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Tehya Jenae of ‘Orphan We’: “You can learn to tell your story well”

At the top of most storytelling organizations, you find people who have not experienced marginalization. As a result, our stories are often distorted, if included at all. When we open up spaces for people on the edges to share, we help to validate their experiences. It’s quite disruptive. As a part of our series about […]

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At the top of most storytelling organizations, you find people who have not experienced marginalization. As a result, our stories are often distorted, if included at all. When we open up spaces for people on the edges to share, we help to validate their experiences. It’s quite disruptive.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tehya Jenae.

Tehya Jenae is the founder of Orphan We, an organization that preserves and shares the life stories of people in marginalized groups. Jenae attended UCLA where she worked as a reporter for the Daily Bruin newspaper. Since then, she has united a diverse community of young storytellers.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My early years in school were challenging. Women’s history centered on white women. Queer history was skipped. Black history lessons were limited to a general overview of slavery and the civil rights movement.

I felt invisible in class when I fully understood the biases embedded in the teaching of history. The primary source documents that my teachers used did not fully represent the world I live in. The stories of the marginalized were often pushed aside.

Those early years definitely inspired my career path. My organization, Orphan We, preserves the spellbinding life stories of people on the edges of our society.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

At the top of most storytelling organizations, you find people who have not experienced marginalization. As a result, our stories are often distorted, if included at all. When we open up spaces for people on the edges to share, we help to validate their experiences. It’s quite disruptive.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My work allows me the luxury of travel, so I’ve been a lot of places. A four-month trip to Argentina comes to mind, because I even had to laugh at myself sometimes. I did not speak any Spanish when I arrived, so even a trip to the corner store was a comical (and embarrassing) experience. But as the months passed, I adapted to my environment by learning the language and getting to know people in the community. What did I learn?

Language and cultural immersion are useful experiences for developing leadership skills, even at the risk of embarrassment. They help us to develop our ability to adapt to the changing world around us.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My father has been a great influence, because he always owned a company when I was growing up. Early on, I learned the importance of turning a passion for something into a business.

I used to see his business plans all over the walls when I was coming up. Now, I do something similar. My walls are covered with charts that I write and draw on. It’s basically a mind dump, but it helps me to organize my thoughts and make better decisions.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I work in media, where “not so positive” disruptions are a dime a dozen. When people are fed content that reinforces negative stereotypes about people of certain ethnicity, genders, or other identity groups, I consider that to be not so positive.

A positive disruption, on the other hand, affirms the audience in ways they could not have anticipated. The Orphan We storytellers, for example, are eager to connect with a community of people who have intriguing life stories, because it makes them feel connected during these distant times.

When you are used to feeling left out, it can be surprising to finally find a place where you fit. Disrupting an industry is positive when it amplifies fresh and diverse voices.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Go to a place you haven’t been before. There is a lot you can learn from being immersed in a culture that is new to you. My trip to Argentina is one example, but there are countless ways to appreciate the experiences of others. Try visiting a neighborhood you’ve never been to. These adventures develop you into a more socially conscious leader.

You can learn to tell your story well. I met a girl who wanted to share her story with the Orphan We community, but she struggled to put her experience into words. She and I sat together at a lake to have an authentic conversation about her life. It was beautiful.

The following evening, she turned on her video camera and began to speak. She stumbled quite a bit at first, but kept going, and slowly her words began to flow. At the end, she gave that smile of relief that I see in so many of the storytellers after they have shared. She learned to tell her story, and she did it well.

Meditate often. When I feel anxious, a trip to a reservoir near my house helps, because I have a chance to meditate. These moments of stillness improve my ability to make healthy decisions regarding my organization.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I am always on the search for people on the edges of society who have an interesting story to tell.

I’d also like to form more partnerships with organizations that work with marginalized groups, so that we can preserve their life stories too.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I recently revisited “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell. It reminds me about the universal narratives that exist. There are many similarities in myths told across cultures. There are undeniable patterns in the stories we tell.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Your silence will not protect you.” -Audre Lorde

This is one of her quotes that resonates with me most. It reminds me to hold space for people to share. It motivates me to keep growing my business and to keep speaking out.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d love for everyone to #voiceup and share a story from their life. They can share it with one person or a supportive community of people. Just share.

How can our readers follow you online?

Stories are housed at www.orphanwe.com and www.instagram.com/orphanwe

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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