In Part I of The Root's two-part series, ''Generation Y's New Age Hustle,'' Saaret E. Yoseph explored the Millennial work ethic by examining the independent career ventures of sales associate-cum-actor Darrell Britt-Gibson and rapper/actor Armando ''Panama'' Cadogan. A Millennial herself, Yoseph was inspired to investigate Generation Y's entrepreneurial enthusiasm after watching her 26-year-old sister launch her own business. In Part II of the series, she explores the passion pursuits of three other young entrepreneurs and artists. Have the headlines been right about Generation Y being overzealous and entitled or is the new crop of 20-somethings in America redefining what it means to work for the American Dream?
Having fun @ work
Erica Purnell, a native New York artist on her grind, got her start by scribbling on her shoes. ''I started my own stuff and people started catching on to it,'' she says of her hand-painted and airbrushed designs for Pink Eye Fashions, the sneaker and apparel customization company she started in 2003.
A pair of Erica Purnell's customized Pink Eye sneakers.
Yet, even as a child, the Brooklyn native knew what she wanted to make of her future. Her company Web site tells the story: I decided at 5 years old that I wanted to be an artist, it would be my life, and I'm on that mission to this day.''
After a brief stint at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Purnell, 28, transitioned her ''side hustle''—redesigning shoes—into a company that sells wearable art. Until then, she was doing freelance graphic design under her first startup, Esynctric Studios, but as the demand for customized shoes increased among her friends and referrals, she realized that her ''side hustle'' could be a viable business. ''I was probably a little more confident than I should have been,'' she admits, recognizing the difficulties of establishing (and maintaining) a small business. An invitation from a friend got the ball rolling. She was asked to paint live at a birthday party for the head of a mixtape distribution company, and since then her work has been showcased at niche conventions, sneaker shows and other special events. She's also gone on the road with the Sneaker Pimps World Tour, purportedly the world's largest traveling sneaker exhibition, and had her embellished gear featured on VH1's Hip-Hop Honors.
Much like her tailor-made designs, Purnell's work-life balance is its own model of playful customization. ''I'm just doing what I love,'' she says. In this age of instant access and hyper-connectivity, for Millennials like Purnell, pleasure and business are frequent bedfellows.
Just consider the digital footprint of this sneaker customizing queen. Prolific posts on Facebook and Twitter blanket fans with updates on all things Erica (aka IGotPinkEye). Her tweets are both social and strategic:
May 18, 9: 41 a.m.: Got more stickers in? who wants? Email your name and mailing address to email@example.com and well get them out! http://bit.ly/chceMS
May 24, 9:01 p.m.: We will be at the Indie 500 Showcase on 6/8! Come through and check out some Fresh Hip Hop and Dope Kicks! http://bit.ly/cplEP9
So far, Purnell has over 1,100 followers, a number which suggests there may be potential in her casual, yet purposeful approach to social-media marketing. Since the days of the door-to-door sales pitch are long gone, networking has now become a ceaseless, online attack of friendly fire. With @s serving as the new handshake, off-hours are much harder to discern. No matter the time, potential friends or clients are always a click away. And, for young entrepreneurs like Purnell, a quick Twitpic or abbreviated link could mean business.
Do good, do well
Vocalist Carolyn Malachi, 25, is another Millennial maven fond of customizing. Especially for a cause. With her soulful lyrics, jazz-infused melodies and sprinkles of spoken word, she uses her music to build community and build up women.
Every month, she and her Smart Chicks—a mix of young, like-minded female artists—gather in D.C. for brunch and a little business. Theirs is a growing network of individuals teaching the new ABC's—"Ambition. Brains. Candor." The members of the nonprofit collective collaborate to increase the presence of women in the arts. ''We hire each other. We barter services. We talk about our boyfriends and girlfriends. We volunteer in each others' communities and support each other as independent artists,'' Malachi explains via e-mail.
The idea for the nonprofit first came about in 2009 when, after being laid off from her day job at a resort and convention center at the National Harbor, she saw the branding potential of her solo album, Revenge of the Smart Chicks. Eager to connect with other female artists, she began hitting open mics in D.C. and the Baltimore area. Each time she took to the stage, she'd grab the mic and declare her ''Smart Chick'' status. Inevitably, a roar of applause would often be her response, signaling to Malachi that there were others like her eager to get smart.
That same year, Malachi, who studied business at Shepherd University, officially established Smart Chicks, Inc.
I have a ''passion for resource-sharing,'' Malachi later tells me over the phone, ''especially intellectual capital.'' As the founder, creative director and proud poster woman for Smart Chicks, Malachi is intent on turning her affinity for art and exchange into a better quality of life. For her, success isn't just about being wealthy, but it's also ''insanely philanthropic'' as well.
Among Gen Yers, this need to give back isn't at all uncommon. As writer Lori Murray noted in a Forbes article this month, Millennials ''believe strongly that their work must be fulfilling.'' In addition to working with Smart Chicks, Malachi is an artist-in-bloom resident fellow with the D.C. community arts organization BloomBars. In addition to playing locals venues, like Blues Alley and Bohemian Caverns, Malachi has represented Smart Chicks overseas, performing at Bluesroom in Johannesburg. Earlier this year, she was also named the 2010 recipient of the Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award.
Multi-task and make it work
Malachi's friend and colleague, Christon ''Christylez'' Bacon likes to use an old-school expression to describe his approach to work: ''There's more than one way to skin a cat.''
Over the years, this self-proclaimed ''progressive hip-hop artist and D.C. native,'' has found creative ways to move past the struggles of his childhood. Navigating the city's arts scene like a modern-day bard, the 24-year-old multi-instrumentalist has become something of a fixture in the Chocolate City. His Web site calendar boasts a continuous circuit of appearances, concerts, musical workshops and library tours in and around D.C. For these, he uses beatboxing, the guitar, a West African djembe drum, ukulele and spoons to weave in storytelling and hip-hop with sounds from traditionally disparate genres.
But, growing up, Bacon says he had a limited perspective of his hometown. Life in his neighborhood was often violent; his family was once evicted and shuffled around from shelter to shelter. His mother, a single parent with a disability, had to depend on public assistance to support the family. From her, Bacon learned ingenuity: Once, he says, she turned a milk crate into a basketball hoop so that he could play ball.
There was a time he barely knew the city beyond the Southeast quadrant where he grew up, but Bacon's rapidly expanding career has taken him beyond the borders of the capital city. With a solo album, Advanced Artistry already under his belt, he received a 2009 Grammy nod for his work on the children's album Banjos to Beatbox, done in collaboration with musicians Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. This year, he also completed his debut theatrical performance, In Pursuit of Me, at the Atlast Theater in D.C.
Somehow, while juggling a thinly spread schedule, Bacon has managed to master everything from bookkeeping to Web site graphics to press and promo designs. He's a classic case of what Murray describes as Millennial multitasking.
''Usually, if I want something done,'' Bacon states plainly, ''I study it, I learn it, and I do it.'' As he sees it, he's a one-man musical conglomerate: Christylez Productions, LLC.
Work in progress
I'll admit, the headlines so far have been half right: Gen Y's work ethic is markedly different from those who've gone before us. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Sure, the economy we've inherited offers few promises. It's a sobering reality that 37 percent of us are either unemployed or out of the work force. And, though we may be oddly upbeat about such grim statistics, it's only because we have such confidence in our own ability.
Times have changed since the days when Boomers and Xers were, respectively, perceived as the problem children of American life, but unfortunately, one thing remains the same: criticizing the younger generation. And while it may be hard to understand Gen Y's way of thinking about our future, that's all the more reason to watch us in action.
Saaret E. Yoseph, a proud member of the Millennial generation, is The Root's assistant editor.
Saaret Yoseph is a writer and Assistant Editor at TheRoot.com. She manages and blogs for \"Their Eyes Were Watching …\"