Even though she grew up in Ghana and didn’t move to the U.S. until college, Emerald-Jane Hunter is living the American Dream. After working in television for years – work that she describes as rewarding but extremely stressful – she left to start her own PR company a year after her son was born.
Emerald-Jane discusses the realities of being a working mom and the sacrifices she’s had to make throughout her career and life. Sometimes that meant having a pack and play in her office, and sometimes that meant not being able to attend her kids’ activities, but with a lot of determination and juggling, she always made it work.
We loved her candid and inspiring interview about how she “balances” motherhood and running her own company (spoiler alert: she says it’s not possible!). Read on to hear about her impressive journey in motherhood and work.
Name: Emerald-Jane Hunter, Founder & Ringleader at myWHY Agency, Inc.
Location: Chicago since 2003 but born in Accra, Ghana (West Africa)
Education: BA, Communications (from Luther College)
Children (names, ages): Audrey Kaitlin (12), Alexander (9)
What was your first job and how did you land it?
My very first job was doing door-to-door sales while in college. The company advertised it as an “advertising” job and I was excited about having a job before graduating. I must say as someone new to Chicago, I didn’t know my way around, and worked mostly in the North suburbs and Milwaukee. It was an awful job — I cried almost every day, but in hindsight, doing door-to-door sales taught me so much. (And that I’d never do it again in my life!)
You worked in entertainment production for many years. Do you have a favorite memory or accomplishment from those years?
The TV industry is and will always be my first love. Working in television is something I often dreamed of as a 5-year-old growing up in Ghana, West Africa. I have many favorite memories and accomplishments — most didn’t feel like accomplishments when they occurred, but as I look back, I realize how major they were.
There are some memories that make me smile, but in the moment, they made me cringe, cry, stressed, worried etc.
I remember Googling “how to start a production company.” Back in 2007, I ventured out to start my own production company because I felt very strongly that that was the direction I wanted to go. I’m now proud of this moment because I created Emerald-Jane Productions in April 2007, which then produced and aired my very first TV show on NBC Chicago: a New Year’s Eve TV special which aired Dec 31, 2007, co-hosted by Billy Dec.
This led to me to co-create and run 24/7 Chicago, which also aired on NBC locally for a few years with a kick-ass timeslot (airing after SNL). This was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life, and I didn’t make a single penny in all the years, was at my poorest financially, and was the most stressed I had ever been. But I learned so much that I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. This experience became the foundation for everything good that later on happened in my life.
I’m also proud of getting to work on Windy City Live. Not only did I get to work on the show, but I also got to a be part of an amazing team that launched the show. I got this opportunity because of the sacrifices I made when working on 24/7 Chicago. Don’t get me wrong — I worked equally as hard on this show, didn’t sleep much, and still stressed 99 percent of the time, but it gave me back something that I had prayed for for years. I went into that show as a one-month contractor and was there for almost five years. I’m very proud to have been able to create a gateway for some of the biggest names in TV and to have sat in the seats at WCL all while raising two kids, and also producing a few of the show’s segments (both in-studio and remotely).
I love WCL and the people who I worked with while there. They became family and they’ll never know how much they did for me. They will always be a part of my story — one I firmly believe is still being written.
We have to ask — what’s it like to have been the showrunner for an Emmy-awarded show?
The truth? Stressful! Extremely stressful. The theme, angles, stories, and what airs on the show is directed and driven by your vision — and that’s a lot on one’s shoulders (especially at age 27). This was the most tumultuous time in my life, yet the most rewarding in the strangest of ways. I met some amazing people and I was shaped and molded in ways nothing else could have. For that, I am truly thankful.
What has your experience as a woman of color in the entertainment industry been like? Have you seen change in a positive direction? What work is still to be done? How are you using/have you used your positions of power to make change?
I have an interesting take on being a woman of color in America in general, and this might be the first time I’m publicly stating this.
I didn’t realize I was black until I was 21 years old, in Decorah, IA (a town of 8,000 or so people). I grew up in a country where everyone looked like me. If you didn’t look like me, you were different, so it was quite the trip when I first encountered racism. It literally blew me away. I remember asking my now husband (who I met in college) what the n-word meant and why it was so offensive. Yes, I was THAT naive.
Fast forward to my career in an industry with very few people of color, where I was suddenly faced with being “the token” and having to “represent” for the culture. I’ve read a lot, learned a lot, and experienced a lot — but more importantly, I’ve observed a lot. I applied everything I learned about race relations to ensure I fought for balance in representation with guests on the show, with topics of conversation, and with how we’re portrayed as Black people in content created. I would be the one to notice an out of place strand of hair or clothing and stop the cameras to fix, because I had to be very sure that we (any person of color in a piece I was producing) looked “right.”
Also, after 19 years of being the majority, I learned that what I had known all my life meant nothing in America, and that I was someone else to others, and that the color of my skin could single-handedly be used as a “judge” of my abilities. But nevertheless, I prevailed. I’ve never let race or gender slow me down or stop me, I simply re-route myself to paths more welcoming. I know who I am, and no other human dictates my destiny. I work hard to ensure that my work ethic will leave some semblance of an indelible mark on you once we’ve worked together. If that’s not enough to know I’m worthy… oh well, your loss.
My experience working in TV in Chicago has been mostly positive. I haven’t encountered any direct discrimination — or if I have, I guess I was too naive to even notice (or care, for that matter).
How am I using my positions now to make change? I continue to work hard to ensure output overshadows everything else. I need the “judging” to be in the quality of work, the intent of action, and on nothing else. Race will always be a thing in America, and it can either stall us or fuel us. I hope I can be the woman who happens to be of color and who’s pretty darn good at her job.
What skills from the entertainment industry are helping you now in your PR career now?
Tenacity, the ability to keep going on little sleep (or perhaps motherhood taught me that?), negotiating, and most importantly, storytelling. Positioning a company, a brand, and a pitch angle in a way that will interest a media outlet is an art. I learned all of these skills while working in TV. I believe I had a greater advantage having been in TV before PR.
The greatest skill I’ve learned is never backing down. Through successes and failures, I don’t stop. TV is hard. PR (I’m learning) is equally hard, but I was built tough thanks to TV and for that I will always be thankful.
I signed a production deal with a well-known production company in Los Angeles last year to bring a fun client/concept to TV. It’s another skill set I have that many in PR don’t have: I can work with a client and see bigger opportunities for them, and we can conceptualize angles that then become viable TV shows. I’m excited for this opportunity. It takes a while in Hollywood, but we’ve shot the pilot. This will be yet one more dream come true – something I once told myself I would do.
You launched your own integrated marketing branding communications agency, myWHY, in 2016. What prompted you to finally take the leap to have your own company?
I believe I was born to be an entrepreneur. Launching myWHY Agency was my second foray into entrepreneurship. I love owning my own company, I love being my own boss, I love managing my own schedule, and most importantly, I once met a woman named Carolyn Gable. This is the first time I’m sharing this story. Carolyn, if you ever read this, please know you forever changed my life. You are and have been who I want to grow up to become — your heart, your business acumen, your spirit, your soul. You’ve inspired me beyond words.
Carolyn ran an amazing company called New Age transportation. I had the opportunity to meet Carolyn and work on a team that created a corporate video for her back when I was only 24 years old. Carolyn created her own transportation company and became a millionaire by making a commitment to people. Carolyn created a workplace that embraced women. She had seven children, and still became the type of CEO many would dream to become. She had daycare for her employees and had a work culture that rivaled many.
After years of hustling for others, I felt it was time for me to follow my dream — to create the type of place Carolyn Gable had inspired me to. To start the journey to creating something viable that wouldn’t only support other women financially but emotionally, but would embrace who we are and would actually offer a place that inspires them daily. It’s not an easy task either. The heart is willing, but whoa does it take time and do the obstacles just keep coming.
What are some of the major differences you’ve seen in working for others and now working for yourself? What advice do you have for women – specifically moms – looking to start their own companies?
When you work for others, you don’t worry about your paycheck. It always somehow shows up in you bank account. You also have more of an ability to tune things out when the stress is high.
When you work for yourself, everything is your responsibility — you’re customer service, personal service, therapy service, payroll service, and vacation isn’t a word you quite know. But somehow, you feel far more fulfilled running your own company. You win for your clients, and every time you land a new client, it feels like heaven. The rewards greatly outweigh downsides.
My advice to women, moms, and anyone with entrepreneurial desires: seek out others that are doing what you hope to do, and ask away. Don’t worry about bothering or inconveniencing others. There isn’t one right or wrong way to do this — try, fail, get up, and keep going.
For moms, don’t seek “balance” — it doesn’t exist. You will fall short in many ways, and it doesn’t get easier, but we do the best we can. Keep it real and honest with your kids about what you do and why you’re doing it.
What’s been your greatest career accomplishment to date?
This agency has been. My first entrepreneurial journey left my family in tight financial situations. My husband has been phenomenal in supporting me and holding down the fort. I remember doing 24/7 Chicago, and he only made $40K a year and we had a 1-year-old then, a mortgage, and lots of debt. We barely made it each month for four years, I mean… we did not survive many cold nights, but through it all, he would never allow me to blame myself (even though I did many times.)
When I quit my job (again) to start myWhy Agency, I promised him I’d never put us in a situation like that again. Everything I do is because of that promise — not only to my family, but to myself, and to the women who support our agency. I won’t let myself let anyone I’ve ever said “yes” to down. My work ethic is a commitment to them.
How did your career change, if at all, when you had your son? How did you handle childcare and maternity leave?
When I had my daughter in 2016, I was working in TV. I’m thankful to Central City Productions for hiring me at five months pregnant — not many companies will do that. I took six weeks of maternity leave, put my daughter in daycare, and went back to work. When she turned one, I was inspired to take a chance on myself and my own production company.
Daycare locations had to change as money was no longer available and eventually my lovely daughter, Audrey, had to experience the ups and downs of entrepreneurship with me. She spent countless night in a Pack ‘n Play in our offices while I worked with producers and editors to complete shows to turn in to NBC. I would look at her every evening and keep going because I knew I had her to care for.
They were there with me, through the late night hours, we laughed, we cried, we worked hard, and I’m thankful to them for what they gave to me.
I was pregnant with my son at the lowest points in my career, but that was a time i prayed harder than ever, dreamed bigger than ever, and the day after his 1st birthday, I started working at Windy City Live.
Both children have been a big part of my journey. They each came at the time they were meant to, and I learned lessons I needed to learn. Today they’re flourishing — they still don’t always follow the rules, but they’re great kids.
My husband’s family have been incredible as well. When they could (they were also working at the time), they would take the kids, keep them overnight, and care for them to help out. My mother would come from Ghana and spend six months at a time here to help with the kids when they were babies.
It takes a village, and I’ve been so fortunate to have a great one.
How has your career path shaped how you parent? Do you find any skills from motherhood are helping your job now?
It has shaped it in so many ways. The worst way is probably in that I push my kids… maybe a little too hard sometimes. It’s because I’ve had to push all my life and I worry that if no one hands them their dream, they’ll need the skills to be able to create their own. I’m working on easing up on this now. But at least I recognize where I fall short.
I’m way more understanding of contractors who need to work remotely for me because they’re moms. I’m super flexible with that. I’m more emotionally in-tune with my team because I get it — we’ve gone through boyfriend breakups together, parental drama together, and have even shared tears together. I’m who I am, and being a mother plays a role with some of these “soft” points — and I’m OK with that.
What does a day in your life look like?
It varies day to day, but generally starts with the gym, heading home to get ready, and getting the kids to school. Then I go to the office (or meetings, depending on my calendar), and work until I have to pick up my son at 3:30pm.
Depending on the day, I’m either heading up North for music lessons with my kids while doing homework in the car or coffee shop and answering emails. Then we head home, do more homework, get the kids in bed, and sometimes will keep catching up on work and emails. I try hard to get to bed by 11pm.
What’s next for you and why?
We recently became agency of record for MadeGood Foods for all of North America, and agency of record for two brands under Pure Steeps for the U.S. These in addition to our many other wonderful clients keep us busy.
We will be celebrating our third birthday on April 11 this year. We have a small-but-mighty team and I’m enjoying our growth together. I do part of what I do for the women who said “yes” to me and it’s so fulfilling to be with and around them daily.
When it comes to motherhood, what are you most confident in? What are you still insecure about?
I’m most confident in raising kind, smart, and polite kids. They’ll never fail in society or as adults because they know their mom will get them if they don’t act right — lol. Their homes will be clean (the jury is still out with my son, but we’re working on it) and most importantly, they will give back. I use my life in Ghana as an example to my children, and for them to know not to take their American privileges for granted.
I need my seventh-grader to maintain As in school so we can get into a great high school — Chicago public schools keep parents on pins and needles because enrollment is so selective. I am hoping I provide her with enough to challenge her academically. I’m also not ready for boyfriends and crushes and those emotions, but they’re coming — she turns 13 this year. I hope I can handle that phase of life. I worry about mothering her well because if I had my way, 13-year-old boys simply wouldn’t exist.
For my son: I’ll be happy when I don’t have to keep reminding him to shower and brush his teeth.
What are some of your favorite activities to do with your kids or as a family right now?
We always do family night on Fridays. We do movie marathons that last well into 2am (sometimes 3am). It’s been fun watching “old” movies with them — some of mom and dad’s favorites that to them are ancient. Waking up on Saturdays has become difficult because I apparently cannot “hang” like I used to. But those are fun.
We have a new rule that after age 10, all birthdays will no longer be parties, but rather experiences. It’s been fun traveling and not throwing huge parties with our daughter for each birthday, and our son has one more birthday until he joins the experience train.
How do you and your husband divide parenting roles? How has parenthood changed your marriage?
For the first 15 years of my career in TV, my husband was heavily involved. My kids gravitated toward him more than me many times. He’s there when I need him. Now, since I’m running my own company, my commitment (another reason I started my own) is picking kids up from school everyday and taking them to school in the mornings one day a week. I’m able to attend three-hour violin and viola lessons for the kids now, when I couldn’t in the past. I’m definitely more present and involved now, and husband can “chill” for a bit.
Our marriage has changed a lot. We got married at age 23 and 24 — super young. We’ve learned a lot, grown a lot, and yes, we’ve been through three years of counseling (anyone who tells you you don’t need counseling is lying.) We’ve learned how to respect each other, support each other, not nag at each other, and understand what’s important for our family. We’re still working on it every day, and will keep working for a long time to come.
If you have to choose just one, what’s been your favorite moment from motherhood so far?
Not having to change diapers, buy diapers, buy formula, pump breast milk, or be hormonal anymore — just being honest. Everything outside of these have been great moments.
Emerald-Jane Hunter is the Everymom…
Best celebrity you’ve interacted with? Sting
Favorite way to end a long day? Putting my phone on charge and walking away from it (it only happens successfully on Fridays, at least I try!)
Most rewarding part of the marketing process? Coming up with clever, out-of-the-box ideas, executing them, and seeing them win for our client.
Power outfit? Anything red — red is my color. It doesn’t matter what I’m wearing, if it’s red, I feel invincible.