People 17 May 2017
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."
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I live the pain and stress of being black in America every day: I am a black woman, the mother of a black son, sister to black men, and aunt to my black nephews. I remember what it was like as a young girl to be afraid to go to Howard Beach for fear of being chased out. I know what it's like to walk on Liberty Avenue and be called "nigger" and being so young that I didn't understand what the word meant, I had to ask my mother. I know too well that feeling in the pit of your stomach when a police car pulls up behind you and even though you know you haven't done anything wrong you fear that your life may be in danger from what should be a simple encounter. Like all African Americans, I am tired of this burden.
African Americans have a long history of having to fight for our humanity in America. We have had to fight for freedom, we have had to fight for equality, and we have had to fight for our lives. The fight continues to go on. I have often quoted that line from the character Sophia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, "All my life I had to fight." When I say this to my white counterparts it can sometimes be uncomfortable because it's clear that they just don't get it. They view it as melodramatic. But it's not. It's part of the black experience, and it is the part of the black experience that black people don't want.
I have often quoted that line from the character Sophia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, "All my life I had to fight."
While I was out yesterday, passing out PPE and talking to people, a woman asked me, "What is it going to take for this to change?" I told her that I think peaceful protesting is a good start. But it's just the start. We can't elect the same people for the past 20-30 years, some in the same positions, and then talk about how nothing has changed in the past 30 years.
This injustice, inequality, and inequity will not spontaneously disappear. It will take bold, outspoken, and fearless leadership to eradicate the systemic racism in our country. We must address the violence at the hands of a police force paid to serve and protect us. We must address the recurring experience of black people being passed over for a promotion and then being asked to train the white person who was hired. We must address the inequities in contract opportunities available to black businesses who are repeatedly deemed to lack the capacity. We must address the disparity in the quality of education provided to black students. We must address the right to a living wage, health care, and sick pay.
While we like to regard the system as broken, I've come to believe the system is working exactly as it was meant to for the people who are benefiting from it. We need a new system. One that works for all of us. I am running to become the mayor of New York City because I can't assume there's another person who has the courage to do the work that needs to be done to create a fair and just city.
We can't elect the same people for the past 20-30 years, some in the same positions, and then talk about how nothing has changed in the past 30 years.
There are some things we may not be able to change in people, but at this moment I think that whether you are black, white, purple, or yellow we all should be looking internally to see what is one thing that you can do to change this dynamic. Here's where we can start:
If we want change, we need a total reform of police departments throughout this country. That is going to require taking a hard look at our requirements to become a police officer, our disciplinary procedures when civilian complaints are filed, and a review of what and how we police. No one deserves to lose their life based upon the accusation of carrying counterfeit cash. We also need to hold police officers accountable for their actions. While it is their duty to protect and serve they should not be above the law. Even at this very moment, police officers are overstepping their boundaries.
If we want change, we have to build a sense of camaraderie between the police and community. A sense of working together and creating positive experiences. We have to be honest about the fact that we haven't allowed that to happen because we have utilized our police department as a revenue-generating entity. We are more concerned with cops writing tickets than protecting and serving. Even during these moments of protest we are witness to the differences made when the police supported the protesters and stood hand in hand with them or took a knee. It resulted in less violence and more peaceful protest. People felt heard; people felt respected; people felt like they mattered.
While we like to regard the system as broken, I've come to believe the system is working exactly as it was meant to for the people who are benefiting from it. We need a new system.
If we want change, we have to be willing to clean house. And that means that some of you are going to have to step up to the plate and take roles of leadership. In my city alone, there are 35 city council seats that are term-limited in 2021. There are some that aren't termed but maybe their term should be up. Step up to the plate and run. If nothing else it will let our elected officials see that they need to stop being comfortable and do more. We don't need you out in the street taking selfies or reporting the problems to us. We need solutions. We need you in a room implementing policies that will ensure that these things don't continue to happen.
If we want change, we need to support grassroots candidates that are not in corporate pockets, who are not taking PAC money, and who really want to make a difference to their community. We need candidates that know first-hand and can relate to the experiences that many of us are going through.
We are at a pivotal moment. It is inspiring to see people from all races and backgrounds in the streets protesting, standing up for justice, and wanting to see change. We must seize this moment, but we must also be mindful that change requires more.
People often ask me why I decided to run for office? I am running for me. I am running for the little girl that was called nigger on Liberty Avenue. For the woman who has been pulled over for no reason. For my nephew who was consistently stopped during the era of stop and frisk. I am running for your son, your brother, and your nephew. I am running so that the next generation will never have to say, "All my life I had to fight." Because although we won't stop until we see justice and changes that address inequality and inequity effectively, this fight is exhausting.