Philly founder Will Toms on building REC and empowering creatives to fight ‘digital redlining’

By Danya Henninger

Buying a sewing machine was a memorable moment for Philadelphia entrepreneur Will Toms, cofounder and chief creative officer at REC. The membership platform and digital marketing agency he launched in 2015 with Dave Silver was purposely built through collaboration. So when a member suggested a sewing machine would be useful, they bought one and added it to the collection of tools at their Center City coworking space. “We were like, ‘Well, if you feel that way, I bet there’s 15 other members who want it as well’ — and now there’s a sewing machine in the design studio,” Toms told Jos Duncan-Asé, host of the podcast Making Love & Designing the Future. The Forbes 30 Under 30 Class of 2021 honoree was Duncan-Asé’s first guest on her new podcast, which aims to cultivate an environment that supports love, kindness and compassion, and to help people connect and form meaningful relationships. That mission aligns squarely with REC — the name stands for “Resources for Every Creator” — which has grown from a 600-sq.-ft. warehouse space in North Philly to multiroom, 10,000-sq.-ft. complex in the heart of Philadelphia’s downtown mall. The Fashion District hub includes production studios, performance venues and retail. And it was all created via participatory design. “There’s two ways for folks to build businesses,” Toms said. “One way is to have a genius idea, build it, and then find the market. We did the opposite. We got clear on who we wanted to serve and how we wanted them to feel. Then we tested our ideas with them and built iteratively based on their feedback.”

The collaborative path has proved fruitful. Nine years after launch, REC has more than 1,000 members and is expanding to Miami

Toms got his start as a creative poet and visual storyteller. His experiences working with major names in entertainment, like Eminem and Ice Cube, honed his skills in marketing and digital strategy, which he now applies to empower creatives through REC. 

The goal, he said, is to help artists transition from “zero to $60k,” and figure out how to make a sustainable income doing what they love.

Not everyone faces the same landscape when it comes to being a successful digital creative, Toms told Duncan-Asé. He described “digital redlining,” a reference to the 20th century real estate practice that systematically depressed Black homeownership and wealth-building ability. 

“These algorithms … have the power to do what the banks did, which is to say who gets reach and who doesn’t, who gets access and who doesn’t,” Toms said. 

To address the challenges faced by marginalized communities in gaining equitable access to digital platforms, it’s important to create inclusive spaces that foster creativity and representation, he said. “I’m just so intentional with making sure that there’s a real ownership perspective, and making sure we’re not giving too much power to these platforms — and letting them use us, instead of us using them.”

Listen to Episode 1 of Making Love & Designing the Future to learn more about Toms’ journey, how difficult conversations can help a business grow, and why he believes empathy and quality leadership are keys to driving social change.

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This story is a companion piece to an episode of Making Love & Designing the Future, and appears here as part of a media partnership between Technical.ly and Love Now Media.
 
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