The Corner Office: Dia Simms, President of Combs Enterprises
Words: Julian Mitchell
Images: Andrew Kung
Images: Andrew Kung
Some of the most successful people in the game refused to follow the rules to make it happen, they did it their own way. Welcome to the Corner Office.
Marked by a fearlessness reserved for those brave enough to shatter barriers, iconic imprint Bad Boy Records (est. 1993) has amassed more than 500 million worldwide albums sales. Founder Sean Combs is arguably the most successful entrepreneur in Hip Hop history, earning the top spot on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list in 2017. The mogul has solidified himself as a master marketer, launching lucrative brands that span from fashion, television and film, to advertising, lifestyle and spirits.
Yet, next to every disruptive entrepreneur stands a skilled partner equipped with the skill set and vision needed to bring every innovative idea to life. Dia Simms has spent the past 12 years working directly alongside Sean Combs, establishing herself as an invaluable asset to his evolution as an entrepreneur, and a driving force behind the success of his expansive empire. Simms has amassed multiple leadership roles throughout her tenure, and has embedded an attitude of excellence into the fabric of a thriving operation that employs over 230 staff who share a commitment to define culture daily.
She currently serves as the President of Combs Enterprises, managing a growing portfolio of leading lifestyle and consumer product brands such as Ciroc Vodka, DeLeon Tequila, Sean John, Revolt TV and the Blue Flame Agency. I spoke with Dia about her unconventional path, guiding principles and the keys she believes are needed to build an impactful brand in the modern world.
Throughout your career, you've always been around music and supporting artists – What has kept you close to music and how has working with artists shaped your perspective?
Dia Simms: I don’t often talk about it but I grew up in a family where we would be singing songs all day on the weekends. They would also sing in the church. I've always been attracted to music. Before working at Combs Enterprises I worked in radio. When you work closely with artists, you really get a look into how they tap into a different part of their brain. I'm very much a geek. I love science, and subjects like that. When you think about how most people operate, they’re often too logical or too rational. When you're dealing with artists, they bring a cross-sensory perspective to the equation, not just to the music or art they create. Regardless of genre or medium, artists often approach their entire life in a different way. I find that inspiring and refreshing.
What are some of the biggest lessons you learned from working with artists and watching their process?
Dia Simms: It’s important to do things that you wouldn't normally do and to have unexpected experiences. Every time I have an opportunity to engage with an artist in a meaningful way, it challenges my brain to expand, causing my perspective to expand and think about things in a different way. I’m inspired because artists are creating culture. I feel incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by so many of them. I was fortunate to grow up watching Hip-Hop evolve in the '90s. I saw it gain a global footprint. Hip-Hop is arguably more popular than every other genre. Having the opportunity to see these artists create and shape an entire culture, influencing the way people walk, talk, think and engage with one another -- It’s a whole eco-system. I find it to be extraordinary and I really feel privileged to be a part of it.
Did you always have a passion to build brands and impact culture or did that develop over time?
Dia Simms: I’ve just always had a passion for being excellent at whatever I was doing. My mission has always been to be the best, no matter the job or industry. When I worked at the Department of Defense, I was focused on buying naval planes. In that role, I wanted to get the best price for the taxpayer. I understood the importance of immersing myself into whatever industry I stepped into. So at the Department of Defense, I decided that I'm going to learn law, the procurement guidelines and how to do a great contract. I was able to apply those same skills years later working for Combs Enterprises. I always believed in doing what you loved and the money will follow. I was grateful for that foundation from my dad. I would ask myself, ‘do I love what I’m doing right now?’ If not, I'm going to do something different. Fortunately, I've been at Combs Enterprises for 12 years and I've loved far more days than not.
"One thing Sean Combs has been smart about is putting women in leadership, it’s just a good bet. Don’t put me in charge to check a box. I am good for business."
You’ve worked in multiple industries prior to taking on this role – Describe your journey and how you navigated to Combs Enterprises?
Dia Simms: I was working at Clear Channel when they launched Power 105 in New York, and it was controversial back then. There was a prominent rap radio station at the time and people wondered, why would anyone challenge them? Before taking the job at Clear Channel, I was actually in pharmaceutical sales and I loved my job. A friend of mine was in radio and told me they were looking for talent. My friend brought me to the Clear Channel offices and I ended up talking to one of the station's advertising executives. Fast forward, I started working at Power 105, and I inherited the entire music label advertising list in New York. After seeing success, that same executive asked me to take over music label relations, and I accepted the task. When I took over all of the music labels, it was my mission to make sure they were all reticent to switch over from the competing rap radio station and advertising at Power 105. I actually broke Bad Boy Records for the first time there. I also did all of the marketing for the original Sean John store on Fifth Avenue, including the store opening.
So, you establish yourself and have success breaking Bad Boy and Sean John at Power 105 -- What was the next step after Clear Channel?
Dia Simms: One of my friends was working with Puff and called me, saying that he was looking for a Chief of Staff. I had no relevant experience that matched what they were looking for but I previously worked at a marketing company and spent some time as a promoter. I had a short interview with Puff -- he asked great questions. He was pointed, succinct and clear. After I left the interview, I really had no idea whether or not I made an impression on him. I’m not the type to look back on most things, so if it’s for me, then it will be for me. Later on they called and said Puff wanted to hire me, but since I haven’t managed very large teams, would I be willing to come on as an Executive Assistant. Now, I was 29 at the time. I actually turned 30 the week before I started. I had also never been an assistant before. But, I said yes, because I love to learn. Plus, the truth of the matter is that although I've had great bosses, I never had a boss that I truly believed has taught me a lot. So, my mentality was such as that I would take whatever title to have the opportunity to learn from somebody whose work ethic I admired and grew up inspired by what they’ve built. That’s when the journey at Combs Enterprises started.
What about Puff inspired you and made you believe in his message and movement?
Dia Simms: His message was so timely for me -- it was all about owning your power. From my point of view, real civil rights starts with ownership. What Hip Hop did was create an entire industry for people of color -- people that had non-traditional pathways, people that didn't always have Harvard MBAs -- to take their own power, hire their own people, and put money into their own communities. That has always been the most exciting thing to me about Hip-Hop culture. I think it is critically important to show that we're setting up our communities for ownership, whether you’re an entrepreneur or operate like one inside of an organization.
Do you think we speak about entrepreneurship and ownership enough as a culture?
Dia Simms: When we have conversations about eradicating poverty, we need to emphasize the role of entrepreneurship. When we’re looking at Hip-Hop throughout history, it has produced music labels, spirits brands, fashion brands, sneaker lines and restaurants. The real power lies in owning your influence and leveraging it to create scalable and sustainable wealth. The brands we’ve created have spawned into billions of dollars that have made people outside of the culture rich. I don't say that lightly, nor do I say it in the spirit of negativity. I think when it’s done the right way, it’s a cause to celebrate because it’s a win for all people.
So many young people get their degree, start in one direction, then realize they want to switch lanes -- How important is trying different things early and trusting your process?
Dia Simms: I particularly see this with young women who decide a pathway, and then hit a brick wall. I really encourage people to take risks and expose themselves to different industries.
Anybody who has been successful has typically failed at a million things. You can't be afraid to go out on your own. You can't be afraid to fail. To be successful, you must have the fortitude to keep going and keep trying despite adversity – this is critical. I did not have a linear pathway at all. But, what I always say is that excellence is transferable, and if you're out-performing your position, the right people will find you.
Breaking into the business, how did you prepare for the challenges of being a young, black woman stepping into male-dominated industries?
Dia Simms: I'm inspired by women that stand up and show that they know what’s not tolerable. It's a great approach. When I was a woman in my 20’s, I fully expected men to hit on me and not take me seriously. It was just something I had to be prepared to work around. I had to ask myself, "How am I going to turn it on its head? What tactics am I going to employ to assure I'm consistently taken seriously in every room that I'm in?" It sounds simple, but it was challenging. In this industry, I have to lead serious meetings about profits, margins, supply and distribution at 3:30 in the morning in a music studio full of men that are in an entirely different mindset. You have to be very clear about what you're meeting for. It’s all about demanding respect through the way you represent yourself.
"When I was a woman in my 20’s, I fully expected men to hit on me and not take me seriously. It was just something I had to be prepared to work around. I had to ask myself, "How am I going to turn it on its head? What tactics am I going to employ to assure I'm consistently taken seriously in every room that I'm in?"
What were some of the things you did to make sure the level of respect was always high and people knew you were serious?
Dia Simms: Nobody asked me to do this, but when I first started working at Combs Enterprises, I would literally go 13 hours without using the restroom. People were thinking to themselves, is she a robot? I know that sounds crazy, but it’s something women have to think about. Women get made fun if they’re in a long meeting and have to go. So, I would literally just wait until the day was over. I had no personal pictures up anywhere. I would keep it strictly business at all the events we would go to -- I wouldn't even two-step. People didn’t even know what type of music I liked to listen to. The less people knew about me, personally, the better. I'm not suggesting that was the right path. Those are just some of the things that I did to ensure that I was taken seriously. Basically, I acted as if I wasn’t human. Nobody knew anything about me and I loved it. Don’t get me wrong, I'm all about being pleasant, kind, and civil. But, I didn't talk about my family. I didn't go to any weddings or funerals. I was available 24 hours a day on my phone. I felt that I had to do that, as a woman, and I don't know that men felt the same burden at that time.
How does this lack of representation impact the bottom-line and what would be your message to CEO’s on the fence about bringing in women to fill power positions?
Dia Simms: I’m good for business, I can promise you that. You can take away whatever dress or red lipstick I have on. I credit Sean [Combs] for having the foresight to put me in this position. I think that once men understand that having the appropriate level of representation, and not just women, it is actually better for your bottom line. I always say, 'I may not be able to get to your heart but please look at your wallet.' I created a correlation graph to show Sean [Combs] the growth of his business. When he had women in senior leadership, he made more money. Studies show that when you have more women in leadership roles, your company is more profitable. It’s just a smart business move to empower women. I think Sean [Combs] is a shrewd businessman who notices the correlation. It’s not a coincidence that the CEO of Revolt is a woman, or that the CMO of Aquahydrate is a woman. The President of Combs Enterprises [Dia Simms] is a woman. His day-to-day manager is a woman. Why? Because it works.
What philosophy or guiding principles do you live by that have been instrumental in how you approach running a business?
Dia Simms: I have two philosophies that I live by. One champions never stop practicing and the second thing is to do what you say you're going to do. I have a 4-year-old daughter and I literally say ‘champions never stop practicing’, to her all the time. The reality is that you have to keep your skill level sharpened at the speed of culture and technology. You're fighting for the attention of dealing with people who have four screens on at any given time. Please don’t assume the skills you've garnered yesterday are effective tomorrow. The second thing, doing what you say you’re going to do; is just simple. It’s been my new year’s resolution for nearly a decade straight. I find it so incredibly hard to find people that can stick to what they say they’re going to do. It doesn't mean taking on too much. It means saying no when you should say no, and when you say yes, that means something. For me to manage my own personal mind and stress levels, those are the guiding principles I try to live by, personally and professionally.
"I was available 24 hours a day on my phone. I felt that I had to do that, as a woman, and I don't know that men felt the same burden at that time."
How would you describe your role and responsibilities as President of Combs Enterprises?
Dia Simms: As a leader in this organization, one of my most important responsibilities is creating and fostering the culture. I have to take care of the 230 employees that we have on Sean’s behalf. I’m specifically focused on injecting a level of civility and kindness into everything that we do. Don’t get me wrong, I can still be incredibly no-nonsense. We are focused on getting sh*t done and winning, and then winning again. But, I really want to have a no-a**hole tolerance, because it’s not necessary. We spend too much time together and I'm a person who values every second. So we should be kind to one another. We're doing amazing things here. We're pulling off phenomenal stuff. We're working on vodka, tequila, television networks and dancing to French Montana's track, "Unforgettable." What do we have to be angry about? We are doing some cool sh*t that is impacting culture with dope people. We can take the time to be kind to each other. We can take the time to say "please" and "thank you." Beyond all of the obvious things, I also want to be on watch when Sean [Combs] crosses that billionaire line. There's a lot of things I want to do with all the different companies we operate. We're excited about DeLeon Tequila being on fire, up over 60%. I hope my legacy will be defined by the way I treated people, and how the company made a positive difference in people’s lives.
How has your definition of success evolved from when you first stepped into the industry to where you stand now?
Dia Simms: My definition of success hasn't changed that much. For me success is just being happy every day, because life is too short. I love what I'm doing here. I love creating culture. I love winning. But, the one day I feel like I'm not happy, I'll walk out this door with no regrets. I was speaking to some second-graders, and they asked some great questions. One of the kids said, "Do you know what you want your daughter to be when she gets older?" I said, 'Oh absolutely.' They said, "well what is it?" I said, 'I want her to be happy.’
What advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs or executives who want to step in the business and truly make an impact?
Dia Simms: Life is not a race. We're very fast paced here, so I don't say that lightly. But, you really should take the time to get the best out of each moment. Now that I'm older, I see a lot of people who are shocked by the decade that just passed. If you're not intentional with how valuable each minute is, [life] will pass you by -- and you will live a sad and disappointing life. I'm not talking about being rich. I’m talking about true fulfillment. When you're 20-years-old, you're trying to move really fast like everybody else. We all get the same amount of time a day. We need to be very intentional about what we do with it. What is meant for you will be for you. Be comfortable betting on yourself. I don't mind working in different industries for different people. Develop the willingness to walk away, and the willingness to negotiate -- these two things can be the difference between living a life of purpose and abundance, or living a life of unhappiness and regret.