By Lubna Hamdan
American rapper and tech investor wants the Middle East to invest in its youth, but his company has not paid staff in seven weeks
When I met American rapper, producer and tech investor will.i.am in Dubai two weeks ago, he told me the Middle East should invest in its own youth to “allow them to dream” as opposed to forcing them to venture abroad for support and inspiration.
The seven-time Grammy Award winner, who lent his voice to the Expo 2020 Dubai film, said the six-month event will inspire young people to contribute to the region.
He said: “Why allow folks [who] live here to go get inspired somewhere else? You have to bring inspiration here and invest in youth to dream… You have to start somewhere and I think the region is starting off at the right place with the Expo. It’s going to inspire a lot of creative visionaries…”
I hear you, Will, and I’m all for investing in our own youth. But maybe you should invest in your own staff first – as in, pay their salaries.
Documents acquired by The Verge showed that smart home platform Wink, which was bought by the rapper’s tech company i.am+ in 2017, is running out of money and has not paid workers in seven weeks, with one former employee even resorting to delivering pizzas to pay for expenses.
So forget about will.i.am’s employees being able to “dream,” they’re too busy trying to make ends meet.
What’s more surprising is that the millionaire knows a thing or two about minimum wage. He was raised in housing projects in US neighborhood Boyle Heights.
“It sounds to me like someone needs to invest in will.i.am’s company”
In 2013, he told CNBC about the moment he realised he came from a poor family.
He said: “I was in fifth grade and we had to bring canned foods into school and at the time I didn’t know who the poor people were.
“It was right around Thanksgiving and I saw Brit and Brad walking up my little sidewalk area and there’s no Brit and Brads in the hood. There’s Joses, Joselitos, Juan, Juanitos. There’s everybody but a Brit and a Brad.
“It didn’t hit me until I went back to school, and Brit and Brad were like ‘William’s the poor people’. So I was like, ‘Wow,’ he said.
“Ever since I was twelve, I wanted to move my mom out of the neighbourhood”.
While he doesn’t have to worry about canned food anymore, his employees do.
To make matters worse, a deal with i.am+ and Dubai-based retail giant Majid Al Futtaim has been stalled for nine months. The partnership is aimed at providing shoppers with voice-based AI powered assistance via a device called Omega that resembles Amazon’s Alexa.
In documents and emails acquired by The Verge, i.am+ co-founder and CEO Chandrasekar Rathakrishnan said the company was “caught in [Majid Al Futtaim’s] internal process and waiting on the release of funds,” and that i.am+ is “speaking with [Majid Al Futtaim] everyday and pushing it aggressively to receive funds now”.
But in a statement to Arabian Business at the time, Majid Al Futtaim said it had fulfilled all financial obligations towards will.i.am’s company i.am+.
“In 2018, Majid Al Futtaim began its partnership with i.am+ to bring its Omega technology to customers in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. While we have already started embedding the technology within Majid Al Futtaim’s digital offerings, we are also exploring a new lifestyle proposition together. To date, Majid Al Futtaim has fulfilled all commercial and financial obligations towards i.am+ for the work undertaken,” they said.
When contacted by Arabian Business, i.am+ said its management team is travelling and is unable to comment.
I.am+, which was founded in 2012 and sells wireless earbuds and smart watches, also failed to close a deal in May with wireless earbud start-up Earin, which said the acquisition “stalled due to unfulfilled obligations,” according to The Verge.
And in August, the US federal government filed a lien (the government’s legal claim against your property when you neglect or fail to pay a tax debt) showing i.am+ owes $1.8 million in delinquent taxes and interest, according to documents filed with the California secretary of state.
It sounds to me like someone needs to invest in will.i.am’s company.