At 26 years old, Monique Harris is well on her way to making her mark in the TV and film industry. Harris, a freelance production coordinator for The Dr. Oz Show, got her start as an intern for BET Networks in 2008. Since then she has worked for some of the most influential networks in the industry, such as Tyler Perry Studios, FOX, Harpo and Warner Bros.
Interestingly enough, the Maryland native wasn’t always on the track. She lived for the moment, parading through her school years as the “popular fly girl” who had below-average grades and got into her fair share of fights. Her behavior became so much of a problem in 10th grade that she was eventually kicked out of Prince Georges County schools due to a group fight. It wasn’t until she lost some of her peers to violence and the DC prison system that she experienced a wake-up call.
“I realized that I did not want to go down that road; I was surrounding myself with the wrong crowd. I had to make a change and fast,” said Harris, “I don’t regret anything I’ve been through. To me it’s all a part of my story .It shaped me into the person that I am today.”
In 2013 Harris started a non-profit initiative, Directing Dreams, in the DC/MD area for young teens who desire to get into the entertainment /media field; the enrichment programming and workshops are offered free of charge to Maryland and DC residents. Harris sat down with EBONY.com to chat about her desire to inspire and uplift her community.
EBONY: When did you realize that you wanted to make a career in TV Production?
Monique Harris: My [junior] year in high school, I was forced to take a trade or foreign language class in order to graduate. I would never have passed Spanish or French. I failed Fashion Design and my only option was TV Production. A few weeks into the class I found my love for production and knew that this was my ultimate career path. After two years of taking TV Production I & II, I decided to go to The Art Institute of Philadelphia to pursue a degree in TV Production.
EBONY: How was your decision received by your support system?
MH: My family and friends have supported me since day one. When I was an intern, my mom would pay hundreds of dollars for me to travel to Atlanta, LA and New York to volunteer on award shows. I quit my job at AT&T Wireless to put in more hours at an unpaid internship with BET Networks. My mom did not agree with a lot of my decisions and probably never thought my career would take off but she always supported me 100%. I promised her it would pay off and it did! I was hired as a production assistant [PA] the day after my internship was over.
EBONY: At that point, what did you envision your career looking like?
MH: I envisioned, by 26, being a music video director. Going into college, my first love was to write treatments for music videos. I told myself one day I would be the next Hype Williams. I realized a few years later that music videos weren't and aren’t what they use to be. I met a line producer while working on The Monique Show [who] I look up to. She is so powerful. She runs the show. She tells you how much you can spend, who you can hire; all calls go through the line producer. The line producer creates the budget. I knew at that moment I wanted to follow in her footsteps and learn as much as I could learn from her.
EBONY: Is it everything that you hoped for at this point?
MH: So far it is everything and more that I hoped for. To work under and watch Tyler Perry call shots on set is an opportunity that anyone would dream of having. To work with and gain knowledge from America's favorite doctor, Mehmet Oz, is breathtaking. I am very blessed and I have had a lot of humbling and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
EBONY: A professor once told you that a Black girl would never be the next Steven Spielberg. How did that affect you as a woman and someone of color?
MH: It hurt at that moment, to know that my family struggled to pay my way through college where instead of teaching me the skills to become the first Black female Steven Spielberg, my professor put me down and told me that I was paying for something that [she thought] I could never be. I had to realize she only told me what most people think but never speak on…and when I look back [on that experience, I realize], it motivated me. I developed tough skin that day and understood that everyone won’t have the faith in you that you have in yourself.
EBONY: At 26,your experience spans multiple networks, a film production studio and countless sitcoms and stage plays. Not to mention you made the “DMV's [D.C., Maryland and Virginia] Top 30 Under 30”. What motivates you?
MH: I am motivated by succeeding in a field that I was told I would never make it in. I want to show other young girls who aren’t honor roll students, who didn’t come from money, who may have made a few wrong decisions down the line, that it’s never to late for a change and with hard work and dedication you can accomplish whatever you want to. Everything is possible.
EBONY: When looking back at your various internships, what are two of the most valuable lessons or skills that you developed as a result of those opportunities?
MH: The most valuable lesson I learned is that it’s not what you know it’s who you know. Networking is the best way into this industry. Get in and meet as many people as you can because you never know who will land you your next gig. The second most valuable lesson I learned is to be a jack-of-all-trades. Things change so much in production that you have to be well rounded.
EBONY: What is some of the best advice that you’ve received thus far and who gave it to you?
MH: When I was an intern/PA at BET in Washington, D.C., I messed up on a project and my mentor, Martin Davis sat me down and told me, "This industry is so small that once you’re in, you’re in; but when you’re out, your out ". Never burn your bridges on a gig.
EBONY: What is a key mistake that others your age make in the industry?
MH: A lot of people my age in this industry get too comfortable and remain in one place. I was a PA for five years and watched people my age coming in this industry after me move forward to higher titles because they took that chance. You can work hard every day, but until you decide to step out of your comfort zone and not be afraid to move around and go for a higher position, you will remain the same hard worker in the same position you were in five years ago.
EBONY: In addition to your career in media, you also have a commitment to serving the community via public speaking and your non-profit initiative, Directing Dreams.
MH: Yes, I am very involved in the community. I have also recently adopted a block through Washington, DC, to keep the city clean. [Directing Dreams] is geared towards not only kids who want to get into the TV/media industry, but also troubled teens who need an outlet and an extra push to dream and accomplish. I am working out of pocket on fundraisers and sponsoring proms in the DC/MD area. I had no career path until someone introduced me to that TV Production class. I just want to give young kids the same opportunity that I had.
EBONY: How do you manage to balance your media career, the non-profit, public speaking, your personal life, and let us not forget your much appreciated fashion sense?
MH: Somehow, I make it work [laughs]! Moving from Atlanta to NYC gave me a lot more time to go back and forth to DC and run my non-profit. Working 12-16 hours a day on productions take up most of my time and I spend a lot of my time on fashion blogs, Tumblr and doing online shopping. No matter how much I work on my non-profit or various productions, I always make time for myself; I never let work stress me out and I travel as much as I can.
EBONY: What is one of the greatest sacrifices that you’ve had to make thus far for your career/dream?
MH: Moving away from my family and friends. [It’s] the biggest sacrifice I have made, [but] it is also the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I come from a city where very few make it out and I’m just happy to beat the odds. I stepped out on faith in 2010 and moved to Atlanta and it’s the best decision I have ever made.
EBONY: What advice would you give to other Black, Fresh & 20-Something’s who are looking to get into media and/or the non-profit sector?
MH: Stay focused and be ready to ride it out. Nothing is handed to you and anything easy to accomplish is not worth having. Build your network, remain humble and by any means necessary go after what you want. We live in an era where you don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer to be successful. Build your own success by doing what you love and making it work for you.
Syreeta “Sincerely Syreeta” Martin is a mother, freelance journalist, entrepreneur and creator of SincerelySyreeta.com.