Interview: Mimi Valdés

Here’s a tiny bio of the wonderful Mimi Valdés: Former Editor-in-Chief of Vibe magazine, current Chief Creative Officer for musician Pharrell Williams’ company, i am OTHER, lifelong storyteller. Today, she tells her own stories of why fear’s a good thing, the trait that’s served her best, and the terrific checklist she uses to decide if she’ll take on a project.

How do you describe yourself? Your work?
Nice person, probably first and foremost. I’m curious. I’m a storyteller, I think it’s because I love people.

I was born and raised in the New York City projects. It was just my mom and grandmother, my father died when my mother was pregnant with me. I grew up with so many different people, different colors, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientations, religions. I always loved [being] around all these different people. It was a really cool, fun way to grow up and I think that’s why I’ve been committed to diversity. It feels weird to me when I’m not around a bunch of different people because that’s just how I grew up.

Wanting to tell stories – which best describes my work – was probably because I was so curious about everyone’s experience. I’m always looking for a good story to tell. That’s what’s driven me throughout my career, from being obsessed with magazines at a very young age and desperately wanting to work at one to graduating from college with a degree in journalism and being lucky enough to get a job as an editorial assistant at Vibe, Quincy Jones’ music magazine, when it first started.

What surprises you most about the path you’ve taken or person you’ve become?
In the era that I grew up in, it seemed like you picked one thing and you did that for the rest of your life. I’ve never been limited by that.

I love being a storyteller, whether it’s in a magazine, websites, music videos, movies. I jump in head first, thinking, “Okay, this is exciting, let’s work this out.” It all has the same mission—to tell great stories that people can relate to.

It’s really important to work on projects that feel different, like they haven’t been done before. In order to truly innovate, there’s an element of risk, and if there’s risk, there’s fear. I find that when there’s fear, that’s a good thing because that means that you’re doing something unique.

Are there personal traits you’ve cultivated that have served you well?
Curiosity. Curiosity to me is the key for everything. When you think about kids in kindergarten, they approach everything with awe. The first time they see a crayon box that has a thousand colors in it, they [think] it’s awesome. I approach life that way.

Obviously, I’m motivated to work hard [and] it’s important to be nice to people, to do the work and come prepared. All of that is great, but curiosity will lead you to really great ideas if you’re open to learning about things that aren’t familiar.

I’m a big believer in trusting your gut, too. That’s the way I judge whether or not to get involved in a project: Does this feel good? I have a checklist of how to work on a project: I want to educate, I want to entertain, and I want to inspire, that’s how I go about storytelling. If I can do those three things, then I feel like I’m on the right path. It has to feel good and it has to be fun. Fun is really important to me.

How did you come up with that checklist?
The stories that resonated with me could do that. I learned something, I was entertained in some way – maybe I laughed at it – and I was inspired. Those always felt like the best stories. I felt like that was a good way to go about my own personal journey of how I would create.

What’s the role of risk in your life?
Risk plays a big role. I am committed to trying to do things that haven’t been done before. I don’t like formulas or things that feel like I can obviously tell where all the influences are from. It’s important to take inspirations and remix them in a way that feels new.

When I was Editor-in-Chief of Vibe, I used to say I got the job at the worst time because it was right when urban music was becoming this global phenomenon. For the longest time, Vibe was the only magazine putting these artists on the covers. Then next thing you know, Time and Rolling Stone [are]. So I decided we’re not just going to concentrate on the established superstars. We’re going to make a commitment that out of the 12 covers, at least two to three [will be] new artists that we feel are going to have a real impact with their debut album.

That was completely risky to take that approach. You work on magazine issues three to four months ahead of time. When you’re making a risky decision like this, sometimes the staff would be like, “Who do you want to put on the cover? Are you crazy?” But to show our credibility, that we’re the leaders in this genre, we had to shot call.

How do you get yourself out of a rut, be it creative or otherwise?
Sometimes you have to know, “I’m not feeling it right now. Yes, there are some deadlines. But it’s not coming to me and that means I need to take a step back and go do something else.” Sometimes it means doing things that are not even remotely related, whether it’s going to check out a museum or getting on the phone with a friend you haven’t spoken to in a long time.

If something is feeling too overwhelming, usually by doing something else completely unrelated, all of a sudden I’ll [think], “Oh, wait a minute! Actually, that’s how I should approach that!” or “That‘s the way that I should solve that issue.” Sometimes the answer is not in what you’re doing, the answer is in something else that is completely unrelated and fun.

What does the future you want to create look like?
My title is Chief Creative Officer at [Pharrell’s company] i am OTHER. I started out as Creative Director. Then, once we did the movie, Dope, it was a reminder to both Pharrell and I that I’m a storyteller. We decided I was better suited to concentrate on building up our company’s film and TV division.

There are so many more stories we can tell in the visual medium. While things have gotten more diverse over the years, there’s still more to do. I grew up in New York City, and Manhattan is a melting pot of all these different people. In thinking about my childhood and how I was raised, I believe no one group should dominate what we see on the big screen and the little screen.

There’re way more stories to tell, and I know people will embrace these stories because they have universal themes. Dope is a great example. The film’s main characters were people of color, but those themes — of not fitting in or not wanting your environment to define who you are — everybody can relate to.

I want to champion diversity in a very real way. When it comes to the visual medium, we still don’t see all people represented, the true definition of diversity. That’s what I love to champion, making sure we celebrate everybody.

How do you handle the things that scare you?
As time has gone on in my career, I’ve realized that when something scares me, it’s usually been my best work. But you always forget that in the process. You have to remind yourself, “Yeah, yeah, this is good that I’m scared because that means we’re on the right path.” It’s a recalibrating. And the times that I’ve innovated or done something different, it always felt a little scary.

What would you like people to know or value about themselves?
Their individuality. For the longest time, we’ve lived in a world where it just felt like people should copy each other. You should dress a certain way or think a certain way.

As time has gone on, we’ve been able to see that individuality is a powerful thing. No one group should ever dominate how people should look at the world. All these diverse opinions and perspectives is what makes our world a beautiful place, a fun place, a curious place.

You don’t have to follow any set rules of how you should think or dress or approach life. Whatever it is that feels good to you is what you should be doing. If people value their individuality, they would probably be much happier. Because if you value your individuality, you let that set the tone for how you approach your personal life and your work life.

What’s the best kept secret of being an adult?
Reminding yourself that you should be a kid. Yes, you’re an adult, you are free to do what you want to do. But you should not lose sight of what being a kid is all about, the luxury of experiencing curiosity.

As you get older, you have to search out the things that are going to bring wonder to you. As a kid, it’s basically everything. You’re constantly being hit by these amazing new things that you’ve never experienced before. As you get older, you should remind yourself to be curious and seek out those experiences.

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