Clara Villarosa: Marketing and Controlling the Narrative
by Kyle Kendall
“Once I did it, I was hooked.”
Clara Villarosa has never been afraid of doing a 180. Before founding a legendary Harlem bookstore, Clara had already made major vocational changes twice before.
“I grew up in a black neighborhood and most of the people in the neighborhood… did not own businesses, they were not in places, positions of power, and so at school, I saw three black teachers, and they were beautiful, and they were smart. And I said, that’s what I wanna be, I wanna grow up and be pretty and smart, and I’m gonna be a school teacher,” she recalls.
“I got into college, and I got into student teaching, there were too many people in the room and they were small and they were fidgety, and I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do with them so I sort of freaked out and they took me aside and said, Ms. Alexander, we think there may be something else you can do but teaching doesn’t seem the right thing for you. I was devastated I had failed. I really didn’t know what to do next.”
But she made the change, working her way through the hospital system as a social worker, before deciding to go back to school to test the waters in the corporate world. She climbed the ladder all the way to a vice president position at a major bank before, as she puts it, hitting the glass ceiling.
“Always a devoted bibliophile,” she decided to test out her entrepreneurial tendencies and opened the first Hue-Man Bookstore in Denver in 1984. In 2000, she moved to New York and opened a second location in Harlem — which would become the largest African American bookstore in the US.
Both stores served as cultural hubs for African American authors and readers. It was here that she finally settled on what she knew she was meant to do — entrepreneurship. And she’s used her talents to make an incredible mark on the Black literature world.
But what might have happened if Clara had had more choice in role models growing up? How might her trajectory been different if she had known Black women in her community who owned businesses?
Or maybe she could have seen women who looked like her running businesses in film and television, read about them in books and magazines.
The importance of seeing ourselves represented in the media we consume — especially as we’re growing up — can’t be understated.
Ruth Ann Harnisch, a writer, investor and coach who founded the Harnisch Foundation, which funds women-centred media projects, talks about growing up in the 1960’s and, even then, knowing things weren’t quite right.
“It was fascinating to see when women and girls were represented, and how they were represented. They were usually in secondary roles. Every now and then, there would be a strong woman at the forefront of the story… Every now and then, there would be a female newscaster,” she says. “Every now and then you would see women featured as the authority figure or the leader or the prominent one, but mostly those of us who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s learned that women are valued for their beauty, are not thought to be intellectually capable, and are destined to be housewives and mothers.”
Ruth Ann was driven to change that narrative. She worked in media from the time she was a teenager and eventually became the role model she was looking for as a girl. She was the first woman in local news in Nashville Tennessee.
“I still hear from people who were inspired by seeing a professional woman in a featured role in a credible newscast,” she says. “I began to become the role model that young women and men who needed to change their minds about what women were capable of could see.”
Fifty years later, the industry hasn’t changed as much as you might think.
A study done in August 2015, supported by the Harnisch Foundation, looked at the top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014 and found that women made up only 30.7 percent of all speaking or named roles in film.
What’s more: “Out of 4,610 speaking or named characters across the 100 top grossing films of 2014, only 19 were coded as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Of the 19 characters, the majority were gay, white men,” the study reads. No transgender characters appeared in the top 100 films.
Seventy-three percent of speaking or named characters were White. About five percent were Hispanic/Latino, 12 percent were Black, three percent Middle Eastern and less than one percent were Native American.
“We are still so far from equity,” says Ruth Ann.
It’s also still fairly uncommon to see a woman cast in the role of a leader, and if we do, they’re often portrayed as cut-throat — think Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
“I hope for the day when it looks normal for women to be in the boss role, and not in a caricatured way,” says Ruth Ann.
One of Dream, Girl’s mottos is, “It’s time we stop telling girls they can be anything they want to be and show them what it means to be a leader.”
Dream, Girl is unique in that it explores a broad range of challenges — from investments to personal relationships — faced by women who run companies. The women in the film are real people, who may be cut-throat when they need to be, but they’re also soft and emotional and lead their teams in ways that absolutely aren’t accurately portrayed in film.
And these things matter, not only in terms of making sure that women and people of colour have easily accessible role models in media, but also in terms of recognizing the full humanity of people who are underrepresented. Diverse and emotionally rich roles provide an important, accessible and widespread way for people to empathize with people who might not look or act like themselves.
In other words, Hollywood has enormous power for social good, and the industry is largely squandering it.
But women like Clara, who’s dedicated to making sure people of colour can see themselves represented in literature, and Ruth Ann, devoted to the film world, are shaking up media industries and giving us hope.
Did you see yourself in the media you consumed growing up?
Do you see yourself now? Comment below or join the conversation in the official Dream, Girl facebook group.