Issa Rae may play an awkward girl on camera, but in person she is *so* poised.
At a Thursday panel with fellow businesswomen Kara Goldin (CEO of Hint Inc,) and Debbie Sterling (CEO of GoldieBlox), and moderated by the chair of American Express’s Women’s Interest Network, Susan Sobott, the conversation was centered on entrepreneurs who have mission-driven companies built on changing the society around them.
In the lively “Success Makers Workshop” roundtable, and in a follow-up chat, the star and co-creator of the hit HBO show Insecure had plenty of knowledge to drop.
Rae told Girlboss how she started her career in her college dorm hooked to YouTube, why she is Team Sleep, and how to handle the haters, among other pearls of business-savvy wisdom.
Be the change
Rae grew up watching TV and seeing a lot of relatable black people on her favorite shows, but she says when she went to college, the TV landscape had suddenly changed. “What happened? Was there, like, an apocalypse?” she recalled. It was the early 2000s and reality TV had taken over.
“There was a very specific image of black women that was being portrayed pretty much internationally at that point, via shows like Flavor of Love, Basketball Wives, and Love & Hip Hop. And they were shows that I watched for entertainment, but then when I realized that this is the sole representation of black women on television, I found it really disturbing,” she said.
“I started thinking about myself and my friends and the kind of women that I identified with, and I wanted to see a reflection of that — I started creating my own work, and found a platform via the internet via YouTube.”
Don’t wait for permission
After she created her own YouTube mockumentary Dorm Diaries,about what it was like to be black at Stanford, she had a revelation. “I realized that I had direct access to an audience that was basically receptive to my work without a middle person … without a middle person to say ‘no, there’s no audience for this’, or ‘no, no one wants to see this,’ or ‘no, it won’t work for us’,” she said.
“I had a direct audience saying ‘I like this, this is for me. This is my story.’ And I was encouraged by that. I created another web series out of college called the Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,which directly addressed the type of black women that I identified with and wasn’t seeing, and that ended up being my most successful series. It really encouraged me to create authentic, very specific stories.”
Trust your instincts
“I’ll never forget in trying to pitch my earlier show Awkward Black Girl at a meeting with an executive who, you know, wasn’t black and wasn’t a woman, and having him tell me specifically why Awkward Black Girl wouldn’t resonate with predominantly black audiences. Yet he was not black or a woman in any way. He was telling me what I wanted to see on television and why this show that I had created as a black woman would not resonate with other black women, and to me, that always stood out as a moment of just realizing that I really could not trust the opinions of others,” Rae said.
“I really had to trust and double-down [on my own instincts]. He ended up being fired shortly after, which was great. But it really taught me to just to trust my own instincts.”
Build your dream team
Rae’s advice for other women looking to start their own endeavor? “Work with other amazing young women, work with people who are just as passionate and eager as you are—and grow with them,” she said.
“A lot of times we are taught to network up and to meet people in other industries and to learn things from them, and I think that’s great, but I think the most valuable thing is to find other people who are your age, and who are building something, and who are also hungry—that’s what I did and I have no regrets.”
Rae’s token rule for everyone working on set and on a team in general is to not be an asshole. “Respect everyone,” she said. “No one is better than anyone else.”
Take days off
“I’m a huge hip-hop and rap fan, and I remember coming up and hearing Diddy saying ‘Team No Days Off.’ And Erykah Badu having like a mantra of ‘They sleep, we grind,’ and Kanye being like ‘Team No Sleep.’ And I’m Team Sleep. I’m team ‘You grind, I’ll sleep.’ I’m team ‘give me more days off,’” Rae said. “I’ve just realized that over the course of time, of just burning out and exhausting myself… I’m most productive when I do take days off.”
“I’ve had a boss who was just very close-minded, and you can’t be close-minded,” she said. “I’m definitely stubborn, I’m a Capricorn, and I may be very specific in my ways, but I’m always trying to be open-minded to other business practices and other people’s ideas — you don’t have to take everything, but listen.”
Don’t let the haters get you down
“I love hearing people’s opinions about the show, and I love to stay connected and in tune, and I’m also am a masochist. I love hearing negative comments. It humbles me,” Rae said.
“There’s always going to be criticism — it’s whether or not you choose to listen to it.”