The Deal That Made Jay-Z A Billionaire
A single savvy startup investment tipped the Brooklyn-born mogul into ten-figure status.
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The fourth printing of my first book, Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office, just landed on physical shelves across the country. I spent my pandemic winter restlessly adding chapters, tweaks, and revisions for this tenth anniversary version. But I prefer the pithier designation that appears atop the stylish new cover: “Billionaire Edition.”
It’s often hard to pinpoint the exact moment someone becomes a billionaire. That didn’t stop us from trying our darnedest back in my days at Forbes—for me, never more intensely than when we declared Jay-Z a billionaire two years ago. Though my magazine article broke down the sources of Jay-Z’s fortune, it didn’t single out one that put him over the top.
In honor of my new Billionaire Edition, though, I thought it might be fun to give it a shot with the benefit of some hindsight. In all likelihood, the investment that landed Jay-Z entering the billionaire club involved a company you probably know—one that started out as an obscure ridesharing app in San Francisco.
Back when Uber’s focus was still black cars, Jay-Z agreed to invest $2 million in the fledgling company. That’s a massive outlay for an angel investor, particularly an entertainer. Celebrities typically write checks that range from mid-five-figures to low-six-figures when making such investments.
So imagine the surprise of Uber’s founder, Travis Kalanick, when he received Jay-Z’s original wire—not for $2 million, but for $5 million. The hip-hop legend understood not only the company’s potential, but how outrageously lucrative an initial investment could be. Unfortunately for him, Kalanick returned the excess funds. But Jay-Z still hung onto his $2 million investment.
Flash forward a decade or so. Suddenly, every celebrity and their manager had become a startup investor. People ranging from actor Ashton Kutcher to Jay-Z’s erstwhile enemy Nas had launched venture funds of their own. And, in many cases, their early outlays were beginning to pay off. Uber was chief among them.
By the spring of 2019, as I was putting the finishing touches on my evaluation of Jay-Z’s wealth—hovering right around the billion-dollar mark—the value of his Uber investment surged to about $70 million, a 35-fold increase over his initial investment. It was that increase, on top of his existing assets, which lifted Jay-Z to billionaire status at that particular moment.
Of course, Jay-Z’s savvy Uber investment was just one part of a broader fortune. He wouldn’t have made it into the three-comma stratosphere without all the companies he built, from Rocawear to Roc Nation, or the others he acquired and turbocharged, like Armand de Brignac and Tidal.
For the inside scoop on those deals—and the deeper details of Jay-Z’s epic journey—you’ll just have to read the book.
PS: I’m giving away signed copies of the Billionaire Edition to anyone who signs up as a Founding Member of the Zogblog—or upgrades an existing subscription—while supplies last.