Want a successful creative career? 4 essential lessons from Hidden Figures producer Mimi Valdés

A journalist, movie producer and creative director, she's made flexibility her workplace superpower.

A journalist, movie producer and creative director, she's made flexibility her workplace superpower

Consider yourself a member of the side hustle generation? Take a page from Mimi Valdés. (Getty Images)

Mimi Valdés is a role model for the side hustle generation.

Her career is the definition of multi-faceted. She is a movie producer (Hidden Figures, Dope) and a journalist (former editor-in-chief of Vibe and Latina magazines). And on top of that, she's also currently the creative director of i am OTHER (Pharrell Williams's multimedia collective).

Thursday morning, Valdés and I had a conversation at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox in front of an audience of post-secondary students. The event was part of TIFF's Higher Learning program and she was there to share the story behind her many creative lives.

When I was preparing for the event, I was reminded of something I was often asked as a child: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

For many in my generation, there's no such thing as a one-word answer.

The reality of today's job market has resulted in lengthy and diverse resumés. Recent information from Stats Canada shows that more than 12 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 15-24 are unemployed and more than a quarter are underemployed — stuck in jobs below their level of education. A post-secondary degree is no longer a guarantee for stable employment, either, and many are relying on multiple side hustles, using a variety of skills in order to get by.

Valdés spent the past few decades making flexibility her superpower.

For her, every job change was an opportunity to harness skills and make key connections. Here are just four of the lessons that I learned by researching her story. And if you're interested in a creative career, they're four tips you'll want to master. 

Know your strengths

When Valdés was named editor-in-chief of Vibe in the early 2000s, hip hop culture had become a global phenomenon. Suddenly, it had competition from mainstream publications with a larger circulation — titles including Rolling Stone and Time — that were turning their attention to the artists they'd previously ignored.

Seeing this, Valdés recognized that Vibe could do what those other magazines could not.

She grew up in the golden age of hip hop, hearing people rhyming on the corner. She knew the music and its culture, and so did her team.

Relying on her gut instinct, she took established artists off the cover, replacing them with up-and-coming names that she thought would be the next big stars.

Those covers (which included features on then-little known artists such as The Game, T.I. and Chris Brown) became some of their best-selling issues.

Be decisive and true to your vision

When Valdés first heard the concept for the film Dope, a movie that follows the trials and tribulations of nerds in the L.A. hood, she immediately knew this was a project that needed to make it to the big screen.

She and the film's team of producers shopped it to studios, but at each meeting they were met with doubt. They got notes requesting that the story be watered down, that white actors play certain characters and that big names be cast.

Rather than altering their original vision, Valdés and the other producers decided to make the film independently. Instead of casting stars in the lead roles, they instead searched for little known performers who they felt could truly embody the characters.

When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015, many of the same companies that had turned it down were now fighting to bid on it. Dope ended up having the biggest sale of the festival that year.

Recognize how your skills can be transferred

Valdés spent years in publishing before leaving to become the Chief Creative Officer at i am OTHER.

In her third year, Williams was tapped to record a song for the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack. That song was "Happy." The track was a giant hit, winning a Grammy and going to No. 1 on Billboard. But as Valdés has said in the past, radio station directors didn't initially see it that way. Many refused to put it in rotation.

So they decided to make a video. Williams wanted to shoot something in a Black church with a choir behind him, but after re-watching Despicable Me 2, Valdés had a different idea.

When the song comes on in the film, the lead character, Gru, dances down the street. She thought Williams should do the same.

The idea was pushed further by the directorial team We Are from L.A., who pitched the concept of creating a 24-hour music video filled with people from all walks of life doing the same thing.

When it was released in late 2013, "Happy" became a global phenomenon inspiring thousands of tribute videos. (On YouTube, it has more than 987 million views as of writing.)

Valdés was no longer working for magazines, but she was still in the business of telling good stories — and she had all the necessary tools to do it. She'd just transferred those skills to a new medium.

Throw out the formula

When Valdés first got a hold of Hidden Figures, she knew she had something special.

She was floored that she'd never heard the stories of real-life NASA scientists Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. She was overwhelmed by the impact their story could have.

With three Black female leads, no traditional "action" and a focus on science and math, the film did not follow any of the typical Hollywood formulas for success, but that was what made it special to Valdés.

Her gamble paid off — and then some. The 2016 film was a success at the box office and with the critics, earning Oscar nominations and several award wins. 

And beyond Hollywood, Hidden Figures continues to influence women and girls interested in science and technology careers. In just one example, the U.S. State Department launched a publicly funded program that was directly inspired by the Oscar-nominated drama. Announced in August, #HiddenNoMore, is an international educational exchange supporting women in STEM.

About the Author

Amanda Parris

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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