Alumni News Category
Joe Sanderson has spent nearly three decades promoting North Carolina agricultural products. For much of that time, Sanderson and his colleagues at the N.C. Department of Agriculture operated largely on their own in their efforts to promote local foods.
In recent years, though, the local food movement has caught on throughout North Carolina, and Sanderson says there are now lots of groups and individuals promoting efforts to buy and use local agricultural products.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” says Sanderson, assistant director of the Division of Marketing for the N.C. Department of Agriculture. “Now that it’s gotten really popular, it’s made our jobs a little easier.”
Sanderson has a variety of jobs when the N.C. State Fair is in town, but he spends much of his time working with the “Got To Be NC” tent outside the Scott Building that provides samples of North Carolina products for visitors to the fair. That includes everything from flavored peanuts to the red hot dogs sold by Carolina Packers.
“Agriculture is our leading industry in this state, always has been,” says Sanderson. “There’s such a variety of products. We have a few companies that come every year, as well as new companies vying for space in there.”
One of the new vendors at the fair this year is the American Culinary Federation, which has set up a food truck outside the “Got To Be NC” tent selling items such as a cajun grilled catfish po’boy featuring North Carolina foods. The proceeds from their sales will go to the group’s scholarship fund.
Sanderson has been with the department for 27 years, which means he has been working at the fair for 27 years. During that time, he has seen plenty of changes in the agriculture market.
“North Carolina agriculture is the third most diverse in the nation,” he says. “Now we’re seeing more value-added put in those raw commodities. We have a host of companies that take those North Carolina products and turn them into something else.”
Sanderson points to sweet potatoes as an example. “We used to sell them fresh out of the field, and that was it,” he says. Now, sweet potatoes are turned into purees for pies, sliced up and turned into sweet potato fries, served on hot bars in restaurants and even used to make vodka.
“That’s the biggest change I’ve seen in agriculture,” he says.
Pam Earp spends her vacation the same way every year, taking a trip back in time in an effort to help future generations remember a little something of their past.
No, Earp is not some sort of modern-day Marty McFly, and she is not part of any Back to the Future type of adventure.
Earp is a community college administrator in Johnston County, N.C., who spends her vacations each fall making corn husk dolls at the Village of Yesteryear at the N.C. State Fair. Earp also serves as the director of the Village, recruiting other craftsmen willing to spend 11 days demonstrating their skills with traditional hand crafts such as basket making, rug braiding, pottery and quilting.
“Our purpose is to educate the public on traditional hand crafts,” says Earp, who is dean of foundational studies and academic support at Johnston Community College. “We try to keep these traditions alive. We have multiple generations here in the Village, passing that tradition down.”
The Village of Yesteryear has been part of the State Fair for 63 years. Earp is only its third director, having assumed the leadership post in 2009 after having worked as a craftsman in the Village for more than a dozen years.
Earp still spends her days at the fair showing visitors how she makes corn husk dolls, but also is responsible for taking care of any needs other craftsmen in the Village may have. It is a demanding schedule for Earp, who often puts in 14-hour days during the fair, which began its 2014 run this week.
“This is what I do on my vacation,” she says. “I’m worn out when it’s finally over. If I feel that we have exposed families and children to our mission, than we have done our job.”
For much of her time working at the Village, Earp was also juggling graduate courses at NC State. She earned a master’s degree in adult and community college education from NC State in 2007 and is finishing her doctorate in the same area this year. There have been occasions, Earp says, when she had to go directly from her work at the Village of Yesteryear to graduate classes at NC State – dressed in the pioneer garb that she and other craftsmen wear while working in the Village.
“You’d be surprised,” she says. “You don’t really attract that much attention going across State’s campus.”
Unlike many of the craftsmen in the Village, Earp did not learn her craft as a child from her mother or grandmother. Earp was on her honeymoon 36 years ago when she purchased a kit to make corn husk dolls. She quickly learned, though, that she didn’t enjoy following the directions in the kit, and figured out her own way to make corn husk dolls. She now specializes in what she calls “proper Southern belles” that are popular with some collectors.
“When I look at a doll, they remind me of people,” she says. “I always name them.”
Earp says it’s not uncommon for older visitors to share stories about growing up with their own corn husk dolls, often as one of their few toys. “I love the interaction with people,” she says. “I love the excitement and the look in their eye — they remember seeing those at their grandmother’s house.”
Earp explains how she works with wet corn husks and string to make the bulk of her dolls. “Corn husks dry differently,” she says. “Sometimes there’s a little tilt to the head, sometimes the body moves a little bit this way. So they become who they want to be in the drying process.”
Craftsmen at the Village are expected to spend their days demonstrating their crafts to visitors, and sales are a secondary consideration. Earp is joined in her booth by her mother and daughter, who started making corn husk dolls after Earp learned the craft.
“We believe in making sure the next generation understands the importance of traditional handcrafts,” she says, “and the importance that it played in North Carolina and within their own families.”
Earp acknowledges that it can be a challenge to engage younger generations, who are often more accustomed to the instant gratification of cell phones and video games than the time and patience required to create something with your hands.
“We try to connect it to their family history,” she says. “Maybe it’s something in your home that your grandmother had, a quilt or a basket.”
On the rare occasions when Earp gets a bit of down time during the fair, she likes to stroll over to order some Al’s French Fries and enjoy them while sitting in the empty grandstands. “It is quiet, cool place to sit,” she says. “There’s nothing going on and you can just take in the rest of the fair.”
Leslie Woods has been health-conscious from an early age. She had never considered her lifestyle as a career option, but when the possibility of working for a company that provides its customers with a healthier nutrition option came, she couldn’t say no.
“At that time, I was definitely interested in the startup community,” says Woods, who received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from NC State in 2009 and 2011. “And being in Raleigh, I knew there would be some kind of possibility out there.”
She teamed up with Sherif Fouad, founder and owner of Raleigh Raw, in 2013, and together, they turned a lifestyle into a business. “Sherif had an idea of starting this kind of a company,” she says. “Over time, I told him, ‘Let’s give this thing a shot.’”
Raleigh Raw is a company that produces completely organic juices intended to eliminate toxins and other harmful chemicals from the body. The juices contain fresh, cold-pressed fruits and vegetables, most of which are locally grown.
“When you add chemicals, you lose nutrition,” says Woods, explaining the importance of using organic ingredients. “The goal is to cleanse and reset your body so you no longer crave sugars and other unhealthy foods.”
Drinking a mix of fruits and vegetables might seem daunting, but many of Raleigh Raw’s employees have bartending experience, and Woods says they know how to mix flavors.
“Balancing flavors is something that Sherif is really good at,” she says. “Our entire staff does a nice job at pulling out every flavor.”
Woods says long nights and early mornings are quickly becoming part of the job. Woods and her staff work out of the kitchen of Zinda, a downtown Raleigh restaurant and bar located on Fayetteville Street. They’ll work anywhere from four to eight hours a night – starting at 11 p.m. — preparing the cold-pressed, organic juices to send to customers the following day.
“We come in and work until we have everything ready to go,” she says, “and then I’ll come back the next morning at six to meet our delivery guy.”
Woods says making the juices is a long, arduous effort. “We pull out the produce in the kitchen, measure it so that it’s made to order, and wash the ingredients in a lemon and vinegar solution,” she says. “After a machine slow-grinds the ingredients, they are then put on ice in order to keep essential nutrients locked into the juice.”
Woods is the operations manager at Raleigh Raw. She gathers new client connections, manages delivery and kitchen logistics, and keeps operational costs down.
Woods enjoys the analytical aspects of her job. “It’s nice not to have an emotional connection to it,” she says. “I look at as more of a game. What happens if we increase this number? How can we keep costs down?”
Raleigh Raw has a vending machine located in Café Helios on Glenwood Avenue, but Woods says expansion is coming soon.
“We are in the process of getting two more vending machines in Cameron Village,” she says. “Eventually we want to open a community center in downtown Raleigh that would have fresh stocked food available. Obviously, night life is a big part of downtown, but we want to help people develop a healthier lifestyle.”
Raleigh Raw is one of dozens of vendors – including restaurants, farms, breweries, wineries and bakeries – participating in the Red & White Food and Beverage Festival at the Park Alumni Center on Tuesday, Nov. 4. All of the vendors have NC State connections, with alumni as owners or managers. The festival is scheduled for 6 p.m. today at The State Club in the Park Alumni Center. Visit the festival website to register and see a full list of vendors participating.
Lucien “Luke” Baird has done fashion sketches since he was a child, but he came to NC State with interests in science and biology.
“I actually started as a biology major,” he says. “Then I started reading up on the textile program, and in that program you still get to be analytical, which is something I enjoy.”
Eventually, he transitioned to the College of Textiles, where he excelled.
“I’ve always wanted to freelance and create my own line,” he says.
Baird’s designs have now become a brand, one that he describes in three words: eclectic, eccentric and enigmatic.
“I enjoy taking unusual things and putting them into nontraditional places,” he says. “It’s nothing you would see at a department store. I want women who buy my designs to dress how they want to and be who they want to be through their clothing.”
The motivation for his designs comes from several different places. Baird, a native of Swansboro, N.C., says, “growing up on the coast, I would have the ocean and the waves to draw from. And I’ve always had an interest in the Victorian era, when you had long gowns and conservative outfits. Sometimes it’s all over the place, but when it comes together, everything fits into place.”
Baird, a 2013 NC State graduate, will present his 2014 fall collection at the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh (CAM) on October 19 from 3-5 p.m. Baird’s clothing designs for women will be on display, and attendees will have a chance to meet him.
Baird hopes exposure from the fashion show will get his clothes into local stores. “Recently, CAM has supported a lot of talented, local artists,” he says. “Justin LeBlanc recently had a show there. I’m just trying to get more people to know about me as a women’s clothing designer.”
Let there be no doubt — when Tensie Taylor sets her mind on something, chances are it’s going to happen. That was certainly the case with Taylor’s lifelong quest to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.
Taylor’s fascination with Wheel of Fortune began when she was just five years old, when her family watched game shows after catching the evening news. “Jeopardy was okay,” she says, “but I loved Wheel of Fortune. Two or three letters would be up there, and I could solve the puzzle.”
Taylor’s mother bought her a Wheel of Fortune video game for a Gameboy and then a version of game that could be played on the computer. “I played these games religiously,” Taylor says. “I was just fascinated by the show.”
But Taylor was not just intrigued by the game itself. She was also drawn in by the show’s trappings.
“I loved Vanna because she got to wear elegant dresses and turn the letters on the puzzle board,” Taylor says. “Pat Sajak seemed so nice. And everyone on the show went home a winner.”
Taylor is 27 years old now, having graduated from NC State in 2009 and gone on to earn a master’s degree in education from the University of Southern California in 2014. She is a manager at the Black Alumni Association at USC. She also works part-time as a hostess at Hollywood events such as the Grammy Awards and the NAACP Image Awards.
But her interest in Wheel of Fortune has never waned. When she was in graduate school, Taylor would make sure to schedule night classes so they didn’t interfere with her nightly viewing of the show.
Taylor had occasionally applied to be on the show when she was living in North Carolina. But when she moved to Los Angeles, Taylor decided to take her efforts to a new level.
“I’m very initiative driven,” she says. “When I put my mind to something, I go all out to do it until I accomplish that goal.”
So Taylor applied online to be a contestant every single day of 2013. That’s 365 consecutive days that Taylor sat down at her computer and applied to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.
But she still wasn’t selected. “I was disappointed,” Taylor says. “But it was more motivation to keep on trying and trying. And that’s what I did.”
And it finally paid off, when she got a call in early January 2014 inviting her to audition for the show. She was one of 100 people who showed up for auditions on Jan. 16, and then one of 15 to make the cut after completing a quiz of 16 puzzles and participating in a mock version of the show (she won a Pat Sajak bobble-head figure for correctly solving a puzzle). A couple of weeks later, Taylor received a letter inviting her to be on the show on May 2.
“I was trembling I was so nervous,” she says. “I screamed, ‘I’m going to be on Wheel of Fortune!’”
Taylor’s episode is scheduled to air this Thursday, and she is not allowed to talk about how she did on the show. But she was able to talk about what it was like to finally fulfill her dream.
“I was so nervous,” she says. “I was going on national television, and I might have the opportunity to win a million dollars.”
Taylor was determined not to become what she called a “YouTube sensation” by making a spectacular mistake on the show. So she decided not to make any wild guesses, to be calm when calling out letters and to be deliberate when solving puzzles. She was surprised by how small the studio was and how difficult it was to spin the wheel, which weighs 2,400 pounds.
“To be able to meet Vanna and Pat was great,” she says. “It was the quickest 20 minutes of my life — wow, that’s it! It was an amazing experience.”
But having accomplished one dream, Taylor already has her sights set on another goal. She wants to be a contestant on The Price is Right.
When Josh Hager was looking for a break in his graduate studies at NC State a few years ago, he would often host Jeopardy parties for his fellow graduate students in the master’s program in public and applied history. Hager would prepare the questions (or should that be answers?) and even play the role of Alex Trebek for a night of trivia with his friends.
“It worked out wonderfully,” says Hager, who earned his master’s from NC State in 2011.
The same could be said of Hager’s appearance on the actual Jeopardy show last week. Hager, in an appearance that was taped in July, won $26,100 in his first game. He lost in the second game, but walked away knowing that he could pay off some student loans and always call himself a Jeopardy champion.
“That’s a pretty good feeling,” Hager says. “That’s a pretty exclusive club. I am thrilled to be part of it.”
Hager, 27, is also part of another exclusive club — he has earned degrees from all three of the Triangle’s major universities. A native of Fayetteville, N.C., Hager earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Duke before deciding that he wanted to work as an archivist. So he did a dual-degree graduate program with NC State, where he earned a master’s of arts in public/applied history in 2011, and UNC, where he earned a master’s of science in information science in 2013. He now works as a correspondence assistant at the State Archives of North Carolina.
“I love the fact that I get to work with North Carolina history every day,” Hager says. “It is common for me to work with 200-year-old documents ever day. What really is most rewarding to me is helping people find what they are looking for.”
Hager says he roots for Duke in football, largely because they were so bad on the gridiron when he was in school there. But he roots for NC State in basketball. “Having gone to Duke and NC State first, I was trained to not root for Carolina,” he says. (But he is quick to add that he got a great education at UNC.)
Hager also appreciates NC State for not adding to his debt — he earned a full ride at NC State by working as a teaching assistant. His debts are from loans he took out to study at Duke and UNC. “My experience at NC State was great,” he says. “I had great professors and great classes. I still keep in touch with the people at State, more so than at the other schools.”
Given his love of history and trivia, it was a lifelong dream for Hager to compete on Jeopardy. He passed an online Jeopardy test last year and was invited to regional tryouts in Tampa, Florida. He then got a call from the show in June, telling him to be in Los Angeles in July for a taping.
Hager boned up for his appearance by watching old shows. “It gave me an idea of what kinds of questions they might be asking,” he says. “Instead of studying all of classical music, there are several composers they tend to focus on.”
Hager figured history would be a strong suit, along with the categories dealing with literature or sports. He swept a category dealing with literature on his first show and a category dealing with the National Football League on his second show. He struggled with a category dealing with the “Cinema of Steve McQueen” (“I can name Bullitt and The Great Escape.“) and a category on artists (“The previous champion was an art history professor.”).
Despite his success, Hager says he never felt like he figured out the timing for buzzing in to give an answer. He says he unsuccessfully tried to buzz in several times.
Jeopardy tapes five episodes a day, so Hager had a lunch break between the taping of his first show and his second show. That meant that he was the reigning Jeopardy champion for about two hours.
“At least I had that little moment of time when I had time for it to sink in,” he says. “The other contestants were happy for me.”
They had lunch in the cafeteria at Sony Pictures, where Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are taped, and Hager saw some people dressed up in World War II-era gear for some sort of production. Hager says he didn’t have any interaction with Wheel contestants, but says the Jeopardy folks made it clear that they were expected to behave differently than contestants on the neighboring game show.
Hager says they were told that if they won, “they should be happy and celebrate, but not jump up and down and shout.”
“That’s more of a Wheel of Fortune reaction,” Hager says they were told. “Accept your victory with grace.”
Greg Behr and his team at GBW Strategies, a Raleigh-based communications firm, was asked last year to helping develop a public relations strategy for the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival. The multi-day music event and street festival was moving from Nashville, Tenn., to Raleigh, and Behr didn’t know quite what to expect.
“We thought we’d have 60,000 to 80,000 people come out over two days,” says Behr, who graduated from NC State in 2006 with an English degree. “We were shocked when we had 140,000 come out over two days.”
That’s quite a mark for a festival of any sort to set in its first year. So as Wide Open is back in Raleigh for its sophomore year today and Saturday, Behr welcomes the opportunity for Raleigh to once again show it can help grow the festival and the International Bluegrass Music Association.
“The band Chatham County Line wrote a song about the IBMA coming and living in Raleigh now,” Behr says. “Raleigh is a fantastic place to be. We’ll put people in the seats. We’ll make it so you can continue to grow your organization in a new home.”
Behr is familiar with getting the word out about events in downtown Raleigh. GBW Strategies has worked with the city and Raleigh Convention Center on various events, including Raleigh Wide Open, the Cherry Bounce Festival and the NHL All-Star Game in 2011.
“We’ve been working the big downtown festivals during Raleigh’s renaissance,” he says. “We knew Raleigh could put on parties. Those models are what helped us work with the convention center, [which] led the way in getting Wide Open here.”
So Behr has spent time this week spreading the gospels of the mandolin and banjo as the festival has grown in scope to more stages and acts. He realizes he can’t simply depend on word of mouth to bring out a crowd, but he also admits that bluegrass fans in North Carolina do give the event a distinct advantage.
“It’s such a dedicated audience. It’s cool to come down to the festival and you get all these hardliners coming to the venue. They can tell you who’s picking with who. But then you have a family just looking for things to do.”
The Wide Open Bluegrass Festival takes place today and Saturday in downtown Raleigh, with more than 85 bands performing along Fayetteville Street. There are both ticketed events and a free street festival.
Among the memorable remarks made by Jim Valvano, one has stuck with Frances Holt through the years. “Coach Valvano always used to say, ‘Position yourself for success,’” Holt says. “I’ve remembered that all of my life and it’s something I try to do every day.”
Holt has positioned herself for success throughout her career. She graduated from NC State with a degree in science education in 1962 and retired from the U.S. Navy this summer after 50 years of civilian service.
“We are always at the ready,” she says, referring to her time with the Navy. “During wartime, you don’t have time to sit and plan things out. We have to respond correctly and efficiently to whatever the Navy might need.”
Holt spent her entire career with the Navy in Fleet Ordinance Support. Fleet Ordinance Support provides the Navy with weaponry — like tomahawk missiles and other cruise missiles — and everything else it needs to be ready to fight.
She started with the Navy in 1966, working as a chemist at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown based in Yorktown, Va. After spending the early part of her career testing and designing samples that would become parts of mines and bombs, she transitioned into a management role.
While she acknowledges that working with explosives is some of the most interesting work a chemist can do, she reiterates that the transition to management had rewarding aspects of its own. “I left my white coat behind,” she says. “But I have an intense interest in big systems and how they work; that you have the right people and the right budget, it’s so satisfying to me.”
In 2006, Holt was instrumental in the establishment of the Navy Munitions Command at Yorktown, Va., where she served as executive director from 2006 until her retirement this summer. The Navy Munitions Command provides the Navy with firepower and support worldwide and, according to Holt, has an annual budget of about $120 million.
Certainly, the demanding nature of a job with the Navy is not for everyone. Holt says one of the questions people frequently asked her was ‘what’s a nice girl like you doing in a business like that?’ To her, the answer always came easy. “I viewed it as doing my part for my country,” she says. “So many people have fought so hard in service for our country, and it’s always important to defend the values we hold so dearly.”
Holt says she has been in the gender minority as a student and throughout her professional career, but she has spent little time worrying about it.
“The work was so demanding that I quickly learned to get the job done and not worry about the context,” she says. “I would make the coffee, make the ham biscuits, whatever would facilitate the work of the team. In a team setting, you have to do whatever it takes to get the job done. I didn’t have time to worry about anything else.”
After retiring with the Navy this summer, Holt says she took one day of vacation before starting work at the Technology Commercialization Center, a small business comprised of technology and business experts who help transfer inventions from the laboratory to the marketplace based in Hampton, Va., where she currently lives.
Retiring altogether – or, as she puts it, a “Plan B” — is something that never entered her mind. “Someone recently said to me, ‘Frances, you don’t know the meaning of the word retirement.’ I’m just excited for a new challenge,” she says.
– Will Watkins
Rajendra K. Pachauri, an NC State alumnus who is chairman of the 2007 Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and CEO of The Energy and Resources Institute, delivered a lecture on campus Monday about the panel’s latest findings on climate change research.
“We know now with a substantial amount of precision how much the earth has warmed, and how much of that is from human activity,” Pachauri said in his talk to students, faculty and alumni at the Talley Student Union.
Pachauri stressed the need for action at local and institutional levels. “Whatever we do, we need to be sure we’re not leaving future generations at a disadvantage,” he said. Pachauri cited rising sea levels and the increasing number of extreme weather events across the globe as evidence of the impact of global climate change.
“The good news is that we now have knowledge of the future risks,” he said, “and we can embark on a path to avoid those risks.”
Before the lecture, RedandWhiteForLife.com had a chance to ask Pachauri about his ties to NC State. He earned a master’s in industrial engineering at NC State in 1972 and a doctorate in industrial engineering and economics in 1974. Here’s a portion of the interview:
How often do you get to come back to NC State, and is there a favorite spot of yours? Well, actually, I came back in 2009 after a long break. I didn’t have a chance to come back for a long time before that. Frankly, there’s never enough time for me to go to a favorite spot on campus. I get tied up with several activities and events on campus, and all of my trips have been barely a day long. I’d much rather reach out and address groups of faculty, which is what I’ve been doing. I haven’t had the ability to go sit somewhere under the shade of a tree like I’d like to. But the campus is looking better and better, and there are so many places I’d like to go visit. I recently went to the new [Hunt] library, and that was a wonderful experience.
You co-majored in industrial engineering and economics. How did the different aspects of your education at NC State influence your career? I’ve found it of great value to have a background in both fields, and I’m really grateful to NC State for opening my eyes and allowing me to move into a field that I was not really familiar with in economics. When I started working on issues of energy policy, to have a background with clear familiarity of technology in engineering, as well as economics, has been a big help for me. You need to understand both, really, when you’re dealing with climate change, and when you’re thinking about technological solutions. It’s not merely the technology part, nor is it just the economics of the whole system. You need to look at both to be able to assess the merits of the options you’re evaluating.
When did you realize you were interested in climate change? And did that motivation come at NC State? I think my interest in climate change and my eagerness to get involved in it came a few years after I graduated from NC State. When I was working on energy policy, I realized the environmental implications of energy decisions and the energy cycle were very serious. So, while I was studying that, I came across the whole science of climate change. I studied that in considerable depth, and NC State gave me the means by which I could analyze this very complex issue.
What are some things that you do, and that you recommend other people should do, to reduce energy consumption? A lot of my efforts are more organizational, with the IPCC and my institution in India, so I rarely have opportunities to preach to people, so to speak. But if people ask me specifically how they can reduce greenhouse gases, then of course I’ll give them advice on how to save electricity by turning their lights off, or how to set their thermostats correctly. Using public transportation and walking where it’s feasible are two things we don’t do enough of. Basically, one has to be conscious in one’s life about the impacts actions have on the ecosystems on this planet. It’s a personal choice, really. If you believe in the mission and want to reduce your footprint, I think you’ll find a way to do so.
– Will Watkins
Pachauri was featured in the Winter 2007 issue of NC State alumni magazine. Click here to read our previous interview with Pachauri.
Shequeta Smith has a secret that only a couple of her co-workers know about. When she leaves her 9-to-5 job at Coca Cola, where she works in corporate sales, all she thinks about is screenwriting.
She casts the latest scene she’s written — maybe Matthew McConaughey in her movie about a man who gets pregnant. She thinks about her nine years in California, from the day jobs she had to have to pay the bills to her first encounters with Hollywood working behind the scene on such shows as Everybody Hates Chris and Flavor of Love. And she ponders what she wants her vision to be as a filmmaker.
But Smith, who graduated from NC State in 2001 with a sociology degree, is coming dangerously close to having all of her co-workers know about her budding success as a writer and director.
Last week, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s HBO show Project Greenlight, which aims to award a promising first-time filmmaker the opportunity to direct a feature film, announced Smith’s trailer for her yet-to-be-made movie, The Gestapo vs. Granny, is one of 20 finalists for the show.
“I have two gigantic notebooks full of rejection letters,” Smith says. “I keep each one. I wasn’t ready then, but this is going to happen. Visualizing it, I know it’s going to happen. I don’t know when, but I’d like for it to happen now.”
Smith, 35, says writing has always been in her heart, whether it was composing rap lyrics as a kid growing up in Salisbury to hearing North Carolina-based storyteller Jackie Torrence come to her school. She never thought of it as a viable career option, and instead came to NC State to be pediatrician, a goal she now laughs off thinking back to how college chemistry forced her to reimagine her professional plans.
Smith still holds on to her play she wrote as a freshman at NC State. Her instructor urged her to explore screenwriting after reading it.
But an English 101 instructor at NC State gave Smith some direction. “My freshman year, I wrote a play called Shades of Darkness,” she says. “She told me, ‘You should really consider screenwriting.’”
It would be three more years, an internship with Def Jam/Rock-A-Fella records and interviews she wrote up for the Nubian Message before Smith again thought of returning to writing a script. She tried her hand at writing something and submitting it for a show. Then she wrote a script for a film called Drama about a girl who’s a model and finds out she’s HIV-positive. It was a finalist for the Screenwriters Lab at the Sundance Institute. It didn’t make the final cut, but it was enough of a sign that she moved to Los Angeles, where she’s been the last nine years trying to make it Hollywood.
Smith has worked on sitcoms and reality television shows. In 2008, she started her own company, Rayven Choi Films. She has written and directed two short films, The Takeover, a romantic comedy, and The J.H. Gunn Project, a drama about a young man trying to turn his life around.
Smith directs action in the trailer she made for The Gestapo vs. Granny.
But it’s her turn at comedy with Gestapo, a film Smith hopes to make with Betty White as the lead about an elderly woman who has been kicked out of multiple nursing homes, that Smith has found to be the most rewarding and challenging work.
“Comedy is my one,” she says. “It’s hard to make people laugh. Everyone has different senses of humor.”
If she is chosen for Project Greenlight she might get that chance to work with one of her idols who she grew up watching on Mama’s Family and The Golden Girls. But directing her own movie, even with White as the star, will not be Smith’s greatest thrill.
“Writing is my biggest love affair,” she says. “That’s what brought me here.”