'Always Take the Money' and Other Lessons from 'Empire'


Fox’s musical drama “Empire” has taught us many important life lessons since its debut last January—like how to make a killer grand entrance, deliver hilarious one-liners and tirelessly fight for what you want.

But believe it or not, there are also some serious money lessons to be learned from street-criminal-turned-music-mogul Lucious Lyon, his ex-wife Cookie, their three sons Andre, Jamal and Hakeem, and the rest of the dysfunctional yet undeniably business-savvy bunch. In honor of the show’s return to primetime, we’re highlighting four of them.

1. Build your own diversified empire.

Empire Entertainment isn’t just the Lyon family’s premier record label. It’s a conglomerate housing a variety of assets, including a spin-off label called Gutter Life Records, a fashion line and online streaming service. Shady ethics and acquisition tactics aside (which are most definitely not recommended), smart investors can take a page from the Lyons’ playbook when it comes building a diversified portfolio.

Just like Empire signs entry-level artists (Freda Gatz), popular headliners (Jamal and Hakeem Lyon) and industry veterans (Elle Dallas) to stay relevant and appeal to all listeners, an ideal stock allocation includes assets within the U.S. and abroad; in small, medium and large companies; and in both fast-growing and more-established firms. A diversified portfolio—which should include stocks and other assets like bonds—aims to minimize your risk exposure, ensuring that some investments will perform well, even when others aren’t.

2. Establish an air-tight estate plan—when there’s no pressure.

The majority of season one centers around Lucious’s false ALS diagnosis, and the subsequent debate over who he’ll name as his successor. While the Lyon way of life is pretty unrelatable overall, delaying estate planning is extremely common.

A 2014 RocketLawyer survey found that 64 percent of Americans haven’t drafted a will—and 22 percent say that’s because they don’t have the urgent need. The problem with waiting until it is urgent, however, is that you risk not thinking clearly, which could lead to errors and/or strife among your heirs.

Protect your loved ones by putting together an estate plan now, including a will, financial and health power of attorney and advance medical directive. It’s also helpful to compile a folder of important documents related to insurance, bank accounts and other key usernames and passwords that your family can access in case of emergency.

3. Always take the money.

Early on in the first season, Jamal’s fed up with Lucious’s behavior and attempts to distance himself from the family business—refusing to accept money for living expenses and even returning a check for performing with his brother Hakeem. Cue a schooling from Lucious on the cardinal rule of the music business: “Always take the money.”

While perhaps you’ve never turned down cash from your music mogul dad, it’s possible you’ve violated this rule if you’ve ever failed to sign up for your employer-sponsored retirement plan—a benefit that’s on the decline, but can make a big difference in your future net worth.

If your company does offer a plan—especially a 401(k), which allows you to save up to $18,000 per year—enroll while you have the chance. And if there’s a contribution match, which is basically free money, always take that, too.

4. Choose mentors who will let you shine.

A great business mentor can help you stand out and achieve your career goals faster than you would on your own, so it’s key to align yourself with the right people. Jamal does a great job of this—first establishing a close relationship with Cookie, who helps him gain exposure as a new artist, and then partnering with Lucious in season two, which scores him a collaboration with superstar Skye Summers and a spokesperson deal with Pepsi.

When vetting a mentor of your own, take a cue from Jamal and look for people (you can have more than one) who are well-respected in your industry, have the skills and knowledge you’re looking for and offer great advice.