The Power of Possibility
By Joan Tupponce
To see behind the scenes video of Pharrell’s visit to his alma mater of Princess Anne High School and see how Virginians around the state are getting “Happy,” click here.
When Pharrell Williams walks into the school library at Parkway Elementary in Virginia Beach on a sunny Saturday morning in June, the first thing I notice is the hat.
I’m not alone, as admirers—students and teachers—spot it, too, and push through crowded hallways to catch a glimpse.
Later, they sway to the beat of “Happy,” the singer, songwriter and producer’s worldwide #1 hit this year, as it floats throughout the school’s auditorium, filling the room with energy.Many shout “Pharrell!” hoping for a glance or a handshake from the star who grew up near here, and whose elongated bowler has become an icon seen around the world.
But the 41-year-old Williams is more than the hat, more than a pop culture star with A-list pals and a string of Grammy-award winning hits.
He’s a man here to meet and listen to fourth and fifth graders who have completed projects on the theme of “thinking green” for the after-school program sponsored by his Virginia Beach-based foundation, From One Hand to AnOTHER (FOHTA).
It’s not unusual for Williams to drop in on the foundation’s programs to talk to the kids one-on-one despite a schedule chockablock with performances and appearances, but this time teachers at the school kept his visit a surprise. As the 40 students file in to the Title I school’s library, their eyes get large when they see him, and the usually boisterous group of 10-and 11-year-old boys and girls becomes surprisingly bashful. Then, one by one, they stand up at the front of the room and talk about their projects and the careers they have in mind.
Basketball player, says one boy wearing a white recyclable t-shirt with an emblem he designed, his contribution to the think-green theme for the day. Dancer, veterinarian, football player, say others as they take their turns, the rest of the group quietly standing and watching while they wait. One girl sheepishly admits she didn’t finish her project on time. “Deadlines aren’t everything,” says Williams, who is not only a music mogul but also an entrepreneur and fashion designer with two casual clothing lines, Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream (this is a guy who understands pressure to deliver). “A lot of times I miss deadlines,” he laughs. The kids smile.
When another young girl gets up to talk about her project she speaks very softly, displaying little enthusiasm. “Do you enjoy the idea of that?” Williams asks. He takes a moment to offer some advice. “When you are presenting, be excited about what you are doing, and don’t worry about people like me. If you love it, you should express it that way.” The reassured girl breaks into a smile and answers with a hearty “okay.” “See how confident that ‘okay’ was,” he says. “That is what you need to be every day.”
The hard working and high energy Williams is the height of confidence on stage and in the production studio, working with everyone from Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake to Madonna and Britney Spears. But here, in his hometown, where he rode skateboards and learned to play the drums as a kid growing up in the Seatack neighborhood, he is reflective, laid-back, soft-spoken. He chooses his words carefully—as a songwriter, he knows that words matter.“
The most important thing is how much you enjoy what you do,” he tells the kids. “If you really enjoy what you do, you will get a job connected to it. I don’t work, I just do what I love to do. You can be whatever you want to be. That is what FOHTA is all about, encouraging you to grow on the inside.”
Williams started FOHTA in 2008, after several years of sponsoring annual school supply drives in Virginia Beach and distributing toys and turkeys during the holidays. “He’s always had a big heart,” his mother Carolyn says.“I wanted to provide people with the same opportunities I had, show them what is possible,” says Williams. The nonprofit supports STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning programs developed for underserved youth in at-risk communities.
FOHTA currently runs nine summer camps in Title I schools in Virginia Beach as well as two ongoing after-school programs. Its Summer of Innovation camps draw approximately 500 kids each year. The after-school programs have worked with close to 2,000 students since 2008. The organization is now also working with a school in Norfolk and is hoping to extend the program nationwide, beginning in Miami, where Williams and his wife Helen, a former fashion model, own one of their several homes (including one in Virginia). “NASA, a partner in the program, has asked us to consider 10 sites where it has programs as well,” says Louisa Strayhorn, former director of the Department of Business Assistance under Gov. Tim Kaine, and the foundation’s executive director since 2012.
At first, explains Strayhorn, Williams wanted to build an after-school center at the beach, but she advised him to build state-of-the-art programs first and then tackle the bricks and mortar. And he listened. “Pharrell’s tool was music, but so many of our children don’t have anyone to lead them to the tool they need,” says Strayhorn.
Through FOHTA, Williams hopes to give kids the tools they need to realize their potential by introducing them to reps from heavy-hitting partners in the program, including the FBI, Jefferson Labs, French-Italian clothing company Moncler, jeweler Lorraine Schwartz, the William Morris Agency, and businessman and major Revlon-stakeholder Ron Perelman, who come to Virginia Beach to work hands-on with the kids.
This summer EverFi, an education technology company in Washington, D.C., is providing interactive digital learning programs to students in the camps. In past camps, the FBI has conducted programs on forensic science and cyber security, and area chefs have taught the children about proper nutrition and growing their own food. Employees from Virginia Beach-based Crestline Hotels volunteer at the camps to help with projects as well. Students also participate in dream mapping, where they learn strategies and techniques that help them map out a career path.“
We are of the belief, and Pharrell is big on this, that you don’t have to wait until high school to figure out what you want to do,” says Strayhorn.
Williams found his path early, but “normalcy” is the word that best describes his youth, he says. “It wasn’t like being in New York where everything was super fast paced, and it wasn’t like being in Los Angeles where everything is super extravagant. It was normal, and music was basically as thick as the humidity.”
The whole family—mom Carolyn, an educator who earned her Ph.D. from Regent University; father Pharoah, an entrepreneur; and brothers Cato, now 31, Psolon, 21, and Pharrell—attended New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ and many of them sang in the choir under Bishop Barnett Thoroughgood and Williams’ uncle, Ezekiel Williams, who served as minister of music. “Music was this thing you felt and you heard but you didn’t necessarily see. But you saw its effects,” says Williams.
He played the snare drum in elementary school as well as at his middle school, Old Donation Center for the Gifted and Talented, and Princess Anne High School. He also played in the jazz bands in middle and high school. That’s where he met his business partner and fellow producer, Chad Hugo. “We liked all kinds of music. That’s what we had in common,” Williams says. “We made tracks. We always got a kick out of melding different styles together.”
As a student, Williams did just enough to get by. That frustrated his mom, who is now board chair and director of education for FOHTA. (Williams did not attend college.) “You know the potential your child has,” she says. “He would rather joke and play around and make everybody laugh.” Williams concedes he was stubborn in school. “Even for all of my stubbornness, my teachers never gave up on me,” he says. “They kept telling me I could.” And that’s the message he relays this morning and, later, to the high school students who gather to hear him speak in the auditorium at his alma mater where his wife and 6-year-old son Rocket are waiting. “My grades weren’t that great. I had a lot of Cs and Ds, and that is not compact discs,” he says with a grin.
There, he calls out his elementary school band teacher and mentor, Alan Sharps, who Williams says always pushed him to excel. “There was no music industry in Virginia at the time. There was no Hollywood.” So Williams wondered why Sharps continually pushed him so hard to be exceptional. “He believed in me. I had no idea where I was headed . . . but I learned discipline. I had to understand the importance of discipline.”Williams tells the teens in the auditorium the same thing he told the elementary students in the library earlier. “Never say I ‘wanna,’” he says. “Just say I’m ‘gonna.’”