Woman of the Month

Exclusive: Thembisa Mshaka, Enriching Women in Entertainment, Ladybrille Woman of the Month May 2012

From a personal and professional perspective, I can honestly say women genuinely supporting other successful women, especially in the entertainment field, is very hard to come by. Often, it is a lonely walk with no mentors to really guide and show you the way. If you are deemed an attractive woman, there are even more challenges, mainly  the men/male veterans in the field who should encourage you are,very often, more interested in getting in your pants than anything else. In addition, if you have a family (husband and children), it can be quite a challenge juggling the rigors of home life with your professional career and aspirations. The aforementioned issues, among many that women face, is why I am particularly thrilled to announce Thembisa Mshaka as Ladybrille Woman of the Month for May 2012.

Mshaka understands the challenges the average Ladybrille woman faces in the entertainment business and has been committed to demystifying, empowering and enriching women in entertainment, no small feat. Briefly about Mshaka before you read her interview with Ladybrille Magazine:

“Thembisa Mshaka is currently the first Copy Director in BET Networks’ (32) year history . She is also a 5-time Telly Award winner and Promax/BDA Gold Award-winning writer who has served in the entertainment industry for over 18 years, spanning the areas of touring, management, magazine publishing, recorded music and technology, advertising, music supervision for film, voice over, and television. As a Senior Copywriter at Sony Music, and 2-time NARM Award winner, her campaigns contributed to the sale of more than 150 million albums for artists including Lauryn Hill, Will Smith, Beyonce, Wyclef Jean, NaS, Maxwell, George Michael, Wu-Tang Clan, Bow Wow, Jill Scott and Babyface.

The former GAVIN rap editor has also written for Honey, essence.com, LAUNCH.com, and served as contributing editor for The Hotness.com and BLAZE Magazine. She contributed to anthology Sometimes Rhythm: Sometimes Blues edited by Taigi Smith and 25 Hip-Hop Icons, an academic reference volume published by Greenwood Press. She is also the author of  ‘Put Your Dreams First, Handle Your Entertainment Business,’ a book that has been described as “mentorship in a bottle” for the entertainment business.”

We kick off a contest tomorrow for three lucky Ladybrille readers to win Mshaka’s book. So, stay tuned! Enjoy our interview with her.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Thembisa, in preparing for your interview, I kept saying, “Uduak, you are one lucky woman.” You, young lady, spoilt me! What was that? Your book is AH-MAZING! I don’t know what I expected but I was dazzled, hopeful that there are women these beautiful and brilliant and re-energized!

(Laughs) First, I need you to sashay down the ‘Ladybrille Woman of the Month’ runway. (Laughs)
Thembisa: As long as I’m in platform wedges, this will be no problem!

LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Laughs) How are you?
Thembisa Mshaka: I am blessed to be so busy! Newborn daughter, new film projects–life is good.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Congrats on the birth of your child!) What amazing accomplishments in all areas of the entertainment industry and then you put the nail to the coffin by slaying us with your book, ‘Put Your Dreams First Handle your [Entertainment] business.’ We will definitely talk a lot about your book. But first, how are you feeling right about now to be celebrated as our Woman of the Month?

Thembisa: Amazing! It is incredible to be selected. I am most grateful for any opportunity to connect with the diaspora and to inspire entrepreneurs, especially my sistren in the entertainment fields. And to be selected for May is extra special because it’s my second Mother’s Day with my daughter Umi Nia, whose birthday falls on May 4th.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Happy birthday in advance to Umi!) Let’s start from the beginning. Tell us briefly about your personal upbringing?
Thembisa: I am the oldest of 5 siblings, 2 brothers, two sisters; two of which come from my parents’ remarriages. We may be blended but we are very tight. I am a citizen of the world, but am first and foremost a California Girl! I grew up in Los Angeles, attended a girls’ high school called Westrige School in Pasadena, and went to college in Oakland at Mills College, a women’s liberal arts institution. My women’s education was a huge influence in my development as a womanist and advocate for women’s equality.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Where is your name from and what does your name mean?
Thembisa: My full name is Thembisa Shalewa Mshaka. It is a Zulu name that essentially translates into “hope in this house under the reign of Shaka Zulu.” My parents changed their surname to Mshaka before I was born and chose my name after much research.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Very neat). You dedicate your book to your mother, Fulani Mshaka. I believe the apple does not fall too far from the tree, like the saying goes. What kind of a mom was your mother?
Thembisa Mshaka: She was an incredible mother. Very strict but somehow, also very even tempered. Not much rattled this woman. She was a social worker and clinician, offering therapy to sectors of our community in need from elders to the mentally challenged to inmates and at-risk youth. She had seen it all in her work, so we were raised with her having seen negative impact up close and making sure we didn’t experience it first hand. She let us know we could talk to her about any and everything. Once I became an adult, she became my best friend. The things I miss the most are not being able to call her, vacation with her, or laugh with her.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: (It is nice to know her legacy lives on in and through  you). Let’s get into your professional background. How did you “get in the game?”
Thembisa: My first job in entertainment was actually a paid internship at DeLeon Artists in Oakland, a boutique booking agency that served an amazing roster of blues, jazz and funk artists including the legendary Gil Scott-Heron and Etta James, both of whom I had the rare opportunity to work with closely–as a teenager. That’s why I’m a big proponent of interning; the lessons you learn and the exposure you receive are priceless. Gil and Etta taught me how to handle my entertainment business, and how to do so without becoming starstruck.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Speaking of star struck), you have worked in touring, management, magazine publishing, recorded music and technology, advertising, music supervision for film, voice over, and television, among other areas in the industry. You are still so young. How have you been able to cover so much ground in such short time?
Thembisa: I’ve been very fortunate to have my work and reputation precede me in situations that led to new career opportunities. I am also one to always take the meeting and see where the conversation leads, no matter what someone’s title might be. Today’s intern or production assistant is tomorrow’s executive or decision-maker.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Indeed.) Now I am really ready to get into more about your professional background for the benefit of my audience. First, you are “wicked with the pen.” I love to read your writings. It is purposeful, assertive, powerful, reassuring and confident. You have used the power of words, among other skills, to work on campaigns where from what I have read, your skills have contributed to the sale of more than 170 million albums for some of America’s popular artists including Lauryn Hill, Will Smith, Beyonce, Wyclef Jean, NaS, Maxwell, George Michael, Wu-Tang Clan, Bow Wow, Jill Scott and Babyface.”

When did you discover your talent with the pen and how did you hone it?

Thembisa: I was also a journal keeper since I was about 8 years old; always playing with language and documenting my days. I must credit my late maternal grandmother Edna Bell with discovering my talent. She would always have me writing letters on her behalf to doctors, companies, even her friends. Unbeknownst to me, this gave me early practice in formal writing. I realized the power of my writing when I got an A on my college thesis. That gave me the confidence to start freelance writing for local magazines in the Bay Area about the music scene. My career as a journalist began in earnest in 1991 with my cover story on KRS-ONE for Klub magazine, a San Francisco-based lifestyle magazine.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: You wrote the story on Mary J. Blige and how she got shortchanged on the Burger King Ad and that went viral. Where does your inspiration come to write and to keep your writings truthful, no matter how painful, it is to hear the truth?
Thembisa: The best writing illuminates truth through analysis and the drawing of unlikely parallels. When I write about the industry, I am speaking as a 20 year veteran with expertise, so that’s the truth I convey. My integrity as a journalist informs my commitment to writing from an authentic place. I have to shout out Ben Fong-Torres, my first magazine editor for showing me how to speak truth without vitriol–one’s case is strengthened when love of craft is at the foundation.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let’s talk about Beyonce. I saw the very generous quote her father gave you for your book. When did you begin working with Beyonce and what exactly did you do for her?
Thembisa: Yes, Mr. Knowles was very generous to support my book that way. It was so amazing to work with Team Bey. My involvement began as the advertising copywriter for Sony Music responsible for the urban roster of artists’ campaigns. In addition to the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which was the first campaign I ever wrote for Sony Music, I conceived, wrote and executed creative campaigns for Destiny’s Child (The Writing’s On The Wall, Survivor) and each member’s solo debut albums: Dangerously in Love for Beyonce’; Simply Deep for Kelly Rowland, and Heart To Yours for Michelle Williams. This included writing scripts for television and radio spots, outdoor advertising, even small things like the stickers on the CD packaging. Being a young Black woman creating the messaging for the creative contributions of such talented young Black women was a huge honor, and very empowering!

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let me ask you one last question before I delve into you book because that is where I’d like to spend majority of the time we have. What do you think it is about you that makes you unique and quite successful at what you do?
Thembisa: I am not into settling for medicority. I am about legacy work; work that generations behind me can look to as a source of pride and inspiration. I don’t consider this unique so much as increasingly rare; but my point of view is unique in that I think about things in ways other people do not–and have the ability to articulate what I envision. In the creative world, knowing what you want–and not just what you don’t want–is half the battle.

PUT YOUR DREAMS FIRST Handle Your Entertainment Business

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Now, let’s turn our attention to your book. First, I believe every Ladybrille (brilliant) woman within and outside the industry should own a copy. It is truly an uplifting book for women and makes success seem even more attainable.
Thembisa: Wow, thank you! I hope everyone reading feels the same way (laughs)! Seriously, your appreciation is huge–because there were a few moments along the 7-year journey to completing it where I didn’t think I would ever get it done.

LADYBRILLEmag.com:( I understand.)  Why don’t we start with why you finally decided to write a book for women about the true inner workings of the entertainment business and what it takes to succeed in the industry as a woman?
Thembisa: Working in hip-hop I was often among a handful of upstanding women–if not the only one; I was often surrounded by women who were ready to trade their self-esteem and sexuality for what they perceived were opportunities to advance. I wanted to serve as a mentor to women who followed in my footsteps that I might not even know, but who were also feeling daunted by having to compete in a field of women without principles. So I decided to write a career guide that could accompany women on their career journey, whether it was in entertainment or not–it’s for any working woman who is committed to success as she defines it, on her terms.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: I think what is most impressive for me is that these women were willing to be so honest, vulnerable and open about their life experiences and very tough journeys to get to the top. How did you get them to open up?
Thembisa: Again, it was my reputation for hard-hitting journalism and track record for working to empower women in our business; the knew they could trust me with their own reputations, their own stories. And frankly, no media outlet focused on these in-depth stories. I believe they found it refreshing to even have these conversations.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: You interviewed 90 women who are some of the most successful women in America’s industry and a few successful women internationally. What was it like trying to coordinate schedules?
Thembisa: Like playing phone, email and appointment tag with 90 dynamic people, around the world, all at once! For example, Cathy Hughes and I played tag for 4 months before we spoke.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Actress, Singer, Entrepreneur Vanessa Williams was one woman you interviewed. Williams wrote your foreword. Explain your relationship with Williams and how you both met?
Thembisa: We actually go to the same beauty salon, J Sisters Salon in New York. One of the owners offered to introduce us to one another. She was soaking in the pedicure when we met, so she was a captive audience (laughs). I shared my vision for the book and she loved it. She literally wrote the foreword on her Blackberry from the trailer in the middle of the cornfields of Tennessee while she was shooting Hannah Montana: The Movie. She wouldn’t hear of anyone ghostwriting it for her. As someone who knows the business from the angles of music, film, Broadway, and TV, she was a perfect fit for Put Your Dreams First and I have nothing but the utmost respect for her.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Right from the introduction, you caught my attention with your analogy about women being “sister swans.” Could you share that with our audience without giving your book away because I think it is a very important point?
Thembisa: They’ll have to read it to understand, but essentially, my analogy speaks to how difficult it really is to make succeeding in business look easy.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Thank you. Let me back up a bit to the book cover. Why the specific title ‘Put Your Dreams First?” How can you encourage women to put their dreams first when they have spouses, children and many times extended family to take care of? How is that possible? What do you mean by that?
Thembisa: The title isn’t literal in that sense; of course whomever one prays to, and one’s family are top priority. What I am saying is this: in the area of work and career, don’t just work to make ends meet; work to be fulfilled. Work to share your passion and gifts with the world. To do this, we must put our career dreams first; give them room to come true. Dreams only come true from sharing and living them; when they remain unexpressed and untended, they wither.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Here at Ladybrille, practically all of the women you interviewed make up our demographic. They are intelligent, successful business owners, executives or top management level. However, for some, in putting their dreams first, it has come with losing out whether it is a failed relationship, disconnection with their children or for some foregoing having a family because it was/is an either or choice. Can you speak to these hard choices women have to make especially the “balancing act?”
Thembisa: Your readers will see that I view work-life “balance” as a myth that sets women up for failure in other areas of their lives that suffer in favor of career consuming their waking hours. I advocate for what I’ve called work-life function. By this I mean putting systems and parameters in place that ensure you get to work, play, relate with others, and enjoy a personal life. Sometimes this means delegating tasks. At other times it means cutting unhealthy behaviors or people out of one’s life altogether. It can also mean making appointments with yourself to achieve your goals. With a husband, two children, and my new interest as a filmmaker and producer, I have to do this in my own life. For example, I set aside Sunday evenings to write for my own creative projects. That’s protected time to keep my dreams first.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Your book spends a considerable amount of time debunking a lot of myths in the industry particularly the myth of putting out (sexually) to get to the top. Share with us five most valuable tips that women in entertainment and those looking to get in should know?
Thembisa: Well, I’ll list my favorite five of My Top Seven Industry Cliches, all of which are in the book: You Never Know Who’s Watching (so operate like everyone is); You Only Get One Chance To Make A First Impression; Gotta Pay Your Dues (which happens even after you’ve “arrived”); Honor The Keeper of the Gate; and of course, Don’t Mix Business With Pleasure.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: You are so particular about women not getting “on their knees” to get into this business. Why is that so important to you to let women know this?
Thembisa: I have a “no kneepads” philosophy. If you’re not a pro soccer player, you don’t need kneepads at work! You want to operate from a position of true strength, and you have to be standing up to do that. Whether you’re on your knees in a sexual way or the metaphoric way, as in begging and pleading, you’re doing yourself and legions of working women a disservice by reinforcing stereotypes of women held by men as sexual objects, easily manipulated, weak, subservient, or untrustworthy.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: I read a lot about the experiences of so many women and their challenges in your book. What about your own challenges in getting to where you are? Share a couple with us?

Thembisa: Leaving the music industry was tough. I have such a profound love and respect for music, what it takes to create it, and how it moves people. It has been brutal to watch the value of music in the minds of buyers decrease while the costs of video games and movies explode. When I left, it wasn’t clear where I’d go next, but my advertising experience brought me to the world of cable television. I also had to learn that there is no public crying in the workplace if you’re female. Sure, tragic occurrences are the exception, but if you need to cry, do it privately so it can’t be used against you later. I learned that the hard way.


LADYBRILLEmag.com: As one who is very interested in the digital media space and have been immersed in it for almost five years now, I appreciated the succinctness on how you captured the issues in relation to the music industry in your book. In some ways, I think the digital revolution has created a culture of consumers as curators of good music since the labels weren’t necessarily doing so. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon and the direction of new media, without giving some of the important points you make in your book away?

Thembisa Mshaka: The digital space is a vast, ever-changing frontier and if one wants to monetize it, one should not venture into it without an experienced guide. I also believe that curation and discovery is a huge benefit that digital offers us. However, we have to remember craft when it comes to writing and marketing in this space–and I see a lot of that being forgotten in the interest of the sensational or being first with information, be it accurate or not. I also love the immediacy and connectedness that activism enjoys in the digital space; it has proven so powerful in the instances of the election of President Obama, the Arab Spring, and the case of Trayvon Martin.

LADYBRILLEmag.com.com: You talk about opportunities for women in new media. Can you expand on it for our Ladybrille women looking to explore that field?
Thembisa Mshaka: They will have to start with my chapter on it in the book–and know that a generation is but three short years in this field, so they’ll always have to be sharpening their skillset; broadening their knowledge base. I see big opportunities in the blogsphere and in webisode production; what director/writer-producer/actor Issa Rae has created with her web series “Awkward Black Girl” is an awesome testament to this!

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Even in 2012, it is still a man’s world although we women have made huge strides. I found Tyesh Harris’s story to be quite compelling. A woman who had sacrificed so much and helped with the successful careers of Nas, Fugees, Mariah Carey etc. but in the final analysis, she was a girl and not one of the boys. Women (Ladybrille women) are confronted daily with these kinds of realities. I certainly know many who can resonate with Harris’s story. What words of encouragement would you give to them in such situations?
Thembisa: Do not suffer in silence; seek counsel from mentors, trusted friends, and if necessary, professional therapists. This business has gotten the best of so many so that you don’t have to succumb, but you have to use your resources. Self-care is crucial for every working woman.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: One of the points you raised through one of your interviewees, Sharon Heyward, is that we women can sometimes be our own worst enemies and do not support each other in the business. I find it particularly acute in minority communities. For example, within the African community and specifically the digital media space, I can truly say as a woman and one who has supported a lot of women owned African businesses, we are not very supportive of each other. Why do you think we women like to tear each other down?
Thembisa: It’s bigger than women thinking some ambitious young lady is “too cute” or “better than us”. This behavior is the outgrowth of patriarchy. In the same way that people of color have been conditioned by institutional racism to hate themselves, women have been conditioned to have all their interactions revolve around men for the ultimate benefit of men. When women tear each other down, men gain advantage on a playing field where they already dominate. Once women start to see this–without seeing men as their enemy, but recognizing the paradigm of inequality as the common enemy, women will get a lot more accomplished on a global scale, because our resources will go toward the fulfillment on our considerable potential instead of infighting.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let me take your attention a different direction. Lisa Cortes formally with Polygram Records talks with you, in your book, about life’s curve balls. I like how she says when life knocks you down you essentially have to ask, “are you gonna stay with that story or take what you have learned and write a better ending?” Besides her obvious intelligence and success, why did you decide Cortes would make a good addition to your book?
Thembisa: I’ve known Lisa for more than 15 years; she was at her zenith min the music world when I was coming up. I saw her incredible transition to film from music happen at close range and wanted to know what was behind that for myself. Now that I have completed film school and am producing films, she has since become a mentor and friend to whom I am deeply grateful.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: I’ll wrap my digging into your book with Cathy Hughes and Thami Ngubeni. Hughes got rejected 32 times for a loan?! Isn’t it unbelievable how she remained resilient? Tell us a bit about what it was like interviewing the founder of TV One.
Thembisa: Well, after four months of scheduling, the interview happened and it lasted for three awe-inspiring hours, because I asked her about her humble beginnings–and most interviews she conducts are only concerned with her success. Her contributions wouldn’t fit into one chapter, so Ms. Hughes can be found in two of them! In her mind, she had nothing to lose–and her drive to get a yes after so many nos makes my problems seem small by comparison; she is a very inspiring lady!

LADYBRILLEmag.com: I met Thami Ngubeni in Ghana just before she got her job with Oprah South Africa. What a beautiful soul. Why did you decide to add the voices of successful women from across the globe like Thami to the mix?
Thembisa: Because business is global and I wanted my book to reflect this unavoidable reality. I want to encourage American women to learn a new language (I speak Spanish, by the way); travel the world and forge relationships abroad. Worldliness gives us an edge in a marketplace that will only continue to shrink. Thami is proof of how one can be an owner of one’s own ideas and still contribute to another team like she had for O The Oprah Magazine after being a media personality, author and producer. Thami is definitely one of my sheroes, right along with Oprah!

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Thembisa this interview has been great but I want to get philosophical with you with two final questions. What drives you?
Thembisa: Wanting to do my mother and ancestors proud with the body work I leave for my children as an example of leadership and creativity.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: What do you want to be remembered for?
Thembisa: For being a light along the path for others; for being a great wife, mother, sister-friend, family member, creative force for expression, and most of all, humble servant of The Almighty Creator.

LADYBRILLEmag.com: Thank you for your book. It really is a rare gem and more women should read it. Enjoy showing off as our Woman of the Month for May 2012. (Laughs)
Thembisa: You are most welcome, as are all the Ladybrille women! I hope to bring the book to South Africa and Nigeria in particular very soon and this story is a great step in that direction. Thank you for crowning me Woman of the Month! Please connect with me on Twitter @putyrdreams1st and at thembisamshaka.com! I want to hear from as many of you as possible!

Interview by Uduak Oduok

Ladybrille Woman

A running feature for 12 years on Ladybrille.com, The ‘Ladybrille Woman of the Month’ celebrates women in business and leadership, who empower themselves and others through their contributions and actions in their local and international communities. In 2014, the feature expanded to include a podcast show. If you would like to nominate a woman to be celebrated, please email [email protected].

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