakes and take risks. Big Sean relayed how Berry Gordy Jr. once told him that he “failed at everything he did until age 29.”

Gilbert described a fiasco in July when a Bedrock Detroit advertisement lacked diversity in the people portrayed.

“I make mistakes,” he admitted. “... There was an incident a few months ago where we put up some graphics that went the wrong way. It was just a dumb, stupid thing. We had to step right up and say, ‘That was a dumb mistake, and we blew it.’ ”

At the end, the students had an opportunity to ask the 29-year-old rapper and 55-year-old Quicken Loans founder and chairman questions.

One high school student asked Big Sean what he wanted to do after his rapping career.

Big Sean responded he wanted to get into business.

“I want to own a sports team like my man right here,” he said, pointing to Gilbert, who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Akiva Woods, a resource teacher at Davison Elementary-Middle School in Detroit, said she thought the event was “an amazing opportunity for the students to see that the possibilities are endless.”

“I told them, ‘Big Sean is from Detroit. He was once in your seats and he attended Cass, and now look at him. So you can aspire to be great,’ ” Woods said.

Shawn Messer, a junior at Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, left the theater feeling inspired.

“It was motivational and made people to feel like they want to do things, even though sometimes they feel like they can’t. Like, Big Sean said, ‘You bounce back,’ “ he said.

Messer said he aspires to be a dentist and could relate to the rapper, who’s returned to his roots for this program and others.

“My goal is hopefully people know my name when I’m older. I’m Shawn, too. And I want to provide for my community and give back,” he said.

In April, Mayor Mike Duggan gave Big Sean a key to the city of Detroit — an honor also bestowed to music revolutionaries Stevie Wonder and Berry Gordy. Earlier this year, Big Sean released his latest album, “I Decided,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. He also gave $100,000 through his foundation to help children affected by the Flint water crises.

Gilbert, meanwhile, has been busy courting Amazon to bring its second headquarters — and 50,000 jobs — to Detroit. The official proposal was delivered to Amazon on Thursday. During the talk, Gilbert showed a video promoting Detroit, voiced by Big Sean.

In addition to owning over 90 buildings downtown, Gilbert is aiming to build a Major League Soccer stadium on an unfinished jail site in Greektown.

On stage, Big Sean gave kudos to Gilbert for supplying thousands of jobs to Detroiters and opportunities for the students in the crowd to apply for internships. He also shared his love for the city itself, saying the Detroit is in his DNA.

“(Detroit) made me the man I am. I made my first dollar in Detroit, and honestly, that’s something that nobody can ever replace, no other city, no other feeling. ...Detroit was the first place where my music started popping, where I had my first sold out shows. It was where I had my biggest shows. I love everybody from Detroit,” he said, smiling at the students intently listening to each word. “I love y’all.”

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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg