Be Prepared for Your Opportunity - A Leadership Talk with Gerald Yarborough
By Anna Harrison
FUTURE NOW’s Founder & CEO, Peggy Kim, hosted a Leadership Talk on June 9 with Gerald Yarborough, the Creative Director of Global Licensing and commerce for Rock the Bells, the preeminent voice for classic and timeless hip-hop. Yarborough is no stranger to FUTURE NOW. He was a Mentor for the Speed Mentoring Sessions at the FUTURE NOW Media & Entertainment Conference in 2020 and 2021, and recently joined the board. Still, this hour-long talk with Kim offered a solo platform where he could go deep, dish out advice, and regale the audience with stories about his life and career. Yarborough has firmly established himself in the media and entertainment world—not only through LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells, but his prior work as Art Director and later Head of Adult Super Fan Licensing and Fashion Co-Labs at ViacomCBS. He worked for the company for 18 years, but his path into the industry was anything but straightforward. He attended St. John’s University with a scholarship for pharmacological studies, but was more passionate about his art classes. The school threatened to take away his scholarship if he didn’t refocus on his core studies. So, Yarborough decided to drop out. But, as he shared, “Dropping out is never the end of the story.” After working at Geico for a brief period (where he met his future wife), St. John's called Yarborough back and offered him an art scholarship. He graduated with honors as well as a minor in theology. His brother, an art director at MTV, got Yarborough an internship making copies for “SpongeBob” designers. “Making copies is a mundane job,” he admitted, however, “if you do it with a certain pride and the way you carry yourself, and you do it great, it gets you a job,” and Yarborough was hired on as a design assistant at the end of the internship. Even if you’re only “doing the little things,” Yarborough said, “do it to a level of greatness.” That’s what Yarborough did, and it took him from making copies to overseeing $22 million in revenue at ViacomCBS.
The proudest moment of his career so far was a project with Simmons jewelry to create a pendant with SpongeBob SquarePants that would resonate with adults. Yarborough said,
"That was the proudest moment, because it was two things: being in the right place at the right time and being prepared for your opportunity."
The creative team met with Russell Simmons and presented their ideas, all of which were rejected. This could have ended badly, but Yarborough, still a junior on the team, was prepared.
"I knew this meeting was happening weeks ago and I did sketches that I wasn't asked to do. They didn't ask me to do that. I just did it." Simmons loved it and insisted that Yarborough head up the project.
The result was a 12.8 carat yellow diamond and white sapphire SpongeBob SquarePants pendant. "I remember two weeks later, it was the Sundance Film Festival, and I saw Oprah Winfrey wearing it, I saw Terrell Owens wearing it, Mariah Carey was wearing it...all these celebrities were wearing it, and I'm looking and I'm like, 'Wait a minute. I made that.'
"I saved the day for not only my whole team, but I saved the project. And then, the end result, resonated so well...and the fact that people like Oprah Winfrey and all these other major celebrities that I look up to were wearing it, that was all because I made the decision that I'm going to be prepared."
It was a major turning point in Yarborough's development and career, and one of the most important lessons that he shares with future leaders. In his new role as Creative Director at Rock the Bells, Yarborough tells the story of hip-hop through products and marketing, using these designs as an entryway into storytelling—specifically, shining a light on hip-hop’s past foundations to illuminate the present. As Rock the Bells is a startup, its smaller size allows for more areas of collaboration and crossover. “[It's] all about how we move this movement forward and work together,” Yarborough said, calling his team a “small-knit family” that can get tasks done more efficiently since there are fewer bureaucratic hoops to jump through. However, Yarborough confessed that he might not have considered this opportunity if it hadn't been for COVID-19. “Covid taught me a lot,” he said. “When you work at a big company, there are a lot of things that make you excited about being in that building. But when the building’s taken away, and a lot of the people and the colleagues you’d bump into and then great conversations go away, and you’re in your home, it’s just you and the work,” Yarborough continued. “And then, you have to make a decision: do you love the work that you’re doing, and without all the other entrapments, is this where you want to be?” he asked. So when the opportunity to work with LL Cool J came along, Yarborough jumped at the chance. Even with the frantic work of a startup, Yarborough still finds time to give back: as he puts it, “Your true work begins when you take your platform where you’re at, and you allow it to impact others, and I think that’s where I really begin to find the line between what’s really important and what’s not.” To close out the conversation, Yarborough fielded some questions from the crowd, offering practical advice while still maintaining a spirit of optimism and emphasizing humility. “Your idea will take you to the place where opportunity is,” Yarborough said. But he warned that while “anybody can do a job,” what makes someone stand out from the crowd is “how you do a job and how I like you.” Yarborough, a board member of FUTURE NOW, has a vested interest in helping new talent in the media industry and spoke highly of FUTURE NOW’s efforts through the annual conference and talks like these to boost those entering the entertainment field. “It’s really going to change a lot for the industry we’re in right now,” he predicted. Having excelled in his own career, Yarborough now wants to encourage others, especially young people of color, to find what they love and “get to that place where everything else makes sense.” He feels a sense of responsibility as a person of color himself to help get similar voices amplified because “who else is going to care enough to make sure those thoughts are brought to the forefront in those discussions?”