Don’t let the industry change you. Sometimes you can get so far outside of your character and true self trying to “fit in” or be accepted by everyone. Once I realized that I should not allow anyone to change my positive attitude and warm spirit, then I became a better person, and definitely less stressed.
As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Lena Jenkins-Smith.
Lena Jenkins-Smith is an entrepreneur, producer, and chief executive officer of Young Millennium Records, who has carved out an inspiring career working among Hollywood’s elite for over 16 years. Jenkins-Smith attended Loyola Marymount University graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Education. Additionally, she earned a Master of Business Administration from Strayer University.
She got her start working as an educator and bookkeeper. While struggling to earn a living as a single mother of 3 children on a teacher’s salary, Jenkins-Smith decided to follow her passion towards working in entertainment. She eventually landed a job as personal assistant to comedy legend, Katt Williams, whom she still works with today. Jenkins-Smith worked her way up from assistant to tour manager, ultimately serving as Executive Producer on a number of his specials including “The Pimp Chronicles Pt. 1” (HBO), “Katt Williams: Priceless Afterlife” (HBO), “Katt Williams: Kattpacalypse” (Showtime) and “Katt Williams: Great America” (Netflix), to name a few.
At the present, Jenkins-Smith continues to produce projects of her own, including her upcoming TV series “The Young Hustle,” while overseeing promotion and production for her label. Music has been in her life since an early age, as her uncle was a Motown producer and introduced her to the engineering side of music production as a child.
Jenkins-Smith has worked with a number of organizations including the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. She is also a member of the North Gwinnett Arts Association and an advocate for teachers’ and women’s rights.
As a black woman in a male-dominated industry, Jenkins-Smith has often experienced both racial and gender discrimination, as well as social injustice, which inspired her to release her debut title “Uncolored: The Assassination of a Black Community” to push for racial, social and political change.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Los Angeles. I lived with my mom and younger brother. I was a pretty good kid … always reading and very inquisitive. I used to visit my grandparents every summer in Detroit, Michigan, which is where I learned about culture and listened to jazz music and oldies. It was a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles and partake in some good southern hospitality and principles — both of my grandparents were from the south. I grew up feeling loved and secure. My family was all about family … a lot of parties, family reunions and religious gatherings. As a teenager, I lived with my uncle who raised me as his own … he furthered my love and passion for music and entertainment. It really took a village to raise me, and I loved my village.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m a former schoolteacher, and unfortunately, I wasn’t making ends meet as a single parent of three on a teacher’s salary. I used to frequent the Laugh Factory, and I would often go to check out the local comedians. Well, as it turns out, I went to Chocolate Sunday’s one night and met my future mentor, boss, and best friend Katt Williams. He appreciated my multi-tasking abilities and hired me to be his assistant. For a while, I taught school during the day and worked for him at night. After I reached the burnout point, I quit teaching and worked for him full time. He showed me the ropes and afforded me the opportunity to advance in the industry. I certainly could not have done any of this without him. So, I got into entertainment by accident, but I stayed for my purpose.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’ve had many amazing experiences throughout my career. However, there have been some challenges I’ve had to face not only as a woman, but a black woman. Working in a male dominated industry, I have not always been welcomed by my peers and counterparts, so I’ll never forget the time when a man named Rich Niles took me under his wing and introduced me to another side of the industry that I always wanted to be a part of. Rich was an engineer and mixer for Capitol Records among other labels and worked with some of the biggest artists in the world … Paul McCartney, Tina Turner, Cher, James Brown, Mariah Carey — no name it! He would sit with me in the studio for hours, teaching me how to work the board and how to use ProTools. Most guys would try to cover the board when I would try to watch them and learn how to engineer, but he wasn’t like that … he showed me what I needed to know. It was really refreshing to be able to learn from one of the best, who happened to be very humble and kind.
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?
When I first started, I was very naïve about many aspects of the industry. I remember the first project I ever produced … there was so much I didn’t know and had to learn! One hilarious mistake I made was not understanding what a “hot set” was. I walked directly in front of the camera with my notepad in hand while fussing at a vendor on my blackberry for being late and holding up production — completely clueless that I was being filmed the entire time. I think I was more embarrassed that no one stopped me and let me keep going. Because of me, they had to do the entire take over. At least I learned something valuable that day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My uncle. He was one of my biggest cheerleaders, who instilled in me a passion for success and a drive for achievement. He encouraged me to tap into my creative side and helped me realize my true potential. I learned how much I enjoyed being a creator and my desire to bring things to life because of him. When he passed away a couple of years ago, it left the biggest hole in my heart, and seemed like my cheer section was noticeably quiet for a while. I sometimes replay his catch phrases in my head to help remind myself of how much he rooted for me … it brings back the cheers again, and serves as a reminder that I am making him proud with my accomplishments. I believe I am a mini version of him.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Never be the smartest person in the room. There is always so much to learn. Once you become a sponge for knowledge and use it for the benefit of others, you will find a way to succeed. And always stay true to yourself. There is always room and longevity for unique individuals — carbon copies don’t last long, and they will never be original.
What drives you to get up every day and work in TV and Film? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward?
My kids are definitely what drives me every day. Knowing that I want to leave something amazing for them when I die is what keeps me a working. Going forward, I certainly want to see more female directors, producers, and leading ladies in the industry, especially those of color. I would love to see more women working together and producing amazing content.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
First of all, thank you! It is so wonderful to receive compliments in this day and age. I work very hard and take great pride in what I do. I don’t rest well unless I know I’m doing a good job. I’m currently working on a kid’s show that is very Disney-esque. I’m quite excited about it. I’m also working on a docuseries about women’s prison reform, and another teen series about music. I have some additional projects in the works. I intend to stay busy but safe, even in the midst of a pandemic.
We are very interested in looking at diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture and our youth growing up today?
I truly believe in the importance of diversity, which is why I love to create projects featuring a diverse cast that represents audiences who have been historically underrepresented in film and TV. What better way for us to teach tolerance and justice than by portraying it on film and tv? We can set positive examples and bring awareness to other cultures. The industry needs to represent real life, and the people who make up our communities, and our world … diversity is a must. By excluding certain groups in film and tv, our youths will lose touch with who and what is around them. Some may also begin to feel a sense of superiority if they only see their own race and culture being represented, or others may lose a sense of pride if they don’t see their own represented. That makes it even more important to represent marginalized groups, and for filmmakers to portray other cultures more accurately.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Don’t let the industry change you. Sometimes you can get so far outside of your character and true self trying to “fit in” or be accepted by everyone. Once I realized that I should not allow anyone to change my positive attitude and warm spirit, then I became a better person, and definitely less stressed.
2. Not everyone will like you just because you do a good job. I thought all I had to do was work hard and present amazing projects for others to see my worth. Well, I learned that just simply isn’t true.
3. Ignore the haters. Sometimes the reason someone may dislike you has nothing to do with you. Maybe you represent someone they want to be, or you have something they wish they had. Quite often they are ignorant of the facts, and if they knew better, they would probably love you. I didn’t really realize that until I started working in the entertainment industry. The good news is that for one hater, you likely have even more people that love and admire you. My experience has been one hater for every one-hundred people that love me, so I’m cool with a couple of haters here and there … I know my worth.
4. The true path to success does not always end with the people you started out with. I thought a lot of people that were on the journey with me would prove to be worthwhile, longtime partners. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Many will fall off along the way, you will outgrow some people, and some people will just not be a good fit for the journey. It is simply the law of averages. So, when you find the right ones who are a good fit for the long haul … keep them and treat them well.
5. The people that you help when they are in need won’t always help you when you’re in need. I always thought that reciprocity was the way of life. I learned the hard way that sometimes your blessings come from those who you have never helped before. Sometimes people forget or ignore the fact that you helped them when you need them the most. Sad, but true. However, never let that get in the way of treating others the way you want to be treated and continue to be a blessing to others. Good deeds should not be counted and kept track off, they should be done because it is the right thing to do.
Can you share with our readers any self-care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.
To help my body thrive, I am really getting into more physical self-care, like massages, facials, skin care and even stretching. I’ve been using some amazing products by Rodan & Fields that leave my skin feeling hydrated and refreshing! Anything that helps me take more pride in myself. I am so used to doing for others, that I often neglect myself. The quarantine has been somewhat responsible for the amount of time I have been spending with myself lately and realizing how important self-care is. To help my mind thrive, I recently enrolled at NYU studying the Film & TV Essentials curriculum. To help my heart thrive … well that still remains to be seen. You can’t win them all at once, but I am definitely working on that part!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Love yourself more today than you did yesterday.” It’s important to love yourself, and also forgive yourself. When your intentions are good and your heart is in the right place, sometimes you have to let things take its course and trust that God will forgive you and protect you from your wrong decisions. If you make a mistake and repent for your mistake, you must have faith that you will be forgiven and move on.
You are a person of huge 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?
A movement of love and inclusion. Too many people are racially, socially, religiously, economically and emotionally divided. My hope would be for people to see others for who they really are, not for the color of their skin, sexual orientation, religion, and other factors that often divide us. This is the reason I published my book “Uncolored.” I believe we need begin to look on the inside because it is not ok to be hated for something you can’t change … skin color for example. There should be a movement that circles us back to good old-fashioned morals and dignity. Our society has seemed to lose some of that.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I would love to have lunch with Michelle Obama!
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow me on IG @LenaJSmith and Facebook @LenaJenkins-Smith
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thank you — this was an absolute pleasure!