How One Woman Discovered Her True Passion Post-Recession
By: Courtney Connley
Gaining a footing in the entertainment industry at a young age is no easy feat, but for Tola Lawal, 34-year-old digital marketing professional, a career in the business was a no-brainer after college.
After graduating from Pace University with a stellar resume that included internships at Jive Records, Sony/Epic Records and MTV, Lawal landed a job with beauty PR company, Tractenberg & Co. The college grad was with the firm for seven months when she received a call from her former MTV boss with a job offer that quickly changed the trajectory of her career and put her at the forefront of moving the industry forward.
In 2005, when media outlets were just wrapping their mind around the benefits of a digital presence, Lawal joined MTV’s global digital department and played a critical role in the early stages of building out and growing their digital platform, serving as just the second assistant in that department. “That was my first position where I could show my creativity and natural born marketing skills,” she says.”
She also launched her own branding and marketing company SixOne7Creative, which proved to be a great success throughout her career having secured top clients like Carol’s Daughter, reality star Tami Roman and more.
As many 20-somethings took a hard hit financially and professionally by the rise of The Great Recession in 2007, Lawal found herself being no exception to the economic downturn when she was laid off from MTV in 2009. But unlike most of her peers who found themselves either unemployed or underemployed for extended periods of time, a determined Lawal score a position at BET’s new sister company Centric. There, she played a major role in developing the digital presence of the company in its early years.
“Centric was a new channel that they didn’t really know what to do with,” she explains. “I started to help them create their social media platform, worked with a developer to develop the site and it was really my first introduction to working at a startup."
With a seemingly successful career on the business side of entertainment, Lawal often found herself mentoring and advising other young professionals on how to land a gig in the industry, which eventually led to the launch of her mentoring program Gyrl Wonder in 2010.
With a goal to introduce teen girls ages 13-18 to new experiences that will enhance their chances for success after high school, Gyrl Wonder operates under the four pillars of self-care, self-image, empowerment and development.
“Development is my favorite part because I feel like it is the most underserved,” says Lawal. “I love the fact that some of my kids say they want to be a doctor or lawyer when they grow up, but it isn’t always possible.”
The New York native seemed to have the picture perfect life of a thriving young professional making a name and mark for herself in the cut-throat world of entertainment, but no amount of success comes without it’s fair share of hard times.
In October 2014, Lawal was laid off from her job at BET, forcing her to experience an unexpected financial and career downturn. She refers to 2015 as her transitional year where she took a step back from the entertainment industry to do some self-discovery on what fulfilled her personally and professionally.
“[It] was a big struggle year for me,” she admits. “No one knew I had hit rock bottom and my mom had to hold me down on rent. I was getting put through the ringer, but I see it was God’s way of leading me to what I want to do.”
Now, with a bright future ahead as an educator, Lawal is assistant director of College Success at Achievement First Brooklyn High School. In this role, she works on a larger scale to use the same skills and passion from her nonprofit to help young people reach success after high school. She has also refocused her attention on Gyrl Wonder, which she admits had slipped off her radar since its launch.
“I brought the program back to life and now we’re in our second year of programming and we get invited to the White House,” she says of the organization’s recent trip to AfAmWomenLead Student Summit to Advance Educational Excellence for Black Girls.
Ultimately, Lawal remains grateful for the journey it took to reach her current happiness and shares how she overcomes moments of self-doubt that inevitably arise.
“Every single time I feel like I'm about to go in the lane of self-doubt, God sends someone who reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing,” she says. “I’m also currently reading Shonda Rhimes ‘Year of Yes’ and Instagram saves me because I love a good quote.”
Understanding the importance of continuing the journey despite its hardships, it’s no surprise that Lawal’s favorite quote is that of Christopher McDougal, which she says was her saving grace in 2015.
“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.”
To stay up to date with Lawal and all of her success as an educator and mentor to the next generation, be sure to follow her on social media @tolaspeakstome.
Courtney Connley is a writer, editor and digital journalist with a sweet spot for storytelling and helping millennials win in the workplace and in life. She considers brunching to be a full-time hobby and enjoys anything that involves avocado or a good book. You can stay up-to-date with her latest work at courtneyconnley.com and follow her latest happenings on social media @classicalycourt.