Five years ago, a venture capitalist delivered a guest lecture at Stanford GSB that changed Kudzi Chikumbu’s life. The Sand Hill Road investor mentioned a fledgling lip-syncing app called musical.ly that was gaining traction with Gen Z. Chikumbu, a former accountant and YouTube personality, had arrived on campus with a long-time ambition to monetize his creative mindset.
The South African made an unsolicited approach to Musical.ly’s North American boss, stressing his love of user-generated content and lobbying for a job. The audacious move paid off, and Chikumbu joined the business shortly after graduation in August 2016 as a senior manager for entertainment partnerships.
A year later, musical.ly had was acquired by Chinese tech giant ByteDance for an estimated $1 billion. Musical.ly later merged with TikTok, the wildly popular short-video app. Now Chikumbu, a diversity and inclusion advocate, is in charge of TikTok’s creator community. He is living his dream.
You went from working in the seemingly fusty accounting sector to an upstart digital media company. How did you land that job with no experience?
Because I’ve always been a creator. Growing up, I had YouTube channel after YouTube channel and blog after blog, writing and talking about music and travel. For me, it was about connecting with people. The internet is a great tool for doing that. And I loved online entertainment. I watched more YouTube than I did television or movies. I was still a YouTuber even when I worked in accounting, and I was not fulfilled in my job. I decided I had to make a positive change. I went to business school to do just that.
You’ve found your niche in the creative industries. What is the secret to commercializing creative ideas?
There are three things. Number one is authenticity, because it’s relatable and comes from a really human place. Creatives have to stay true to themselves. People can feel authenticity or a lack thereof. Number two is creativity. In a world full of trends, where people replicate others and copy, what really cuts through is creativity. People love originality. Number three is building a community. This is the secret sauce. Views and followers doesn’t mean much unless there’s a connection with those people. The key is to engage more than you post online. Once you have those three things, you can package them into a personal brand.
In your role, you’ve spoken about the importance of diversity and inclusion. Why are those things important?
I am a black, gay man working in tech in Los Angeles. I stand out by definition, every day. It sometimes can feel scary, and you can lack confidence because you don’t have a tribe. I don’t want that feeling for other people. I am focused on authenticity. I want people to be able to bring their full selves to work, whatever their identity is, and we really built that into my team at TikTok through all the work we’ve done to celebrate Black History Month and Latinx Heritage Month. If people see themselves, you get the best creativity. And at a place like TikTok, that is the most important thing, so that all users can find the content they want. Diversity is a superpower for me personally. I was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in South Africa. It’s a beautiful country but has a history of racism. And now that I’m in the U.S., I bring a perspective that others don’t have.
Do you have an example?
The TikTok #MakeBlackHistory Creator Summit in February. As a young black person in tech, just being invited to such an event and being in the room is important. But that’s not enough — you need people on the inside telling you how to navigate the industry. So instead of a panel session and a party, we brought in talent managers, executives, and celebrities to empower the creators with the tools and techniques to turn their careers into a success.
Many adults, even millennials, dismiss TikTok as obscure or cringeworthy. How can brands parlay the app’s popularity into profits?
Brands can lean into TikTok successfully by connecting with popular creators and making videos with them, like Chipotle does, and joining in with the community conversation. Or you can become a content creator yourself. But think of yourself as a person, not a brand. The Washington Post is a good example. Most media publications simply post the news, but the Post doesn’t do that. They have a person, an actual employee, who is the face of their TikTok account, leaning into trends and discussing ideas. People comment on and engage with these kinds of posts a lot more, because it feels native to the platform. They like this idea of brands speaking to them, versus speaking at them.
How else can companies capture the fickle attention of Gen Z?
Authenticity is important. Gen Z users prefer companies that actually care about the world and speak like real people. It’s not just about your product. Gen Z will ask, “Is your brand inclusive? Where do you stand on moral issues?” It’s also important to tell stories. TikTok is, after all, a short-form entertainment platform. People connect with stories, and that is how to stand out from the crowd.
What’s your ultimate takeaway from Stanford’s MBA Program?
I have so many, but my friends from the GSB and I talk all the time about the importance of being an empathetic, authentic, human leader. From classes like Managing Growing Enterprises, Managing Difficult Conversations, and Interpersonal Dynamics, being a real person and having real conversations is what I have taken away. I joined musical.ly right after school, and it grew so fast that I had to think about hiring people and building a culture. That meant not only getting the best people, but also keeping them inspired and motivated. To do that, I start my weekly team meetings by asking how everyone is feeling and for a “feeling word” in response. I learned this technique at the GSB.
Where do you go from here?
I am enjoying my time at TikTok. There is so much work, so much excitement, creativity, and growth. My core love is uplifting creative voices and showcasing diversity, so that the next generation feels confident in themselves and sees other people who look like them, and so that hidden career paths might be made clear. I want to stay in the creative realm. I have found my tribe.