Turning Adversity into Influence with Michell C. Clark
Michell is a cultural curator and social media entrepreneur who shares his gifts with millennials looking to build their brands, businesses, and overall public images. His work has earned him recognition from the likes of Diddy, Billboard Magazine, Rolling Out, Ebony, and more. He leverages his natural talent as a writer to achieve success as a social media strategist, social media influencer, and event promoter. He leveraged his social media audience to get a publishing deal for his first print book, which is set to release in the first quarter of 2018. He has paid his rent off of Instagram posts several times, and he didn't have to sell flat tummy tea to do it.
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Episode 7 Turning Adversity into Influence with Michell C. Clark
Written by: Sope Aluko
what was growing up was like for you?
Michell: It was very different from where I am now. I was born in Indiana. My dad was at Purdue getting his Master’s and we were a military family. I spent the first seven to five years of my life bouncing around. I was in Hawaii, we were in Kansas, and Indiana. He moved to Woodbridge, VA to retire. It’s about an hour south of D.C. so it was a very suburban upbringing but I was fortunate enough to attend school in the same little city for 12 years until college, which was great so I could build some long-term friendships and find my way. I was a pretty quiet kid- I had a weird stutter going on from middle school all the way through my second year of college, actually. I was in the advanced classes and my parents had me reading tons of books from a very early age which is probably why I write so much now. I had that passion for reading and writing early. I ran track and was about 145 pounds when I finished high school. I was a very focused, quiet, honor roll type kid that made church every Sunday.
How did your upbringing help you find a passion in the creative side of things that you’re in now?
Michell: I think that my upbringing taught me a couple of important things in terms of winning at creativity. My parents were very much so aware that I was intelligent and I could do well but they were like “You’re going to work hard no matter what you do. You’re going to read these books and get these A’s.” They taught me how to work hard and laid the foundation. They taught me the importance of being organized because I’m actually a messy person by nature. It’s actually really bad. When I get stressed, my room becomes a wasteland of piles of stuff. When I’m broke or distressed, my room becomes like a college dorm room.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Michell: I think a basketball player, but I was terrible at basketball. I wanted to be an astronaut but never followed through on that, either. Those are the biggest things I think. I still remember I wanted to write a book when I was 5 or 7 years old. I would actually copy articles and paste them in a document and say it was my book. I wanted to be a writer to a certain extent.
What college did you go to?
Michell: I went to three different schools. It was a very up and down thing. I went to Westpoint, the military academy in New York. It was cold as hell, six percent Black, and 85 percent male. It was crazy. It taught me so much about what I could actually do. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life but it made me so much better and confident. I actually went there four years and got expelled a month before I graduated. I can smile and talk about it now but it was one of the most hurtful and motivation killing experiences of my life to literally be expelled a month before I should have graduated. I went to Westpoint with very limited knowledge of who I actually was, which I think a lot of 18 year olds lack. You’re in a system where you essentially have to choose the direction you want your life to take after high school. I was very involved in different activities like sports, church, and honor roll classes. I didn’t know what I was looking for per se. My family is military, as I said before, and my father, uncle and two of my cousins went to Westpoint. I got there and did pretty well but I was found with a girl in my bed. A classmate snitched on me. I was accused of lying about the incident and just having the girl in your bed is a big issue at Westpoint. I was convicted of being dishonorable and was expelled. The entire time I was going through this process, I didn’t have any rank on my shirt and that was a big thing. People started to look down on me and treat me a different way. I couldn’t leave campus and by the time I left, I was so happy to get out and be able to start over. I went home and worked for about six months. I went to UVA for a summer and they wanted me to spend 3 more years there in a work-study program, which I was not going to do because I was already 22 at that point. I ended up going to VCU in Richmond and I finished up in a year. I finally got it out the way and was like, “I’m never going to school again. I spent 5 ½ years getting my undegrad degree!”
After all of that, what was your first job coming out of collegE?
Michell: I was working as an intern for my state delegate handling administrative and communications stuff. When that finished, I went home and was working temp jobs and I got a job with the Princeton Review as a territory manager. I was a brand ambassador, talking to parents, giving presentations, and just trying to make sales. I had this idea that I wanted to be an entrepreneur one day but I was going about it very passively. I was running a hip-hop blog writing 5-10 posts per day but I didn’t have a business plan. I had a pretty comfortable job. I was happy to be in my own apartment, be far away from Woodbridge and close to D.C. until I was told that I would probably be fired from my job in about 2-3 months. They made this performance plan...and I’m only one person and I said it was ridiculous. I’m in this mode of climbing this corporate ladder and fighting situations about salaries. I’m thinking that if this situation isn’t even safe anymore, what am I even doing here? I’m not passionate about it but I can do it pretty well, but why should I spend all this time trying to meet this plan for a new boss who just came in here and needs someone to blame when I can just go and do my own thing? I ended up making Michell C. Clark that month. I started figuring out what I wanted to do as a social media coach and started figuring out how to build. I learned about social media influencing as a career and started applying for agencies. I actually got the opportunity to coordinate a few events for writers based down in the Hamptons area. A couple different things happened at once which lead me to taking that leap.
sooo your life as a content creator. what does that mean and what does it look like?
Michell: The majority of my content creation right now is centered around what I do as a social media influencer which is a hot button keyword right now. Long story, short is that I use my personal story and my passion for curating playlists and other creative experiences and I tell stories to people through social media. I talk about my entrepreneurial struggle, things that I regret, things that I used to be scared to talk about. I talk about how I can be more efficient entrepreneurially, how I make things work on social media as a marketer and a writer. I give this to people on my social media platforms, and my website, and even on LinkedIn, too. I’m starting to expand how I put out content. I try to curate relationships with different brands and figure out, “At the end of the day, all of us want to get paid. What can I do to provide value to these different companies, people and possible clients that will help me secure more bags?”
Everyone thinks they know what it means to be instafamous. what uniquely separates influencers from people who are trying to get likes?
Michell: Influencers just sell a higher volume of flat tummy tea. The term “influencer” is one of those “you got some nerve” phrases to proclaim for yourself. People put “CEO”, “President”, or “Owner”, or “Future Millionaire” in their Twitter bio too. You really can’t claim that because you havent even made an LLC yet. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For a while, the term “influencer” felt a bit over the top, but it is an actual industry. Companies look for people who call themselves “influencers” and who can affect change with their images, words, and their message. To me, a social media influencer, is someone who can use their personality, their perspective, their knowledge and their expertise and can package that to communicate to an audience that they’ve built. Doing that in a way that will make others actually care about what’s being said. Whether it’s talking about a product, or a city, or a cause, or a concept, do your words hold weight and with who? Who is your audience? Is it college kids? Is it people that live in Nevada? Is it people that are into fitness? It’s also about knowing your audience and being able to speak to them that is part of being an influencer. From a company’s perspective, they look for a certain number of followers and the level of interaction because how much time do companies really have to research these things? Not too much. Half the time people that make choices about different influencers don’t even use social media actively. They come from the outside and look in and say, “I think I want that one.” At the same time, every one has influence. If you know somebody, anybody, then you have influence. Of course there are different scales and that’s where it comes to companies deciding. To secure the bag with the companies, there are a lot of different options. The most effective thing to focus on is relationships. We can talk about making effective content all day, but at the end of the day, it's about relationships and being able to talk to people and make connections. Right now, I’m blessed to be signed to an influencer agency so they’ll go out and look for contracts on my behalf. Shade Management is for Black and Brown influencers. They really understand us, are are part of the culture and really understand us. Being able to maintain relationship with them, talk to them about what I’m doing and talk to them like regular people....goes a long way.
people have left their job to become an entrepreneur. What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about it?
Michell: Figure out what your business plan is and start doing the work. Save some money up. If things are ideal for you and your job is good and you’re not being told that you’re going to be fired, I would figure out my plan, save money for two or three months and then get out. I had a few people who were doing similar things but no real mentors. I probably would have found more to help me put myself out there with the agencies but I didn’t really have any mentors.
If you had a Mount Rushmore of Inspiration, Who would be on it?
Michell: I’m bad a these types of things because so many people have helped me in different ways. I would say my parents, first and foremost. My mom taught me how to talk to people. My dad taught me how to sacrifice and put structure in your life and work for certain things. I’d have to dig a bit deeper to fill out the rest of my Mount Rushmore. If I’m being honest, I get so caught up in figuring out where I’m going and what I’m doing I draw a lot of things from a lot of different people. It would be a full choir filling Mount Rushmore.
what is your passion and when did you know?
Michell: I’ve grown to understand my passion a bit more over the past three or four years and I’m honestly still trying to put pieces together about how to best make it happen. The best way to put it is that my passion lies in two major areas. The first is using what I’ve going through as a college student and an entrepreneur to be able to help others. Writing about these types of things is therapeutic for me. People have told me that me talking about what I’ve gone through and how I got out and changed for the better really encourage them. Curation is also a buzzword because everyone wants to be a curator but at the same time, I’ve writing about music which I love, for about eight years now. I haven’t made much money from it but I love it. I make playlists now and I just love that. Being able to share some of the best things that I find from other musicians, other creatives, and other artists is always a passion of mine.
What has been the biggest challenge in trying to live your best life?
Michell: The biggest challenge has been lack of clarity. I was in the military. I have been a hard worker my entire life. I’m used to working and just doing things and not always thinking, “Here’s my long term plan.Here’s where I want to be in six months.” Having to get a lot more clear about where I want to be so I can figure out what’s actually meant for me and what might sound good, but might not be the best for me. Being able to have discretion and figuring out my long-term game plan.
Do you believe everyone has a dream? What separates people who achieve their dream and those who haven’t?
Michell: I think the bigger thing is the people that are working towards actualizing it. I think that we all realize what our dream is to a certain extent whether we think about it or admit it. People don’t believe in their dreams enough to work on them and make them happen because chasing a dream requires you to let go of certain friendships, certain luxuries, and free time. You have to invest years into perfecting your craft , figuring out your plan, and how to make these dreams happen. I’ve been a writer and a content creator almost everyday for seven years, almost eight. People ask me how I do all these things. I started in 2010 at the military academy. I barely had time to write. I was broke for the first five or six months. You have to believe in yourself and keep finding away.
What inspires you to succeed?
Michell: Long term, I think it’s the belief that I am meant to pursue my passion and figure out my purpose. I don’t think me being in a day job or me not fulfilling my purpose is going to do much for anybody. I could have a mid-level day job and it’s all good, but who am I helping besides the company? What does that do for me developmentally? I don’t want to be a better employee. I want to better at living my life and fulfilling my purpose. When you’re able to start living your life with that in mind, I feel like you can do so much morem you can help more people. The perks are pretty awesome. I won’t lie to you. You can do things you didn’t think were possible. I was in Toronto for two and a half days and it felt like a dream. I was with Delta Toronto, a hotel chain up there. We toured Toronto for about two and half days, saw all the sights, had amazing food. I went to the top of the CN tower over there and it’s about 1,000 feet in the air. It’s where Drake shot his album cover. I was eating seared lamb shank 1,000 feet in the air. We were in a glass building where we could see the whole city. It was like, “This is work right now.” It was definitely a moment. There was many a broke night with frozen food.
What frustrates you the most about the digital culture?
Michell: People see social media notoriety as something that its not. It doesn’t come as a black card or free trips, or wealth. People think that you have all the answers and the time in the world. They want to pick your brain and they want you to share all their stuff and they start to put you on a pedestal and assume you can do things that you can’t and shouldn't’ do for your own sake. If the roles switched, they probably wouldn’t do for you. All they can see is what you have as being what they want. They feel entitled to be able to ask things of you that don’t make sense. When it comes to social injustice in America, I think we’re becoming aware of it due to social media. This whole “Black in America” thing is pretty crazy. Unfortunately, that’s never going to change and it just manifests in different ways.It goes without saying that it’s very frustrating. I think it’s important to make sure that tangible actions follow up powerful statements and I think that we can all impactful in that space. We all have some sort of influence and network and purpose to fulfill within that. I think that it’s important to tap in and focus on bottom line results over being known. I think that people have different skills so while some of us are built for protesting, some can support financially, some can support through teaching and providing support and logistics. There’s a bunch of ways to make it happen.
What is one book that has changed your life as an entrepreneur?
Michell: I like Marc Ecko’s Unlabel Me because he dove into his struggles. He made Ecko and Complex so as someone with a foot in hip-hop culture and someone who has entrepreneurial goals, it was great to hear him talk about his honest struggles, people who he looked up to and who he tried to emulate, and how he managed to make it through, and times when this multimillionaire thought, “I might not make it.” If people like that can go through these struggles, and feel like they don’t have the answers, eventually they can be like, “I can make it too.”
What advice do you have for millennials that want to become content creators and take over the digital marketing space?
Michell: One of the most important things is remembering why you want to do it in the first place and to think about whether a stranger came across you in a digital space, how would you help them? What value would you provide to them? Keeping track of that and tapping into your passion can help spark others in a certain way and will allow you to have enough discipline and focus to get better. It’s a year after year process where you have to learn tricks of the trade. I would also advise people to look at what people in and outside f their field are doing and how they’re winning- everything from how they execute things on social media to events they go to and events they go to. How are they learning actively? There’s also continuing to treat people right. I think it’s dope that we’re here because we are part of a similar peer group to an extent. People that are in similar spaces can encourage you, help you, and teach you, in ways that no one else in that space can. Being able to start relationships without being like, “Hey, can I be on your show?”and starting real friendships and connections with people involved in things that you are involved in.
Michell wrote a 33-page book that will help you to achieve social media success on your own terms.
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