The In’s and Out's of Entertainment with Imani Ellis
Imani is a graduate of Vanderbilt University with a major in communications and a double minor in German and film. Originally from Atlanta, is a Communications Manager at Bravo and Oxygen Media where she oversees press strategy for various series, including “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen” and Emmy-nominated “Million Dollar Listing New York” amongst others.
Prior to Bravo and Oxygen, Imani held a role in the NBCUniversal Page Program working on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Saturday Night Live” and “The Dr. Oz Show” and has also held positions with Creative Artists Agency, Nickelodeon, Def Jam and ESPN.
Imani is the founder of The Creative Collective NYC, a carefully curated community consisting of thousands of millennial creatives of color seeking to connect, collaborate and create with individuals across a variety of industries. The Creative Collective NYC hosts carefully curated events and encourages collaboration.
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Episode 10: The In's & Out's of Entertainment with Imani Ellis
Written by: Sope Aluko
What was growing up like for you?
Imani: Both of my parents are pastors so i'm a “PK (Pastor’s Kid) squared." I tell people that and they’re like “Oh my gosh, growing up must have been crazy strict!” It was actually the opposite. My parents really raised on the foundation of love and respect and that being the foundation was my accountability to them. It wasn’t like, “You couldn’t be out the house past 8pm.” I actually got a car when I was 16. I had this accountability to them and I didn’t want to disappoint them. One day I hope to raise my kids the same way because it was wonderful. We moved around a lot because my dad is more missionary based. I have three siblings- two sisters- one is a farmer and one is in vet school- and my little brother Emmanuel is 16.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Imani: I didn’t want to be anything when I grew up. As a kid, I wasn’t like, “I want to be an astronaut.” Whatever I wanted to do, I just did it. When I was younger, I wanted to be a ballerina so I did ballet for 14 years. We would do six hours days and my toes would be falling off. Second to my parents, I think that’s where a lot of my discipline comes from. When I quit ballet, I was like, “I’m going to run track!” It wasn’t until college when I thought to myself, “I want to work in entertainment,” and I ran towards that. I don’t know if that’s weird lol. My parents were really supportive. My mom would come right after school and pick me up in a big blue Suburban and me, my sisters, and my brother would drive an hour to Atlanta for ballet and they would just sit in the parking lot doing homework and I was upstairs dancing for six hours.
How did you get started in entertainment?
Imani: I went to Vanderbilt in Nashville and I ran track there. I did hurdles. My freshman year, I tore my Achilles tendon. It ripped up the back of my leg and I realized, “Ok, I’m not going to be a track star.” I’ve always loved entertainment. I did my first internship at Nickelodeon and I worked backwards because I saw all the other interns already had like three internships and I had one. I had this fear of graduating college and having to go back home. It put this fire in me that I couldn’t go back home without a job and just be like, “Can I live here?” It was more of a mental, “I want to be an adult” thing. It goes back to my parents and accountability. I really wanted to live this life that they had prepared for me. After Nickelodeon, I came back to Vanderbilt and said I was going to work in PR. There was no PR club so I started one and it’s still there today as the Vanderbilt Public Relations Society. I think I had seven internships and only one was paid. I didn’t care. Once you got your first big internship, you got another and another. It was a great run. You can change your mind but if you want to be a publicist, you should say to yourself “What do publicists do? They write, so I should probably write for the school newspaper.” A lot of people were like, “I want to be on-air talent” but they haven’t done a single thing. I have to give them that tough, southern love like, “You have to do something honey.” That’s the first step.
What is the day-to-day for a Communications Manager at NBC Universal?
Imani: We are responsible for strategic planning of everything you see that touches our talent-from the head shots, to the clips that you see when they go on the Wendy Williams’ show, to their bio. Anything that surrounds their image, I touch it, approve it, and crank it out to the public. With that comes planning press days and interviews, but it comes with not so sexy days like fielding calls from TMZ and talking to your talent when they do really dumb things. We have a really great relationship with the press. They understand we’re doing a job and they’re doing a job and sometimes in my job, I don’t have the information yet. It’s me being honest with them and saying, “I don’t have this but when I do, I’ll let you know.” It’s all relationship based really.
What is the mission of Creative Collective NYC and how did it start?
Imani: It started when I decided, “I’m going to join some kind of community that I will build, grow and pour into.” I went to four different “networking” groups in New York and no shade... the Instragram was poppin’, but in real life it was very much like, “Here’s my business card. What can I do for you?” I just stopped doing that and I ended up inviting like 10 of my friends to my apartment and because I’m Southern, I cooked for them, and everyone had to come with something they were working on. We went around in a circle and you got feedback on what we were working on. Some people were like, “I’m thinking of doing this blog. Is this name corny?” and we would let them know. We took a picture at the end of the night and underneath on Instagram, people were giving the side eye like “Why wasn’t I invited?” We decided we’d do it again and everyone would bring someone they could vouch for. It was 10 people originally, then it was 20 people, then it was 40 people in my apartment. It’s still a New York apartment so I was like, “We have to move out.” 24 events later, and our community has grown to 7,000 creatives of color and it’s just amazing to see the appetite that’s there. Sometimes I walk into an event and the fact that I don’t know most of the people is the most beautiful thing. We just had an event with Charlamagne tha God and it was great! He was so transparent, which I think we expected. Seeing him so transparent in his journey before The Breakfast Club and talking about the days that he was working for free and he was sleeping on couches is the biggest thing to me because you see the humanity in people. You see Oprah and you only see her at the top of the mountain. I love breaking that down to when she was where we were which is the hustle.
What advice would you have for someone trying to balance a corporate job and side hustle successfully?
Imani: You can’t compromise your 9-5. I think sometimes it’s easy to fall in love with startup but don’t forget who puts food on the table. You don’t want to be slacking off in the job that got you here and if that’s what’s happening, you should leave your job. The second thing is that you have to treat your hustle like it is your 9-5. Now you have two full-time jobs. I think sometimes people are like, “I have this thing that I want to do” but they spend no time on it and expect it to just manifest on it's own. We have an opportunity and I don't take that for granted. I’ll sleep when I’m 40.
If you had three people that were on your Mount Rushmore of Inspiration, who would they be?
Imani: I know it’s so cliche to say this but I love Oprah! I watch “Super Soul Sundays” to refresh myself. I just think it’s so important to have goals for yourself but I think your goals cannot just be career-driven. You have to be a full person and I just love that about her and Super Soul Sundays. She's always feeding her spirit in addition to feeding her career. It would also be Barack Obama because humanity is so important to me and I think throughout his entire tenure he was human. I miss him SO much. I still call him the president. I wish I was being more creative here but the third person would be Beyonce because of her work ethic. We’ve seen these documentaries where she is on the ground deciding the music notes for when she walks with her left foot and then her right foot... nothing beats working hard.
What is your passion and when did you know?
Imani: It had to have been a recent Creative Collective event when someone came up to me and was like, “ This feels like church.” Just the look in her eyes and I knew it was something bigger than myself. I grew up in church and it was a really beautiful moment because we were talking earlier about legacy and the idea of things bigger than yourself. If your dream only involves you, it’s not big enough. When you start finding your purpose, it feels like you’ve been riding a bike forever. I feel like the Creative Collective has been around for five years and we just passed one year. Next June will be two years.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Imani: Everything is a challenge because I have never done this before. It’s a lot of growing pains. It’s learning how to delegate. In the beginning remember everything was at my house so I did everything. I curated the list, I cooked the food, and all people had to do was bring wine if they wanted to. Our last event had over 220 people and I realized I needed a team. I couldn’t do check-in, meet Charlamagne, and do photos so luckily for me, some of my best friends are on the steering committee. We meet bi-weekly and come up with ideas together and everything is collaboration. Everyone brings what they can. You’ve got people by day that work at MTV that design our graphics. Some people by day plan events and help us plan events. A lot of times we think that the experts have to be somewhere else and the experts are your best friends. I approached my friends and said, “Look, I think I’m going to make this collective a thing. Do you want to be a part of the beginning of it?” and they all said, "uh YEAH!" I had people that were believers and we made the world believers. In the beginning, I think we all thought it would stay in my house and now we’re doing conferences sponsored by Samsung and it’s just like a machine that’s feeding itself.
What inspires you to succeed?
Imani: I have this fire inside of me that keeps me moving. I'm determined not to live a life of quiet desperation. Henry David Thoreau said, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” They want to do things so badly and at the end of their life or they’re 50 years old and they’re like, “I could have. Why didn’t I?” That’s my biggest fear. We’re in this time now where If you want a website, you buy a domain on SquareSpace and you have a website. You can do anything you want to do. With this fire inside of me, it’s always been in me to run full speed and I’ll rest later.
Do you feel like everyone has a dream?
Imani: I’m so wired to be a doer and I realize that everyone is different. I think a lot of people dream of things but what separates them is the execution and being a doer. I will meet so many people say, “I want to start a business,” but then it will be “Oh... but in five years.” Everyone has a dream because that is where we can escape. The difference is in the “DO.”
What do you think is needed right now for young, Black MILLENNIALs?
Imani: We need safe spaces. My mother and I were just talking about this. She was like, “This is so crazy and I feel like we’re reliving some of the worst days in America in terms of race relations.” I said, “But Mom, the difference is I get to turn on CNN and see Angela Rye talking about how crazy 45 is.” In the 1960s, the narrative you were fed was that this was normal and it’s how it should always be. The difference is that now there are all these platforms and safe spaces that you can look to people and see you’re not alone in this crazy world. Going back to the Creative Collective right after the election, we partnered with Revolt and had this safe space where you could come and you didn’t have to be happy and you didn’t have to pretend that nothing had happened and you could in your own way, whether it was to grieve or to drink, or to laugh, it was a safe space for you. We need safe spaces where we can talk about, what you need, you can build with other people, more than ever.
What frustrates you the most about today’s culture?
Imani: I’m kind of old-fashioned but I think there is a lack of empathy sometimes all around. A lot of people can’t empathize and if they would take a second and stop trying to be so right, they could realize that we really aren’t as different as it seems. I love when narratives come out and it’s like, “This is this, but this isn’t that.” Black lives matter, does not mean White lives don’t. I don’t understand why it has to be this or that and I wish that people could see that it’s an “and”. That comes from being empathetic. I think that starts with the individual. Instead of screaming out on Facebook about your friend who wants to touch your hair, explain why it’s not okay.
What is one book that has really changed your life?
Imani: One book that has really changed my life is The Shack by William P. Young. A really important takeaway from the book is that a lot of times when we think about our future, it’s through the lens of fear. We’re worried about something. I’m a spiritual person and I believe in God and it really just shifted my perspective on this idea of worrying and where that energy goes. If you’re prepared, it’s going to happen. For the first time, I applied this to the Charlemagne event. It was our biggest event other than CultureCon. We’re 200 people deep and there were so many different layers. I like to worry and that energy makes me feel like I’m doing something and I just realized that it was wasted energy. In The Shack, it talks about wasted energy. It’s kind of pivoting and making your lists, checking it twice, and just going to sleep. Me staying up to 3am, worrying if check-in will go smoothly does not make check-in go smoothly. If you haven’t read it, you really should read it.
What advice do you have for young people who want to succeed in pr and what is the mindset of success?
Imani: Humble yourself! When you’re reaching out to someone, you need something from them. Anyone who emails me, I will always hop on the phone. It gets really hard. I remember being that girl that would send an email and check it twice, and when they would reply to me, it was everything. You have to be who you needed when you were younger. You cannot email someone who has access to the job you want and be like, “Oh I can only do 12pm eastern time for 30 minutes.” I think you need to humble yourself first and foremost. There were times when I would sneak out of class to talk to someone who was an executive at MTV. Are you kidding?! That never goes away. I still reach out to people that I would like to learn from and I make it work. Be okay with being quiet and learning. It’s amazing how far that will go. In terms of what success looks like, I think Maya Angelou said it best, "Success is liking who you are, liking what you do, and liking how you do it." It feels good going to bed knowing who the world sees me as is who I truly am. I don’t have to wear these different faces because I’m walking in my truth. People really vibe with authenticity. It transcends all, especially today when everyone wants to think that your life is only Instagram.
Interested in learning more or connecting with Imani?