Assemble is more than “Black Masterclass” — it’s Black hope

BIPOC communities don’t just need lessons, they need exposure to what’s possible.

Thando Dlomo and Arlan Hamilton in Hamilton's Assemble course, 'Entrepreneurship 2.0.'
Courtesy of Assemble
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Talent may get you in the door, but knowledge keeps you in those rooms. Over the last decade, online educational platforms like MasterClass have helped democratize highly desirable skills by offering access to celebrity experts who most people wouldn’t even be able to meet, let alone learn from. But what good are filmmaking tips from Martin Scorsese if no one teaches you how to talk to movie studio execs and investors to turn your vision into a reality? For Black and brown people, who have historically struggled to get films and businesses financed and supported, skills are only part of the equation. They need to know how to play the game of business.

On Black Friday 2021, Young Money Entertainment COO Cortez Bryant, actor Jesse Williams, and entrepreneur Cortney Woodruff launched Assemble to fix that problem. Assemble is aimed at providing BIPOC communities with access to instruction from Black success stories in professional fields they may have never considered. While some may see the microphone as their way into the music industry, Assemble allows BIPOC students to learn about music management from Bryant, the man behind the careers of Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Lil Wayne. Instead of limiting their Hollywood aspirations to appearing on the big screen, BIPOC students can learn celebrity makeup skills from Sir John, whose clients include Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, and Zendaya. Assemble aims to address problems with exposure to opportunities in a way that Masterclass doesn’t.

“We want to take Masterclass out of our conversation because Black and brown folk have been a secondary market they’ve addressed. That means the problems they’re trying to solve aren’t the problems of Black people,” Woodruff told Mic. “For us, the problems of Black and Brown people are at the forefront of our thoughts when we started this company, and it’ll stay that way.”

Woodruff is a serial entrepreneur who acquired a decade of experience across Silicon Valley, Asia, and Europe before conceiving the idea to create Assemble. Now that his vision has come to fruition, Assemble isn’t Black Masterclass — it’s giving Black people a crucial lesson in what’s possible, and the skills they need to stay in those rooms once they’ve made it.

Assemble started from a simple philosophy: you can’t be what you can’t see. Woodruff feels that too many media outlets and mainstream entertainment companies fail to present images of Black and brown professionals who aren’t athletes or entertainers. If people aren’t exposed to the full scope of what’s possible, they limit their potential to what they readily see available to them.

Currently, there are four courses available on Assemble’s website: venture capitalist Arlan Hamilton’s “Entrepreneurship 2.0,” Bryant’s “Intro To Music Management,” Grammy Award-winning jazz musician Maurice Brown’s “The Rules of the Trumpet,” and celebrity makeup artist Sir John’s “The Art of Makeup.” Along with instruction on the jobs themselves, each course provides real-world insight gained from work experiences that Black people often lack access to. For example, Sir John teaches the best practices for styling eyebrows, but also enlists comedian Tiffany Haddish for tips on how to interact with celebrities to keep securing work. Hamilton explains an angel investor’s role in the business ecosystem, but also teaches students how to leverage their unique advantages in business meetings where no one else looks like them. Assemble courses aim to show BIPOC students they don’t have to change who they are to get where they want to go — a radical stance in industries that seem to mandate conformity by virtue of the privileged people who continually advance in those industries.

“We’re not just teaching you about the career. We’re teaching you the nuances and things you’ll encounter that oftentimes we don’t get to learn,” Woodruff said. “It’s different than being a successful person in the room as opposed to going in that room and understanding the hidden pitfalls awaiting you.”

Each course contains multiple video lessons and is available for either a two-week rental at $6.99 or to download and fully own for $69.99. The price seems excessive until you compare it to similar offers. The cheapest downloadable tier at Masterclass costs $240 annually; and though it offers more than 150 classes, you can only download them on mobile devices, and offline viewing is only available with an active membership. With Assemble, that $69.99 fee grants you ownership of that video forever. In the long run, Assemble customers can have years of access for a fraction of what a similar course would cost on Masterclass.

“[This is for] our community, college students and individuals who might have a dream but not the resources to spend almost $100 on this,” Woodruff said. “We wanted to make it as easy as possible.”

Woodruff says the platform is already experiencing double-digit growth each week and closed out 2021 with revenue in the high six-figure range, with plans of having 20 courses live by the end of the year. Upcoming instructors include Haddish, Williams, legendary actress Debbie Allen, and Power 105’s The Breakfast Club co-host Angela Yee.

Assemble’s attempts to educate minority communities extend beyond the virtual realm. The company’s philanthropic arm, BeGreat Together, is a nonprofit that provides financial support for Black- and Latino-led community initiatives. Weeks after Assemble launched, BeGreat gave out grants of $10,000 each to two Kansas City Public School programs aimed at helping Black and Latinx students. Days later, BeGreat awarded a $20,000 grant to youth sports initiative KC United. This year, BeGreat is planning to award three $5,000 scholarships to junior, senior, or graduate level HBCU students willing to be a part of the research team for BeGreat’s short documentaries on “Black and Latino community changemakers and the work that they are doing to transform their communities,” according to Assemble’s official website.

Assemble co-founder Courtney Woodruff

Whether through grants, video courses, or community outreach, Assemble is doing more than giving Black people an alternative to Masterclass. The company aims to redefine what Black people see as skills they can make a career out of, and how to stay in those spaces once they make it.

“We want to be able to say, ‘if you grew up cutting grass, how do we not only inspire you, but also educate you on how to have a million-dollar landscaping company?” Woodruff proposed. “If you like cutting hair, how can we teach you to take a $10 pair of clippers from Wal-Mart and make a multi-million dollar business in five years? It’s possible, but it hasn’t been framed that way for us before.”