Have you ever attended an event so detailed, filled with creatives from all over the country while listening to speakers who span from all industries and wondered, how did someone come up with this?  

If so, you need to hear all about Imani Ellis. Imani took her need for a community in a new city and created a business that benefits young creatives everywhere. We sat down with the founder and CEO of The Creative Collective to learn about how she used her skills and relationships she’s built over the years to create her own business.  

You went to Vanderbilt University for Communications/Film and studied the German language. How has your degree helped you with your career?   

The resources were endless at Vanderbilt and although I learned so much in the classroom, I learned equally as much around campus. I really let curiosity lead me and joined different clubs throughout my four years. I learned how to bet on myself by raising my hand to have my own talk show, “It’s Imani” and realized the importance of collaboration when starting Vanderbilt’s first public relations club. 

 I learned how to adapt my communication style to my audience from being a reporter for the Vanderbilt Hustler and a campus tour guide. Vanderbilt showed me that the sky was the limit, and I was driven by the possibilities. I remember sitting in my dorm room plotting on how I’d make it to New York City and what I wanted my life to look like one day. 

After graduating, you started working as Andy Cohen’s publicist at NBC Universal. Talk to us about this time in your life and some of the most interesting things you learned from this role.   

I discovered Bravo in college, and I was instantly hooked. My favorite show was “Watch What Happens Live ” because Andy asked guests all of the spicy questions, I secretly wanted answers to. One night as I watched Andy interview his guests from my dorm room, I tweeted that I’d like to meet him one day. So, it was a full circle moment when I became his publicist a few years later. 

What are the odds?! Working at NBCUniversal literally changed my life– I worked with some of the most brilliant people in the industry. I had a dream manager, Jennifer Geisser, who believed in me and inspired my own leadership style today. She was fearless and could slay any giant. She taught me that every problem was figure-outable.  

Initially, I was hired as an assistant on the communications team and climbed the ranks to become a Vice President. At each new level, I challenged myself to learn new skills, meet new people and never allowed myself to believe there was nothing left to learn. I also raised my hand for projects that scared me, like leading press execution for BravoCon or pitching a social series that later became a TV special on the network. My job felt like creative business school — it was a lot of work, but also, so fun. The best part was realizing that I was growing in confidence and competence.  

I entered the job right out of college and initially, I had imposter syndrome to the max. When I first began in my role, I was shy and unsure if I could keep up in such a fast-paced environment, but I kept showing up (even on the hard days) and when I didn’t know how to do something, I learned to ask for help.   

Eventually, I was able to find my voice and my consistent results provided me with even more opportunity in my role. I would face a challenge and realize that I had faced it before, but this time — I had the tools to solve it. Working with Andy was amazing — he is an incredibly hard worker and one of the most detail-oriented people I have ever met.  

He was always thinking three steps ahead and I admired his ability to have numerous projects taking place at once. We had so many fun adventures together, from the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to seeing him become a father. He taught me to anticipate every detail. It was an amazing decade together.  

Where did the inspiration for CultureCon and The Creative Collective stem from?   

I grew up in Atlanta and when I first moved to New York City, I didn’t know one person. On my first trip to the city, my mom took me to see RENT and I didn’t realize it at the time, but a seed had been planted. I wanted to find a community of my own that supported you as you navigated your way in the city.  

As I began seeking out my community, I couldn’t help but realize the quest for a space where Black and Brown creative people could gather, and exchange ideas proved extremely difficult. So, I decided that I would bring together friends that inspired me and we would build the community we didn’t see. 

 I invited ten close friends over, and the only rule was that they had to bring someone they could vouch for. (It was my home after all). Ten people turned to twenty people, and I continued to host these gatherings monthly. Then one day I realized we had outgrown my apartment. We began hosting hundreds of people at different co-working spaces.  

One day, I came back to my friends and said, “I think we should start a conference for the Culture. Let’s call it “CultureCon.” It would be a space where we would teach tangible skills on being a successful creative professional and put our community in a room with the community they had been searching for.  

 We immediately got to work, volunteering endless hours to plan the first CultureCon in 2017. 200 people showed up and Spike Lee lent his time to be our keynote speaker! I couldn’t believe that people had shown up to gather at our conference and as the day ended, I was filled with so much gratitude for our community-inspired event. The next day, I went to shut down our event registration site and saw that there were 500 names on the CultureCon waitlist! 

You quit your 9-5 to focus on The Creative Collective full time about 5 years into having your business. When did you know it was time to solely focus on your business? What tips do you have for entrepreneurs looking to do the same?   

I couldn’t help but notice that The Creative Collective and CultureCon were growing and as they grew, they demanded more and more of my attention. I realized that my purpose was attached to building this community with my friends and I wanted to give these pursuits my full attention. My dad has always encouraged me to go “from something” to “something.” At first, I resisted the idea of leaving my dream job but finally, I heard a small voice inside that said, “It’s time.” I began saving up, said my prayers and took the leap. I was so scared to change but I was more scared of staying the same. Sometimes, discomfort can be a great catalyst to growth. 

Here are my tips for any entrepreneur looking to take the leap: Don’t lose sight of your why, everything else becomes secondary once you have the vision, work ethic and dedication to the work locked in place.  

Make sure you are in a healthy financial place to make the decision — being desperate for funds can alter the decisions you make for your company.  

Spend some time in the discovery phase and make sure there is an actual demand for what you are selling. Who else is in the space? What are they missing? Sometimes we become so obsessed with an idea but there are no customers who want it.  If that’s the case, it might be best to put that skill in the “hobby” category and explore other entrepreneurial lanes.  

Don’t fixate on perfection. Instead, create an MVP (minimal viable product) aka spend the least amount of money to create the basic version of what you want. Then, put it into the world and see if anyone cares or comes. The MVP can help validate your idea early on and you can use those insights to refine. Don’t lie to yourself about the results. Data is so helpful – use it.  

Realize that you don’t have to live in absolutes. If you take the leap and you don’t find traction, you can pivot into a new job or a new goal. If you take the leap and it’s wonderful, you will always be thankful you bet on yourself. No feeling is final, you can continue to evolve and set new goals to define what success looks like to you. 

How does TheCCNYC help Black & brown creatives thrive in their professional careers?  

The journey of a Black & brown creative can sometimes feel very lonely. The Creative Collective was created to support creatives at every point of their journey. We provide creatives with the community they’ve been looking for so that they can meet other creatives and exchange information and strategies.  

We also provide them with countless resources — like workshops on how to build out their business budgets, tips on how to enter the world of investing and free therapy sessions. CultureCon is our conference and serves as the ultimate hub for creative learning, with two days of jam-packed learning sessions, a Creative Career Job Fair, the opportunities to connect with over 10,000 other Black and brown creatives and grow together.  

At CultureCon, we also show diverse creatives what’s possible with conversations with incredible culture-shifters like Spike Lee, Lena Waithe and Will Smith that offer invaluable inspiration on how to navigate the creative journey. To be able to see these larger-than-life icons speak about their own vulnerable paths unlocks a level of access that our community is hungry for – that is why diversity in narratives is so important. 

You’ve had some of the biggest stars in Hollywood as speakers at CultureCon from Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross and Regina King – to name a few. Take us back to your first event and talk about how you were able to make CultureCon bigger every year.   

Oh wow. We had our first CultureCon in 2017 with 200 attendees. At that time, that was as good as it gets! We were so proud and fulfilled and knew that we had created a special place for us, by us. If anyone had told me then that by 2023, the conference would grow to welcome nearly 10,000 attendees, I honestly wouldn’t believe them. Our team was dedicated to pouring our all into the conference and as we continued to grow, we welcomed new brand partners who helped us scale the event. At the heart and soul of our success is our community who continue to show up and support us. Everything we do is for our community — CultureCon is our love letter to them. 

During the pandemic you launched “CultureCon at Home”, which reached over 22k creatives worldwide. Tell us about this digital masterclass and some of the instructors who have been a part of it.   

The CultureCon at Home initiative was born out of the necessity to adapt to the challenges posed by the pandemic while still fulfilling our mission of empowering diverse creatives. CultureCon at Home offered a series of virtual workshops, panels, and discussions led by industry experts and thought leaders. Attendees could message each other in our chat portal, tap into virtual Office Hours and ask questions about everything from building a budget to asking for a promotion. We featured conversations with Michael B. Jordan, Chloe and Halle Bailey, Regina Hall, Ziwe, Lucky Daye and even did a Paint and Sip with Yahya Abdul-Mateen. 

Last year you took a step back from your busy life and went to France and took a “Creative Residency”. Tell us about what this is and what you did during this time.   

Last year was my first full year as a full-time CEO and I felt like I had a lot to prove. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be everywhere and do everything. By June, I was severely exhausted and felt uninspired. I knew that something had to change, so I took a transformative step back from my demanding schedule to recharge and reignite my creative spark.  

I was inspired by James Baldwin, who found solace and inspiration in Paris during his own creative pursuits, and similarly sought to carve out dedicated time for reflection, play, and rest. I created my own curriculum and itinerary, inspired by Mr. Baldwin and prioritized playfulness and spontaneity, frequenting cafes and restaurants that he had once visited. I allowed myself to embrace a sense of child-like wonder, free from rigid schedules and assignments! 

I also embraced stillness and deep soul rest, venturing beyond bustling Paris to the south of France to encounter quieter surroundings for introspection. Morning walks, quiet moments in nature, and reflective journaling became integral parts of my daily routine, providing a much-needed respite from the demands of everyday life.  

I felt a profound sense of clarity and calm that had eluded me for some time abroad, this moment helped me redefine my values and chart a more balanced path forward. I realized that the ability to pack up and pause was a blessing and am working on creating a curriculum that I can share with my community on how to plan their own Creative Residency, no matter where they are. 

Do you see yourself taking more creative residencies in the future? Where would you like to travel to next?   

Absolutely! I’m very interested in making my Creative Residency an annual tradition. I’d love to consider Mexico City or Puerto Rico for my next trip, but I’m not entirely sure yet where I’ll go this year.  No matter the location, I know that each residency will offer a unique opportunity for growth and exploration.  Whether it’s in a bustling city or a tranquil retreat, I am excited about the prospect of continuing to invest in my personal and professional development through these enriching experiences. 

You’ve spoken about being “productivity-driven” and how you’ve tied how busy you are to your value. As a CEO how do you find balance between working hard and not overworking yourself?   

As a CEO, finding balance between working hard and avoiding burnout is essential for sustainable success. While I am undoubtedly productivity-driven and deeply committed to my work, I also recognize the importance of prioritizing self-care and maintaining boundaries. I strive to create a work environment that values both productivity and well-being, encouraging my team and myself to take breaks, set realistic goals, and practice self-compassion. 

 By fostering a culture of balance and resilience, we can achieve our goals without sacrificing our health and happiness. I also am working on recognizing the difference between my title and my identity. I am a CEO but that is my title and reflects the season that I’m in, not the fullness of the person that I am. 

Let’s talk about the next CultureCon, when is it and what can attendees expect at this year’s event?   

I am so excited for what we have in store for CultureCon this year. We just wrapped up the first CultureCon on Campus at Clark Atlanta University where we provided students with a full day of workshops, activations, free headshots and a career fair.  

In the fall, CultureCon will return to Brooklyn, NYC to welcome 10,000 of our community members to connect and build together. This years’ conference will offer even more opportunities to network, attend tangible workshop sessions and meet recruiters who are looking to hire incredible talent.  

Outside of TheCCNYC, what’s next for Imani Ellis? Do you have any personal goals you’re working towards that you can share with Galore readers?  

I’m so excited about this new chapter and redefining what balance looks like to me. I’m realizing that I don’t think that “balance” means you are distributing equal energy and effort everywhere. Rather, you’re finding a rhythm that feels sustainable and not putting yourself in a position to betray yourself. 

I’m super excited to start picking up my hobbies again. I love history and visiting estate sales where I can find artifacts or history museums. Additionally, I’m going to start cooking and reading more. I believe in constantly challenging myself to learn and grow, both personally and professionally, and I’m looking forward to embracing new opportunities and experiences that come my way! 


Feature Editor: Taylor Winter Wilson (@taylorwinter)

Photographer: Isaiah Harper (@isaiah_harper_)

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