Actress Yara Shahidi has made a name for herself in recent years—first through her starring role on the hit ABC television series Black-ish, and more recently via her very own spin-off show, Grown-ish, on the Freeform network.
But the 20-year-old Shahidi is more than just a TV star; she’s also a student, activist, and—alongside her mother, Keri Shahidi—a producer with her very own production company, 7th Sun. Speaking at this year’s virtual edition of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit, Yara and Keri Shahidi discussed their journey to date, and their mission for 7th Sun to be a vehicle for, as Yara put it, “making familiar the many cultures and identities” that are too often looked over by the entertainment and media industries.
“I love the fact that it really allows us to honor all of our sensibilities,” Yara said of 7th Sun, citing her interests in “the business of business, and the creativity of business” among those that are served by the endeavor. “Foundational to our ethos is really audacious goals,” added Keri, pointing to the pair’s passion for “storytelling” and “opening doors” in describing how the production company came about.
Racial and cultural identity is part and parcel of the company’s vision—right down to its very name, which is derived from the writings and philosophy of the Black writer and activist W.E.B. DuBois. (“The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world,” DuBois wrote.)
For Yara, 7th Sun is about “acknowledging and centering” the cultures and experiences too often overlooked by society through the medium of storytelling. As far as the production company’s projects, that includes “everything from four-quadrant animation, to dark comedies that are kind of genre-bending.” (The production company and its projects are still in their earliest stages, with 7th Sun having launched in July in partnership with ABC Studios.)
“It’s not so much about formats as it is core sensibility,” and the goal of allowing stories to “live on-screen that haven’t been told prior,” Yara added.
Keri Shahidi noted a particular goal of “continuing the evolution of media for young, brown and black boys that centers on joy, that centers on living… The idea that we have space to have our own Catcher in the Rye, but maybe it’s represented by people who we never thought we’d see on screen.”
The two women also discussed the intellectual journey that brought them to this point. Keri recalled her daughter’s natural curiosity, which manifested itself in a particular interest in Renaissance history as a seven-year-old—and eventually resulted in a childhood trip to Italy to view and experience the artifacts and relics of the time period.
“Our obligation as parents was to feed the curiosities of her and both of her brothers,” Keri said. “The idea, as a parent, is really to watch with excitement and intrigue the direction in which she’s leading us.”
That direction eventually led Yara to Harvard University, which she’s currently attending as a junior-year undergraduate. While this year’s pandemic-induced, remote academic experience has actually helped her more easily balance the demands of professional and student life, Yara said college has been a hugely instructive experience as far as informing the intellectual subject matter she wants to explore as a producer and storyteller.
And she was keen to attribute her success to her mother’s “flexibility” toward her education, and the multifaceted approach she took toward her daughter’s intellectual and academic growth.
“It meant that I had a level of investment in my education, because it was reflecting back worlds that mattered to me,” Yara said.
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