Build Friendships, Not Networks

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to “network” and why it gives so many of us anxiety.  When I look back on the years I’ve worked in film, I now see that the most valuable opportunities and rewarding experiences have come from true friendships and not people in my so-called network.

 FLOWSTATE Films, co-founders, Leola Calzoai-Stewart and Kiley Kraskouskas in Harlem conducting research for their film, BLACK DIPLOMACY 

FLOWSTATE Films, co-founders, Leola Calzoai-Stewart and Kiley Kraskouskas in Harlem conducting research for their film, BLACK DIPLOMACY 

A few years ago, I joined the board of an arts non-profit.  Many of the fellow board members were in the same business as me, essentially “competitors”.  However, given our similar interests many friendships developed from that experience. And I mean really true friendship, where I can be myself and not just the professionalized version of myself.  These are the people I now turn to for advice, to whom I can admit mistakes and failures; and, with whom I share freely from my own experiences.   Creatively, we share each others draft work-- warts and all-- and celebrate each other's successes both professionally and personally.  

Working in film and video production is a team sport.  As a producer you need editors, directors,  clients, and assistants to all be on the same page in the face of creative differences and varying skill sets.  I learned that developing true rapport and building trust with your collaborators makes the stress of deadline-intensive work a little bit easier.   I’m proud of the fact that many of the people I started my career with are still my friends today.  Not to mention that my two business partners here at FLOWSTATE are two of my closest friends. We met on the job over ten years ago.

Making friends must be genuine. You don’t connect with everyone. When I was younger, I felt the need to have everyone “like” me.  Sometimes this meant spending large chunks of time with people who were energy-takers rather than energy-givers or playing up parts of my personality that didn’t feel authentic just to make another person feel more comfortable.  As I’ve gotten older and my spare time more limited, I’ve decided to lean in to those friendships that feel mutual, that give me inspiration and guidance rather than drag me down or have an undercurrent of jealousy or competition. Likewise, I find myself joyfully supporting their career and life successes back. 

 FLOWSTATE Films co-founders Rachell Shapiro and Kiley Kraskouskas right after the birth of Rachell's daughter. 

FLOWSTATE Films co-founders Rachell Shapiro and Kiley Kraskouskas right after the birth of Rachell's daughter. 

From making my first film and starting my company, to client referrals and securing investors and funders in my work, all of these opportunities have come from true friendships. So for those of you who hate the word networking as much as I do, commit to making a few new friends and you will reap the benefits.

We Do That

We Do That

My partners and I tend be uncomfortable with the notion of self-promoting. We often assume most people know what we do from the occasional social media post. Therefore, we don’t spend a lot of time getting specific about what it is we do at FLOWSTATE Films outside of “appropriate” formats.   And, I have to be honest, I am sure this discomfort around self-promotion has something to do with gender (but that’s a blog post for another time).  But, clearly there is a line between unabashed self-promotion and simply letting people know what you do, especially something you deeply enjoy, so that you don't miss potential clients. 

Moving The Goal Post

Five years ago, looking to jumpstart my path as an entrepreneur, I participated in a CEO Accelerator program. The class met for six weeks covering a compressed MBA curriculum with 12 non-competing business owners.  

Recently as I was organizing my home office, I came upon the very first worksheet we filled out in class.   It was a basic goal-setting chart. The first set of goals had to be personal in nature, and the second, for the business.   I had completely forgotten what I had put down for my personal goals:

  1. Own a Single Family Home

  2. Have a Second Child

  3. Build Up Savings

At the time of the class, my husband, son, dog and I were living in a small condo we had bought right before the housing market crashed in 2006.  From the day we bought it, it had lost tens of thousands of dollars in value. It took over six years for the house to recover back to the price we had paid for it.   At times, it seemed like our starter home was going to be our forever home.  But, in 2013,  we managed to sell the condo and buy a single family home on a street we had always loved; filled with kids, great neighbors, and, a home office (for me)  overlooking our backyard. It was the ideal place to re-start the business and our lives.

Fast forward to 2017, and, after two miscarriages, I am writing this post as I watch my baby daughter sleep...


There are days I can be so hard on myself. I wonder if my career is moving fast enough... Should I have made more films by now? Should I be making more money at a corporate job? Am I the best parent I can be? 

But when I re-visited the goal worksheet, I nearly cried realizing how much my life has changed in five years and how badly I wanted what I have right now.  Goal setting works, but not if we just keep ratcheting up the pressure on ourselves by moving the goal post further away while never looking back.  

The biggest lesson I learned from that accelerator class wasn't about marketing or management, it was the idea that your business is there to help facilitate your personal goals. Once you know what you want out of life, build your business to sustain that. 

Meet the Advisor: Dr. Brenda Gayle Plummer, Author of Rising Wind

            Dr. Brenda Gayle Plummer

           Dr. Brenda Gayle Plummer

As we began putting together Black Diplomacy’s advisory team, one name kept popping up - Dr. Brenda Gayle Plummer. Her book, Rising Wind, is considered by many to be the definitive text on the history of African American engagement in international affairs and serves as a key text in developing our film. In my discussions with other scholars,  it was almost taken as a given that if we were pursuing the subject matter of race, diplomacy, and international affairs then, of course, we must have spoken with Dr. Plummer. Even today, over a year since the beginning of the project, if I am interviewing or speaking with someone who has done research in the area of African Americans and foreign policy, diplomacy and diversity, that person will undoubtedly say, “Have you spoken with Brenda Gayle Plummer?” I’m very pleased, and proud, that I’m able to respond, “Of course. She’s on our advisory team.”

1. What inspired you to research and write Rising Wind?


At the time I began the book, few people linked African Americans with foreign affairs. Black Americans were assumed to inhabit the domestic realm only.  While much had already been written about Pan-Africanism and Back-to-Africa movements, and nationalism was a critical element of the African American world view, not all black engagement with international issues related directly to Africa or to race.  While exploring this, I also discovered that there was a grass roots component to it.  This information was not part of the conventional stories told about U.S. foreign relations and I wanted to use it to reinterpret the meaning of the African American experience in both the U.S. and global contexts.

2. In Rising Wind you detail the development of African American engagement in international issues during the early post WWII era. Can you briefly describe some of the factors that increased Black engagement in U.S. foreign policy?

In order to break Americans out of an isolationist mindset, the U.S. government made a considerable effort to create a favorable impression of the United Nations within the American public.  Many African Americans embraced the idealism inherent in the messaging they received, and moreover, regarded world opinion, especially in the early years of Cold War rivalry, as an instrument that could be deployed to pressure the federal government for changes on the racial front. Another major factor was the end of formal colonialism and the emergence of African nations that not only held a large degree of symbolic value for African Americans, but also might be marshaled as allies in the fight against racism in this country.  

3. What role did race play in U.S. foreign policy during the early Cold War period?

The State Department and the White House were not prepared during this time to admit people of color into highest levels of diplomatic service.  Their inadequacies were a reflection of the society as a whole, which remained committed to segregation until social movement pressure forced change.  

4. You once described African American diplomats during the early Cold War period as having to walk a "tightrope." Can you elaborate on what that means and the challenges these men and women faced?

During the early Cold War period, which for the sake of this discussion I'll denominate as 1946-1953, the majority of African Americans employed by the State Department held clerical or consular positions.  They nevertheless were expected to represent the United States abroad even if they were fully aware of the limitations of U.S. democracy.  The tightrope they walked is the balance they had to achieve between putting the best face on Jim Crow and discrimination while remaining enthusiastic about the yet unrealized American vision of freedom and justice.

5. Why do you think the stories we are highlighting in the film are important stories to tell today?

The public does not generally think of African Americans when it considers international matters. Yet African Americans have been central actors in diplomacy since the early nineteenth century, on behalf of the nation at large as well as on behalf of themselves.  The struggles they undertook to be perceived as worthy representatives of the nation mirrored the fight against slavery and racism that preoccupied the larger society in the past and continues to resonate today.  The figures under discussion are part of this long and ongoing historical process.

6. What are you currently working on?

Among current projects is a study of NASA's impact on African Americans and research on the late Congressman Charles Diggs.

7. What is your favorite documentary film?

I don't really have a favorite. Among those that I have liked the most are Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke, his 4 Little Girls;  and Ava Duvernay's 13th and Selma.


Dr. Brenda Gayle Plummer is a professor in the departments of History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

You can find her work here.

Black Diplomacy is grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities for supporting scripting and project development.



The Joy of Storytelling

The Joy of Storytelling

In the day-to-day grind of work, when you experience something that re-awakens you to the joy of the job, to that “thing” that made you go into the field to begin with, where you can take a step back and look at the bigger, broader picture of your place within that field, that’s a powerful moment. Validation and affirmation of career choice can come in many forms. Sometimes, as a small business owner it can seem elusive because of the many balls we juggle at one time.

In Order To Find Flow, You Have to Say No

It was just before the Fourth of July, 2014, I stood up from a chair while watching my son at swim practice and almost collapsed. Pain was shooting down my back and legs.  That night, I couldn’t change out of my clothes.  This was the beginning of 15 months of battling, what I would eventually learn, was a severely herniated disc.  It would take almost another year for me to find out what was causing the pain thanks to a spine specialist who twice refused me an MRI. Luckily, my General Practitioner eventually prescribed me an MRI that showed a serious herniation, surgery was suggested as the most likely solution. But first I would take the “conservative approach,” months of physical therapy, pain shots in my back, and a chiropractor who ultimately made it worse.  I eventually made the decision to get surgery in October of 2015 and two weeks later, I was virtually pain free. I was off pain medication, and bursting with energy.

The biggest lesson I learned from this experience was not to take my body for granted. I love working, I always have. Being laid up, cranky, and needing pain medication just to barely make it through the day was misery.  The injury also coincided with the year I agreed to be a board President of a non-profit and treasurer for my local PTA all on top of co-directing an independent documentary project and trying to re-vamp my business.  I was also raising my son and helping him navigate what was an extremely stressful fourth grade classroom experience.

I made a decision that coincided with my surgery and transformed my life.  I decided to take a year sabbatical from any and all volunteer work, free-advice giving, and helping on any low-budget or no-budget film project where I was not a central team member.  This at first went against my personality – I am a yes person, someone who loves to help others and derives joy from it.  I also hate turning down any opportunity.  But, what I realized was that I was suffering.  Not only from my back pain, but I wasn’t making the money I needed, in part, because out of the limited hours of available work time I had, much of it was going to volunteer projects and helping others while my own work was taking a back seat.

In the year and a half that followed I started focusing on what I really wanted to achieve. My partners and I launched FLOWSTATE Films, built our brand and website, brought in new and exciting projects and I’m making the most steady income since I began working for myself five years ago.  Saying no to the things I didn’t want to do, allowed for the opportunities I really wanted. Ultimately the concept of a company built around a flow state grew from learning how to cultivate this mental space.

And, just this month, I received the greatest gift of all for taking care of myself – the birth of my baby daughter, Charlotte.  Right now, I couldn’t feel more lucky and more in control of my time.

At first I worried that saying no would offend others, but, what was most surprising was how much people seemed to respect the boundary I had created for myself.  For a lot of us type-A women who enjoy leadership roles it can be hard to say no.  But, too often we are frazzled, running late, and missing the fun of our kids or even the fun of our careers because we have to get in the car and go to the next commitment.  The real sense of getting your life into a flowstate comes from knowing when to say no so that you can say yes when it matters most.

Looking Back On Our First Year In Business

It’s been over a month since our last blog post and this has been intentional. The election in November shocked us deeply as women, as citizens, and as a company. We took time to reflect on what tangible impacts it might have on FLOWSTATE and how we shape our business in 2017.

The question we asked ourselves was, what can we now do to make the biggest impact to promote and give voice to issues we care about? How can we further promote racial, economic, and social justice as media makers? This has always been at the center of what drives us as a company and in the films we make, but the election reminded us of the fragility of sustaining these core values in our society and we will be exploring and actively inviting collaboration with others with the same intentions moving forward. 

As we come to the end of this year, we are also  reflecting  on our first full year in business and want to share the major lessons we have learned along the way. 

#1 A Solid Operating Agreement

We spent a few months before we formalized the business talking about our goals, expectations, and the realities of our lives.  We each had outside business projects and personal demands that impacted our availability to work entirely on starting up the new business. By talking through our individual levels of capacity openly we were able have realistic expectations on each other and avoid some of the resentment that could have emerged if some partners had more time to give than others. We also made sure to have honest conversations about our financial needs and therefore our financial expectations on the business. Working through potential disagreements and how to solve them in the beginning has made on-going decision-making much easier.  

#2 Candid and Honest Reflection

As three creative and passionate people, we each have strong opinions about our work, the company, and our creative output.  There is no creative hierarchy among us.  Instead, we are highly collaborative.  But, this can lead to heated creative disagreements where our feelings are at stake.  Over the last year or so there have been conversations and disagreements about how to collaborate.  While we are still navigating this, we have learned that openly talking through our process and how we like to receive feedback has proven key.  By knowing how someone prefers to receive feedback on their creative work we end up helping each other grow while communicating more effectively.  

#3 Staying True To Our Mission

Looking back on the bulk of our work in 2016 a pattern emerged - much of our work has been exploring individuals and organizations who contribute to making their communities a better place; whether that’s profiling innovative faculty at George Washington University, exploring the contributions of African American diplomats during the cold war, or celebrating great acts of charitable giving. These stories inspire us on many levels, but, they have also proven that by making films for and about individuals, companies and organizations that we admire, we continue to see new doors open for similar projects.

#4 Our Friendship Is Imperative

At the end of the day, we were friends before FLOWSTATE Films started and want to stay that way. By relying on radically honest conversations, self-reflection, and just being friends to one another, we are building a business that we all want. One that is allowing us more freedom and control over this phase of our careers, the ability to cultivate projects we enjoy, work-family balance, and a creative partnership that builds each other up.  

We are excited for 2017 and what lies ahead for FLOWSTATE Films as we continue the process of building a sustainable business and creating media that has impact.  

  Thank you to all who have been reading the blog this year and for the many friends, family, colleagues and clients who have encouraged and supported us this year! Wishing you a happy and healthy 2017!     Leola, Kiley & Rachell  

Thank you to all who have been reading the blog this year and for the many friends, family, colleagues and clients who have encouraged and supported us this year! Wishing you a happy and healthy 2017! 

Leola, Kiley & Rachell  

Some Free Advice On How To Ask For Free Advice, Five Tips

After I completed my first independent film and started giving talks on filmmaking, I noticed that I started receiving requests for advice from other first-time filmmakers and others looking to work in production more broadly.  While I have always been the type of person to happily give career advice, as I get older, and my time is more compressed by work and family commitments, these requests can feel like a one-way street.  I have compiled a list of few suggestions and etiquette to think about for anyone approaching another person for advice.

#1 Do Your Research First

I’m not the type of person to ask for a lot of free advice, I like to learn the hard way. I’m sure this is generational.  When I need to learn something, I tend to learn it either by figuring it out myself, learning on the job, or paying for the advice/schooling. Before asking another person for advice, think first how you might approach the decision and include that in your ask for advice, “Here’s what I was thinking, what do you think?”  

#2 Be Flexible    

Entrepreneurs work for themselves so whether it’s taking a vacation, a sick day, or an hour to give advice it represents time away from earning money.  In my case, I am also a mom, so I’m juggling multiple hats for my business and family.  This often leads me to waking up very early in the morning to work so I can be finished with my work day when my son comes home from school. Thus, I will often suggest that the person call me at or before 9AM so that my workday isn’t too interrupted. And yet, it’s very rare that someone who wants something for free is able to do that.  I assume most people have to work after 9am, so it surprises me someone can’t manage to make a call at a time that should seemingly be more convenient.  If this time is truly impossible, offer several different suggestions of when you can talk as going back and forth on email to set up a meeting is a huge waste of time.  

Even better don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and cold call the person to set up a time to talk. It’s much easier to schedule a meeting on the phone than email.  Phones still work! And, you might find you've caught them at a moment when they could speak right then and there. 

#3 Meeting in Person Is Optional

When you ask someone to go to lunch or meet for coffee, you are asking them to take a few hours out of their day. A phone call or Skype call can usually suffice. Or, if you really want to meet in person, offer a location convenient for them and certainly offer to pay.

#4 Get Approval Before Making An Introduction

I often get emails from someone I know introducing me to a job seeker or someone looking for industry advice.  I recently heard a great piece of advice on a podcast, that introductions should be approved by both parties in advance.  I love this, as it is respectful of the person’s time and doesn’t create an unsolicited obligation. I’ve found that this gives me the chance to set some boundaries out of the gate such as the reality that I am really slammed at the moment and not readily available, or, that the information that person is seeking from me is proprietary and I can’t share it.  This helps manage expectations for everyone.  

#5 Give Credit Where Credit is Due  

If you take advice and you A. Make money, B. Find success, C. Were saved from from making a huge mistake, please let the person know.  This isn’t just about a thank you note (although that is nice too); it’s about acknowledging how the advice was useful.  Likewise, if you take advice and learn something different that could help the person who gave you advice, please also let them know, as we all like to learn too. Lastly, if you find you are repeatedly asking the same person for advice, consider acknowledging them in a more formal way either as a paid consultant or as an advisor. This allows this advice-giver to be properly recognized for their contributions. 

Kiley Kraskouskas is a producer and writer who does enjoy offering advice and sharing her experiences. She is available for talks as well as consulting through FLOWSTATE FILMS.  

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