Usher Raymond IV carries a small silver humidor filled with the finest cigars. He owns a pair of every Air Jordan shoes released.
He has a stable of luxury cars, owns homes on multi-acre properties and can’t show his face in public without inciting rabid, screaming fans. Over a nearly 20-year career, he has earned pop superstardom.
But in the late ’80s, in a room full of rowdy kids at the Boys & Girls Club in Chattanooga, Tenn., 11-year-old Usher was just hanging out, shooting hoops, and learning how to be a leader rather than another statistic from his impoverished neighborhood. The young man, destined to become a multi-platinum recording artist, actor and businessman, needed the safe haven of that after-school club to keep him off the streets and away from potential dangers: drugs, gangs, violence.
“At a young age, I found a great influence in being in places like the Boys & Girls Club,” says Usher, now 31, in his trademark tenor. “I think that’s where my mentoring—the vision of mentoring started—having elders mentor my development. You know, there were a few people that took a liking to me and helped me to develop myself as an artist.”
Today, the father of two, part owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and winner of five Grammy Awards, four American Music Awards and 17 Billboard Music Awards, traces his worldwide success back to those early days and the persistent support of his mother, Jonetta Patton. “I do have to attribute a lot of it to having an incredible parent and incredible mentors around me that helped me because I was so intrigued about life and wanted to do something that would be meaningful,” he tells SUCCESS. “When I look at people who have built legacies that they’ve left behind for their families, or a legacy that they’ve left behind for art and culture, it started from that place.”
The Beginning of a Brand
Despite their poverty, Usher, his mother and younger brother, James, led a musically rich life. Gifted early with a powerful voice, 9-year-old Usher sang in the choir at St. Elmo Missionary Baptist Church in Chattanooga. When Patton remarried and the family moved to Atlanta, Usher entered the TV talent contest Star Search, where he won Best Teen Male Vocalist at age 12.
Patton made sure young Usher got all the exposure possible at local gigs and talent shows, and eventually he met Antonio “L.A.” Reid, music producer and co-founder (with Babyface) of LaFace Records. Usher’s audition for Reid was, well, unconventional. Still only 13, he sang for the women in Reid’s California office, serenading them one at a time, kissing hands and even a knee. His natural charm—one woman nearly swooned—and pitch-perfect vocal delivery earned him a recording contract the same day.
From his first album released in 1994 to his seventh, Raymond v. Raymond, released this year, the R&B sex symbol has created hit after hit, selling more than 45 million records worldwide, largely to an audience of women. His fourth album, Confessions, sold more than 1 million copies in its first week, the highest first-week sales ever for an R&B artist. He was the first solo artist to have three singles in the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 simultaneously, putting him in a dead heat with the Beatles and the Bee Gees. Usher writes, sings and produces, and he’s made forays into television, film, Broadway and business.
A New Look at Leadership
“There is a saying—I don’t know if my mother made this up herself or she read it somewhere—but there’s a saying that she always would quote to me: ‘Strivers achieve what dreamers believe.’ And that always stuck with me,” Usher says. “Strivers achieve what dreamers believe. It works.”
And he worked. Hard. Vocal coaches, mentors, long hours in the studio and on the road sometimes made Usher’s teen years more like an extended business trip than a childhood. But the work paid off. And when the fame arrived, Usher remembered the individuals who had lifted him up as a boy.
By 1999, the singer was in the habit of lending his name and time to other people’s philanthropic missions, but he felt compelled to do more for kids who, like him, came from impoverished areas. So at only 20 years of age, he created Usher’s New Look Foundation (UNLF), an organization dedicated to empowering youth and passing on the gifts he had been so freely given.
“The system, in a lot of ways, has failed us,” Usher says. Especially, he believes, when it comes to preparing “the lower-tier kids from underserved communities. So that’s where it started. And we’ve been doing it now for roughly 11 years.” Today, the foundation serves seven cities and has worked with more than 8,700 young people in the areas of leadership, service and personal development.
Beyond the numbers, the individual stories of students learning to believe in themselves and make a difference in their communities illustrate the foundation’s success. Richard Earl Lawson III, also known as BeatRocka, and Sebastian Van Oudenallen are two of the kids whose futures look very different now thanks to UNLF.
Powered by Service
When Lawson walked into the Boys & Girls Club after school one day in 2009, he wasn’t expecting to study business. He really wasn’t interested in business. He was, however, interested in what he could do to become successful in the music industry, so he listened when a UNLF representative talked about a two-week camp for kids with talents in sports or entertainment.
Lawson, 18, is a rapper and songwriter. “From being at Camp New Look,” he says, “I got a business understanding of the career I’m trying to pursue, which is very important. So I know the ins and outs of the industry I want to get involved in instead of just being some no-brain entertainer.”
Along with business classes, Lawson learned personal development lessons, honed his musical abilities and discovered he could put that talent to use to help others. While at camp, Lawson recorded a song to raise awareness for the Nothing But Nets campaign against malaria in South Africa.
“There’s nothing like getting behind something, especially in the beginning, and seeing it come to fruition, and then seeing the expressions on the people’s faces who you’re helping,” he says. Since leaving camp, Lawson has worked on other service projects, including a skate-off to raise awareness of childhood obesity. “I’m thankful to New Look for opening my eyes to something that they were closed to. I want to be more involved in my neighborhood. I want my community to look at me like a leader.”
Usher is passionate about inspiring students to lead, just as he was inspired at such an early age. “Young people are equipped to understand leadership,” he says. “Everybody is not going to be a leader, but at least we’ll motivate somebody. You never know who you’re motivating. You could be motivating tomorrow’s Barack Obama or the future’s Oprah Winfrey.”
Sebastian Van Oudenallen was already volunteering in his community, tutoring elementary and middle-school students in Milwaukee, Wis., when he heard about UNLF’s Powered by Service grants for student-led service projects. A 17-year-old high-school student, Oudenallen knew exactly what he’d do with that money.
“Most of the students that I tutor are Hispanic and underserved. The kids themselves are very bright, but at the same time it didn’t seem like they had the vision or the tools to become successful,” he says, echoing Usher’s vision for the foundation. “I wanted to do something for these kids.”
After receiving the grant, Oudenallen used his time over spring break to prepare a field trip to give the kids an understanding of the college experience, encourage their belief in themselves and make college a closer reality in their lives. He called the project “Over the Gap” for “the educational gap that’s dramatic, especially in Wisconsin, between white and minority students,” he says.
After a month and a half of planning, Oudenallen took 30 kids to the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee for a campus tour that included a visit with a UWM soccer player. An architecture professor talked to the students about two Nobel Prize-winning Mexican architects, “emphasizing that students just like them could become world famous,” Oudenallen says.
Kids and parents received brochures, printed in Spanish and English, which provided financial aid tips, places to learn about college programs and success habits that families could implement at home.
“The seed planted will harvest to be great in time,” Usher says. “It’s the responsibility for us as adults to make sure our kids have the tools that they need to function in life.” He emphasizes to students the importance of positive daily habits and consistently seeking new opportunities. “You’ve got to ask questions; you have to be willing to open your mouth. A quiet baby doesn’t get fed. There is a ton of information, opportunity out here; you’ve got to go after it. It’s not going to come to you. Eventually, if you do the right things, then success will follow you. But you have to create a profile in life that speaks to the individual you will grow to be, not just the current situation you’re in.”
Lawson, who has met Usher more than once and admits to being “a little star struck,” says his experience with UNLF has taught him to be bold. “Don’t let your fear hold you back,” he says. “Don’t let the fact that you don’t think you’re good enough stop you from trying something.”
Oudenallen credits UNLF for helping him understand the importance of being “an architect,” pulling together a team to fulfill a vision. “Usher’s New Look really made me understand what it is to be a community leader, and that, as much as I felt like I pioneered the [Over the Gap] project, I couldn’t have done it without so many other people with skills they could contribute to make the experience even more enriching.”
From Brand to Business
Usher applies the same teamwork philosophy to his own business endeavors. When, like any smart money manager, he was ready to diversify, he turned to mentors for help—people who had carved out success in business despite challenges—“guys like Dick Parsons [of Citigroup], you know, individuals like Magic Johnson, like Russell Simmons, like Puffy Combs, who I happened to spend a great deal of time with when I was younger,” he says. He drew lessons from the lives of other entrepreneurs, including the owner of Jet magazine and Ebony magazine, the late John H. Johnson. “These are the success stories that lead you to understand that, OK, it has to be more than creativity,” Usher says. “Business is what building a legacy is about.”
In May, Usher was honored along with Johnson at the Ford Freedom Awards in Detroit, celebrating African-American accomplishments in entrepreneurship.
In 2005, Usher followed his love for sports and became part of the ownership team for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. He lent his musical talent and brand development experience to the Cavs franchise, even inspiring fans to imitate his new crossed-arm double “C” symbol for the team. Earlier this year, his song “More” was central to Turner Network Television’s marketing campaign for the NBA All-Star game.
Usher encourages others to follow their passions when seeking business opportunities. “Chances are you may or may not succeed in everything that you want, but at least you’re trying and you’re finding your way to it. You may want to be a football player, but you may find greater value in being a coach or a physical trainer, or whatever it may be that ultimately allows you to be close to what you love. I mean, I would love to be a Jordan or to have been Arthur Ashe, or something like that, but I couldn’t play those sports. But then I got to a point through all I’ve accomplished in life that I found my way to basketball and became an owner.”
In 2008, he launched the top-selling Usher HE and Usher SHE fragrance line in partnership with Elizabeth Arden. In 2008, he released a second line, UR for Men and UR for Women. His most recent men’s fragrance is called VIP.
Usher also runs his own recording company—US Records—that released the 2005 soundtrack for the movie In the Mix, in which Usher also starred. And he’s gaining a reputation for his work with other artists, mentoring them as he does the UNLF students and offering guidance in the business of music. His eye for talent helped teen singer Justin Bieber land a record deal with Reid’s Island Records.
Today, Usher’s approach to investments is simple: “If it don’t make money, it don’t make sense,” he says, smiling slyly. “Ultimately, business is the baseline for all productivity. You have to understand it, otherwise it’ll blow by you, and you’ll be looking around like ‘What happened? Did I make the most of this opportunity?’ ”
He stays focused on creating the life he wants through persistent goal setting, which he calls “the key to success…. It’s a matter of being focused, diligent in my attitude about life and about what I want to accomplish. I created a plan; I deviated from it a lot, but for the better. But it always was and is gratifying.”
Usher leads his UNLF students by example, continuing to seek advice in his creative endeavors, remaining teachable even at the top of his career. His mentors have ranged from rapper and businessman Sean “Puffy” Combs to godfather Ben Vereen, who worked with Usher during his stint in Broadway’s Chicago. “I learned how music works dealing with [songwriter] Jermaine Dupri, and I learned how image works dealing with Puff Daddy,” Usher told USA Today.
He’s also always tried to maintain “a kick ass attitude,” he says with a laugh, “being open to all of the opportunities that were there.”
A few difficult years have put his optimism to the test recently. Divorced in 2009, he’s now a single father to 2-year-old Usher Raymond V and 1-year-old Nayeid Ely Raymond. And there was some very public back and forth with his mother, who is also his manager. “You know, there were 10 times more hard days than there were great ones that led to the position that I’m in right now,” he says. But his attitude, his service to others and his music keep him going. “You make your reality in life, in a lot of ways.”
And today, Usher’s reality is built on his failures and his willingness to admit he doesn’t have all the answers. “You definitely have to build on your failures because failure is not an ‘option,’ but an auspice to something greater,” he says. “You allow yourself to live through, not be through, you know? It’s not over. This is just a means to get closer to what you ultimately want. It’s not just going to be given to you; life doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to work at it.”
For Usher, who has the critics’ title of “the next Michael Jackson,” opportunity knocks often. He may not be the skinny kid who played pickup games in the Boys & Girls Club in Chattanooga anymore. But touched early by struggle and the support of his community, Usher’s heart is in the same place. He puts most of it into time spent with his sons and with the kids at UNLF. The time he takes to mentor is “heart work” rather than “hard work,” and it’s how he defines success. “The meaning of success is contribution,” he says. “What have you given that made a difference?”