The Creative Collective’s CultureCon is in its third year, and with its most exciting lineup yet, you can be bet it’s going to be bigger — and braver — than ever before.

The Creative Collective, we are a community and a creative agency and we’re dedicated to curating brave spaces for creatives of color,” founder Imani Ellis tells CASSIUS over the phone. “We use ‘brave’ instead of ‘safe’ because we really do want individuals and young professionals and creatives to show up as their full, unapologetic self.”

Since its first conference, CultureCon has seen explosive audience growth, from an intimate 150 attendees during its first year to an expected 2,000 at this year’s. As we gear up for CultureCon 2019 — where Tracee Ellis Ross, Dave East, Regina King and more will all take the panel stage — we caught up with Ellis to talk about The Creative Collective’s roots, the birth of CultureCon, and the importance of safe spaces for Black professionals and creatives.

CASSIUS: Tell us about The Creative Collective, its mission, and how it came together.

Imani Ellis: The Creative Collective, we are a community and a creative agency and we’re dedicated to curating brave spaces for creatives of color. We use “brave” instead of “safe” because we really do want individuals and young professionals and creatives to show up as their full, unapologetic self. And it really stems out of just wanting to create these really meaningful relationships. It was meant to be a small kind of almost “book club,” if you will, and instead of talking about your favorite authors, really talking about how we can all lift each other up.

I invited some friends over to my apartment and we were all just kind of allowing ourselves to talk about what we needed, what we wanted to see. From there, we outgrew my apartment and started moving all around New York City and we’ve now parlayed into the fastest growing community in New York City for creative. It’s just a testament of what happens when you build something with your friends. Something that started off as a very small, intimate situation has grown and our goal is to always make it feel intimate even though we’re steadily growing.

C: What were you doing before The Creative Collective?

IE: I’m a communications director at Bravo and Oxygen and love my job. I’ve been here for seven years and it is incredible. I think there was always a part of me, though, that thought about impact. What was I doing to pour back into my community? What was I doing to create something bigger than myself?

One thing I’ve always loved is to be around people, to be where the people are, so even before it became The Creative Collective, I was inviting people over, we were having game nights, really always starting with humanity. I think that’s kind of been our whole mission – leading with humans first and then the connection comes after that. We’re not about bringing a whole handful of business cards and walking up to people you don’t know and saying, “Hey! Can I pick your brain?” That’s not going to foster anything that lasts.

I think looking at the duality of people [is important], because a lot of people are like, “Oh! You’re a photographer. You can’t wanna do anything else.” Or, “You’re a publicist. You can’t wanna do anything else.” And I think the beautiful thing about this city in particular is you have bankers who also wanna paint murals and you have entrepreneurs who at one time had a nine-to-five. We’re very complex and layered, and when you’re able to come into a space and no one asks you to choose one identity, you can kind of stop holding your breath because you’re like, “That’s amazing! I am more than one identity.”

I was feeling like I was kind of being put in a box like, “Okay, you chose to work in a corporate role as a publicist, that’s what you’re gonna do.” And I think it’s super liberating to tell people that they can change their minds, they can be more than one thing, they can go back to what they thought they didn’t want to do. It’s all permissible.

C: Once The Creative Collective gained its legs, how did CultureCon come about what was the inspiration behind it?

IE: I think my friends and I had realized, “Wow, this does feel like a brave space we hadn’t seen before!” And I remember popping up like, “Alright, guys. I think we should throw a conference,” and my friends were like, “Imani, sis, ummm… what?” And I was like “What if we just took all the events that we do throughout the year and put them in one day?”

You gotta understand, this is a group of talented people who mostly have full-time jobs, and they are lending their time and their energy and their passion to build something bigger than themselves, and not only bigger than themselves, but a full-fledged conference. And so what we all did was got together and we said, ‘What do we want this day to look like?’ And went over the topics, went over the speakers, and it’s really been an amazing blessing because everyone brings different perspectives, connections, and resources to this pool. It really is a collective. Our very first year, very intimate, 150 people. Last year moved up to the Knockdown Center, had about 800 people. This year we’re going to Duggal Greenhouse expecting the upwards of 2,000 people, and it’s really just become a snowball that definitely is filling a need because I think, again, even when you look at CultureCon, it’s not just about entrepreneurship – it’s for folks who wanna level up in their nine-to-five, it’s for folks who need to talk about mental wellness, it’s about folks who just want to be in a room where they can be their unapologetic self, so there’s something for everyone.

C: Has the journey been overwhelming at all?

IE: It’s very overwhelming, and I think that’s a narrative we need to hear more from entrepreneurs. It was never supposed to be this big, if I had to be honest. I really thought, “Oh! We’ll meet once a month in my living room and it’ll kind just be like a Bible study.” It’s a place where you can come for therapy, if you will, and be whoever you want to be and ask for help in a very safe space. But it turned out a lot of people need safe spaces, and bigger than safe spaces, a lot more people need brave spaces where they can ask for help, see how their friends are navigating difficult situations.

Because of that, we knew that we had to really take it seriously, and it’s been such an interesting journey being on this entrepreneurship road because you really are building the train tracks as the train is going. It’s been such an amazing ride for my friends and I, but I also have to be transparent that I every day am faced with a different challenge, and it makes us so much stronger, but I definitely did not realize the gravity of what it means to start something like this that’s bigger than yourself.

C: CultureCon is in its third year. How has it evolved since the first conference that you guys held?

IE: I think the biggest thing is we definitely recognize that our community is a living, breathing feedback machine and we take that so seriously. After every CultureCon, we have a survey, and we look at that survey and comb through it so that the next rendition is more of a reflection of what our community wants.

The first year the big feedback was [people] loved the transparency of the topics. We weren’t just putting a bunch of successful people up there and being like, “And you can do this, too!” We had conversations with people like, “Here was my roadmap, here was my journey,” and last year we kept that, but we also did more breakout groups. We introduced Creative Office Hours, which were such a hit. You could sit down in these intimate breakout sessions with incredible thought leaders and talk to them about very specific things and that was such a big success that we definitely brought it back this year.

This year we have classes on everything from being brave in the corporate space to getting funding for your own business to fireside chats with Tracee Ellis Ross, we just announced Regina King. We’re also going to have these creative mentor sessions with larger-than-life individuals, even more intimate sessions, there’s activation alley, we have HBO and Netflix and Facebook and Footlocker all showing up in these huge ways. Our partners also believe in the mission, and I think to have the creative community and to also have the partner support is really what makes this kind of beautiful day happen. We’re really listening to the feedback and we take that so seriously and build something that reflects what our community wants.

C: You mentioned mental wellness earlier in or conversation. How do you incorporate the conversation around mental health and wellness into CultureCon?

IE: We have a conversation about the individual wellness journey and I think it’s something that for so long people weren’t talking about it at all, and then we had to be careful because people were just throwing “self-care” on it and then not really unpacking what are you caring for. What are we talking about? And I think what we’re really talking about in terms of CultureCon is the underlying affects of anxiety and trauma and the stigma that’s built around mental wellness today and unpacking that in a way for the individual.

We really want to approach individuals holistically, so more important than what you’re working on, how are you doing? Because we have seen countless affects of people like Anthony Bourdain on the surface that are thriving, but underneath it are suffering, so it just would not be fair to put all of these larger-than life individuals and topics that are only addressing the hustle and the success and to not break down how are you doing mentally. I think it cannot be ignored. It has to be a part of the conversation, not just an addition to.

C: What goes into booking talent and how do you guys decide who you want to have present?

IE: We have huge weekly meetings. Our team is about 15 people and what we first talk about is what do we want to talk about and then we work backwards in terms of who would we really love to have? We have an incredible talent team, it’s lead by Eric Jones, who is one of my best friends. He is a ninja. There’s no words. Also on our talent team is Sunny Earle and Simone Arrington and that group is just incredible. They’re able to really work with the programming team to identify what the opportunities are and then to really pitch that talent and we’re blessed that the talent sees value in it. But Eric Jones is our talent lead and he has taken us to new heights.

C: What lessons have you learned along this journey, and what has been your most rewarding moment or maybe your most difficult? When you look back, what’s your greatest takeaway?

IE: Oh my gosh, what a great question. I think the lesson that I’ve learned is the of collaboration. Just the way that our entire team works together from the programming team, the talent team, our fearless leader Amber Mayfield – she’s our production manager. Nothing moves without Amber. We also have Nabeela who’s heading our experiences. Don’t get me wrong, I am the founder and it did start in my brain, but it really is an incredible machine behind CultureCon and that machine is in the form of 16 people who are killing it. So I think my biggest thing is – if anything from this interview – is to really stress the importance of what happens when a group of people get together with the same North Star and they build something bigger than themselves. That’s really how it happened. There’s a lot of people working very hard and they inspire me and the thing that inspires me the most is when we all stand on the stage together and we’re like, “Look at what we did!”

C: Where do you see CultureCon in the next five years?

IE: I think we’re going to continue to kind of listen to the community. You can’t go wrong if you’re doing that, and I just want to stay as close to that heartbeat as possible. Our goal is always going to be to uplift the community and you’ll see we have these larger-than-life voices sitting down and being interviewed by creative in our community. We really want it to feel like there are levels to it, that we’re all working toward the same goal.

I think in terms of the five-year plan, New York is our home. I often toy with the idea that we pop up in other places but I think for now it’s taking it one year at a time and constantly fine-tuning everything that we’re doing so that every year it feels like we’re in Imani’s living room even if we’re growing.

The CCNYC Team:

Amber Mayfield

Eric Jones

Michael Oloyede

Nabeela Ahmad

Shanae Bass

Shanel A Griffith

Shareese Bemburycoakley

Simone Arrington

Sunny Earle

Tannis Spencer (not pictured above)

Tequilla White

Desiree Talley

Imani Ellis

Simone Porter

Skylar Kearney