Menu Close

Darien Dash and the Courage to Trust Your Instincts

darien-dash

What sets visionaries apart from the typical business grad with an idea? It’s often courage and instinct. When these two elements combine with the power of anticipation and ability to pivot, it’s a match made in entrepreneurial heaven. Darien Dash brings all these qualities to the table, and it has led to success in his professional life.

His story is a fascinating look at what can happen when you have the courage and insight to take inspiration and instinct to new heights. Although he now spends his time as a consultant helping others realize their dreams, his history reveals the foundation of his effectiveness.

The strength of Dash’s character can be seen in his continued support for minority communities while also building his business interests. This connection helped to ensure his success while also keeping these communities from falling behind the technological curve.

Who Is Darien Dash?

Darien Dash was born in 1971 in New York City. While he was growing up, his parents served as an example of values integral to his later achievements. They instilled into their children the importance of working hard and keeping your ethics in check.

Both his stepfather (Cecil Holmes, Casablanca Records) and cousin (Damon, Rock-A-Fella Records) were involved in the music industry, and initially, Darien followed suit. His love of music combined with his business instincts and ultimately provided the capital for the work he is best known for today.

My stepfather was very successful in the record industry and a legend and an overall well-liked and well-respected and loved man. So he gave me a whole other side of life and showed me a whole other side of life, me and my sister. And really, you know, it was thanks be to God for my stepfather, because he was our saving grace that allowed us not to have to live, you know, that life in the street or in the inner-city projects and so forth and so on. – Darien Dash, CNN

Before he was ten years old, Dash was already nurturing an entrepreneurial acumen. His mother describes him as the type of boy who rented his toys to friends instead of simply sharing.

Dash’s Drive in the Face of Adversity

When hard times fell on Dash, they came crashing down in a heap. When he was eighteen—in less than twelve months—he experienced the loss of his father, the breakup of his mother and stepfather’s marriage, the death of his dog, and a devastating house fire. He decided to use these tragedies as fodder to start slowly building an empire.

Looking back on those trying times, Dash related that, “I was either going to turn to ice, or have faith and make something of myself.” He refers to this time as his defining moment.

I think it was one of those defining moments in life for me, where I truly found my faith. And it was through — by the grace of God and divine providence that I was able to make it through that period. And, you know, it came to a point where my mother said to me, she said, either this is going to make you into a stronger man and a better person, or it’s going to break you. So I had to accept that it was the will of God. – Darien Dash, CNN

Dash relied on his faith and the work ethic that his parents always drove home and stepped forward. He enrolled in college at the University of Southern California, studying political science and taking every available opportunity to build a strong educational and networking background. He was a part of the Emerging Leadership Program, president of the Black Student Union, and a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity during his time at USC.

Cue the Music

Somehow, Dash still found time to start his own record company during his freshman year. Roc-A-Blok Records provided Dash the vehicle to directly experience his passion for hip hop. He turned that passion into cold hard cash.

I always had an affinity toward looking up to those people [hip-hop artists] as my role models or wanting to be around that fast life. And when you’re young, it’s so seductive, you know, it really draws you in… When I was growing up, the role models, the people that were doing it, that would be looked up to in my community, were people who were, you know, who were, as they say scrambling and hustling, people who were making money. Because those were the people with the flash and the cash. You know, that’s what you wanted to be like. – Darien Dash, CNN

Dash earned a place in hip hop history for his efforts. In 1995, he and his cousin signed Jay Z to his first deal. Although the money they made was quickly spent, Dash continued his education. That alone is a testament to his long-term vision and business fortitude.

What happened next was the impetus for Dash’s future success. He read a book called Megatrends, which predicted the coming tech boom and a transition from blue-collar work to technocentric-employment. Coincidentally, the book also predicted a move toward a global economy. Dash then poised himself to capitalize on the wave.

Like most things in his life, however, it wasn’t easy.

Darien Dash Enters the Tech Space

This is the revolution that’s not being televised. This is the opportunity you all got to wake up, stand up and participate in, otherwise we’re going to be lost forever. If this doesn’t happen, if we don’t participate in technology, there’s no coming back for us. – Darien Dash, CNN

After graduation, Darien became a media marketing consultant for Fortune 500 companies, an experience that helped him hone his instincts and skillset. Eventually, he rose to the Marketing and Sales Director for the Eastern Region of Digital Music Xpress, an organization that brought digital music to cable television. Through this work, Dash gained invaluable insight into American tech trends and how to market digital services to a largely untapped demographic—minority groups.

He would turn this insight into a successful business, one that helped advance education and access for the people he saw as being left behind the digital revolution. This was always a project of the heart for Dash. He kept it at the forefront of everything he did as he made his way through his journey.

Armed with the spirit of new beginnings, he left DMX the very next day. From a modest one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, Darien founded a company called DME Interactive Holdings in 1994. He used funds from a joint venture between Roc-A-Blok and Columbia records as the working capital… Eventually, it would all be worth the struggle.

The company’s goal was to expand both the hardware and software infrastructure in minority communities, a project that involved making homes in these communities internet-ready.

Once the neighborhoods were adequately wired for cable, Dash’s company reached out with content targeted directly at them. He started with music but saw a reality where DME served as a hub and homepage for the entire rest of the internet for minority users.

Although these were lofty goals, Dash needed to keep the lights on. To finance his dreams, he became a successful consultant and provided technological solutions to major players in the sports and entertainment industries. This allowed him to sharpen his skills even more. With his finger pressed against the pulse of the digital trend, Dash kept feeding his appetite for real-time experience.

Taking DME Public

By 1999, Dash needed to take DME public, and he used an innovative method to get there. On the advice of the president of Manhattan’s Mason Hill & Co.’s Chris Kinsley, he set his sights on a reverse merger with Pride Automotive Group. DME took a controlling interest in the leasing company and Pride’s shareholders gained a minority interest in DME in return.

Dash now had his own ticker symbol on the NASDAQ and the start of a small empire. He went on to acquire the NY-based multimedia consultant firm, Kathoderay, during the following year. Kathoderay’s CEO became DME’s senior vice president of interactive services and Dash appointed his mother as general manager. He had approximately 50 people under his employ at this time.

The Power of the Pivot

A few more struggles were ahead for Dash, however. A change in the market in the early 2000s forced Dash to make some hard choices, and that meant some layoffs. Between 2001 and 2002, the NASDAQ lost half its value, dropping to an all-time low of 1,108.49.

Rather than pridefully fighting the inevitable, he met the challenge and restructured DME to maintain profitability. In the long-term, Dash views this as a learning experience.

It’s made me, as an entrepreneur, and I think the rest of our management team, realize that we don’t need a lot of people spending a lot of money to really go out and make money and do an exceptional job of accomplishing our mission and increasing shareholder value. – Darien Dash, CNN

Giving Back Pays Things Forward

Around the same time, Dash decided to prioritize community outreach at DME, which paved the way to more success. As if by kismet, he realized the importance of a concept he calls “doing good while you do well.”

Dash was the technology chair of Harlem’s school district #5 at the time, and he used this position to put computers into the hands of thousands of students through the school system. He also served on the board of a group called HEAVEN, or Helping Educate, Activate, Volunteer, and Empower. The group’s goal was to use the internet as a vehicle for opportunity advancement for African American teens in New York City. It taught them the computer skills they would need to survive the inevitable digital transition that Dash saw coming like a freight train.

Dash believed these children could use the internet to achieve more because it was “colorless.” This removed some of the traditional stumbling blocks that minorities faced on their path to financial freedom and personal success.

We want people to learn how to use this technology effectively, so they can be successful and change their lives. – Darien Dash, Billboard, via Encyclopedia.com

Simultaneously, Darien was also a board member of a group called MOUSE, or Making Opportunities for Upgrading Education. Eventually, MOUSE and HEAVEN merged under the MOUSE mantle and continued their groundbreaking work.

It was through these charitable endeavors that Dash met Ted Leonsis, an AOL executive. This relationship soon blossomed into a concept that furthered Dash’s goals of bringing minority communities into the internet age.

Darien Dash Launches Places of Color in 2000

It’s somehow fitting that Darien Dash’s community involvement enabled him to forge onward toward a revolutionary initiative he called Places of Color. In partnership with AOL, the DME subsidiary marketed both computers and online service to consumers in the very communities Dash helped wire for online access years before.

If potential subscribers needed a computer to log on with, DME was ready to provide them through a concurrent deal with a major computer company offering discounted prices to anyone who signed up for POC service.

Our price points start at about $150 and they range up. And that’s the price of a pair of sneakers. And that’s the way that we look at it. You going to buy your son a pair of Jordan’s this Christmas or you going to buy your son a new machine or refurbish a certified pre-owned machine? – Darien Dash, CNN

Dash pulled out all the stops to reach the masses with these opportunities, using tactics he developed as a consultant for clients like the New York Knicks. He continued to give back by keeping a focus on the community at the forefront of his business ventures.

We bought a tournament this year, where we lead sponsored a tournament out in Orchard Beach, which is a hot spot, you know, for the summertime, where our brand is being premiered. And we’re going to be doing PC giveaways out there and really promoting places of color and promoting the concept and the movement, because for us it is the movement, which is about more than just making money, although making money is an important part of it. – Darien Dash, CNN

Another notable moment in Darien Dash’s arch of success is the role he played in helping President Bill Clinton understand how to bridge the technological gap to make the internet available to all Americans. Dash accompanied President Clinton on his New Markets tour in 2000.

Additionally, Dash spoke to Congress about the dangers of what he described as the “digital divide” and advised that eliciting the help of cultural leaders and giants in the entertainment industry would play a crucial role. If the internet seemed cool to kids, they’d be clamoring for access.

Considering that the divide Dash referenced was significant at the time, with 17 percent of white households having internet access versus 8 percent of black and Latino households, the world might be a different place without his influence.

Dash’s Inspirational Life and Legacy

Darien Dash is a prime example of how hard work and a keen business sense makes market magic. His dedication to supporting minority communities is also inspirational and an approach we see far too rarely in today’s business moguls.

Although Dash wasn’t the only black entrepreneur in the emerging tech space, it’s impossible to tell the story of the internet in America without mentioning him. His work was instrumental in forging not only his own career but technological access for people across the country.

Read more from Darien Dash:

https://www.inc.com/author/darien-dash