By Jen McFarland Flint; photographed by Chris Sorensen for Harvard Business School Alumi
So many boxes. Drew Dixon (MBA 2004) moved into this Brooklyn Heights apartment just a few days ago, as evidenced by the ratio of boxes emptied to those still filled. The living room, though, is an island of unpacked order, bobbing above a cardboard sea. It’s late July, and Dixon sits on the couch with a napping cat affixed to her side and an iced coffee sweating in one hand. On the other, she is counting out the projects that are currently occupying her time and headspace, all endeavors that she’ll launch from this new home base: There’s a book proposal in the works, a TV script, and a documentary that (fingers crossed) appears destined for release in January. She’s just started her own record label, The 9th Floor, and is readying to launch the recording career of its first artist. It’s an ambitious lot, for sure. But to appreciate the fullness of it—and especially the thread of music running throughout—you have to page back to an earlier chapter of Dixon’s life, in 2017. That’s when the bottom dropped out.
That fall, she was raising money for a tech/beauty startup called EverythingDid, designed to help women and girls of color manage the care of curly and kinky hair. As with all stay-at-home mompreneurs, the work got done in whatever bits of time she could steal from the day. When her daughter, Della, enrolled in a dance class in Harlem that year, Dixon would drive her Jetta wagon with “WOKE” plates and SiriusXM radio up and down the FDR four days a week from Brooklyn. Instead of joining the other parents in a competition for weak Wi-Fi in a crowded waiting room, Dixon camped out in her car. She used the time to strategize her startup; news radio kept her company.
In all likelihood she was in her car, listening to the news on October 5, the day the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story. From there, of course, the floodgates opened. As the parade of high-profile actresses and their accusations grew longer—Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Mira Sorvino—and then a groundswell of voices overtook Twitter to say that they, too, had been sexually harassed or assaulted, Dixon stayed tuned in. “I remember being like, ‘Wow. They’re believing these women. They’re getting the benefit of the doubt. Good for them,’ ” she says. “Also I thought, ‘This has nothing to do with me.’ ”
But soon the storm of allegations would draw undeniably close. In November, the award-winning screenwriter Jenny Lumet published a first-person account in the Hollywood Reporter of being violated in 1991 by Russell Simmons, the king of hip-hop and cofounder of Def Jam Records. It was a watershed moment for Dixon, bringing to the fore a bundle of memories that she had worked hard to bury. She had launched her career at Def Jam back in 1994, working as an artists and repertoire (A&R) executive and reporting directly to Simmons. She knew with terrible certainty that Lumet’s story was not unique.
Dixon also appreciated that Lumet’s decision to speak out against Simmons must have been an excruciating one. “The implications of naming him, an iconic and successful black man, are absolutely loaded for a black woman,” Dixon says, citing the reception Anita Hill and Desiree Washington received from the community after their respective accusations against Clarence Thomas and Mike Tyson. It’s one of the factors that helps explain why women of color report sexual assault at rates far below that of white women and a major force behind Dixon’s decision to leave the industry altogether and take her silence with her. Dixon kept thinking that “Jenny is out there, and Jenny is black. Every day that goes by [and] I’m silent, Jenny and these other women are twisting in the wind,” Dixon says. “That was weighing on me.”
On December 13, 2017, Dixon’s story broke. She was one of four women to speak on the record to the New York Times about a pattern of violent sexual behavior by Simmons. The Los Angeles Times ran its own story that same day with five other accusers. (To date, 18 women have come forward with allegations of rape, sexual assault, or battery against Simmons, who vehemently denied them all and stepped down from his businesses at the end of November 2017.)
The article ripped through her life like a wrecking ball, Dixon says. Her marriage crumbled. The startup was put on ice. Personal traumas that had long been buried were suddenly in the public domain. The professional repercussions of naming names in the music industry are still playing out today, she says.
But for all the costs associated with speaking her piece, the #MeToo movement inexorably altered the direction of Dixon’s life, right up to this moment where she is unpacking her life in a fourth-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights. The metaphor is so obvious, it’s an elephant in a room already crowded with boxes. “The fleeting miracle of the movement is that it created a portal that I walked through, thinking I would do this one thing, drop off my luggage, then go back to business as usual,” Dixon says. “Instead, it tore down the whole infrastructure that I’d created to keep myself safe from my demons, and then it never ended.”
What she could not have anticipated is that, when her world cracked wide open, it would also create a path for her to find her way back to music.
Dixon’s career in the music industry started with a steep ascent. In 1994, one year into her first A&R job at Def Jam, Simmons asked her to put together a soundtrack for The Show, a documentary featuring interviews with the biggest names in hip-hop. Dixon jumped on the phone. “I called Tupac’s manager, I called Biggie’s manager, I called everyone and said, ‘My name is Drew Dixon. I love your music. I’m putting together a survey of hip-hop music, and it’s important to have you on it. Did you overcut your album?’ ” Her strategy worked, and she landed tracks by Tupac and Biggie, plus Mary J. Blige, Snoop, Warren G, LL Cool J, and Dr. Dre. The album went platinum in 1995.
This was the dream all along: doing A&R for an iconic rap label and reporting to its legendary executive. Dixon was all of 24, and she had fought tooth and nail to get there. After finishing her degree from Stanford in 1992, she moved to New York City and spent the next two years scraping by on $4.25/hour internships and secretarial work, anything to get closer to a job in A&R.
Music had always been a force in her life. Her great-grandmother Hazel would hammer out gospel and show tunes on the piano in her DC row house, and Dixon would take it all in from the top of the stairs, letting the music center her, she says. Later on she made elaborate mix-tapes, borrowing tracks from her mother’s record collection (Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, Hall & Oates, and Billie Holiday), grabbing new songs off the radio, and adding her own alternative tastes, from Echo & the Bunnymen to the Smiths. The exercise of getting the mix just right “had almost a pharmaceutical effect on me,” she says.
Hip-hop, though, hit a nerve. “I liked the nerdy braininess of digging into the lyrics and wordplay, but it also mashed up the soundtrack of my youth as a black girl growing up in DC,” she says. Those were the city’s darkest days, during the drug and murder epidemics of the late 1980s and early 1990s. When Mayor Marion Barry was busted in an FBI sting for smoking crack in 1990, Dixon’s mother, Sharon Pratt, won the election to replace him, becoming the first black woman to serve as mayor of a major American city.
It was against this backdrop that Dixon turned her career ambitions to music. “I thought that by becoming a hip-hop A&R person I could change the world, empower black voices, and also make music,” she says.
There would be no bigger stage for a debut than Def Jam. But before long, in addition to hunting for hits, Dixon says she was managing an aggressive culture of sexual harassment, with relentless advances from Simmons. “Intellectually, I felt it was a nuisance not a danger,” she says. She rationalized it all by telling herself that the job was the shot of a lifetime, and—when he wasn’t behaving inappropriately—Simmons acted like her champion. She held out hope that if she established enough of a professional reputation she could jump categories, from sexual object to respected colleague.
The Show’s soundtrack was still at the top of the charts when an encounter with Simmons escalated to the level of assault, as Dixon alleged in the Times reporting. She went home and told her roommate what had happened, then scrawled out a letter of resignation and walked away.
She landed soon after at Arista Records, where she worked for founder and president Clive Davis and A&R-ed hits for Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston. The name of Dixon’s new label, The 9th Floor, is an homage to that period, which she says were the best years of her career. But after Davis left in 2000, a culture of sexual harassment took hold. Finding herself again in an untenable position—traumatized by a toxic environment that diminished her ability to achieve professionally—Dixon fled, this time for good. HBS became her refuge.
Sectionmate Anne Morriss (MBA 2004) remembers meeting Dixon that fall and connecting across the shared difference they felt as nontraditional students, each in their own way. “The MBA experience is such an incredible space to dwell in this future possibility of your life, a chance to process everything that you’re bringing with you,” says Morriss. “It was clear that Drew was very proud of the work she had done and the artists she had supported, and she brought a lot of perspective and intellectual fire to class discussions. But it was also clear that there was a darker part of that experience for her.”
Dixon recalls those two years at HBS, when she could just do the work and show up as a smart and formidable woman, as a critical time that reminded her of her own capability. “Everything I learned there is baked into who I am. I will be tapping into all of that knowledge and experience and that part of my identity as I now emerge,” she says.
It is increasingly clear that workplace sexual harassment is an epidemic. Upwards of 85 percent of women say they have been targeted at work, according to a 2016 report by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which also estimates that three out of four of those women will never mention that fact to a supervisor. “It’s really a part of the fabric of the workplace for many women,” says Colleen Ammerman, director of the Gender Initiative at HBS. And yet it hasn’t been thoroughly studied in the context of organizational behavior and social psychology. But with more scholars investigating the organizational factors that perpetuate harassment, that is changing.
The Gender Initiative, founded by Professor Robin Ely, incorporated questions about sexual harassment in the Life and Leadership after HBS survey for the first time in 2018, although it had been administered every three years since 2012. The researchers hadn’t thought to investigate the topic before the events of 2017 brought it into sharper focus and wider attention, Ely says.
“We know that women tend to take longer to reach their highest level in an organization, but there has not been as much cultural understanding that sexual harassment can force women to find a more circuitous route there.”
Although still in the beginning stages of the statistical analysis of the data, the researchers found that 85 percent of alumnae have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, ranging from suggestive remarks to unwanted physical contact. Of those, 23 percent said they performed below their capacity as a result, and 38 percent reported feeling anxious or burned out. As far as how they coped, 52 percent told themselves the harassment wasn’t important, while only 9 percent issued a formal complaint with their employer; 10 percent fell in the same camp as Dixon and decided to leave their job.
The survey’s findings will add an important dimension to the growing body of research that is trying to tally the costs of harassment in the workplace. Other studies have found, for example, that individuals who were targets of harassment were 6.5 times more likely to change jobs than those who hadn’t been targeted. Some might quit to avoid their harasser, while others leave out of dissatisfaction with an employer’s response. In both cases, the decision comes with a price: from the material losses of firm-specific human capital—which is linked to earnings—to severed access to professional networks, financial strain, gaps in employment, or potentially vast reputational damage. Some women land in a lower pay grade, weighing short-term necessity against lifelong earnings potential.
All of these factors can stunt, derail, or limit women’s careers, Ammerman says, but it’s also increasingly clear that they play into women’s continued underrepresentation in business leadership. “We know that women tend to take longer to reach their highest level in an organization, but there has not been as much cultural understanding that sexual harassment can force women to find a more circuitous route there,” she says.
The research is also clear that these problematic behaviors are about power and status, not desire, and symptomatic of a dysfunctional workplace. “That kind of environment isn’t good for anyone, so we all should have a stake in trying to fix this,” Ammerman adds. “It amounts to a huge loss for businesses and society.”
In the post-HBS years, Dixon looked at her career options like a game board, whole sections of which were grayed out and unplayable, she says. Her professional network, skills, and expertise were all intertwined with an industry that felt toxic. From 2006 to 2008, by then “hiding out” as a stay-at-home mom of her two children with husband Wesley “Bo” Williams (MBA 2004), Dixon tried going back: She helped the artist Estelle record her debut US album, Shine. But working in the industry was retraumatizing, so she stuffed her creative work into a state of dormancy. “I had to let the music go,” Dixon says. Eventually the startup, EverythingDid, became her best answer to the question: “How do I leverage my degree and my competencies without tripping on these industry land mines?”
After the Times story broke, Dixon heard from a host of people from her past. Among them was her children’s former preschool teacher who wondered if, after the storm passed, Dixon might have any advice for her own daughter, a young singer-songwriter who was trying to break into the business. Dixon took the meeting largely out of a mix of courtesy and kindness—anything for a beloved teacher—and figured she’d give them 30 minutes and some basic advice. Instead, the music she heard that day stopped Dixon in her tracks.
Just 17 at the time, Ella Wylde had the presence and point of view of an old soul, with a natural instinct for songwriting, structure, and arrangement, Dixon says. “Think Alanis Morissette meets Alicia Keys. This is the artist I had hoped would walk in my door every day that I did A&R. I’m actually glad that she didn’t, because I would have signed her, and this business is inherently exploitative—a record deal is like a terrible small-business loan for the artist, who is always the last to get paid,” she says. “It’s why so many of them are broke.”
“If I’m the answered prayer of my great-great-great-grandmother, who endured slavery, what can I do with the resources I have to level the playing field for other black women?”
Dixon launched The 9th Floor expressly to sign Wylde and shepherd her through the first few albums. It spares them both the expense of cutting in a major label and gives Dixon the chance to shield the young artist from the industry’s financial and creative pitfalls. Dixon was forthright about the hazards of signing with her, given that her bridges to the business were still smoldering. Wylde was undeterred. “If anything, it was all the more reason for me to trust her,” she says. “I look up to her for what she did. To have an unapologetically honest woman thrown into my life, it was just amazing.”
Once she’s out there, Wylde will have to navigate an industry with a host of depressing data points on the gender front: A recent USC Annenberg study found that 39 percent of female artists felt they’d been sexualized in the recording studio; and a whopping 89.6 percent of all Grammy nominations between 2013 and 2019 went to men. According to a Pitchfork survey, last year female artists made up only 19 percent of average musical festival lineups. Lollapalooza, the most iconic music festival in the United States, for example, had never in its 28-year history headlined a female artist until this year, when Ariana Grande took center stage.
But there are more encouraging trends. The electronic music artist Madame Gandhi, known to her classmates as Kiran Gandhi (MBA 2015), points to a raft of new festivals developed by and supportive of women of color, as well as queer and gender nonconforming folks, “with the intention of curating and programming lineups that book diverse acts,” she says. Events such as Afropunk, Mothership, and Roskilde also encourage “an ethos of non-harassment on the grounds itself,” she notes, setting a tone that’s quite different from mainstream festivals. “This has been one of the most intentional and active responses to the #MeToo movement that I’ve seen in the music industry,” Gandhi says.
This idea of creating space for marginalized communities is in step with Dixon’s whole portfolio of projects, which share an unmistakable synergy: “I’m just trying to put wind at the backs of black women,” she says. It was the reason she broke her silence. It’s the motivation behind her startup—which she plans to pick up again as soon as the dust settles. And it was the inspiration necessary for launching the label and the career of a young artist, who also happens to be a young black woman. It’s what you do with privilege, Dixon says. “If I’m the answered prayer of my great-great-great-grandmother, who endured slavery, what can I do with the resources I have to level the playing field for other black women?”
Back in her living room, the cat snuggles closer in spite of the day’s rising temperature, while Dixon reflects on how different her path would be if the #MeToo moment hadn’t happened. “I shudder to think about how I had been hiding,” she says. “I feel as if I’m showing up as my true self for the first time.”
As she talks about the tasks queued up ahead, all enabled by this new range of motion, a car cruises down the boulevard four floors below, windows down and stereo cranked. The bass line bounces up the brick-front apartment buildings and straight in the living room window. It completely overrides Dixon’s train of thought. She smiles, closes her eyes, and cedes the floor. She picks her story back up only after the music has moved on down the block.