Shonda Rhimes, the award-winning TV screenwriter, producer and author, is a firm believer in never wearing stilettos, wearing comfortable clothes, getting eight hours of sleep a night, and just being yourself.
She spoke Wednesday night with Aurora James, founder of Brother Vellies and the 15 Percent Pledge, on stage at Shondaland’s New York offices. They were speaking to women from Gyrl Wonder, a professional pipeline initiative giving rise to young women of color between the ages of 17 and 22.
As reported, Rhimes appears in St. John’s #Own Your Power campaign, which launched this spring. St. John sponsored the event.
Discussing power and how one gets it, Rhimes said that you have to remember that you’re in a particular job because you’re supposed to be there. “You belong in every room you are in simply because you are in it. You made it in that room, you belong in that room,” said Rhimes, who has been the head writer for such TV shows as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “Private Practice,” and is the woman behind hits including “Bridgerton,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” and “Inventing Anna.”
Rhimes said it took a while for her to feel really comfortable, “but I still wasn’t feeling the way you’re supposed to feel. I still felt like a kid who was given a crazy chance,” she said. She said there were moments where everyone in the room was waiting for her to speak, or that if she said something, something happened faster. When she was on “Scandal,” she worked with a professional fixer. “She taught me so much about being who you are and that being enough,” said Rhimes.
Rhimes and James offered the women a lot of advice on how to get started in the working world.
Rhimes said every job is a step toward something, and you don’t need to have your dream job when you start. “You have to do something and the stuff you learn from that will push you towards the next thing,” she said. She explained that some of her early jobs were scooping ice cream in high school and working at a retail store in a mall in college, “which I thought was pretty fun and spent all my money on clothes.”
When she went out to Los Angeles to try and make it, “it was really about getting any job I could.” She got a job working with mentally ill homeless people who were looking to re-enter the workforce. “It was a really interesting place to work and had nothing to do with what I wanted to do, but I really tried hard to dig in. It’s that thing that if you’re going to get someone coffee, get them the best coffee they ever had,” said Rhimes.
In that role, she learned about connecting with people who didn’t want to connect with her.
Rhimes said she spent 10 years working at various jobs and got an agent. “I was going to put a script on the Spec market, and thought, it’s never going to work, and then I’m going to medical school,” said Rhimes. “But the script sold,” she said, and that kept her going for many more years. “It really was a sign that I was supposed to be where I was.”
Explaining where her drive came from, Rhimes said she had great parents who raised their children to always believe in themselves. “My mom was a stay-at-home mom with six kids and then she went to college while I was in high school, and then she got her Ph.D. when I was in college and became a professor of education. She was such a great example for me,” said Rhimes.
When hiring, Rhimes said she always likes people who know who they are and have a story. “For me, it’s always about looking for somebody who has an identity, someone who knows who they are, somebody who comes in with ideas. I always say I want somebody who’s not afraid to argue, but I don’t want to hire somebody who wants to argue all the time.”
Several years ago, her older sister told her she never said “yes” to anything, and always turned down invitations for public speaking engagements or events. Fighting her fear, Rhimes took the challenge to start saying “yes,” and even wrote a New York Times bestseller about it, “Year of Yes.”
“It was truly life-changing. I felt differently about myself. I discovered powers I didn’t know I had,” she said. “Everything about that made me realize that you’re capable of way more than you think you are,” she said. For example, she gave the commencement speech at her alma mater, Dartmouth College.
“Don’t worry about looking foolish. I look foolish all the time. I’m not afraid to fail and I’m not afraid to try something just because I’m afraid of what’s going to happen,” she said.
When asked what new goals she has for herself, Rhimes said, “I really want to write a play. I’m scared to do it, and I’m going to do it anyway.”
Turning to the topic at hand — she was there for St. John after all — she spoke about clothing.
“Wardrobe is armor,” said Rhimes. When she’s having a terrible day, if she’s dressed well, it helps her.
“You put it on and you do stuff and it’s important. But more important, I always want to wear something that not only makes me look good, but makes me comfortable. I don’t wear uncomfortable clothing for any reason whatsoever for anybody ever. I don’t wear stiletto heels, it’s not me. I want to wear something that makes me look good and feel good, but I don’t have to think about it while I’m wearing it,” said Rhimes. “Not worrying about how you look allows you to worry about what’s on the inside a lot more and get the work done.”
She believes that how you choose to dress tells the story of who you are. “It should be something that signals who you are to the world. Are you professional? Are you creative?….You need to have clothes that tell the world your personality. A lot of it is finding clothes that make you feel powerful and make you come across as powerful,” she said.
She said in her 20s, she didn’t know how to dress, but by her 30s, she found a uniform, wearing a lot of jackets and T-shirts. “As time went on, I really developed a uniform of clothes that made me feel good.”
Her best advice: “Don’t let your feet hurt. If your feet hurt, you can not think.”