According to the Small Business Association, more than 13 million businesses are owned by women. The theater industry is no exception, with women entrepreneurs rapidly appearing, meshing their skill sets with their love of the stage.
For ChiChi Anyanwu, she got hooked on theater when she and her sister, award-winning playwright Ngozi Anyanwu, began performing in summer musical programs. She found her way to the casting side through an internship with McCarter Theater Center in New Jersey.
Years later, Anyanwu realized her strengths lay in talent management. Like so many in the industry, Anyanwu was laid off in March 2020, and she was faced with an unknown future. “There are not a lot of opportunities for talent management in New York because it’s a smaller market,” Anyanwu says. “I was wondering, ‘Should I go to grad school or do something outside of management?’”
That’s when Anyanwu received encouragement from external forces. Her previous clients expressed that they wanted to still work with her, and Anyanwu’s circle of entrepreneurial friends strongly suggested it was time to start her own company.
Anyanwu put together a business plan, raised money through friends and family, and set up an IFundWomen campaign. “People think it’s easy, but there are some fees when you have an LLC,” she says. After winning a $25,000 American Express grant to fund Black female entrepreneurs, CHI Talent Management was official, building the initial roster with clients from Anyanwu’s former job, and with the flood of submissions she received after hiring a publicist to get the word out.
“There were also a lot of people interested in general meetings,” says Anyanwu. “Unfortunately, I’m one of very few Black talent managers, so people wanted to find out about me and find out about my diverse roster. People are making a point to be inclusive now. TV and theater didn’t used to be this diverse, so I knew I wanted to be a part of the solution when I got in a position of power.”
Like Anyanwu, Scenery Bags’ founder, Jennifer Kahn, started out performing when she was young. “I was a dancer first,” says Kahn. “I grew up loving movie musicals. My childhood crushes were Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye. My sister and I started a Doris Day fan club. We were the only two members, but we were very active.”
This love continued as she became a professional stage manager. While her career blossomed, she also nurtured another side of herself: blogging about give-back and ethical style. During a road trip to Maine with a friend, Kahn visited Sea Bags, a company that upcycles bags from old sails, and was inspired.
“We thought of the old drops that are usually thrown away after a show closes. They’re a big piece of beautiful fabric that scenic artists spend hours on, imbued with memories,” she says. And so, Scenery Bags became rooted in creating handmade bags and accessories from recycled theater materials. Kahn developed the idea while stage-managing the 2015 Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening, leading to check-ins in the wings of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with Krysta Rodriguez, who became her first champion.
Grapevine PR’s founders, Molly Barnett and Chelsea Nachman met working in the industry, managing the publicity for Tony-winning shows such as Fun Home and Dear Evan Hansen. After working at agencies for 11 years and seven years, respectively, Barnett and Nachman found themselves ready for a new chapter.
“In my 20s, there was no work-life balance — I missed birthday dinners, family gatherings — but for a decade it was my dream job,” says Nachman. “We grew to a point that we wanted more besides work.”
“The all-consuming nature of it in your 20s is what prepares you to take agency of your life,” adds Barnett. “We could not have started this company when we were 25. We didn’t have the contacts, the experience, the history, the trust, nor the reputation. We worked that hard so that we could start our own company.”
They were approached with offers to work as personal publicists for Broadway actors, which made Barnett and Nachman realize there was a need for personal PR reps who knew the theatrical landscape. Starting their own PR company could be the solution.
“To be completely honest, if we thought any more about it, we probably wouldn’t have done it,” says Nachman.
“Neither of us are business people, neither of us understands taxes,” adds Barnett. “So we hired people to do those things. One of the best pieces of advice we heard was to focus on the things you’re good at and outsource the things you’re not good at.”
Kahn echoes a similar “diving headfirst” sentiment when explaining Scenery Bags’s initial explosion onto the scene.
From 600 pounds of material donated from a friend, Kahn made her first round of 25 bags. She sent one to Rodriguez, whose Instagram post caught the attention of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creator Rachel Bloom. “I sent Rachel a bag and figured if she was going to post about it, I should probably build a website. I literally nursed my baby while I built it in an afternoon,” Kahn says. The work paid off, because Bloom’s Instagram post earned Scenery Bags an Upworthy feature, causing the company’s visibility to soar. Kahn sold 4,000 bags in 24 hours.
“If you care the most about an idea, that’s all you need,” Kahn says. “You don’t need a business degree; your passion qualifies you.” As Scenery Bags became her full-time gig, she asked for help in filling the gaps of running a business. “Start asking. Sometimes the right person to ask is someone you know, and sometimes it’s Google.”
Anyanwu agrees. “I learned a lot from YouTube tutorials. I’ve been nonstop since the beginning, just figuring it out on my own. I’ve learned to keep up with bookkeeping and making sure the bills get paid.”
With glass ceilings to break and barriers to bust through, these entrepreneurs have found that their networks of supportive women always offer guidance.
“There’s something about the female-identifying entrepreneurial space where we want to help each other,” says Kahn.
“Stacey Mindich was instrumental in us starting this business,” says Barnett. The Dear Evan Hansen producer asked Barnett and Nachman to continue working on the musical’s publicity as they kicked off Grapevine PR, which created their income foundation. Though not all Broadway producers were as generous.
“A producer — whom we have never met and never worked with — took it upon himself to make some very personal remarks when we launched,” Nachman says.
“Calling two women who start their own business ‘spoiled children’ is extremely sexist,” Barnett adds. “It felt like a shitty way to start our company, but we very quickly realized it was actually a blessing. From a publicist’s perspective, it is the best publicity we could have asked for.”
Anyanwu agrees that it’s about the people you surround yourself with. “This business is about relationships. Instead of asking ‘What can they do for me?’ I ask, ‘How can I be of service to them?’”
Kahn embraces service through Scenery Bags’s give-back component with the Theatre Development Fund, sending more than 1,100 kids to see theater. That impact is in addition to the 30,000 pounds of theatrical waste Scenery Bags has rescued, plus the emails Kahn gets from customers describing their personal connection to their purchases — the pinnacle example being Billy Porter’s 2019 Tony Awards look for which Kahn coordinated with Porter’s styling team, RRR Creative. The outfit was made from the red curtain featured in Kinky Boots, the show that catapulted Porter to win his own Tony.
Ultimately, these women entrepreneurs have taken their love of theater and created a new dream and a new reality.
“It feels great that I’m working for myself and not working hard toward someone else’s dreams,” says Anyanwu. “This industry is about taking a chance.”
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