An Interview With Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons, 50, who has been described by USA Today as one of the “25 most influential people of the past 25 years,” is best known as the founder of Def Jam Records, a pioneering rap label whose roster included Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, and Run DMC (featuring Simmons’s brother Run). Simmons eventually sold his stake in the label to Universal Music Group for a reported $100 million.

Today Simmons is an entrepreneur worth an estimated $350 million, with businesses ranging from clothing to film to financial services and, of course, jewelry. But he’s also an activist and philanthropist who has taken notable stands on animal rights and eliminating objectionable words from rap lyrics. During his interview with JCK, which took place at his company’s headquarters in Manhattan, Simmons was most interested in speaking about how his Simmons Jewelry Co. is mixing business with philanthropy through the Diamond Empowerment Fund.

Founded by Simmons after a trip to Africa in 2006, DEF donates a portion of its proceeds to African charities. For now, the main beneficiary is the CIDA City Campus in South Africa, a free college aimed at grooming the next generation of the country’s leaders.

While his interview with JCK featured lengthy digressions on yogic philosophy and social consciousness, there’s no doubt that Simmons is also a savvy businessman—he serves on the advisory board of Wal-Mart and knows exactly how much his jewelry sells through at retail. His main point: This industry needs to modernize itself and become more socially conscious, or it won’t reach new consumers. Excerpts from the interview follow.

What do you see as the jewelry industry’s biggest challenge?

The industry has to appeal to more people. There is a different core [consumer] constituency out there today. It’s multicultural. It’s multiracial. It grew up on hip-hop. There is a new American mind-set that has a different idea of what mainstream America is. And that mind-set is driving the culture.

There is a tremendous energy in young people today. And I don’t see that energy in the traditional [jewelry] industry. I am on the advisory board of Wal-Mart, and we get lots of research. Did you know Angelina Jolie is the No. 1 idol of young Latina woman? Every industry is finding it pays to become more diverse. You can’t grow if you only sell to the same people.

We want to bring new ideas into this industry. [Simmons Jewelry Co. is] already in Zales, Sterling, Kay, Friedman’s, Fortunoff, all the big names. Except for us, there is very little branded business in the jewelry industry. The Hello Kitty watch was a very simple idea. People said you can’t put diamonds on it. They didn’t understand it. [But now] the sell-through is amazing. I want to put diamond Hello Kitty in Zales. Everyone should have diamond Hello Kitty.

Why do you think so many hip-hop artists embraced diamonds?

It’s the idea of “Me too. I am working hard. I want a piece. I’m valuable.” But some [hip-hop stars] today are opposed to diamonds [because of the movie Blood Diamond]. We have to let them know that diamonds can be empowering.

A diamond doesn’t mean anything unless it really equals love. The industry is hung up on the idea that a diamond engagement ring equals love. But if you could see through a diamond and see an empowered African, then that’s a diamond that really equals love. I think Botswana’s diamonds are diamonds that equal love. The promotion of that idea can make the entire industry grow.

People see a big diamond and associate it with selfishness, like a big gas-guzzling SUV. Sometimes they even consider it worse than the SUV because it doesn’t do anything. But if we can associate diamonds with something bigger, if we can show that buying a diamond means giving to Africa, the more we can sell.

How many consumers are attracted by the idea that they have to do something good with their dollars?

I don’t know. Whole Foods is a business model. Deepak Chopra wrote a book called TheThird Jesus, where he estimated that 23 per-cent of America is part of what he calls this “new consciousness.” There is another book that Oprah promoted called The New Earth. There has been an evolution in the American consciousness. That’s the consciousness that I think will save the world.

What were your impressions of your trip to Africa [sponsored by De Beers]?

It was very inspiring. I met Nelson Mandela, which was like going to see a saint. I went to an orphanage in Botswana. The names of the children—they were beautiful, they translated to happiness and love. They didn’t even want to meet me, they were more interested in [Russell’s nephew] Diggy from [MTV reality series] Run’s House, because they have cable there. These kids had nothing, and yet they were educated.

I also went to Cape Town [South Africa], and saw the shanty towns. I saw the suffering of so many people. There was more poverty than I had ever witnessed before.

What are your goals for the Diamond Empowerment Fund?

I wanted to make sure that a percentage of the jewelry we sold had an impact [in Africa]. I wanted to get the whole industry inspired to see what we can do. I’m using my own personal proceeds and my influence to inspire change.

The CIDA [college] in South Africa was very inspiring. We have caused a lot to happen. We have caused the Anglo-American fund [owned by De Beers’ parent] to donate a huge building. We are now talking about replicating the efforts of CIDA in other parts of Africa.

We want to inspire the rest of the industry. We want this to be one initiative that hopefully spurs other initiatives. We are in discussions with a number of major retailers and sightholders to support our efforts. We should look at ways that the whole industry can support our efforts. How about setting aside one day when a percentage of all the industry’s sales goes to the Diamond Empowerment Fund? We want to show that our monetary success is tied—karmically or directly—to our good works.

What were your impressions of the diamond industry in Africa?

I think diamonds are probably better than most extractive industries when it comes to Africa. When you look at oil or uranium, they don’t have a Kimberley Process. In the Blood Diamond movie, one [Sierra Leon-ean] said, “Thank God, they never found oil here,” because that would have really torn the country apart. Diamonds could lead other extractive industries, and then Africa could really dig itself out of its hole.

How much of Africa’s problems are caused by bad governance?

The industry can only do so much. We know there are corrupt governments. In Botswana, the country has a good deal. The government gets 50 percent of proceeds from diamond mining, plus the tax revenue, meaning it gets around 80 percent of the diamond proceeds. They use that money for the betterment of the people. That’s hard to do with a corrupt government. Our industry should not do business with a government that doesn’t take care of its people.

We can’t change the world. We can only change ourselves. If enough people change themselves, the world will be transformed. People learn by example; they see what others do. This is taught in the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, by yogis. All the prophets all promote the same ideas. It’s about connection, not separation. That’s the future—connection.

Today, the question is not whether a diamond is a conflict diamond. To me, a conflict diamond is a diamond that comes out of the ground and the people don’t benefit.