Executive MBA student K.J. Hughes ’14, a veteran of the sports and entertainment industry, learned early that success hinges on one thing: Relationships.
“All businesses are interrelated through relationships,” he says. “As long as you can navigate putting together resources and using your communications skills and your networking skills to be able to find answers when you’re stuck, that’s really the linchpin to the success that I’ve had over the course of my entire life.”
Over the years, Hughes has perfected the art of maintaining good relationships, first hosting events and founding a nightclub, then later as managing partner with Relentless Management Group, which represents professional athletes and entertainers. “Never burning bridges, always giving more than I take, always being proactive as opposed to reactive,” he says.
Hughes is the first featured speaker in the "Being Black" series the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business is hosting to celebrate Black History Month 2019. Each week in February, Victor Mullins, Smith’s associate dean of undergraduate programs and Chief Diversity Officer, will sit down with a different African American business leader or entrepreneur to talk about their career paths, the challenges they’ve faced and their advice on making it in the business world. The conversation with Hughes takes place Thursday, Feb. 7, and is already sold out. Other events feature guests from fashion, venture capital and the food industry.
“K.J.’s journey is uncharted, and this is what makes him special,” says Mullins. “He will chat with Smith students and peers on how to best use the business degree to achieve their passion in this field.”
In 2004, after some time in the nightclub and promotions industry, Hughes was approached by a top college athlete. He liked that Hughes was young and had found success running businesses, and asked Hughes to help him navigate the business decisions that would come with the NFL draft.
Hughes wasn’t familiar with the sports world – he had never even attended a college sporting event – but he dove right in, reading anything he could about contracts in sports. “By the next year, I had a base-level knowledge and I helped him select his agent, select his team of people who would help him and guide him through to success, with me being his manager.” But Hughes acknowledges that he was an outsider: “At this point, I had no college degree, I was young, African American, and coming from an industry that had nothing to do with sports.”
Hughes took the success he had with that first client and spun it into working with more than 20 clients, which he managed all himself. “I was ripping and running across the country – Super Bowls, and All-Star Weekends. I was gaining a lot of ground and getting a name for myself,” he says. But then the 2011 NFL player lockout applied the brakes and forced him to reevaluate his business proposition.
Hughes decided to pivot: Instead of helping players manage and hire other business professionals, like accountants and financial planners, he would bring those services in-house to offer his clients.
Hughes’ company offers tax planning, budgeting, and business management for clients, who often have several sources of income. “We’re the back office – we call ourselves personal CFOs,” says Hughes. “We are that team of executives in the boardroom that make up our clients’ advisory board.”
He employs 51 professionals at his company, headquartered in Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood. He perfected his model with a roster of clients in the sports world, but three years ago expanded to the entertainment industry with actors, musicians and producers. They now have more than 200 clients.
It hasn’t always been easy.
“It’s a tough landscape. It’s tough to come up as a young African American without many role models in this particular industry. All you have to compare is people who don’t look like you, people that don’t come from the places you come from, people who aren’t capitalized the way that you’re capitalized. It’s like you’re trying to play catch-up to something that you will never catch up to.”
“I’d rather walk confidently in my truth and design a company and a culture around our truth than struggle uphill to compete in trying to gain a competitive advantage in a world, in an environment, in a culture that I will never have leg up, ever,” Hughes says.
Among his messages of advice for young professionals, Hughes says, is this: “Surround yourself and be diligent and relentless about seeking out and asking for advice and help, no matter how you feel. Your ego or pride may get in the way from picking up the phone and calling someone.” But don’t let it, he says. He would strike up conversations wherever he could, from seeking out his competition at the NFL Combine events to chatting up the stranger sitting next to him on a cross-country flight.
Hughes says he is also arming himself with the right credentials. “That’s the reason why I’m in the executive MBA program. I am also surrounding myself within our company with highly intelligent black people – Harvard grads, MBAs, JDs, CFPs, CPAs, all black. What I’ve learned is there are going to be some clients who love it.”
Hughes looks forward to having an open dialogue with students and others. He’s candid about dealing with race biases in businesses and other obstacles. “It’s been tough, but I have a multimillion-dollar company, I employ a lot of people, my family is good. I’m definitely not complaining, I’m just explaining,” he says.
He says he hopes to inspire more conversations. “Our culture and who we are, a lot of people want to get know and want to understand, but they are afraid to ask because there is some much clouded innuendo that is in the way, stopping us from truly having these open and honest dialogues about race, and about culture, and about the obstacles that African Americans face in business, period.”
Space is limited for the “Being Black” conversation events, so participants must register to attend.