Business owners for 20 years, Alvin and Calvin Waters celebrate the boldness of black entrepreneurship.
“They call us two bulls in a china shop because we take that approach when we walk in the room," Calvin said. “We're not arrogant, but when you tell us no, it's on."
Launched in 1999, The Machine Group has brought together some of the world's best producers and songwriters to sell more than 200 million records and generate close to 60 song placements worldwide. Producers who've worked with The Machine Group include Bryan Michael Cox, Teddy Riley, Anthony Franks and James Keyz Foye, who in turn have created chart-topping hits for artists including Usher, Mary J. Blige, the Backstreet Boys, Robbie Williams, and Michael Jackson. In Asia, they've worked with Korean artists EXO, Girls Generation, Super Junior and Shinee, and Japanese best-selling artist Namie Amuro.
Alvin said he and his brother always had big dreams, even growing up in the small southern Georgia town of Macon – a place they affectionately refer to as “country."
“You've got to have that entrepreneurial spirit inside you and try to exceed beyond expectations, go beyond what everyone else is doing," Alvin said. “We were taught early that whenever you walk into a situation, always think, 'I know I can do it better no matter what the situation might be.'"
And they wanted to achieve success together, a factor Calvin said helped cement their future partnership.
“It was never a competition thing," Calvin said. “It was more of just pushing each other to do better, to strive for more. That's how we kept moving the needle."
Sometimes, you can be busy being an entrepreneur without knowing it. That's how Alvin describes the brothers' first foray into business, a seemingly unrealistic effort to land a record deal by sending cassette tapes of their musical arrangements to every major record labels. They cold-called companies from their rotary phone and researched potential contacts in the pre-internet era by finding names in publications or getting information from whoever answered the phone.
“We were too stupid to be afraid of anybody," Alvin laughed.
Which is why, when the phone rang at midnight at their childhood home one evening, Calvin was more nervous about his mother's reaction to the late-night call than who was on the other end. As it turns out, it was a Motown executive calling from Los Angeles who wanted the twins to do a recording. They thought it was a joke until they were sent plane tickets to Reno, Nevada, to complete the project.
Barely 18 at the time, they vowed they wouldn't be returning to Macon. They couldn't have predicted, however, that Japan would be the place where their dreams would truly blossom.
While working as band musicians for Japanese pop artists, some noticed the twins' skill at musical arrangements.
“One of the top artists asked us to produce a record for him," Alvin said. “The record became a platinum hit over in Japan. We didn't even know what producing really was – we were just putting things together."
One connection led to another, and the Waters twins quickly became two of the hottest commodities in the Japanese pop (J-Pop) and Korean pop (K-Pop) scenes.
“Everybody thought it was a joke because you got two black guys consulting with Japanese, Korean groups and record labels," Calvin said. “But we began to see we could profit from this. It led us to open our own business internationally."
Borrowing from an industry concept of producers being perceived as “ghosts in the machine," they named their company The Machine Group. They're now based in Atlanta.
The Waters twins could have achieved significant success with entertainment projects alone, but like those proverbial bulls in a china shop, they decided to shake up other industries as well. A few years ago, they ran into a colleague, James Keith, while hanging out in Atlanta's ritzy Buckhead area. He told the twins about a hat line he was trying to place in local shops.
The gears began to turn.
“I said, 'You got a good product," Calvin recalled. “Have you ever thought about Neiman Marcus?'"
As the story goes, Alvin and Calvin made a few calls through their connections, and Keith had a contract with the luxury retailer by the end of the day. Today the fedoras hats, offered under the Keith and James label, sell for just under $500 and have become a celebrity favorite.
That's another area that's led to their success as entrepreneurs, the twins say. They're proud of their ability to interact with partners from all over the world and across cultures to find success in international markets, but they've never strayed from appreciating their own heritage and the importance of the black business ecosystem.
“When I think about black entrepreneurship and those who are truly supporting black entrepreneurs, I can hold my head up in the air and say, you're talking to me, you identify me, you see me, you know my wealth and how we contribute to the economy," Calvin said. “Black entrepreneurship creates not only self-pride but builds black communities."
Learn more about JPMorgan Chase's Advancing Black Pathways initiative, which was created to help black families benefit from economic growth through a focus on career opportunities, education and training, and building lasting wealth through homeownership and entrepreneurship.