John Legend left a safe corporate job after college — and now he's made EGOT history

Singer John Legend performs onstage at the 48th NAACP Image Awards on February 11, 2017.
Earl Gibson III | Getty Images

Singer, actor and producer John Legend made history on Sunday when he won an Emmy at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards. This made Legend the first black man and one of the youngest people to achieve coveted EGOT status.

"EGOT" is an acronym for some of the most prestigious awards across entertainment industries: the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. 

"Before tonight, only 12 people had won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony in competitive categories," Legend wrote of the accolade in an Instagram post. "Sirs Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice and I joined that group when we won an Emmy for our production of their legendary show Jesus Christ Superstar. So happy to be part of this team. So honored they trusted me to play Jesus Christ. So amazed to be in such rarefied air."

Legend's story is not one of overnight success but savvy moves that gave him the opportunity to pursue his passion, including working a safe corporate job for years while hustling through countless rejections and working music on the side.

He always hoped to have a career in music but he knew he needed a more practical job to get by. While a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he sang in a college a cappella group and studied English and African-American literature. He graduated magna cum laude in 1999.

As he prepared for life after college, he watched many of his friends become bankers and consultants. He followed in their footsteps, taking a job at the prestigious Boston Consulting Group. "I had followed the path that the Penn graduate was supposed to take, but I didn't fall in love," Legend said during a 2014 commencement speech at his alma mater. "I couldn't shake my passion for music."

The $80 billion reason John Legend is backing start-ups led by former inmates
The $80 billion reason John Legend is backing start-ups led by former inmates

Once he nabbed a role at the prestigious consulting firm, Legend began plotting his transition to full-time musician. He spent his work days preparing powerpoint presentations and financial models and his work nights writing songs and performing at small gigs around New York and Philadelphia.

Legend made music his side hustle partly out of necessity: "I needed money," he told Washington Post. "I lived in New York and had to pay my rent."

Legend's big break didn't come easily or quickly. For years he said, "I always thought my moment was just around the corner."

During this time he was rejected by all the major labels, sometimes more than once, Legend told UPenn students in 2014. "I played for all the giants of the business — Clive Davis, L.A. Reid, Jimmy Iovine, you name it. And all of them turned me down."

Legend's breakthrough took years of working on his craft and developing relationships. After college, Legend kept in close touch with his roommate DeVon Harris, who introduced him to his cousin, a producer from Chicago named Kanye West. "Our collaboration has been a huge part of my career, and it had a lot to do with me finally getting a major recording contract in 2004," Legend said.

West produced Legend's first album, "Get Lifted," when Legend was just 26 years old. The album scored three of his now 10 Grammy awards. Less than 10 years later, Legend won an Oscar for the song "Glory" in the film "Selma," and in 2017, he won a Tony Award for co-producing "Jitney."

"It's much cooler to be detached and apathetic, right? We all like a little snark and cynicism and irony, especially from our favorite artists and comedians and writers. I get it," Legend said at UPenn. "But that cool detachment only gets you so far. Passion gets you a lot further. It makes you a better entrepreneur, a better leader, a better philanthropist, a better friend, a better lover."

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