Lena Waithe on Mentoring Other Black Creatives in Hollywood: 'If We Don't Do It, No One Else Will'

The Emmy Award-winning star's Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab launched its inaugural class of fellows earlier this year

Lena Waithe
Photo: Shayan Asgharnia

Lena Waithe is taking action to share her knowledge of the entertainment industry with up-and-coming creators from marginalized communities.

On Thursday, the 36-year-old The Chi creator announced her partnership with Häagen-Dazs to kick off the "That's Dazs" campaign. As part of the campaign, the ice cream brand has pledged to donate $1.5 million over the next three years to different organizations, starting with $100,000 to Waithe's Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab.

The tuition-free, 10-month program, which is currently supporting its inaugural class of fellows, provides opportunities for marginalized storytellers to connect, grow, and accelerate their careers in TV and film.

"We're just kind of helping them along and giving them industry secrets, inside information, sharing advice, and making sure they have whatever resources they need," the Emmy Award-winning star tells PEOPLE of the program.

When asked where her passion for mentoring comes from, Waithe says, "If we don't do it, no one else will."

"Mind you, there are a lot of different places, especially now, that are thinking about inclusivity and that are thinking about ways to diversify their companies," she says. "But the truth is, I think people forget we're talking about actual people, actual human beings with hearts and souls and minds and points of view."

"It's not just like, 'Oh, come on Black person, come sit at the desk and make us look diverse,'" the former Master of None writer and actress continues. "No — who is that Black person? Where do they come from? What are they interested in? What are their goals? What do they want to do?"

Waithe notes that often, when companies want to hire diverse voices, it seems to be more for the company's benefit rather than for the person they are hiring.

"So that's what we want to change," she says. "It's not just about hiring someone, but it's about hiring them and then getting to know them and learning what they actually want out of the opportunity, so that way you're both getting something."

As for her own mentors, Waithe names former bosses Ava DuVernay, Mara Brock Akil and Gina Prince-Bythewood, as well as Gina's husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood.

"He actually specifically one day — I'll never forget this — sent me an email that said, 'Can I be your mentor?'" she recalls of Reggie. "And it was the best email I could have ever gotten, because I think what I represented to him was someone he wanted to mentor. He's like, 'You have a lot of energy, you got a lot of potential. Let me start giving you some tools and some tips.'"

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Waithe also offers some of her own insider tips, emphasizing that there are no hard and fast rules to follow.

"They're walking into an industry that's very different from the one that I walked into," she says of the Hillman Grad mentees. "The industry I walked into is very different from the one Mara Brock Akil and Gina Prince-Bythewood walked into. The business is ever-evolving, it's never the same, so that's also what I don't love, when people give you the hard, fast rules about 'never do it' or 'always to that.'"

"That's the first sign you know you're with somebody that doesn't know what they're talking about," she adds. "Because everything is really a case-by-case basis in this industry and you have to approach every situation as such."

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