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."
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.