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Sheena Meekins and Gina Esposito: “Not all leaders are established on the basis of merit alone”

Thought-leaders will always be the first to anticipate shifts in behavior, market conditions or trends before others in the industry are even aware that change is on the horizon. This not only allows thought-leaders to prepare for these shifts in advance, but also to circumvent the challenges that come with change, be the first to […]

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Thought-leaders will always be the first to anticipate shifts in behavior, market conditions or trends before others in the industry are even aware that change is on the horizon. This not only allows thought-leaders to prepare for these shifts in advance, but also to circumvent the challenges that come with change, be the first to offer solutions, and ultimately, ride the wave of industry innovation, instead of fighting to play catch-up later.

It’s also the thought-leaders who are likely to catch any holes or open areas of opportunity that may exist in the industry, often becoming the first to offer new business ideas, products and services before anyone else. In today’s entrepreneurial market, we have tens of thousands of small businesses run by first-time business owners and many are hungry for guidance from proven, trust-worthy, authoritative figures in their market. Therefore, true thought-leaders have endless opportunities to dedicate a portion of their business to education, teaching, training and consulting other industry professionals on everything from the mechanics of their craft, to branding and marketing in that particular field.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheena Meekins and Gina Esposito.

Sheena and Gina are best friends turned business partners, and the Owners and Principal Photographers of Anée Atelier, a photography boutique based in downtown New York City. Sheena and Gina are native New Yorkers and natural-born storytellers, with two creative minds and adventurers’ hearts. They are more than just cameras — they are catalysts, the yin to each other’s yang — a power couple of creative duos. And certain that, of the thousands of photographers in New York City, there are absolutely none like them.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Gina here! I grew up on the eastern end of Long Island, New York and discovered my love of photography as a teenager doing humanitarian work in Kingston, Jamaica and Cayo, Belize.

After earning a degree in Photographic Imaging, I began working for a local wedding photographer, despite my original photojournalistic ambitions, I fell in love with storytelling and all the forms of photography one encounters throughout a single wedding day. After several years of shooting for multiple photography studios across the NY area, my confidence grew as one of the few females in a male-dominated industry. Then in 2007, I launched my own photography company and began operating fully independently in 2011.

After being predominantly based on Long Island, and beginning to feel the burn of running a business solo, I took on best friend, Sheena as a business partner. Together we rebranded and replanted the business in Manhattan, as Anée Atelier. Since then, we’ve captured weddings, events and travel content around the world, from Dubai to Israel, Turks and Caicos to Italy, the Maldives and more. Today, my 16-year career has led me to capture over 1,000 weddings.

Sheena’s turn!

I am a seasoned creative who co-founded Anée Atelier following an esteemed eight-year career in publishing. During my time at Condé Nast and Time Inc., I worked for titles including Teen Vogue, People, People StyleWatch and Essence Magazine. As the former Director of Integrated Marketing and two-time Marketer of the Year for Teen Vogue, I specialized in content creation for brand partners across the fashion and retail industries.

A desire for creative pursuits outside the world of magazines led me to follow my passion for photography full-time. My dynamic background and spirited vision can be seen throughout my work — an elevated aesthetic informed by the Vogue standard, an eye for culture developed in New York City, and a playful curiosity all my own.

Together, Gina and I specialize in destination weddings and black-tie affairs across the New York City area. Our dynamic backgrounds craft an elevated aesthetic that blends the art of storytelling with candid photojournalism and an editorial approach. Most of all, we bring a unique spirit of effortless fun, chemistry and artistic adventure to photography, as well as entrepreneurship; considering the challenge of rising amongst the nation’s most competitive photography market to be our most rewarding adventure yet.

And yes, “Sheena and Gina” definitely rhyme.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

The lack of prolific evaluation, communication or challenge on the part of industry leaders or the voices of better-known photographers, has left a gap we’re proud to fill.

As individuals, we are both naturally curious, inquisitive, deeply reflective and perpetually fascinated by the patterns and surprises of human behavior. As photographers, the very nature of our vocation calls us to be observational. So much of our work relies, not only on our ability to recognize nuance as visual storytellers, but to process and translate the narratives at hand. To do this, requires a skill for reading the environment and reading people as well: to observe idiosyncrasies, anticipate human behavior and learn to position ourselves around the story that’s unfolding. This thoughtful approach not only applies to our method of photography, but as entrepreneurs in the nation’s most competitive photography market, it applies to our business as well.

Through thoughtful strategy and intentionality, we uprooted the photography business Gina originally founded in Long Island, rebranded and reintroduced it in the most saturated wedding and photography market that exists. Proving our effective thought-leadership and our ability to develop winning strategies to not only successfully navigate in the New York market, but to continue creating waves as we rise amongst the ranks of legacy brands and established studios that have existed for decades within the space. If it can be accomplished here, it can be accomplished anywhere.

While we prefer to spend our time on clients and photography as our original passion, we do take on a select number of education opportunities each year, whether speaking at conferences, on podcasts or through direct consulting to other photographers and entrepreneurs in the industry.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One of our greatest experiences to date is that of our photoshoot in Israel. It’s one of our strongest examples of leveraging all our strengths and passions on one single project. It exemplifies our ability to take an opportunity that fell just outside our reach, and turn it into *gourmet* lemonade. It began with a couple whose engagement photos we captured in Central Park. They wanted us to shoot their wedding in Israel, but we were already booked on their date, so instead, we parlayed that momentum into a newlyweds post-wedding photo shoot across the bride’s home country of Israel. Then, we amplified the experience into a full editorial collaboration, bringing seven creative partners aboard and shooting nine glamorous gowns (over 100,000 dollars in value) amongst some of the most iconic, historic, significant locations on earth. It was not only a major test logistically, but proof of our diligence, vision, creativity, gumption and charisma at work. To execute a wildly ambitious amount of content, in just two days, while spread throughout multiple locations and 200 miles of sensitive territory, may have been crazy, but it’s our favorite kind of adventure and the photos bring us so much pride.

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?

Unfortunately, in the wedding industry, there’s really nothing considered a funny mistake. There are no do-overs when it comes to weddings. You only have one opportunity to capture the moment as it happens and deliver the final product for a client, so any mistake made is often very crucial and a lot of times, depending on the severity of the mistake, unsalvageable. It’s an incredible responsibility, as these are people’s memories that we’re tasked to preserve.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

Not all leaders are established on the basis of merit alone. Many can assume a position of leadership due to a number of factors ranging from luck to location, timing, to relationships and sometimes, mere happenstance. People, businesses, content, trends and beliefs go viral and gain audiences every day for a number of factors that may or may not result from talent, individuality or any special ingenuity on the part of the leader.

Likewise, influence is often simply a product of charisma and attention at scale. Take the Kardashians or any number of top social media influencers, for instance. Their influence can largely be attributed to audience size and an entertainment factor, rather than originality and applicable inspiration. Even still, many influencers merely disseminate “inspirational” content, quotes or thoughts they did not generate themselves. So in this manner, many influencers are merely broadcasters to the innovative perspectives and thought-leadership of others.

But a true thought-leader, by definition, is the creator and the creative mind behind notable and innovative analyses, predictions and perspectives. The thought-leader is inherently the source of the originality and knowledge itself. Whereas the leader or influencer’s title inherently implies some measure of audience size or number of followers to verify their status; a thought-leader’s position is mutually exclusive to the size of their audience. The thought-leader’s value is in their knowledge and ingenuity itself, not necessarily their popularity. In my mind, a thought-leader is someone who by nature and by practice, initiates new ideas, perspectives and industry innovation, not just reactively, but proactively as well.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

First, thought-leaders are really the gatekeepers to innovation, which brings disruption; and disruption yields attention, which ultimately drives awareness and brand exposure.

We’re in a time where many have succumb to the habit of merely consuming and recycling the thoughts, quotes, behavioral quirks and trends of others. Therefore, the advantage lies with those who hold original insight. Many entrepreneurs, in the wedding and events industry especially, are feeling the effects of an over saturated industry. So in this, or any environment flooded with repetitive content, distraction and noise, it is only the thought-leader who can stand out; only the thought-leader, the ideator, the inventor, that ushers any gust of fresh perspective into the static arena of cyclical content and conversation we’ve all become accustomed to.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Thought-leaders will always be the first to anticipate shifts in behavior, market conditions or trends before others in the industry are even aware that change is on the horizon. This not only allows thought-leaders to prepare for these shifts in advance, but also to circumvent the challenges that come with change, be the first to offer solutions, and ultimately, ride the wave of industry innovation, instead of fighting to play catch-up later.

It’s also the thought-leaders who are likely to catch any holes or open areas of opportunity that may exist in the industry, often becoming the first to offer new business ideas, products and services before anyone else.

In today’s entrepreneurial market, we have tens of thousands of small businesses run by first-time business owners and many are hungry for guidance from proven, trust-worthy, authoritative figures in their market. Therefore, true thought-leaders have endless opportunities to dedicate a portion of their business to education, teaching, training and consulting other industry professionals on everything from the mechanics of their craft, to branding and marketing in that particular field.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

  • Pay attention to the industry. Every industry is like its own ecosystem. Pay attention to the tones, trends, patterns of consumer behavior, to the innovators, the key players, relevant news, the new talent and the future forecasts specific to your industry. It’s important to know the lay of the land, all the rules, regulations, dynamics, structures of hierarchy, relationships, various forms of currency and social norms at play if you’re going to speak to that world and become a thoughtful contributor to conversations about its current state and future direction.
  • Join the conversation and establish community. Join the conversation, whether on social media, through Facebook groups, blogs, articles, podcasts, masterminds or by publishing your own original thoughts or perspectives on aspects of your business or the industry at large. There are dozens of opportunities to develop your voice, share your ideas and showcase your unique perspectives. Seek out “water-cooler” opportunities or platforms where conversations are taking place in your industry. And don’t be afraid to either offer up topics or pitch suggested content features to existing platforms and publications. You could also step out and host your own space where others can gather, form community and share their thoughts as well.
  • Get in the room. Our friend, Troy Williams of Simply Troy Lifestyle and Events says “proximity is power” and we could not agree more. Social media is an incredible tool to aid conversation and grow relationships, but it will never replace the value of being physically present and sharing in an experience with others in your industry. It’s important to attend events, conferences and networking opportunities that allow you to make your presence known and allow your voice to be heard.
  • Focus on a niche or find and fill the holes in your industry. One incredible way to stand out is to find the space where no one in the industry currently resides and to develop your niche there. Whether it’s developing a style that no one currently employs, working in a way that no one else offers or by serving a select, niche market; any opportunity to be unique and break away from the pack yields a clear advantage, creating an opportunity to be positioned as the expert or go-to leader in that space.
  • Consider the challenges and develop solutions. Becoming an innovator, whether by developing a new product or platform to aid education, workflow, communication or client-experience is proof that you are not only a thought-leader, but one who can put action behind concept and produce something that creates change for the larger industry as well.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

This may be “trite” and “overused” as an answer, but we’d have to say Gary Vaynerchuk. As I mentioned earlier, so many people today are content to remain “safe” by simply recycling the thoughts, ideas and perspectives they receive from others. This is especially true of the corporate/business world where leaders and employees alike are encouraged to conform, adhere to pre-approved company culture, language, calculated formulas for success and strategies that have previously proven successful in that industry. It takes guts and gumption to develop and share original ideas in these environments especially.

What I love about Gary Vee (as the kids call him) is that he’s spent so many years watching and analyzing the behavior of companies, leaders and consumers, that he’s developed an approach that’s completely counter-intuitive to most traditional businesses. Yet, he’s undeniably insightful and his thought-process is radically effective for the brand’s willing to take a risk on an unconventional leader. Many industries today are undergoing such massive shifts that it’s impossible to rely on traditional methods of business. We’re in the wild west, in so many senses of today’s marketplace — I love that it’s shaking up the establishment and giving rise to brilliant, unconventional leaders like Gary.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

Every industry and ecosystem has its own set of buzzwords that tend to feel overused or trendy for a time. But from our perspective, whether it’s a buzzword, a trending phrase, or popular song you’re sick of hearing — it’s popular for a reason. It’s spotlit, relevant and resonating for a reason. So love it or hate it, there’s relevance there.

But I think you have to consider your audience and your intended use of the term. In B2B environments, where the audience already has high-level awareness of a trending term — you’ve got to position yourself differently in order to stand out. So if you’re playing inside baseball in a B2B environment where everyone is a “thought-leader,” then for you to position yourself as such, automatically disproves your claim. But in a B2C environment where clients are far less likely to feel the fatigue of our trending industry buzzwords, these terms often still hold the original value they carried before more discerning audiences considered them trite.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

We believe that intentionally building in time for passion projects and creative play is of the utmost importance for avoiding burnout. It’s so easy to focus solely on your latest to-do list, but without including breaks in the schedule for collaborations that allow you to play, create, learn or explore on your own terms, you’re not giving yourself a chance to come up for air. Creative play not only revives your energy, but it recharges your imagination and resets your stamina as well. You wouldn’t drive a car that’s vastly overdue for an oil change or tune-up, because we understand that the damage to the car will be astronomical in the long-run. We’ve got to be as adamant about scheduling in our own breaks or projects that help grease our gears and prevent costly engine failure later down the line.

We are also huge proponents of strategic business partnerships. Today, so many people are interested in launching their own business and becoming their own boss, but with that comes a myriad of never-ending roles and responsibilities; not to mention the bulk of the pressure falling on the owner themselves. But the promise of freedom that initially led so many into entrepreneurship, might be better realized by partnering with another talented, like-minded individual, so that the challenges, stresses, victories and losses can be shared as a team, rather than the weight being carried on one person’s shoulders alone. This is what we’ve experienced in our business and we’re definitely stronger, happier and more productive together as a team.

You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂

Right now, I think what our country needs the most are for people who exist at opposite sides of ideology to not just come together, but to work together. Not just to sit down and have a coffee or grab a beer together, though I think this will do us all some good, but to truly collaborate, communicate, solve problems and find solutions together. To get outside of their homogenous comfort zones and learn to laugh with, lean on and support the kind of people they never expected to share common ground with.

I truly believe that when we have real, meaningful connections, human nature takes over whatever prejudices and party loyalties we’ve learned to adopt. When we learn about others’ lives, their struggles, their dreams; when we see that most people are just doing the best they can with their circumstances and the cards they were dealt, then we can have grace for one another. We can establish respect for one another, and that’s the foundation of stopping the hateful, divisive and inflammatory beliefs that are doing a number on our unity as a nation. We have more time, more money and more resources than we’ll ever need to fix the most dire issues we have in our world, but with division blocking opportunities for connection and compassion, we move away from a desire to care about anything or anyone except for ourselves.

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

“Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” — John D. Rockefeller

This quote resonates with both of us, where we were prior to becoming business partners and co-founding Anée Atelier together. Gina was running a successful photography business based in Long Island, where she found herself living a comfortable, yet predictable life. Meanwhile, I was working as Teen Vogue Director of Integrated Marketing, making an incredible salary and enjoying all the perks and golden handcuffs that come with life at Condé Nast. We both could have stayed in the lives we knew, but we walked away from everything we’d built to begin again; Gina starting over in a new market, and me beginning at the start in a new industry. Since then, we’ve traveled around the world capturing weddings, events, properties and content beyond our wildest dreams. And to think of what is still ahead, we know for certain, we gave up the good for what, is truly our definition of “the great,” we knew we could accomplish together.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Right now, it would definitely have to be Mindy Weiss of Mindy Weiss Party Consultants. When you’re planning such large scale events every year, your time is incredibly valuable. It would be wonderful to have an uninterrupted cocktail or lunch with her especially.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can find us on Instagram @aneeatelier or by heading directly to aneeatelier.com.

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