Tonya Lewis Lee has been a creative presence in children's literature and production for almost 15 years. After transitioning from a career as a corporate lawyer, Lewis Lee joined up with Nickelodeon to produce interstitial programming for them featuring various artists including Savion Glover, Gregory Hines, Whoopi Goldberg, and Queen Latifah. She also produced the documentary I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education and series programming Miracle's Boys for Noggin/The N, eventually working with TVLand to produce the series That's What I'm Talking About, hosted by Wayne Brady, and then on to HBO where she wrote the screenplay for The Watsons Go to Birmingham.
Outspoken on the issues of women and race, Lewis Lee has appeared on national and local television and radio across the country. She has also served as a consultant to television news networks and Fortune 500 companies. She has also written for magazines such as Avenue, Gotham, O at Home, and Glamour, to which she contributed two campaign trail interviews (2007 and 2008) with Michelle Obama. She has also been featured in The New York Times, Avenue, Town and Country, New York Magazine, O, Essence, Ebony, NV Magazine, Redbook, Child, and New York Family Magazine. She has received numerous awards for her literary, production, and advocacy work.
The reality series QUEEN BEE is available at Ora.TV/QueenBee and follows female entrepreneurs as they pitch, develop, manufacture and market their products in attempt to create America's next big consumer brand.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up as the oldest of two girls, so in a way, I was the boy my father did not have. My parents raised me with the sense that I had to take care of myself, be particular at my work and to follow through on things. One thing they hated was when I started something and didn't finish it. We also moved around a lot and I think while in some ways being uprooted can be tough it teaches adaptability. One of my father's favorite lines is "You gotta be flexible." As a leader it is important not just to have vision, but you have to be able to adapt, be flexible and keep going. And to lead by example. I think also working as an associate at a law firm where the partners were unforgiving taught me that the best lessons are sometimes learned through tough love.
How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Queen Bee?
I have had an entrepreneurial spirit for a long time. I've been able to make some things happen and others I've toiled away on for years without bringing them to fruition. Thus the life of an entrepreneur. As a writer, producer and head of my own start up I know first hand the risks, the ups and downs of building your own business. I've had to learn how to weed through good advice and bad. And I'm still learning. I watch the three young women who are our contestants and know what it is like to pitch one's vision to someone and have them reject it and to have them accept it. Sometimes rejection is the best lesson, but nothing feels as good as getting others on board with your vision.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Queen Bee?
The highlights of being a part of Queen Bee have been meeting these three incredible young entrepreneurs. They each have such different business ideas, but I love the energy of starting something new and learning as you build. I'm excited for all of them. I also loved meeting our smart judges. I learned so much from listening to them advise our contestants.
The biggest challenge for me on Queen Bee was to be on camera. I'm a behind the camera kind of girl, so to be on the other side took an adjustment.
What advice can you offer women who are seeking to make a business work through crowd funding?
I've never crowd funded myself, but I had a front row seat when my husband launched his crowd funding campaign for his independent film. What I will say is, recognize that it is like another job... and plan for it so you can manage both the day to day of your work and that of the campaign. Come up with really fun and interesting giveaways and lean on your friends and family!
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
These days I'm not sure how well I'm maintaining that balance and that is okay. My oldest is in college and my youngest is a senior who will be on his way out of the house soon. I love working and I love the people with whom I work. I feel like my work is integrated in my life so I'm fortunate in that way. When my children were younger I had the challenge and the blessing of working in a way that allowed me to be there for them especially since their father was and is always on the go. Soon that won't be an issue for me and I can't wait. But I have enjoyed every moment of raising my children and know that being with them has informed my own work and made them and me better.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think the biggest issue for women in the work place is inequity at home and in the workplace. There seems to be an expectation that women should take care of home completely and then be able to take care of work completely all for less pay. I do think that is changing a bit... but we still have a ways to go.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I think of mentorship as not just from those that come before you or have more experience than you, but also as a lateral sharing of experiences between people in similar businesses. I've learned so much from people I've worked with. No one can build a business or develop into a successful leader without the help of others. I have been fortunate to have good people around me which is critical. You want good mentorship from good people so choose wisely. I would not be where I am today if it weren't for the brilliant advice and guidance of so many, personally and professionally. And the truth is that personal and professional overlaps.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many that I can't name them all. From Robin Roberts to Pamela Thomas Graham to Tina Brown to my partner, Nikki Silver and others who may not have public recognition. What I admire in these women is their incredible intelligence, drive, passion and energy. They have the gumption to go out in the world and make their mark through their own unique talent and they don't apologize for it. They adapt, they are flexible and they keep going. They go for it. They are audacious and we are better for it.
What do you want Queen Bee to accomplish?
I hope Queen Bee inspires and encourages men and women to turn their dreams into incredible ventures. While there is absolutely risk in starting and building one's own business, it is so much fun and so gratifying when it works. And the advice given by our illustrious panel of judges is good for everyone from the first time business owner to the seasoned entrepreneur. I hope everyone finds a bit of a takeaway from the show. I know I did.