Tyree Dumas is on a mission to change the lives of urban kids through dance
By Ben Porten
Tyree Dumas is defined by ambition. Whether its his own or ambition that he tries to instill in others, ambition rules his life.
An entrepreneur and self-made man, Dumas has a lot to be proud of. At age 22, his youth is enough to make anybody feel insecure about their own accomplishments. But Dumas isn’t looking to brag, he’s only looking to help.
Dumas, a Philadelphia native, is the founder and CEO of Dollar Boyz, a dance organization designed to keep kids out of trouble. Dumas, who goes by TopDollar, began Dollar Boyz after going to teen parties with his younger cousins, who would impress the party goers with their dance moves. When he recorded them and put them up on YouTube, they instantly went viral. Today, the videos have more than 5.8 million views.
“What I noticed – every time I walked around in the streets, kids would get excited,” said Dumas. “Like, ‘oh my gosh, that’s TopDollar!’ like I was this big multimillionaire celebrity guy.”
Emboldened by this and wanting to put his blooming star power to good use, Dumas decided to expand Dollar Boyz from a dance organization for his cousins into “an entertainment company that was open to all.”
When he opened the doors to all, all answered. Now, there are more than 5,000 registered members in the Tri-State area alone, with thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook to boot. Dollar Boyz expanded its operations to meet the needs of its members, and now includes a record label as well.
“I’m trying to expose these kids to things they’re not generally exposed to,” said Dumas. “What I’ve come to find is they don’t have a positive male role model in their life to steer them in the right direction, so I kind of fill that void for them.”
The Dollar Boyz dance program has been up and running for over three years now, with practices every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Anywhere from 30 to almost 300 kids show up for these, mostly to dance, but sometimes just to watch. “That’s not a problem; just as long as they’re not on the street causing mayhem, that’s cool,” Dumas said.
The location of the dance program changes from year to year, to better accommodate the kids since they come from all over the region. “Parents would drive their kids over from Jersey to be part of the program,” said Dumas. “I try to move around throughout the city to cater to all the kids.”
Dumas is currently collaborating with Concerned Black Males and Susan Slawson, the First Deputy Commissioner of Philadelphia’s Parks & Recreation, to expand into three recreation centers around the city. A parent of one of the participating children is going to donate a banquet hall in Susquehanna to help provide more spaces, too.
Funding may be sparse at times, but Dumas’ enthusiasm tends to be repaid in enthusiasm in turn, so things seem to work out for him. “I’m the kind of person, no matter what, I find a way to make stuff possible and to overcome my obstacles and get the things done,” said Dumas. “I pretty much invest all my personal money into the organization.”
“I’m able to reach the unreachable,” Dumas said. “The kids that don’t go to traditional programs, for whatever reason, they’re drawn to Dollar Boyz.”
John Brice, Dumas’s associate at Concerned Black Men, offered an explanation: “What’s extraordinary, is not only is he doing what he’s doing, but he came from some of the same seats where some of them came from,” said Bryce. “He went to Kensington High School, and so who better to be an example to the students but someone who sat in the same seats where they sat, and is now in the position where he has nine different Facebook pages because he has so many fans and followers on Twitter.”
Dumas’s newest project, Dollar Boyz Academy, is an attempt to give children the same opportunities he had. And very interesting opportunities, they were.
When Dumas was young, his mother worked for Kraft Nabisco, so she could get everything for less than wholesale prices. He started selling cookies out of his locker. “I was figuring out a way to make a dollar,” Dumas said. “In my elementary school years, I was making a hundred dollars a week, and to me, I was a rich. I was a kid, making this type of money.”
His entrepreneurial spirit was stoked by this, and he sought out other ways to make money as he got older. “When I was 13, I walked into the E3 Power Center, and somehow, I don’t even know how, I met the director of the center and she was very impressed with me,” said Dumas. “She didn’t even know I was 13 and she offered me a job working at the front desk, greeting people and answering phone calls.”
When the E3 Power Center started up a youth council, he was chosen to direct it. He had his own office, and was making around $200 to $300 dollars a week. His office ended up being next to a music and video production class. He met up with the director of the program and became involved, which let him develop his skills as a videographer and photographer.
He then met Shurwill Langston, a higher up in the entertainment industry. Dumas got a job as his personal assistant and chauffeur and got a taste of “the good life”. “Driving his expensive cars around at age 15, at that point, I thought I was the richest kid in the world,” Dumas said.
This job introduced him to even more opportunities. Dumas met Brandon Ewell, the owner of a mortgage company, a real estate company, and a cleaning company. Dumas worked for Ewell in a similar capacity, further allowing him to build connections and to be exposed to the world he wanted to work in.
Dumas dropped out of high school in 11th grade when he felt it no longer had anything to offer him. “I felt it was irrelevant. My whole perception of school was it was a place to get your diploma or your college degree to end up working for somebody else,” Dumas said. “That wasn’t my goal.”
Having worked in so many supervising and managerial positions growing up, Dumas was unwilling to settle and work for anybody but himself.
Ewell’s parents introduced him to the cyber school component of the church they run, where he completed six months worth of schoolwork in two. Dumas was always frustrated that he couldn’t work at his own pace in school. The online academy allowed him to do this, and today, Dumas has a high school degree.
Dumas chose to enroll his younger brother, Kaseen Bolden, aka D.B. Woody, in an online program as well. Dumas developed D.B. Woody as a rapper and dancer, and being able to attend classes online allows Bolden to tour freely. “When he was in school, he was a distraction to the school and the school was a distraction to him, being as he’s on TV with different celebrities and on the radio,” said Dumas. “You’ve got kids running out of their classrooms just to say ‘Oh my god, it’s D.B. Woody!’”
Bolden, who used to be a straight A and B student, started to slip academically as his star rose (his Facebook fans dwarf the combined fans of all my friends’ bands. And he’s 12) . Now that he’s in an online program, his grades are back up.
Having personally experienced the frustrations of a school that can’t cater to each
student’s needs, Dumas is using his experiences with online education to start his own school.
Dollar Boyz Academy, which will start its pilot program this coming September, will be open to 25 students. Three hundred have already preregistered. The program is designed like an online charter school, but will be physically housed in a building.
From 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., students will be responsible for working on the core curriculum, which will be supplemented by a teacher to help out with questions. Dollar Boyz Academy will be partnering with an agency that teaches entrepreneurship to have people come in and teach the students about how to run a business on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the students can work on the artistic craft, whether it be dancing, rapping, photography or videography.
The academy is being sponsored by Sneaker Villa, which is going to sell the students’ products in stores as part of the final project. The students will also be required to write a ten to twelve page business plan to argue the merits of their products. “All 25 students within the school, by the time they’re in 12th grade, they will at least be making $50,000 a year. That’s my goal,” Dumas said. “That’s the low end, I see them making $100,000 or more.”
Dollar Boyz is in the process of teaming up with Junior Music Execs to teach the students about the behind-the-scenes of the entertainment industry. Technology classes will help students build websites and video games. “This’ll be a school a kid would get up five o clock at the morning just to be there at six, when it starts at nine,” said Dumas.
The biggest issue right now is finding the appropriate space for the academy. Pennsylvania Academy Leadership Charter School, which is partnering with Dollar Boyz Academy, is offering to donate computer equipment and to give stipends to the students for the entertainment and entrepreneurship lessons, but it won’t cover all the costs. Dumas spends most of his time trying to figure out a way to make this financially viable.
“During the week, if you look at my calendar, every single day I’m in some type of meeting. I have literally two or three meetings per day,” said Dumas. “My whole life is Dollar Boyz, so everything is Dollar Boyz, Dollar Boyz, Dollar Boyz. I’m all for the kids.”
The proof’s in the pudding. When we got into his car to attend a class where Dumas was guest lecturing, the seats were littered with Wendy’s wrappers from driving kids around the night before. Whenever I called him, he was either on another line with a kid, a parent, or was actually hanging out with kids.
“I literally get over 200 text messages a day, over a 100 calls, all from kids,” Dumas said. “If I’m on Facebook, as soon as I log on, I get all these IMs and messages. It’s kind of overwhelming, but I do what I do for the youth, you know?” He’s so involved with the Dollar Boyz’ lives that when they get in trouble, sometimes schools will call him before they call their parents.
Ten-year-old Dollar Boy, Dhafir Simon, aka D.B. Dash, said “he’s like kind of the fifth brother to me; he’s kind of a father.” “Most of the time I don’t get to go to a lot of places, but most of the time he takes me,” said Dash.” He takes us to concerts and sometimes he just takes us to the city to have fun. Mostly every weekend we usually go to the movies and most times hotels, stuff like that.”
On a typical weekend, Dumas will corral up Dollar Boyz, take them to perform, feed them, clown around, give haircuts, give girl advice, take them to hotels, help them practice their routines, take them swimming, take them to perform again, take them to Denny’s, take them to movies, and then go up and down all over Philly to drop the kids off. “I make sure everybody gets home,” said Dumas. “I’ve got to; they’re my responsibility even if the parents say just send them on the bus. It’s not that easy for me.” Last weekend, he took out 18 kids with him.
“I feel as though I’ve accomplished and seen everything I need to see in the world, as far as I go, so I’m not really excited about anything,” said Dumas. “I get excited about these kids being excited. I get excited when they’re having fun and are able to say Top is their big brother and who they look up to.”