It’s hard to imagine Roc Nation as anything less than the hugely influential entertainment company that it is today: a household name as famous as the celebrity recording artists and professional athletes that it represents. But ask Desiree Perez what the company looked like back in 2008, and she’ll describe a business with only five employees.
“It really happened fast,” Perez says of the company’s evolution. “I remember putting my head down and learning different aspects of the business, and when I looked up, I realized that we had a hundred people working here.”
As one of Roc Nation’s five founders, Perez has shaped the company’s course at every step of the way. When hip-hop-artist-turned-business-mogul Jay-Z—a fellow Roc Nation founder—appointed her as CEO in 2019, Perez gained the designation to match her level of impact. Perez, however, places little emphasis on the change in her title. Her focus remains the same as it always has been: doing what’s right, for the company and for the world.
Launching Roc Nation was in many ways a natural extension of Perez’s early career. She had spent more than fifteen years managing and operating nightclubs, including one that she helped to pull out of bankruptcy. “My experience in live entertainment and in micromanaging all aspects of a business—every dollar that comes in and out—translates to a lot of what touring entails,” she explains. “Touring is basically a nightclub on wheels.”
Still, it took time for Perez to figure out how to apply her knowledge base to other areas of the entertainment industry during her early days as Roc Nation’s chief operating officer (COO). She put in years of hard work to cultivate the broader expertise that she now possesses. Her laser focus paid off, fueling expansion into new sectors and carrying the company from negative to positive revenue.
Perez became CEO after working as COO for more than ten years. Although her day-to-day duties didn’t change significantly, she appreciated the recognition and increase in responsibility. “It meant a lot to me because it was an acknowledgement from people that I love and respect. And that’s more important than a title,” she says.
For Perez, running Roc Nation comes down to setting appropriate short- and long-term strategies for the company. In considering the business’s finances and next steps, she weighs the establishment of new projects or verticals against the refinement of existing ones.
Like many business leaders, Perez has factored the COVID-19 pandemic into her recent planning. “With COVID, it became more about finding new ways to create and to come out and support artists,” she explains. Amid uncertain times, she had to adapt her thinking around executing business deals and producing major events such as the Super Bowl halftime show and the Made in America music festival.
In addition to supporting Roc Nation’s artists and employees, Perez has concentrated on maintaining one of the company’s longtime priorities: social justice. “Social justice has always been in our DNA,” she confirms. “For over ten years, we’ve worked with the families of victims of police brutality. As another example, we have a scholarship fund for Black and brown kids who want to go to college but who experience mitigating circumstances.”
Perez uses the social justice arm of Roc Nation, Team ROC, to leverage the company’s cultural capital for good. “Because we’re Roc Nation, we know that we have global reach, we have social reach, we have voices. It’s a combination of power with all of our athletes and artists, and it’s respected,” she notes.
Perez never hesitates to make a phone call that might make a difference in someone’s life. In one instance, she and Team ROC intervened in the arrest of a young man who was racially profiled when he entered a mall wearing a hoodie. “He was stopped by security and arrested because he had a hoodie on. We reached out to the owner of the mall to get the mall policy changed and provided legal support to the young man to help get the case dismissed,” Perez says. “That was a great day.”
Perez’s own experiences as a Latina motivate her to effect change within Roc Nation and beyond. “I know where I came from,” she says. “When I walk into a room, people think all sorts of things about me, and those things aren’t necessarily good. But I’m setting an example so that when others walk into the room moving forward, people will think of business and opportunities and social justice instead of something negative.”
As she steers Roc Nation toward future growth, Perez is determined to lift up other women and people of color and to open doors for the next generation. She might accomplish those goals by building out the Roc Nation School of Music, Sports & Entertainment at Long Island University in Brooklyn, or by deepening the company’s impact on the television, film, and publishing industries, or by sharing wisdom and words of encouragement with new female music executives.
More likely, Perez will do all of the above—her own personal take on disrupting the status quo. “I’m always trying to help people understand the power that they have. The worst thing that you’ve done or the worst experience that you’ve had is nothing but a tool to transform your life,” she says. “We have to support each other and help each other advance. If we come together, we can’t be stopped.”
Perez would know. She’s already unstoppable.