Interviewed by Max Olarinde
When entertainers and entrepreneurs turn for advice, the endless sea of surface-level blogs were the only ones that seemed accessible.
Enter Mary Essence, owner and founder of Poppins Productions LLC, a company that prides itself on offering authentic consultation services for entertainers and general entrepreneurs who need sound business advice. We sat down and interviewed Mary to have a deeper understanding of Poppins Productions' culture, ambitions, and what makes the company tick.
What inspired you to create Poppins Productions LLC?
So I'm gonna answer this in two parts. When I was growing up as a kid, a lot of us did not say, 'hey, I want to grow up to be a lawyer', 'I want to grow up to be a doctor', or notable careers. That wasn't what I heard growing up. What I heard growing up was, 'I want to be a famous athlete', I want to be a famous singer, rapper, someone who plays the clarinet or some type of musical instrument.
Historically too, it seems like in order for people to get out of the hood and get out of their circumstances, they use their talents to be able to do so and more so in the entertainment realm of things. And then the correlation between that is that oftentimes in the entertainment world, African Americans are always taken advantage of and you've seen this with 360 deals that are out there where you know, they look at, 'oh, you have all this talent, but now you have to sell your soul just to get a deal.'
Their front is in front of you for all of this, but you have to pay, you have to really make sure that they get a return on their investment.
That means you're not really seeing a lot of that return.
And then in some instances to that you're selling away the rights of your identity, of who you are, just to be famous in the eyes of the world, and you're not getting guidance or directions. You're basically placating to what they want you to do based on the investments they put into you. So they're not managing you as a person with your best interest to ensure your longevity, they're really securing their investments, you know?
I've seen all of that and I don't like that because that's also equivalent in the corporate world. I've worked in the corporate world for a very long time and they do the same thing actually. You can do your best and they will still try to take your ideas, and downplay you.
In some instances, they try to even exploit you to make it look like they're that you're a part of that company and say 'oh, we have the diversity.' Ofter times, they make you think that you have some control or power when you don't over your own career because the company wants you where they want you to be at. I think that's what inspired me.
What obstacles have come on the road to creating this company? Whether personal or professional?
Part of the obstacles that I've encountered was both on the entertainment side, as far as entertainers and then the business piece of it.
When we talk about the business piece of it-- the barrier that I faced with that is because it is a male-dominated industry. Regardless if you're a black man or a white man, it is very heavily saturated with men that are making the decisions.
And when I found that even with the women who work in these in the same industries kind of go back to almost a 1950s style where there is 1920s style, they're placating to the men.
That can be a barrier there. They're assigning gender roles to what women can do and what men are supposed to do. That's where the challenges come from, where a lot of those men did not happen to talk to me, they weren't as open.
I think that I didn't know anything. I had an entertainer who even thought that I couldn't even sing, I couldn't do anything. I'm like, 'no, I can sing just like the rest of you guys, I've played instruments, just like the rest of you guys. I know about the industry just as you do.'
Those different things were definitely barriers to the business side of things.
When we look at the artist side of things, they also are thinking in those same terms, actually to some degree. Because they know it is a male-dominated industry, they think I will not get them any further because of that, or that I don't know what I'm talking about or again, and are not comfortable taking directions from me.
They'd rather take directions from my male engineer than takes directions from me.
But what I have been able to do to help to navigate through that is looking at the return of investments for both parties. There has to be a mutual benefit, right? And also there has to be an open dialogue of communication and the ability to work with each other versus against each other for personal gain where we all can win and are considered at the table.
I still have to struggle with that on the artist side because a lot of the artists have that crabs-in-a-barrel mentality where they're just only looking out for what's right now and they don't tend to look at the bigger picture of their future. Getting them to see that can constantly be a challenge; you have to put it in a story-like moment.
I think also another thing with, of course, my own personal struggles, right? Trying to get up into the work world of being that professional where I want to be and experiencing that firsthand. I didn't want anybody else to do that. I decided to put my love for music, and because my mom used to be a singer back in the day, you know, she had her own little group.
I can just imagine my mother or anyone else I know, trying to get into this industry or trying to do something and then being taken advantage of and not given the tools to be successful at doing it, as well as learning different techniques to ensure your longevity of success.
How vital is financial literacy in the entertainment industry?
It's very vital because honestly we've been picked apart for many, many, many, many, many years, I mean decades, if you think about how for a long time as African Americans, we rely heavily on others to tell us if these are good deals that we're making and we think we're doing good 10, 20 years down the line then realize that no, we're actually not doing good.
Many entertainers in the R&B world have been duped out of their royalties. MC Lyte, who had to literally fight for her own name. The rights (to) her own name. It's very important to understand what you're signing, you're signing away your life.
When you're looking at those deals, you really know what you're really getting from it, how profitable and lucrative would it be for you over time and also thinking outside the box. That's where I understand that the industry comes in too because now you realize, let me give you a good example:
Let's say for instance in television, a lot of people didn't realize that the marvel franchise would get as big as it did. I mean they did, but they didn't, you know? So there were a couple of actors who made sure to get (their) residuals after the fact, for their contributions to the movies. That way they're always somehow getting some type of royalties and what that looks like, still getting paid without (continuous labor).
They don't have to rely on each gig to make their money. Being more creative also means understanding how the industry is played and how money is distributed appropriately.
That's where learning and asking questions come in from which a lot of people don't.
Again, a lot of entertainers, especially African Americans, are usually coming from areas where they don't really even teach financial literacy within our own personal life at that. That's why it's important for me as I incorporate this financial literacy program; teaching you the basics of what you should have learned early on. I'm also integrating that into the financial literacy of how to really navigate through the industry specifically. You're getting like a two-for-one special, honestly.
Do you think in this day and age that entertainers can grow their brand without a social media presence?
Absolutely. I think that people rely too heavily on social media to make themselves famous to be known to be seen. You don't have to be known and be seen on social media to have businesses that are out there like that. You have artists who are very much that are successful without it because a lot of them are taking that old school approach like Michael Jackson and Beyonce who traveled. They traveled to and played at different events and venues and that's how they were able to get known.
I really liked how Beyonce played it. if you think about it because she never lose the person she was or she is, I should say, and she never, she never actually did what the record labels wanted her to do. She wasn't out there half, half-naked like everybody else just to prove a point or boost ratings; she didn't do any of those things. She had her voice and she used her voice.
You also have to think about what social media, it can again be helpful where you can get your name out there, but it also can be a curse where those weird habits or a weird thing about you comes out that people are going to judge you for or you're saying too much stuff that maybe you shouldn't be saying. Now you're portraying a different image.
Beyonce was able to portray a certain image of herself that was also very authentic to who she is, where she didn't have to post a lot. When she did post, a lot of people went crazy; people went crazy because of who she is and her talents because that's what they looked at at first.
What common mistakes do you notice that many entertainers make while going through their careers, or while trying to run a business?
I know that being an entertainer, it takes a lot of money and time and dedication to really do it. I've seen a lot try to take shortcuts and some of those shortcuts are conniving. So then they're not building a good network of people that will really be there in their corners and also burning bridges.
I see that a lot, especially the Black entertainers actually is the crabs-in-the-barrel type of mentality. Part of that, comes from if you're used to living in the hood or living in the area where you're not used to getting a lot of money and trying to make it, and when you finally think you're making it, you get a little selfish and you just think about yourself and not realizing that it takes other people's talents and certain skills to get you where you need to be.
I've worked with entertainers who had absolutely no business sense or even understood social media and how to really market themselves.
Instead of learning and cultivating relationships, they try to get over and end up really souring those relationships. I see that all the time. Another thing is again, putting the work in and really learning about your craft. Also trying to learn the business and the networking is so important because you never know that the most significant person that you work with might be the one that will save your career.
A lot of entertainers think that they need to make friends with individuals who are comedians like them or who're in the same industry, and what they don't realize is that the movers and shakers are the individuals who are working behind the scenes versus the people in front of the camera/in front of the people, honestly.
Once you understand that aspect, you really can't go wrong like that. If you look at Halle Berry, at Denzel Washington-- a lot of these actors who are turning into film directors, they understand their craft and they're building relationships with those individuals in the industry behind the scenes. That's going to educate them without necessarily having the education, using the leverage of their stardom to really help them.
If entertainers learn to think to that degree, it's the same thing as running a business: there are certain skill sets that you don't necessarily have-- you know about some of them, but not all of them. So cultivating those relationships and really understanding and honing your craft is where I wish that more entertainers really understand that, especially African Americans.
Another common mistake that I've noticed is that everybody wants to spend so much money on things that don't make sense and again, not really reading and researching to ensure that they need these things.
Separate from consultations, you also own Poppins Extensions Plus and the line of hair and cosmetic products that are for sale, can you speak personally to the importance of Black-owned businesses in an industry that often advertises for Black people, without most owners actually being Black?
That is a very good question. The thing is, they're making money off of us and they're not even providing really good products for us either. Because we're the ones primarily using the services, why not buy from someone that looks like me who wears the same thing and who can say "Hey sis maybe they don't look good on you, maybe we'll try something else," you know because I want to make sure that I'm providing quality (at) all times versus just selling something.
How many times I've walked into a beauty supply store and they will hire one Black woman that probably doesn't even know the product? Sometimes she knows the product, sometimes she doesn't. They're there just to make it make it look like they're for Black people. I'm not really being supported and really being hurt.
I'm getting items that are being pushed on me because it's readily available versus looking at me as an individual. That's why I say it is super, super important as a Black woman and a Black-owned business in this industry to make sure that we are being properly represented, but also be properly taken care of.
I would like to be treated with respect because it's just weird. It's like if the majority of your customers are Black and then you treat them like shit but people are still coming back because this is the only place that's here.
That's not healthy. That's not cultivating us as Black people.
When I first started Poppins Extension Plus, what was very important to me was that representation, and also being able to be the hub, one-stop-shop for a lot of our entertainers because it's affordable. I test out all my products so I'm not blindly giving you something to say, "Hey, I do this" like no, my selection is very intentional.
Moved by a corporate environment and industries that are constantly stricken with challenges, Mary Essence founded her resources and umbrella of brands to support individuals of interest. By boosting her clients, their representation stands well-supported and enough to create the impact they've envisioned for themselves. She continues to provide essential services with the intention of keeping them accessible. From opening doors to giving safe-minded business advice, Mary Essence's footprint on the industry and business remains at large with no limit on the possibilities for more evident success.
Written by Karalyne Porter & Max Olarinde.
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