In this captivating episode of Founder Hustle, host Melissa Bradley engages in a compelling conversation with KJ Hughes, the esteemed founder of Manifest and a professor specializing in sports and entertainment business. Join us as KJ shares his inspiring journey of building Manifest into a cultural phenomenon, driven by his unwavering vision for creating extraordinary experiences.Throughout the episode, KJ delves into his deep-rooted desire to establish Manifest as more than just a service, but as an immersive cultural experience. With meticulous attention to detail, he recounts the challenges and triumphs encountered along the path to Manifest’s realization, unveiling the intricacies of crafting an unparalleled business.
Tune in to this enlightening episode as Melissa Bradley and KJ Hughes explore the transformative power of Manifest and its unwavering commitment to enhancing lives through unparalleled service and curated experiences.
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0:00:05.7 Melissa Bradley: From new Majority Ventures and Kinetic Energy Entertainment, this is Founder Hustle.
0:00:12.4 KJ Hughes: If you can see a thing, you can be a thing. And that is the lynchpin, I think. And in the spirit of Manifest is who’s the 19 year old that is trying to decide on, do they go to college or don’t. Who’s the 25 year old that’s stuck at a death job at a bank, being a bank teller? And they’re like, “No, I need to know somebody. I need to meet somebody. I need to… ” This world is not about what you know, this is about who you know, and I wanna make sure that there are enough people coming behind me that know you and I. That can meet us at a Manifest.
0:00:40.8 MB: I love that.
0:00:42.1 KH: Over something very simple as a haircut or a coffee.
0:00:46.1 MB: Welcome to Founder Hustle, a podcast series by, for, and about the new Majority Entrepreneur. I’m your host, Melissa Bradley, founder of 1863 Ventures and co-founder of New Majority Ventures. The road from founder to CEO can be both hard and rewarding. So, in each episode of Founder Hustle, I interview a new majority entrepreneur to find out what their journey really looks like. As a CEO, founder, professor, and general partner of a venture fund, I know how valuable good information and resources are for the new majority. Through shared tools, strategies, and life lessons. We’re here to enlighten, uplift, and educate anyone interested in this entrepreneurial ecosystem so that you too can go from founder to CEO.
0:01:34.8 MB: Living in DC for so long. It is rare that you meet Native Washingtonians, but KJ is just that. Growing up in DC he was immersed in black culture, including hanging out in the barbershop as a serial entrepreneur. KJ saw the significance of the barber way beyond a haircut, and he created Manifest. During his professional career. He learned that he often had lost his identity to make others feel comfortable and for him to feel confident. He also knew that he wasn’t the only one struggling with black identity and his relationship to professional excellence. Manifest is the full representation of black culture, creating a space for folks to gather, look good, feel good, and build with their community. Listen to KJ’s emotional story about his path to success.[music]
0:02:29.6 MB: So I appreciate you coming down, but we know COVID is real. You sound sick over there what’s going on?[laughter]
0:02:34.3 KH: I would’ve never come over here with COVID.[laughter]
0:02:35.5 MB: I trust you brother.
0:02:36.8 KH: Oh man. I’ve had asthma for so long for my whole life, and so I’m just always congested. I’m always insecure about how I sound.
0:02:46.3 MB: Well, you sound good. You look good.
0:02:47.4 KH: But yeah, so I’m always congested. I think I’m using, I’m going to use some of your tricks that you told me last time with the rinses and stuff like that. But that’s why I’m not a radio track [laughter], but I guess the people will let me know. Do I have a love, love talk and slow jams type of.
0:03:00.2 MB: You still got voice. You still got a voice. It just sounds like you run a marathon or you trying to be like heavy breathing, sexy sounds. [laughter] KJ Hughes, founder, CEO of Manifest. We’re in the gear. I love it. So what is Manifest?
0:03:17.0 KH: Manifest is a cultural destination. We provide expert services, we provide supreme quality products, but beyond all of that it is an unrivaled experience. And, it’s working.
0:03:31.8 MB: Right. Clearly.
0:03:33.9 KH: It’s working really, really well. So, when you walk in, we are a four seater barbershop. We intentionally put that in the window because that’s the thing that I believe culturally transcends.
0:03:45.1 MB: It’s right. Invites people in.
0:03:46.1 KH: That’s it. Right. I think everybody who’s anybody recognizes a barbershop. I think the coffee offering, the retail offering and our cocktail offering, again, are a way to show, right, the premium. And a way to show the, I don’t want to use the word luxurious because I’m not a fan of that word, but a way of showing how intentional and curated our experience is. And so, I think that’s where, I think everyone sees themselves in the barbershop or at least understands what that is. And I think the coffee, cocktail and clothing piece is where you kind of start to segment, right? Where it’s like, “Okay, that’s my thing. That’s my thing. This is my thing.” And together I’m hoping we’re hitting on a huge demo. But next location, we double down on that and we make sure that we’re spreading that out. Especially, to some of our lady clients.
0:04:43.8 MB: Yep. We appreciate that.
0:04:45.1 KH: Yep.
0:04:46.0 MB: What is in a name? What does Manifest mean?
0:04:49.0 KH: Oh, wow. It’s so loaded. They tried to talk me outta naming it Manifest because it was so loaded, but Manifest is, when I looked at the offerings and we said, why are people doing this? Why do you want to, why is a haircut so important? Right. Why is that daily coffee so important? Why is it important to get fresh? Why is it important to have a cocktail and meet with friends and laugh? And I think this was during the summer of ’19 and into ’20 Right. Where…
0:05:25.7 MB: So before the world got on fire.
0:05:27.8 KH: Before the world got on fire. Right. And we definitely settled on in the summer of 2020 when, just me as a Black man. And I thought about those things and I said, we all are just trying our best, to be our best, to be the best father, to be the best husband, to be the best person. And then the way we spend our time and the way we spend our money is just us trying to manifest that. And that’s where the name kind of stuck. Once I articulated it in that way to my partners, they were like, it’s heavy, but I like it.
0:06:01.6 MB: Yep. It is heavy.
0:06:03.0 KH: I think it still resonates. I think it’s the perfect name for the perfect space. So, it’s the place where you come to add value to yourself, and I think that’s what we’re all trying to do in some way, shape, or form. And I wanted to be sure that our business was rooted in that exchange. Right? And so that’s where Manifest comes from.
0:06:25.0 MB: So, I’ve had the privilege to come to manifest many times. I am a member.
0:06:28.0 KH: Do you? You are amazing.
0:06:31.0 MB: But when I first met you, it was all walls.
0:06:33.1 KH: Yes.
0:06:33.8 MB: It was all white. We were on the phone. You were showing me around. And you had this idea of having the safe space that people could manifest whatever their dreams allowed, but you were pretty intentional about the components that were in there. So, talk about each of the components, and I would say not just why they manifested but why they had history and meaning for you, particularly being from DC.
0:06:55.0 KH: Yeah. I was born in the 80s.
0:06:57.8 MB: Ooh, lucky you.[laughter]
0:07:00.0 KH: My dad has been incarcerated my entire life since ’82. And my mom was a hairstylist coming up in the 80s. She worked at a really popular salon called Shelton’s Hair Gallery.
0:07:12.2 MB: Oh yeah. We go Shelton’s. All right.
0:07:13.4 KH: On Connecticut Avenue. So, she had an opportunity to… It was the upscale.
0:07:18.5 MB: Right, it was the spot, if you could afford it.
0:07:20.7 KH: Yeah. Absolutely.
0:07:21.0 MB: That’s right.
0:07:21.3 KH: So, she had the privilege of being the hair stylist to football players’ wives and girlfriends and entertainment.
0:07:27.9 MB: Sure. People on TV.
0:07:28.7 KH: Exactly. And I grew up in that salon. I earned my first bucks sweeping hair. [laughter] Then I graduated to washing hair and got tips and got compliments on how cute I was. [laughter] I learned a lot in that salon. Self-Confidence. It was filled with a different type of person than what I grew up around and where I lived. Right. Gay and lesbian folk, Black elite. And then every, I think Thursday and Friday you had people who came in and sold goods. Right. EK glasses.
0:08:00.7 MB: That’s right.
0:08:01.1 KH: MCM bags. I got all my school polo from there. It was…
0:08:08.0 MB: It was all delivery services way ahead of time. Yes.
0:08:09.9 KH: Oh man. It was amazing. It was Amazon Prime before Prime. [laughter] And so, I learned a lot in there. I saw a lot. I think that’s where the entrepreneurial roots really start is when you see that service and money exchange. Like immediacy of that. It’s something that’s like, “Oh shit, I gotta get it.”
0:08:30.7 MB: Yep.
0:08:31.7 KH: And I think that’s where the blood was printed in me, running errands, “Hey, go to the store for me or do whatever.” And I knew I was gonna get a cat, I knew I was gonna get some cash that day. Right. And so…
0:08:41.4 MB: And it was safer than selling drugs, which was the other alternative…
0:08:44.1 KH: Oh my God.
0:08:44.4 MB: For many young folks here in DC at that time.
0:08:46.2 KH: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so my mom was intentional about, me being in that environment and she would always say, a devil’s… I’m sorry, an idle mind is a devil’s workshop. And so she would leave out the house or be on her way out the house, and she’s like, “What you got today?” If it wasn’t an articulate sentence, you coming with me.[laughter]
0:09:04.9 MB: I like that. [laughter] A forced field trip.
0:09:08.3 KH: Absolutely. And so to go from uptown Bryan Street, Ward 1 to now, go to work with my mom in Ward 1 on Connecticut Avenue to now own a piece of real estate and a business in Ward 1 that’s a barbershop. It seems like, God’s plan.
0:09:28.8 MB: Yeah. Yeah.
0:09:30.6 KH: And so I didn’t shy away from it.
0:09:31.7 MB: Yep. There are people who may not have been there yet. That’d be the key word. You walk in, and there’s a barbershop that’s in the front. Then there’s this shopping experience. [laughter] In the middle.
0:09:43.6 KH: Your favorite?
0:09:44.0 MB: My favorite spot. So, talk about that shopping experience, because it’s not EK glasses.
0:09:49.8 KH: Yeah. No. No.
0:09:50.4 MB: It’s a little higher end.
0:09:51.3 KH: Yes. Yes.
0:09:51.8 MB: It’s stuff that most people think I’m only gonna see in a magazine. So talk about why that and how that got curated.
0:09:58.8 KH: Our brand is, it says, Manifest is a cultural destination for expert services. Right. And supreme quality products and an unrivaled experience. And so we wanted to make sure that what we represented in our space. Everything from the coffee to the clothes to the haircuts, to the cocktails was everything was of supreme quality. And so we thought about it and it was very difficult and it was very expensive. And we’ll get into, I know we’ll get into numbers and business in a little bit, but the clothing part is, my partner Brian, who’s from Chicago.
0:10:33.4 MB: Best dresser ever.
0:10:35.4 KH: Who’s he most stylish person I’ve ever met. Definitely rooted in that Chicago kind of experience. He and his wife had a boutique for a long time. They were the first, I’d say brick and mortar entrepreneurs of our kind of crew. They had a brick and mortar fresh outta college at 22.
0:10:52.1 MB: Oh wow.
0:10:53.2 KH: Was able to pivot from their first one scale. And so he had all the relationships with the brands. He knows, he has an eye for merchandising. He’s done it, at the highest levels toward, different brands like, Nike’s and then those types of brands. And so I came to him with just a flat idea of, “Hey, let’s put your brand in here.” And he said, “Yo, we could probably go bigger.” And one thing about the brands is they’re really intentional about who they place their things next to. And so, we had to be really strategic early on. And so that’s how you kind of see how this all pieced together was we started out with the idea of how do we elevate the barbershop? Right. How do we take the time and give you back way more in value. Right. So that’s where the different offerings come from.
0:11:43.2 MB: Gotcha.
0:11:43.9 KH: Right. And then in order for us to get the brands that he was talking about, we needed to design our space in a certain way. Right. So, we didn’t initially set out to say, “We’re gonna have the best designed barbershop.” Because we knew our design needed to be out of this world in order to attract the brands and them take us seriously that then, kind of motivated our next decision and call to our designers and architecture. Right. Originally, got two or three nos we cold called, we cold emailed and like, yeah. That just, we got too much on our plate right now, we really don’t take many projects. We take two or three a year. And so we knew what we wanted. We knew and we kept at it. And the world is really small and I’ve been here for 41 years and I don’t beg and ask for favors, but this was one of those things where I needed to piece together.
0:12:38.5 MB: Yeah.
0:12:38.8 KH: Six degrees of separation from this particular design firm. And now it didn’t happen one to one, but I know I put the word out in the streets that, “Hey, this is what we were trying to do.” And nobody, it wasn’t like a straight up assist.
0:12:53.9 MB: Right.[laughter]
0:12:54.7 KH: But a few weeks later we got an email back that said, “Hey, are you still doing that barbershop thing?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And I was on a train in New York the next day pitching, of what it was and why it was important to have a world renowned design in this space. And how important it was, especially for Black people to have something of our own that we could rally around. And not feel like a guest. It resonated.
0:13:23.0 MB: So, you manifested Manifest?
0:13:24.6 KH: There you go. There it is.
0:13:25.5 MB: I love that.
0:13:26.6 KH: And it resonated. And so that’s how a DC born and bred circled through it.
0:13:31.9 MB: So, when I first came, I walked in, I was like, “Damn, this is a hell of a building.” And my question was like, you don’t expect brothers or sisters to buy the building. So like how did that even come about?
0:13:42.7 KH: That’s actually not, we didn’t start there. I drove past May-ish of ’19. There was a for lease sign.
0:13:50.0 MB: Okay.
0:13:51.3 KH: I got the lease pretty easily. It used to be a salon. So, telling we wanted to open up a barber shop, wasn’t hard fetched. But then he had this second floor space that was operating as a Airbnb and that’s where we went to sign the lease. And I’m like, “Well, what are you doing with this?” And that’s where my wheels are turning, you know what I mean? And so he said to this available, I shoot out some loose thoughts, thought about it a little more and said, “Okay, let’s put a lease on that.” I had a small idea of making it a waiting room for the barbershop, but that kind of had some things in it didn’t become what you know it as today. The pushback, that I got was…
0:14:36.1 MB: Like you told other people and they were like, “Well, I don’t know.”
0:14:39.3 KH: Yeah. The pushback I got was, “Hey, that’s quite a feat for Adams Morgan.” You know what I mean?
0:14:45.7 MB: ‘Casue nobody thought that was the up and coming neighborhood, let’s be honest. People jumped over the middle part. Oh, let’s go to Georgetown. Or let’s go east of the river where we’re driving all Black people out. I can imagine a lot of folks were like, “You don’t know what you’re doing, brother. Get outta here.”
0:15:00.6 KH: That’s it.
0:15:00.7 MB: Yeah.
0:15:00.8 KH: Yeah. So lots of pushback specifically… As the idea grew and became more than a normal, the more pushback we got. Finally he said, “Hey, I don’t think that the use is gonna cut it. I’ll give you the first floor, but not the second floor.” And I was devastated at it, ’cause I hadn’t been talking about it and dreaming about it and I’d already had this idea now and every time there was a no, I got much more enthused about, okay, now I know we gotta push forward. And so I’m randomly I’m like, “Hey, well let me buy the building.” [laughter]
0:15:37.1 MB: And could you afford the building when you made that?
0:15:38.9 KH: I didn’t know.
0:15:39.8 MB: Okay. [laughter] I love it.
0:15:40.0 KH: I didn’t know what…
0:15:40.5 MB: Let’s go for it.
0:15:41.3 KH: I didn’t know what two and a half… I had no clue. If I could afford it or not. No clue. I mean, I know I could afford the, whatever the mortgage was.
0:15:47.9 MB: Gotcha.
0:15:49.0 KH: But in terms of my financials and all that, I didn’t know if I could go get a loan though. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t know. But I think the nos and the hurdles that were placed in this journey. I think when you look back on ’em, in order for me to get around or get over, I discovered something that was really special. And something that I had to include. So, when they say trust the process, I don’t think a lot of people… I think people hear that and kind of, it’s passing ’cause it’s been said so long, but when I describe it that way, as in, if you’re going left and there’s a roadblock that forces you to go right. If you knew that going right, you were gonna pick up $10,000.
0:16:33.8 MB: Right. You’d go.
0:16:35.0 KH: You would go straight right.
0:16:35.9 MB: Absolutely.
0:16:36.6 KH: So, if it had not been for the naysayers and detractors and the uphill battle of licensing and if it had not been for each step of that, yes. It cost a tremendous amount of money.
0:16:49.1 MB: Sure?
0:16:49.2 KH: Right. And I wish I could get it back, but it’s also led to a great idea.
0:16:54.0 MB: Yeah. An amazing idea.
0:16:56.1 KH: It also gave us a little more time to flesh out an idea that we didn’t have fleshed out.
0:17:02.3 MB: Gotcha.
0:17:03.1 KH: It gave us that extra oomph to make sure that what we were putting out was special.
0:17:10.7 MB: But it also eliminated some of the restrictions of what you could have done in somebody else’s space.
0:17:15.2 KH: Agreed.
0:17:15.7 MB: Yeah.
0:17:16.0 KH: Agreed. Absolutely.
0:17:16.8 MB: Let’s say all’s well that ends well.
0:17:18.3 KH: Period.
0:17:18.8 MB: There you go.
0:17:19.3 KH: Period.
0:17:19.8 MB: That’s one of the most popular places in DC right now, you’re hosting events, you got people rolling through. You also have a unique concept about membership. Talk about membership. What does that mean? Because in the Black community, we belong to a lot of things. But oftentimes we pay for stuff and then we never show up. Every time I come visit you, it’s full.
0:17:38.7 KH: Yes. Yes.
0:17:39.4 MB: So, why membership and how’s it working?
0:17:41.8 KH: That’s where my business brain comes in. My math skills and my data. I was literally whiteboarding. I was like, what’s my man’s name from Good Will Hunting? I was like in the WeWork over near the yard, [laughter] on the whiteboard, trying to figure out why has the freaking haircut been $20 for 40 year. What is it about it? And so there’s many many reasons. The number one reason is because they’re all independent contractors, I believe. And then number two is…
0:18:16.1 MB: Wait. And so with that right, $20 is high enough that they feel good about it, but low enough because oftentimes they don’t value themselves well. Okay.
0:18:24.7 KH: And so when we look at who a barber is, when we look at that demographic and their skill level, their life, their…
0:18:33.1 MB: Sure.
0:18:34.5 KH: Right? We look at…
0:18:35.0 MB: Well, thanks to Barbershop, we assume they’re older, Black, never had a job, maybe served time but they are the keeper of the neighborhood.
0:18:42.9 KH: Oh, my God. So, I toyed around with how do we… Where do we get off charging? I knew we needed to charge…
0:18:51.7 MB: A lot more.
0:18:52.9 KH: A lot more, in order for us to attract who we wanted to attract and quite honestly, just detract. I couldn’t just jump out there and say, oh, it’s a $60 haircut, without [laughter] providing something on the back end. And so I looked at myself and I used myself as the muse. I started thinning back in 2013. I was on this European tour and randomly in Prague, went to a mall in one of those kiosks.
0:19:21.6 MB: Oh, Lord.
0:19:22.0 KH: And I had been gone already for three weeks and at that point I was peeking through and I’m like, “Bump it. Let me just, you’re selling clippers, here, buzz me.” You know what I mean? And some White lady in Prague in the middle of a mall ave me my first bald haircut.
0:19:36.1 MB: Oh, my God. What’d your wife say?
0:19:39.3 KH: Oh, that’s the first person I… We had just got married too.
0:19:42.1 MB: Oh, Lord. She was like, “Damn.”
0:19:43.1 KH: So, I FaceTimed her? She was like, “Just don’t cut the beard.”
0:19:46.2 MB: Right. Okay. Fair enough.
0:19:47.7 KH: It’s cute. Just don’t cut the beard. [laughter] But that unlocked for me a whole new world of experience when it came to the barbershop. So, from that point on, I was obsessed with finding the most luxurious haircut experience in every city that I went to. From LA to Toronto to here in DC you had the Grooming Lounge. I had never heard of these places prior to me going bald. Why? Because we grew up in a community where your haircut was too important, your hairline was too important, your shape up was too important.
0:20:19.1 MB: You stay with the one brother.
0:20:19.6 KH: That’s it.
0:20:20.1 MB: Till you die.
0:20:21.0 KH: And you were willing to accept all of the many flaws within that customer journey of the old barbershop because at the end, you got a fresh haircut.
0:20:31.9 MB: Right.
0:20:32.4 KH: Right? And it righted all wrongs. I believed, riding me and my whiteboard and my pen, [laughter] believed that that was bullshit. I think that, and we thought, and I think that we set out to prove, and we’re doing a good job at it, that that haircut is too damn important. And if you.
0:20:51.2 MB: It’ll mess up your whole day or make you feel good for the rest of the month.
0:20:53.2 KH: That’s it. And so we zeroed in on that feeling of a fresh haircut. And so we started to look at, how do we supply and demand this? How could we surge price it? Could we charge more on Fridays and Saturdays or the day before Easter or what? And I said, “All right. That’s gonna be too expensive to communicate to the customer.” What is the number one thing that most customers value? Time.
0:21:20.3 MB: Right. Absolutely. Because you can’t get it back.
0:21:23.1 KH: So my days as a party promoter, we charged $100, $200 to cut the line. Every White place in my life that I’ve ever been around commerce, there was always a way to get it faster. And if it did, it came with a premium. And so I took that model and I said, “Let’s try this in the barbershop. Let’s offer a membership and for those members, they get an opportunity to book an appointment in advance. They get a member’s only price and then they get these things to value it.” And we tried it. And it’s working.
0:22:00.0 MB: Right. Clearly.
0:22:00.6 KH: It’s working really, really well. And what that does for us from a business standpoint is, we know that we have to be the cultural destination.
0:22:13.0 MB: Sure.
0:22:14.0 KH: That provides the supreme products. And we have to do it every day because this person is now paying in advance for what they believe is going to be a hit every single time. And so that’s what I preach to my staff.
0:22:27.3 MB: The consistency of that brand.
0:22:28.8 KH: That’s it. That’s what I preach to my staff is we’re not selling haircuts. We’re not selling coffee, we’re not selling merch, we’re not selling cocktails. We are selling an experience and so we have to piss excellence.
0:22:40.0 MB: How hard is that? Because I wanna stay on this whole topic of marketing, how you present yourself. So, I was there the other night, full disclosure. We were having drinks and you weren’t happy with something that was going on. And you were like, “This is not our brand.” And you pulled the sister aside. I don’t know what you said. But you also have been very intentional to bring folks who might not have ever had that experience. And that’s gotta be the hardest thing to have somebody create and serve at a level they’ve never experienced. So, how did you make sure that the culture was represented without having had that experience?
0:23:14.0 KH: That’s an ongoing problem that we solve daily.
0:23:18.9 MB: You’re just spot something.
0:23:20.0 KH: Yeah. I think we’ve created kind of the systems where we try to mitigate the risks in that. But the biggest thing is as a new brand, and we’re rooted in this, you have a lot of brands now that are coming on board are adding this community component to it. I think that, what you just described is indicative of a true community. Where I can pull your coattail and I can point out something that is outside of our community guidelines and outside of what our community members expect and deserve. And that’s what we’ve been able to hone in on, is we don’t talk loudly and repetitively about who we are and what we are. So, the people that come into our space, including the staff, they’re not walking in with this heavy burden of expectation of being the best and what we are saying is, “Hey, we are a community, a growing community, and what we strive for is excellence. And when we missed a mark, if we missed a mark, call us out on it. And we’ll fix it, we’ll address it.”
0:24:30.0 MB: But that’s part of community.
0:24:31.2 KH: That is a part of community.
0:24:32.7 MB: It’s kind of this self-perpetuating quality control because we desire for something bigger than ourselves.
0:24:37.9 KH: Absolutely.
0:24:38.1 MB: Yeah.
0:24:38.9 KH: Absolutely. Now, the difficulty that you ask is, I think that’s where, and I know we’ll get to it, is that’s where capital comes in. We are asking our staff to provide something that most times they’ve never seen. And that’s why I think, matter of…
0:24:51.0 MB: Particularly in institutions that look like us.
0:24:54.1 KH: Specifically in. And so that’s why Manifest is extremely important. Manifest success and scale is extremely important because for the other entrepreneurs, for as many of us that work in the hospitality space to be able to see us succeed in this way. At this top level of service providers. And being up there with the names of the names. I think that is going to influence and inspire the next entrepreneur. That’s gonna inspire that person who’s a server now to stay that track and become a GM at a Black-owned establishment, right?
0:25:39.6 MB: Yeah. But it speaks to the importance of culture as Black people, but also the culture that you’ve created in Manifest for your team. But it’s a universal experience. ‘Cause then where so many places in hospitality go wrong it’s like, here’s the culture, crank it out as fast as you can. Don’t talk to nobody. You get penalized if you drop the food. But the experience is meant to be, it’s calming, it’s relaxing. Come hang out. And there’s this clash of personalities between the staff and the participants or the customers. And you don’t get that in Manifest.
0:26:06.4 KH: Absolutely. Absolutely. I didn’t even think about it that way. But you’re right.
0:26:09.9 MB: If you live in the back of a restaurant, I mean, we have a daughter that’s a chef, it’s like, oh my God. I don’t even wanna know what happens back there. You stop eating at places. But you just watch this furious pace and you’re like, how can I relax? If either you’re too relaxed and you’re not taking my order. Or you’re rushing around and it looks like an accident waiting to happen. And so knowing, particularly now DC, right? I came in 1985. It’s come a long way since Marion Barry. Restaurants galore, high end places galore. No more Chocolate City, more like café con leche. So how do you get the right people to come in? ‘Cause you’re not doing celebrities, you’re not doing what some other party throwers do. So how have you built this community? Because if I remember correctly, you have a very low churn. So, how are you getting them in and why are they staying?
0:26:56.6 KH: I think it’s our authenticity. I think it’s the low pressure environment of the ability to be. I think a huge part of this built community and some that we’re finding traction is difficult, ’cause it doesn’t always, it doesn’t equate to sales per se.
0:27:18.2 MB: Right. Right.
0:27:19.5 KH: And we started Manifest and we invested what we invested in it, because we knew that one location alone wasn’t our goal. And so our voice is, this is a place of peace. This is a place that you have to see and you have to experience. And I think that what is making people tell a friend or come back is that is, I can arrive and Manifest can be what I want it to be on that particular day. We are your boutique.
0:27:54.9 MB: Yep. You are my personal shopper.
0:28:00.3 KH: There you go.
0:28:00.4 MB: And my tequila spot for business meetings. You’re everything that one can eat in one spot.
0:28:04.1 KH: Yep.
0:28:04.6 MB: Yeah.
0:28:04.9 KH: And so for an attorney, young, 28, I’m thinking of an actual person. He’s single, we’re his barbershop and his date night spot, right? And so this past week is when your question actually resonated with me as I went to a couple CBC events. And it’s my first time ever participating in CBC.
0:28:31.3 MB: Gotta love the Congressional Black Caucus. It’s been around forever but it doesn’t attract new people on the regular. [laughter]
0:28:36.9 KH: Yep. It was my first time ever participating in those events and having an invitation because we have this place that the people who are leaders within that community are members, and they’re like, “No, you have to come.” And I was surprised to see our members there.
0:28:55.1 MB: Sure.
0:28:55.8 KH: And they were… I don’t know if they were surprised to see me. I think they were delighted to see me. And they couldn’t wait to say, “Hey.”
0:29:02.3 MB: This is my guy.
0:29:03.0 KH: “Remember what of this place I told you?”
0:29:04.8 MB: Yep.
0:29:06.0 KH: And so that felt really prideful. Why? Because I’m not a barber. It’s not like I’m cutting your hair, but we have accomplished the goal of this hub. This kind of community space that has us glowing and glistening with pride to say, “That’s my place.” You know what I mean?
0:29:27.3 MB: Every time I drive by the girls go, “Oh, there’s your space mommy, there’s your space. Where’s KJ? There’s your space.” But I think that says something around, you said this in different ways. The consistency and authenticity of the experience, even if not perfect, invites people to keep coming back.
0:29:43.0 KH: That’s it.
0:29:43.8 MB: And it’s huge.
0:29:44.1 KH: That’s it.
0:29:44.9 MB: That is huge.
0:29:45.0 KH: That’s it.
0:29:46.1 MB: That’s huge. We’ll be back with more Founder Hustle after the break. Welcome back to Founder Hustle. Here’s more of my conversation with KJ Hughes. You alluded to the one space is great, but I can’t see my shoes. Poor Brian running up and down the steps. He losing weight daily, ’cause your storage place is upstairs. But even with those flaws, people still show up. So what’s the vision for Manifest?
0:30:16.3 KH: The vision is, when I was a kid, into my 20s as well, even as recent as a month ago, two months ago when we went to Paris. The vision is, we have a luxurious space where we can just be. Where I don’t have to show up as KJ Hughes, the serial entrepreneur and professor. And you don’t have to show up as Melissa Bradley, the founder of this thing and that thing and this company and that company.
0:30:51.3 MB: And that’s true. ‘Cause people come in, nobody… It’s like, “Hey, this is so-and-so.” “Oh, you know so-and-so.” It’s all about the social capital, it’s not about the titles. Yeah.
0:30:58.2 KH: It’s not about the titles. And that resonates really, really strongly for me. Because I dropped out of college. I went to Rutgers University out of high school.
0:31:09.2 MB: Jersey?
0:31:10.1 KH: Jersey. I hated Jersey, sorry to my Jersey folk. The turnpike was just something I couldn’t get with. To go to the mall cost me a buck 50. Lord have mercy.
0:31:18.3 MB: Hey. Oh, here we go.
0:31:21.3 KH: But, yeah. Sorry for my Jersey folks.[laughter]
0:31:21.9 MB: Poor Jersey. Poor Jersey.
0:31:26.2 KH: I always had it in my mind. I had success in high school throwing parties and I wanted to be in hospitality. And it’s crazy, the journey.
0:31:34.1 MB: ‘Cause most people don’t. They’re like, “I ain’t trying to take care of nobody else.”
0:31:37.0 KH: Man, it’s crazy the journey that I have taken to get here. And this is a hospitality type brand. Never expected it. But for me, I think, I was at a dinner, what’s called Conscious Capital a few weeks ago. And the moderator came around. It was my first time at a Jeffersonian dinner. The moderator asked…
0:31:58.1 MB: Moving on up.
0:32:00.8 KH: Look at me, right? Now next is what? Next is the vineyards.
0:32:02.1 MB: There you go. Come on up to the vineyard. Come on.
0:32:06.8 KH: Watch out Jack and Jill’s. [laughter] KJ coming baby with my… I’mma have some backyard playing.
0:32:12.0 MB: There you go. There you go.
0:32:14.5 KH: So the question came around like, who has been your biggest influencer? And I was, it’s one of those where you don’t have to talk. It wasn’t like everybody had to talk and I’m thinking. It’s strangers around and whatever you’re talking you wanna make sure it’s something prolific and powerful. And I’m like, only two people I could come up with was Hove and Barack Obama. And why for Jay-Z it was, I didn’t see at work, the successful people that I saw in my life, did not become successful legally. The people who I looked up to coming up, the two other people that I can name were White. A White female teacher who looked out for me and a White businessman, club owner who gave me one of my first deals on my own. Who’s like, I see something in you kid. But beyond besides Hove and how he moved and his lyrics and Barack Obama actually being able to get elected. For me, I’m out here swirling in the wind. I’m out here trying to figure it out because my mom told me growing up as long as you don’t get anybody pregnant and you stay out of trouble, you’ll be okay. But my 20s come around and I’m not okay.
0:33:41.2 MB: Right, right.
0:33:43.2 KH: You know what I mean? Yeah I’m working, yeah I’m earning, I’m working I’m earning but I don’t hit a lick lick until later later on. And I felt like in order to do that, I had to trade in my locks. I had to trade in my authenticity. So yeah. I was eventually successful but I feel like what I gave up to get into sports and be in sports and be in entertainment and be in those rooms and not be a part of the posse. I feel like I had to trade in my authenticity.
0:34:15.8 MB: The opportunity costs were too high.
0:34:17.5 KH: Right. And so for 10 years, 12 years yes I found success. Yes I made money but in rooms with NFL owners and in rooms where my competition were older White men who served as advisors to these young Black entertainers or athletes. I felt like I always had to be like a, “Hey how are you?” Good. “I’m KJ Hughes.” And so that’s what made me go back and get my undergrad at University of Maryland is because when I walked in these rooms, I felt inadequate quite honestly. And so I had to prove it to myself. Went back to UM at 31. Got an undergraduate degree full scholarship. Three years later went back and got an MBA. The very following summer became a professor.
0:35:07.2 KH: So it’s like, but I knew this all the time. But in my 20s it was like I didn’t see that thing, I didn’t see that path. I didn’t see how I could get out of and dust off this college dropout. I knew that I was good at throwing parties. I knew that I was good at being a connector of people. I knew I understood business but if you can see a thing, you can be a thing. And that is the lynchpin and the spirit of Manifest is, what I walk in there with and the ideas that I bring to the table and I push my staff and I push myself is who’s the 19-year-old that is trying to decide on do they go to college or don’t. Right. Who’s the 25-year-old that’s stuck at a desk job at a bank being a bank teller.
0:35:56.0 MB: And they hate it.
0:35:57.7 KH: And they’re like, no I need to know somebody. I need to meet somebody. I need to… And that’s what I tell my students right now. This world is not about what you know.
0:36:03.9 MB: It’s who you know.
0:36:05.5 KH: This is about who you know and I wanna make sure that they, that there are enough people coming behind me that know you and I that can meet us at a Manifest.
0:36:14.1 MB: I love that.
0:36:14.5 KH: Over something very simple as a haircut or a coffee.
0:36:17.5 MB: I love that. You mentioned being a professor.
0:36:20.6 KH: Yep.
0:36:21.2 MB: What do you teach?
0:36:22.7 KH: I teach sports and entertainment business.
0:36:24.4 MB: So you teach business. So, you know how this stuff works. So it must have been pretty easy for you to open up Manifest and get started.
0:36:29.2 KH: Oh, Lord. Yeah, right.[laughter]
0:36:32.5 MB: What was the hardest lesson you learned?
0:36:36.1 KH: Even if you budget, there still ain’t enough. Even if you budget time, there’s not enough time. Even if you budget money, there’s not enough money. The game is rigged. Equality and is the need for equality I thought was just in finance. But it’s in access. It’s in access to knowledge. It’s in access to the rules. I felt like when I was building this, the crypt keeper was keeping the rules up in the dark that I had to fight to get to the rules. And then once I figured out the rules that’s in goddamn another language.[laughter]
0:37:16.5 MB: That you open and it all falls to dust. And it’s like, “Well, there you go.”[laughter]
0:37:19.9 KH: And I didn’t wanna spend 18 months trying to just get to the rules. The amount of late nights and early mornings of scouring an agency website for the rules before I committed to a expediter or this or that. It’s like, let me just understand the rules and if there’s somebody who can get to it faster, then okay. But you don’t even have time…
0:37:44.0 MB: But don’t hustle me.
0:37:45.3 KH: You don’t even have time to learn the rules. And there’s no business school that’s gonna teach you that. We had this conversation yesterday where during the summer of 2020 uproar, the dean who’s now leaving, the Dean Victor Mullins shout out to Victor Mullins. He’s one of, he’s a champion. He’s leaving Maryland going to NYU.
0:38:07.9 MB: Big step.
0:38:08.0 KH: Yeah. As their dean of cultural diversity or what have you. But he asked me to speak to all of the business school professors. This is while I was still getting my MBA. And I said something similar of my mom told me to just stay outta trouble and everything would be okay and then, but the world is heavy. But I also said to them that it’s really important to see yourself in education as well. In these halls there are no Black representatives, there are nobody that walks in like me. I make it a point to come there wearing Yeezys and fitted. And so what I said to them is, even down to what you teach. Sometimes once you bring a case study of… That’s what I loved about your podcast too. Bring a case study of the family that started a cupcake business that scaled from one location to 20.
0:39:00.6 MB: Right.
0:39:00.7 KH: Right? Everything you’re teaching us is about Amazons and Googles and this and that. And it’s like, I don’t see myself in that.
0:39:05.7 MB: Right. And and also the case makes it too simplistic.
0:39:07.6 KH: Yeah.
0:39:08.0 MB: Because it’s not just like, money solved this because these two boys went to Stanford. Their professor liked him. He had some money, he introduced some people who had some money, they talked to some alumni, and that’s not a repeatable process.
0:39:21.0 KH: And your dad was this and he worked on computers in the garage and da da da da. It’s like, and I knew these stories. In my 20s, I would all… We kick ourselves around, I don’t know if you played this game or not. But we’d be like, “Oh, what if you hit that lottery, what you gonna do? [laughter] I’m gonna start Uber. I’m gonna do… ” It’s like, no, I don’t have that perspective. I didn’t walk up this long ass heels in San Francisco. That’s not my motivation. It would’ve never come to me no matter what.
0:39:47.0 MB: Yeah.
0:39:48.0 KH: And so, as a professor, that is what I’m bringing to the classroom, I’m showing a…
0:39:54.5 MB: Yep. And do the students look like you now?
0:39:56.7 KH: They don’t. But yeah, I show up and it is, and teaching it’s a lot of real life examples and I’m giving the real life examples that apply to me. And I think that is the thing that weaves my blackness into it. Because the example that I’m gonna give you is from my perspective. It’s from my experience. And so I think that it’s important. And I told them, I tell all educators, sports and entertainment is as important as the civil rights movement.
0:40:25.0 MB: That’s right.
0:40:25.8 KH: Right? In some communities it’s the first Black people that you ever meet.
0:40:28.0 MB: That’s right.
0:40:29.1 KH: Or I’m sorry. Ever see or know is within the…
0:40:32.1 MB: Or who are successful.
0:40:32.7 KH: That are successful.
0:40:33.0 MB: Certainly who are successful. Or at least appear to be successful.
0:40:35.2 KH: Yes, yes, yes, yes. I love the actual interaction.
0:40:39.0 MB: Yeah.
0:40:39.3 KH: Because you can see their wheels turning.
0:40:42.1 MB: Yep. And you get it.
0:40:42.4 KH: And you can see, yeah. You can see that the things that I’m saying are resonating. And I know that they’re not hearing it in Accounting 101.
0:40:49.1 MB: Right. Oh, absolutely not.
0:40:50.1 KH: You know what I’m saying? I know they’re not hearing what I’m saying because I’m out here in the world working this every day.
0:40:56.7 MB: Right. Versus a teacher who’s doing it from a textbook who’s never had a job in their life other than teaching.
0:41:01.2 KH: Yep.
0:41:01.9 MB: So, what are plans for the future? What is Manifest gonna manifest?
0:41:06.1 KH: I think it’s important for us to scale quickly because…
0:41:10.0 MB: It’s hot.
0:41:10.3 KH: What we offer. It’s hot.
0:41:11.1 MB: It’s needed.
0:41:12.1 KH: And the membership is valued 10x times as we open more locations, so we have to open up another location. We have a LOI on the table right now. I think we have to raise because this next location is a lot bigger.
0:41:28.0 MB: Sure. Yay. I’ll get my shoe racks.
0:41:30.8 KH: Will require a good buildout to stay with the brand. So, yeah, scale. I would like to have at least five of these open in the next five years.
0:41:42.9 MB: Love it.
0:41:43.3 KH: In the communities where our dollar stops circulating. Where we’re making 150 and $200,000 a year, but we can’t spend it anywhere that is up to par, so to speak.
0:42:00.9 MB: And looks like us.
0:42:01.0 KH: And that looks like us. Yeah. That’s my mission right now is…
0:42:05.1 MB: So next one’s in DC?
0:42:06.1 KH: Next one’s in DC.
0:42:06.9 MB: And then coming to a place near our listeners.
0:42:09.0 KH: Absolutely.
0:42:09.9 MB: Okay.
0:42:10.0 KH: Absolutely.
0:42:10.5 MB: All right. I love it. I wanna say thank you. Thank you for manifesting for me, for my friends, for our culture, because God has done it. Thank you brother.
0:42:19.1 KH: Appreciate you. Thank you for giving me the platform.
0:42:21.4 MB: Appreciate you.[music]
0:42:26.7 MB: I know you learned so much more from my man KJ. Our conversation was so heartwarming to hear my brother and friend talk about the need for safe spaces for Black people. And his commitment to leveraging space to expand social capital for our folks was so encouraging. He also talked about the importance of social capital in advancing yourself personally and professionally. He noted that learning the “rules of business”, tangible and intangible was critical to his success and impetus for the creation of Manifest. Thank you for listening to Founder Hustle. If you enjoyed this conversation, please subscribe and tell a friend. For more information about our guest, check out our website wearenmv.com. There you’ll find all kinds of information, tools and resources for the new majority entrepreneur.
0:43:20.9 MB: Stay connected. Follow us on social media at wearenmv or search #FounderHustle. Founder Hustle is a production of Kinetic Energy Entertainment and New Majority Ventures. Our producer is Ann Kane. Our social media producer is Misako Envela, and the show is mixed by Sonya Harris. The intro theme is Vuelta al Sol by Tomas Novoa. The credit theme is Glide by Columbia Knights and the Yays are from Ratata by Curtis Cole. Founder Hustle was recorded at Clean Cuts in Washington DC. I’m Melissa Bradley. See you next time.[music]
0:44:04.8 MB: We’re done.
0:44:05.1 KH: Thank you.
0:44:06.1 Speaker 3: That was great.
0:44:07.4 KH: That was good.
0:44:07.8 S3: It was great. Yeah.
0:44:08.1 MB: You’re gonna do the hokey? Yes, stand together in the picture.[music]