When Larry Irvin and Kristyna Jones met at Mardi Gras in 2011, they immediately connected through their shared love of hip-hop and rap. Then the conversation got more personal: Jones gave Irvin her perspective of working in community development in New Orleans both before and after Hurricane Katrina, and Irvin shared his story of growing up as a black man in New Orleans with questions of self-identity.

“Young black men are perpetually trying to figure out who they are supposed to be, because the representations both in our neighborhoods and schools are, a lot of the time, negative,” Irvin says, citing high rates of incarceration and unemployment.

Irvin and Jones came up with a potential solution: getting more black men into the classroom.

“There’s a particular demographic, even within the demographic of black men, who aren’t attached to their academic experience,” says Irvin, 36. “College is something they’re told to do, but not with any purpose behind it.”

Together, Irvin and Jones founded Brothers Empowered to Teach, a nonprofit that urges people of color – particularly black men – to explore careers in education. It seeks to generate a network of teachers who serve as role models for the next generation.

Starting with just seven fellows in 2014, the organization has since grown to have over 40 participants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It has partnered with over 10 schools across New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and four graduates of the program teach in New Orleans public schools.

Irvin himself is a former substitute teacher, a job he held while coaching high school football. He discovered that he had a special connection with many of the kids.

“Having grown up in some of those same neighborhoods that they did, there was a cultural connection,” says Irvin. “It started to seem like I was meant to do this work.”

Larry Irvin of Brothers Empowered to Teach gets a standing ovation at the Austin Creator Awards.

The organization offers two programs for future educators: a one-year program tailored toward college graduates and those changing careers, and a three-year fellowship geared toward current college students. The organization’s teachers get together on Saturdays for professional and personal development workshops.

“We have intimate conversations about things like redefining what masculinity looks like, around male-female gender relationships, and around sexual orientation,” says Irvin. “We’re trying to create a better version of the individual, which in turn turns them into a great educator.”

Brothers Empowered to Teach got a big boost last year at WeWork’s Austin Creator Awards. When it was announced that the organization had won $130,000, Irvin was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd of more than 2,750 people.

A WeWork member, Irvin uses the company’s spaces when he travels, especially to cities like Austin and Washington, D.C.

While Brothers Empowered to Teach has so far worked with only male teachers, the organization recently opened up 30 percent of its seats to women of color.

“It is really beautiful to see our fellows attached to something, approaching education with fervor and excitement,” Irvin says. “We’re trying to change the narrative and reignite a lost reverence for the education profession.”

For Jaden Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness is more than just the creatively misspelled title of the film he debuted in at age 7 with his superstar dad, Will Smith.

It’s the overarching goal in life, says the 20-year-old musician-activist-entrepreneur. “Unhindered, long-term happiness,” he emphasizes. “People think it’s the new car, the job promotion, but it’s not. That’s not what success looks like. Success is happiness.”

Smith alighted on the subject as part of an insightful address at the “Make It Happen” track, a panel discussion at WeWork’s recent Global Summit in Los Angeles. Sporting powder-pink hair and clad in apparel from his MSFTSRep sustainably-sourced fashion brand Smith possessed his father’s charisma; the directness of his mother, actress Jada Pinkett Smith; and a preternatural maturity.

“I’m young and on the path of trying to make things happen,” he says. “But everything I do in my life, I do for my parents.”

“Failure is important because it’s how you keep going,” says Jaden Smith.

So far, he’s done a lot. He went into acting against the advice of his well-meaning parents, who warned him that it was a lot harder than it looked. But when his dad had trouble finding the right young boy to play his son in Pursuit, Smith got his chance. He nabbed roles in other films—The Karate Kid and After Earth—while segueing into music; his debut album, SYRE, which came out in late 2017, hit 100 million streams on Spotify. His clothing brand, MSFTSRep, has the lofty ambition of reusing materials as much as possible: Pants that Smith wore on stage were embellished with patches of old T-shirts that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

And then there’s JUST Water, his brand of water bottled in Glen Falls, New York, which comes in plant-derived packaging with a cap made from sugarcane, designed to be reused or recycled with none of the long-term environmental impact of plastic. On the market since 2012, JUST Water—a member at WeWork 311 W 43rd St in New York—is now sold in 30,000 locations across the country, including Target, Ralph’s, and CVS.

The success of the brand fueled JUST Impact, a nonprofit arm of the company predicated on environmental preservation. JUST Impact’s latest initiative involves installing a reverse-osmosis filtration system in the lead-ridden water supply in Flint, Michigan. With this pilot program, the city can purify 10 gallons of water every 60 seconds, allowing residents to ultimately wean themselves off of the reported 3 million bottles of water consumed each year.

“Instead of having to outsource [water], we said, ‘Let’s create something for you here where you can pump your own clean water, in your community,’” Smith explains. “I’d been seeing them struggle for so long, and I asked, ‘Why isn’t someone doing something about this?’ Ultimately, what I’m trying to do is to help people around the world.”

As if this weren’t enough to keep anyone busy, with Smith there are always more ideas percolating, companies incubating, and partnerships forming. “If it’s more of a complex idea, the first thing I will do is find a business partner, someone I can explain it to and they get it,” he says.

Next, he focuses on team-building, which he says is a critical step in any endeavor. “We look for the next piece of this puzzle. We go through our phone books and find someone who could be a business manager. Then I say, ‘Do we all still get this vision? Do we get the mood boards?’ I repeat that the whole time, meeting after meeting until we’re sitting around a conference table with 10 people, and we can say, ‘OK, let’s get it done. Let’s go.’”

For Smith, the true measure of success may be happiness, but he also finds value in failure. “Failure is important because it’s how you keep going—it’s what you do right after you fail,” he says. “Nobody is meant to win all the time. Instead of saying, ‘I failed today,’ start saying, ‘Here’s how I learned, experienced, or grew today.’”

Paint is big business—and for most of us, a big hassle. While American consumers are expected to spend just north of $30 billion on paint and paint accessories in 2019, the process of choosing, buying, and applying paint to homes, offices, and retail spaces is often an aggravating one.

“Buying paint has traditionally involved an overwhelming color selection, poor customer service, many trips to the store, and a lot of frustration,” says Nicole Gibbons, an interior designer who founded the direct-to-consumer startup Clare as a way to offer design-focused customers an easier, better way to engage with every step of the painting process.  

From colors named after trendy incense to paint that promises to reduce sound, new direct-to-consumer brands like Clare are proving that changing the color of your walls can be easy, cost-effective, and stress-free.

With Clare, it’s all about taking the guesswork out of painting a room. A point of pride for Gibbons is Clare Color Genius, a tool she describes as “a digital color consultation paired with a high-tech algorithm that delivers an expert color recommendation.” It prompts users to upload images and information about natural light in the space, furniture, personal style, and more before offering suggestions. An easy swatching system (stick-ons!) helps customers narrow the field to the color, and a calculator determines exactly how much paint is needed to cover the area.  

The direct-to-consumer startup Clare offers design-focused customers an easier, better way to engage with every step of the painting process.

More than anything, the future of paint is one in which logistics aren’t a concern—the direct-to-consumer model, says Gibbons, allows her to see in real-time what her customers need and offer them the right products each step of the way.

For Caleb and Natalie Ebel, the husband-and-wife team behind Backdrop, the frustration with the painting process was personal. “We’ve painted every apartment we’ve lived in,” says Natalie of the New York City-based couple, who previously worked in financial operations at Warby Parker (Caleb) and marketing (Natalie). So in November 2018, they launched Backdrop, their own direct-to-consumer paint company. From the start, they knew they’d tapped into something important.

“We had an amazing community of early Backdrop brand supporters—some of whom we met at WeWork Corrigan Station in Kansas City, Missouri (the Ebels call New York home but are originally from Kansas City, and often travel there to visit family)—who helped vote on colors and paint names,” says Natalie. Their colors, like “Palo Santo” and “Rose Quartz,” speak the language of Instagram, tapping into trends in design and decor.

Looking beyond home spaces, the Ebels note that the new wave of paint options could be a boon to business owners: “Commercial walls require so much upkeep that Backdrop can really help streamline,” Caleb says. Going the direct-to-consumer route cuts down on shopping time, and smaller color ranges allow businesses to home in on the right look for their spaces instead of poring over an endless array of shades.

Looking beyond home spaces, the founders of Backdrop note that the new wave of paint options could be a boon to business owners.

Other companies bypassing the hardware store are offering paint that does more than change the wall color. Airlite, a member at London’s WeWork 1 Mark Sq and recipient of funds from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, offers a powdered paint product that uses titanium dioxide to reduce not just pollutants but also odor and bacteria.

Shanghai-based Hipaint, a member at WeWork Ciyunsi, offers paint containing polymer-nanofilm technology, which turns any wall into a whiteboard. The product was inspired by founder Justin Cheng’s then-2-year-old daughter. “She just grabbed a marker and drew on the wall,” he said. “An entire wall can hold a totally new world for kids.”

Jonah Lupton came up with the idea for his noise-reducing-paint company, Soundguard, while living in a loud apartment building after college. “I thought, there has to be a better way to deal with this than just trying to soundproof the room itself,” says Lupton, who worked with a team of paint chemists for more than two years to refine Soundguard’s patent-pending formula. The paint is proven to reduce sound through interior walls at nearly 90 percent and is already being used (or soon will be) in hotels and apartment buildings in vacation destinations like Hawaii and business hotspots like San Francisco. But Lupton, whose company is based at WeWork 745 Atlantic Ave in Boston, thinks it holds an obvious appeal for workspaces, too. “Imagine a law office that deals with sensitive information,” he says. “No more whispering and trying not to be overheard!”

One thing nearly every new direct-to-consumer paint company has in common is an emphasis on sustainability and safety—for humans, pets, and plants alike. The products are low-odor, low-VOC (volatile organic compounds), and GreenWise certified, meaning less stress for increasingly health-conscious shoppers.

The new crop of paint startups can’t promise that changing the color of your walls will be quite as easy as changing the color of your shirt—but their goal is to make it as painless, even enjoyable, as possible.

Prep school

Before you paint, check out these tips from our experts.

Stock up ahead of time. Instead of running around the hardware store hoping you get all the right supplies, try a preassembled toolkit, like Backdrop’s Essentials Kit, which comes with all the tape, trays, and brushes you’ll need to get the job done.

Try before you buy. Every expert we spoke to agrees—sampling is key. That’s why new direct-to-consumer companies offer low-priced, easy-to-use swatches you can consider in your space before committing.

Get creative. Have a vision: “Do you want it to feel calm and relaxed, energizing and vibrant?” asks Gibbons. ”Try to find colors that channel those vibes.”

Photos by Katelyn Perry

If you ask the judges of WeWork’s second annual Creator Global Finals how they ended up picking the winners of the international entrepreneurship competition, they have two words: “Adam and Ashton.”

Gary Vaynerchuk—entrepreneur, investor, and chairman of media company VaynerX—says actor and investor Ashton Kutcher and WeWork CEO Adam Neumann approached him on the same day. “They said, ‘We need you.’ And I said, ‘I’m in.’”

Kirsten Green, founder of Forerunner Ventures, came onboard in a similar way. “Ashton told me how passionate he is about the work he’s doing with Adam and WeWork, and how he thought this show was special,” she says. “The companies have ambitions and goals in terms of big business but are also about having impact. It’s an honor to come be involved for a few hours.”

Vaynerchuk, Green, and Kutcher were joined on the Microsoft Theater stage in Los Angeles on Jan. 9 by fellow investor (and rapper) Sean Combs to hand out prizes of over $1.7 million to three mission-driven business ventures and one nonprofit in the Global Finals. They explained what they were looking for in the winners.

Know your unique perspective: “The very basic criteria is, how differentiated is the business?” says Green, an early investor in retail brands like Glossier, Outdoor Voices, Dollar Shave Club, and Bonobos. “Are they really playing into a new space in the market? Are they offering an opportunity for business to get done better, both more efficiently and in terms of delivering a better experience?”

“The very basic criteria is, how differentiated is the business?” says Kirsten Green, an early investor in retail brands like Glossier, Outdoor Voices, Dollar Shave Club, and Bonobos.

When she listens to a pitch, she says, she wants to hear an entrepreneur tick off five items: “Define your business; say how it’s different; say what it is today, what it’s going to be in the future, and why you’re the right leader for it.”

Her dream pitch? “If you could figure out how to touch on each of those five things in a way that’s cohesive storytelling in a quick minute, that’s ideal,” she says. “But it’s really hard to do that.”

Think two (or three) steps ahead: The judges took their jobs seriously, looking for flaws that haven’t been considered or opportunities that haven’t been pursued during the Q&A. “That’s when I start poking a little bit,” Vaynerchuk explains of his investment strategy. “What are their reactions? Do they have a grasp of the second move of their business, not just the first?”

But be honest: While Vaynerchuk values leaders who have ready answers, he can easily suss out spin. “Don’t exaggerate something you don’t understand,” he says.

Chloe Alpert, whose medical-technology-resale startup Medinas Health took home $1 million in funding at the awards, had a ready—and honest—answer when Vaynerchuk asked her about hurdles her company had overcome. She told the panel that a subscription fee for hospitals to use their technology hadn’t worked because cash-strapped institutions weren’t interested in laying out an up-front payment for an untested product. When Medinas decided to charge a fee for each transaction performed on their platform, all 12 of the hospitals they’ve approached said yes.

Keep the consumer top of mind: There was an important human element to the winning pitches. Combs asked Rachel Corson, co-founder of London-based Afrocenchix—an affordable, all-natural hair-care line made for black women—why someone should use their products. Corson answered by pointing out the health risks posed by ingredients in many competitors’ lines. “Every single ingredient [in Afrocenchix’s products] does something for the customers,” she explained. Her products don’t add artificial fragrance on the misguided theory that “all black women want to smell like coconut.”

Take your pitch seriously: Talking to these industry giants was nerve-wracking for competitors—especially considering they were doing it on stage in front of 6,000 people. “Gary V. is an absolute marketing god. Kirsten Green, she knows brands,” Alpert says. “Sean Combs, that dude’s a business dude. My co-founder was like, ‘Oh, yeah, music is secondary. That guy knows business.’”

In the moment, standing in front of them, Alpert remembers thinking, “I need them to know the economics. Every time Gary asks a question, it’s a laser. When Green asks a question, that’s like a bomb.”

The judges clearly enjoyed having a crowd witness the kind of conversations that usually happen behind closed doors. After one exchange with Alpert earned her a round of applause, Vaynerchuk leaned back in his chair and looked out into the theater. “It’s more fun to do this with an audience,” he observed.

The last thing Chloe Alpert did before going on stage to compete in the WeWork Creator Global Finals, which took place at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 9, was set her Apple Watch to airplane mode. She didn’t want to feel the constant buzzes of the device’s notifications. “I call it my shock collar,” she says.

Just 11 months ago, Alpert and her three co-founders launched Medinas Health, a resale marketplace for medical equipment and technology. Now, her wrist silent, Alpert pitched Medinas to Creator judges Ashton Kutcher, rapper and entrepreneur Sean Combs, entrepreneur and chairman of VaynerX Gary Vaynerchuk, and Forerunner Ventures founder Kirsten Green—and won the top prize of $1 million. Only after the win did she switch off airplane mode—and her wrist blew up not with work reminders, but with congratulations from her team and their customers.

“The team makes a business,” Alpert says, basking in the afterglow of her win and the opportunity to share it with the people who’ve believed in her and Medinas. “My co-founders and my team, they’re the reason I get up in the morning.”

“I was like, I know my business. I know this opportunity. I’ve done the work—and when you’ve done the work, it’s easy,” says Chloe Alpert of Medinas Health.

Alpert credits their intensive prelaunch research-and-development phase with helping her impress the judges during the Q&A portion of the event. They needed to determine how much money hospitals lose by getting rid of old but still functional equipment instead of reselling it to smaller institutions. “I couldn’t find a study, because it just doesn’t exist,” she says. “We had to spend a year doing our own study, walking into hospitals, calling customers, reading clinical engineering books, and being like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

So when Vaynerchuk, whom Alpert calls “a marketing god,” was quizzing her about her company’s trajectory, she felt prepared. “I was like, I know my business. I know this opportunity,” she says. “I’ve done the work—and when you’ve done the work, it’s easy.”

Fine-tuning a vision

For Rachel Corson and Jocelyn Mate, the co-founders of Afrocenchix, a line of affordable, all-natural hair-care products for black and mixed-race hair, preparing for the awards was an opportunity to refine their mission and plan for the future if they won. “We spent quite a bit of time talking through our five-year plan,” Corson says. “What are the steps to get there, and how we can help more people? How we can impact our community and have a global impact? We just wrote notes and turned it into a pitch.”

Their planning clearly impressed the judges, who awarded Afrocenchix the second-runner-up prize of $180,000. Corson and Mate were particularly grateful for the opportunity because African-American women receive less than 0.2 percent of venture capital—and it’s even less in their native UK.

“Having the triple barriers of prejudice of being young, black, and female, it’s been really difficult to raise money,” Corson says. “Going through the WeWork Creator process has been fantastic. And the prize means we get to retain control over our company. We’re not forced to say, ‘Do we keep our values or do we take money?’ We can do both.”

Angel House founder Kate Wang says having a long-term vision has helped her organization survive frequent moves over the past 17 years. Now it will have a home of its own.

Angel House, a Shanghai-based organization that supports children with cerebral palsy, won the Nonprofit category prize of $250,000 by audience vote. Founder Kate Wang says that having a long-term vision has helped it survive having to move multiple times over its 17-year history. With the prize money, the organization will finally have a home of its own.

We’re thankful for WeWork’s generosity,” she says. “WeWork is an amazing company that has provided us with an opportunity to help us achieve our dreams.”

Starting from a place of passion

As important as understanding your market is, Tomás Abrahão, founder of Raízs—a platform that connects Brazilian consumers with organic farmers to make it easier for them to access local produce—cautions future contestants not to get too wrapped up in details at the expense of losing your sense of personal urgency and mission. In preparing his pitch to the Creator judges, he said that he talked to his girlfriend and created a list of must-pitch facts.

“We didn’t want it to be something rote, so I just knew bullet points, and then was talking from the heart,” say Abrahão, whose company took the first-runner-up prize of $360,000. “I think we just figured out how to transmit with passion—and hand gestures,” he explains, joking about his full-body presentation style.

Abrahão advises anyone pitching their company to investors to maintain a balance. “Of course, it’s business, but it has to be some passion, some need that you have, that you see in the world. That’s what you have to connect,” he says. “Business is the way that it comes, but you end up winning because of your heart.”