You should always take your work seriously and work hard, but in most cases, even if something goes wrong, it will all end up OK. As someone who sets very high standards and expectations for myself, I struggled to deal with my mistakes at times. I would get very down on myself, which would end up compounding itself into additional mistakes. After a few years of mistakes under my belt, however, I came to realize that most mistakes can be dealt with and that, sometimes, there are new discoveries through those mistakes. Though I still “mess up” on a daily basis, I’ve now come to terms with this and am more successful in my career for it.
As part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ren Stern, co-founder of Frank Renaissance, a one-of-a-kind platform that combines the capabilities of a music label with the creativity of a production studio aimed at bringing Japanese music and culture to a global stage. Born and raised between Japan and New York, Stern spent his childhood weekends going to Japanese school in Queens every Saturday, and would return to Japan every year through high school, attending local public schools while there. He started his career in the ad industry working at agencies like Publicis Group/IPG before specializing in cross-border business development and venture capital. Stern founded Frank Renaissance with childhood friend Frankie Caracciolo after a trip to Tokyo sparked a desire to build something great together.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
To a large extent, I’ve been building up to start Frank Renaissance throughout my life. I come from a very artistic family: My mom works in fashion and my dad is a photographer. My house growing up was also bilingual as my mom is Japanese and my dad is American. Although I was born and raised in New York, every Saturday I would go to Japanese school in Queens, and in the summer, I would go to my mom’s hometown in Fukuoka, Japan, which I did every year up and through high school.
In the summers, I would play the Japanese taiko drums in the Kokua Gion Festival in Fukuoka, Japan, and though I haven’t participated in the festival in the last several years, hearing the beat of the drums makes my heart beat a little faster, even today.
I also grew up a massive hip-hop fan in New York. Much to my parents’ surprise at the time, the first CD I ever bought with my own money was Get Rich or Die Tryin’ by 50 Cent. I haven’t stopped listening to hip-hop since.
After moving to Tokyo from New York at the end of 2016, I was immediately amazed by the richness of the emerging hip-hop scene in the city. There was such a strong diversity and quality to the music that was being produced, yet the artists were still playing at local clubs and venues without major notoriety domestically and certainly not internationally. In parallel, Japanese and Asian culture was hitting the mainstream in the US, with labels like 88rising and shows like Terrace House becoming very popular in the states.
From 2018 until now, slowly but surely, Japanese hip-hop is climbing toward a new apogee, evidenced by the increasing number of artists — a small handful, admittedly — getting signed to major labels and making national TV appearances. That said, despite the popularity of their other Asian counterparts in the states, Japanese rappers still remain comparatively unknown in the US and globally.
After 5 years in the advertising industry, in 2017, I made a career change. I joined a strategic investment and business development firm in Tokyo, working with businesses, artists, and cultural institutions across Japan and the US, providing such organizations with the strategic resources and capital to succeed in new markets. Through this experience, I worked with Carnegie Hall Notables Japan, Carnegie Hall’s first-ever overseas philanthropic, helping them develop and produce their music education programs in Japan and also worked with Japanese painter, Mitsumasa Kadota, who put on his first-ever exhibition in the US at Lincoln Center. I also work alongside startup companies that are looking to make new ideas and visions come to life.
I had had one-off conversations with different hip-hop artists about their global aspirations since I had come to Japan, but this year, I finally felt that I had the network and know-how to try to make the dream of creating Japan-born global rap superstars and make it into a reality.
During lockdown in 2020, my co-founder and close friend from college, Frankie Caracciolo decided to officially launch the Frank Renaissance entity, the first-ever Japan-US music label, curating Japanese artists for global audiences. Since then, we have launched our first track, “A-Team’s Fables,” which is available on all digital streaming platforms. We look forward to releasing more tracks in 2021!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I guess the most interesting thing that has happened in my career was moving to Japan. When I was first asked to go to Japan in 2016, I had no interest in moving there. My impression of the Japanese workplace was that it was incredibly hierarchical and as someone who liked voicing my opinion on things, I didn’t see that working. Little did I know, moving to Japan was the greatest thing I have done in my career.
I was first sent to Japan for a three-month stint to help build up a relationship with a global client for the Japan office of the ad agency I was working at. I enjoyed being in Japan so much that, after a month, I agreed with the CEO of the Japan office to stay as part of the team in Japan and officially moved there to start 2017.
People sometimes forget that Japan has the world’s third-largest economy and one of the world’s most sophisticated workforces, but the country also has some of the lowest English-speaking levels in the developed world as well. With the quickly aging and shrinking domestic population, the need to help Japan grow outside of Japan has outsize importance today. Because of this, through my bilingual + bicultural experience, I can deliver an outsize impact when working with Japan.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In corporate Japan, it is impolite to reject a request. Instead, you tend to get a purposefully ambiguous response as the form for a polite rejection. Having started my career in the states, I didn’t realize this. In my first few months in the ad industry in Japan, I mistook a “soft no” as a signal that “the door was still open for negotiation” with vendors. My co-workers, who were also Japanese, didn’t want to tell me that I couldn’t negotiate, also giving me similarly lukewarm responses, and hence didn’t stop me from trying to negotiate prices that were in fact non-negotiable. So there I am, the ugly American, trying to be the tough guy in calls, but instead, was just looking like a fool.
After the same vicious cycle repeated itself a few times, I finally was able to have a conversation with some of my Japanese co-workers, who gave me the lowdown, and I was politely corrected on the proper etiquette for negotiation.
Today, I’m still a bit frank compared to someone who is born and raised in Japan, but I feel I have greatly improved my own “soft no” technique since I’ve gotten here.
Ok, thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our discussion. Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
Growing up in the US, it felt like there were few “cool” Japanese people in popular culture. There were few, if any, Japanese protagonists in TV shows or in popular music. Japan was immediately associated with martial arts and anime and there were no depictions of the types of people such as the hip-hop artists we’re working with today in US popular media. Although it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment that it had, I do think this affected my own self-perception living and growing up bicultural, bilingual, and biracial in the state. It can’t be said enough: Representation matters.
I was very excited when 88rising came onto the scene bringing Asian artists to the forefront and we’re excited to be building on that with a dedicated effort around Japanese artists as part of Frank Renaissance. Hip-hop is the most listened to music genre in the US and the world today and we feel like it can be a great medium to bring Japan to the mainstream in a way that can have a positive impact on kids like me growing up in the states.
Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
It’s still early days as we just launched the label a few months ago, but the artists that we’ve worked with so far have said that they feel their horizons have been broadened tenfold by the work that we’ve done with “A-Team’s Fables.” The Japanese music market tends to be very insular, so working with musical artists based in the states + fashion designers based in the states for our track and merch release was a very new experience for our artists.
As we release more tracks and projects going forward, we hope to be able to expand on this section 🙂
As an insider, this might be obvious to you, but I think it’s instructive to articulate this for the public who might not have the same inside knowledge. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?
Greater Acceptance of Others
Seeing a broader set of narratives from people of different backgrounds and cultures can promote mutual understanding and help create a better society.
Impact on Self-Perception
Seeing people who look like you in popular media can have a significant impact especially at a young age. Talent in popular media also serves as an important role model for younger generations.
Creating the Path for Others
Having strong role models not only promotes better self-perception and self-image, but successful people in different lanes of the entertainment industry can help forge the path for future entertainers after them. Especially when it comes to Japanese artists, our goal is to be able to create the formula for them to succeed in the US and globally, which then future artists can then follow.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
Studio, network, and label executives should look to produce content that is reflective of the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of our country.
Make an effort to produce content that tells authentic stories around Japan and Asia, even bringing stories directly from Asia to the US, vs. portraying stereotypical or exoticized depictions of Japanese and Asian culture.
Take a look at new projects from Frank Renaissance and labels like 88rising to learn more about Japanese, Asian, and Asian-American culture.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think leadership means different things under several different concepts, but in the context of entrepreneurship and the entertainment industry, leadership is action, especially when others are slow to act. In the context of Frank Renaissance, we are striving to be those leaders in Japan and in the states who are bringing Japanese artists to the US market like never before.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- You should always take your work seriously and work hard, but in most cases, even if something goes wrong, it will all end up OK. As someone who sets very high standards and expectations for myself, I struggled to deal with my mistakes at times. I would get very down on myself, which would end up compounding itself into additional mistakes. After a few years of mistakes under my belt, however, I came to realize that most mistakes can be dealt with and that, sometimes, there are new discoveries through those mistakes. Though I still “mess up” on a daily basis, I’ve now come to terms with this and am more successful in my career for it.
- Time with family and friends is crucial to maintaining sanity. As a fairly competitive and hardworking person, I tend to put work over most things but ensuring that you make time for the people that matter is duly as important. Family and friends can help you have new revelations and keep you motivated to face new challenges.
- A corporation will never move as quickly as I want it to. Early in my career, working at large, publicly-owned companies, I was lucky enough to be on some amazing teams with amazing managers and was able to be fairly entrepreneurial in my roles, creating new positions and helping build new departments within my organizations. That being said, having a company move at the pace that I would want it to, was difficult. I’m not looking to badmouth large corporations here in any way; several thousand people organizations are just not built to react to each of the ideas of its individual members, nor should they be. Ultimately, I ended up taking my ideas into my own hands, leading me to eventually launch Frank Renaissance.
- Know when to say “No.” I still struggle with this often as I like to say “Yes,” to new tasks as much as I can, as they lead to new experiences and working with new people. But just as important as knowing when to affirm is knowing how to prioritize the most important tasks and how to decline when necessary. Time is valuable and we all need to use it wisely.
- Clients are people, too. I didn’t meet a client in person until I was about a year into my first job as all work was done over phone and email. After which, I didn’t meet a client in person until about a few months into my second job in the advertising industry, but it was a highly humanizing experience. Having a client services mentality in work is crucial, but developing a true relationship with a client can create new mutually beneficial opportunities.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe that a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and learning is crucial to happiness and creating a better society.
In elementary school, we used to have a learning program called DEAR or (Drop Everything And Read), where, at some point every day, our teacher would say “DEAR,” and for 20 minutes, we would, well, drop everything and read. It would be amazing if we could start a DEAR movement for adults where everyone would have the opportunity to read for 20 minutes throughout the day. I think that creating a movement like this would promote a greater, collective pursuit of lifelong learning and tolerance through learning each others’ stories.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Gandhi once said, “We need not wait to see what others do.”
Seeing hip-hop grow in Japan over the last several years and Asian culture reaching the US mainstream more broadly through movies like Crazy Rich Asians, shows like Terrace House, and labels like 88rising, I’ve been waiting for someone to form the bridge capitalizing on these two trends. But no one has.
As opposed to waiting for someone to do so, Frankie and I went ahead and made Frank Renaissance to bridge this gap.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
However tough it is to say this as a Knicks fan today, I would love to have lunch with Rui Hachimura of the Washington Wizards. As the first Japanese player to be drafted into the modern NBA, he has the pride of Japan on his shoulders and doing that as a half-Japanese person is very inspiring. I’m rooting for him every step of the way, and I think not only can he bring Japan to people’s hearts and minds in the US, but also be a champion of greater appreciation of diversity in Japan as well.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow what we’re up to on the Frank Renaissance Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/frankrenaissance/
My personal Instagram is:
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!