NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – Hampton Roads native and music superstar Pharrell Williams is bringing business leaders together for a conversation about how to better address those long marginalized in society. This year, he’s doing it under the name of the Mighty Dream Forum.

The 3-day series of events in Downtown Norfolk kicked off Tuesday inside a large tent constructed in the green space adjacent to MacArthur Center mall.

The panelists will cover everything from how business will be done in the future (Google Chief Diversity Officer and Hampton University graduate Melonie Parker spoke on that and other topics on Tuesday), to a live podcast with Pharrell talking about money and investing.

WAVY News 10’s Brett Hall spoke with Pharrell Tuesday morning on several topics, including the City of Norfolk’s recent decision to close down several businesses that attract Black clientele.

“It wasn’t cool,” Pharrell said on the city’s actions to shut down those businesses.

He said this Mighty Dream Forum is aimed at showing the 757 community that working with those who value diversity and inclusion is important.

He was adamant that this forum is not about him, but rather about bettering the business community here for all.

Pharrell, who has not been shy about his dislike of some of the power players — specifically at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront — says this event shouldn’t be viewed as political. 

He said he became frustrated with the way business had been done in Hampton Roads, with a few individuals deciding how everything would play out.

“Cause I know what I am, I’m 757. I’m not making a dollar from this. What are you doing? For all these gatekeepers that are here that have the opportunity, to not just spread the wealth, but spread the education and make it equitable for everybody. If you’ve got a problem with what I’m saying, what are you doing, besides hoarding it for yourselves?” Pharrell told WAVY.

The forum kicked off in high gear with the booming Norfolk State University Spartan “Legion” marching band as they made their way through the giant tent. 

Norfolk State President Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston read the inspiration of the forum from Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America Again.”

“Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, must bring back our mighty dream again.”    

The overall goal Pharrell said is to talk about how the business marketplace can become more inclusive.

Williams, speaking to the roughly 200-250 people in the tent, said the idea for this year’s forum began with last year’s Elephant in the Room event at Norfolk State.

“It was the same thing. It was about diversity, equity, inclusion, and it was our version an inclusive version of …The World Economic Forum for marginalized communities.” 

He added “… this shouldn’t be the only forum  for diversity, equity, and inclusion … the only thing I ask is the other companies get together and have similar conversations.” 

Williams offered a perfect example.

Melonie Parker, the Hampton graduate who is now Google’s chief diversity officer, says George Floyd’s murder changed the way Google does business.

“We center diversity, equity, and inclusion as a business imperative at Google. The spotlight that was there really caused us as well as other companies, caused us to stand and think about what we need to go deeper.” 

Parker says Google went on a 100-day rush to change the operating culture.

“We created eight racial equity commitments to help internally and externally to really create sustainable equity, where we are addressing systemic structural barriers to equity.”

Evan Slagle, who owns NATURAL VB, was at Tuesday’s event.

“The important part is networking, and building those connections. Norfolk and Virginia Beach is a small and unique scene … I network and mingle with other independent businesspeople. I specialize in natural wine that is my main product. I go to different industries within the food and beverage scene.” 

Also at the vent was Toinette Outland with Newport News Public Schools, to build contacts in the entrepreneurial community.

“I will learn things that help our students to grow, and develop, and do better with entrepreneurs, innovators, creators and curators.” 

Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander, speaking about his goals for the forum, said: “We want these people to connect, make connections, access capital. We want them to scale it here. Let’s get going. Let’s grow your business.  et’s make it happen here in Norfolk.” 

The events that require tickets are sold out. There are also some free events and programming that do not require a ticket. View the list of free events at this link.