Two Musical Minds Seek a Different Kind of Mogul

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LOS ANGELES -- The record producer Jimmy Iovine and his business partner Dr. Dre have a keen eye for talent. After all, Mr. Iovine discovered Dr. Dre when he was just Andre Young, and between them, the two have jump-started the careers of stars ranging from Lady Gaga to 50 Cent to the Black Eyed Peas.

Now they think they can help create the next Steve Jobs.

The music moguls, who founded the wildly popular Beats headphone business, are giving $70 million to the University of Southern California to create a degree that blends business, marketing, product development, design and liberal arts. The gift is relatively modest, as donations to universities go. But the founders' ambitions are lofty, as they explained in an interview Monday in the elaborate presidential dining room on the lush U.S.C. campus.

"If the next start-up that becomes Facebook happens to be one of our kids, that's what we are looking for," said Mr. Iovine, an energetic 60-year-old dressed in his trademark uniform of T-shirt and fitted jeans, faded baseball hat and blue-tinted eyeglasses.

Like many celebrities, Mr. Iovine and Dr. Dre have been seduced by the siren call of the tech world, which has lured celebrities like Justin Bieber, Tyra Banks and Leonardo DiCaprio to finance a start-up or develop their own idea. They have had more success than most with Beats, a private company that they say makes $1 billion in sales annually.

Still, the world of academia is far from familiar to Mr. Iovine and Dr. Dre. Neither went to college. And during the interview, Mr. Iovine confessed more than once that he was "out of my depth" when it came to discussing details of the program. He referred those questions to Erica Muhl, dean of the university's fine arts school, who will be the inaugural director of the program and in charge of devising the curriculum, selecting professors and reviewing applications.

Dr. Dre, 48, svelte and relaxed in black jeans and a black sweater that just barely concealed a faded forearm tattoo, has an easy rapport with Mr. Iovine, and was content to let him do most of the talking. The rapper nodded often, ate chocolate chip cookies with evident pleasure, and chimed in occasionally. When he did, he chose his words carefully.

As a rapper, Dr. Dre was lauded for his blend of agile West Coast lyrics and rich, blunt beats; asked if he ever expected as a young performer that he would help start a university program, he leaned forward and laughed long and hard.

"Never in a million years," he said.

But he and Mr. Iovine are betting that their instinct and keen ears -- which helped Mr. Iovine find and sign Dr. Dre who, in turn, ferreted out Snoop Dogg and Eminem when they were budding musicians -- will help them find future chief executives.

It doesn't matter whether it is the next Gwen Stefani, Mr. Iovine said, whom he signed at 19, or recruiting and nurturing the next Marissa Mayer.

"Talent is talent," he said.

The details of the four-year program, officially the U.S.C. Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation, are still being completed. The first class of 25 students will enter in fall 2014, selected for their academic achievement, the university said, as well as their ability for "original thought."

At the core of the curriculum is something called "the Garage," which will require seniors to essentially set up a business prototype. It appears to be inspired by technology incubators like Y-Combinator and universities like Stanford that encourage students to develop and pitch start-up ideas as class assignments.

"I feel like this is the biggest, most exciting and probably the most important thing that I've done in my career," Dr. Dre said.

Part of the endowment includes several full scholarships, he said, to help a financially disadvantaged students to "go on to do something that could potentially change the world."

Still, the $70 million endowment, to which Mr. Iovine and Dr. Dre contributed equally, does not rank high among gifts to universities; for example, in 2012, Stanford raised over $1 billion from donors, $304.3 million of which was designated for research and programs.

U.S.C. has received larger gifts from other donors in recent years. But Rae Goldsmith, the vice president for resources of the Council of Advancement and Support of Education, which tracks donations above $100 million to colleges and universities, said that regardless of the size the donation was meaningful because it was rare for donors to establish new departments and courses of study.

"This kind of gift can be helpful in achieving one overall goal of the institution," she said. "It's certainly noteworthy."

In the rarefied tech world, $70 million is a drop in the bucket. Last May, Evernote, a note-taking app, raised the same amount in a round of venture capital.

But C. L. Max Nikias, the university's president, said the size of the gift would fully support the new program, and would leave a legacy that would "make a difference in society."

The idea for the program came to Mr. Iovine and Dr. Dre not long after creating the Beats company, when they found themselves with a problem familiar to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: the rapidly depleting reservoir of potential employees, including software engineers and marketing savants.

"It came out of us trying to find people to work for us," Mr. Iovine said.

They hope that the program will supply not only future employees for Beats' current business, but also for a new venture, a streaming music service, Beats Music, that is expected to make its debut later this year.

Mr. Iovine compared their thinking to the approach to a typical business problem of "how do we make the best product?"

"In this case," he said, "the kids are the product."

Mr. Iovine said that over the course of their partnership, he has run many other ideas by Dr. Dre.

"Usually Dre is like ennhhhhhh," he said, mimicking the sound of a bleating buzzer used to signify halftime or a wrong answer during a game show. But when it came to this idea, Dr. Dre's curiosity was piqued.

"The last time he reacted like that was Beats," Mr. Iovine said.

The university has played an important role in both Mr. Iovine's and Dr. Dre's lives. Mr. Iovine's daughter completed her undergraduate studies there; on Friday, he is delivering the class of 2013 commencement speech. Perhaps more important, the school is fewer than a dozen miles from where Dr. Dre grew up in Compton.

Mr. Iovine acknowledged that their plan was ambitious but said the pair were not afraid to take risks.

"We have no idea where this is going," he said.

Dr. Dre said, "It's definitely a steppingstone to something." And Mr. Iovine jumped in, finishing the thought, "We're not quite sure what it is."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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