I met Vivek, of Tiwary Entertainment Group at a Wharton event in New York City, where he and his wife raise their children. He spoke about his career as Broadway producer, financier, and comic book writer, not your typical professions for an Indian immigrant. In this interview Vivek talks about finding his historical mentor in books, writing a NY Times bestselling graphic novel about The Fifth Beatle, and he delivers an eloquent soliloquy on passion and persistence, to make your dream a reality.
Vivek also co-founded Musicians on Call, as a young man 25 years ago, which has become a a nationwide movement to bring musicians to patients’ hospital room. Britney Spears, Bruce Springsteen and others have enthusiastically participated.
Kent([1:51]): You have so many stories, i’ve heard you speak before, tell us how you started and how you were influenced by your parents immigrating to America and your grandfather immigrating to Guyana.
Vivek: My grandfather was a very self made man. He was born in India, but moved from India to Guyana when he was an infant. It was my great grandparents that moved from India to Guyana. Both were British colonies at the time and as much as I hate to use this expression, the words essentially indentured servants, they moved from one colony to the next seeking a better life and my grandfather’s father was a farmer. My grandfather group up assisting his father. He was a son of a farmer. He used to grow fruits and vegetables and bring them to the food market. At a very young age my grandfather realized that the fruits and vegetables in Guyana were considered exotic in the rest of the world like mangos and pomegranates and that sort of thing. So he got involved in exporting and did very well with that. When you are involved in exporting, to my understanding, it’s not hard to get in the other side of the coin which is importing. He was importing and exporting mostly agriculture and food products etc. etc. because that is what he knew best and ended up doing very well with that. He delved very deeply into the world of agriculture in Guyana, became very successful and raised himself up and became the minister of agriculture of the country. He started moving political circles. When he actually held a position, though, he realized he didn’t like the politics, so he got out of the world of politics and entered the private sector. From there really, the sky was the limit. He started with agriculture and food products because thats what he knew. He started a candy factory, a pasta factory, a dairy factory, again mostly food products, but by the time he passed away, several years ago, he had also opened up a merchant bank, a commercial bank, a marine life and fire insurance company, a toyota dealership, you know, that means that all the companies that operated in Guyana and other countries in South America and the Caribbean, diversified to the point that an outside eye might think it was somewhat random. The common thread in all his companies were they were things that Guyana needed. Pasta didn’t exist in the country prior to my grandfather bringing it in. So he brought in a cheap and filling food. There is a lot of poverty in Guyana so pasta was a very welcomed addition to the available food products. The financial securities sector was disreputable, so he opened up banks and insurance companies that were backed by offshore banks, by American banks, or by British banks, so that the people of Guyana could bank or invest with my grandfather and feel that their money was secure and safe. He really was an incredible guy and really believed much in helping his country. He was an incredible influence in my life. My parents were both born in Guyana. My father moved back to India where he said he studied medicine. My mother moved to London, where she studied law. They both qualified and moved back to Guyana where they met and married, then moved to New York, where I was born. They were immigrants here to the United States. They essentially moved here because the medical facilities were better and my father could finish his studies in an advance way here in the United States and I was born here. That is the long story of my family’s life, but its important to know really that I am a product of my family. My parents, while they were not entrepreneurs, my mom was the first woman attorney in the country of Guyana, so she was a remarkable woman. My father came from nothing, he was incredibly poor and he raised himself up and became a New York City doctor. They were both very self made and driven people who really carved their own paths. My grandfather as I mentioned, really was a serial entrepreneur, so I got some of my drive and my individuality from my parents and I got my business sense from my grandfather. They really were touchstones in my development and on a much more personal level my parents loved the arts. So even if they didn’t work in the arts they were huge fans of the arts. Ever since I was a little kid they would take me to the arts here in New York. To opera, ballet, Broadway, etc. Ever since I was allowed out of the house on my own I was going downtown to see punk rock shows and avant garde theatre shows. It was also because of my parents that I got my love of the arts.
Kent([6:08]): How did you start out when you came out of school? What was your first entrepreneurial venture?
Vivek: I started really when I was in school. Not in an entrepreneurial way, but I was working for Sony music while I was at Wharton. I was finishing my Wharton degree, but i was working as a field distribution rep for Sony music. I came out of the music industry. Right after I graduated I got a job for Mercury Records, a divisional polygram. My dream, my goal was always to start my own company, to walk in my grandfather’s footsteps. As I was growing up, the phrase that always stuck in my mind was that, you need to work for yourself and you need to do what you love. I suspect that he thought that working for yourself was working for the family business. I think he would have liked me to join the family business and didn’t quite work. When he said work for yourself he was pushing me away from the family business because I guess the other side of that advice, do what you love, and I didn’t love finance or food products or anything that the family was doing. My passion was the arts and entertainment. So I took a job for Mercury records here in New York and when the Seagrams company purchased Polygram and merged it with Universal, budgets were frozen, everyone was miserable, and that was the moment where I thought I could look for another job or maybe this is the moment to do what I’ve always intended to do, which was start my own company. I’ve always viewed working for record labels, working for others as an extension of my education and as a way to start earning money to eventually start my own company. So that’s what I did, start my own company, I quit and I set up shop for myself and it was called Tiwary Entertainment Group. I gave it a very vague name, so I could get involved in a number of arts and entertainment projects and right off the bat I started managing bands because that’s a world that I knew very closely.
Kent([8:00]): So your first customers were bands?
Vivek: I suppose that’s right. I wouldn’t think of them as customers as much, a manager artist relationship really is a partnership, when it works best they are like partners. My book the fifth Beatle, is about the manager of the Beatles, Brian Epstein. He really was like the fifth member of the band. I would say that Bruce Springsteen is often referred to as Jon Landau’s long time manager, as his partner in rock and roll. I think the artist, manager relationship, when it works best, is less like a clients relationship and more like a partnership, although technically they are clients from a business perspective. They are people who signed a management contract. I started with that, and very early in my entrepreneurial career I started producing shows on Broadway, so I did also start getting very deeply into the Broadway world. As my Broadway project became more and more successful, I started to focus on that more than the management. These days I don’t do artist management at all. I am really a writer and a producer these days.
Kent([9:00]); What was one of the first plays you put together?
Vivek: I really cut my teeth working with Mel Brooks the producer, although I should be very honest that my role in the show was very small. I can’t even put it together. I was invited to join that show by some of the elite producers and while I did raise some money and earned my place at the table so to speak, I mostly kept my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open and they treated me like mentors would and really learned how to produce from that show. That was the show where I learned the ropes from. In the wake of that, I assisted some of the international financing for hairspray. That show was very successful. After that my first role as the lead producer, so to speak, was A Raisin in the Sun. That was the outing where I was involved in everything from casting, to financing, to marketing, to putting the closing party together. I was involved in a little bit of everything. We cast Sean Combs and the show was incredibly successful. It broke even in seven weeks, it won a Tony award for Phylicia Rashad for best actress. It was the first time an African American had won best actress and the show was widely credited to bring African Americans to Broadway and kids. Everybody told us that we were crazy to bring that show to Broadway and that kids won’t come and African Americans won’t come. I thought that was ludicrous. You give them something that they want to see and you make sure that they know it’s there, but if you give them something that they want to see and market it to them, they will come and surely they did. The producers was the first show that I was involved with, but to answer your question, the first show that I was responsible for bringing to Broadway, I would say, was Raisin in the Sun.
Kent([10:47]): What was a real challenge you had in your early career?
Vivek: I don’t really believe in challenges. I believe that as long as you do what you love, things aren’t challenging. They are just games, opportunities. Because I work on projects that I adore and care about, things that are difficult are a part of the game of accomplishing your goals really. If you are spending your day working towards a goal that is a labor of love, then you shouldn’t think of it as a challenge. You should think of it as a game. In the early days, I didn’t have a network, I didn’t have a family that understood the business and could provide me with a network or understanding so I really had to carve it for myself. I suppose if you must use challenge in the early days, it would be that. It would be building my network and understanding the business.
Kent([11:43]): How did you gain your connections then?
Vivek: This leads directly into the fifth Beatle. When I was a young person at Wharton and my family was unable to provide me with a network and I couldn’t find a living, breathing, mentor, Wharton at the time 20 years ago didn’t offer a lot of resources for somebody who wanted to enter the arts and entertainment fields. It’s certainly changed now, but at the time most of my colleagues were getting into traditional financing or accounting fields. They weren’t going into the arts. Basically I took it upon myself and I found myself what I call a historical mentor. That was Brian Epstein. Brian died in 1967 and I was born in 73, so I never had a chance to meet him, but I started studying his life meticulously, as a model for what to do and what not to do. He was really my first mentor. I have been researching his life literally for 20 years. Initially I wanted the business blueprint. I wanted to know how he got the Beatles a record deal when no one wanted to sign them. How did he convince Ed Sullivan to book them, when a British band never made an impact in the United States, how did he market and image them, how did he come up with the suits and haircuts etc. These are the stories that I was chasing as a young man who wanted my career in the music industry. The reason he became such a close part of my life or his story became such a close part of my life and I really went on to call him my historical mentor, was interestingly enough the human side of the story. The part that had nothing to do with the Beatles. He was gay, Jewish, and from Liverpool. In many ways he was the ultimate outsider. It was against the law to be gay in the UK in the 1960s. Jews were disliked in the country. They certainly did not work extensively in entertainment, times changed, but that was the case during the 1960s in the UK. And Liverpool, prior to the Beatles, was a town that had no cultural influence. People looked at Brian, this kid from Liverpool, saying I found a local band who are going to be bigger than Elvis. They are going to elevate pop music into an art form. They thought he was crazy. They said that those dreams were crazy and that people like you don’t do things like that. I won’t claim to have the obstacles in my life that Brian had, but emotionally his struggles didn’t feel that far removed from the misfit Indian kid that I was running around New York’s lower east side saying, I don’t want to join my family’s business, I don’t want to become a doctor or engineer or go into technology, I want to write comic books and I want to write Broadway musicals. I was also an outsider. That is why Brian Epstein’s story was so inspiring to me. That is why I really did focus on learning as much as I could from him. I didn’t view him as somebody I was studying to write a book or somebody’s life I was researching for a term paper or a case study. I viewed him as a mentor.
Kent([14:43]): So you followed up and wrote the book about him.
Vivek: Yes I began the study 20 years ago, but about a decade ago I decided it’s time to do something with this knowledge that i’ve accumulated. So I’ve gone about to write a book about Brain called the fifth Beatle, it’s a graphic novel, which is a fancy word for comic book. It’s doing amazingly well. It’s a New York Times bestseller, it’s won virtually every literary award in which it was eligible. It won the Will Eisner comic industry award, which is the comic industry’s equivalent to the Oscars. It won two Harvey awards which are very prestigious comics awards. It’s a Lambda literary finalist, the Lambda Literary award is the LGBT communities highest award. It’s an American Library Association great book for teens. It was just added to the rock and roll hall of fame library and permanent archives. The response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive and it’s been a joy to see. My mission there is to really sing the unsung story of Brian Epstein and through his story to teach that no dream is too impossible and no person too unlikely to realize that dream. In many ways that’s the immigrant dream isn’t it? The dream of someone coming to the country, they don’t know anything and they don’t understand the industry and they chase the dream with passion and persistence. I realize them spectacularly.
Kent([16:02]): Let’s say someone is listening that wants to put together a little book or a graphic novel? What have you learned? In your promotion, you just went to India and how did that go by the way?
Vivek: No dream is too impossible. No person is too unlikely to realize it. I never thought I would be crisscrossing the country and then crisscrossing the world in promotion of a comic book that I wrote, which was a childhood dream, but I am! That comic book is being adapted into a film that I wrote the screenplay for. It’s a New York Times bestseller and it’s doing tremendously. India was a joy for a young person of Indian origin, who didn’t want to join his family business and didn’t want to become a doctor or an engineer or a professional that my parents wanted me to, which is a very common Indian story. My Indian parents are very stereotypical in the sense that they wanted me to either join the family business or become a professional. So to go back to India, a country that I consider my homeland, but I hadn’t been in a number of years, and be able to share a story, a human story, that I think anybody would be inspired from, but to share it specifically with young Indians who were exactly going through what I went through, the number of faces, the number of people that came up to me and said, I know exactly what you are going through. My parents have asked me to do this and I want to be an artist, I want to be a cartoonist, I want to be a musician, and your story has inspired me to chase that. To me that was incredible. I will just take a minute to explain one of the things that happened to me while I was out there. A father came up to me afterwards. He said, “I have a 12 year old son who wants nothing more than to draw cartoons. That is what he is passionate about and his mother and I have been encouraging him to become a doctor. After hearing you speak, I am going to let him do that. My question to you is, what can I do to help? His mother and I don’t understand anything about cartoons and comics how can we encourage him. Are there books we can tell him to read? Are there resources?” That sends shivers up my spine to think that I have encouraged this father that yes, you can make a career of this. I want to be very specific about that. It’s not just flowery follow your dreams, it’s also, you gotta work your tail off. It took me 20 years to realize this dream about writing a comic book about the Beatles’ manager. If you do it with passion and persistence and a lot of hard work, if you have a dream, if your immigrant dream is unusual, it’s not expected from your type of immigrant ethnicity, then you can realize it, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work and maybe a number of years. You can get there and you will feed more than just your soul, but you will be able to fit your family. You can do both. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and to be able to show that to a dad, that was a moment. That was a special moment.
Kent([19:00]): You started a powerful nationwide non-profit, when you were in your 20’s.
Vivek: Musicians on call just celebrated its 15th anniversary. I would have been in my 20’s. I just turned 41 this year. I would have been in my mid 20’s.
Kent([19:12]): (not sure) Before you have any financial means to do so, would you recommend this for other entrepreneurs?
Vivek: I very much believe in non-profit work. I think that it’s important to use your experiences to give back and to do work whose end goal is literally not for profit, but for the good of whatever the mission is. I can’t say that I recommend you to do it because it really needs to come from a place of passion and a place of interest. What I would recommend is, whenever you do find whatever it is that non-profit angle is that you are passionate about, don’t feel like you can’t start right away. Most people would make their fortunes then start their non-profit. My co-founder in Musicians on call, we often laugh that we are just getting started in our career, but we did it in reverse, we were still working towards our fortune when we started our non-profit. Our non-profit is Musicians on Call. It brings music into healthcare institutions to perform for patients and improve the quality of life in healthcare institutions. It’s a bedside performance project and it just celebrated its 15th year anniversary and has been supported by everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Britney Spears. It’s something I am incredibly proud of. When my co-founder and I started it, we started it in the wake of losing loved ones. I lost my mom to cancer and he had lost a girlfriend to cancer. We both wanted to do something constructive with our experiences, so the time was right for us because we had the passion and the drive and we had this terrible experience that we wanted to take some darkness and bring some light out of it. So i recommend whenever you are in that place that you just dive in and do it. But I would never suggest that someone pursue a non-profit just for the sake of doing it. It needs to come from a place from sincerity and passion or else you will fail miserably.
Kent([21:05]): Beyond the passion what other habits have helped you be successful?
Vivek: Passion is the first one, but the other one is persistence. It’s just not taking no for an answer and taking as long as it will take to accomplish what it is you need. Because I didn’t have a family that understood the arts and I didn’t have a network in the arts, it might have taken me twice as long as it might have somebody else. But thats okay. As long as you are willing to put in the time and be persistent with your education, with your outreach, with whatever goal it is. The Fifth Beatle as I mentioned is being adapted into a film. One of the very exciting about the Fifth Beatle film is that we’ve secured Beatles music, we are the first and only film about the band ever to have secured music rights. We are very proud of that, but it took me three and a half years. Another person who is producing a film on Brian Epstein might have given up after a year. They might have said, “You know what, this isn’t worth it. Let me move onto this other lucrative project that I am working on.” But the Fifth Beatle is a labor of love for me and I thought that it was worth it and I was willing to work for three years to secure music rights. I would say persistence is the most important habit that I have. Specifically with respect to those Beatles music rights I literally have in my files three rejection letters. I have a rejection letter from a low level person at Apple Corps., a Beatles company, that said, Thanks for your request but it’s been denied. And I thought if this low level person said no I gotta get to the mid level person. The mid level executive said no, I was like, I gotta get to the CEO. The CEO says no, then I gotta get to the band. I gotta get to Paul Mccartney and Ringo Starr and Yoko ono and Olivia Harrison. With that kind of persistence in me I eventually found my way to a yes. I could have stopped when that low level person said no or when that mid level executive said no. I could have said alright I got a real answer from a real executive I gotta move on, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t move on and that’s been a hallmark of my career, is persistence. Graceful persistence. You also need to know how not to be a jerk when pushing the envelope. I would almost say, it’s impossible to be successfully persistent if you are not starting from a place of passion because that’s when you become a jerk, is when you keep pushing at something without passion. When you have passion behind you, people tend to say, he is not being a pain in the ass. He is passionate. He is following his dreams. When this kid desperately wants to get something, it never sets out to what a deluded jerk that guy it. They will look at me and say, “No he is passionate man, he is following his dreams.” Eventually that will win people over.
Kent([23:43]): What are resources that you kind of fall back to?
Vivek: I would say the two biggest resources i’ve had in my life were books and people. Books have been with me my entire life. My family has been a family of readers and people. The people that have supported me, that have networked with me, that have helped me along the way. My mentors. Sometimes books and people are the same thing. I will go back to what I said earlier, I never had a chance to meet Brian Epstein, but it’s a person, whose life i’ve studied. If you can’t find people to act as resources, you can find books. If you are a young woman who is athletic, and your area of interest is a sport that women don’t traditionally participate in or women of your ethnicity don’t participate in, then maybe you should meticulously read books about Amelia Earhart. A woman who’s told that women don’t fly. She literally went on to soar, both literally and figuratively. They are out there. If you can’t actually find the people living and breathing in front of you, find the people in books.
Kent([24:48]): What books are you reading now?
Vivek: Right now I am reading a book called Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens. It’s a biography of Frank Oppenheimer, who is the younger brother of Robert. He did work with his brother in the development of the atomic bomb and like many people that did that, he was ostracized from the scientific community, not immediately, they were heroes, but shortly thereafter. He was banned from practicing science. And eventually he found his way back into the scientific world and he created the exploratorium which is a wonderful learning center in San Francisco. It was really quite a comeback that he made I guess. So I love true stories and I love inspiring stories. Again it’s this concept of being able to find mentors or inspiration. Inspiration on one level and mentorship on a higher level from people who are no longer around. You can study their lives and there is a lot to be learned from our history.
Kent([25:50]): So Vivek what is in your future now?
Vivek: Right now I am focused very intensely on the Fifth Beatle film. We are all on track to shoot next year. I’ve written the screenplay myself and I am one of the producers. It has very clearly taken that labor of love to the next step. I am also working with Alanis Morisette to adapt her little album, jagged little pill, for the Broadway stage. Finally just last week i’ve started work on a young adult project, a novel that I can’t really tell you much more about, but I am starting to work on this young adult novel that will also include a lot of art from very well respected comic artists.
Kent([26:32]): Vivek thank you so much. If people want to find out more about you and the Fifth Beatle, how can they do so?
Vivek: Thank you for asking, so Fifth Beatle, we are online at fifth beatle.com. We are also on facebook at the Fifth Beatle. We are on twitter on @Fifthbeatle. If you are interested in learning about me and my other projects you can follow me @Tiwaryentertainmentgroup and online we are at tiwaryent.com also on facebook at Tiwary Entertainment Group and finally I am on twitter @Vivekjtiwary.