“I was always in awe of Black Greek culture,” says Jonathan Rabb, who is the CEO and founder of a Black media company called Watch The Yard. “After I joined [a Black fraternity], I just became even more in awe of it. I thought it would be so cool to be able to have the media and the videos and the documentation of this culture all in one place.”
Enter Watch The Yard. While the virtual community fulfills the founder’s vision, by chronicling and centering the culture of historically Black fraternities and sororities; HBCU (Historically Black College and University) students; and Black students at PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions). But the company’s origin story is anything but linear. In fact, one could argue that for Jonathan Rabb, the creation of his platform was kismet. The stars just aligned.
“I was a Fulbright Scholar in digital audience development in Germany, and I was working there for a YouTube creative lab,” says Rabb as he tells Watch The Yard’s origin story via teleconferencing. “We were basically helping create YouTube channels in Germany.” While living abroad Rabb, who is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., wanted a way to stay connected with his chapter brothers and more generally the happenings with the Black college students at his alma mater, and across the country. With that desire, the idea for Watch The Yard was born.
“I think that there’s a lot of power in community, and making people feel welcome. One of the big things about Watch The Yard is being inclusive and bringing people in.” For Rabb, community meant being connected with his frat brothers and members of Black greek letter organizations, and Black college students and graduates, from across the country. Not just in his region of the country.
“I’m from South Minneapolis. Being from the North, we’re so far away from HBCUs, and I really wish I could have gone to one,” the founder tells ESSENCE. But don’t ask Rabb his favorite HBCU. The CEO doesn’t entertain the question. “Can’t answer that,” he says. Perhaps as the founder of a community poised to uplift all of Black greekdom, it is best to be impartial. No favorite HBCUs. Got it.
“I am a huge HBCU advocate and I have a wife and I have a daughter. We’re two generations into Spelman in my family.” The new dad continues, “We joke that my daughter can make any choice she wants in her life. The only thing that has been chosen for her is Spelman College.”
In the United States there are 107 HBCUs (including Spelman College) and nearly 4,000 colleges and universities. Watch The Yard focuses on Black college students, as a whole. “We bring all of those groups together into one place where we can disseminate information. We’re focused on documenting Black college culture in real time,” says the founder.
What’s in a name? Rabb landed on “Watch The Yard,” for reasons that one might not immediately assume. “People think it’s because of Stomp the Yard.” CEO explains the derivation of his media company’s name. Alas, the platform was not drawn from the 2007 cult classic starring Meagan Good, Columbus Short and Ne-Yo, which took place on a fictitious college campus and was centered around themes of Black Greek life. That would have been too on the nose. “It was Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne,” says Rabb, setting the record straight. But, the brand’s use of the term “yard” is a bit of inside baseball.
For the unknowing, the word “yard” refers to a nucleus of Black students on any college campus. “That’s where the heartbeat of Black college culture is, on the yard.” The founder continues, “And so if you show up at a school, let’s say the University of Michigan or Iowa State University, you can ask them about their yard. That means the Black students, even if those students don’t have a physical space to convene, that is dedicated to them.”
The idea is to bring the thousands of “yards” across the nation together, virtually, to share in a collective experience. This media company connects a multi-generational audience through videos, reels, photos and memes, among other mediums. “And the idea is that it’s not just focused on one specific [fraternity or sorority] group, it’s focused on the yard, as a whole. And the yard is a really important thing,” says Rabb. Based on the brand’s following, it’s safe to say that the audience understands the salience of the yard, too.
At present, Watch The Yard boasts over 1.68 million followers, across all of its social media platforms, consisting of over 500,000 from Instagram, and nearly a million on TikTok. Rabb says that his content is based on an ecosystem, which includes its various social media accounts, as well as the platform’s website, watchtheyard.com. The CEO also says that across platforms, Watch The Yard reaches up to 12 million people a month.
While Watch The Yard creates content, it also accepts original videos from students from an array of different college campuses. The founder prides himself on covering institutions in corners of the country that often go unnoticed. Afterall, people aren’t necessarily checking for a teeny tiny institution in a rural and obscure part of the country. “These videos are coming in from really talented students in the middle of Alabama, not just Columbia’s film school.” says Rabb. “It’s the idea that a hundred years from now, people will be able to go back and they’ll be able to see what was happening on each campus across the nation.”
“This is a passion project of mine. This is something I really, really care about. And something that for the last 10 years, I’ve dedicated myself to—everyday.” As a result of the 10 years of love that Rabb has poured into his company, he’s ascended professionally. The founder was awarded two prestigious fellowships from Harvard University (where we first met) and also received funding from the Google For Startups Black Founders Fund. Additionally, the company has had partnerships with organizations like Facebook, Marvel and the White House—not to mention that VPOTUS Kamala Harris, who is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., has dropped-in to grace the virtual community, on occasion.
Paving a unique career path in media isn’t easy. Rabb acknowledges that. As such, he offers some insights for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
“Learn everything you can and absorb everything you can. Sometimes the path of being a creative professional is often not linear. So you need to go out and just find what your interests are.” The founder says that he has encountered a lot of brilliance, which was a direct result of people learning from each other. The exchange of thoughts and ideas is invaluable. Use this exchange to fortify you, as a professional.
Next, the founder suggests letting intuition serve as a guide. “Go where your passions lie and then learn those things and then put them together. And you usually will find something that you really enjoy and that also has an impact on the world.”
Not only did Rabb listen to his heart, but he was open to the possibilities that the universe directed towards him. These principles were critical ingredients in the founder’s recipe for success. No coincidences in life, only synchronicity.
“I wouldn’t have come up with Watch The Yard had I not been living in Germany. Or learned to make websites in this one place, or had been a TV host in Minneapolis, or had happened to go to the university where I crossed Kappa. Those things don’t really tie together, but looking back at it, they all make sense now.”