As students at Columbia College Chicago, Lena Waithe, Tony Merevick and Roma Shah all jump-started their careers with hands-on experience, prestigious internships and boundless ambition—and today, they continue to build on the creative momentum that originated in the South Loop. As the rising stars of television, journalism and fashion business, respectively, each of these young graduates has made a major impact in their fields—all before their 30th birthdays. And they’re only getting started.
LENA WAITHE: HOLLYWOOD HOTSHOT
BA ’06, Television
Age: 29, Los Angeles
If you haven’t heard of Lena Waithe (BA ’06) yet, you will soon. At 29, she’s poised to be the next big Hollywood voice. She’s an accomplished screenwriter; the producer of a hot new feature film, Dear White People; and the creator of a stylish new comedy, Twenties (already drawing comparisons to HBO’s millennial-centric Girls).
When Chicago-born Waithe came to Columbia, she knew she wanted to be a TV writer. She threw herself into her studies, particularly writing courses. She calls the writing class she took with associate professor Michael Fry “life changing.”
“He gave me the fundamentals,” Waithe says of Fry. “He doesn’t hand out A’s a lot—an A means you really have something.” Her final project was a script for the UPN/CW comedy series Girlfriends. After receiving a hard-won A, she approached Fry for advice. “I asked him whether I really did have something, and he said, ‘You do. You have it. Go to L.A.,’” she says.
So she did. At the end of her senior year, Waithe completed Columbia’s Semester in LA program, a five-week immersive experience with industry professionals—and never left.
Waithe racked up a wide array of credits: She was an editorial assistant on MTV’s reality juggernaut The Real World and—quite serendipitously worked—on the set of Girlfriends as the assistant to the executive producer. That led to a job as an assistant to writer/director Gina Prince-Blythwood (who became a mentor and close friend) on the movie The Secret Life of Bees. She was also a writing assistant on George Tillman’s (BA ’91) Notorious B.I.G. biopic, Notorious.
All the while, Waithe worked on her own project: a pilot script that she submitted to the selective Fox Writers’ Intensive program, an invitation-only series of seminars and workshops for emerging TV and film writers. The script, My Mother, Myself, explored the relationship between a washed-up diva matriarch and a daughter ready for her own spotlight. It wasn’t produced, but it caught the eye of other industry writers, and things began falling into place. Waithe secured an agent, won more fellowships and met more people. In 2012, Nickelodeon hired her as a staff writer on its musical comedy series How to Rock. She became a member of the Writers Guild of America (the official union of the industry), where she founded the Table Read Initiative as a way to highlight the work of African Americans in Hollywood.
“I pretty much pulled pages from my diary and turned it into a pilot. I told my truth. Ultimately, as a writer, that’s my job.”
At the same time, she increased focus on her own projects. Waithe wrote a viral video (Shit Black Girls Say) and webisodes about online dating (Hello Cupid), and wrote and directed a short film (Save Me) that appeared at several indie film festivals. She also produced the feature film Dear White People, written and directed by her best friend, Justin Simien. A satire about “being a black face in a very white place” (a fictional Ivy League college), the film premiered at Sundance in January, earning the festival’s Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent. The filmmakers’ gutsy path to Sundance, begun years earlier, involved producing a “concept trailer” to promote the movie, which hadn’t yet been filmed. Through YouTube, social media and the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, the team raised more than $41,000 in summer 2012 and completed the movie’s filming in 2013.
Dear White People’s approach is both stylish and compelling—as much inspired by the meticulous, neo-preppy style of Wes Anderson and the deadpan wit of Alexander Payne’s Election as the “black art house” sensibilities of Spike Lee. Its theme focusing on racial identity in “post-racial” America is erudite, funny, and—as Waithe notes—a refreshing departure from the “easily digestible images of black folks” she usually sees.
Waithe’s other big project, Twenties, which she created and wrote, is even more personal. The TV dramedy—backed by Queen Latifah’s production company, Flavor Unit Entertainment—is about a group of (mostly) black 20-somethings; it centers on a woman named Hattie who video-blogs and just happens to be a lesbian. Hattie is an imperfect, loveable, complex character: She listens to vinyl records, prefers The Wizard of Oz to The Wiz, is broke because she “eats out too much” and is learning to express herself more honestly.
Like Dear White People, Twenties is being promoted with a series of four short scenes from a yet-to-be-filmed episode—and owes its chic look to director Simien, who will also direct the pilot when (not if) it’s produced. One thing is certain: Twenties will put Waithe in a new league.
“I pretty much pulled pages from my diary and turned it into a pilot,” says Waithe. “I wrote about what was going on in my life. I told my truth. Ultimately, as a writer, that’s my job.”
TONY MEREVICK: MEDIA MAVERICK
BA ’12, Journalism
Age: 24, New York City
Lake in the Hills, Ill., native Tony Merevick (BA ’12) ignited his career while still a student at Columbia. While juggling a full course load, he also reported for two local publications, founded a new one and interned in New York City. Last fall, New York-based social news and entertainment company BuzzFeed hired Merevick as an LGBT breaking news reporter.
“All the journalism teachers I studied under were instrumental in helping me succeed,” says Merevick. He specifically cites his Reporting and Writing II professor Nancy Traver, who “really empowered me to look at her six-hour course and think of it more as a job,” he says. “I was really hungry to do that.”
In the spring semester following Traver’s class, Merevick began working as a professional journalist. “It was a pivotal semester for me,” he says. “That was also around the time I became interested in covering the LGBT community.” He went to work as an online editor for Chicago Free Press, then as an opinions columnist and news reporter for Gay Chicago Magazine. When both publications folded within the span of two years, Merevick saw a huge open market for queer media in Chicago. So he and friend Dane Tidwell cofounded online news publication Chicago Phoenix “out of the ashes” in January 2012—while Merevick was still a college senior.
“I think that Chicago’s community deserves a publication that looks out for them, speaks to them, for them,” says Merevick, who served as the Phoenix’s editor-in-chief from January 2012 to September 2013. Today, Chicago Phoenix is one of the most-read digital LGBT publications in the Midwest.
“On the eve of Illinois’ historic Marriage Equality Bill, Merevick scored an exclusive interview with Gov. Pat Quinn.”
Helming a Web startup during his senior year was a challenge Merevick took in stride: “Columbia gave me the tools and provided me with the opportunity to build a really good network of people … who I could turn to for support,” he says. Describing the agility of the Phoenix’s platform and the need for up-to-the-second coverage in the Twitter age, he says, “I learned these things at Columbia, but put them to use at the Phoenix.”
By the time Merevick launched Chicago Phoenix, he had a resume any journalism student would envy. In addition to working at Chicago Free Press and Gay Chicago Magazine, he scored a highly-sought-after, paid summer internship at O, the Oprah Magazine in New York City through the American Society of Magazine Editors internship program. He worked on a team that developed the magazine’s iPad edition. “At the time, magazines were still experimenting with how they could adapt and take advantage of this revolutionary platform,” he says. “I wanted to be part of that.”
When BuzzFeed announced it was hiring journalists to bolster its LGBT coverage, Merevick jumped at the unexpected opportunity to move back to New York City. “I was hesitant to leave Phoenix and Chicago, but [BuzzFeed is] such an incredible, innovative platform,” he says. “I couldn’t turn that down.”
With more than 100 million monthly unique visitors, BuzzFeed is a hub for viral media and an outlet for original reporting and breaking news. Merevick covers gay rights issues in the U.S. and abroad, reporting on everything from marriage equality to Russia’s anti-gay policies. On the eve of the signing of Illinois’ historic marriage equality legislation, he scored an exclusive interview with Gov. Pat Quinn. As a reporter for BuzzFeed, he flew back to Chicago to interview Quinn in person and stayed for the signing ceremony at UIC Pavilion—a full-circle moment for Merevick, having covered the bill since it was introduced.
At BuzzFeed less than a year, Merevick is just getting started. “It’s full of amazing and talented people I consider myself very lucky to work alongside every day, and it’s a place where journalistic integrity and storytelling are taken very seriously,” says Merevick. “It’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
ROMA SHAH: FASHION FANCIER
BA ’08, AEMM
Sales Manager, Saint Laurent
Age: 28, New York City
Roma Shah’s infectious energy and intensity have taken her to one of the most iconic fashion houses in the world. At 28, Shah (BA ’08) is a sales manager for Saint Laurent (formerly Yves Saint Laurent), where she oversees the wholesale of the brand’s shoes and accessories for all of North and South America. “I want to always show that I love what I do,” says the rising fashion star, whose boundless enthusiasm for the industry was cultivated at Columbia. “It’s what I carry from my college career into my life now.”
Shah grew up in Chicago and chose Columbia for its stellar fashion department and reputation for hands-on training. “You could be an entrepreneur and be in school,” says Shah. “It was the best choice I could have made.”
At Columbia, Shah built on her fashion skills and experience. Her favorite professor, Barbara Samuels, taught a class that teamed photography, fashion design and fashion business students to produce photo shoots. “It was really cool because you worked with people from different departments,” Shah says. “Collaboration is key. That’s what it’s like in the real world.”
“I fell in love with the wholesale business the minute I walked into [Valentino’s] office.”
During her junior year, Shah interned at the corporate headquarters of Valentino in New York, working with the accessories team. “I fell in love with the wholesale business the minute I walked into that office,” she says. “I felt really lucky to be working with such amazing people who were making such beautiful things.” A highlight of her intern experience: seeing Mr. Valentino’s last ready-to-wear runway show in Paris before he retired. “It was a really exciting time in fashion for me, at a really early age,” she says.
After graduating in 2008, Shah moved to New York City to join the corporate accessories team at Valentino. Two years later, she moved to Mumbai to work at Vogue India on the editorial team for fashion features and the beauty team. She began freelancing for the legendary brand Yves Saint Laurent, now called simply Saint Laurent Paris, in 2011, and moved to New York for her current job later that year.
As a wholesaler, Shah works with buyers from department stores including Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York and Neiman Marcus, as well as boutiques like A’ Maree’s in Newport Beach, Calif., and Chicago’s Blake. Every store’s needs and expectations are different. One day, Shah might work on styling Barneys’ online presence. The next, she might travel to Paris with her team for a runway show followed by briefings and market campaign development. “My day is always changing. No job is too little for me,” she says. “What keeps me motivated is how often fashion changes.”
Shah’s newest personal side projects are soon-to-be-launched blogs LeProfiles.com and YvesDropping.com, with photography by friend Perrie Schad (BFA ’07). They will celebrate the often-unsung creativity of people working on the business side of fashion. “I want to highlight the people who inspire me every day,” Shah says.
In 2012, Yves Saint Laurent rebranded itself under a new creative director, Hedi Slimane, who wanted to nod to the brand’s classic designs while looking toward the future—with Shah following every step of the way. “It is like working for a new company. It’s modern, fresh and exciting,” says Shah. “We are making fashion history.”
— By Audrey Michelle Mast (BA ’00), Photography by Anthony Chiappetta (BA ’95), and Drew Reynolds (BA ’97)