Long before he became a Grammy-winning songwriter and hip-hop music mogul, before he reached millionaire status and before he began to hobnob with the likes of Oprah, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, Kevin Liles was a kid growing up in a West Baltimore rowhouse.
"My parents were teenagers. My [biological] father left when I was 2," said Liles, 45, who lived in his grandparent's rowhouse on Presstman Street before the family moved to Baltimore County. "But no matter where you are in life, God can give you the foundation for something greater. Especially if you're willing to work hard and be open to new experiences."
That message of working hard to build on a foundation toward something greater is one Liles tries to spread wherever he goes — especially to young people. A graduate of Woodlawn High who parlayed an unpaid internship in the 1990s into an entertainment career as the president of Def Jam Records, he has helped guide the careers of Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, Kanye West, LL Cool J and others whose names have become part of the popular vernacular.
Today, Liles is a global entrepreneur and philanthropist. For years, he and his family have provided college scholarships and other opportunities to young people from his hometown as well as across the country.
In July, Liles' Make It Happen Foundation hosted its annual Summer Business Academy for economically disadvantaged high school students on national college campuses, including Morgan State University, where Liles studied engineering before leaving to pursue his music career. During the two-week academy, participants learned business fundamentals, met industry experts and participated in a business plan competition.
Later this month, the Kevin Liles for a Better Baltimore Foundation Inc. kicks off its second annual Back to School Festival from noon to 4 p.m. Aug. 24 at Security Square Mall. Children and their families will receive free backpacks loaded with school supplies, electronics, gift cards, coupons and other goodies.
"Last year, we made history by handing out 2,000 backpacks. This year, we're on target to give away 5,000 to help students prepare for the school year," Liles said. In addition to his philanthropic efforts, he is CEO of KWL Enterprises, a talent company he launched in 2009 after leaving his post as executive vice president of Warner Music Group.
Based in Manhattan, Liles' company is anchored by KWL Management, a talent and brand development firm that oversees a client roster of musicians, athletes and other glitterati — from British singer Estelle and R&B crooner Trey Songz to Victoria's Secret model Selita Ebanks and NASCAR driver Darrell Wallace Jr.
Liles also scored big as a producer of the Broadway play "The Trip to Bountiful," which is having a successful run and recently garnered a Tony Award for lead actress Cicely Tyson.
"It's been a great whirlwind," Liles said of his various endeavors, which include a range from telecommunications to online education. "I love the freedom of being able to explore different projects that I'm passionate about."
Right now, he is focused on making the charity back to school festival a success.
In keeping with first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign to encourage fitness and better nutrition for America's youth, the festival is promoting health, wellness and access to community resources. For instance, the Baltimore County Health Department will provide free immunizations; the Maryland Food Bank is donating 30,000 pounds of fresh produce; and career guidance and local community college representatives will be on hand. Kids can even get free haircuts.
The festival has elicited support from a host of elected officials, including Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Baltimore County Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance.
"We are honored that one of our graduates — Kevin Liles — is supporting our students," said Dance, who will join Kamenetz in serving as a co-host. "We expect the festival to help [us] raise excitement about the upcoming school year, share useful information … and showcase the dedication this community has to educating all students for success."
The event is open to elementary through high school students, with an emphasis on attracting low- to moderate-income families who live in Baltimore County. Organizers explained that while Baltimore City has its share of charitable school giveaways, there haven't been many large scale efforts in the county.
"The [county] school system sent out letters to families, and the [local] Department of Social Services was also notified," said Yolanda Winkler, director of Government Affairs for Baltimore County, who has worked closely with the Liles camp. While the event is county-focused, "no one will be turned away," and backpacks will be dispensed on a first-come, first-served basis, she added.
Liles believes his work with young people is not only about providing material items such as school supplies, but also tools for life. As someone who has had a Baltimore block and the stadium of his alma mater named in his honor, he wants young people to know they can achieve their dreams, too.
"Kids will say to me, 'Kev, I need a chance.' I tell them to push themselves, make new friends, do different things — sometimes it may feel uncomfortable. But that's how I kinda found my way. Keep your eyes and heart open to define your life."
The second annual Back to School Festival is Saturday, Aug. 24, from noon until 4 p.m. at Security Square Mall at 6901 Security Blvd. Parents are asked to bring immunization records for free vaccines. For more details, go to the Kevin Liles for a Better Baltimore Foundation, Inc. at lilesforbaltimore.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun