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The Giant Steppers: Susan Campion and M.anifest

He is a rapper from Ghana, who has toured with Damon Albarn of the Gorillaz and was nominated for best songwriter at the 2012 Ghana Music Awards. She is an independent business consultant, a globetrotting former 3M executive who teaches at the University of St. Thomas.

Kwame Tsikata (M.anifest) and Susan Campion make an unlikely business partnership. But for the third year, they are gathering more than 100 creative entrepreneurs at the Giant Steps conference on November 16. Think of it as a Startup Weekend for creative types.

"The first year we did this, I saw a 22-year-old hip-hop producer sitting next to a 60ish sheep farmer and fiber artist," Campion says. "The mix of people we attract is one of our strongest assets."

Unlikely collaborations are one of the primary goals at Giant Steps. The 2012 lineup includes a daylong seminar, networking happy hour, and after-party at the Guthrie Theater with panelists speaking on topics like "Charging What You're Worth," "Data-Driven Marketing" and "Creative Careers Call for Creative Parenting."  

"We all essentially become resources to each other and possible future collaborators," Tsikata says in an email from Ghana. "You’d be surprised what kind of powerful influence the story of the chef or the architect-turned-furniture-owner has on a muralist or a budding independent artist."

Campion encourages her clients and students to "cast a wider net" and learn from everybody, not just the well-known success stories of Apple and Google. For example, lessons to encourage client engagement might come from watching a rapper plan for audience participation in a concert, capitalizing on magical moments as they happen.

The Challenges of the Creative Side

Creative entrepreneurs and artists face difficulties unlike those of traditional careers, Campion says. Their business models often don't have blueprints. Money management can be a challenge initially. Payments can come in droughts or windfalls, which can take entire families on a financial roller coaster ride. And even if someone is starting a company with three other people, that's a relatively small support network.

"Depending on what kind of work you're doing, it can feel pretty solitary," Campion says.
Tsikata says the pace of growth is also a challenge. Many creative businesses experience an initial surge in growth as they are discovered by the press.

"After the novelty of being the new kid on the block wears off, it takes a significant amount of strategic long-term planning, pulling together resources, creativity, and a good amount of luck to take things to the next level," he says.

An Unlikely Partnership

Campion and Tsikata connected quickly when talking about these challenges. Campion mentors at the High School for Recording Arts, and as a fan of Tsikata's music, she invited him to speak at the school. They started talking about the launch of their own businesses: he paid for his first album with a jingle in a Pepsi commercial; she hit high levels at 3M before taking a mid-life career change. They talked about living outside their home countries: Tsikata splits his time between Minneapolis and Accra, Ghana; Campion lived abroad in five different countries before moving back to Minnesota. They also connected on the existential questions of their careers.

"Going home for the holidays, you're facing questions about when you will get a real job," Campion says. "Or you wake up in the middle of the night thinking, 'What have I done?'...A common
theme was how to maintain your resolve and tenacity as you're getting things going. It struck me, it struck both of us."

When Campion and Tsikata decided to host a professional development conference for creative entrepreneurs, they didn't over-think it--they gave themselves five months of lead time before the inaugural conference. Apparently that was all the time they needed. They drew 115 participants without advertising, drawing participants through social media and word-of-mouth.

"I'm kind of proud of the fact that we just did it," Campion says. "We didn’t start out with a business plan and lots of research. We talked to a few people and we were motivated by their enthusiastic reactions to the idea, and then we just plowed forward to make it happen."

This year's panelists include a Northeast Minneapolis ceramist, the owner of Brave New Workshop, an attorney focusing on intellectual property rights, and a product manager from Rhymesayers.

Hip-hop has a notable presence at Giant Steps. That's due in part to the founders' connections, but Tsikata says it's no accident that they attend in numbers. The backgrounds of many hip-hop artists require them to hustle out of a hopeless environment, he says, fueling a business-savvy mind.
"You'll seldom find a hip-hop album that doesn't address the idea of 'how to make it,' being 'self made,' and other similar ideas," he says.

Ghana and Saint Paul

Tsikata's career trajectory has swung hip-hop from a pastime, to a side job, to a full-time business.
He was part of a hip-hop group in his Ghanaian high school, but he didn't start seriously performing and recording music until he reached the Twin Cities. He attended Macalester College and majored in economics, taking a full-time job as a development associate and performing on the weekends.

"The Twin Cities has many inspired DIY stories of successful artists, so it was an inspirational scene to be in," he says. "Still it became evident that to make significant strides independently, we needed to pony up some significant resources."

As Tsikata debated who to ask for a loan, he caught a lucky break. He was invited to submit a jingle for PepsiCo. The Pepsi executives liked the tune and used it liberally in a national ad campaign. The royalties essentially paid for Tsikata's first album.

"Without some of the cash flow that came from that, I doubt I could have handled the many unanticipated costs that come with pushing an album," he says.

M.anifest's sophomore album, released a year ago, is "Immigrant Chronicles: Coming to America."
The album has widespread critical acclaim, but Tsikata still finds it difficult to balance the artistic and business sides of his work.  

"If I had my way, I would write music and lyrics all day long," he says. "Yet it’s been important to recognize the need to prioritize and spend time on building the brand as much as my creative work. There should be no shame for a creative to think of themselves as a business and [consider] how to make money from one’s talent."

Multilingual Multitasker

Campion has battled a left-brain, right-brain tension in her career path as well.

She carries degrees in math and industrial engineering, but she also studied classical piano for 16 years, starting at the age of 5.

"I couldn't figure out how to combine those two things successfully in a career, so I went with the one that seemed like a good job," she says.

Campion's family moved to Belgium when she was 17, and her language skills aided  her over the course of 12 years at 3M, where she held management positions in France, Italy, Germany, and the United States. Most of her work focused on launching new initiatives and changing the way work was done. Her first job in Italy formed an internal consulting group.

"I liked massive projects, work that was oriented around doing something new, and things that were not very well-defined," she says. "I resisted more traditional roles and projects."

Eventually, Campion started searching for nontraditional opportunities.

"I decided it was now or never if I was going to do something different," she says. "I didn't have a lot of free time to work in the community. Leaving allowed me to spend time on things that are important
to me, and explore ways to combine my creative and analytical interests."

Their Own Giant Steps

Campion and Tsikata's ventures continue to grow. In the weeks leading up to the Giant Steps conference, Tsikata released a new music video and performed at the Channel O Music Awards in Africa. And Campion's firm, Camponovo Consulting, sponsored the Diasporas@MSP conference, which was the Twin Cities' first cross-cultural convening of diaspora stakeholders.

"Kwame and myself, we are our audience," Campion says. "In many ways, we're living similar lives — and facing similar challenges — as our audience. This helps us in understanding what kind of issues
they face and what kind of support they need."

Michelle Bruch's last article for The Line told the story of three local Kickstarter projects, in our October 3, 2012 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

M.anifest (Kwame Tsikata) and Susan Campion leading Giant Steps (Courtesy Giant Steps)

Susan Campion (Photo by Bill Kelley)

M.anifest in the video for "Asa" ("To Dance") from Immigrant Chronicles

Inspirational screen grab from the Giant Steps promotional video
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