Jason Kelley, founder and CEO of The Wave, is a creative and event planner in Washington, DC. With a scholastic background in public relations and journalism from George Mason University, Jason spent five years working at the Cable News Network (CNN) in Atlanta, Georgia where he also began his involvement in events. While giving tours of CNN by day and working in nightclubs by night, Jason began to understand the desire to create events that were filled with high caliber people, while also providing a comfortable environment. With that as motivation, along with friends in Atlanta, Jason began hosting more events, connecting old friends with new along the way.
Upon moving back to the Washington, DC area in January 2015, Jason connected with friends from his college years while also making new friends through his Atlanta connections enriching his social network. In March of 2016, while attending a brunch with friends the idea of "The Wave" naturally occurred out of a conversation, in creating the space for friends to exchange ideas and information. With intention and effort through friends across the country, The Wave has since grown to become a hub for events and information nationwide, connecting like-minded professionals one city at a time.
Let's talk about your background. Where are you from, where did you study and what were you doing professionally before you ventured into entrepreneurship?
I'm originally from Richmond, Virginia and studied communication at George Mason University. I started producing events in college and upon moving to Atlanta to work for CNN I continued producing corporate events and nightlife events, which ended up being the seeds of entrepreneurship of me.
“Fall in love with who you serve rather than falling in love with your product.”
--Jason Kelley, Founder, The Wave
What led you to want to take the entrepreneurship route?
After working with several social entrepreneurs and studying the impact and legacy of CNN’s founder, Ted Turner, I made a decision at 29 that I'd bet on myself, with the belief that I was enough and I could bootstrap my way to success. I continued working and strategically created more time to invest in my businesses. In 2017, I was able to become a full-time entrepreneur.
Talk to me about The Wave. How did it get started and how does it connect with Black identity and culture?
The Wave started as a group chat for my friends to talk about where we wanted to go for brunch. That was in 2016. After a particularly exciting brunch, I was bombarded with "No Invite" texts, complaints about being left out of the vibe. At that moment we created the wave and it rapidly grew from my 13 friends to over 2000 users in 2 months. We realized that Black professionals were leveraging the space to solve all types of problems, from finding a doctor to finding a friend. As we expanded to more cities we realized that our members needed greater access to information and community, and The Wave allowed them to make meaningful connections digitally, locally and across markets.
What have been some challenges you have faced? What about rewards?
Being a Black startup and being a Black founder, growing pains and learning curves have been the biggest challenges. A lack of exposure to the business processes made me have to start from square one on building a sustainable business, then I had to learn how to leverage the scrappy, resourcefulness native to Black people to develop my competitive advantages. So in short, my process has been a slower development but my experiences have shown me that I'm at the exact place that I should be to build a great product and to serve.
Who/what were some of your influences growing up? What about now?
As a kid I was enamored with entertainers, my goal was to be some combination of Will Smith and Denzel Washington. I appreciated their ability to be likeable in different environments. Later it was the rappers but specifically Kanye West and JAY-Z for the reason that they were able to adapt to the times and also create products that broke beyond their industry. Today, I enjoy reading about category-leading companies and their creation and about Black people making an impact across markets. I also delight in spending time with other founders. I find their unique vision and desire to solve problems a refreshing way to spend time.
Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
COVID showed us the need to expand our product offering and market opportunity, so we're extending our communities to places where Black people need more connectivity to businesses and solutions. In 10 years we'll have deep rooted partnerships, branded traveling festivals and a foothold in Africa.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming entrepreneurs?
Try all types of things and build with peers. Fall in love with who you serve rather than falling in love with your product. Amazon has some great articles about the idea of customer obsession.
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