Her last name may be Smalls, but if you pull the curtain back on Tionna’s growing empire, you’ll notice just how big she’s doing it.
The megawatt personality got her start with a small investment from her mother to self-publish her first book, Girl, Get Your Mind Right!, at 22 and the rest, as they say, has been history in the making.
In the eight years since she became a published author, Smalls has added television personality (What Chilli Wants, Girl, Get Your Mind Right), relationship expert and columnist (Gawker), boutique owner (Tasty) and screenwriter (Brooklyn Bred) to her growing resume.
I recently caught up with Tionna to learn more about how she launched her various businesses, what it’s been like navigating the entertainment industry and how she’s been able to consistently reinvent herself while ultimately staying true to who she is.
MadameNoire (MN): We know you as an author, television personality, retail shop owner, and soon as a screenplay writer with Brooklyn Bred. With so much on your plate, how would you define Tionna Smalls?
Tionna Smalls (Smalls): I like to say that I’m the ‘Tionna’ of all trades. I can do a lot of things well. I am a serial entrepreneur and I have a lot of interests in things and I’ve always been someone who believes that you should go after the things you want in life no matter what. I’ve never listened to people’s opinions of what they thought I was capable of because I’m too busy grinding. I may not be the master of every industry that I [have a business in] but the one thing that I am the master of for sure is knowing how to grind and get [stuff] done.
MN: You wrote your first book, Girl, Get Your Mind Right! at the age of 22 and was cast as the relationship expert along side Chili from TLC not too long after that. How did that opportunity come about?
Smalls: The book was the catalyst for everything. Back in 2006/07 my friends and I were all single and dating in New York when I started noticing a trend with the way guys were moving and dealing with women, so I wrote about it. Once the book came out, I reached out to several media outlets, including Gawker who eventually hired me to be a columnist, and many of the critics who reviewed the book started calling me a relationship expert and the title just stuck. From there, I guess the producers for the What Chili Wants show learned about me and thought I’d be the perfect person to help her get her love life back on track. At that time, giving relationship advice was something that came natural as a hobby, but now almost 10 years later I can definitely say that I am an expert.
MN: Where did you work prior to publishing your book?
Smalls: I’ve always been a worker and I’ve always felt that before you can be a boss you have to be a worker. I started working when I was 17 at Burger King and I had a sales job. I’ve also had jobs in the nonprofit space before I became an author and entrepreneur. As I was working these different jobs, I realized that the ‘9 to 5’ life wasn’t for me; I craved freedom.
You’re never going to get to your dreams if you’re just working a job, unless your dream is to help someone else achieve their dreams.
MN: How did you finance your businesses? Did you take on any outside investment?
Smalls: With my first book my parents gave me the money to publish it. And after the book, I ended up getting a job at Gawker [as a relationship advice columnist] and I was doing marketing on the side. I invested every cent that I made into the pursuit of my goals. And then once the TV show opportunity came, I was able to finance everything else that I wanted to do at that time.
With some of the bigger things that I want to do now, I know that I need investors but it’s a difficult process because everyone wants a return right away. And then you have those people who could pour resources into your ventures but they’re hesitant because deep down they don’t want you to become bigger than they are. My advice and approach has always been to finance your business yourself. You’ll get more respect that way and may attract the right type of people to you.
MN: What was one of the most surprising things you learned about the entertainment industry?
Smalls: The thing that surprised me the most was that the people who you may have grown up with or who look like you are the ones who don’t necessarily want to see you succeed. In the industry it seems as if no one wants to help anyone else, and in a sense it’s a little bit like the drug game where everyone wants to make sure you’re not ‘selling’ on their block. Learning how to navigate the business can be depressing but ultimately you have to get to a position where you have the money and resources to afford the freedom to focus on the projects that are important to you. When you’re dependent on other people, they’ll try to tell you what’s best for you and what’s best for the culture, even when they’re not living it.