Marva Smalls: A Nickelodeon Executive Whose Journey Has Been Full of Unexpected Turns
Marva Smalls, you are a South Carolinian transplanted to New York City. What was it like as a child in the South?
I grew up in the segregated South. I went to public school in Florence, South Carolina, and all my schools were black. I didn’t have my first white classmate until ninth grade. When I was in the fifth or sixth grade, they started what was called “freedom of choice.” You could choose to go to a segregated or integrated school.
Many friends went to what were then predominantly white schools. I chose to stay at the predominantly black school because most of my family had gone there, and I was comfortable there. Even the Girl Scouts were segregated. I was a Brownie. I remember traveling to Washington on a Girl Scout trip, sitting in the “colored” section of the waiting room. There were separate hotels.
At home, I was the middle child of five. My older sister is 11 years older than me, and my younger brother is 11 years younger than me, so I was in the dead middle. I think that helped me navigate a wide variety of situations when I was older. Segregation was awful, but we were resourceful in coping with discrimination and exclusion – most notably by creating a strong sense of community.
Your neighbors looked out for you. I grew up with the notion of being raised by a village: a village of teachers, a village of neighbors, a village of caring community activists, a village of the church community. That was the journey of my childhood.
Another way in which I was fortunate was that it was my nature to be competitive. I remember as a seven- or eight-year-old walking to the segregated public library to get my little star in the book as part of the Summer Reading Program. I was avid about that. In education, I was very engaged.
I was even valedictorian of my kindergarten class. I enjoyed being at school all the time. I was active in student government throughout high school, whether as class president or vice president of the student body. I participated in oratorical contests. And, I enjoyed being a part of the marching band and drama club. I cried at my graduation because I didn’t think that life could be any better than the great journey of high school.
You attended the University of South Carolina?
Yes, it’s interesting. In contrast to high school, when it came time for college, I wanted to move outside my comfort zone. That’s why I chose the University of South Carolina. I wanted to go where there were more people who were not like me than like me. I figured that would be my journey in life. Plus, I was very interested in politics – USC is in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, and I wanted to be near the seat of power.
I was a page in the state Senate beginning my freshman year. I was a member of the Young Democrats. Don Fowler, whom I’m still extremely close to, was there. So, in choosing USC, it really was a strategic decision because I believe my calling has always been around public policy. I wanted to give voice to those who were otherwise disenfranchised; and I felt or knew somehow that my own access to education and power was an important first step. It was the right decision, I was able to start the first NAACP college chapter on campus. And that experience further fueled my sense of empowering those voices who are so often on the sidelines.
You have a unique role at Nickelodeon. Can you describe it? You report to both the CEO of Viacom and the president of Nickelodeon.
I’m extremely fortunate because the role I play was created in part because of my skill set. Coming out of the public sector, part of my role at Nickelodeon at the start was to connect with government officials and public advocates. I was originally head of public affairs for Nickelodeon and also chief of staff, almost the equivalent of chief administrative officer. So, I was responsible for organizational effectiveness with facilities and human resources and also all of our outreach and pro-social campaigns.
After a number of years, I was approached at the corporate level to launch a Viacom-wide diversity and inclusion effort. At first, I turned the job down. I liked what I was doing at Nickelodeon because we were making an impact on a generation of kids. Eventually, though, I was convinced by senior leadership, including the Chairman of Viacom at the time, that the commitment to weave true diversity and inclusion into the company’s DNA would be a long-term effort supported by the infrastructure and resources to make it happen.
The Chairman also offered the chance to continue the work at Nickelodeon while being responsible for all diversity and inclusion efforts globally for Viacom. To this day, I am honored to have the opportunity to work in both roles. I have a team embedded in Nickelodeon conducting public affairs and administrative functions, and I now have a team that focuses on fostering an environment of inclusion and ensuring a first-choice place to work for all Viacom employees.
“I’m very lucky because
I love my work and
can pursue my passions
What is your preferred role of those two?
(Marva laughs) I prefer having whiplash. Seriously, I have a committed, generous, and forgiving team. They are incredible and can shift gears with me. This week, the Chairman and CEO as well as the entire senior team have participated in sessions on inclusive leadership.
It has been a very gratifying process to have everyone fully committed. And then, I’m off to Los Angeles next where Nickelodeon hosts its slime-filled Kids Choice Awards. I’ll spend time at the new Nickelodeon studios in Burbank. And I’ll also use the time to head over to Paramount Pictures, which is also a part of Viacom.
Most mornings, I find myself asking the question, “Who’s on first today?” And there are truly days where I do feel like I have whiplash. But I thrive on the exciting pace and the work is important and I’m not ready to trade either. I also know that what I do now will lay a plan for this work no matter where I am, or what I do in the future.
How many hours do you work a day?
I don’t know. Can you count that my iPad and cell phone sleep with me? It depends. I will say, last week, I was in Europe and found myself working 17-hour days because I was five hours ahead of headquarters in London and six hours ahead in Dubrovnik and Milan.
I was at work when the local office opened, and I was still there when the New York office closed. Those were long days because it is hard for me to shut off, particularly when I’m out of the country.
I would say, on average, I work 12- or 14-hour days. I also attend an incredible number of galas and benefits and philanthropic events as part of our linking our business with the community.
You are involved in so many initiatives. What can you share with us about that world?
I’m very lucky because I love my work, and can pursue my passions beyond work. Viacom and Nickelodeon are dedicated to supporting communities and empowering people as part of their corporate mission. And they’ve been nothing but supportive of my “extra-curricular activities.” To give one example, I participate in formal and informal gatherings to address public policy.
I’ve also been active with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York and up until two weeks ago served as its president. It is rewarding work because it is so needed and also because Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York has one of the most dynamic, activist nonprofit boards in the city. Much of my community work is focused on my home state, where I spend as much time as possible when I don’t have to be in New York or elsewhere.
I’ve been on the Medical University of South Carolina Foundation Board for quite some time. More and more, however, my view is we won’t move the needle in South Carolina if we do not have people paying attention to the struggle of the state in terms of educational and economic opportunity for all South Carolinians. With other supporters, we launched the Ron McNair School for Aerospace Engineering at USC, and we’re still working on a host of related projects.
The goal is to set the bar high for our state to serve those who would otherwise not have a chance to succeed.
To have places like Charleston, where I’ve heard there’s a 50 percent high school drop-out rate, is untenable. To have kids from Lake City or Florence, South Carolina, the hometown of astronaut Ron McNair, not have the aspiration to be an astronaut or not to think about aerospace engineering as a career is unacceptable in today’s world.
We must solve that – not only out of a sense of humanity but as a matter of survival for our state. Otherwise, South Carolina will be a desolate place. The Boeing plant is a classic example. They cannot cultivate a feeder population to take advantage of the jobs they’re committed to bringing. That keeps me awake more than anything. How can we close the gap in South Carolina?
What are the odds that you, from Florence, South Carolina, would be sitting here on this trendy street in this amazing apartment, leading organizations and making a legitimate difference in not just the diversity realm, but also the lives of children? Do you ever ask yourself, “Why me?”
Yes, I ask myself that all the time, but then I also ask, “Why not me?” I’m grateful every day for the amazing opportunities that have come my way and the people I’ve met all around the world. You know, my parents always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, but even then, I never imagined where I’d find myself in recent years.
As an example, among the times I have worked with presidents and first ladies over the years, I was thrilled to be included in the state dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron. To my delight, I was seated at the head table and was told so by President Obama as I was going through the receiving line.
It was an extraordinary experience sharing conversation with the prime minister and his wife, with Warren Buffett, George Clooney and of course the Obama’s. When the president asked me, it was a humbling experience. And the moment I excused myself from the table, the first thing I did was call my mother and tell her all about it.
The only person I really wanted to speak about that incredible experience was her because she always believed in and pushed me. She recently passed away, and I am so glad I was able to share that moment with her.
How did you meet Congressman Tallon?
I was working for Governor Riley in Columbia. Robin was deciding to run for Congress, and some of his people approached me and asked me to be on the team. It was a great opportunity.
What do you prefer, leading a campaign or leading an organization?
I like both. Campaigning is about selling someone on your vision and its power to make a difference in their lives once elected – that you would navigate the policymaking maze and somehow allow their voices to be elevated.
On the governing side, it’s where the rubber meets the road – where you have to deliver. For example, for those veterans who were struggling with veteran benefits, it was fulfilling to be able to provide a level of constituent service that was unrivaled and best in class.
In addition, I was the first African-American woman chief of staff for a Southern member of Congress. I was 27 years old. There were times when some of the white farmers from the rural parts of Horry County would come up and say, “I want to speak to the man in charge.” The staff would say, “Marva’s the chief of staff.” I remember one time this group came up and demanded they speak to the man. “Where’s Robin?” they asked.
I remember telling one of the male interns to go out and talk to them. He said, “But I don’t know anything.” I said, “You don’t need to know anything. You just need to show up and be a man, and they’ll respect that more than they will respect who’s really in charge. So, let’s just have some fun with it. You know, that will be hopefully a teachable moment all around.”
Is it fair to say that you have the softness of your mother and the steel of your father?
I am the two personas of my mother and my father. My mother was a full-time mother when I was growing up, and my father didn’t complete high school.
Here’s an example of my mother’s focus: In South Carolina, your birthday had to be by the first of the month, or you had to wait another year to start first grade. My birthday is on the 10th. So, my mother took an ink eraser and removed the zero off my birth certificate.
Her theory was that she didn’t need to keep me at home another year because of nine days. My mother was a proponent of education and I was an avid reader. She was one of 12 children and the oldest girl.
My father was more of a people person. He worked as an amusement mechanic. He put in the jukeboxes and pool tables.
Sometimes I would travel with him and meeting people with him was always fun. I think I turned out to be a hybrid of the two. I think I have the street smarts, instincts, and hustle of my father, along with his ability to engage with people. I have a quiet but purposeful reserve from my mom, who came from a family of educators.
What life lesson can you leave our readers with that you learned later in life?
I think I would say give freely. Be true to yourself, and do not try to be all things to all people at all times. Learn how to say no, to not take too much on. You don’t have to be the one who solves every problem.
Give yourself permission to say, “I want to help, but I am oversubscribed.” Better to under-promise and over-deliver than the opposite. Learn how to pull back from the table as needed, while still ensuring that you have your seat at the table.
And, make sure all of the pieces of the place setting are available to you. The other thing is to keep paying it forward. All of us who achieve some success in life did with the help of others, whether we’re talking parents, mentors, colleagues, even government programs. We owe it to them to do the same for those who come after us.