More than 10 years ago – when I became a full-time freelance writer – people I’d never met came forth with what they promised were unparalleled opportunities. I could write for their neighborhood newsletter. Or write web copy for their new home remodeling business. Or edit their manuscript. All of it, they said, would be great exposure.
None of these people planned to pay me. But they all said they had my best interests at heart. Writing – for free – for their [fill-in-the-blank] would lead to lots of paying gigs.
I’m mad at that younger version of me for believing that working for free would ever lead to anything but more requests to work for free. I actually took on some of these gigs for the promised “exposure.”
Then, a writing teacher told me: “People die from exposure.”
She was right. Just as someone who’s unprotected from the elements can die from exposure to heat and cold, someone who’s working just for “exposure” has no defense against bill collectors. My health insurer, my mortgage company, my grocery store – none of them accept exposure as payment.
It’s a dilemma faced at some point by most every freelance writer, florist, photographer, graphic designer, videographer and visual artist.
An idea is born
Charlotte Is Creative (in the persons of Matt Olin and Tim Miner) decided to do something about the dilemma. They, along with partner Wells Fargo, created the Creative Entrepreneurs Initiative (CEI). It’s one antidote to being overexposed and underpaid – or worse, unpaid.
The team promoted it in August in their newsletter, The Biscuit, with the headline, “Pay Your Bills with Your Skills.” You can’t pay ‘em with exposure, after all.
(Miner says, “When it comes to paying bills, the ‘exposure credit card’ is open to all, easier to apply for and accepted nowhere.” He credits the idea to a joke he and photographer Joshua Galloway have together).
Over 100 people applied for just six spots in the pilot program. (In the end, judges chose seven.) Project organizers hope to expand future CEI cohorts to include more people.
Artists Are Small Businesses … and Have Small Business Needs
“This idea of artists and creatives as small businesses is something we’ve believed in for years,” said Olin. “But there was a big ideological shift that needed to happen in the creative ecosystem here. Part of our goal is to create the conditions under which artists and creatives can realize sustainable careers in Charlotte. We’re a business town. So, I think it’s imperative that artists start to think of their craft as a business and learn the skills and build up the capacity to actually treat their craft with an entrepreneurial spirit.”
“Thankfully, that mindset is starting to take hold in Charlotte,” he continued. “Evidence of the fact that Wells Fargo has been an enduring supporter of ours for years – and what’s cool about this partnership is that it really is collaborative. We co-create programs that make sense both for Wells Fargo and for Charlotte’s creative community.”
“As Wells Fargo’s funding priorities evolved, and small business really came to the forefront for them in recent years, that opened up an opportunity for us to create CEI.”
Outreach and Strategy Can Walk Hand and Hand
It’s more than community outreach for Wells Fargo. Funding CEI was a strategic business decision.
Rodrick Banks, senior community relations consultant in Wells Fargo’s Social Impact & Sustainability group, said, “At Wells Fargo, we endeavor to be a positive driver of the economy by catalyzing pathways for small businesses, particularly diverse-owned small businesses.”
“We know from our collaborative work with Charlotte Is Creative and other small business partners that within our creative community here in Charlotte there is a great need for entrepreneurial support. We see our support of the Creative Entrepreneurs Initiative as imperative to growing our local economy.”
The seven creatives who are part of the pilot – among them, two visual artists, a photographer and two videographers – are nearing the end of their cohort. They are:
- Angela Kollmer – Upcycle Artist
- Lucy Phung – Visual Artist
- Dweh Brown – Videographer
- Jess Dailey – Videographer
- Ernesto Moreno – Photographer
- Sara Colee – Music Manager/Organizer
- Irisol Gonzalez – Visual Artist
They’ve been gathering two to three Mondays a month from 6:30 to 8 p.m. since September to learn:
- The Project Management Mindset
- Budgeting, Accounting and Billing
- Contracts, Legal Documents and Entities
- Effective Business Communication and Storytelling
- Measuring Results
Handing Out Fish and Fishing Poles
Not only did CEI cohort members get a $4,000 grant to produce a creative project that will be shared with the public, but they were also paid to attend class. At the conclusion of CEI, each member will get $125 per class. They must attend a minimum of seven of the 10 classes to receive any compensation. Most have attended all of them.
“Too often, pay is an afterthought – if it’s a thought at all – for creative work,” Olin said.
“A lot of the advocacy work we do in the community is meant to shift that mindset. And so, one of the things we’re really proud of is not only the $4,000 grant, but that they’re also getting paid to attend these 10 classes. It sends this message that your time is valuable.”
“Our cohort members are learning so much,” Olin said. “What we’re hearing, week after week, is that they feel like they’re growing as creatives and that they’re more confident about their prospects of having a sustainable business.”
“The Creative Entrepreneur’s Initiative has presented this group of Charlotte’s creative business leaders with invaluable resources to build not only their current projects, but to grow their entire operations,” said Kollmer of Upcycle Arts, a member of the inaugural cohort.
“This program covered all aspects of running a business, and broke them down into actionable steps. We are so grateful to be a part of this program and would not have been able to expand our offerings without it!”
The Business of Creativity
CEI is an outgrowth of a “visioning session” EY hosted for Charlotte Is Creative in April.
“We pulled together a really diverse cross-section of artists and creatives from the Charlotte community to discuss the guiding principles that need to be in place,” Olin said.
“Obviously, there’s a lot changing in Charlotte’s arts and culture sector. One of the big defining principles that came out of that session is this idea of creatives as small businesses and being seen in that way, valued in that way, supported in that way and provided resources so they can actually be successful in that way.”
CEI is also relevant to the study, Business Realities of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Creative Community – Charlotte Is Creative and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute are in the midst of.
“We need to know what the business realities are for artists and creatives in Charlotte,” Olin said. “How much are they reinvesting in their creative business? Do they have health insurance? And if so, where’s that coming from? Or do they not have health insurance?”
“There have been many studies done in Charlotte, but none have gone this deep into the business side of artists and creatives. And we think that the data that will come out of this effort is only going to further support the importance for programs like CEI to continue to grow here. We anticipate we’ll be able to share that report and those findings in the next couple of months.”
CEI isn’t saving lives. But it is ensuring that the creatives who complete the program aren’t overexposed … and underpaid.
The Creative Entrepreneurs Initiative was made possible by a grant from
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