Meet Tola Lawal, Founder of Gyrl Wonder; a 501c(3) initiative that equips young women to turn their passions into careers. They prepare college-aged women of color for richer opportunities through personal development, mental and physical health and wellness.
Some of their programs include their Leadership academy which is an annual week-long programme dedicated to impactful conversations and work to help young women with career discovery in alignment with their passion; ‘Wholistically ME’ which provides access to black therapists at a discounted rate to address any obstacles they may face e.g. self-harm, substance abuse and depression, as well as the mentoring matters programme which is designed to excite, empower and encourage young women to become trailblazers in their respective careers.
Lawal shares why she decided to start this initiative: “ I started Gyrl Wonder to help young women of color get into the arts and creative fields; think marketing, advertising, public relations, TV and Film. I felt like the education system was pushing STEM, which is now STEAM, on our students but wasn’t really supporting or creating avenues for the creative kids. The students like me, who, yes – did well in Biology but knew they didn’t want to go into the medical field. I wanted to give some tips and share the steps that I took to get into the entertainment industry. I wanted to show our students that they too could work at companies like Paramount (then Viacom), Twitter, and HBO – they didn’t realize that these opportunities were attainable and available to them.”
Although there are thousands of women and career empowerment organizations, Gyrl Wonder has its unique value. “What makes Gyrl Wonder unique is our creative YET hands-on approach to professional development, our “once you’re in, you’re in” model of community, and our cocoon 360 approach to support. There is no “growing out of Gyrl Wonder”. While we have a few entry points to join the community, we’ve also built different communities for the:
- college newbie just joining the organization
- graduate gyrls that have finished their post-grad education but understand the importance of maintaining community
- regional gyrls learning how to build and maintain relationships with like-minds outside of their university settings
We want gyrls to JOIN and STAY in the organization that they have built. We want all members to grow with Gyrl Wonder as she grows and expands,” Lawal states.
GYRL Wonder focuses on helping young women in the media and entertainment space. Lawal shares why this is important: “Gyrl Wonder focuses on the media and entertainment industry because it’s the industry that I can speak to. I’m never going to speak on something I’m not well versed in so I can’t guide or teach anyone how to get into Law School or how to get through Medical School. I wanted Gyrl Wonder to be the go-to organization for the creative gyrls who needed guidance on how to get to where they wanted to be in the arts. I knew at a young age that I was going to be in the creative field, and while in college I just followed my internal compass on how to go about it. I didn’t have mentors until I was in my 30’s lol.”
Oftentimes, college graduates find themselves in a pickle as to what the next step is. They leave college feeling ‘lost, ‘stuck’, and ‘unsure’; Lawal asserts that those feelings are normal. She shares her biggest advice for graduates who are unsure of the next step to take.
“Give yourself grace but learn some resilience. You can’t graduate today and be VP of a company tomorrow. You can’t skip steps. The first few years after you graduate are your most formidable years. Those are the years you’re supposed to learn, make mistakes, and try new things, these years set the tone for your professional career. Take it day by day, map out some goals and chip away at them daily. You’re going to make mistakes; fail fast, dust yourself off and get TF up. Every mistake is a lesson learned. This didn’t work out? Ok cool – let me try this. Grace – but don’t accept defeat,” she says.
She adds: “Run your race and only your race. Your path is yours. Social media has really done a number on GenZ because what you see is the highlight reel. Yes, you see the good picture, but you forget that there were 79 pictures taken to get that ONE good shot. It’s the same with professional wins – yes you see the promotions, the sold-out boutiques, but you don’t know the amount of sweat equity and hours put on the board behind the scenes. Keep your eyes on your paper.”
Lastly, she says: “Understand that real education lives outside of the classroom. Join organizations and communities like a Gyrl Wonder to meet others on a similar journey. You could do this alone, but it won’t be easy. Network, learn, listen, get out of your head, get out of your shell and comfort zone and get to these opportunities.”
Breaking into the media and entertainment industry is no easy feat. It is difficult, to say the least, and requires a lot of relentlessness and not just talent. Lawal is quick to offer tips to young black women who are looking to break into the industry.
Tola’s Tips For Breaking Into The Media Industry
1) INTERN, INTERN, INTERN
“Interning or participating in Fellowships (for the post-grad gyrls) will give you the experience you need before entering the real world. You learn what you like, what you don’t like, where your interests and strengths lie and what you’d rather not do. That’s where you pick up the foundational basics and the transferable skills needed to be successful in your entry-level roles and beyond. You learn professional basics, how to email – how to respond. While interning, READ, immerse yourself in the trades, the publications specifically for your field. Know the power players, the “who’s who”. If the media/ entertainment space is where you want to be, you have to eat, sleep and breathe it.”
2) Build Genuine Relationships and Embrace Sisterhood In Real Life
“Find peer mentors, find senior-level mentors. LISTEN to them, WATCH them, LEARN from them. We need each other to get to the top. Reach back and pull forward, always,” Lawal says.
3) Remember You Are The Sauce
“Black women ARE the culture. Just know that you are the blueprint. Own it, know that you are beyond qualified and belong in every room. FREEBIE – Bring your thick skin. The entertainment industry is not always the nicest industry for black women,” Lawal asserts.
She is quick to count her blessings specifically being able to do what she loves and work for herself full-time. “Every day that I get to work for my OWN company full-time is a blessing. My team is a blessing. Seeing the impact that we have made in the lives of our mentees is a blessing. This was never my plan – I’m an entrepreneur that likes a regular job. But I learned a minute ago – that it’s never our plan, God’s plan trumps all,” she says.
One would expect Lawal’s entrepreneurial journey to be steamed with challenges as running a business is no easy feat. For Lawal, her journey has been seamless. If she were to mention a challenge, it would probably be building a solid team that understands the vision of the brand and keeping up with the opportunities the company is presented with.
Lawal is optimistic about the future. When asked what the future of Gyrl Wonder looks like, she affirms: “More everything. More programming, more community, more partnerships, more scholarships for our gyrls. We are launching a few new extensions this year, announcing a few DOPE partnerships (that we can’t mention yet), so stay tuned. This year is going to be HUGE for Gyrl Wonder, our Black Gyrl community and our supporters.”
You can find Gyrl Wonder on the web at www.gyrlwonder.org and on social media below:
Instagram – @Gyrlwonder, Linkedin – “our LinkedIn is POPPIN” – @Gyrlwonder + Tola’s page Tola L. where she posts bi-weekly tips on marketing, mentoring and anything else the community wants to know about.