Nzinga Imani is a name you may want to get familiar with. She is an actress, the owner of Nimani Boutique, a singer, and a plus-sized model who has wowed fans with her talent on social media and TV. She can currently be seen in shows including BET+'s All the Queen's Men, BET Her's Curves and a YouTube series, "Pretty for a Big Gurl." While she is steadily taking over the small screen, she's also using her social media pages to spread body positivity by proudly embracing her curves.
The first-generation Guyanase-American beauty has even addressed the criticism she has faced online for displaying her body and even spoke out about TikTok flagging her videos because of it. However, Nzinga has remained positive and continues spreading her light across social media. Besides landing TV roles on a major network, the actress just released her collab with popular online fashion boutique Fashion to Figure.
xoNecole caught up Nzinga with to talk about body positivity, her role on All the Queen's Men, and why she unapologetically takes up space as an actress.
xoNecole: You star in several projects on BET+, BET Her, and YouTube. How does it feel to see your stock literally rising in the acting world?
Nzinga Imani: It feels incredible. It feels affirming. It's everything I've been working toward these past several years. I decided a long time ago that I wanted to pursue acting, and it's been a steady climb ever since consistently working and being able to do what I love. There's nothing better than that—to see progression in the field—because as much as I've worked, a lot of times it felt like roadblocks were put up.
I'd get somewhere and then the project would be sidelined or I think I'm cast in a lead in a major production that's funded by this network and that network, and then they table the entire show even after we've filmed it. So, there's so many times that you'll think that you're moving forward and then the roadblock will hit, but it's in some ways connected to where you're supposed to be.
"As much as I've worked, a lot of times it felt like roadblocks were put up. There's so many times that you'll think that you're moving forward and then the roadblock will hit, but it's in some ways connected to where you're supposed to be."
Kaylin James of Howell Designs
In 'All the Queen's Men,' you play a character named Dawn, and you have a nude scene. What was your first reaction to finding out that you were going to do that?
I knew that the scene was nude when I auditioned for it. The moment I auditioned for it, I had some reservations for maybe five seconds and then I was like, 'Hey, it's an audition. I'm just gonna submit and see what happens.' When I got the call that I actually got it, I was first in shock because I was like, 'Really?'
Although they allowed me to audition for it, I still wasn't sure once they got the tape and physically if they would still [be] interested in using me. But I just had fun with the audition, and when they told me I got it, it was a little shocking, but I also knew I had killed that audition because it was a fun one.
Did you know this role would be a game-changer, as far as being a plus-sized woman having a nude scene on TV?
I absolutely knew that it was going to be a game-changer. I know, for myself, seeing all these shows and seeing how there's more and more nude scenes on television, a lot of the times, it's the stereotypical body that they show. It's the perfectly flat stomachs and the perfectly proportioned women and you don't see a lot of typical body types because 67% of women in the U.S. are plus-sized. But when we show that in the media, it's not reflective of what the reality is. You just see a bunch of what they consider perfect type bodies on screen.
I had seen someone who was just barely plus-sized before in a sex scene, and I knew how much that meant to me to see her even though she doesn't really represent me or my culture, and she didn't look like me. Just the fact that she wasn't the stereotypical body type, it meant a lot to me. So, I was excited to be that for someone else and I've been receiving so many messages about what that meant to other women. To see me, 3XL body out there on TV and how they felt represented and seen—it was a big reason why I felt comfortable to do it and felt like it was something I could do and be proud of doing.
"To see me, 3XL body out there on TV and how they felt represented and seen—it was a big reason why I felt comfortable to do it and felt like it was something I could do and be proud of doing."
Kaylin James of Howell Designs
You're also a content creator who posts many photos and videos on social celebrating your body. While you receive lots of love, how do you rise above criticism?
I think that I always remember that there will always be someone who has something negative to say about what you're doing. No matter what you are doing, there's always going to be a group of people who hate what you stand for, and you just have to remember who you're standing up for and what your goal is. For me, it's just not to let something as benign as my weight stop me from doing everything that I want to do.
I've been part of a community that showed me that plus-sized women can be mothers, business owners, entrepreneurs. They can do anything. They are just powerful beyond measure. So often society tries to make us feel like we're less than if you're plus-size, then you're undesirable, but that's just not true.
I think [it's about] just kind of pushing [away] that stereotype and showing other women and girls like me that you don't have to listen to what they say and that you are desired and you are phenomenal and you can do anything despite your weight and that shouldn't even be such a big deal as people make it out to be.
You posted a video on TikTok calling the platform "fat phobic." Other TikTok creators have spoken out against TikTok in relation to censorship. What are some things you've experienced?
Although I do have a nude scene on BET+, I have not posted anything nude or in any way sexualized, to me, on my platforms. I don't violate community standards. I don't post sexual content. So, for them to continually take down posts and the content that I spend sometimes hours creating because of "nudity" or "sexually explicit" content and it would just be me in a crop top, it kind of got to the point where I just was overwhelmed and just irritated that they were consistently able to take down my content that wasn't hurting anyone. It was only promoting self-love—never anything sexual. They were consistently taking it down for violations that didn't exist.
Meanwhile, other people can wear the same things, if not less, than me and their page is not taken down. People can say horrible things and be mean on there, and they don't suspend them or block those pages, but in the meantime they take down my posts. So, it just became very [irritating] to see that kind of behavior repeated over and over again. So many of my videos were deleted. So many of my videos were banned, and there was even a moment where I thought my page might get taken down. When you put so much time into a platform, to know that your page can be taken down—[due to] no fault of your own, just based on someone else's bias—I was done.
We see so many people talk about body positivity, more now especially with celebs like Lizzo in the forefront, but what does body positivity mean to you?
To me, body positivity is just loving yourself where you are right now. It doesn't mean that you can't be working toward a different body goal or you can't be disciplined. [It also means] not letting other people's opinions or biases affect the way you move throughout the world because there's always going to be people who look down on you or have something to say, but if you can stand up tall with your chest out and really defend yourself and not let their negative comments affect you, I feel like that's what the whole body positivity movement is about—having that community to back you up so you know you're not alone.
You know you don't deserve less and just having a support system—I think it's what the whole movement is here for. When I was growing up, I didn't really have that around or I didn't know there was this community of plus-sized people who were killing the game and successful in every avenue of life. Once I grew up and was introduced to that world, it made me realize I don't have to settle. I don't have to hide.
"If you can stand up tall with your chest out and really defend yourself and not let their negative comments affect you, I feel like that's what the whole body positivity movement is about. Once I grew up and was introduced to that world, it made me realize I don't have to settle. I don't have to hide."
Kaylin James of Howell Designs
What do you want people who are following your journey to take away from it?
I would just like to be an example of how resilience and authenticity can put you in the places where you want to be. I'm just trying to be 100% myself all the time, showing my personality whether it be a goofy day, a sexy day, whatever it is because we're not one dimensional.
So, just being authentic with my audience, I feel has given me the momentum I need to feel confident when I walk into those rooms and when I walk into those auditions and I hope that my audience continues to see that authenticity in me and my performances, and my characters. No matter who they are, I always try to bring a little of myself into the characters to find that truth, because we all have that in common.
For more of Nzinga, follow her on Instagram @nzingaimani and on YouTube or check out her website is NzingaImani.com.
Featured image courtesy of Kaylin James of Howell Designs
One look at Nana Agyemang, and there's no doubt that she is a boss. Take her perfectly curated Instagram feed that exudes the glitz and glam of Black girl luxury, travel, "it girl" fashion, and indulgence, for example. There is a unifying theme of daring to take up space in a world where people like her aren't often showcased. It's also a theme that lends itself effortlessly to her overall mission. In a world where we are made to feel as though we are invisible, Agyemang seeks to make Black and Brown voices and faces both felt and seen.
As the CEO and founder of the ever-growing EveryStylishGirl media company, she is doing just that. "I would like to uplift the social and economic status of Black women in America and specifically in the media," Agyemang shares of her life purpose. "I want us to fulfill our potential and overcome obstacles put in our way by society."
Since the age of 14, growing up in rural Ohio, Agyemang has been adamant about acting as a vessel for opportunities for Black and Brown women of color in spaces. This started with her role as a photojournalist in high school and changing the covers of her yearbook to more closely resemble the Black and Brown faces she saw walking the hallways. However, when branching into media, she noticed that despite having a seat at the table, many of her peers weren't. There was a marked lack of diversity in fashion and media, both front-facing and behind the scenes. Instead of seeing the lack of representation and diversity as an obstacle, Agyemang sought to find solutions.
And a solution, she found.
To fulfill her mission of career advancement and professional growth opportunities for Black and Brown women, Agyemang launched EveryStylishGirl in 2016. First an Instagram page only, ESG has since evolved into an inclusive media company with a directory for job placement and networking opportunities, as well as the annual Sip N' Slay conferences.
"Every day I aim to create more opportunities for my sisters, in hopes that we can build our own tables instead of waiting for a seat at someone else's," she explains.
The next woman's opportunity doesn't take away from hers and it is that empowerment that has kept her media company flourishing all these years. In the last year, Agyemang quit her job leading social for The Cut to focus on ESG full-time and has been seeing nothing but abundance since.
The multihyphenate hustler recently chatted with xoNecole about not quitting your daydreams, her biggest career mistakes, and why it's important to share the title of "boss" as a CEO.
Courtesy of Nana Agyemang
xoNecole: What was your earliest memory of feeling seen as a Black girl (or a Black woman) in media?
Nana Agyemang: In high school, I signed up to be a photojournalist for the Yearbook Club because I always felt like our yearbook lacked diversity. When I took over the role I made sure our covers had Black and Brown faces and voices. Before that I didn't really see much representation in school. I definitely didn't see it in mainstream teen magazines in the early 2000s either.
Do you think the lack of seeing yourself or people like you led to you wanting to pursue media in your profession?
100% percent. The lack of representation scared me. I thought to myself I was never going to see Black women on multiple magazine covers or even a September issue and it scared me knowing this was the industry I wanted to partake in. But it scared me so much I jumped on the opportunity to change it. In a way the trepedication gave me the motivation to cover the stories of my sisters.
What were some key opportunities of growth that were important for you to tap into as you scaled your business?
I recently left my role leading social media at The Cut to pursue EveryStylishGirl full-time and, while I loved being in the editorial world, it allowed me to grow my businesses and connect and amplify so many more women than I could imagine.
How did a Masters in journalism and your work with EveryStylishGirl translate to owning a lane career-wise as a contributing social editor for The Cut?
Honestly, getting into that position was so serendipitous. I was out to lunch with another editor friend, Indya Brown, who worked at The Cut at the time, and she mentioned they were hiring a social editor and she wanted me to go after it. At that time, I had never worked professionally for a traditional news company as a social editor and I didn't believe I had the skills to do it. But I realized I was wrong because not only did I work as a social editor for myself for EveryStylishGirl but I launched my own successful social media company and grew it to 50K followers in under 3 years. Also, to top it all off, I did have a Masters in multimedia journalism. Therefore, all that self-doubt was once again just fear getting in the way.
Speaking of job titles and roles, how do you feel the work you’ve done in the past has acted as a roadmap to what you are doing now in life?
The job that has been most beneficial to my career growth has been the job I created for myself. Starting my own business in college is the main reason why I was able to get my foot in the door at The New York Times, ELLE Magazine and The Cut. I always tell people, "Don't sleep on your daydreams." And I mean it, because that side hustle will one day become your full-time job. It will get you in rooms and spaces much quicker than others who don't have a side hustle or small business. You're ahead of the game because you are your own lawyer, accountant, boss and copy editor and content creator.
You have built immense skills in such a short period of time and that's a speciality not everyone can say they have experienced. It makes employers value your work ethic and know you can be scrappy and creative when needed. I thank ESG for everything I have today career-wise and I owe it to myself for creating my successful career.
"I always tell people, 'Don't sleep on your daydreams.' That side hustle will one day become your full-time job. It will get you in rooms and spaces much quicker than others who don't have a side hustle or small business. You're ahead of the game because you are your own lawyer, accountant, boss and copy editor and content creator."
At EveryStylishGirl, I’ve noticed that you have given everyone on your staff some variation of the title of “Boss,” why is that? Do you think it is important that everyone feels like a leader on your team although you are the CEO and founder?
Yes, because we are all bosses. We might be on different levels but everyone is a boss because you wake up every day and choose to show up. It's not easy to be Black women and we already have so much against us in the business world. It feels uplifting to carry that boss title when you go into work and know that you have to live up to that boss status. You have to lead, inspire and motivate those around you.
Access is important to you, especially when it comes to inclusivity, how can media do better at providing access to women of color and promote inclusivity in their hires?
Hire women of color! You can't improve inclusivity without ensuring your teams are diverse first. This is one of the reasons we launched the EveryStylishGirl Biz directory. There is no longer an excuse for companies to say they can't find Black or Brown talent when there are resources to do so.
What is ESG doing to speak to those gaps specifically?
EveryStylishGirl's focus is elevating women of color through multiple channels. Our directory is a concrete way for us to bring women of color into companies at all levels while also creating visibility around these opportunities for these women to see them and apply. We consistently post job opportunities from our directory partners on social media so that women can see these opportunities firsthand and have the know-how to apply.
As a founder, what have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about running a business?
Always find a mentor. You are only going to grow and improve if you talk to those who have experienced what you have coming. I learned that the key to success is to ask questions and know that no question is ever a dumb question in business. It's dumb to not know the answers or pretend that you know it all because that will get you nowhere. I highly recommend every business owner to have company advisors and mentors. My mentors have saved me time, money and unnecessary mistakes.
Have you ever experienced a major failure or mistake in your career? How did you bounce back?
My biggest mistake in my career was staying in a job for too long where I wasn't appreciated. I spent days frustrated and unhappy about my job but I was worried if I left I wouldn't find another job in time to keep up with my rent and financial responsibilities so I held onto my job as a crutch and it kicked me in the butt in the long run. I regret not listening to my gut and my intuition. It wasn't until I was let go from the company that I felt creative freedom. It was that moment ESG took off and my personal brand took off.
"I held onto my job as a crutch and it kicked me in the butt in the long run. I regret not listening to my gut and my intuition. It wasn't until I was let go from the company that I felt creative freedom. It was that moment ESG took off and my personal brand took off."
In a world where there is an unconscious divide between having a 9 to 5 and quitting your job to be your own boss, why was it important to you to have both?
A 9 to 5 is important because you get professional experience and earn income while you're trying to figure out how to grow your business. It is also a great way to build a network and net worth. Grow your contact list, cultivate relationships, and learn the ins and outs of the company, especially if it connects to your side hustle.
How are you able to successfully maintain a thriving business as a CEO and founder while maintaining a successful career as contributing social editor for NY Mag and The Cut?
Discipline is key. It truly takes discipline to say no to social outings with friends, vacations and other distractions. I was in a hyper focused mindset because I knew what my end goal was. My goal was to get the Cut to a strong following online, build an engaged community, create relationships and transition into being my own boss. Once you know what the end goal is it's easy to have the focus to stay on track and cut out distractions but without that roadmap I would have been lost.
How do you think being an employee feeds into your role as a CEO, if it all? How do you think being a CEO pours into your role as an employee?
I'm sympathetic to my employees. I understand what it's like to be learning and working for someone else's brand and trying to gauge their voice. It takes time and patience. I always give them that space to grow and I take them in as mentees. I am genuinely invested in their growth and getting them to the next level in their careers.
In a lot of ways, when I look at you and your brand, it seems like you embody the phrase, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” What would you tell women who might have fears surrounding creating and cultivating a life that speaks to them?
Spend 5 to 10 years becoming an expert in something. It could be working a 9 to 5 for 10 years or working on a side hustle for 10 years, but if you could just do one of those then you could put yourself in a position to become an expert. When you become an expert, you can put yourself on the market to sell something. Once you have a business to sell something of your own, you can work towards being your own boss.
And lastly, who is Nana Agyemang outside of what she does?
I am very close to God because without God I wouldn't be where I am. I am incredibly loving and goofy at times. I love being around people that make me laugh. I enjoy self-care. I invest in good candles, perfumes and leisure experiences. Lastly, I invest heavily in the success of my friends and family. I go above and beyond to help those around me get to the next level. I'm a giver and lover.
Featured image courtesy of Nana Agyemang
The relationship we have and nurture with self lays the foundation for how we relate to and connect with others in our lives. Assessing the issues that discourage self-love from prospering are key in order to repair and reignite the freedom that comes when we finally believe the words "you are enough." I chatted with self-love advocate and lifestyle entrepreneur Shelah Marie – who you may remember from when her 2017 photo of doing yoga with boyfriend, rapper Ace Hood, went viral. Shelah's mission is to create a movement of total self-love and liberation for women of color through her platform Curvy, Curly, Conscious – a place where "self-help" meets "real talk" through virtual and offline events and retreats.
Shelah opens up about her healing journey and gives tips for others repairing one of most important relationships a woman will ever have: The one she has with herself.
To fully understand how self-love evolves over time, we must start at the beginning – childhood. "I grew up as the only person of color growing in my home..the only Black person in my neighborhood. I was the only one with hair like mine, skin like mine. I couldn't figure out why I was different. My [immediate] family wasn't open to talking about it."
"Because I had fundamentally saw the world through race at a young age...what I saw was a big deal. Everyone didn't look the same and it mattered. I learned to deconstruct the performance of race around me...I was aware of people's emotions and saw things that people weren't saying. I always wanted to create something that I never saw."
Acting, the performance of characters, and storytelling became a passion of Shelah's. Her 2010 move to New York City to enroll in a Master's program at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts would be the domino that set off a chain of important events in her life. "My experience in New York changed who I was. I learned a lot about other cultures, languages, and how to appreciate the small things. I couldn't afford TV or cable or a car. I didn't have disposable income. I learned to exist on very little. I put everything into my craft."
A Journey Into Self-Love & Self-Healing
Photo Credit: Latoya Osborne
Courtesy of Shelah Marie
From juggling multiple jobs, to dealing with seeing her friends "making it", Shelah became severely depressed and her anxiety peaked.
"I was always surrounded by people, but I was always alone in my mind. My self-esteem was so low and I started to attract people that reflected that. I attracted men that were treating me in an unhealthy way. One relationship got extremely abusive."
An argument turned into Shelah's then-partner telling her, in front of her roommates, "Yeah, bitch. You're a bitch and I hope I'm first person to ever call you that, bitch."
Enough was enough.
"I saw myself as a child and I realized the only other person to call me a bitch in front of people was my mom. This is where my spiritual journey kicked up a notch. I told myself that I get it. Whatever pain and hurt that is within me that feels the need to manifest this man to reflect my beliefs at me this strongly...this will never happen again. I will never be at this place again. Whatever I have to do to heal it, I will do. From then on, I put myself through Shelah's school of self."
Shelah recognized that in order to reach her potential, she would have to learn to navigate past the toxicity in her life. Over the next few years, self-healing became her priority. Four important things led the way for Shelah's transformation: Talk therapy, working with a healer, reading, and meditation. This work allowed Shelah to confront the trauma that was hiding in her subconscious. She was committed to equipping herself with the information so she could start to understand what she had been through in life.
Meditation was especially helpful as it allowed her to "get friendly" with herself. "I realized I was an adult and didn't know myself and have never sat with myself. I'd used men, career, work to distract me."
The reality of sitting in and embracing pain is something that many women of color often accept as a part of life, Shelah believes. "'I'ma talk to Jesus. I'ma go to church. I'm going to pray about it...get a new outfit, you'll be fine.' This is what we tell each other. It doesn't work. Black women are comfortable with sharing their pain just from a place of 'This is just how it is.' When I used to listen to a lot of Gospel, I would become addicted to how much pain I would feel. Sometimes we can get addicted to that space of talking about the pain, living in the pain, and being in the pain. That space is part of the process but I'm more interested in moving beyond that."
Photo Credit: Latoya Osborne
Courtesy of Shelah Marie
"Whatever pain and hurt that is within me that feels the need to manifest this man to reflect my beliefs at me this strongly...this will never happen again. I will never be at this place again. Whatever I have to do to heal it, I will do."
How Meditation & Self-Healing Led Her To True Love
Shelah's call for Black women? Listen to yourself. Honor your pain. Allow yourself to heal. Allow yourself to be connected and feel supported from within.
If you're starting out on the journey, Shelah recommends finding a therapist that caters to your needs, listening to guide meditations like The Meditation Mixtape by Shelah Marie, and filling yourself with knowledge. The books that aided her include A Return To Love by Marianne Williamson, Codependent No More by Melody Beattie, Radical Forgiveness by Colin Tipping, and The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.
If she really wanted to focus on healing, Shelah knew that she'd have to be radical in how she invested in her learning and the expectations she set for those she surrounded herself with. "My healing was my job, and it still is. Everyone in my [tribe] knows this. Anyone I can keep around...if they are not actively healing, they will be phased out of [my life.]"
Shelah's healing journey allowed her to embrace the unknown when it unexpectedly appeared. She was new to loving herself and having standards in a relationship, when she met now boyfriend Ace Hood, a few years ago in New York City. Upon first meeting him after an invite to a New York club during All-Star Weekend, Shelah knew there was something special.
"He was in the back. There were all these women and celebrities around him. [Ace] saw me and parted the divider and went, 'Shelah, hi! I love your videos on Instagram and you're so funny.' He had this big smile and his eyes lit up. I said to myself, 'I'm fucked. If I'm not supposed to go for it, I'm going for it. I don't care what happens.'"
As with any relationship, it didn't come without challenges – especially in the beginning. Though Ace was attracted to her personality and who she was – the two had to learn to coexist and understand their two very different worlds.
"I struggled for a while trying to fit a circle in a square peg and tried to make myself into what I thought a rapper's girlfriend should be. That didn't last long. [I had to understand that] this is who I am. I'm Shelah. This is me."
Though people had questions about how their relationship would work, Shelah emphasized the notion that you can redefine yourself and humans are layered individuals. When Ace became interested in learning more about the benefits of yoga, the two decided to go on a journey together. She saw something in Ace and knew that they could help each other become the best versions of themselves.
Even if you're not in a relationship and find yourself longing for companionship from a partner, Shelah reminds us not to wallow in self-pity. "When I was in NY [before meeting Ace], I was single and depressed. I had to be proactive about the feelings I wanted [and] I'd fuse that into my meditations. Do not leave it in the hands of someone else to provide you what you need. Date yourself. Do nice things. Look good for yourself! Sometimes I'd get sad [or jealous], but I'd remind myself, 'Man, I feel so supported. I feel so loved.'"
Photo Credit: Latoya Osborne
Courtesy of Shelah Marie
"I had to be proactive about the feelings I wanted [and] I'd fuse that into my meditations. Do not leave it in the hands of someone else to provide you what you need."
A Call To Black Women & Their Healing
Helping other women of color heal has been the core of Shelah's personal mission and her recent entrepreneurial pursuits as well. She mentions, "As that little Shelah [experienced], I wanted to create something that I never saw. With Curvy, Curly, Conscious, I was responding to what was being given to me. My Instagram started to grow. I did an event, it was a success. Four city tour, success. Black women believed in me. I needed to keep giving them more. I wanted to produce high quality, high level beautiful experiences for Black women to heal and commune with each other because I believe we deserve it. Black women deserve beauty. It reaffirms our humanity."
However, Shelah again found herself having to confront deep fears and insecurities that would have stunted her ability to deliver on her promise.
"The biggest challenges as an entrepreneur have been overcoming all of my individual fears. You know how much courage it takes to take people's hard earned money in advance for something? You have to deliver. I wasn't a business person. My background was in acting. I had to invite people in [such as bookkeeper to help me.] I had to [overcome] my own fears about not being good enough and not knowing enough."
For others looking to build a brand in the self-help space, Shelah notes that investigating your personal strength is a must.
"What skills do you have that everyone goes, 'How do you do that?' A lot of people try to copy and emulate. The reason my account grew was because my strong suit is sharing my story and talking. You don't have to have a big following to have a big business. Find your zone of genius and follow that. Just because social media is poppin, doesn't mean everyone has to have a page that's popping. Follow what you're good at."
When remembering where this journey all started, Shelah had some words she'd tell her younger self, the little girl struggling to figure out her story. "You're doing great. You're doing really well. It's fine."
For those of us also navigating the fluid waters of nurturing self-love, Shelah says, "We live in a society that is extremely driven. There's a little window into everyone else's life now. There's Instagram and Facebook. Sometimes it looks like everyone is moving at 100mph and you're just moving slow. Don't watch what everyone else is doing. You are doing fine, too."
Our self-love journeys are not monolithic, but one thing is true for us all: Growth is possible.
For more of Shelah, follow her on Instagram.
Featured image by Latoya Osborne
Originally published on February 13, 2019
It doesn't matter what culture, race, or group you identify with, the concept of small efforts leading to big results is a common one. Whether it's from the Bible (look up Matthew 17:20) or quotes from people like Oprah (who said that small steps can "take on greater meaning"), we all know that small efforts toward a goal can lead to big wins.
If you need proof, let's just take a look at recent happenings in the life of a very talented 24-year-old chef. Keanu Hogan, who became a contestant to reckon with on the 20th season of Hell's Kitchen, got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not by efforts of grandeur, desperation, or viral foolery, but by simple, authentic action. The Baltimore native was one of the youngest on the show to make it as far as she did, and she represented proper for Southern melanated queens, cooking up dishes like smoked shrimp and grits while rocking box braids with baby hair laid and lip gloss popping.
After paying quite a few dues, Keanu had finally gotten the chance to spread her wings and learn from one of the best in the culinary industry: Gordon Ramsay.
At the time, she wanted a change, and she knew she had to do something in order to prepare for whatever transitions were coming her way. She had worked in clubs, bars, and restaurants on the super-tough, appearance-focused Los Angeles scene and had become disenchanted. "My confidence suffered a lot, and I compared myself to a lot of the women who were out there," Keanu recalled. "There was a lot of [focus on] plastic surgery and competition. I just missed home. I was in the process of trying to move back to Baltimore and decided that, before I moved, I would really work on my business."
"I started cooking dishes and my best friend would take pictures of everything. We'd be up all night. All we had was a ring light. We didn't have anything else."
Her urge proved to be right on time. Once she started being more strategic about creating a brand presence on Instagram, she'd built up a following of just 250 when she was contacted via direct message by producers of the hit show. "They just asked, 'Are you interested in being on Hell's Kitchen?' In the beginning, I thought it was a joke. I responded, and I got an email. I did a Skype interview and then did another interview. I was back and forth, visiting with family and traveling to LA, and I was selling meals from my home. I sent the producers what they asked for, and they said, 'OK we're going to fly you out to Vegas for your third interview.'"
After not hearing from producers for weeks after, Keanu said she thought she hadn't made the cut. She finally got a call where she was instructed to pack her bags for a three-week stay. The experience allowed her to not only be in front of millions of Fox viewers, but to solidify her confidence in her craft and abilities.
"A lot of people don't get one-on-ones with the Gordon Ramsay, even in past seasons. I just remember him looking me straight in my eyes and he has this way of seeing you for who you are. That was really liberating."
"He told me that I was a firecracker, and I didn't know he noticed," Keanu added. "When you're around this figure you're inspired by, you tend to want to put on your best self, and a lot of us did that, so sometimes we were trying to be so perfect. To hear him say that I'm this assertive individual with a tenacious might [was] amazing. He was also impressed by my story, knowing that I was from a small city where people usually struggle and that I was able to move out of that and do my own thing at 23. He said I need to step up and assert myself more and be a leader. I will never forget that. "
While on the show, Keanu drew from her experiences growing up in Maryland, as well as her training at Monroe College in New York as a collegiate team competitor.
"My youngest memories are centered around food and the kitchen. They stuck with me. I remember birthday cake when I was four, peanut butter sandwiches my great grandmother made for me after school, and the sausage and biscuits my grandmother would make from Bisquick."
"Watching someone prepare something for me—I just loved the intention that was put into food prepared by my family," she added. Keanu would begin to help in making some of the family's meals, and was always under the nose of anybody who was in the kitchen. "I learned how to make sweet potato pie before I was 10 years old. We went fishing and camping a lot and we would grill. My mom always had a cast-iron pan just so we could have scrambled eggs and bacon in the mornings. It was just something that I didn't realize made me feel really good, no matter how young I was."
Though she didn't come out the victor on Hell's Kitchen, she was able to tap into a larger audience, gain exposure, and hone in on monetizing her passion in a way that would be lucrative. Today, she has more than 10,000 IG followers along with two thriving businesses. Tastee Towers, offers unique, small-batch desserts that take you back to the days of treats at grandma's or sweets you'd get from your local candy lady back in the day. "We focus on nostalgic desserts that you grew up eating like an oatmeal creme pie, s'mores, strawberry banana pudding, or egg custard snowballs, and we make layers of it. We don't use refined sugar and we make everything from scratch. We just layer on the fun," Keanu said. "We also sell water ice in the summer months, and we will have a storefront really soon."
Thee Perfect Bite, is a full culinary experience that focuses in on the vibes, feelings, and memories behind enjoying well-prepared meal—one made with ethically sourced and organic ingredients. It was launched at the onset of the pandemic due to increased need for fresh meals prepped for home delivery.
"It's not just about the small portion, but having it like that allows people to focus on more than the food and realize it's really about the energy, love, care, tribe, community, and culture. It's something that someone put love into. It's sacred."
Keanu has also hit another major milestone, becoming a mom to a 16-month-old daughter. "While I've been nurturing her, I've been learning new techniques. I've been eating a plant-based diet because I'm trying to make sure she has good eating habits. I'm showing her that good food doesn't have to be processed. This journey in business and my career taught me a lot in that regard. Everything I do now, motherhood reflects in it, and that includes being a chef and a businesswoman."
Find out more about Chef Keanu Hogan via her Instagram @Follow_theleeda.
Featured image courtesy of Chef Keanu Hogan
For most Black women, the journey to find positive reflections of themselves begin at an early age. We choose dolls that match our curls and complexion, we tune into TV shows with main characters who resemble our girlhood plights, and when it comes to our career, we search for role models as guiding lights for what's possible to achieve.
With every new upgrade and evolution on our journey, the need to see ourselves in these spaces deepens, long before we ever arrive. For Marty McDonald, founder of Boss Women Media, her search began on her ascend through the corporate ladder, when she came to a rattling realization. "I didn't see myself because there were no other women who looked like me in leadership at the organizations that I served in. Instead, I was the only one who had to put on a hat every day and code-switch into who someone else wanted me to be," she shares candidly.
"When you don't see someone who looks like you doing what you want to do, you don't see possibilities."
Coming to light with this truth has since guided Marty into a career pivot to help other Black women ascend into their pursuit of purpose.
Courtesy of Marty McDonald
The birth of Boss Women Media came just as Marty's corporate journey was coming to an end. It was around 2016, Marty recalls, that she began questioning her corporate surroundings and looked inward for the answers. "I knew that there had to be other women really suffering from this imposter syndrome. How do you find your voice? How do you find yourself in spaces and in systems that were not built for you?" The turning point came while attending a women's conference that, to Marty's surprise, was predominantly and overwhelming, white. She reflects, "When I walked into that space, I knew that I needed to create this for Black women. I came back to Dallas on fire and on mission to help women solve problems around entrepreneurship, side hustling, and growing their corporate career."
"When you don't see that, you don't see possibility or you gain the mindset of it's only one seat available to you. It's only that one seat that you have to crawl and fight for, and when there's only one seat, it's hard for you to navigate how to pull up a chair for someone else."
Cut to now and it's clear that Marty has achieved that and more. What started off as an intimate brunch experience with 25 business-minded women, has since catapulted into a blooming storytelling organization and conference, the Black Girl Magic Digital Summit. The two-day experience, sponsored by Capital One and Amazon, celebrates and supports women in their professional, entrepreneurial, and collegiate pursuits to tackle areas of financial well-being, generational wealth, career development, and more.
This year, the conference had keynotes from actress Yara Shahidi, to Naturi Naughton and Candace Parker. But more importantly, it created the space and platform for Black-owned businesses to be amplified and have grant money put into the hands of their founders. And for Marty, the mission to fund small businesses is simple, "It's because I didn't have it. There's so much power in, I didn't have it, so let me help my sister out. Because I know that this will change her life." She continues, "I want to make it easier for another Black woman. I want her to win because when she wins, I win, we all win."
xoNecole: When it comes to Boss Women Media, what space did you hope to fill with the organization?
Marty McDonald: It's really a storytelling company. It's telling the story of women who are creating spaces and places, whether they're in corporate America or entrepreneurship so that other women see possibility in themselves.
We're telling stories of women who have done what damn near feels like the impossible. We're telling stories of women who are paving the way for others, but not only are we just telling those stories, we are also giving our community resources on how they can do it too. Because it's cool to hear the story, but you've got to know how can I do it. That's our purpose. Our mission is to change the way when we connect through the stories of other women.
You’ve mentioned before that, “When you don’t see someone who looks like you, doing what you want to do, you don’t see possibilities.” Could you tell us more about what this means to you?
It's really a two-lane street: It's through the lane of entrepreneurship and thriving in corporate America. I always say we need Black women in corporate America; they are the trailblazers, they are the voice for Black women across the world. Their space [in corporate] is so pivotal, but only 58 percent of Black women are in corporate America. As a woman who's sitting in these spaces, you connect over stories, you connect over experiences. So when you don't see that, you don't see possibility or you gain the mindset of it's only one seat available to you. It's only that one seat that you have to crawl and fight for, and when there's only one seat, it's hard for you to navigate how to pull up a chair for someone else. Even with entrepreneurship, Black women are the fastest-growing entrepreneurs, but we make the majority at the poverty level in our businesses.
So if I don't hear the stories of Black women who are navigating venture capital, who understand how to get SBA loans, who are killing the game with bootstrapping - if I don't see that, again, I don't see possibilities. It's beyond important for our stories to be told, to be heard, and to be seen to be spoken in order for change to happen and to know that this is possible for us.
There’s been a lot of recent talk about “quitting” as it pertains to the arena of Black women and their careers. But often, quitting can be confused with being a quitter. From your experiences of stepping away from your corporate path to pursue entrepreneurship, what are some things that you learned about “quitting” and how has it shaped this half of your career?
When I left corporate America, I never saw it as "quitting." Instead, I found it as a moment to evolve as a woman; to take control over my finances and finally have the freedom that I deserve. As I've grown as an entrepreneur, from that girl who got $500 sponsorships to now, the girl who's getting a quarter of a million-dollar sponsorship, I know that my walk away [from corporate] was a part of my purpose. Corporate America taught me how to pitch, how to get allies, how to influence - I can never take any of that back. It was a part of the marathon that I was on, in terms of giving me the tools that I needed to create the business of my dreams.
But I'm telling you this: burnout is real. As an entrepreneur, you have to take breaks; it is not a sprint, it is truly a marathon and you have to breathe. I am a new mom, I have a six-month-old and I can truly say that I am exhausted at this very moment right now because I have been grinding and going so hard. But I know that because I am self-aware of my burnout, that I have to take a break. Taking a moment and pausing is not quitting, it is realizing what my body needs. This world will put such a weight on Black women to achieve more than anyone else in the world when in actuality self-care is needed for us and burnout can easily happen to us.
"Taking a moment and pausing is not quitting, it is realizing what my body needs. This world will put such a weight on Black women to achieve more than anyone else in the world when in actuality self-care is needed for us and burnout can easily happen to us."
Courtesy of Marty McDonald
Your trajectory had led you on a path to refine your purpose and zero in on the mission of creating a legacy and rallying for women. For women who feel like their purpose is still a little unclear, could you share what helped you get clarity on your vision?
I was 30 when I first started this entrepreneurial journey. It's something so interesting that switches when you're entering your 30's when you're searching for your purpose and that impact that you're going to make. For me, it was a connection with God. I could tell you stories of people who have placed my name in rooms that I've never even entered before and that's an encounter of God. I can't take credit for it. I am on a God-driven mission in what I'm creating and really who I'm creating it for.
My purpose is aligned to what my values are and I really had to go on a search and be in prayer and constant connection with God, asking him, "What do you want for my life to be?" But when you ask that question, you have to be prepared for what the answer is. Be prepared for how hard it will be to navigate. There's been plenty of times when I have felt like, should I be doing this? Why is it so hard? Why am I experiencing no after no? Through me finding my purpose, I've learned that you have to stay consistent. Consistency will bet the most talented person in the room every day of the week. Consistency is the key to how you win.
For the woman who's out there who's looking for what is my purpose, you get into alignment with what your values are, your skills, your passion, you figure those pieces out so that you can follow in line with your purpose. And when you find that purpose. You stay consistent every single day.
"Consistency will bet the most talented person in the room every day of the week. Consistency is the key to how you win."
You have an amazing lineup of panelists in this year’s summit. What was it about these women that made you go, “I want them at my event this year?”
This year the Black Girl Magic Digital Summit is all about The Upgrade: upgrading your mind, your voice, your money, and upgrading your wealth.
Yara Shahidi is a powerhouse. This young woman is transforming her generation, she's decided that she is the voice and that no one will tell her differently. She's wise and she realizes her space and her place. Candace Parker has upgraded from, not just a WNBA player, but I'm a mom and being multi-faceted. That's what this summit is about: it's about seeing the stories of women who are not taking the road often traveled, but less traveled, and saying that I'm upgrading myself through this experience.
The stories of these women at this event this year are absolutely magical and will give anybody who is tuning in goosebumps. It's all about how you, too, can upgrade in 2021 and go beyond the norm of what the world tells you you are.
When you envision the outcome of this year’s event, what do you hope that the women who attend your summit are able to take away from it?
On next Monday morning, I envision a million women who have tuned in and connected to our programming, who realized that they can create the career or business of their dreams, that there is nothing that will hold them back anymore.
Most importantly, that they have been able to connect with another woman who was also a part of the summit, and that they support another Black-owned business because that's how our community collectively changes the landscape of poverty of wealth and mindset through connectivity and support.
Featured image courtesy of Marty McDonald
When it comes to the fashion world, there's no denying the direct influence and contribution of Black women.
Although recognition and credit tend to go unsaid, the simple truth is: Black women are the blueprint. As the tides shift within the industry, the true measure of sustainable progress will be weighed by how well the new class of designers and emerging brands are embraced and amplified. However, it's important to note that this isn't a request for permission: this is an announcement. Black designers aren't waiting for a chance for their stories to be told, they're letting their brands speak for themselves. And if you truly want to know where the future of fashion is headed, you must first tap into the rising voices who are creating history today.
Meet Sadé Lewis and Shaniya Charles, the design duo behind the self-titled fashion and lifestyle brand, Sadé + Shaniya. When the two Brooklynites met in their high school English class, their bond was formed over their shared interest in extracurricular activities, like Modeling Club and their desire to dissect the ambiguity of the industry they aspired to break into. As Sadé shares, "I feel like we align on things that we didn't like about the fashion industry and how it real mysterious and superficial, as well as not really seeing people that looked like us at the forefront."
Shaniya Charles, left. Sadé Lewis, right.
Photo Credit: Pia Fergus
As graduates of the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology, FIT, the pair have been able to combine their talents beyond the textbooks, weaving their story into the fabric of their take on accessible high fashion and ready-to-wear pieces. Drawing inspiration from their personal journey, Black culture, and womanhood, the complex and nuanced experience that Black women share serve as a natural muse for everything they put their hands to.
Their signature design, the Mora Bag, tells a story of the duality of Black womanhood that serves as a stylish and metaphorical reminder to pack light and be light. "The color palettes that we looking into were [colors] that would trigger us to be soft and more vulnerable. There's always the notion that the Black woman is hard, she's strong, and she can do all these things. And she can, but she also has to step into the power of being vulnerable, being open, and being able to feel like you can release," Shaniya shares.
When the innovation of two Black women joins forces, there's no limit to the possibilities that they can unleash. Luckily, xoNecole has a front-row seat to the beginning stages of these dynamic designers, destined to dominate the fashion world on their own terms.
xoNecole: As Black women, sometimes we don't always have control over our narratives. With storytelling being such a huge part of you all’s design process, how does Black womanhood play the role of muse for you two?
Sadé Lewis: The origin of our collections, everything is based off a real story or feeling. For example, The Looking Glass [collection] was very much about looking yourself in the mirror and seeing this multifaceted person. You don't have to fit into one version of yourself, or one version of what people think you should be, you are many things. So that was our individual journey during that time. Literally, accepting us being women who can be everything at once, you know? It definitely always comes from something that we're going through. We don't try to pressure ourselves to create timing. It just comes when it comes. And yeah, it's always from within us, navigating our own lives, then figuring out how can we make a physical manifestation of how we feel.
Shaniya Charles: We also grab inspiration from the woman that we talk to, the people that we deal with on an everyday basis, and the majority of them are Black women. We try to make sure that we're telling their stories as well. Although it's our narrative, we want to make sure that our consumers are connecting to what we're putting out and feel or see themselves in what we are creating.
Sadé Lewis: As Black women, we want to be safe, we want to be able to control our narratives and our lives. This brand for us isn't just popularity. It's so we can have the freedom to be our absolute selves and create how we want to create, tell our story how we want to tell our story, and live how we want to live - and be an avenue for other people to do the same. The overall goal is to be able to support other women and other creatives in their endeavors.
"As Black women, we want to be safe, we want to be able to control our narratives and our lives. This brand for us isn't just popularity. It's so we can have the freedom to be our absolute selves and create how we want to create, tell our story how we want to tell our story, and live how we want to live - and be an avenue for other people to do the same. The overall goal is to be able to support other women and other creatives in their endeavors."
Photo Credit: Pia Fergus
Let’s get into your short film which premiered on the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)! That was you all’s first short film too. What was the inspiration behind the 'Green Eyes'' story?
Shaniya: First and foremost, we both love Erykah Badu! Green Eyes is one of our favorite songs. Sadé was listening to the song in the shower. And she came out and she was like, "I have an idea. We're going to create a visual fashion show based on this!" From there, we just started planning out what we wanted the story to be, the garments we would create for it, and how that would be an introduction to our actual collection that was coming up. We partnered with a Black woman to create the film; we wanted to make sure that although it's our story, that the people involved in it were also authentic and Black.
Sadé: That shower moment was literally me listening to the song. It almost felt like I was in a trance. There's no visual for that song, so it was just me envisioning alone and in a way pleading to this man. When it comes to communication between a man and a woman, sometimes it's just not there. We have egos and pride. The story that Erykah was telling was a matter of pride. It's not time to put your pride out there when you really feel this is your person. This is your soulmate, but your pride is literally ruining everything.
It was really cool to work with the director, Kyra Andrews. She has a theme about her work where she does love stories and Black romance shorts. It was really cool to tell her about our ideas and how we connect to the song and see how she could visually support that the film. It was very hands-on for all of us, even the actors in the film. We did it in one day, in the middle of a snowstorm, but it was really fun. Seeing the end result was like, wow.
As two Black women and emerging designers, I’m sure there have been obstacles that you’ve had to overcome through your trajectory. What are some of the challenges that you all experienced starting out?
Sadé: This is an industry that in all honesty, a lot of the cultural, creative, and artistic design aspects do come from Black people - we are at the forefront of a lot of those things. It's also hard as women to be respected and to be taken seriously. I don't know when those challenges will ever end for our people. So when things get hard and we might feel like our message is not getting across or things didn't perform as well as we want it to, we do have each other to remind us why we're here and that we're in it for the long run; we're not in it to be a quick trend.
You both have been friends for over a decade. How has it been working together and while maintaining your friendship? How do you all make it work?
Shaniya: Our communication has always been at the forefront. From high school, we've always been very honest with each other. We make sure that we are each others' open and safe space. Even if something's bothering me, or something's bothering her, we try our best to communicate that. And I think the communication aspect and comfortability that we both have in each other allows us to explore different avenues of friendship and business partnership.
Sadé: We don't really have much of a system in place because I know it's important to separate business from friendship; it's not much a strict structure. But I think the both of us know when it's time to talk business and just time to just be friends. We have a good sense of understanding each other's needs. Just having that grace for each other and knowing when to read the room.
"I think the both of us know when it's time to talk business and just time to just be friends. We have a good sense of understanding each other's needs. Just having that grace for each other and knowing when to read the room."
Photo Credit: Pia Fergus
The whole “networking across” concept that Issa Rae famously coined has really become a collective mindset for many creatives. For those who are looking for their creative partner-in-crime, what are some tips that you would give to finding one successfully?
Sadé: I would say, be open and honest about your needs. I think a lot of times when people are doing something creative, or looking for a service, they go to Google and type in, "Photographers. NYC." And it's like, you might know someone from your high school or your college who's into photography. I think we have to have more of a mindset of working together. If we all came together with our respective interests, we could be so powerful.
It's not necessarily always about looking up to these big names. Because a lot of the time, they're not going to have the same respect. Or uphold your ideas and your project to the same reverence as someone who is grinding just like you. And then you'll learn who you can really build with. Just be open to the people around you and what they can offer.
Shaniya: Be authentic to who you are. It's a lot of pressure and there's a lot coming at you at once in terms of being creative, but I feel like you should just be authentic to who you are. If you like photography or designer, you'll align with the people that you're supposed to align with. We have so much pressure around us now from social media and a whole bunch of different outlets saying, you should do this, you should do that. But just be authentic and true to who you are as a person. And whatever is supposed to align with you and the people that you are supposed to meet will come your way and those relationships will foster and grow to be what you need them to be.
"It's not necessarily always about looking up to these big names. Because a lot of the time, they're not going to have the same respect. Or uphold your ideas and your project to the same reverence as someone who is grinding just like you. And then you'll learn who you can really build with. Just be open to the people around you and what they can offer."
Photo Credit: Pia Fergus
It’s really encouraging to hear that you all are able to lean on each other through the ups and the downs of your journey. Is there anything that you all tell each other to keep each other motivated?
Sadé: We have these little moments where we'll just go to each other and we'll be like, "Girl, you the sh*t." Or, "Wow, you really my best friend, you a bad b*tch." Stuff like that. Also, because we put a lot of storytelling and meaning behind our collection, we use that to align ourselves. This work comes from a place within.
It's always from a place based on the story that we're telling and our experiences together. I feel like that is our anchor; reminding each other that you're creating from a real place. And also, we both come from the fashion industry. We studied it in college and we also work in it. It's like, you really know what you're doing. Just trust yourself and keep going.
To stay connected to Shaniya and Sadé's upcoming collection, and cop a Mora Bag of your own, click here.
Featured image courtesy of Sadé + Shaniya