“Be excellent by design.”
BK Fulton believes we should all adopt excellence as a guiding principle. In everything he does, he strives to do it at the highest standard. BK was born in Hampton, Virginia. He attended Virginia Tech for college and accepted a full scholarship as a “Sloan Fellow” to attend Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the New School’s Milano School of Management for his Master of Science degree. While living in New York, he worked at the National Urban League during the day and attended law school at night. BK went on to serve in executive positions at some of the most well-known American businesses—American Online (AOL), Time Warner and Verizon. Today, he is Chairman & CEO of the media and film production company, Soulidifly Productions, as well as the founder of SoulVision Magazine. BK says that he spent the first fifty years of his life doing what he was trained to do. Now he gets to spend the rest of his life doing what he was born to do—showcasing the important stories in the human narrative.
Soulidifly Productions is the first independent film company in the history of cinema to produce four feature-length films in its first year of business. SoulVision Magazine has kept a steady readership in its first few months and has acquired article placements from big names like Vivica Fox and Quincy Jones. Soulidifly is on the move with movies, magazines, books and music for their growing fan base. For this interview, BK Fulton sat down with his co-founding editor, Nicholas Powell, to talk about his early childhood and career, his vision for Soulidifly Productions, and the need for the next generation to carry on the torch of excellence.
Where are you from and what was it like growing up there?
I was born in Hampton Virginia. I had a great childhood with loving parents, lots of friends, plenty of cousins and two sisters that were a constant presence. We moved a few times between Hampton and Newport News but I have always lived in a neighborhood that felt like a community. We knew our neighbors, there was a lot of playing outside and lots of sports. We did everything from swimming and karate to basketball and football. Riding bicycles was huge fun along with riding go-karts and minibikes! My childhood was rambunctious to say the least. I also started my first entrepreneurial venture, cutting grass for pay, at 10 years old.
Who or what was your biggest inspiration growing up?
My parents were school teachers, so education has always been something that informed how I operated. Outside of that—when I was growing up—I really wanted to play basketball. I was inspired by the likes of Julius “Dr. J” Irving, George “The Iceman” Gervin, Larry Bird and Erving “Magic” Johnson.
I played basketball on the junior varsity (JV) team at Denbigh High School. After the junior varsity season ended, I went on to play ball for the varsity team. When I went to Virginia Tech, I played JV for a little bit. I didn’t get a scholarship or anything, so I decided to focus on my studies. My intramural team did win the championship at Tech, so I’m proud of that as well.
What was the most important lesson you learned in the early phases of your career?
I would say, figuring out how to do school. I learned reading was a critical part of success, not only in school but in life. I remember my first couple of years in engineering school at Virginia Tech. I was struggling a bit and hadn’t quite developed the study habits of reading the material, going to class and reaching out to my professors. It’s amazing to see what can happen when you actually do the work that has been asked of you. Going to class and reading the books made things a whole lot easier!
For me, reading African-American history, which was something that was missing in my earlier training through high school, inspired me and still inspires me today. Reading about folks you relate to allows you to figure out what you want to do in your life and how you fit in the human story. Once I realized that people like me have always been central to the progress of the world, I approached my education differently. I was proud of who I was connected to and felt a responsibility to do my best, as my ancestors had done.
A lot of the media, then and now, is filled with what happens to women and minorities, instead of what we do for ourselves. The latter is the more inspiring to me. Accordingly, I created a career that would allow me to be a part of the doing in life—doing good work for the communities and people I cared about.
Do you feel like you’ve reached your goal of doing the good work for the people and communities you care about?
For the most part yes. I was a part of some very large teams at some important companies that were doing great community work, and I enjoyed those roles. At the National Urban League, I founded the Technology Programs and Policy Department and built their very first website. The National Urban League was the first non-profit of any kind to broadcast over the internet. We partnered with a company called Broadcast.com, which would later have a successful IPO on Wall Street. Mark Cuban was the founder. At AOL, we created “Power Up!” which was a project to bring technology centers to low-income children all over the world. We brought technology centers to Appalachia, big cities, and Native-American reservations. At Time Warner, I had the opportunity to work with some of the most legendary and iconic brands of the day, including HBO, Warner Bros, Marvel, and Time Magazine. It was a real eye opener for me and gave me the chance to see first-hand how major media worked. At Verizon, I helped to clear the way for FiOS TV and learned about the importance of distribution and getting to your market.
I even spent some time in government—at the Department of Commerce. There, I learned how expansive government’s reach was. I appreciated how it takes all of these sectors—private, non-profit, and government—to make the country and the economy work. These entities shape the world as we know it. Each role allowed me to walk away with lessons that inform what I do at Soulidifly Productions. Today, I make films, write books, and invest in companies. I have become somewhat of a serial entrepreneur and a very serious artist. With my art, I try to deliver a more inclusive and complete narrative of people of color. It turns out that we are a part of so much more than most folks realize and that more often than not, people of all ethnicities worked together in different ways to achieve the best examples of human expression.
At what point in your career did you begin to feel like you had made it? Any great achievements?
I think I’m still making it? I’m not done yet, so I think the book is still open on whether or not I have “made it.” I feel successful and happy. I have a great wife, my children are alive and free, and my parents are still on this side of heaven. I have a great family (blood family and in-laws) and lots of friends. So by all those measures, I feel like I’ve made it.
As a person who creates content, I feel like I’m in the early stages of my outpouring. I’m starting to get some success with my writing. Most of our films are coming out this year. 2019 is going to be a big year for us. I enjoy being able to work with a collective of really wonderful people who are doing some fantastic work. I feel like our efforts are inspired. This year we will release four movies, a soundtrack, seven to ten books, twelve issues of our magazine, and launch a few companies; so, I’m excited. I feel privileged to have the life and the opportunities I have.
Soulidifly Productions and SoulVision Magazine are fairly new ventures for you. Respectively, what have been the biggest challenges?
For Soulidifly, the biggest challenge has been getting people to take us seriously. Even though we are the first independent film company in cinema history to produce four feature-length films in our first year of business, we’re still considered newbies. But we are serious and we’ve brought in people who have been making movies for over 40 years to help make our venture a success. Building a solid reputation takes some time.
SoulVision Magazine is a few months in and it’s been fun. I think figuring out all of the content each month and delivering what our subscribers and readers want to see is always a bit of a challenge, mostly because of how time-consuming it can be to put all the content together. We want the magazine to reflect a certain quality and character each month. We want it to be respectful of the intellects of our readers, while also being accessible to anyone who wants to know, for example, how Vivica Fox became Vivica Fox or what a pioneer like Quincy Jones is thinking today. Putting all of that together in a way that is digestible and accessible was an initial challenge. I think we’re doing pretty good with it. I have faith that our readers will tell us when we need to do better.
There is more content being created than ever before. How do you decide what is worth putting out into the world?
Too many stories on film and TV today speak from a deprivation narrative. They portray mostly what people are doing to us. This leads to a lot of “boys in the hood” narratives, slavery films, and domestic violence films. There were some civil rights narratives but even these are mostly framed around the difficulties women or people of color have had in this country. While I think it is important to tell those stories, I rarely find the way they are portrayed inspiring. However, noting how our ancestors overcame those negative and horrific circumstances is inspiring. I believe that our fans want to be continuously inspired the way that Hidden Figures or Black Panther moved us. Even if Black Panther was fictitious, it was still uplifting and made me want to be a better person. I decided we could create an entity that produced more of the Hidden Figures and Black Panther kinds of stories. We don’t have to go back and create mythical characters however. Our history is so ripe with real heroes and sheroes—John Kenney, Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Dr. Charles Drew, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and so many more—that we could make hundreds of films about our excellence and what it takes to build in spite of the obstacles. If you think about what some of these people did during their times and under their circumstances, they were real-life superheroes!
They were challenged for being excellent. What I realized is there is an opportunity today, in 2019, and beyond to tell the stories that complete the tapestry of the human experience. These stories won’t be told from one group’s point of view or the sadness of another group. They will tell the good, the bad, and the ugly but focus primarily on the good because I think that’s the kind of stuff that motivates and inspires people to be better—the achievement narrative. I hope that with our publication, movies and other art, we will empower, encourage, and motivate. Unfortunately, too few of these amazing stories have been told on the big screen using the full splendor of media and today’s digital formats. This leaves open an opportunity for brands like Soulidifly. We can choose from a cornucopia of exceptional content that inspires. The possibilities are endless.
What projects are you currently working on?
Hell on the Border is about the legendary Bass Reeves and will be released this winter. Soulidifly plans to release Love Dot Com this summer and 1 Angry Black Man in the fall, so we have a great slate of films coming out this year. Atone released in late February and has received some acclaim. Sweethearts is an upcoming project about, for the lack of a better word, the strip-club world. It will probably be the most edgy concept we’ve done so far.
We have a set of children’s books we plan to release this year. The Taste Buddies series has a five book arrangement with Owl Publishing. Books two and three in the series will be releasing soon. Mr. Business: The Adventures of Little BK has a seven book deal. The entire series will release this summer. For Mr. Business, we’re working with a very talented artist, Salaam Muhammad who is a photorealistic illustrator. My first book, Shauna, has been re-released in paperback on Amazon. Also, the soundtrack for Love Dot Com will be released in the coming months.
We’re viewing other scripts and talking to creators about a series based on Love Dot Com. We’ve got an opportunity for a stage play about Nina Simone. We have a person writing a screenplay on Saint-George. We hope to have that polished by Misan Sagay, the writer of the film Belle. Right now, we’re busy building a fanbase so we can share our work more broadly.
What advice would you give to the next generation of business leaders who would like to become the next big executive/entrepreneur?
As I recently told over 300 students at SXSW, don’t give up and learn from what people have done before them. Every billionaire I know has created their own business. Every person I know whose net worth is in the 100s of millions has created their own business or worked their way up through excellence in a big company and acquired stock options and other perks that lead to wealth. The point isn’t really about the money, but about being excellent. When you pursue something with excellence, the best results tend to come out. My advice to young people is to be excellent by design—that’s number one. And number two, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel while you are figuring out how to get from where you are to where you want to be. You can read the biographies of three or four people you respect and follow their plan—which is what I did.
When you read those biographies—and you can read the short version—see what they did, lay out the common denominators of their success and mirror that. It will often go like this—go to college, get an internship, get a job, find mentors, work at this place and that place. You can use someone else’s plan and eventually, add your own nuances and interests as you discover them. But please remember, it is important for you to develop your own plan and write it down.
When I was in engineering and architecture school at Virginia Tech over 30 years ago, I wrote a 50-year plan. What I’ve been doing ever since then is executing that plan and checking off boxes. If something came up that didn’t contribute to my plan, I didn’t do it; and if it contributed to my plan, I would consider it and might do it. The point here is that I had written it down. I had a standard of excellence. I used the blueprints of others until I could add my own scaffolding to my plan. This has worked for me, and now I find myself in a position to use the power of art to help other people find things that inspire them.
How do you relax when you are not working?
I like to sleep, watch good movies, listen to great music, chat with good friends and eat. Sometimes, I will sit on the couch and put on a good movie and get me a “Little Debbie” oatmeal pie or a slice of cake, kick my shoes off and enjoy the blessings. It is important in life to be able to pause and take it all in.
As I’ve gotten older, I like to sit out on our balcony and watch nature, letting the stress drip away. I try not to do things that cause me too much stress, but we all live in an imperfect world and we have to prepare for whatever is to come. Likewise, whatever I choose to do, I like to give it my best. Once I’ve done all I know how to do, my faith says God will do the rest.