“I just want people to think a little longer, a little broader, and listen a little longer.”
Let the record show that our pursuit of greatness consistently begins with the journeys of those who came before us. Maya Angelou said it best: “I came as one, but I stand as 10,000.”
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, Executive Vice President, Entertainment Diversity, Inclusion & Communications at CBS Entertainment, knows the power of the company she keeps – watchful predecessors cheering and observing, media professionals collaboratively engaging, and a custom-designed team helping her implement the vision developed because of them all.
Yes, the future this Diversity Chief envisions for media platforms is a team sport. It takes a village.
Like the distant finish line of an Olympic 4×4 race, destiny can look like a far-off future with an intimidatingly complex trek between you and it. A feat requiring whole-bodied effort and a passionate commitment to the future.
Remember when Fashion Fair started the relay and handed off to Iman, who passed the baton to Queen Latifah’s Queen Collection? Rihanna, running the anchor leg, took the baton and crossed the finish line with a dazzling array of skin luxury in innovative magnetic packaging that connects to consumers eagerly waiting to see themselves on glorious display.
Just like Fenty Beauty, Tiffany’s new department – “rooted in entertainment” and devoted to linking the world’s myriad of talent to the hiring power behind film and television – is unchartered territory.
Yes, the road to victory is often an undiscovered one.
But that seems to always have been Tiffany’s M.O. Doing life her way – even when her way looked like a dive off of a tall cliff. With no protective gear.
I imagine that’s what her mother felt when the reality that she’d blown her Howard University scholarship to smithereens came hard and fast while moving Tiffany into her new off-campus apartment. The ‘hold up, not so fast’ news was as much a jaw-dropper as the disappointment revealed in her mother’s tough-love response to the shocker:
“You took someone else’s spot.”
There’s an inherent strength in the backs of Black women. Genetic carryover from the toils of ancestors. Its roots too obscure to know them specifically enough to name a child after. Aboriginal enough to affect our DNA and often unrevealed enough for us to comfortably ignore. Oh, those darn comfort zones.
And oh how precisely and immediately a mother will clarify power-holds when we dare to challenge her governance. Her reminders get you right together.
Comfort zone ties that bind? Cut.
That nerve to waste her family’s time, money, and emotional resources? Extinguished.
A desire to be everything she said you always were? Woke.
Mothers can’t go everywhere their children go, but their words can.
With assurance that loved, comforted, forgave, and chin-checked all at the same time, Tiffany was prepared for her do-over.
Bruised chin held high, she honed in on her purpose and conquered anything in its way. Wrapped in the inescapable and everlasting pride of her beloved Howard University, she returned and graduated with honors. Proceeded on a path towards her life’s intention – meaningful multi-media connections that reflect and shape our world.
No haphazard dive. This time, Tiffany leapt. Caught wind under wings and soared.
The road next traveled came clearly into view as she continued her ladder climb at CBS Entertainment. Life was good. Real good. Personally and professionally. But the tug of a still unfolding destiny would not be ignored. It two-armed shoved her into her boss’s office one day with her passion for diversity and honest representation of the real world in media worn boldly on each sleeve.
Tiffany had a plan for CBS’ future and it included a new version of commitment to inclusion. And she was heard. Loud and clear. Named the Vice President of the brand-new department, that tug and shove launched. The more-than-qualified flame bearer hit this new trail and blazed.
Tiffany is pioneering world-changing advancements in diversity and its representation on all sides of the media lens.
It requires the broadest definitions of diversity – celebrating the heritage of many cultures – reflecting experiences, perspectives, and skills.
On an unseasonably warm Autumn day, I anxiously set up interview shop on a sun patch under a skylight in my favorite corner of my bedroom. I was over prepared for my conversation with Tiffany. I mean, she is a very, very, very busy woman… and she’d been gracious enough to make room for NiaMagazine.com in her jam-packed schedule.
As I dialed into the conference call early and waited, I wondered what she’d thought about the five thousand questions we’d submitted for her consideration.
I don’t even know why I was worried. Every jitter jittered away once the upbeat spirit of this undeniably influential businesswoman, in an industry where Black women like her are few, livened up my call line.
With the communication skills of an old-school veteran and the familiarity of a longtime friend – one of the very first things she said was that she couldn’t wait to talk to me.
We chatted about everything from HBCU’s link to the past, present, & future and why her mother is always right, to claiming space in the rooms of your ambition and being crowned a bonafide Rapologist.
I’ll start with a question I like to ask quite often. Who is Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i?
TIFFANY: I am extremely passionate. Extremely organized, sometimes to other people’s chagrin. I am fun, funny, and driven.
Passion drives me more than anything, in all aspects. That’s professional, that’s personal. Passion is something that is always the driving force.
When in your life were you the absolute bravest version of yourself?
TIFFANY: Let’s see… I would say I was my most brave when I created the position I have now.
My father passed away and it allowed me some time to really reflect. When death happens to all of us at various times of our lives, it really forces you to slow down. In that moment, I was paralyzed in the one sense… with the grief. But my father wasn’t going to allow me to do that because that’s when I kept hearing his voice.
What do you wanna do, Tiff? What do you wanna do T?
I just kept hearing that over and over. He kept saying, What do you really want to do?
I had just gotten promoted. Things were going well, my career was great. I just was not completely satisfied and I knew there was so much more to get. I allowed myself to walk into my boss’s office…to sit down and say, “This is what I want to do. You’re not managing me in the most effective way. I’m way smarter than you even know. Let me do this.”
And I almost felt like I had wings on my back, if you will. I had been thinking about it, but I was catapulted into that office. And that’s when I was my bravest.
The conversation regarding diversity typically focuses on on-screen talent, but there’s a major force behind the scenes. How can Black women on the business side affect more change in the industry?
TIFFANY: I think that in front of the camera gets so much attention because it’s something that you physically see.
However, the business side is definitely why it’s so important to make sure they have their voice in the room. That they use it. That they are bringing all of their qualities, as well as their smart business sense, and maybe sometimes a different point of view. Or bringing something that wasn’t thought of before.
I think it’s really important that we have, especially in entertainment, from all levels of development and casting… more people of color making those decisions.
[At] any level of entertainment where there is a decision to be made, that’s how they’ll be able to do it. By being there.
That’s why I created CBS on Tour; going into classrooms and talking about all of the jobs in entertainment that people don’t know about. And wanting them to get those internships. Internships are the gateway into entry-level positions and careers. So many people hear, “Oh I started in the mail room. I started as an intern. I started as a Page.”
People hire who they know and that’s why it’s important to be in the mix.
Besides its monumental inception, what other achievements are you most proud of with regards to your department?
TIFFANY: I am most proud that it’s not just me. And for a few years, it was just me. Now we have a team and they’ve been given their voice.
We all say, work is work. It’s not vacation, it’s not a walk in the park every day, but each member of my team has the same level of passion and they bring it every single day.
This was a germ of an idea and now I have a team. I love that. And I respect them. They’re so smart. They’re so on it. And they know that they represent more than themselves when they’re at work.
What’s your earliest memory of being able to significantly change someone’s perspective?
TIFFANY: One of the things that I have always said is that I just want people to think a little longer, a little broader, and listen a little longer.
So many people [focus on]: “…because it’s always been done this way, because this works, because we’ve never seen it before”. But sometimes it’s not so much that it’s coming from a place of malice. It’s coming from a place [of] “I haven’t even thought about you.”
I love this role so much because I have the opportunity to showcase something that they might not have thought about.
[The most recent example I can give you is:] every season we meet with our executive producers, the show runners and the Writer’s room; and give them a brief tutorial on what my team does and what the department stands for. And the first thing that I always say is when you hear the word diversity, you always think Black.
I can see it in someone’s eyes, as soon as you say “diversity”, the first thing that pops into someone’s mind and the first example they will give you is someone Black. It goes directly to race.
Especially in entertainment, it’s not ‘thinking about women’. It’s not ‘thinking about veterans’. It’s not ‘thinking about older actors’. It’s not ‘thinking about performers with disabilities’.
And that was one of the things I said to them. If you want to talk about a group that has been totally marginalized and invisible, it would definitely be people with disabilities.
And it was like light bulbs shot up all over the place in their heads.
They were like, Absolutely. I have a scene that we’re going to change. It was a basketball scene, now I found an all women Paralympic basketball team and we’re going to use them. Or we’re going to use someone with a sight stick. Or we’re going to [use] someone with a hearing aid.
Just those little things that are [often] not thought about.
I think that’s what I love most. Being able to have someone think about something the way they didn’t.
I’m not forcing anything on anyone. I’m not telling them that they’re wrong. I just want them to think a little broader and have their eyes see a little farther and listen a little longer.
People no longer listen to one another. They just listen to respond. They’re not even listening to what the person is saying. It’s just I need to either defend myself or squash what the other person is saying.
Yep. Waiting for the pause.
Your mother has always believed you could do anything. So has she forgiven you for losing that scholarship at Howard?
TIFFANY: Yes. She forgave me but she won’t let me forget, I’ll tell you that much. Like a good Mama will, right?
When I came home, when I got kicked out of school, she hugged me as soon as she saw me. She was stern. She wasn’t happy. She wasn’t celebrating. But I knew she had forgiven me. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy either, so that was such a lesson learned.
She didn’t know I was going to mess up like that. You have such high hopes for your kid when they go to college and then they get kicked out? I mean, I had lost my utter mind. This all happened after freshman year.
I’m telling them I’m doing so great and I need a new car. I don’t want to live on campus. I want an apartment. And that’s the thing; I didn’t get kicked out until I had already come back [to D.C.]. We were in my apartment that she got for me and paid for the year, in my brand new car that she had shipped.
And that’s when we got the call that [I] lost [my] scholarship. What?
Yes, she’s definitely forgiven me, but it was one of the things that I have in my heart and that I’ve [also] told my daughter.
You will never take anyone’s spot and you [will] appreciate and really make sure that the spot you are given on this earth, you utilize to the fullest.
She kept telling me, “You took someone’s spot at Howard University. Someone opened up a letter that said ‘I’m sorry, you weren’t selected’. Someone deserving. And you took that spot.”
That’s the thing that broke my heart the most.
Yes, but you went on to graduate with honors…just to let the people know.
TIFFANY: Yes I did.
You made up for it.
TIFFANY: I made up for it, yes I did. And she couldn’t have been a more proud Mama than that day.
Life could have [gone] a totally different direction for me. But it was my goal that I spent that year working and going to junior college to get those credits and I went back [to Howard] and graduated with honors.
And still finished in four years. It was five years of college but at Howard I was only there for four.
How does your HBCU legacy inform your corporate America moves?
TIFFANY: I rep for Howard and you’ve always heard me say this if you’ve listened to any interview – I always say I rep for Howard like they pay me a check.
One of the things we do, not only at Howard but [at] all HBCUs is there’s this level of confidence. There is this level that, you matter and your voice matters. And that’s what it gave me.
My husband isn’t from the States and didn’t attend an HBCU. He went to a predominantly white institution. Because he’s married to me, he’s become quite familiar…He’s like, “Oh when you get Howard people together, forget about it.”
My daughter [has a friend]; her mother went to Howard. Every time we see each other it’s always like H-U you know! All loud and it embarrasses the girls. My daughter had her thirteenth birthday party a few weeks ago and that same girl said, “I love talking to you about Howard” in her speech. And as soon as she said Howard, I’m screaming from the side, H-U, you know!
It has informed me in the sense that we’re just so confident. HBCUs have led with their voice from the beginning of time.
And the pride. I think that’s the other thing. The pride.
If you look in my office I have a huge banner: Howard University Alumni. I want people to know that’s where I graduated from and I’m so proud of it. And I think you carry that. You know, here I am 47 years old, and I still talk about it as if I’m 18 and just arrived.
Does your daughter know what you do at work and how brave you had to be to get to where you are right now?
TIFFANY: Does she know what I do? 110%. And she couldn’t be more proud.
It’s one of those where, when you have an only child – and I’m an only child – we don’t say go sit at the “kids table” because this is the only table at the house. We eat dinner collectively as a family and my mother lives with us. So the wisdom she hears at that table every night from myself… from my mother, who’s the wisest woman I’ve ever met in my entire life, and not just cause she’s my mama… and then my husband. She definitely knows what I do.
If you asked her What does your mom do?, she knows my title. She will explain in the sense that my mom is responsible for trying to make inclusion in the real world look like television and vice versa. And she’d say it’s not only in front of the camera, buts it’s also behind the camera. And that’s where stories are written.
[Someone once asked her] “What are your favorite shows?” And she listed … black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, K.C. Undercover…” And they said, “You mean none of them are on CBS? Why?” And she said, very nonchalantly, “Oh I don’t know… because they look like me.” They don’t [all] technically look like her but to her they did. It was just that representation.
She’s heard me say over and over and over again, Use your voice, use your voice.
Always use your voice. You might not get what you want, but the most powerful thing that can never be taken away from you is your voice.
The younger generation consumes media differently. They see the world differently. They had the experience of having a Black president and phenomenal First Lady. There are a lot of quality shows on today where they can see variation of themselves. Do other generations understand diversity similarly, or are they still struggling?
TIFFANY: I think that the generation now definitely understands it more because it’s something that’s in the zeitgeist. We are hearing different words: Diversity. Inclusion. Representation. Those were things I never really heard as a kid. And I know my husband didn’t either.
[For] this generation, it’s just normal to them. Like you said, there are some kids [who] the only president they ever knew was President Barack [Obama]. That’s all they ever knew, so it isn’t an anomaly.
It isn’t such a big deal to be the first.
We know about Jayne Kennedy and how meaningful she was to your younger life as far as motivation is concerned. Have you ever had a chance to meet her?
TIFFANY: I haven’t had a chance to physically meet her, but I will. I’m going to. We are corresponding. Someone sent her my Time magazine article where I mentioned her [and] she emailed me [through LinkedIn].
I [was] going through it one day and there’s an email from Jayne Kennedy. And I’m like WHAT?! She introduced herself and I was just blown away. We corresponded, and what was kismet about all of it was that not only had she read the article…
That day was Diversity Day at my daughter’s school and I was the keynote speaker. In the PowerPoint I showed a picture of myself [at] eight-years-old and a picture of Jayne Kennedy as a journalist. And I just given a whole [speech] on “this was my representation”.
I can still feel the way that [I felt at 8 when] she came onto the screen. I looked and then looked back at my parents and I said, “Girls can do that?” I never thought [a girl] could be a sports broadcaster, let alone a woman of color. I was blown away.
I kept looking at the TV and looking at my parents like What? Well that’s what I want to do. Girls can do that. And my parents were like Absolutely! Of course they can.
That night [is] when I got the email from her, after I had been talking about her all day.
We are in correspondence. We both live in Los Angeles. We are meeting and I can’t wait to show that eight-year-old picture.
What books or songs are on your playlist or shelf?
TIFFANY: Book #1 is: The Hidden Brain. And if you’ve never read it, I’m sending you a copy today. It’s something I give out to executives. For right now, it’s definitely going to be the book that I not only continue to look back upon, but I definitely will suggest to others.
My playlist? One of the things that I don’t know if you ever researched about me [is] I’m a Rapologist. A self-proclaimed Rapologist. I’m the one that loves rap from back in the day. That’s what’s on my playlist.
I have eclectic music tastes but a lot of people don’t know that about me. So it’s going to be Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap…and obviously Biggie, Tupac. Those are my go to music.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
TIFFANY: I think I’m too young for a legacy. I am just getting started. I just want to be the person that introduced someone else to someone and then magic happened.
TIFFANY: Absolutely. But I’m just getting started. So this isn’t the end of the road like Boyz to Men. We going places.
A flirt with failure may make life real messy for a while, but it never has to define your future.
Second chances are not the floating dandelion puffs we affectionately called Money Men; chased and used to wish our wildest wonders on. They’re possibilities we often have to create or seize as soon as we catch a tiny glimpse of them.
Toni Morrison told us: “Me and you, we got more yesterdays than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Tiffany’s work is a faithful pledge that all of our days are honored on screens in all corners of the world.
It takes a village, every day, to build a healthy ‘I’, ‘We’, and ‘Us’. The villages we establish today, cultivate the ones our future depends on. Media will always have an extraordinary influence on them. It’s crucial that it reflects them honestly.
The throngs of ancestors at our backs always knew this. We are their wildest dreams.
And just like Tiffany’s mother, they are never wrong.
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