CREATIVE EXPRESSION: DRUMMER
“We formulate these opinions on what success means. For example. Usain Bolt. His metric for success is whether he is winning the Olympic golds. Michael Jackson. His metric for success is making hits. ‘How many people are listening to my songs? Who’s dancing?’ An investment banker at Goldman Sachs. Her metric for success is, ‘How much money are we bringing this company?’ A school teacher in western Mississippi. Her metric for success is, ‘Are my students learning?’ And so, here’s the thing. We all create these metrics. We have these goals. In some ways they’re like games that we play. And it’s up to you. You’ve got to decide what game you want to play. I don’t think Michael Jackson is going to play the investment banking game,” Iqram would later say. From early on, Iqram has been marching to the tune of his own drums. Shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Iqram Magdon-Ismail and Andrew Kortina, founded Venmo: the popular peer-to-peer money transfer application that is currently owned and managed by Paypal. Iqram and Kortina were freshman roommates at Penn. The idea for Venmo emerged after they realized that they didn’t have an easy way of transferring money between them after a night out for dinner.
Iqram immigrated to the U.S. after spending a large part of his formative years in various African cities. We meet at his music studio which also doubles as his office. He is in the process of launching a new audio capturing application (Ense) that he believes will bring everyone closer together through sound because “if we were able to get to know everyone then there’s no such thing” as separation. “We all start listening to each other,” he would later say.
The Ense offices are decidedly casual. A pair of unmanned glass doors greet you right out of the elevator. Before long, Iqram arrives. “You know if I’m feeling it or not. It’s night and day. I can’t hide it,” he would later say. And as he walks in, he’s not feeling it. Iqram is disturbed by the outcome of the U.S. election. He can’t believe what happened. He is so incensed that in a few days he will contact his financial advisors to transfer all his money out of the U.S. He would later change his mind on that. He insists that he feels that “Trump is everywhere.” We begin to get settled in his office. The space is more music studio than office when you consider the amount of space taken up by the large drum set and extra-large speakers with his computer and desk tucked away in the corner. Iqram sends out a quick email and then we get settled. He takes his place behind the drums and enthusiastically grabs his drum sticks, “Let’s get a groove going!” he says. He lights up.
Clad in a t-shirt and an Ense baseball cap, he sets a tempo which we bob our heads to. Iqram is getting into his element. We launch into it. “If everyone’s a superstar, then yes,” is his answer to whether or not he considers himself a superstar. He continues, “And we come together as the galaxy, that shines light on the world beneath us.” He bursts out into an infectious laugh at the puzzled look on my face.
Iqram continues, “Have you ever been to a concert? And everyone is singing at the same time? And what’s amazing about that is if you hear, if you record it, it turns out that it’s in key. It’s not like you just need some brightness. You need some dimness. You need some silence. But it all gets into one key.” Apparently, my perplexed response to this elaboration is a half-step too late because he adds, “Are we done?! I thought there’d be more questions!” Iqram is talking about resonance. He is talking about resonance between people and how that is related to whether or not someone is considered a superstar.
“There’s a difference between superstardom and fame. Would you agree with that?” he asks rhetorically. “If I was running a company, I don’t want to make you famous. I just want to keep you a superstar. But hopefully over time. If I could see this in my lifetime. The notion of fame just disappears. And we’re all superstars and we’re all just living a peaceful wonderful life. We just listen to each other. We enjoy. We dance. We don’t crave.” He then adds, “Fame has this weird side effect to me where it somehow causes a separation between those that are superstars and famous from those who are superstars. And that’s what I don’t like. For me, I’m like, ‘Yo! Get me in the room!’ You know? Not because I want to be famous. But because I want to hang out with every superstar in the world.” He goes on to explain that the new audio sharing application that he has just founded, Ense, will help break down these barriers of access between famous and non-famous superstars by helping us all hear one another.
Iqram has always had a love for music. He is working on launching an album with his friend and musical partner, Mamadou. He explains how hard it was for record companies to take him seriously as a drummer. “To convince people that I can play the drums took a lot of work. That I could do that for a living took a lot of work. Like brush up. Because it’s weird, Venmo to music?! To this?” He points to his drums. “Me talking to a record label. They’re like, ‘Dude.’ And I’m like, ‘Nah, DUDE! Just give me a chance!’ And that’s where these isolations and separations [happen]. Come in! You know me!”
But it’s not just isolations and separations that Iqram is averse to. He feels strongly about staying authentic and not letting others’ judgments have an effect on him. “I’m all about being able to deeply connect with yourself and being true to that and not being swayed by judgment.” He wants his interactions to be interconnected, effortless and real. He applies this philosophy to who he spends time with and to how he builds teams. “I just hang around people I love. And then, you know, if we wanna work together, we work together. If we wanna play together, we play together. And that’s how it’s always been. I’m never recruiting.”
Ironically, the founder of Venmo is skeptical about the central role that money plays in our lives. “What surprised me the most at my experience with Venmo was how tied and beholden we are to the concept of money and watching interactions with people around money… And just relationships. Boyfriends, girlfriends, ‘Get me my money tomorrow. Send. You know, if this doesn’t come! I need it now! Happiness. Happy birthday…here’s 5 bucks.’ The utilization of money as a communication platform was something that emerged from Venmo and it was shocking. It was like excitingly shocking. And now, with that in mind, I try to think of ways to kind of leverage the things that I was feeling that feel good, and then kinda put aside the things that I’m not so interested in. You know, it’s the fighting.”
He goes on to explain how he may want to run a social experiment where money were completely taken out of the equation. A barter system in which people traded goods and services for other goods and services. Iqram’s commitment to a completely integrated lifestyle comes through as he discusses how he would like to be completely self-sufficient. “You know the saying, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none?’ I want to be a jack of all trades and master of all of them. And you know. That’s what I strive for. I’m after a holistic life. And what that means to me is I can farm, or I can source the food that I need to eat. I’m not there yet, but if I live on a farm…possibly. I want to source the food that I eat then I want to make music. I’m already there. So that song was me [referring to a song he played earlier over his speakers]. All me, and my good friend Mamadou. And we worked together on that. And then I heal myself. I find ways to heal myself. And I find ways to drink water.” He would find ways to drink water (!). At this point, Iqram is immersed in a world he has created. It is that kind of imagination that propels him to come up with new ideas, products, and companies.
How does he maintain this level of energy and creativity? “I’ll show you,” he says. And he gleefully accepts the invitation to play his drums. “I just get a groove going. That’s my meditation. Drumming. Rhythm. It’s what it really boils down to. I always want to feel like I’m dancing. I want motion. You know what I mean? And that centers me. If I’m still and stagnant then I’m scared. So, I just want…like…a groove.” After a few minutes of drumming, Iqram turns to Daryl and me and asks if we mind listening to something briefly before we leave. He then dims the lights and puts on a track that he developed with Mamadou. He asks that we close our eyes and listen. At this point none of this feels strange at all. We are in Iqram’s world.
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