#QTPOC+ Of The Week | Akiea Gross, Edupreneur & Visionary

My name is Akiea Gross, but you can call me Ki. I like to think of myself as an edupreneur, creative, and visionary; something like an idealist with a realistic perspective, who has a knack for connecting people and making shit happen. Most importantly though, I’m a Black, gay womxyn here to disrupt the hell out of white supremacy, one creative project at a time.

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Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I was born and raised in the DMV in Montgomery County Maryland by a single parent who dropped out of high school, got her GED and got her shit together. I spent more than half of my life as a highly disciplined student athlete, whereby I had to curb a lot of my creative endeavors in lieu of my academic and athletic priorities. I left home at 17 to go to my dream university in the south (go Heels!) and returned home after graduation to teach in DC. About 6 years ago, I came to NYC to go to Columbia for grad school and I’ve been here since.

Currently, I’m an Instructional Coach at a charter school in Harlem, and the Founder of a nonprofit called Equitable Schools, Inc., through which i launched the initiative #BlackTeachersMatter. A stickler for academia, I’ve managed to amass a quartet of Bachelors and Masters degrees throughout my twenties and have taught in various early childhood & Kindergarten classrooms over the last 8 years. Recently, I’ve been nurturing my inner creative, and am focused on pursuing my own individual and collective ceative pursuits. Now I’m managing, creating, songwriting, producing events etc. as one of the founding members of W.A.V (Womxyn Amplifying Vibrations).

We did some research and you've got your hands in so many pots! What are some of the top projects that you're working on right now?

Sisters Unsigned is definitely a top priority for me, and building more QTPOC inclusive content with my team W.A.V, as well as rolling out the release of my partner Sonic’s EP. I’m also developing my own education consulting brand, Woke Kindergarten, which will provide professional development and resources to schools on teaching social justice in early childhood. In my “spare” time, I’m working on writing an anthological series of teachable poems for the early childhood classroom, while simultaneously learning how to monetize my writing skills by assisting creatives in developing the written content they need for EPK’s, bios, etc.

You’re also right about the fact that I wear many hats, which is why I’ve recently had to make the tough decision to take a hiatus from my nonprofit Equitable Schools, Inc. While my organization is a priority, I’m choosing to take a break from the work in order to self-care by pursuing my creative endeavors. My hope is that these experiences will reinvigorate and regenerate my spirit enough to help me re-approach the trenches of an inequitable U.S. education system with the same fervor and passion that I had before.

Can you tell us more about how Sisters Unsigned: A Concert by Women came about?

Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to be surrounded by some incredible womxn of color-identified artists, performers and creatives, many of whom I’ve watched struggle to find quality opportunities and attain success at the same pace as our man-identified counterparts. That just didn’t sit right with me. I thought, “Damn, where are the spaces that highlight QTWOC artists and performers in particular?” I could only find a few, but nothing like what this intimate concert platform offered, so then I thought, “Why don’t I just build my own?” So that’s what I did. I had the opportunity to pitch an idea for an Airbnb experience and I took it. At our launch, we were the first intimate concert experience on the platform where all performers thus far have been Black, gay womxn. That’s really unheard of. Honestly, I’m pro Black womxn, pro QTWOC and I believe we deserve to be centered fully, authentically and often.

Not to mention, as an avid Airbnb traveler, I realized that there were no real safe spaces for me on the platform. I could never find an experience that centered me, or hosts that related to me on a soul level. I wanted to create a space that had appeal internationally—where Black and Brown, queer, womxn-identified travelers could come hold space together, connect with one another and enjoy life together. We deserve more intimate, safe spaces with our sistxrs! And now we have one.

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What has been your favorite part of that experience?

My favorite part of Sisters Unsigned has to be a moment from our very first show at Nublu Classic. We had never done this before, and yet, we brought out 100 people. It was magical. The entire space was filled with faces that looked like us, that loved like us, that vibrated on the same wavelength as us. And there was a moment during that show—actually two moments—but the first was when our guest artist Freakquencee shared something personal about her journey as a sister Unsigned, and just as a Black womxn in the world, and the whole entire room got silent and held space together. Some people cried. And the same thing happened during Sonic’s performance. I heard her hit notes and take risks I’ve never seen from her before, and i watched people shed tears during her performance. Afterwards, Sonic said she had never felt that comfortable in a space before. Those moments did it for me. That’s when I knew we were on to something.

What has been the most challenging part of that experience?

The most challenging part has definitely been promo and selling tickets. Promo because I have to go out every night to different events and force myself to meet people and spread the word, something that’s incredibly draining for me as an introvert, but more so, because I still have to wake up at 5:30am everyday to go teach kids, many of whom are dealing with their own life traumas. It’s exhausting. I’m struggling to find the balance.

Regarding tickets, we are finding that people don’t buy them until the day of or the day before, and it is so incredibly stress-inducing and anxiety provoking that it makes it hard to get excited about the concert itself. But I guess that’s all part of the grind when you’re in the early stages of building something impactful. We also find that the some folks in the communities we want to cater to often see our $20 price point and cringe, but we are actually priced very low for Airbnb and need people to understand that this isn’t just a party—it’s a concert experience on a platform where concerts range $20-$60. Not to mention, we also pay our artists, and because I’ve had to lowball my pricing the first two installments, I’ve had to come out of pocket the first two shows to ensure our artists get paid.

Sometimes it’s hard getting your people to see the vision and to support you as an independent entrepreneur the same way as they would support their favorite artist. So while we continue to work on establishing ourselves a “sought after” experience, I just have to keep grinding and do whatever I have to do to make people see the vision. Till then, I’m trying to find ways to cope with the anxiety of last minute ticket sales and awkward conversations lol.

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What are you hoping that each attendee takes from the experience at the end of the evening?

You know, I just hope that by the end of the experience, people feel safe, affirmed, uplifted and empowered. I hope that people see that we can legitimately create magical, empowering, inspiring spaces when we support one another. And most importantly, I hope they walk away from the experience vibrating a little higher than they did when they came in. We’re building some exceptional shit for our community, and I hope these vibrations are seen, heard and felt. I just want the music to move people!

We love hearing good words, so what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

You know, it seems really basic and simple, but one of the absolute best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was from my sister’s mother back when I was about 10. We were at Universal Studios and something was happening with our hotel room. But my sister’s mom, the hustler that she is, managed to finesse us some upgrades. She had to go through multiple people to do it, but she did it. And I remember her telling me to go up and ask the concierge something, but at the time, I was an ultra introvert and couldn’t bear the thought of having to engage with a stranger, so I refused. But what she told me after my initial refusal would change my life forever. She said, “The worst thing anyone can ever say to you is, ‘No.’ Like that’s it,” and she laughed. Then she said, “They say no, you keep it moving and ask someone else. There’s always going to be someone that says yes. So just say, “Okay, thank you,” and move on until you find that person. It could be the 2nd, the 10th or the 100th. Someone will always say yes.” And since then, especially within the last 5-10 years, I’ve carried that message with me. “No” for me isn’t a roadblock anymore—it’s become an opportunity to take a different path; a chance to flex my creative muscles and design my route accordingly. It has taught me to fare better with rejection, because in fact, rejection from one person is just an illusion of perceived validation. What’s real is that I am the curator of my own life and I will adapt accordingly. So curate your own life, use “no” as a catalyst to do phenomenal shit, and be patient with yourself, cause this life sure won’t be! You got this.

What else should we look out for and how can we keep up with you &/or your work?

My team, Womxyn Amplifying Vibrations and I, have a lot of big things on the horizon! Our mission is to amplify the voices of womxn creatives of color, so we are looking at building and curating different events and opportunities that allow us to do that, both in collaboration with others and independently. You can keep up with us by following @catchthew.a.v and keep up to date with our concert series by following @sistersunsigned on instagram.

As for me, I’m most active on Instagram at @uhkiea (though I’m thinking of a name change soon) and for any professional inquiries, I can be reached at hello@akieagross.work. Lastly, be sure to follow my partner in love, life and art at @sonicartofbeing. She has some big musical moves in store, so make sure you hop the bandwagon now before it’s too late :-)