Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange Q&A: Shameka Sawyer

By Anna Gordover

January 18, 2023

Shameka Sawyer is on a mission to produce community-centered video journalism that authentically highlights BIPOC experiences. Thanks to the Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange, she has even more resources to share that mission with the next generation.

Sawyer is the executive director and lead producer of the 5 Shorts Project, one of Philadelphia’s few film and video production companies owned and operated by an African-American woman. She oversees film projects created for and by members of under-represented groups, particularly Black and brown communities, aiming to give them the attention they deserve and often lack in mainstream media. The organization has gained a wide range of clients and produced over 40 short films over the few years it has been operating.

The Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange launched in March 2022 as an accelerator program for local BIPOC media entrepreneurs by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund. Over the following five months, participants went through training on operations, revenue and monetization, and marketing and branding to help their businesses grow and thrive. They also each received grant support, professional coaching, and training from the Zebras Unite Co-Op and Black and Brown Founders.

We recently spoke with Sawyer about her biggest takeaways from her experience with the PMFE program and her upcoming plans for the 5 Shorts Project, including how bringing on an intern has impacted her current work.

“I plan to keep my connections with tech savvy young people and bring them on to help educate adults about the changes in our industry,” she said when asked about the future of her business. “In return, young people will learn about community, resilience, and leadership from adults. It’s all cyclical.”

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Kiara Santos contributed reporting.

Tell us a bit about the project(s) you worked on as part of PMFE. 

I worked on my first alternative to gun violence youth video production program.

What problem were you trying to solve initially, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

A major problem with producing community programs is limited capacity. I was in need of an intern to help with managing the project, creating the workshops, and bookkeeping.

What were your biggest takeaways from the Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange? What did you gain from the formal programming and coaching? What did you learn from your fellow founders?

My biggest takeaways were that planning is key for building and sustaining a business, and that building a team helps to make businesses stronger. The coaching and programming taught me how to work on my challenges, like planning, and to strategically think about all the different aspects of my business. I also learned how to learn from my audience and provide services that fulfill their needs. Fellow founders taught me how to pitch my business, ask for help, and calculate my salary range.

How has this work impacted the community you serve?

I was able to bring on an intern and hire contractors to assist me. Having their help enabled me to provide better service and expand services offered. My intern brought great ideas to our meetings and they were implemented during our youth video production program.

Were there any unexpected plans or challenges that you had to overcome during the program? What did you learn from it? 

Time was the biggest challenge. For a moment, I had several professional responsibilities running at the same time. I learned that planning and setting specific days for meetings during the week really helps.

How did the program contribute to your sense of power and/or self-efficacy in creating change in Philadelphia’s media ecosystem? 

I feel more empowered to continue to provide video production services for socially conscious work. I now have the business knowledge, along with my passion, and I have a stronger business because of this. I also have the funding to secure the help I need to grow my business. A significant part of my work is providing training for underserved groups who have no video production experience. I am now able to continue to provide this service and hire some of the participants that I work with. So, I am not only providing training, but I am also providing employment. 

What’s next? How are you planning to continue this work?

My plan is to continue to grow and learn. In my field, technology is always changing. I plan to keep my connections with tech savvy young people and bring them on to help educate adults about the changes in our industry. In return, young people will learn about community, resilience, and leadership from adults. It’s all cyclical. The best way to make an impact is to learn and build with each other. That’s what I plan to continue and help others.

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