THE JOURNEY Of BUILDING AN ICON
Founder of heritage development enterprise ICON MANN, a published author, and an entertainment producer, she is currently the managing partner of a mobile design and educational installation, the Pavilion of the African Diaspora (PoAD), which she curated alongside the luxury designer Ini Archibong.
Houston founded ICON MANN in 2014 to positively transform the dialogue and imaging of Black males within the African diaspora through original produced content and exclusive, invite-only engagement. ICON MANN cultivates a global network among the most prominent Black men to create an influencer and lifestyle pipeline in the fields of business, entertainment, politics, education, the arts, media, and technology.
MONARCH: You began your career in fashion.
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: Yes, I started my career in design with American designer Betsey Johnson. During my senior year of university, I interned in the New York showroom. That opportunity made me quite visible to her and Chantal Bacon, CEO. Just before graduation, they extended an offer for me to join the house. Talk about women leading—this offer placed my career (and life) on a storied trajectory.
MONARCH: How did that lead to creating ICON MANN?
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: Being in New York City expanded my worldview of Black men and our people. We are not just one thing, yet we are all too often treated as such. The socializing of fashion brings professionals from many industries together. As a result, I met an impressive cross-section of Black men. While there, they were few.
Some years after leaving fashion, I witnessed the same thing in the entertainment industry. This time, however, it was more pronounced. Being at a top talent agency and management company allowed me to see behind the curtain. As a result of representing several top-tier actors, I heard firsthand how isolating and marginalizing the journey was. This allowed me to recognize the shared experiences, gaps, and opportunities.
MONARCH: What is the purpose of ICON MANN?
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: The purpose of ICON MANN is to positively transform the imaging and messaging of Black men, both domestic and international.
MONARCH: What caused you to place your focus on elevating Black men?
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: Necessity. We need Black men to share in leadership. As a people, we cannot advance and be competitive in any present-future arena if there is no unity within our households and communities. This requires a degree of masculine and feminine alignment. Except for African-American people, every race has been afforded this natural evolution. As a result, Black women have been forced to be stronger than anyone should be required, preserving and providing for the family to the sacrifice of her well-being. Black men, even those with monetary comfort, are systemically disenfranchised and alienated. The schism this has created between our comfort, communication, and value with one another has been catastrophic, yes, but it is far from definitive.
As a Black woman, I cannot be “your healing”—nor should I be expected to be; that is something Black men must do for themselves. What I can do, as the founder of ICON MANN, is create the space and supportive media for your rising that allows you to be an inspiration.
MONARCH: When did you launchICON MANN?
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: ICON MANN was launched in 2013 as an invite-only platform. Each member is vetted extensively. We move swiftly beyond the glare of clicks, likes, influencers, and trends.
MONARCH: You have had major success with ICON MANN. Was it an uphill battle to generate support and awareness?
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: Yes. I underwrote the costs of ICON MANN the first few years. In the beginning, there was no brand patronage. The position of many brands was that supporting the continuous elevation of Black men living, giving, and thriving while creating pathways of impact was not as alluring to sponsor as Miami or Vegas parties filled with gold chains and Gucci bags for the gram. From their viewpoint, it did not have an immediate ROI. This was a tough blow to me as someone who takes pride in the depth of my connections.
After a few years, we began to get traction with major studios like Fox, Warner Bros., and Sony, in addition to consumer brands like Mercedes and Lexus.
MONARCH: Would you agree that a few issues facing Black men are lack of representation, marginalized identity, and lack of ownership?If you agree with those points, how does ICON MANN assist with rectifying those issues?
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: I agree that these are some of the issues facing Black men, but they are not the predominant ones. You have to be something of value to yourself before anything else. The great atrocity to the Black man—and then his relationship to the Black women, family, and community—is the elimination of the intimacy, comfort, and grace he has with himself. Black men have been made alien to their very existence. No one talks about this, so toxic masculinity replaces personal intimacy, knowledge of self.
ICON MANN provides a mirror, a reflection into the awe-inspiring of who Black men are. We do this not by highlighting and exalting one as an outlier but by identifying many, allowing Black men, boys, girls, women, and the world to see that they are not an anomaly nor a monolith.
MONARCH: We are living in the age of technology, affording us the ability to communicate instantly as well as globally. How has this impacted your vision for ICON MANN?
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: Our community is the greatest adapter and user of technology as our microphone. This has allowed the awareness of ICON MANN to reach elite circles outside of our immediate network. Doing so has allowed us to create a multi-continent network of members.
MONARCH: Since launching ICON MANN, have you witnessed more Black ownership in the world of media?
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: Yes, ownership and more men (and women) ascending to senior leadership executive ranks. Tyler Perry is an innovative and disruptive force in this business. Kevin Hart, Will Packer, Charles King, Kenya Barris, LeBron James, and Maverick Carter are at the helm of ventures that are seeking generational dominance.
I note women here because one of the things advocated internally within ICON MANN is not forgetting to make deals and create pathways for Black women. Gender bias works both ways.
MONARCH: What would change if African Americans in this day and age collaborated more?
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: The future would be truly bright, and the institutions would be shaken! Hahaha #facts.
In saying this, let me also say that we are collaborating more. Is there room and space to grow and do more? Absolutely. But we must acknowledge the strides we have made and not parrot “Black people can’t and or don’t work together, support one another, collaborate.” We do. If we did not, then we would not be where we are.
I look at the work that activist investors Jesse Williams (actor) and Killer Mike (rapper) are doing with Greenwood Bank, a new digital banking platform for Black and Latinx people and business owners; it is a marquee collaboration.
MONARCH: Tell us about your involvement with the Pavilion of the African Diaspora (PoAD)?
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: At the start of COVID, luxury designer Ini Archibong and I decided to create space on the global stage, in elevated locations, to represent the more than 140 million persons of African heritage living outside of the continent. The result is the Pavilion of the African Diaspora, a trio of architectural monuments (“The Sail,” “The Wave Gate,” “The Shell”) inspired by the transatlantic slave journey.
Our first monument, “The Sail,” won the top prize for Best Design at the London Design Biennale. During our London run, both the U.S. Embassy and Embassy of Switzerland officially endorsed PoAD, hosted, and/or partnered with us on its programming.
As the managing partner on the project, I oversee our fund-raising efforts, exhibition strategy, and overall infrastructure efforts. Having successfully launched the first monument thanks to the support of Bracken Darrell at Logitech and the Quiet Team, led by Sol Guy and Seema Thaker, we are now in process on the next structure: “The Wave Gate.”
MONARCH: How would you compare the view of Black men in the U.S. versus internationally? Black men in the U.S. are leaders of culture. Though largely uncredited, they are finding their way to translate their importance across industries.
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: It would not be accurate for me to group all international Black men under one header because each society of existence brings about its own unique challenges and values. As an African-American woman, albeit a global citizen, I am most knowledgeable to address the view on the men in this country.
MONARCH: What do you envision for ICON MANN?
TAMARA N. HOUSTON: The future of ICON MANN is bright. We are successfully moving into publishing, long-form produced media, and launching our first Father’s Day Conference this year.