In xoNecole's "How She Got Here", we uncover the journey of fearless, ambitious women at the top of their game with unconventional not-so-everyday careers. Instead of asking them about their careers, xoNecole dissects the hardships, rejections, and nontraditional roads traveled by these women to create the positions they have today.
It would be remiss of me to not pay homage to the woman who took me under her wing like a lost little sister and presented opportunities to me in the entertainment industry that sculpted me into the woman I am today. Maura Chanz is one of the leading creative minds behind Yara Shahidi's Unguided IGTV series, director of creative media at 7th Sun Productions, and my Spelman sister.
When I first met Maura, she was a media intern at the BronzeLens Film Festival and ambassador for BET's "What's At Stake?", a student-led digital series in Atlanta. After a stint in front of the camera as a host for Bossip TV, she moved to Los Angeles and is now making the film and television industry her b*tch by creating content, making a name for herself, and living her best melanated life.
For this installment of "How She Got Here", xoNecole spoke with the TRIBE founder about her working relationship with Gen Z powerhouse Yara Shahidi, the ballsy move of packing up and moving to Los Angeles on a whim, and the qualities needed most when pursuing a career like hers:
Buying Her Big-Girl Plane Ticket:
Maura was no stranger to the Los Angeles lifestyle—seeing as how she had moved there before in her early teens to pursue an acting career—but she was determined to move back after an opportunity had presented itself. She knew that this was the time to bet on herself. "I think it's just knowing that you don't know that you're going to get another opportunity—and it was an opportunity to move. I may not have gotten another one. Not to say I wouldn't, but I just don't know. When you get that moment, you have to take it," she told xoNecole about mustering up the courage to pack up and book her flight to L.A., which she noted as "the best decision of my life." Under the apprenticeship and mentorship of Mara Brock Akil when moving out to Los Angeles, Maura further poured into her passion for entertainment production and continued to spread her wings into an industry that welcomed her with open arms.
"I think it's just knowing that you don't know that you're going to get another opportunity—and it was an opportunity to move. I may not have gotten another one. Not to say I wouldn't, but I just don't know. When you get that moment, you have to take it."
Maura credits Los Angeles for reigniting her spark, drive, and ambition within herself all over again, almost as if the battery in her back was surged with 30-times the original energy capacity. "It almost was like having to prove myself again. I had to regain a certain level of hustle, and I had established myself a little more in that space in Atlanta. Coming here to a new market was a steep learning curve," Maura admitted to xoNecole about having to play larger.
Though she was transitioning from independently producing content to her first official Cali gig working on OWN's Love Is, she rose to the occasion of running up a steep learning curve. "Yes, there's TV and things there, but a lot of the jobs are still coming from [Los Angeles]. They're bringing people there. Getting to play on the scale that I'm at, I don't think that I would have been able to do that in Atlanta."
Maura had the security of knowing that she could go back to her Georgia home whenever she would like, but she couldn't imagine herself flourishing more in the Atlanta industry than she already had especially because the job market was booming in the South because of the West Coast. Moreover, as someone who received her degree from Spelman College in Comparative Women's Studies, Maura is quite certain that she will always land on her feet in the alternative event that pursuing her dream did not work out the way she intended.
Lucky for Maura, she never has to turn around again. Though there may have been a few shortcomings, she doesn't have a single regret about her decision. "I really had to minimize my lifestyle: I had my own place in Atlanta, I had to get a roommate here. I was actually making more in Atlanta working at Bossip and then transitioning to a production role, I took a pay cut," she said about making some adjustments upon her move to Los Angeles.
"I really had to minimize my lifestyle: I had my own place in Atlanta, I had to get a roommate here. I was actually making more in Atlanta working at Bossip and then transitioning to a production role, I took a pay cut."
Maura knew that the reward was greater than the risk at hand, including the rewarding feeling of self-assurance and learning to trust her gut feeling. "You're a smaller fish in a big pond as opposed to a bigger fish in a small pond and sometimes in those types of situations, some people are going to drown and some people are going to rise to the occasion. It's just about your dexterity, your tenacity and just pushing through. Honestly, it was the best decision I ever made in my life because if I didn't take that leap, I would not be soaring like I am," Maura said to xoNecole before going into more detail about her latest venture with a certain actrivist we all know and love.
Photo courtesy of Maura Chanz
The Fateful Run-In With Yara That Turned Into An Opportunity of a Lifetime:
After ending her apprenticeship with the great Mara Brock-Akil around April 2018, Maura crossed paths with Grown-ish star and Gen-Z activist Yara Shahidi and her mother Keri, but this was not the first time they'd met. They actually met a year prior at ESSENCE Fest, but this time around Maura was developing a project and it was the perfect time to catch up. Once Maura let the young star and her mother in on her project development, they expressed immediate interest in learning more. Like the true go-getter she is, Maura offered to contribute her consulting services to the dynamic mother-daughter Shahidi duo who had their ABC deal coming up. Two years later, Maura is one of the creative minds behind Yara Shahidi's Unguided series on IGTV.
"Yara's such a dynamic person. I learn so much from her literally every day, and I wanted to bring the pillars of her life to something that was fun and engaging, but also something unfamiliar," she praised the young actress. Upon the beginning stages of conception, Unguided was brainstormed to be more than a stereotypical vlog collaboration through a social media platform with a Gen Z influencer. These non-traditional concepts included Yara not looking directly into the camera and hearing her end-of-day reflections in her journal about her daily experiences. "I wanted to share that piece and I think sometimes there is a lot of value of not doing things in the moment," she described the series.
"Yara's such a dynamic person. I learn so much from her literally every day, and I wanted to bring the pillars of her life to something that was fun and engaging, but also something unfamiliar."
For the debut episode, the production team, including Yara and Keri, invited Maura to Paris, France to which she agreed almost instantly. In Maura's mind, she wanted to pursue Unguided from the angles of what she wanted to know about Yara's mind and how she views the world. From building a personal relationship with Yara, it rang a bell that she was very passionate about her favorite author James Baldwin - which encouraged Maura to pitch the retracing of Baldwin's steps through Paris by "leaning into Yara's brilliance and mind for the delivery."
With the Shahidi team on deck, including Afshin Shahidi, Yara's father, on the creatives, each episode comes together seamlessly to tell the unguided stories of Yara Shahidi - pun intended. "A large part of my job is taking Unguided and ensuring that Yara's through line is through the projects that you see and Yara's values are visible and incorporated across different forms of media. Whether that be doing digital content, social content or even TV and film," Maura said as she continued to peel back the layers of Yara Shahidi for xoNecole. "People only know so much about her but she has an incredible sense of humor, she's really into all types of quirky things that people may not know so even ensuring those things that you may not think are innately Yara but I know they are." Today, Maura serves as the Director of Creative Media at 7th Sun Productions, which recently inked a first-look deal with ABC a few months ago. On her thoughts on the projection of the production company, she expressed her excitement to see Yara "in that producerial capacity."
"When Yara comes into a conversation, it's going to be elevated so I expect for the world to see themselves reflected all in this landscape, see people of color getting to exist and piercing that veil that we barely get to pierce. Yara and Keri are really passionate about being gatekeepers and opening that door wide for new emerging talent; they love collaborating in that way. I expect for you all to discover your new faves through the work that the company's doing," she boasted about her new role and what's next for 7th Sun.
To anyone who may be looking to collaborate with any established figure in the entertainment industry—especially on Yara Shahidi's level—Maura advises one thing: make it about them and not you. "The one thing you need to do is discover what's unique about them. It's about taking the time to learn that person. I know what makes her excited so when I'm producing and developing ideas, I know her so well at this point and that just comes from really paying attention," Maura said transparently about her creative process. "When you're coming into something and collaborating especially with somebody of Yara's stature, this isn't about my creative ideas. Maura's very different from Yara. As someone who is working with talent, it's not about my perspective, it's Yara's."
"When you're coming into something and collaborating especially with somebody of Yara's stature, this isn't about my creative ideas. Maura's very different from Yara. As someone who is working with talent, it's not about my perspective, it's Yara's."
Part of Maura's process is asking Yara about her interests, what she listens to and her own curiosities while entangling the story that they're both trying to tell. "We prioritize things that are important to her and I'm led by her. I think it's humbling yourself in some way and yeah, you may have brilliant ideas but how is that connected to the party that you're collaborating with? Whose platform is this being used on? Is that what their audience connects with? It's not about what's my vision because those things may be very different," she continued to challenge xoNecole readers about their perspective.
Photo courtesy of Maura Chanz
5 Lessons We Can Learn From Maura Chanz's Journey:
Change your perspective on hearing the word "no".
"I don't think I even ingest 'no's'. Maybe I've had one and I didn't even read it as a no. I can't think of one but I'm sure there has been one. It's just all about perspective."
When one door closes, another will open.
"I was fired toward the tail end of Love Is… and it was really just a steep learning curve. Coming in at that level of where you're assisting a showrunner who's producing and directing, I didn't come from having a background as a [production assistant] or really being outside of talent. I didn't have any behind-the-scenes experience. I actually got on unemployment and figured out what I learned from this.
"From the outside, it looked like a failure, but it wasn't. That led me to developing the project that got the attention of Keri [Shahidi] and Yara [Shahidi]. The bounce back was just taking a moment of stillness."
Confidence can get you in the right rooms.
"Confidence. A lot of people are creative and a lot of people have a lot of these things, but you have to believe that you deserve to be in this space. You have to believe that you have value, that you will change this industry, and that you have something to contribute. If you can walk with that confidence and remember that value, you will remain undaunted, and that's the biggest piece about this industry—seeing it through.
"This is not a 'you go through four years of school and you're a doctor' type of thing; you may not see the fruits of your labor for 30 years. Everyone's journey is going to be different because there's no linear path, but if you keep that confidence, you'll be OK."
Consistently create and the right opportunities will find you.
"Create. I've always been creative: I started my site, I was producing with Kofi [Siriboe], and what drew people to me was the work I was already doing prior to me pursuing other things with them that I created. I had respect, and I had something to show for my own pursuits. You can't wait to be on the set of a movie for that to be the first time you're creating anything."
Know your worth.
"I never doubted my values, knowing I have unique values in every space I'm in and not being afraid to share that."
For more information on Maura Chanz, follow her on Instagram or check out her official website.
Featured image courtesy of Maura Chanz