When Robert Hartwell first launched The Broadway Collective, a musical theater academy, in 2016, he worked at the kitchen table with his assistant. Times were tough then, a sentiment most early stage entrepreneurs can empathize with.
“It was just the two of us, working in the kitchen,” Hartwell says, laughing at the memory. “You couldn’t open the fridge because it would hit the table.”
But he persevered, growing the humble collective into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with award-winning training. Its students boast acceptance into top universities such as Carnegie Mellon University and New York University, and its instructors include professional Broadway performers and stage managers, among other experts in the field. Hartwell has his own impressive resume, having performed in five Broadway productions, two national tours and at the Tony Awards.
Now he is all about guiding the next generation of artists—particularly within underrepresented and marginalized communities. Sure, The Broadway Collective helps artists develop their talent, but Hartwell’s real dream lies in helping them become strong, resilient and vulnerable humans.
“A lot of these people are the odd person out in their communities,” Hartwell says. “They’re going through gender orientation and sexual orientation identity. They’re hearing family members say, ‘That’s not a real career. That’s a pipe dream.’ We’re here for those people.”
How to build a company that reflects your values
To Hartwell, showing up for these communities means building a company that reflects his values of representation and diversity.
“If you don’t see it, you can’t become it,” he says. “I want our students to see there are Black, brown, gender nonbinary and queer people in our company. If they don’t see it, how will they know it’s possible?”
Outside of his company, Hartwell dedicates time and space to help identify and create opportunities that his students might otherwise not know exist.
“Our job is to show them the positions that are available,” he says. “And the many different places they could go in the industry. And then give them the tools to break the glass ceilings and break down the doors. It’s not about trying to get a seat at someone’s table; it’s about building your own.”
To those entrepreneurs looking to blaze their own trails, he offers this advice:
1. Believe in the power of hard work.
Hartwell knows what hard work looks like. In the early days, he would open the phone book and call every theater and dance company in the city to promote his drop-in classes. Most hung up on him. Now his classes sell out.
Part of the The Broadway Collective’s training is to establish routine and structure, providing a framework for students to learn discipline and the power of hard work. That, Hartwell says, is where transformation happens.
2. Find a single voice to guide you when building a company that reflects your values.
Hartwell’s first business coach was Rachel Rodgers, founder and CEO of Hello Seven, a company built to help women—and women of color in particular—make more money. Rodgers was the only voice in Hartwell’s ear, helping him build a business and follow best practices that made sense for him. In a world full of shiny objects, he advises finding a single voice to guide you.
When selecting your mentor, look for the following:
- Ensure their mission statement aligns with your values and beliefs.
- Look at their past mentees. Ensure they’re the right person to guide you.
- Ensure they are continuing to learn and grow, too. Enlisting someone who thinks they no longer need to learn is a recipe for disaster.
3. Create a mission statement for your company that reflects your values that you wholeheartedly believe in.
Let this mission statement be your North Star. It’s easy to write some pretty words that look appealing on a shiny website, but this does little to direct your business into real, sustainable growth. Spend time with the words and make sure they represent you, your company’s true goal and your personal values.
4. Make every decision with your mission statement in mind to build a company that reflects your values.
This is not a write-it-and-forget-it situation, Hartwell says. Revisit your mission statement every single day. Post it in big letters where you can’t miss it. Make every single decision with your mission statement in mind. No decision is too small to be considered a part of this statement. From your first hire to your first fire, consider the words thoughtfully.
5. Remain a lifelong student.
Hartwell’s most important advice, he says, is to remain a lifelong learner. You are never too old to be a student. To do this, seek out people you admire and learn from them. Attend conferences. Dedicate time to learning new things not only in your industry, but in related industries as well.
“Be willing to be wrong,” Hartwell says. “Be willing to do the work. Be willing to be vulnerable. Be willing to be a student at any age.”
This article was published in February 2021 and has been updated. Photo by Danielle Cohen