It's a tough world for a dreamer, and there's perhaps no bigger or more difficult dream than that of cracking the hard shell of the vastly competitive music industry.
Wanting to be a singer - and a famous one at that, is an inherently frustrating dream, but one that thousands - perhaps even millions pursue everyday.
Stefani Vara is one such dreamer.
Vara recalls, "I was raised to fight for what I believe in," and even after having a tough time in college, she would go on to pursue her dreams with an indomitable spirit.
She had never realized she was different until she was at her University of Colorado, and it dawned on her that she was the only Latina in the cheerleading squad. She was told she was "too big" to cheer with the other girls, but nonetheless managed to secure a position on the squad - one she didn't take lightly. When she got the phone call offering her the position, she said, "do not call me to be your token hispanic person." She remained steadfast in her goals, to never again be discriminated or looked down upon because of the color of her skin or intonation of her voice.
After graduating, with $1000 and a determination to rival the best in the music industry, she travelled from her native state of Texas to New York with hopes of fame and got herself a room in Queens. She began learning about recording music and the ways in which to do so at the time in the city. Devising a plan was her first order of business: "as we all know, when we have these great plans in mind, it doesn't always go the exact way we want it to go on paper." In order to survive in the expensive city, she would pick up odd jobs and temporary gigs. She admits that during the most struggling of times, "you learn how much you want things to happen."
She produced a demo of three songs and showcased them throughout the city, naively believing this would lead her to a label. "Of course, that didn't happen," she laments, and she chose to go another direction with her music. She sang in a girl group for a while before forming her own band and performed with them in venues throughout the city. This was still not enough to get by and Vara would soon be faced with her next financial dilemma.
"I was still trying to survive in a city where $100 might get you through 2 days plus rent." Her next job offer would make her squeamish, but for monetary reasons, she could not turn it down. An agency wanted her to be a foot model. "All I could think of was foot fetishes and thought that was not where I want to go." Her then-agent convinced her of its legitimacy, and Vara became a resident model for Steve Madden and a plethora of other shoe designers at the time, and was utterly shocked by how much it brought her. "I still say that I make more money on my feet than I do on my voice," she says, laughing.
When Vara finally landed a deal with an independent recording label, she believed she had hit the jackpot. Soon after the deal was signed, the label went into business with music giants Universal Records, and her aspirations grew. Caught up in the excitement and glamour of it all, Vara never paused to realize the exact terms of her contract. She says, "it slowly started dawning on me that a lot of artists that arrive in the city sign a first bad deal."
The terms of contract meant that Vara was locked into a three-record album deal, which in the first instance appeared incredible, but upon closer look and more time spent with her new colleagues, Vara knew their artistic directions were drastically different. Thus began some turbulence in the relationship, which was terminated shortly after.
She remains optimistic about the experience, and explains that while it wasn't the best introduction into the music sphere, it did open up some doors for her, including a membership into the Grammy's, which she still has today.
photo by @MarcoFromHouston
At this point in her career, she left New York for Texas, needing a break from the city that appeared to have put a dent in her recording spirit. She wasn't home long before she returned to the city with a new dream – a dream in which she would start her own production company and begin recording internally. While at home, she realized that an entrepreneurial foray might suit her better than working for others.
She recorded Middle of the Night in New York in 2010 with her new production company, "and it took off," she says. It reached charts in Turkey and received worldwide acclaim. It wouldn't be long before she was pursuing further entrepreneurial goals and three years later she would own her 'entrepreneurial songstress' title by concocting the idea for a web series with her mother that would focus on their fun Latin-American family and her mother's cooking capabilities.
Having owned a restaurant for 17 years, Vara's mother was well-equipped with the skills necessary for a cooking show, and a personality to boot. Webisodes were only just beginning, Vara recalls, and so she began fundraising to start the web series her and her mother were so excited about. They raised $10K through a Kickstarter campaign and produced a rough pilot of Comida Caliente with Tweleve18media entitled "Comida Caliente with Dene and her Daughters" for distribution to the bigger networks, hoping it would catch on.
"We were told there wasn't enough drama in our family," Vara laughs, continuing, "all families have some type of drama but that's just not what we were about. We were a Mexican-American family coming together in the kitchen." Networks told Vara her family wasn't traditional or dramatic enough for their own series. As preposterous as it may sound, the lack of screaming and shouting amongst themselves meant they would not receive any airtime.
They decided instead to do a Facebook miniseries about how they bottled a salsa made from the family restaurant called "Comida Caliente Salsa". And with that came an opportunity for her father - now divorced from her mother - to become an investor in the salsa. "We have a dysfunctional, functioning family," Vara says. Yet despite their differences, the family would profit from her ambitious and driven outlook. Comida Caliente is now into its second season, with Vara cherishing every minute she gets to spend recording the cooking shows with her mom and two sisters.
Vara is now also running a Follow My Feet campaign, which instructs and helps youth to follow their dreams and put into effect plans on how they can achieve their goals. Having battled with prejudice in college as a Latina and again in New York trying to navigate the music industry, she is now providing a platform for people to come and seek help when they begin to navigate similarly difficult paths in life. You can see her next perform at Women Empower Expo in Washington D.C, on May 27th.
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.