The Co-Writer of 'Despacito' on Why You Should Pursue Every One of Your Dreams
Erika Ender, the first female songwriter to have a number one song on Billboard's 'Hot 100' chart in Spanish, also runs a foundation helping at-risk kids.
In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
Twenty years ago, Erika Ender moved to Miami from Panama looking to break into the music industry. When she first started out, she would wake up every day and drop off her demo at record labels all over the city in the hopes that it would help her get work.
Although you may not know her name, you definitely know her work: Ender is the co-writer of a little song called "Despacito." Since Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s smash hit was released in January, it became the most streamed song of all time and the longest-leading Hot 100 number one song of the 21st century.
With "Despacito," Ender became the first female songwriter to have a number one song on Billboard’s “Hot 100” chart in Spanish. This spring, Ender -- whose songs have appeared on more than 160 albums -- released Tatuajes, her fifth studio record, and this month, she’ll be inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame -- the youngest honoree, ever.
Ender isn’t only breaking barriers in the music industry. She has long had a passion for helping others, which she says comes from being the child of two doctors. In 2009, she started a foundation called Puertas Abiertas (Open Doors), a nonprofit dedicated to eradicating child labor and giving children and teens in Panama who are at a high risk for poverty opportunities through music and the arts.
The Grammy-winning artist shared her insights with Entrepreneur about why you should never hide your true self, the mindset that can help you weather adversity and finding work that gives you purpose.
What are the elements of a successful creative collaboration?
To get ego far away from the [collaboration]. It's kind of like a marriage. Whenever you have a collaboration you have to take care of your baby. To say it in a simple way: It's not about me or you, it's about us and whatever we can create together. We have to put the best of each [of our perspectives] in order to [get] the best the results.
When do you feel most creative? What do you do if you’re creatively blocked?
You know, I'm like a little girl. The professional techniques [help] you to improve. But I'm always connected to the inner child. And if you see a child, they see creativity in everything. They have a big imagination all the time.
[If I am creatively blocked,] I might be very tired. If I don't sleep, it might happen. But normally I'm a happy person. I'm always seeing the bright side and I owe that to my mom and dad because that was my upbringing. Always, we see the good in everything.
You’re the youngest person to be inducted into Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame and you’re the first female songwriter to have a number one on Billboard Top 100 chart in Spanish. What do these firsts mean to you?
It's a confirmation. That you can reach whatever you dream of whenever you have the persistence [and] whenever you have the authenticity. I've pursued every one of my dreams. I stick to my values and stick to my hard work.
Do you feel some kind of responsibility, being the first through the door?
All the time in different areas. On one side, as a human being, I feel it's a responsibility to bring a good message to the world even if it's having fun, even if it's talking about sex. You have to be responsible with whatever you're saying because you are impacting people's lives. I always say that I'm writing someone else's soundtrack because music has the magic of marking your life and moments of your life. So I write with that responsibility.
Besides that, I like to use music to do good. That's the way my mom and my dad raised me. That was my upbringing. We always did social work since I was little and that's the way I see life. I see that music is such a powerful tool that would make a huge difference.
Why did you want to start the foundation?
I started it once I understood that I had a microphone and a camera in front of me and because of that, I could do something better for everyone around me. My dad and mom are both doctors. They are doctors because they love to help others, not because they want to become millionaires. So they used to take me and my sister to all of these places where kids didn't have anything, not even food or water. So I would be the one who would do songs for them, just to spend time and understand their lives and to give.
In 2009, I said you know what, I have such a powerful tool in my hand right now. And I think if I use it the right way with the credibility that I have as a celebrity in my country and as an artist, it could really make a difference. So then I started Puertas Abiertas, and we started working towards the eradication of child labor. I started doing a collaboration with Casa Esperanza, which is a very strong organization in Panama that works toward eradicating child labor.
And I opened free music classes because that would take kids away from their homes when they had a drug addict mom or dad. Music helps you heal, helps you be creative. So [those were] the first steps. And then we did a lot of campaigns as well, trying to eradicate child labor but at the same time to plant the seed of values and integrity and motivation.
What is the foundation working on right now?
Festival Talenpro (Talento con Propósito) is my biggest project that I'm working on. It's a competition with different categories where everyone is going to shine on their own. But at the same time they have to help other people. So we're rebuilding 12 schools all over Panama.
The final is going to take place in Panama on the 29th of October. It's going to be broadcast nationwide. We've got like 30 radio stations attached as well. At the end you're going to get to see not only the talent of each one of the kids but at the same time what their talent did for others. And the big prize is that all of the winners are going to get a scholarship. Their whole college is going to be fully paid in order to study in Panama or abroad -- wherever they want, whatever they want.
Can you talk about a moment in your career when you made a mistake and how you moved forward from it?
I don't see it as a mistake. I could see it as hiding myself for a second. When I started on this career as a songwriter, I saw that it was complicated for women. There weren't a lot of women on the Latin side. We were like one woman to 20 men. I think it's still like that. So for a second when I started sending my songs as Erika Ender, sang by me for a male singer to sing, A&R would call me back and tell me, you know what, I love this song, it's amazing. But it's too feminine. I would say, I'm going to try another way.
I started putting it E. Ender and asking for a male singer to sing them. And that went through. So I don't see it as a mistake. I was just trying to find new ways and proving to myself [that it wasn't me but] the lack of vision of the industry. Because listening to a female voice and seeing a female name would probably block people. I did that for a couple of months, for a couple of songs and then I said, you know what, it's me. I'm not going to hide my name and I'm not going to hide who I am. So I started sending the songs after that sang by a male but as a Erika Ender anyway. Some of them them went through, some of them didn't. But at the end it worked out.
Can you talk about a moment in your career when you advocated for yourself? How did you approach it?
From the very beginning, I used to go to Sony every single day with my demo. I have been through very difficult times. A month after I got to the U.S., [my home in Panama] was robbed. They took everything from me. But when I heard that had happened, I cried for half a day and then I understood, [it was a sign]. You're telling me I shouldn't go back to Panama. If you're going to start over, start here.
Right after that happened, I started knocking on doors and I got to this person thinking that he would help me because he was supposed to be a very nice man. I thought he was a nice person and he wasn't. [He was] someone very important in this industry, [and he said] you don't know how to sing and you don't know how to write. So take your bags and go back to Panama. I went to my aunt's house that night and I cried a lot.
And I sat at the piano with my earphones and I started writing a new song. I wrote three songs that night. Crying and crying. A fews later, I went to his house. I said to him, you told me the other day that I don't know how to write. But I wrote three new songs and I want you to hear them. After that, that person became my friend.
Is there a piece of advice that a mentor gave you that you still take to heart today?
I've learned you have to be authentic. You have to persevere. As much as you can. You cannot leave the track. No matter what happens. And you have to be open and humble in order to evolve, first as a human being and then as an artist. I think that [the one affects the other] in order for you to maintain and keep improving on your career. If not, it's going to be like a five-minute career. My work is meaningful to me because I get to mark people's lives and I get to touch people's hearts. That's the best prize I could get. I feel like I'm here for a purpose.
Nina Zipkin is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com. She frequently covers leadership, media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.