Entrepreneurial Artist Laila Alam’s Vision for a More Just and Inclusive Art Market

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Are artists entrepreneurs? Laila Alam says: absolutely! The high school student from Rhinebeck, N.Y., U.S., joins us this month on Future of the Business World to express her creative inspiration as an entrepreneurial artist and outline her vision for designing an art-gallery structure that provides more opportunities and profits for creators. Meanwhile, she also champions technology as an important platform for every artist to create and sell their work.

Click on the arrow above to listen to the conversation. An edited transcript appears below.

Wharton Global Youth: Hello, and welcome to Future of the Business World, the podcast where we go inside innovation with the help of teenage entrepreneurs from across the globe. I’m Diana Drake with the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Global Youth introduces business and finance education to high school students and gets to meet some enterprising young innovators along the way.

Today’s guest was a student in our on-campus Essentials of Entrepreneurship program in Philadelphia this summer. Laila Alam is an aspiring artist who also loves business, which provides a great opportunity to talk about how they influence each other. While Laila’s creative spirit makes her a better entrepreneur, her entrepreneurial endeavors also depend upon the strength of her creativity as an artist. Laila, it’s a pleasure to meet you.

Laila Alam.

Let’s jump right in. You’re a high school student in Rhinebeck, New York. I want to start with a big question. What does art mean to you and how does it feed your drive to be entrepreneurial?

Laila Alam: So, art is definitely a constant creative outlet in my life. A big stress reliever all the time. Every year my classes change, but every year I still draw in class. It’s also definitely an opportunity to learn and improve. The principles of art can be applied to a lot of real-life things. Like, for example, in art, you make thumbnails. In business, you have sort of an outline at the beginning, and you improve as you go. So, art has fed my entrepreneurial spirit, I suppose for pretty much as far back as I can remember since the [first time] I heard the word, entrepreneur. I started out selling pencils that I had decorated when I was young in elementary school. And I would sell them for like fifty cents to my classmates who didn’t know that they were not worth fifty cents. And when I got a little older, I started making jewelry. I started out selling bottle-cap necklaces, and then I worked my way up. I sold at craft fairs to sterling-silver jewelry. But all the time, everything I was selling was because I loved creating it. I loved making the jewelry. I loved making the decorated pencils. And I wanted to share that with other people. And now that I’m a high schooler, I do some freelance work and some graphic design stuff, all just because I really love art. And it’s really cool to share that with people and of course, to profit a little bit off of it.

Wharton Global Youth: What was your favorite pencil design? I need to have an image.

Laila: The way I would do it is I would take a paper clip, and then I would scratch in the design. So, I would write someone’s name in a pattern, and then I would color it in with pens. It was pretty advanced for an elementary school student. Now, I would be a little embarrassed about it, but back in third-ish grade, I was very impressed with myself.

Wharton Global Youth: It sounds pretty impressive, I have to admit. So, you have your own web comic created via Webtoon Canvas. Tell us more about this expression of your art. What’s the comic about and how often do you create it?

Laila: My web comic is called Insatiable Ambition. I know, it’s a very Wow title. I started it in ninth grade. I started planning for it, and then I started actually publishing it, I believe at the beginning of this year. It’s a comic about the college application process and the competitiveness that comes with that. It takes place in a well-off private school where kids are very competitive with each other. There’s a lot of stuff that has to do with social hierarchy and class systems — very different from my rural, small-town high school. I suppose that’s probably what drove me to write about that. I try to update it at least once a month, but with school starting it’s kind of a little bit less than that. But generally, I think that’s what high school students tend to do with Webtoon Canvas — monthly. A lot of high school students publish on Webtoon Canvas.

Wharton Global Youth: Interesting. Yeah. I’m sure that topic itself resonates with a lot of high school students everywhere. Do you have an audience? How has it been met?

Laila: I was actually really surprised. I thought that no one would take a look at it. But I think I have any somewhere between 200 and 300 subscribers. Which just hearing that number doesn’t sound like a lot. But for me personally, having 200 to 300 people who I’ve never met in my life, actually reading something that I’ve created is insane. It’s just crazy what the internet can do, I suppose. It also helps that I have an Instagram account where I basically just advertise that web comic and that has nearly 2,000 followers. So they go together a little bit.

Wharton Global Youth: Your platform and your leveraging of social media really leads in well to my next question. What is your perspective on the tech platforms like Webtoon Canvas that allow for greater creative freedom? Why are digital platforms essential to the success of musicians, artists, writers, photographers? And really, how have they changed the entrepreneurial landscape for artists?

Laila: So, tech platforms like Webtoon Canvas I think are really, really great, especially for small artists. Artists that already have a platform on some sort of social media, Webtoon Canvas is less of a necessity for them. They’ll have a space to publish their work and they’ll have a way to advertise that very easily. But the interesting part about Webtoon Canvas is that anyone can publish. Doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter what it’s about. It can go on Webtoon Canvas. So, do with that what you will. There’s some stuff on there that maybe no one really should be reading. There’s a lot of really great stuff on there though that might never have been published if it weren’t for this opportunity. It also allows for a lot of freedom. You can pace yourself. There’s not really a deadline. So, for someone like me who’s in high school, if I have a lot of tests one month I don’t have to put out an update. But if I’m really into the story that time I can put out two or three updates a month. That flexibility is really important and that is basically a new thing given by tech platforms. You can’t really do that with an actual publisher. They’ll have a deadline for you. So having a platform like Webtoon Canvas definitely benefits smaller artists — and just overall for musicians, artists, writers, photographers in general. And it helps everyone spread the word. A photographer in the U.S. could have their work be seen by someone in Asia. They could purchase prints of their work and it could be shipped over there. And that’s an incredible opportunity provided by technology and the ability to facilitate those discussions. It’s really powerful.

Overall, they’ve definitely changed the landscape for artists, because typically art is usually stereotyped as a gallery artist is what you think of when you think of an artist. You think of someone who’s putting their work in a gallery and then someone’s buying it. That’s just generally what I find people think of about an artist. But with technology you’re able to do a lot more. I mean I find that on the internet there’s pretty much community for everything. So, whether you’re making fan art from a book that was written in 1996 and no one’s still interested but you get the idea really small community. There always will be someone that shares your interests and in that way there’s a way for artists to profit — you can make money off of it. Artists are able to connect with the community easier, it’ll be easier to find them, as well as a larger community because it can be anywhere around the world. No language barriers or anything like that on the internet.

Wharton Global Youth: As long as we’re talking about digital platforms, I’ve got to ask you about NFTs or Non-fungible Tokens. You have created an NFT [non-fungible token] as an artist. Can you share more about that? And how have NFTs opened artists’ path to profitability? As an artist, do you consider NFTs to be a powerful way for artists to showcase and profit from their work?

Laila: The NFT [digital asset] that I created I did over COVID. It was just a little fun project to do while everyone was at home. And that was really when the craze of NFTs was going on. So I kind of just did it as a fun creative thing to do. But throughout that process, I learned a lot more about NFTs and I just became more and more interested in the concept as an artist. NFTs are definitely a powerful movement. They’re a way for artists to really succeed. Typically, I find that artists have three paths. One is to work as a gallery artist and sell your soul to the snobby elite. Another is to work in a large corporation, but that can greatly restrict your creativity. Character designers can be stuck designing rocks, just rocks and rocks and rocks, and that’s insane. Or you could be a freelance artist and live in your parents’ basement and not really make any money. But NFTs have the ability to solve that problem. Anyone can create an NFT. There’s a heavy startup cost, but anyone really can post an NFT. And artists will continue to profit from the royalties, which is the big part of NFTs that are often overlooked. That means that anytime an NFT is resold, an artist will get a certain percentage of the profits. And art is one of those things that usually go up in value. So, if I create an art piece and it’s worth nothing today, but in 20 years, I’m like a really well-known artist, the NFT that I created, that’s owned by some random person, could then be resold and I would still get some of the profits from that, which is really, really important for artists. Typically, you sell your art, and that’s kind of it. That art doesn’t make you any more money. It’s off to the next thing. But this is a way for passive income.

NFTs are definitely a debated thing. We debated it at Essentials of Entrepreneurship because it’s exciting, but it also causes some concerning problems, especially with the climate issues [producing NFTs and storing them on the blockchain uses lots of energy]. I know that’s a problem that’s raised a lot, especially in the media, but I personally don’t think that you can just take that and say: okay, well, I guess we can’t do NFTs anymore. There is actually carbon-neutral technology that can make NFTs eco-friendly. You just have to look for it and know where to go. So, there is a business called Voice that does use eco- friendly technology to create NFTs. It’s all about the blockchain and the specific cryptocurrency you’re working with. If that is economically friendly, carbon neutral, then you’re able to have those NFTs work that way. And it’s such a good opportunity for the art industry to innovate and improve and move on from doing the same things that we’ve been doing for generations. NFTs is new and important and it can’t be overlooked because it’s causing climate problems. Those are really important, but there are ways to solve those problems. You can’t just be done with it because there are the problems. We have the ability to innovate, and I definitely think that we should continue to work with non-fungible tokens.

“I find the current art industry…to be very elitist. The galleries work by utilizing their vast networks, but they gatekeep via taste. And they create the taste.”

Wharton Global Youth: Much like the pencils, I need to visualize. You said you made an NFT during COVID? Can you tell me what it looked like? What was it about? What was the theme?

Laila: Yes, absolutely. The NFT that I created over COVID was actually one of my first animations and it’s currently still posted on my Instagram. I never took it down. I really, really love Greek mythology. So, the subject of course had to be Persephone. It kind of combined that techie idea of NFTs with the old classical Greek mythology kind of vibes. So, it was basically glitching out. The story of Persephone is that she gets taken by Hades, sometimes taken, sometimes not, but she just disappears from the mortal realm and then is in Hades. It just kind of zooms in on her and then she just flips out. I don’t love it anymore, but at the time I was really proud of it and in that way it still holds some sentimental value.

Wharton Global Youth: Sounds great. You mentioned Essentials of Entrepreneurship. I want to know a little bit more about that. Did that also inspire your own innovative thinking about ways to profit from your art?

Laila: One of the really important ways that Essentials of Entrepreneurship opened my eyes was this principle of doing user research and market research before finding a solution. It’s just not something that I thought of. I already had a solution to my problems in mind. But after going through the Essentials of Entrepreneurship course, I thought, hey, why not try out doing some market research? I spoke to the art curator at Vassar College, as well as a local gallery owner to just discuss the problems that I see in the art industry and possible solutions. But I didn’t necessarily find that my solution was going to work out, which makes sense. So, I decided instead to go a different way. Rather than just sticking in what I found I liked initially, I decided that I would try to change the gallery system. Not overall. This is a small experiment in my town. Typically, galleries are split 50/50 [for profits]. I wanted to try doing a fully student-run gallery split 80/20. 80% [of the profits] would go to the artists, 20% then would go back to the students. So, the way a gallery works is that a gallery needs the artists for their physical work and the artist needs the gallery for the network. It’s a symbiotic relationship of sorts. But because the galleries take such a huge cut, for someone like me, it’s not worth it. I’m also young and don’t have any opportunities to work with a gallery, but I find that a lot of the freelance artists that I’ve known find that they can make more money selling their own artwork, but they sell it less frequently because they don’t have someone making those connections. I can still make those connections, but I don’t feel the need to take such a huge cut.

I decided I would try to make an 80/20-split gallery. It’s going to be at our town’s winter festival, Sinterklaas. A lot of students are actually really interested in it, which I was surprised at the amount of students that loved the idea of selling their art and working within the art industry. Essentials of Entrepreneurship changed the way I viewed it. Rather than me saying, oh, there’s a problem, how would I solve this problem to best benefit me? Instead, I spoke to people in the industry and then to students who are artists, and they were interested in the proposed solution. So, I went forward with that. But had they not been, I would have then had to go and revise again. And that was a mindset that Essentials of Entrepreneurship really created for me. We talked a lot about the cycle, going through it over and over again. It’s not just you create a solution and then that’s bad, that’s what happens. You have to go back and do research and revise until you get a solution that really works. So this might not be the best solution, but for now, I think it’s a great thing to test out and try and see what happens. The gallery might make less money, but maybe if more artists are then inclined to work with the gallery, the gallery can be more profitable. Sort of that principle of if you have two lemonade stands across the road from each other, whichever one is selling for less money will have more business, therefore then be more profitable. So, trying that out with the gallery I think is a great way for students to learn about the art industry and a great way to test that sort of cycle and see how I can work with it.

Wharton Global Youth: Well, I wish you luck with that. It sounds like the information gathering piece of it was critical there. So great for market research, right? On our summer-program applications, we ask students to write a Tweet-style bio — short and sweet. You wrote that your future platforms will “link patrons and artists to democratize the art market.” Sounds really great. Tell us more about that. Where do you see your future in the art industry?

Laila: So, I’ve definitely said this, but I find the current art industry, the way it works right now, to be very elitist. The galleries work by utilizing their vast networks, but they gatekeep via taste. And they create the taste. So in order to democratize the art market, to make it more even for all artists, I find that it would be great to link patrons directly to the artists. So people who would be funding this artwork or purchasing it, funding either way, to directly speak to those artists rather than going through a system, sort of to create seamless interactions, disintermediation, to take out the middle man of sorts and prevent any gatekeeping or limiting artists. Artists work off of creativity and to stifle that creativity can cause a lot of problems in an art industry, especially for an artist to say that your art isn’t art. You can’t do that. There will always be someone out there who will appreciate it. So, to utilize technology and create a platform I think would definitely help. It would be a good first step. So personally, in the future, I want to be running a platform that’s sort of creating its own art market. I want to be the Etsy of the art market, creating those seamless interactions between patrons of the arts and artists. I think art is really important. And to limit what art can be created because artists are not getting funded is just so insane to me when you actually think about it. Artists grow out of creativity and to stifle that creativity can cause a lot of problems.

Wharton Global Youth: Are artists entrepreneurs?

Laila: My personal thought is that all artists are entrepreneurs. If you are creating something and then selling that something, you are an entrepreneur. Congratulations! And most of the time, if not all of the time, artists are selling their art, they’re selling their work. And even if you’re a freelance artist selling out of your basement, you’re still an entrepreneur. You’re still creating something, and then you’re marketing either yourself and your skills or your finished products. And that’s a skill set. Absolutely. I think artists have to learn and have to adapt to create that skill set for themselves. Sort of like a left brain, right brain kind of thing. Business, at least for me, is a lot more the mathy side of things, which I love math, and I love all of that, but it’s very different than art. So, to do both of those things I think is really impressive. And when an artist does that successfully, I think that’s so impressive and really, really fantastic.

Wharton Global Youth: And how would you respond to someone who would dismiss your art as less legitimate than other business pursuits? The ‘oh, you’re just an artist’ mindset, or that image of the starving artist. What would you say to that person?

Laila: I guess this is an opinion. Art is a consumer demand. That’s just a fact. People want art. Generally, there’s a trend that people who are very wealthy, guess what they purchase? They purchase art. When you have an excess of stuff, you look for the beauty in things. People who have lower incomes don’t necessarily have the access to art. But I found that in my experience, everyone will have some type of art that they can appreciate, even if it’s not visual art. There’s some type of art that people appreciate. There’s poetry, there’s music, there’s all sorts of art. And dismissing art as a lesser-than business pursuit, honestly, I can’t really understand it. You’re meeting a consumer demand. That’s what business is. You’re catering to the market. Artists just do it in a different way, but they are still utilizing their skills to create something and to give something that can then be sold. That is business.

Wharton Global Youth: One question I like to ask everyone on Future of the Business World is if you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

Laila: Personally, I think that it would be really fantastic if everyone spoke the same language. Now, I know that language has a lot to do with culture, but I think a universal language would be so beneficial. Everyone having that easy communication with each other would make a lot of interactions more personal and more endearing. Communication is the most important thing to me. I think that having good communication with people just helps you do anything, especially in the business world. To have good communication and good interactions with other people is really important. And sometimes a language barrier can hinder that. So, if I could change one thing in the world, I want everyone to speak some sort of universal language; some way that everyone can communicate with each other that doesn’t make anyone feel lesser-than or out of place.

Wharton Global Youth: Let’s wrap up with our lightning round. Please try to answer these questions as quickly as you can. Something about you that would surprise us?

Laila: I have a really foul mouth. Everyone I know is always really surprised by that, but I definitely need to wash my mouth out with soap.

Wharton Global Youth: A person in your life who has been an important mentor?

Laila: My dad.

Wharton Global Youth: A powerful source of creative inspiration for you?

Laila: Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan.

Wharton Global Youth: What would you be caught binge watching at midnight?

Laila: The Simpsons.

Wharton Global Youth: An Essentials of Entrepreneurship concept that enlightened you?

Laila: User research prior to finding a solution.

Wharton Global Youth: You are starting an innovation-themed talk show. Who is your first guest and why?

Laila: Elizabeth Holmes. It might be a controversial answer, but I think that everything she did is so incredibly interesting. Elizabeth Holmes was basically the embarrassment of Silicon Valley. Her whole scandal with Theranos is insane. That she got away with it for so long and was so profitable. Well, not actually profitable, but they were making they were having a lot of funding with absolutely nothing behind it. And I would love to just speak with her and discuss how she went about that. She went to Stanford, and basically everyone told her that she was wrong and still went through with it. So, I definitely think that would be a great, way to learn some life lessons of what not to do.

Wharton Global Youth: Laila, thank you so much for joining us on Future of the Business World.

Conversation Starters
In what ways are artists entrepreneurial? Pull ideas from the story and add others from your own experience.

Do you agree with Laila when she refers to the current art market as elitist? Why or why not?

What does Laila mean when she says she wants to “democratize the art market?” Do you think her idea will work?

Are you an entrepreneurial artist who has used technology to create a platform for your art? Tell your story in the comment section of this article.

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