The Brown Woman Making it Easy for Musicians to Actually Become Successful

It isn’t every day that you get to meet a fabulous woman of color booming in the tech industry. It’s also not every day that said woman takes time out of her creative day to chat with an unknown, admirer from afar. But, Vinitha Watson, a.k.a the founder of ZooLabs, a music accelerator program that is helping up and coming artists develop their talent and lead their career.

First of all, you opened the first office in India for Google. That’s absolutely crazy!

It was less glamorous at the time! [Laughs]

When did you open the office for them?

At the end of 2003. From 2003 until 2005 we were there and it was crazy. It was definitely both hard to transplant a culture and amazing at the same time. It’s definitely where I got my startup bug. It was just such an incredible experience just to be creating. We had no guidelines; Google was pretty loose. They were like “Do whatever, get it up and running!” 

What about your background led you to your work at Google and where you are now with ZooLabs?

My dad was always an entrepreneur and creating different businesses and managing different things. So was my mom; she’s an artist and creator. I went to college for Communications and Sociology and I almost got a third degree in Art History, but I was like I have got to get out of school! Like, I need to leave.

I actually was in fashion for a long time, doing retail and selling clothes and fitting people. And then, my tides turned. I got married, and my husband was working for Google at the time and I was really disappointed with corporate America because I had a really bad experience. I felt like, “Ok, these people are going to be grown up and adults”, and they ended up being pretty childish. I didn’t feel like it was my purpose to be at that place. So my husband was like, “We have the option to go to India or New York”. I was like, “New York”!

But he was like, India [laughs].

So from there you moved to India?

I was actually studying to get into business school while was supposed to be setting up the India office and I actually just fell into it. I saw that he didn’t have enough support and just started to get my hands dirty and helped him with setting up the infrastructure and pretty much doing everything. I became a head of that office, in terms of the facilities and HR and getting it running. Later, retroactively Google was like “o=Oh yeah, we should hire you” and I was like “Yeah, you should.”

Where did the idea of ZooLabs come from?

It really had a version one, where my husband kind of had an incubator but it had no structure. He’s such a beautiful man, and he said, “You’re going to be the one to make this something.” So I took over in 2011. We have three recording studios in West Oakland. I started interviewing people. Everyone from Phife from A Tribe Called Quest to people you have no idea of.

I started asking them what they were dealing with and what the industry was like. I was asking them why it was so hard for them to pay their bills. Why was the music that I loved not getting into anybody’s ears?

People came to us with all different sorts of stories. When I kind of looked at it, I realized that there were three main principles that kept people on their path. The first one was some sort of monetary reward. The second was creative output. The third was that fans really appreciated it and they had some sort of popularity from what they were creating. And when I looked at those three pillars, I realized that this was the entrepreneurial path. There’s no difference. Being in the heart of Silicon Valley and being a part of it, I realized that there was a huge gap in how people thought about artists and art and how people thought about startups in the “business world”.

So what did you do from there?

I decided to create this two-week program to bring people in and give them the professional development that they needed. I realized was we hold art and business so far apart and it’s actually a very artificial silo. I realized that this is not really an authentic creation; it’s just a cultural creation of how business and art should be looked.

What is the two-week program about?

This program is really about ushering artists into seeing themselves as entrepreneurial creative. We’re showing them that all of what they’re doing are the same things that businesses do. It’s just that artists do it better.

What about technology and how it enables artists to really own their music career?

Though the onset of technology is beautiful, it becomes challenging because everything is getting pushed towards the artists to feel enabled. But, the problem is that they don’t know how to navigate them. So they’re asking questions like, “Should I be on Instagram, should I be on Facebook?” How do I get my music out there to fans out there that need it? There’s all of these tools but without a strategic vision, you don’t really understand why you’re using the tools.

ZooLabs is really about not only bringing in new people from the industry, but also creating new business models.

Our artists are figuring out how to monetize. We’re bringing in experts from the startup, design, business and even finance and marketing worlds. We’re creating a space where we can all come together and lend our mind power to these new business models and have these artists be the leaders.

What’s one of the hardships artists still face today?

I realized that studio space is very expensive. And for the average artist, if you’re not in the one percent, you don’t get 2 weeks in the studio. But if we go back to Motown or any of the great places where large amounts of amazing music came out of, it was because the studio was open and creation could happen. These artists kind of revolved around these studios. The one insight that I had was as we kind of move to the digital age of streaming, where’s the house of the artist? Where do they live? So, we decided that ZooLabs was going to be that house where artist lived. They could record and create, but the one caveat was that they needed to create with purpose.

We didn’t want artists being scared that they were going to be charged for every minute. That feeling decreases creativity. So we really wanted to bring back that aspect and push them to be risky.

What’s one of the “mistakes” artists seem to make early in their careers

What we found was that a lot of the artists that see the one percent as the place they want to be, optimize for pop music. But, if your goals are different, you optimize for different things. So we try to push them to their riskiest places. We did a session with Lil B and told them that we wanted them to slay their dragon with support. We’re creating a space where people can slay their dragons and they know they have a community of people behind them. So, if they fall, they’ll feel okay to fall.

How do you select the attendees?

So far we’ve relied heavily on the musician network. They’ve got their ears to the ground. We’ve also done our own recruiting and nominations. But we also really want people who are making great music for different things. We’ve had people come in who may be creating a production company or working on a musical. So it’s not just bands that we’re looking for. Right now we have some big connections in the works.

Do you have any big name artists that have been willing to work with the attendees?

Absolutely, we’ve had Chief Xcel from Blackalicious and we’ve had Bosco Kante. He was actually introduced to me by Chief Xcel as a legend, which he is. He actually attended the program and is now a mentor in the program. He’s just wonderful. He just released something with Scrillex. We’ve had Al Branch come in as well who’s a music industry veteran. He’s not an artist, though. He’s actually Kanye’s manager. His group manages Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Wayne, G-Easy and Drake.

Is it true that minority artists have less access to resources in the industry than White artists do? If so, how do you feel ZooLabs is helping to bridge that gap?  

To me, Hip-Hop is the paradigm of culture in the U.S and globally. I have not directly experienced that kind of inequality. A lot of minorities have something to give that people who are of that ethnicity do not. I like what Al Graham said. From his perspective, he said that if you’re going to go Hip-Hop, you’ve got to go Hip-Hop all the way.

We had a Korean conductor in our program and he was actually creating classical music breakdowns of big Hip-Hop albums. And he said that he was the future of Hip-Hop. I said, “Are you sure you’re not the future of classical music?” And then Al came and said, “I see what you’re doing, but get better rappers on there because it’s not pushing it. But if you say that you’re the future of Hip-Hop, you can be.” And that was the first time I actually saw an open-minded acceptance of everybody in this atmosphere.

In terms of access, I think that every artist has gotten screwed on some level. It doesn’t matter what your background is. The system is not always meant to be fair. I think that we’re dealing with archaic systems. Is there bias in there? Probably.

What was one thing Phife Dawg said that stuck with you?

The one thing I heard from Phife was that he was from the hood and he got $300 thousand dollars as an advanced and he didn’t know how to spend that money. He didn’t have the education or the foresight to understand that maybe that money wouldn’t come again or maybe it come a little bit further down the road. He said that if he had looked back he would have spent that money differently

We’re trying to do is build a healthier ecosystem of artist-like companies where the artists are the ones in charge. They may feel like they shouldn’t be in charge or say, “I just want to create and have someone else do this business stuff”, but ultimately every artist that has said that has gotten into trouble because they realized it wasn’t their vision and they weren’t ready for someone else to come into their business and take them to the next level.

Do you think that artists are afraid to do that, though?

I think it’s absolutely scary. Being an entrepreneur is absolutely scary. There’s always the imposter syndrome where you think, “I’m not qualified to do this, and someone else more qualified should.” But every person goes through that. Every entrepreneur or great person has experienced that. But I guarantee you if they took over your business, it would not be where you’d want it to be.

It’s the same with an artist. They’re afraid, but they’re so primed to move through fear. Because that’s what creation is. You take it in, you’re the vessel and you move through that. That is absolutely what’s beautiful about it. Think about it: the manager doesn’t the vision.

Maybe sometimes they do, but most of the time they have the formulas and the structures to make a vision come to life.

Yeah, they have the relationships. But it’s like, do they have the vision? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

As a woman of color, has there ever been any personal trials you’ve had to wiggle your way through while building your career in the tech-driven arena?

I really had to fight for higher wages in the tech world. And when I say fight, I literally was like “I’m not taking that wage, you will pay me higher, and otherwise you will find someone else. And I guarantee you find anyone better than me.” And it was literally a conversation. But I was not going to sit there and know what my husband makes, and know that I’m not making comparable salary.

Google was terrific; they were a terrific company. They came back and gave me absolutely what I wanted.

I think that every woman of color wants to have the confidence to demand what they’re worth in the work place.

Yeah. Ironically, the moments it gets hard, I have very strong, amazing White men at my side! [Laughs] They’re empowering, pro-women, and they flank me.

What we have fun with is when we walk into a room and we’re about to do a deal, or we’re about to have a big meeting, I stay lowkey. I’ll walk in and they’ll often address my partner. We have a shtick, where we know what’s going to happen. So, he’ll reel them in and he’ll start talking to them and he’ll say, “Oh, you should really talk to the founder, Vinitha.” And it’s really interesting to see those people’s reactions. It’s awesome. What I realized is that as human beings, we’ve all built stereotypes, each one of us. We maneuver through the world with these stereotypes. It’s no fault of this person that they haven’t seen a leader or CEO such as myself. Frankly, it’s not prevalent. But, the more we can have women leaders in these positions and show them, “Hey, I’m not what you expected”, the more it becomes a beautiful thing. And then, they end up realizing that they have made a mistake.

Can you share a moment where you had to correct someone for overlooking you as a minority woman?

I walked into the White House and I was in a Cabinet meeting and we had just met President Obama. I remember that this guy had passed me over for a card. I looked at him and said, “You need to look at me and understand that I’m here as a participant in this group, not as a secretary”. I think the more moments we can have like that, even if they are one-on-one, things will change, even if slowly. But I guarantee you that man will never pass up a minority woman again. Or, he’ll think twice before he thinks about doing so.