Emerald-Jane (Aggrey-Appiah) Hunter ’03 has grit. After graduating from Luther with a communication studies major, the Ghanaian-born powerhouse of hard work and positivity moved to Chicago. There, in just four years, she went from selling Cutco knives to starting an Emmy Award–nominated production company and creating and producing her own television show. In 2016, she launched a second company. How? By working hard, taking risks, cultivating skills, and being prepared for anything.
When in doubt, google it out
After a string of less-than-inspiring gigs as a new graduate, Hunter scored a job as front-office support for a production company owned by the director of the Oprah Winfrey Show. Hunter had already developed a keen interest in television from an internship at Decorah’s Telnet station, but her behind-the-scenes trips to the Oprah set firmed up her desire to work in the field.
She soon transitioned into an associate producer position with Central City Productions, whose mission was to create positive African American programming. But, she says, “I felt like there were gaps within the company where they could do better. They weren’t quite ready for that, but I’ve always been one to push the boundaries.” So she made the bold decision to strike out on her own.
“I googled how to start a production company,” she says nonchalantly, as though that’s a thing people just do. She hired someone through Craigslist and paid her $100 to register Emerald-Jane Productions Inc.
Be prepared 24/7
Around this time, Hunter and a colleague created a concept for a show they called 24/7 Chicago, a half-hour entertainment magazine-style show that would interview local celebrities and recommend the best places to visit, shop, and eat. She hired someone to design a logo, ordered some clipboards and mic flags, found a cameraperson willing to work for free, mocked up some media badges, and set out to create a sizzle reel. Even though she was bootstrapping the project, Hunter had no reservations about pouring all her time, money, and energy into it. “It’s better to be prepared for an opportunity and not get it than to to get an opportunity and not be prepared,” she says.
Her preparation paid off. While filming at a Wounded Warrior fundraiser, her team caught the attention of the general manager of NBC. “We did everything professionally, and because I had produced before, I was steering the ship with well-produced interviews and camera angles and everything,” Hunter says. “The general manager was impressed by what he saw, and we pretended we were in negotiations with a bunch of stations.” In the middle of December, they got a phone call that NBC wanted to test their show on New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t much lead time, but Hunter hustled to make it happen.
NBC picked up the show, which aired in the time slot after Saturday Night Live. She was thrilled to have her own show, but the first few years sound like a fever dream. “They gave me air time for free,” she says, “But any money I made, I had to use to pay camera people and editors. My husband [Ronney Hunter ’02] was making $40,000 a year at that time and supporting us and a new baby. I had a pack-and-play in my office, and I’d pick our daughter up from school and spend nights there.” To cut down on expenses, Ronney, an IT professional, learned how to code closed captioning, and the family would camp out at the office overnight, Emerald-Jane often working 24 hours with no sleep. “It was a tough time, but I was doing what I love, and the ability to have my own show was worth it to me,” she says.
Live without regret
In 2011, Oprah aired its final season, and ABC filled the popular time slot with a new talk show, Windy City Live. Hunter couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with such a big platform, and she signed on as the show’s lead guest booking producer, a position she held until she left the show.
In 2015, the ever-aspiring Hunter branched out into marketing and content development and started myWHY Agency, an integrated marketing firm helping brands and mission-driven companies develop and share their WHYs using public relations, social and digital marketing, content development, brand connectivity, and more. About owning her second business, she says, “The joys come with the pain come with the stress come with the frustration. But at the end of the day nobody can give me a pink slip, and I know I won’t ever give up on myself. As long as I’m at the helm of this, I know I will succeed.”
While some people call her brave to so often trade stability for high-risk ventures, she doesn’t see it that way: “I’m not brave, but I also don’t want to have any regrets. When you know something and feel something, it weighs so much on you until you make that move. The universe is never going to point you in the wrong direction. It’s up to us to look for signs and listen.” She pauses, then says coyly, “But while you’re waiting on that sign, make sure you’re prepared for what you’re dreaming of.”