It started with piano (and Whitney Houston).
Eight-year-old Vannesia Darby watched The Preacher’s Wife almost every day, so when she saw the Whitney Houston song from the movie – “I Believe in You and Me” – in her mom’s piano book, she thought:
I have to learn how to play this song.
Vannesia had never been trained on how play the piano before. Her mom had just started taking her own lessons; she’d quit when she was young and always regretted it.
To help her relearn, she placed colorful stickers on the keys with each note, and those stickers helped young Vannesia teach herself to play one of her favorite songs:
I remember reading the book and matching the notes. And because I already knew the rhythm of the song, I was able to play it. I started teaching myself how to play.
Vannesia had a talent for music, and her mom noticed. They couldn’t afford for both of them to take lessons, so her mom sacrificed her lessons and gave them to Vannesia.
Vannesia took to it right away, eventually playing all over town, giving lessons, and placing in showcases. The piano became a part of her life, a part of her identity.
And when she met her friend Byron Lee in the Music Tech and Keyboarding class they both took her sophomore year of high school, it also became a part of her career plan.
She and Byron would often skip lunch to create music together: she’d come up with chords and melodies and he’d produce them into full song. And when they weren’t creating music they were dreaming of working in the music industry together one day.
But the next year, Byron died suddenly.
Vannesia was devastated, and she “felt compelled to make it in the music industry for both of us.”
She wanted to find a way to make it in the music business, especially because she actually loved music and business.
“A little naivety mixed with some boldness.”
While Vanesia always loved music and the arts, she was also an entrepreneur at heart. When she was seven she started a “perfume” business with her friends. “I'm the manager,” she declared, and told them how they’d need to “get a license.” She also built and “managed” their production line, mixing dirt and flowers to get each scent – “It smelled horrible,” she laughs.
So in college she majored in business, and by her senior year got an internship with a record label – EMI Gospel. After she graduated she applied for every job in the music industry she could find but, she remembers: “I was getting turned down by so many people.”
But she wasn’t ready to give up. She had to keep trying, for Byron.
So with “a little naivety mixed with some boldness,” Vannesia direct messaged Tracey Artis, a radio promoter (and former VP at Sony), at 10:00pm one night on social media, sharing her dream of working in the music industry and asking Tracey if she’d be willing to share her email address so Vannesia could reach out there.
Tracey responded – “Sure, sweetheart” – and gave Vannesia her email address.
Vannesia emailed Tracey, sharing her past experience in music and future dreams. What Vannesia didn’t know then is Tracey knew Larry Blackwell Jr, the VP of EMI Gospel (where Vannesia had interned in college) for years, and when she saw Vannesia had worked there, Tracey called him asking what he thought about her potentially hiring Vannesia; his response?
Oh yeah, she's good. Go ahead and get her.
Vannesia laughs now, saying she would never DM a CEO at 10pm ever again, but she’s grateful; Tracey’s kind response changed her life.
After she moved to Cincinnati for the job, she remembers walking into Tracey’s office for the first time, seeing the platinum and gold records lining the walls, thinking about making beats with Byron during lunch.
For the next few years Vannesia did what she always does – she gave her all, learning and doing whatever anyone needed – which, at that time, was a lot of digital marketing.
Tracey also invited Vannesia into every room and every meeting, giving her the opportunity to sit down with GRAMMY® winners, getting a behind-the-scenes look at how the music business really worked.
Tracey always encouraged Vannesia to own her own business one day too; she’d always preface advice with: “When you own your own business…”
But Vannesia didn’t think she’d ever own her own business; she thought the perfume business was her first and last.
She was wrong.
“Between what I actually loved and what I was growing my career in.”
After years of working for Tracey, Vannesia was recruited to work for Motown Gospel, a top label in Nashville. She moved to Music City where she continued to hone her skills in digital marketing and label operations; she also worked festivals and red carpets to make sure “nothing was on fire.”
Working in the music industry kept Vannesia so busy that she stopped playing music. She dropped off all her keyboards at her parent’s house after she moved to Nashville and didn’t even want to look at them anymore; they’d become a painful reminder of a part of her that was fading away.
Around the same time, two kinds of people started emailing Vannesia asking for help:
- Undergrads who wanted to be in the music industry (asking for post-graduate career advice).
- Creatives who wanted to hire her to do their digital marketing.
Vannesia started freelancing on the side, helping creatives with their digital marketing, and helping them navigate some of the basics of business, like P&L’s and press releases.
To help the undergrads, she started blogging to document her career journey so far and wrote articles for publications like Blavity, Teen Vogue, and MadameNoire.
The more she freelanced the more she loved it, so much so that she decided to go to graduate school for management and leadership.
But going to graduate school, freelancing, and doing her full-time job in the music industry became too much. She knew she had to make a choice, and she was surprised that the choice she wanted to make was to quit her job.
I was having a lot of cognitive dissonance between what I actually loved and what I was growing my career in.
She quit her job and gave herself seven months to make it work as a full-time creator while she finished her master’s degree.
And when money did start to get tight, she picked up side-gigs – even becoming a contract product specialist at ConvertKit before leveraging her music and production skills into a role as the Associate Producer for our webinars.
I always tell people, don't ever be afraid to do that. There's no shame in picking up extra things. You get paid to learn new skills and can still build your business at the same time.
And while she left the music industry, the music industry never left her. She’d made such a great impression that many of her old bosses hired her to freelance for them.
But her business really started to take off when she discovered a superpower she didn’t know she had.
“Everyone goes through the same struggles.”
Something strange was happening.
People hired Vannesia for one thing – digital marketing help – but referred people to her for something else.
They’d tell their friends and colleagues how much clarity and direction she helped them find in their business. They would come to her for social media help, and she would help them see social media wasn’t really what they needed to focus on right then.
Often their problems, she explains, weren’t related to digital marketing but more foundational – and while Vannesia could have easily made a quick buck and just given them the social content they wanted, she instead took the time to help them see what their business really needed at that time, at the foundational level, before diving into the digital marketing work.
By then she had a deep understanding of the order of operations to create a successful and sustainable business and she wanted to help people get it right.
She also had a way of drawing people out, helping them think more clearly about their true goals as a creator. (Even I can attest to this. When I worked with Vannesia on webinars we became partners and close friends. And often on calls with her I’d find myself taking notes, and then, after answering a question she’d ask, I’d respond with, “Wow, I’ve never told anyone that before.”)
Once she realized what was happening, she added consulting to her list of services.
I didn't understand that providing clarity and relieving a sense of overwhelm for people was a service.
I just thought I was talking.
I can charge people for this?
So I started implementing clarity calls in my business and talking with people about their craft and where they should go and how they should roll it out and what's the strategy behind it.
That was something that really changed the game for me, once I got the language of what consulting was.
Now with a master’s degree in organizational leadership and years of experience in the music industry working directly with professional artists, Vannesia provides other independent creators with the clarity, structure, and plans they needed to thrive in the creative industry.
I ask her what kind of insight she brings into her consulting gleaned from all those years working with Grammy-award-winning artists:
Everyone goes through the same struggles. And I think we don't normalize that enough.
There's a lot of fear – whether you are a new creator starting your business or you're a top artist putting out brand new music. Everyone goes through that.
I've seen people with Grammys be super self-conscious. And it shocks you for a second because you think they're so indestructible, but they're just people.
And we don't talk about this enough either: You have to ask for help.
Nobody makes it by themselves. There's always somebody in the background.
“Imagine if that had gone to her spam folder.”
Sometimes as a creator, you’re that somebody helping in the background. Without even realizing it, a simple email can change a life.
Vannesia has a small, dedicated email list (for her its all about quality and impact – not quantity). Her business runs on the depth of her relationships, not the breadth of them, something her sister and her first foray into the music business taught her:
My sister always says, ‘Keep your eyes on your own paper and just focus on what you need to do – and remember that there's a particular group of people you're called to help and that you're for.'
“Nobody makes it by themselves. There's always somebody in the background.”
Once, not long after Vannesia sent one of her encouraging emails to her list, she got a reply from a woman who said that email kept her from completing suicide that day.
I'll never forget getting that message. To think that something I would say would help someone that much? Oh my goodness; it's insane. And that's why I love technology and having good systems, because imagine if that had gone to her spam folder.
That was another moment where I dedicated myself to showing up. Because you really don't know who's on the other side and who's getting your messages, or what they're doing for people.
She also tells me about an email – one I remember getting and loving – about a microaggression she’d experienced in a public setting and how she handled it. The replies were bountiful, other women thanking her for sharing, reminding them they weren’t alone and weren’t powerless.
I had a couple people unsubscribe, but I had more people email me back and say, ‘Thank you for writing this experience.' And ‘Thank you for documenting this' and ‘Thank you for saying what you said.'
A lot of times we're just really borrowing each other's courage. And so the fact that I can provide that for people in any form or fashion is humbling and it makes me want to have good technology.
“A lot of times we're just really borrowing each other's courage.”
It makes me want to have good deliverability, it makes me care about open rates and stuff like that. Not so I can hear my own voice echo, but so I can actually reach people and do the work I know I’m here to do. I have to always remember that.
Because there are hard days. There are days when you don't want to do it and you don't want to show up and you don't want to log on and you don't want to look through your inbox.
But there's something about you just consistently being there, and someone else depending on you to be there – you can't take it lightly, you know?
“Piano lessons are life lessons.”
Today, in addition to running her full-time consulting business MOXIE Nashville and recently launching her first course Get Your Business Together, Vannesia also runs an internship program, produces the Entourage podcast (featuring interviews with incredible artists making a full-time living in the entertainment industry), and teaches Entrepreneurship in the Arts at Tennessee State University.
Running her internship program has especially made her heart soar this year, teaching students business the same way she learned it, working for another creator. It’s also meant a lot to her to be in a position to provide her interns a safe space in 2020.
Because of COVID, because of Black Lives Matter, I've been able to provide a safe space for them because they're all Black. To be able to talk about it at work, and be themselves when they show up has been vital – because you don't always get that.
I'm excited to create the atmosphere that I want to create for people to be themselves and to feel safe.
She’s also used her social media accounts and email list to advocate, bringing more of who she is and what she believes into her business than ever before:
I would be remiss if I, as a Black female business owner, didn't provide a safe space for us to talk about issues that are happening in real time, in our real world.
That's been something that's also been really exciting because I'm seeing allies chip in and meet me there. It's been tough work, but it's exciting work.
Vannesia is a multi-passionate creator and has found a way to bring so much of who she is into her digital life. How, I ask her, does she find time for it all and not let #allthethings distract her from doing the kind of focused work it takes to make a sustainable full-time living as a creator (which I know she’s doing well because she just bought her first house with her business income)?
You have to realize that everything does not have to be monetized.
And that freedom really allows you to create without boundaries so you don't have to have this added pressure of making money from something that just brings you joy.
And it's okay.
Like my podcast, I don't monetize. I like talking to people.
You can do everything, but not at the same time.
Be intentional wherever you are at the time, and that dedication in that specific area will roll over into the dedication in the next area you're going to be in.
She treats everything like that young girl drawn to the multi-colored keys and her favorite song – never thinking about what she can win, but always thinking about what she can learn.
Just a few months ago, after five years not touching a piano key, Vannesia woke up one morning and just knew: she wanted to play.
She hired a piano teacher and began again, going back to her mom’s house to pick up the old keyboard she’d left behind. This time around, she’s fallen in love with the metaphors:
There’s ebb and flows, melodies and harmonies, and rests. My teacher Anna Lynn always says, ‘Piano lessons are life lessons.’ That’s really true.
There's a season to everything.
You're not always going to be on top all the time, and you're not always going to be on the bottom all the time; and that’s okay.
You’ve just got to keep the song going – keep playing.