Shasparay Irvin never thought she would go to business school. Her passion has always been the arts.
She participated in theatre and choir growing up, and when she was 14, fell head over heels for another art form while scrolling through YouTube: slam poetry. “I watched one video, and then I had to watch a hundred, and eventually I decided that, you know what? I can do this,” Shasparay recalls.
She was right. In the years since, Shasparay has competed across the country and internationally. She is currently the fourth-ranked woman spoken word poet in the world according to Womxn of the World Poetry Slam.
“What I like about poetry is that it gave me the opportunity to tell my own story and to connect with folks,” she says. Even so, she considered slam poetry and her artistry a hobby, not necessarily a career. “That’s what I was told growing up.”
Shasparay came to UW–Madison for her undergraduate degree through the First Wave Urban Arts Scholarship and intended to study pharmacy, but was drawn back to the arts and ultimately majored in theatre with a certificate in African American studies. During her junior year, she applied for the Studio Creative Arts Award from the Art Institute (now Division of the Arts)—primarily to get feedback on her grant writing—for her proposed idea of a festival that would celebrate Black contemporary artists and art forms like slam poetry and hip-hop. To her surprise, she was awarded the grant, and in 2019, she launched the Black Arts Matter Festival in Madison.
Shasparay is the fourth-ranked woman spoken word poet in the world.
For Shasparay, the Black Arts Matter Festival is a tool for education. “I cultivate spaces for people to shine and share out,” she says. “I’ve always believed that learning can happen through the arts. Arts activism is a big part of what the festival is all about.”
Launching the festival also changed the trajectory of her career. It was her first real taste of entrepreneurship, and she got her second later in 2019 when she took an arts entrepreneurship class with Sarah Marty (BM ’97, MS ’01, MA ’05), the director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the Wisconsin School of Business. She enjoyed the class so much that she decided to come back to UW–Madison for graduate school, this time to earn her master’s degree in arts and creative enterprise leadership.
“Being around Sarah Marty and taking that first arts entrepreneurship class was the gateway that led me here and led me to believe that there is business in the arts and it’s a big business,” she says.
Shasparay has high hopes for the future. She wants to expand the Black Arts Matter Festival to other communities throughout the U.S., and she is also working toward achieving her lifelong dream of opening an event center.
Shasparay urges people to think about how business can help them do what they love every day.
“Business is for everyone,” she says. “Everyone can think about anything that they do or enjoy or their passion—that can be a business. Anyone can figure out a plan to make your passions your career.”
Who inspires you?
Porsha Olayiwola, a slam poet and the poet laureate of Boston.
What is your favorite place to study on campus?
For group projects, we like to study in the Bolz Center or other parts of the business school.