Before her 1993 marriage to Spike Lee, her two kids, a novel, numerous movie and television producer credits, a wellness website and vitamin line, Tonya Lewis Lee was another young associate subject to the workplace ignominies that come with rising up the ranks at a big law firm.
“People were really hard on me. There were times when I had to go into my office and cry. I certainly didn't cry in front of anybody in the office," she recalls. “I didn't like it when people yelled at me or told me what I did was crap, but I learned from it, and I got better because of it and gained respect as I lived up to expectations."
Those early career trials steeled her for future challenges familiar to professional women who aren't the wives of well-known film directors or daughters of successful corporate executives (Lewis Lee's father George Lewis was formerly president and CEO of Philip Morris Capital Co.).
She's encountered difficulties raising money, projects that didn't get off the ground and tradeoffs that placed jobs in the backseat behind family.
“When my kids were young, I was able to be the rock at home and focus on them. I still worked, but at a pace that worked for my family," says Lewis Lee. “Now that they are grown and out of the house, I can really focus on the work I want to be doing."
Today, Lewis Lee is focused on steering the dietary supplement brand Movita and the entertainment engine ToniK Productions. The two pursuits satisfy both her interest in health, and in impactful stories that convey diverse perspectives. They also give her an opportunity to shape budding entrepreneurs and entertainment moguls.
“At first glance, you might not see that Movita and the production work go hand in hand, but for me, the Movita and health piece of it keeps me in check with my health and wellness to keep going with the production work. If I'm not healthy, I can't do that work," says Lewis Lee. “It's all very creative, and I love that."
Lewis Lee crusaded for women's and children's health long before Movita launched last year. In 2007, she became a spokeswoman for the Office of Minority Health's campaign, “A Healthy Baby Begins With You," addressing the country's high infant mortality rate. She produced a documentary about the campaign called “Crisis in the Crib: Saving Our Nation's Babies." Five years ago, she extended her health education endeavors to Healthy You Now, a site that dispenses health tips and news to women of color.
“I love the pressure of being a person who talks about health and wellness because, really, I can't just talk the talk. I have to walk the walk," says Lewis Lee. “For me, that means eating really well. I don't eat red meat or poultry. I try to eat mostly a plant-based diet. Right now, I'm going to the gym five to six days a week. Look, I know that even people with all kinds of resources struggle with all of it. It's something you have to fight for. I fight for going to the gym."
While seeking funds for Healthy You Now, Lewis Lee met Robert Sires, a serial investor and previous president of vitamin and supplement manufacturer Unipharm. Lewis Lee and Sires, currently CEO of Movita, joined forces to create a vitamin loaded with organic and non-GMO fruits, vegetables and herbs that rely on a probiotic fermentation process to retain ingredient purity. Available on Amazon, Movita's Women's Daily Multivitamin Supplement is priced at $37.95 for 30 tablets.“[We] felt we could work together to develop a company that would improve women's health, give to the underprivileged and produce the best products in the VMS [vitamins, minerals and supplements] sector," said Sires. “It has been a great relationship that continues to grow."
Movita has hit the market as the popularity of vitamins soared. The global dietary supplements market is projected to climb at a compound annual growth rate of 8.8 percent from $133 billion in 2016 to $220.3 billion by 2022, according to Zion Market Research. Surging consumer demand has sparked a flood of stylish purveyors of vitamins such as Ritual, Olly, Goop, Hum Nutrition, Care/of and Nutrafol that have revamped the supplements' business in a fashionable mold for Vogue-reading, yoga-going crowds.
Lewis Lee asserted Movita's product outperforms competitors – she highlighted that the brand's multivitamin can be taken on an empty stomach any time of day due to its fermentation system – but acknowledged its bottles aren't as spiffy as they could be. The brand's packaging is being renovated and improvements will be revealed soon.
“There's a lot of money to be made, so you can put something in really cool-looking packaging and say it is a great product, and people are buying what it looks like as opposed to what it really is. We are getting our looks together, but the first thing that was most important to me is making sure our product does what we say it does," emphasized Lewis Lee, noting: “We want everything to look and feel like it's good for you and good for the environment. We put it in a beautiful glass bottle that can sit on your night stand. We also have a bag that's like a to-go pack you can throw in your bag to take with you."
As Lewis Lee guides Movita to its next stage, she's pressed the accelerator on entertainment projects. Two set for premieres later this year include She's Gotta Have It, a Netflix series inspired by Spike Lee's 1986 movie of the same name, and Monster, a movie based on the novel by Walter Dean Myers starring Jennifer Hudson, Nas, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Ehle, Tim Blake Nelson and A$AP Rocky.
Discussing She's Gotta Have It, Lewis Lee says, “Sexual norms have changed since [Spike Lee] originally wrote it, but as a single woman dating several different guys and being open to that, I still don't think we've seen much of that from a black female." She elaborates, referring to the Darling of the Netflix episodes, saying, “She's a young artist trying to make it. It's a struggle that's very relevant to a lot of people today who aren't working for a company for 25 to 30 years. They're trying to make it on their own talent."
Talking generally about her objective at Tonik Productions, Lewis Lee said, “Diversity is really important. [Lewis Lee's partner] Nikki [Silver] and I often say that we are women, we are mothers, we are diverse and we look at our work through those lens. We like projects that make people think, but that are also fun and entertaining." In light of present political realities, she added, “As artists and storytellers, it makes the work that much more important. You can't be frivolous about what you are doing. You have to be thoughtful."
Definitely not a frivolous enterprise, Healthy You Now has been a tougher one for Lewis Lee to cultivate. “I financed it myself with partners here and there, and I'm figuring it out, to be honest. I think it can be a helpful resource and community," she says. “Although it's changing a bit, we don't necessarily see images of healthy, active women of color, and I think that's really important because you have to see it to believe it and emulate it."
Speaking of emulation or lack thereof, Lewis Lee isn't following the footsteps of her lawyer bosses by demoralizing junior employees, but she's not lax, either. “What I would hope is to be a leader that provides an environment to give people enough room to realize their potential. I want people working for me to find their voice and recognize their contributions," she said. “On the other hand, if I'm hard on you because you are not delivering, I hope you learn from that. It's my hope to create an environment that's really healthy and fun, but it's also hard work, and I expect people to work hard."
New parents re-entering the workforce are often juggling the tangible realities of daycare logistics, sleep deprivation, and a cascade of overwhelming work. No matter how parents build their family, they often struggle with the guilt of being split between home and work and not feeling exceptionally successful in either place.
Women building their families often face a set of challenges different from men. Those who have had children biologically may be navigating the world of pumping at work. Others might feel pulled in multiple directions when bringing a child into their home after adoption. Some women are trying to learn how to care for a newborn for the first time. New parents need all the help they can get with their transition.
Women returning to work after kids sometimes have to address comments such as:
"I didn't think you'd come back."
"You must feel so guilty."
"You missed a lot while you were out."
To counteract this difficult situation, women are finding mentors and making targeting connections. Parent mentors can help new moms address integrating their new life realities with work, finding resources within the organization and local community, and create connections with peers.
There's also an important role for parent mentors to play in discussing career trajectory. Traditionally, men who have families see more promotions compared to women with children. Knowing that having kids may represent a career setback for women, they may work with their mentors to create an action plan to "back on track" or to get recognized for their contributions as quickly as possible after returning to work.
Previously, in a bid to accommodate mothers transitioning back to work, corporate managers would make a show at lessoning the workload for newly returned mothers. This approach actually did more harm than good, as the mother's skills and ambitions were marginalized by these alleged "family friendly" policies, ultimately defining her for the workplace as a mother, rather than a person focused on career.
Today, this is changing. Some larger organizations, such as JP Morgan Chase, have structured mentorship programs that specifically target these issues and provide mentors for new parents. These programs match new parents navigating a transition back to work with volunteer mentors who are interested in helping and sponsoring moms. Mentors in the programs do not need to be moms, or even parents, themselves, but are passionate about making sure the opportunities are available.
It's just one other valuable way corporations are evolving when it comes to building quality relationships with their employees – and successfully retaining them, empowering women who face their own set of special barriers to career growth and leadership success.
Mentoring will always be a two way street. In ideal situations, both parties will benefit from the relationship. It's no different when women mentor working mothers getting back on track on the job. But there a few factors to consider when embracing this new form of mentorship
How to be a good Momtor?
Listen: For those mentoring a new parent, one of the best strategies to take is active listening. Be present and aware while the mentee shares their thoughts, repeat back what you hear in your own words, and acknowledge emotions. The returning mother is facing a range of emotions and potentially complicated situations, and the last thing she wants to hear is advice about how she should be feeling about the transition. Instead, be a sounding board for her feelings and issues with returning to work. Validate her concerns and provide a space where she can express herself without fear of retribution or bull-pen politics. This will allow the mentee a safe space to sort through her feelings and focus on her real challenges as a mother returning to work.
Share: Assure the mentee that they aren't alone, that other parents just like them are navigating the transition back to work. Provide a list of ways you've coped with the transition yourself, as well as your best parenting tips. Don't be afraid to discuss mothering skills as well as career skills. Work on creative solutions to the particular issues your mentee is facing in striking her new work/life balance.
Update Work Goals: A career-minded woman often faces a new reality once a new child enters the picture. Previous career goals may appear out of reach now that she has family responsibilities at home. Each mentee is affected by this differently, but good momtors help parents update her work goals and strategies for realizing them, explaining, where applicable, where the company is in a position to help them with their dreams either through continuing education support or specific training initiatives.
Being a role model for a working mother provides a support system, at work, that they can rely on just like the one they rely on at home with family and friends. Knowing they have someone in the office, who has knowledge about both being a mom and a career woman, will go a long way towards helping them make the transition successfully themselves.