Thembisa Mshaka, as a creative executive at Sony Music, helped launch the careers of Beyoncé and 50 Cent. Now an executive at BET, Mshaka has gathered her experience and those of almost 100 other women in the entertainment business in her new book, “Put Your Dreams First.” The book is an instant mentorship in all aspects of the business: Movies. Music. Radio & TV. New Media. Advertising & Publicity. Style & Design. Management & Representation.
We sat down with Mshaka recently to discuss how she turned the idea of this book into reality, and got some juicy details on how she got Vanessa Williams to write the foreword for “Put Your Dreams First.”
What was your inspiration for the book?
There was really no one incident, more like a recurring series of the same incident in different settings. At the magazine where I was an editor, I was the only Black female to ever hold the position, and was appointed to it at the age of 21. I would moderate panels and be the only female on the dais. I would participate in panels and be the only woman of color who worked in entertainment.
At the end of many panels and events, women of all ages and backgrounds would literally bum-rush the table and ask me to mentor them, or help them with a specific situation, or ask me how I got started. I kept in touch with some, but inevitably I could not give them the mentorship they deserved. Which got me to thinking: What if I created “mentorship in a bottle” for these women, and anyone else who wanted the real story on the business? The idea lit me up, and I started researching to create what would become “Put Your Dreams First.”
What’s the most important thing you want women to come away with from this book?
Can I be honest at the risk of being a bit crude? The one thing I want women to get from “Put Your Dreams First” is that you do not need to get ahead by giving head. Unless you’re a soccer player, put away your knee pads! There are many more successful women in the business than they realize who got there with their clothes on and their integrity intact. I say this not to judge those who may not have; I believe God is the only and final judge. I believe even these women may need that affirmation so they can work in the business with dignity. If this book can give them that, I’ve accomplished my goal.
I’ve been in this industry for 17 years, and am disheartened by the predominant representation of women in our business as eye candy, gold diggers, human accessories in videos. Sure these women exist. These archetypes predate the entertainment industry as we know it. And they aren’t going anywhere. But that said, it’s 2009, and the time for balanced representation has come. We are finally at a point where the prospect of equal pay for equal work can become a legislative reality.
What was the most interesting interview you conducted and why?
If I had to choose standouts, I would mention Tina Davis, who speaks in detail about becoming a heavyweight in the A&R field and developing stars, including her own client, Chris Brown; Mo’Nique, who spoke about how to fire a manager; Lisa Cortes, who shared her triumphant story of rising from a painful lawsuit to become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after film producers; Cathy Hughes, who talked about why she refused to choose between her son and her education; and Tylibah, an emerging lyricist and self-published poet who refused to sleep with prominent men in the music world in exchange for opportunities. All of these women are courageous and inspiring.
What was the most surprising finding you encountered in your research and interviews?
That 80% of my respondents cited the absence of mentorship as the greatest barrier to their advancement in entertainment. As someone who had the benefit of multiple mentors, I realized how blessed I was to have those sounding boards and pillars of support.
How did you get Vanessa Williams to write the foreword?
This is a GREAT story. Vanessa and I are both clients of a wonderful salon called the J Sisters in New York City. Jane, one of the founders, was talking with me during a service. I lamented that I had a very strong short list of women for my foreword, but that I felt like it would be no easy task to secure one of them. I explained to her that this woman would have to have been successful across many areas of the business: music, film, television, stage, fashion, radio, or some combination of at least three. So you can imagine the list: Vanessa Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, Nona Hendryx, Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna.
Jane says, “Vanessa! She’s the one. She’s a client here too. I will call you the next time she’s here for her manicure, pedicure and hair appointment. You MUST rush over as soon as I call, okay?! I agreed, with my heart doing backflips inside. Vanessa was truly my first choice, especially because of what she endured to maintain her career post-Miss America. One day, Jane called. I rushed over. And sure enough, Vanessa was a captive audience of one soaking her feet and unable to move. So I spoke to her about the project (it helped that I had interviewed Lisa Cortes, whom she knew form her days as an artist with Wing/Mercury Records). She loved the idea and asked me to send her a few chapters to read while she was on the set of “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” She literally read them all from her Blackberry “from a cornfield in Tennessee” as she put it in an email. And within a couple weeks, I had an email containing her foreword, written 100% by her. Vanessa Williams is a woman’s woman; the real deal. Gorgeous inside and out. She didn’t have to even talk to me at the salon, let alone contribute the foreword. But she understood my mission. I am forever grateful to her for lending her name and part of her story to the book. I cannot wait to read to her memoir, which she’s working on now.
How do you balance your own career and personal life?
I don’t. I can no more balance the personal and career aspects of my life than I can divide them. They are inexplicably tied to one another, because I only have one life. So I choose to make my one life work. Teetering on the verge of falling between extremes is not living; that’s what I think of when I hear work-life balance. I strive for work-life function so I can be fully present in the moment as often as possible. I involve my very crucial village of family and friends when I need to, and take care of myself with solo vacations and spa days. Women should not be made to feel guilty for wanting careers, families, and relationships.
Have you ever had to deal with sexual harassment? Pay inequity? Bigotry?
Yes, yes, and yes. But you’ll have to read the book for the details.
What was the hardest lesson you ever learned in your career?
Actually, two tie for first place: That crying while on duty is a no-no, and that incompetent men fail up entirely too often to the detriment of very capable women.
This book in an amazing assembly of a virtual mentorship dream team. Who were your mentors?
It is important to have at least one for every major life transition you make. I am blessed to have had many. First and foremost, my mother, Fulani Mshaka, who I lost to cancer in October of 2007. The book is dedicated to her; she fed my love of words with books and movies. She was a social worker and therapist, my model for the importance of service to others in need. When I moved to Oakland, artist developer and beauty consultant Kelly Armstrong, who was a role model of success in the Bay Area entertainment scene took me under her wing. I met author Terrie M. Williams, at a Learning Annex event in San Francisco. When I moved to New York, I contacted her and she always made time to set me straight or invite me to events where I could learn and network. Industry giants Sharon Heyward and Dyana Williams have been a great source of wisdom for me. SO much so, that I included them both in the book. Last but not least I have to acknowledge Johnnie Walker, whose leadership through NABFEME has been invaluable. Remember: you don’t have to talk to mentors every day for them to serve in that capacity; you can be mentored by their actions and their legacies as well.
For more about “Put Your Dreams First” and author Thembisa Mshaka, visit the following sites:
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1. Blue. #May10 #NYC
2. Daddy & Me
Blue Ivy walks across mommy's at-home photoshoot, but it's the most adorable photobomb ever!
4. One Big Happy Family
The royal family, Bey, Jay & Blue are all out shopping and we're sure they spent our entire life's savings in 30 minutes or less.
5. Beyoncé, Jay Z & Blue in Beverly Hills — Nov. 11
Beyonce in these heels though?!
6. Beyoncé & Blue in NYC — Nov. 4
Look at Blue in her adorable little bow!
7. Beyoncé & Blue spotted in NYC — Nov. 4
Blue holding on to mommy for dear life.
8. Beyoncé & Blue spotted in NYC — Nov. 4
Momma Bey looking fierce with her mini me in tow.
9. Blue dressed as Michael Jackson.
10. Blue & Ivy
Just look at that face. Seriously, Jay could never deny this child! She knows how to make all his mean mugs!
11. Beyoncé, Jay Z & Blue in Beverly Hills — Nov. 11
Look at that cutie!
12. Beyoncé, Jay Z & Blue in Beverly Hills — Nov. 11
OMG Blue in a top knot? Yasss!
Blue has grown up to be an adorable toddler! We're swooning over this photo of her playing on the beach.
Looks like Blue is taking a walk in mom's shoes...literally.
15. Beyoncé & Blue
There's nothing like being cuddled up in mom's arms.
Blue is looking all kinds of adorable! Look at that left hand go! LOL.
17. Blue On The Big Screen
Bey & Jay look at Blue during a video played at an "On The Run" tour stop. How precious!
18. Pardon Blue's Back
She's growing up so fast! We're loving the top knot. Take that Blue Ivy hair critics!
19. Jump Around
Bey & Blue share an adorable moment on the trampoline. Hello summer!
20. Rocking Some Cute Ponytails
Blue Ivy was spotted with a new 'do! Bey & Jay's mini-me was holding on to her father during a little day stroll.
21. Strolling With Mom & Dad
Blue, Jay and Bey all spotted in East Hampton.
22. Blue Has A Manicure Day With Mama Bey
"Me and my Blue, and my Blue Blue, riding🐝"
23. Hanging Out With Mom
Baby Blue is walking to the door, and it looks like Bey is trying to keep up!
24. Trying On Some Heels
Will Blue be slaying a performance in the near future?
25. Holding On To Mom
Blue looks like she has something to say to Bey.
26. Playing A Game Of Tennis
Blue walks on the tennis court.
27. Cuddling With Mom
Blue & Beyonce have some much-needed cuddle time.
28. Blue Ivy
"The blueprint 🐝"
29. Bey & Blue Take A Stroll
Doesn't Blue look adorable with her colorful dress and cute hair ribbon?
30. The Carter Lounge Together
The family was seen out and about.
31. Jay Z Carries Blue While Bey Looks On
Jay carries Blue in his arms.
32. Leading The Way
Blue Ivy looks too cute with her bowler hat and Mama Bey watching from behind. She's really growing up!
33. Out On The Town
Blue Ivy & Momma Bey enjoy some much deserved time off in Spain.
34. Traveling With Mom and Dad
Blue is used to traveling with Mama Bey and Poppa Jay, but she also looked a little flustered at some moments. It's ok, baby Blue!
35. A Day At The Park
Poppa Jay Z lets Blue Ivy have her way with the bouncy horse.
36. It's A Family Affair
Beyonce, Jay and Blue jetsetting in Dublin.
Blue dressed up like a hipster and plays a quick game of peekaboo! How adorable!
38. OMG It's Blue's Beautiful Face!
FINALLY! We get to see how beautiful Blue is! Look at the adorable headband! "Blue 💙"
39. Blue Ivy
Life's a beach!
40. Brooklyn Stand Up!
"Beyonce & Blue"
41. Blue Ivy's Got Her Own iPhone
"Momma, what's your password?"
42. Beyonce's Lazy Day With Blue
"Momma, I asked you for your password!"
43. When Blue Ivy Takes Your Phone, Beyonce Be Like...
"Fine, I'll go ask Daddy!"
44. Blue Ivy On Tour
"Bey & Blue"
45. It's Playtime
Beyonce & Blue take some time out to play.
46. A Chilly Day In NYC
"Beyoncé, Jay Z and Blue Ivy in NYC - Jan. 19"
47. All Bundled Up
The royal family makes their way to their fancy car.
48. Kisses From Dad
Blue's all bundled up, getting love from Daddy.
49. Blue At The White House
Blue Ivy's taking after mommy and writing a letter.
50. Blue Loves Bo
The White House pup, Bo is showing Blue Ivy some love.
51. The Carters At The White House
Check out the royal family checking out the scene at the White House.
52. It's Christmas Time Again
Blue and Bey checking out the White House Christmas tree.
53. Blue Lovin' Bo
Blue Ivy, dressed like a Princess, showing Bo some love.
54. Like Father, Like Daughter
Blue playing dress up with Daddy's hat.
55. Fun Times With Mommy
Blue Ivy spends some QT with mommy.
56. Mommy & Me
Blue and Bey take a break for some snacks.
57. Silvery Blue
Beyonce carries Blue, while the adorable toddler rocks a metallic jacket that we want and need.
58. The Holy Grail
Blue, Bey & Jay
59. One Big Happy Family
"#miami #newyear #2014"
"Beyoncé & Blue 💙"
61. Blue & Daddy In A Blue Jacket
"Jay and Blue 💙 #NewYear #2014 #Miami"
62. Hold On To Me
"Happy New Year Mommy!"
63. Dora Dora Dora The Explorer
"Beyoncé, Blue and Dora the Explorer"
64. Daddy & Bey
"Look over there Blue, you own that too."
65. Blue's Big B-Day
"Mommy make sure they can only see the back of my head."
66. Painted Faces For Blue's Bday
"Let me get down Mommy, I wanna play!"
67. Kisses From Mommy
Beyonce and Blue prepping for Momma Tina's Masquerade Ball
68. Talk To The Hand!
Beyonce, Jay Z and Blue Ivy were spotted leaving Joey's restaurant in Miami, on January 8th, and Blue had a message for the paps! Talk to the hand!
69. Me & My Daddy
While Beyonce's arm rested, Jay carried Blue from Joey's restaurant, in Miami on January 8th.
70. Blue's First Words
"I'm ready to slay right along with you, Ma!"
71. Imagine The Sound Of This Lullaby
A newborn Blue Ivy gets serenaded by her superstar mother.
72. Don't Mess With Blue!
Every now and again, Blue Ivy reminds you...she is her father's child!
73. All Gold Everything
Blue Ivy takes after her dad's swag. The inseparable duo were spotted in South Beach, Miami illuminating the streets outside their hotel with their yellow luster!
74. All Of The Lights!
"Mommy! All the pretty colors are so blinding! I'm...just..so..overwhelmed! When's my shot coming?! When's my shot coming?!" Blue plays on set with Bey at her 'Blow' video shoot.
75. Hey Blue!
"I can be happy sometimes, see?"
76. Blue Ivy With Daddy
"Why are we clapping, again? I'm not in the shot."
77. Jay Z Tries To Get Blue To Listen To "Magna Carta Holy Grail"
"Daddy, I'm more of a Nas fan."
78. Stepping With Mom
"Wait, Ma. I want the camera to see all angles of this sick dress!"
79. Splashin' & Playin'
"Mom, this water is clean, right? Because I'm not trying to splash in water I can't trust."
80. Beyonce Discusses Important Matters
"Mommy, I completely get it. Yes, I promise to watch the throne."
81. Mommy's Hugs
"Ok, Ma. I love you to pieces, but I like oxygen too." Bey may be the Queen, but this scene from her video "Blue" makes it look as if she can't get enough of being Mom.
82. Blue Ivy Twirls
"Aaaahh, I'm having so much fun not thinking about anything...wiippeee...oh, wait...getting a little sick."
83. Just So You Know...
"I run things. Don't get it twisted."
84. Mommy & Me Loungin'
"Oh, Mommy, I'm so tired of seeing the wigs you snatched last night all on our floor. It's so exhausting. Like, when're they getting picked up? Not now? Oh. Ok."
85. A Kiss For Blue
"Mommy, let me sleep, dang!"
86. Slurpin' On That Milk...Slurpin' Slurpin' On That Milk
"Mommy, gimme that bottle!"
We could watch this adorable GIF of Blue Ivy nonstop forever!
88. Jay Sneaks In Kisses
"Dadddd! Get..Away!..I don't want...No, ugh..No kisses!"
89. Blue Stares Back...
"Hey! Who's that?!"
90. Blue Still Doesn't Get Why Anyone's Here
"No, really, who are you? You're getting to close."
91. Blue and Bey Out For Lunch
"I'm over this now. People just won't let us be. Mom, why can't we just be?!"
92. Blue Is One Tough Cookie
"Ma, please let me just kick them in the face. Like, please, I can't see through all these lights."
93. Blue Jetsets With Jay
"Dad, do we own this boat? I just figured we owned everything, so..."
94. Beyonce Keeps Blue Covered
"Mommy, I think you forgot my feet. I'm cold right now. Are we inside?"
95. Beyonce LOVES Her Blue
Look at that face, how could you not kiss it?!
96. Blue Swings With Mommy
"I like the swing, this is nice, Mom--Oh, I'll let you pose for that shot."
97. Blue Decked Out In Pink
"Are we actually meeting people right now? Oh, I'll get it together, then."
98. A Hot Pink Summer
"Doesn't my mom look absolutely amazing? I know you're hating right now."
99. Working Her Moves
"Was Blue trying out Bey's bootylicious moves already?"
100. Mean In Green
"I'm going to be just as tall as you soon, Mommy! And, by soon, I mean tomorrow."