Founder of Atlanta Greek Picnic is always working
Tiwa Williams started seven-day event in 2004, and it keeps growing
It’s no accident that Tiwa Williams, president and founder of Atlanta Greek Picnic (AGP), has the nickname “Tiwa Works.” Because he gets stuff done.
I’ve known Tiwa since 2006. I remember going to meet him in this small office that had boxes all over the place. All I can remember from our first meeting are the boxes, but it was apparent his vision, journey and thinking have truly been outside the box.
Williams, a graduate of Georgia Southwestern State University, hosts the largest summer event for black fraternities and sororities in Atlanta, which draws more than 25,000 people with an estimated $3.5 million impact. Created in 2004, AGP is one of the largest gathering of college-educated graduates in the country. Events began Monday and will conclude Sunday, with the biggest events occurring on Friday (Greek step show) and Saturday (picnic).
He is a regular on the entrepreneurial and motivational speaking circuit, owns a real estate firm and recently celebrated seven years of hosting All Black Everything, an annual event in Lagos, Nigeria, that attracts a community of professionals for Christmas celebrations.
A few days before the madness, I went to the site of this weekend’s AGP festivities to talk to him. Check out how Williams really works:
We know what AGP means to black Greeks who come every year to Atlanta. But what does AGP mean to you?
AGP means to me another opportunity to advance a demographic of highly educated and extremely influential audience with networking, unity, a unique and fun experience once a year. There’s great responsibility that comes with managing such a huge annual event that draws thousands of Greeks from all over the country, as there’s nothing that comes close to such an experience.
Do you remember the first time you thought about AGP?
Yes, I remember the first time I thought of AGP and thought how amazing it would be to have all Greeks on the yard because the biggest thing on Morris Brown’s campus was Morris Brown’s homecoming. That was HUGE, with thousands of people in attendance enjoying the homecoming festivities with barbecue, music, frozen drinks and such a great atmosphere. I had attended a few of Morris Brown’s homecomings, hung out with the Beta Delta Kappas on their plot, and the only thing that could compare to this experience was the Kappa Luau in Tallahassee, Florida. That was the largest gathering of Greeks in the South, with thousands of people attending with celebrity performers, professional athletes, beautiful women and just an amazing time. So I clearly played with the idea of having something similar after attending these events, but that wasn’t the case when we had the inaugural AGP event in 2004. We didn’t have thousands of people show up, but about 200 to 300 people. But the motivation to take this new idea from thought to reality had been ignited.
How long did it take to get AGP off the ground?
I would say AGP took off in 2009. That was a defining year because most events are truly not respected nor expected until you stand the test of time, especially with a black event that also drew Greek members. People were expecting AGP to fail or for violence to take over, as they’ve typically done at numerous other great events. But we beat all those odds. By 2009, AGP was drawing an estimated 3,000 people.
You’re a British-born Nigerian. What made you interested in black Greek culture?
The truth is, prior to enrolling at my alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University, I had zero knowledge of what black Greek culture was. I had seen it in some music videos, but it never registered nor piqued my interest to research exactly what they were and what their purposes for existing was. I was born in England, lived in England and lived in Nigeria, and the closest thing I can think of that came close was the Dead Poets Society. Coming from such an international background, black Greek culture was not taught nor discussed when I lived in England or Nigeria. However, when I got to Georgia Southwestern, I remember my first day meeting members of the Orientation Team [O-Team] and recalled how exceptional a lot of them were. They were very assertive, very excited about GSW, and were excited that we freshmen had chosen the university as our home for the next four years. Two guys that stood out when they interacted with parents and students were Eric Holland and Cedric Coleman. Once school started, I noticed a lot of the men and women of the O-Team leaders wearing various letters on their T-shirts with different colors, clearly very different from the royal blue and gold colors everyone wore at orientation. This was very intriguing to a young British-born Nigerian kid who had just moved to America from an all-boys Catholic boarding school in Bath, England, to see these students were part of an apparent huge Greek-lettered organization with decades of history on a university campus in south Georgia.
Some people might think AGP is just about partying. What other components does it include?
AGP has the annual networking event, which has been an amazing piece of the weekend. AGP would not be where it is today if we didn’t take networking seriously.
Our community service component is extremely important, as it is the root of every organization. Service is the basis of each of our D9 organizations, and it’s an instrumental piece of our weekend to be able to give back to our community and to leave it better than we found it.
We’ve sponsored entrepreneurial events such as Plug ATL’s pitch competition with the likes of Google, SunTrust Bank, U.S. Small Business Administration and hundreds of entrepreneurs in the startup tech world attending for a chance to win $10,000.
There are so many great events outside of the partying and picnic event that are high-valued and filled with great opportunities. We highly encourage people to be sure to place them in their plans while attending AGP.
Comedian Rickey Smiley is hosting AGP this year. What does this say about the growth of the AGP brand?
The funny thing about booking Rickey Smiley to host the step show is that I’ve always wanted him as my host for my step show since his BET Comic View days. Landing him speaks for itself. The event is growing at such a great rate, the community loves it, and we just want to keep doing great things.
What other acts will be at AGP?
We have Juvenile performing at the step show, recording artist Brie, Noochie, Dominae, Swift and the F.L.Y. [“Swag Surfin”] boys. It’s going to be crazy.
In 2007, I was one of the judges at the first AGP step shows at Morehouse’s gym. That was only three years since the start.
The biggest thing I noticed when people came to AGP was that they took with them the experience. That experience is the core of AGP. Once you can give people a valuable and priceless experience, they will talk about you forever. That’s exactly what we did. We felt step show culture was slowly dying, so we created the step show and offered a $10,000 prize. That definitely caught the attention of a lot of step teams, people and companies. Then I had to think of some seasoned Greeks who knew Greek culture and would be able to be unbiased as a judge of the step show. You immediately came to mind to represent Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. I felt that we needed to give a great show, great production, great service and build an amazing experience at the step show that people would feel it’s worth attending and the show will run itself.
Your father owns a consulting and computer networking firm, and your mother is a former banker and now an author and life coach. How did they influence you growing up?
My parents exposed me to so many amazing life lessons and advancing myself to higher levels. They clearly were not going to have a mediocre child wandering aimlessly through life, as I remember my mother having tons of cassette tapes of Tony Robbins and Jim Rohn, who were motivational speakers as well as business philosophers. They were extremely successful, and they recorded their stories on tape and put them in books. I read and I listened to them, and I was inspired. My parents had given me a cheat code for life. Motivate, inspire and let people see what’s not yet built in front of them and you will pull the best out of people. Leverage faith in God in all that you do and everything will work out exactly as it’s meant to work out. Books were fed to me very early on that made a huge difference. Books such as How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Richest Man in Babylon, Think and Grow Rich: A Black Choice were instrumental in developing who I am today alongside with my parents’ guidance and inspiration.
What was your first job?
I never really had a first job, because the entrepreneurial bug caught me very early as a teen. I remember when I was living in England and I had to entertain my parents’ friends with the latest music and I would play one of my R&B mixes. They loved what I played, and they would ask me for a copy or two of the mix. I made copies and charged my parents’ friends 15 to 20 British pounds for each of my R&B mixtapes — and I did this when I was only 13. I was making great money without giving a lot of hours to earn such money. However, I do remember after I moved from England to the States during my short-lived time in D.C, my uncle made me get a job at McDonald’s. I despised it so much that I didn’t make it past noon, and I walked off the job. I believe I’m still clocked in too.
You’re very vocal on sociopolitical issues via social media. Why?
I believe it’s our right to all speak up and be actively involved. It’s part of our civic duty as citizens to be involved in sociopolitical issues. The concerns of everyone around us, especially those who are subjected to social injustice, have direct and indirect effects on us all. So we have to be conscious about it and actively participate to rectify the issues. I feel always compelled to speak up and use my platforms to amplify the message for others to see it and be motivated to take action.
What can we expect to see in the coming years for AGP? Will it include tech, film, etc.? What about expansion to other cities?
Expansion is definitely in the plans for AGP. We have a few other entities we are slowly developing in other parts of the country. We look to take our model into some cities we feel are ripe for a similar successful blueprint. The integration of film, tech and music are already in the works. We sponsored our first tech event last summer and it was a huge success. We had Daymond John as our special guest judge, and over 800 people attended this inaugural event.
You coach your boys baseball teams and run multiple companies. But I often text you at random times of the day and you hit me right away. How do you balance family and career?
The life of Tiwa Works. LOL. Yes, I do all these things, and I feel that because I’ve been doing this for such a long time that I have fine-tuned my mind, body and spirit to balance all these things. Is it easy? Definitely not. But I just make a conscious effort to make time and not allow work to take over my whole life without spending quality time with family. I make sure I follow up with those who have contacted me when I was coaching and spending time with the kids. Then again, if you know my kids, they won’t give you space … LOL. They will be all over me, sitting in my lap, wanting to follow me to business meetings and offering their suggestions on ideas. I’m all open as they are the future and can give me a head start for them!
You’re a member of Kappa Alpha Psi. Why did you pledge?
I joined Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. because I felt I could be a major asset to the organization. I felt that it was in alignment with who I was as a man and the previous members that I saw, especially Eric Holland, Ced Coleman. The Lambda Psi Nupes at GSW that came before me were all perfect examples of achieving Kappa men that hold our diamond so high. Kappa challenged me to be a better person, a better student, a better leader and a better citizen of the world. This is very clear in what I’ve achieved so far, and I believe this is just the surface that I’ve scratched. Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. wasn’t just the coolest, smoothest and most successful brothers that were around, but they uplifted everyone, including other fraternities, and to me that meant a lot.
Fill in the blank: When all is said and done, I want my legacy to be …
I want my legacy to be forever engraved in stone as a true citizen of the world and an entrepreneur for the people. I want my impact to be truly global and my legacy to live on through my kids, family, friends, entrepreneurial school (coming soon) and everyone that I’ve touched or has been touched by what I’ve done.