Culture 19 July 2018
Over four years ago, actress and writer Yvonne Wandera had a conversation that would change her life—and the lives of other women around the globe. “My friend happened to be of color and Muslim. This was at the height of Islamophobia and general fear. She was born and raised in a small community in New York that she loved and knew well,” says Wandera. “In our intimate conversations, she revealed to me that people she went to school with, grew up with, and saw everyday were now looking at her with fear in their eyes.”
This revelation moved Wandera to the core, prompting her to put pen to paper and write (plus star in) the groundbreaking and acclaimed short film InflatableK. It’s the story of how a spirited Muslim woman spends the last day before her wedding, touching on themes of isolation and loneliness. “This deeply upsetting sense of isolation was something I wanted to get across in the film,” she explains. “I’m touched that we’ve received messages from young women across the world, who feel this spoke to them and was telling their story.”
Yvonne Wandera, Lindsey McKeon and Shruti Sadana pose for a picture during the #OwnHero tour. Photo Courtesy of Janet Mayer
That nerve the film hit on became the catalyst to a bigger movement, a female war cry if you will, in the wake of the female revolutions sparking movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp. With women demanding for their voices be heard, Wandera knew the mission of InflatableK didn’t end with the final credits—its power needed to go on the road. With that, the #OwnHero Tour was born out of another profound conversation Wandera engaged in. This time it was with a young woman, incredibly moved after watching Inflatable K, who asked Wandera to define female empowerment.
“I could have strung some sentences together and added a few big words that sounded intelligent—or I could tell the truth—which is what I chose,” recalls Wandera. “I told her I’d spent my entire life marching and championing causes, but I had no idea what empowerment really looked like in my private space.” It was from there that Wandera set on her journey and brought together educators, collaborators, and ambassadors to curate the #OwnHero Tour curriculum and events. Wandera, with ambassadors including her InflatableK co-star Shruti Sadana and other inspiring women in media/entertainment such as Supernatural star Lindsey McKeon and actress Elisa Donovan (Clueless), now take these events to universities throughout the USA—with broadcasts to female groups in Malaysia. The goal? Light the spark for deep and honest discussions about female empowerment: what it really means, how it really shows up and the meaning it places in our daily lives. The curriculum provides tangible tools for the attendees to bring home and put it into motion.
Deeming it the #OwnHero Tour summed up what Wandera and her ambassadors want their participants to take away from the events. It’s a challenge to find their inner strength while reassuring these women that when all else fails, they can always depend on themselves. “There’s no knight in shining armor coming to save you. You have to stand up and save yourself—sometimes that means from your own thoughts and feelings,” says Wandera.“Being your own hero is about practicing every day to recognize the signs that may cause issues in your life and to address them. It’s an astute state of mindfulness and empowerment.”
And in the setting of the tour, #OwnHero is also about creating a shared space to learn from others while imparting your own experiences and wisdom. As Wandera explains, “A problem shared will no longer be a problem, as it will turn into multiple solutions.”
Being part of the solution is what drew the attention of young Hollywood into joining the #OwnHero revolution. McKeon wants to empower women to support each other and break away from any resistance fueled by jealousy and insecurity. “We must be able to recognize another woman’s beauty, creativity, strength, and importance and not feel that we have to cut her down in order to build ourselves up,” she says. Showing support and overcoming that fear of speaking up is a choice more and more women are leaning into. Sadana is proud to be part of that shift. “Let’s go back years ago, maybe to our parents’ generation, where women were supposed to get married and take care of the kids while their husbands went to work. Who came up with that idea? This is what we’ve been brought up ‘to believe,’” she says. “Today, women are more outspoken and overcoming a fear of ‘being heard.’ We are choosing to create something different. We recognize that we have the power—and have had it all along.”
Donovan concurs. She joined the #OwnHero Tour and movement because in her past she fell victim to shifting everything—words, wardrobe, her true spirit and more—just to be, what she perceived, more likable. “Although it made me adept at reading situations and people, I lost so much of my voice and who I am in those negotiations with myself,” she recalls. “Imagine the infinite power we can harness when we step out of that false skin and create from the purest and strongest parts of ourselves? It is colossal. And it is beautiful!”
And, Donovan doesn’t believe that means shutting down or overpowering men. It means finding a way for both genders to come together and exchange ideas and support on an equal playing field. “There’s so much to be gained on both sides from one another, and when we don't have this pre-determined hierarchy of who is allowed to do and say what—that’s when monumental and awesome things happen.”
As the #OwnHero Tour continues to inspire and empower a new, fearless and outspoken generation, the tour ambassadors are using it as an opportunity to heal the frustration, shame, and even silence their younger selves had to endure.
McKeon wants her teenage self—and all teens joining the #OwnHero movement to just hold on for this ride. “It doesn’t matter whether people like you or support you— find what you’re interested in, wear what you want, and fucking be unique,” she says. “If you have no friends? Throw yourself into life. There’s so much here for you. So much more than playing in societies made up games. Oh, and break the damn rules!”
Wandera, however, wants to put those feelings of loneliness and despair into perspective. “I’d tell my 17-year-old self that what you feel isn’t a reflection of reality. There were always more people than I ever imagined who cared for me, had my back and were joyful I was in their life,” she explains. “It's easy to let your feelings and thoughts overwhelm you, but at that moment when you’re in your darkest place—open your eyes and literally and look at your phone. At least one person in your phone book will pick up your call and remind you that you’re valued and loved.”
That’s all it takes to gather the strength to be your own hero! To watch the film that started it all, check it out here.
" Too often, we criticize ourselves more than being our own biggest fan." -Shruti Sadana
My hope for Inflatable K was to reach audiences that felt like they could relate to the story. The isolation one feels but chooses not to talk about. The idea that someone who might seem happy on the surface is going through much more than you can even imagine.
You might think people may not understand what you’re feeling or going through especially when you’re seventeen. More often than not, someone else is probably feeling the same way you are. Remember, there are people in your life who truly care about you and want to be there for you. Most of the time I think people just want to be heard, have someone listen to them, or give them a hug. Reach out to someone you trust and someone who really gets you whether it’s a friend, a family member, or a teacher. And, find creative ways of expressing yourself whether it’s through writing, music, acting, painting, drawing, or whatever it might be that sparks your soul.
My hopes are that we encourage women to become their biggest hero instead of their own worst enemy. Too often, we criticize ourselves more than being our own biggest fan. I was invited to join this tour by two incredibly brilliant, beautiful, and smart women: Yvonne Wandera and Emeline Rodelas (Floor-RW) who created this inspirational curriculum. Yvonne and Emeline were behind Inflatable K, and the film is what transpired the movement. I am so grateful that I had the chance to be a part of this project. They were so passionate about what they wanted to do with the #OwnHero tour and asked if I would speak at their events.
I’ve my own hero by becoming confident and happy with who I am, by being comfortable in my own skin, and not being afraid to show it. Regardless of the criticism, rejection, the struggles and everything I face—I’ve learned so much and I continue to evolve and strive to be the best version of myself. I think others can be their own hero by being honest with themselves and not judging themselves for every mistake they’ve made. By not being afraid to share a piece of their truest selves with others. You’re beautiful in so many ways. Acknowledge your light, your love, your laughter, your kindness, your strength, and your truest self. Those around you see it and you should see it for yourself as well. You probably have no idea the amount of lives you’ve touched in a positive way by being who you are.
Female empowerment – Why are women being heard in ways they never have before? Let’s go back years ago to maybe our parents’ generation where women were supposed to get married and take care of the kids while their husbands went to work. Who came up with that idea? This is what we’ve been brought up “to believe.” Today, I think women are more outspoken and overcoming this fear of being heard. A lot of it has to do with fear. Women might have thought their voices “didn’t matter” because of the way society portrayed them in the past. It takes one person to speak up and then it creates a ripple effect! Now, we are choosing to create something different. We recognize that we have the power and have had it all along.
I would love to see females continue to use their voice. Your voice is one of the most powerful tools you have. Sharing your story could change someone’s life and also empower them. You never know how or who you’re impacting when you speak your truth. I’d love to see these new changes around the globe.
"It’s easy to let your feelings and thoughts overwhelm you, but at that moment, when you’re in your darkest place—open your eyes and literally and look at your phone." - Yvonne Wandera
Unfortunately, there are still many countries in the world where women don’t have as much freedom and feel like they can’t use their voice. I think anything comes from practice and continuing to do it. Change is also a process—it takes time. Each step does make a huge difference though. I think we’re headed in a whole new direction.
About four years ago, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who happens to be of color and Muslim. This was at the height of Islamophobia and general fear. My friend was born and raised in New York, in a small community she knew well and loved. In our intimate conversations, she revealed to me that the hardest thing about it all was the fact that all the people she went to school with, grew up with, and neighbors she saw every day looked at her with some fear in their eyes. his revelation moved me to the core.
This deeply upsetting sense of isolation was something I wanted to get across in the film. I’m touched that we’ve received messages from young women across the world, who feel this spoke to them and was telling their story.
What I would say to my 17-year-old self, who like my character in Inflatable K, created a sanctuary in the car is: what you feel isn’t a reflection of reality. What I mean by that is, in reality, there were more people than I ever imagined who cared for me, had my back and were joyful I was in their life. It's easy to let your feelings and thoughts overwhelm you, but at that moment, when you’re in your darkest place—open your eyes and literally and look at your phone. At least one person in your phone book will pick up your call and remind you that you’re valued and loved.
"Imagine the infinite power we can harness when we step out of that false skin and create from the purest and strongest parts of ourselves? It is colossal."- Elisa Donovan. Photo Courtesy of Rodrigo
I love #OwnHero because it engenders action. It compels people to be participants in the cultivation of their own aspirations and goals in life. It ignites an accountability to create, move, speak, behave, in the ways we would like to see the world evolve. It empowers all of us as individuals to say 'How I move through the world matters. It has an effect. I can inspire and touch others the way those I look up to have inspired and moved me.'
Female empowerment in action: I see this as all females being able to express themselves fully and without reservation. To me, this means shedding that previously impervious layer that we all have carried around with us in order to make ourselves more appealing/less loud/less complicated, so that we take up less space. For so many years I either consciously or unconsciously shifted my stance, my words, my wardrobe, my intelligence, my humor, my spirit-- in order to be likable. Although it made me adept at reading situations and people, I lost so much of my voice and who I am in those sorts of negotiations with myself. Imagine the infinite power we can harness when we step out of that false skin and create from the purest and strongest parts of ourselves? It is colossal. And it is beautiful! To me, this is not about overpowering men, or shutting down men. Quite to the contrary-- it is about all of us coming to the table and exchanging ideas and talents on an equal playing field. There is so much to be gained on both sides from one another, and when we don't have this pre-determined hierarchy of who is allowed to do and say what, that is when monumental and awesome things happen.
Why has #MeToo had such an impact? Because it is a reality that has touched nearly every single female that I know. When the door was opened by these brave women who came forward first in a very public way, all of us felt our own floodgates open that had been kept shut for so long. And when they were opened, what came out was a tidal wave. What I have discovered in talking with men about this (I am obviously talking about good, respectable, awesome, men here-- not predators) is that many of them simply didn't really understand the volume of it, the breadth of it, how this resonates with every female on the planet to varying degrees. And secondarily, many didn't really understand the shame involved and the repercussions. They didn't understand why women don't report it or even talk about it. And that is a failure of our culture. Our silence has perpetuated that. This is why this movement is so vital-- it is shattering that belief system, de-stigmatizing abuse, which I believe will lead to massive change for the good.
In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.
One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.
Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.
When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.
There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.
With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.
Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today
Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.
I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.
Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.
There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.
You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.