Alex Rappaport, co-founder and CEO of Flocabulary, has spent the last few years transforming an idea into a business and a business into a movement. It’s been an eventful year for Flocabulary: From producing new programs to fending off attacks from Tucker Carlson and Glenn Beck. We sat down with Alex (he doesn’t sit far away) and asked him to reflect on education, entrepreneurship, and life.
1. What do you find most rewarding about your job? Are there particular moments that stand out?
I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to work on something that helps people. Running a business can definitely be hard, but the thing that makes me jump out of bed in the morning is the fact that our music has the potential to change the way a student approaches social studies or to give a teacher one more chance to reach a reluctant reader.
A story that sticks with me comes from a school visit we did in 2005, right when we were getting started and before we knew this approach would even really work. We were visiting a school for students with emotional and behavioral issues, kids who had been pulled out of the public school system. On our way to the school, we were pretty nervous about the reception we’d get, but those fears melted away when we walked into a classroom and saw a group of smiling kids rapping along to one of our SAT songs. These were struggling students, students who didn’t connect to school easily, and all of a sudden I realized that our music could break down some of the typical learning barriers that these students had run up against. After the song finished, one student came up to me and said, “Mr. Alex, before Flocabulary, I used to study in a manner that was perfunctory.” I have this secret hope that the student used that million dollar word on his college essay and that our little rap song was the spark that put him on a different academic path.
2. What about challenges? What’s the biggest challenged you’ve faced since starting Flocabulary?
Being a musician, none of this business stuff came naturally to me. One of the greatest challenges we have faced is building an organization around nothing more than an idea. We knew that just writing and recording rap songs wasn’t enough if we wanted to reach as many kids as we hoped we would. We would need a catalog, a distribution network, a lawyer, an accountant, an office with a water cooler – all the stuff real companies have – if we wanted to get out there and offer our materials alongside the textbooks of the publishing giants.
So we scrapped and hustled, showing up at conferences, performing at schools for gas money, pitching our idea to every teacher and administrator who would listen. It was challenging to realize that sometimes you have to wear many hats to make something successful. I came to the realization that creativity doesn’t have as much value without execution, which meant making less music and writing more emails. But if you’re writing emails to change education and inspire kids, it makes it a lot easier to let someone else run the make the music for a while.
3. What is your favorite Flocabulary song?
My favorite song is Let Freedom Ring on Hip-Hop U.S. History. Hip-hop is founded upon sampling, and when we set out to write a Civil Rights track, we knew that we wanted to sample the voice of Dr. King. We never thought we’d make it happen, but we sent a letter to the King Estate and they agreed to grant the license. The lyrics in that song have heart on their own, but the addition of MLK’s voice makes the track resonate in a completely different way. Some students have told me that they hadn’t ever heard King’s voice before they heard this song. Imagine that. And that’s what Flocabulary is all about, exposing students to content in a song and then inspiring them to dig deeper on their own.
4. I know you’re also passionate about social responsibility in business. Tell me more about that.
I think the world would be a better place if businesses were defined as much by helping people as they are by making money. Flocabulary has always defined itself by a mission to give back, and that has made me realize that a business can be successful and philanthropic at the same time. Sometimes financial success even increases because of the great PR that comes from genuine philanthropy. We tend to rely on non-profits and wealthy individuals to do the lion’s share of charitable work around the world, but imagine if businesses were expected to make charity a central part of their business plan.
This is starting to happen more and more. Target gives 5% of their revenues to community-building and education, and many other big corporations have foundations that support important projects around the world. Smaller companies like Toms Shoes are doing amazing things too. Every time Toms sells a pair of shoes, they donate a pair to a child in need. But my hope is that this new generation of entrepreneurs and business people realize that the altruism and financial success can go hand in hand. And if they don’t do it for the good of others, maybe they’ll do it for selfish reasons. A recent study by the National Institute of Health showed that giving money to charity caused the brain to experience the same pleasure as eating a big piece of chocolate cake. So enjoy your cake, but double your enjoyment by giving some of it away.