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."
Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.
When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.
2016: What rules?
Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.
Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.
And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.
And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?
Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.
Digital policies for 2020 and beyond
While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.
Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy
Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:
- If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
- While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
- If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
- Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
- Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?
Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.
Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply
The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:
- Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
- Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
- Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
- Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
- Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
- Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
- Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
- Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.
Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles
Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.