It’s not every day we have the chance to speak with a woman who has survived unspeakable violence in her home country; Kweighbaye Kotee moved with her family to the U.S. in 1986 from Liberia and has since made it her mission to tell stories through film. Kweighbaye believes that filmmakers are “heroic revolutionaries that fight against great odds to tell their stories.” Through founding The Bushwick Film Festival in 2007, she has joined their ranks.
Kweighbaye told us that she is “right in the middle of her dreams,” and that was enough for us to want to know more! After graduating from NYU (twice—you’ll read why!) and working in the city, Kweighbaye realized that the human connection to films and the emotions that are evoked through films was her passion, and working in film was the legacy she wanted to create. She empowers the artists her film festival recognizes and, she says, there is no greater gift.
“I’ve also realized that if I am a successful entrepreneur and artist as an immigrant and woman of color, I could be a true inspiration—especially to those who share a similar background and who don’t believe that they deserve a better life or find it hard to accept that a better life is even possible.” We certainly think Kweighbaye is an inspiration! Read on for more amazing advice from this powerful, genuine, and strong woman—from what it takes to build a company, to overcoming obstacles, and how to be your authentic self, Kweighbaye has a few answers that you just might be inspired by too.
Name: Kweighbaye Kotee
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Current title/company: CEO / Director of Programming, The Bushwick Film Festival
Education: B.S. Media, Culture & Communications NYU
Let’s start at the beginning! You immigrated to the United States from Liberia in 1986. Tell us about that experience.
I first moved to the U.S. when I was just 3 in 1986. Although the official civil war date wasn’t until 1989, the violence erupted years before with rebel killings and other acts. My dad’s tribe (Gio) was one of the targets. People started leaving the country and we were one of the families granted U.S. political asylum, thankfully. My parents have pretty wild and interesting stories; I’m still putting together the pieces. See, Liberians, I’ve found, have difficulty talking about their past; they never worked through the trauma of experiencing the effects of war. I think that has affected my generation because we don’t know much about our stories, background, etc. I think that’s why I’m so interested in storytelling and films.
You are such an inspiration for surviving in your war torn country and now thriving in the U.S. Thank you for sharing your story! Fast forward to college and your first job. Tell us more.
Well, I sort of graduated twice— the first time didn’t really count. It was difficult for me to keep up with classes at NYU, work nearly full-time, and just be a well rounded teenager/student living in the heart of NYC. So I failed a few classes and couldn’t bring myself to tell my mom before graduation. Thankfully, I was allowed to walk under the condition I complete my final classes that summer to earn my degree. After, the first “faux” graduation, I got a job working for The Corcoran Group as their onsite sales assistant. The job itself wasn’t that fancy, however the homes and lofts that we were selling were. I was also able to afford taking a few more credits at NYU.
At Corcoran, I worked with ambitious women in high positions so it was great to be surrounded by that energy. I learned the importance of branding and marketing and I also learned that first impressions are everything—most people draw quick conclusions. At least that was the case in the sales business. Lots of smiling and acting well-manicured. After a while, I started to think that I actually had graduated since I didn’t have to submit a transcript.
How did you land that position?
I applied to both jobs using the NYU Careernet. I had a great resume and interview skills (thanks to majoring in media, culture and communications!) and the Careernet offered lots of options for recent graduates.
So, what prompted you to strike out of your own?
Soon I realized that working in sales didn’t bring me any inner joy and it was a career that I just drifted into. When I started writing existential poems at my desk between viewings, I knew I had to quit. So I did and decided to start my first company. After a year in, I had no money, could barely pay rent, and was eating lots of stir fry and soup. So I attempted to transition into marketing at a big firm but not having a bachelor’s degree became a major consequence. Let’s just say I didn’t get any of the jobs that I wanted. Although it took some time and a few random jobs, I pulled together the last bit of money and finished my final two credits. I came clean to my mom and family and invited them to my second graduation and that was pretty amazing. After my official graduation, I began to work at a law firm in midtown as the assistant director of HR and continued to work on building my company (and art) on nights and weekends.
We love your determination to finish your degree. Now, tell us about your entrepreneurial side. How did you start your first company?
Love, friends, and grit are three words that come to mind when I think about the birth of The Bushwick Film Festival, my first company. I love, love, love films and think filmmakers (more so indie filmmakers) are heroic revolutionaries that fight against great odds to tell their stories. They are my heroes and the life lessons I receive from films are invaluable—that was the driving force. I called friends and told them I wanted to start a film festival and asked for their help. We were all just out of college and were unhappy at our jobs and tired of working for companies that weren’t really representing things that we believed in.
My family lost everything because of the Liberian Civil war and had to move to the U.S with no papers and no money as immigrants. We had it tough. My dad was a business man in Liberia and entrepreneur so he started a number of businesses and my mom worked late hours. I took after my parents and started working in our store and then branched off to sell candy for extra income. I took huge risks and went on quite a few adventures. Knowing how to hustle is a huge part of being an entrepreneur. Although it was tough, I definitely learned some very valuable tools that I think are necessary in order to run a business, like how to navigate uncertainty and turbulence. Most film festivals go out of business after five years. We are now entering our seventh year!
Congratulations on the success of The Bushwick Film Festival (BFF)! Why did you want to create it? Take us through the process of starting BFF.
Thank you! At times it is unreal to me. While the original reasons for wanting to start The Bushwick Film Festival are still present, each year I find more reasons to fully commit myself to its success. Originally, wanting to start a film festival really came from my adoration of filmmakers and my love for films. I wanted to share with others the feeling that I received after watching a film that really struck a chord and shifted the way I viewed the world and the people in it. Admittedly, I also wanted to be a filmmaker.
While I was at NYU I thought I would become a basketball player. I was really good, but sadly I allowed myself to be discouraged by my coach and by my own fear. I’ve come to accept that it’s nearly impossible for me to commit to anything if I’m not passionate about it. So after NYU, I started working on small productions and music videos until I moved from Harlem into an apartment with my boyfriend at the time in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; it was there that I was introduced to a thriving artist community. Next I moved to Bushwick, which seven years ago was the wild west for creatives. I attended my first film festival (the Tribeca Film Festival) and was swept off my feet! I told a friend of mine I wanted to start a film festival; they said it was too difficult and I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I didn’t like when people told me I couldn’t accomplish something so that fired me up to start my own.
Building an entertainment platform has made me happy. Working on this company has given me so much joy, although the road has been tough. I now understand that the Ying doesn’t come without the Yang. I’ve also realized that if I am a successful entrepreneur and artist as an immigrant and woman of color, I could be a true inspiration—especially to those who share a similar background and who don’t believe they deserve a better life or find it hard to accept that a better life is even possible. And I also love the glitz and glam of the movie business!
How has BFF evolved since its inception? What lessons have you learned about company/professional growth?
BFF has grown so much since it’s in inception. Sometimes I feel like a proud parent when I look through our “yearbook.” We had a beautiful and diverse line-up of feature films this year—they push boundaries and are illuminating, provocative, creative, and inspirational. The festival has evolved with both our films and filmmakers, and we have added more value to our platform to continue to help support filmmakers’ careers.
This year I also travelled to see films that I felt could impact my community. I went to the Berlin International Film Festival in February and saw a film that had a strong impression on me; I really wanted to bring it back to Bushwick. Ultimately, I was able to accomplish that goal and Los Angeles by Director Damian John Harper screened at this year’s festival!
I’ve really learned the nuts and bolts of starting a business from creating an LLC, sole proprietorship, partnerships, taxes, business banking, and budgeting. Building a business takes time and attention to detail especially if you don’t have any start-up cash. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is how to ask for funding. I was so strapped at the beginning that I started walking into banks and asking to speak with their marketing director. One day I walked into a bank, asked the teller to speak with the marketing manager, explained what I was doing, and walked out with funding to get me through the next month! It was pretty amazing.
I love that filmmaking is a hugely collective processes that encompasses all of the arts—writing, directing, music, fashion, design, editing, special effects, etc…I love films’ ability to empower and heal both the storytellers and the audience.
Tell us about your dreams! Where do you want BFF to be in five years?
My dreams…I’m right in the middle of them! You can read about that here. I am currently shooting my first documentary called The Bushwick Diaries and will go to Nairobi, Kenya in November for eight months to teach filmmaking to underserved youth (like I was!) and to make my second film Nairobi & Me. Both initiatives will be supported through an organization called Filmmakers Without Borders. In Kenya I will be working with an organization called Y-FI Africa. Very exciting!
My dreams for the Bushwick Film Festival are big. First, in five years I’d like 50 percent of our staff to be Bushwick residents to help sustain the community. I would like to expand the number of screens during the festival from two screens this year to ten screens! I’d like to increase the number of accepted feature films from ten to 50, short films from 15 to 100, and New Media Projects from five to 25. I would like to have a Paris branch of the festival (currently in the process of applying for the business visa). Also, I’d like eventually only work with organizations that are conscious capitalist and/or products that are organic, fair trade, and environmentally sound. I’d like to create a fully-functioning film education program in Bushwick and Liberia. I’d like to partner with the leading domestic and international film organizations. Winning an award will fundamentally change the lives of our filmmakers and new media artists. I’d like the festival to have a reputation for only screening powerful films. Finally, I want the festival to be included in the top 50 Film Festival’s In the World List. How does that sound?
What do you love about filmmaking? What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
I love that filmmaking is a hugely collective processes that encompasses all of the arts—writing, directing, music, fashion, design, editing, special effects, etc. Have you ever read through the credits of a film? It takes a village! It’s also the feelings from seeing a well told story. Finally, I love films’ ability to empower and heal both the storytellers and the audience.
Give us some advice for those who want to break into the entertainment industry.
Be your authentic self—there is no one on this entire planet that is like you, so be you. The entertainment industry loves genuine personalities. Take good care of your relationships! The contacts you make can be your family away from home—grow together and support each other. Being patient and nurturing the relationships that you organically create along the way makes the process so much more enjoyable! And sadly, substance abuse has been the downfall of many careers in the entertainment industry. Definitely network and have fun, but do things that will take you further in your career, not bring you back.
What inspires you? You’ve faced obstacles on your road to success—how were you able to overcome and stay motivated?
My mom is my biggest inspiration. She has really showed me what loving 100 percent and unconditionally looks like. She is the most selfless, most caring, most understanding individual that I know. She is always there for me and she has always found a way to provide for me and my siblings at the most trying times. It really amazes me how resourceful she was when it came to making sure we had what we needed. Every time I am discouraged, I think about how she worked 16 hour days for years to put us through school.
As a young entrepreneur, what advice do you have for women who want to start their own business?
My biggest challenge has been finding the right partners. It’s easy to want to start a business with friends but if that partnership doesn’t give what the business needs, then it is just a disaster waiting to happen. You have to know everything that your business needs to run and ensure that you have the proper team that can take care of all its needs. Be very clear with your needs, your business needs, and seek a team that can properly support it.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Take good care of your body. You are perfect. There is enough time. Seek truth and wisdom. Let go of what you think you know and who you think you are. One of the phrases that my spiritual teacher, Sheila Prakash taught me is, “All is Welcome, All is Allowed.” Give yourself room to be and accept who you are and the things you’ve done and move forward. Let go of that person you think you are especially if it’s not working for your happiness. Finally, love yourself always.
Kweighbaye Kotee is the Everygirl…
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Oprah!! I admire her so much! I actually visualize myself meeting and being interviewed by her quite often so it has to happen. I love Liberian food (kasava leaves & palava sauce!) but I’ve been craving quinoa lately so I would order the warm quinoa mixed with tomatoes, red onion, herbs and a tangy lime vinaigrette topped with grilled salmon and avocado. I’m big on tea so I would order cinnamon tea or chai tea.
Favorite way to unwind?
Hot yoga, candle bath, meditation, and a written dialogue with my spirit! In that order.
Can’t leave home without…
Meditation and a personal pep talk. I still deal with negative thoughts about myself throughout the day so I have to remind myself that I am amazing, beautiful, divine, deserving, and that I am equipped to handle what may come my way!
Best advice you’ve ever received?
Memento Mori—remember that you will die. This may sound like a downer to some (or most!) but it really keeps me at 100 percent each time it pops into my head. I first heard the phrase when listening to one of my online gurus Alan Watts. It really helps me remember the transient nature of things, allows me to appreciate moments, friends, and family, and makes it easier for me to let go of bad feelings and fears.