Fonzworth Bentley spoke to students Thursday morning at the Perry Paige Auditorium as part of Boost Mobile’s “Behind the Game” forum.
Dressed in a chocolate suede jacket, a light lavender shirt, fitted jeans and martini-embossed velvet slippers, the First Gentleman of Hip-Hop lived up to his moniker. Bentley, whose real name is Derrick Watkins, recently penned “Advance Your Swagger: How to Use Manners, Confidence and Style to Get Ahead.”
He discussed the book and shared his secrets to success in the entertainment industry with a small group of attentive FAMU and FAMU DRS students.
Before taking questions from moderator Elton Gumbel – 2004 FAMU graduate and WCTV sports director and anchor – Bentley commended the audience members for being in college.
“I haven’t seen this many black men at these forums,” Bentley said. “College can help you in any game you want to be in.”
Instead of plunging into a lengthy monologue, Bentley then challenged audience members to deliver a 30 second elevator speech. Five audience members – three FAMU students and two FAMU DRS students – took the challenge and stammered through impromptu pitches.
The best self-seller was Johnathon Sellers, a 2007 FAMU graduate. The Jacksonville native won the contest with a fast-paced, inspiring sales pitch about his Freedom Theory Apparel clothing line. He called it the conscious alternative to urban street wear.
The rest of the forum was more conversational than philosophical. Bentley spoke about self-selling, branding, building relationships, patience and swagger.
He used vignettes from his experiences as a biology student at Morehouse University, a maitre d’ in New York City, Sean “Diddy” Combs’s personal assistant and a recording artist to illustrate his points.
He said studying biology helped him draw a parallel between the interdependence of different organisms and human relationships.
“Life is about building relationships,” he said. “It’s not about what this person can do for you. Think how this person can help that person.”
While a maitre d’, he polished his relationship skills while waiting on celebrities like Ed Bradley, Conan O’Brien, Katie Couric, Clive Davis and Leo DiCaprio.
Bentley said working with Diddy polished the management skills he developed while promoting parties in college.
“Being an assistant taught me how to think ahead and anticipate problems.”
He said all these experiences contributed to his success and urged students to apply themselves in everything they undertake. He added that a commitment to excellence is part of cultivating swagger.
“Swagger is manners, plus confidence, plus style,” he said. “How you carry yourself, how you shake hands, are all part of your swagger.”
Bentley shared some of the steps he took to cultivate his own swagger. When he was 11, his mother made him take etiquette classes during the summer. He said he realized how beneficial the classes were while dinning at Bill Cosby’s residence.
“‘I like how you use your cutlery Bill Cosby told me,'” he said.
Today, one of the ways he maintains his swagger is by staying abreast on current events. He encouraged students to do the same.
“If you know what’s going on around you, you can participate in any dialogue,” he said.
Bentley said that after polishing their swagger, students should use it to brand themselves.
“Everyone is going to talk about their brand; you have to know what yours is,” he said.
This message resonated well with Sellers.
“My clothing line is a reflection of my thoughts as an artist and a black man,” he said. “The more I know about myself and my brand, the more my creativity and style will grow.”
Kyle Flowers, 22, a graphic design student from New York, said the fact that Bentley attended an HBCU gave him credibility.
“He knows where we’re coming from,” Flowers said.
The high school students took home some pointers too.
“I learned how to get myself out there and to meet as many people as possible,” said Kenderick Burant, a senior at FAMU DRS.
As a parting message, Bentley, 33, urged students to be patient and not to confuse haste with determination.
“Life is a marathon,” he said. “I didn’t get into the game until I was 28. Are you that hungry?”