This past March, Kweighbaye Kotee (BS ‘09) received word that the media company she founded in 2007, the Bushwick Film Festival, had been selected by Lucy Liu for an inaugural Jane Walker IFundWomen's First Women Grant, awarded to “groundbreaking women-owned businesses” in the category of film and entertainment.
The news came at a precarious time for many small businesses, but the NYU Steinhardt Media, Culture, and Communication alum had succeeded in meeting the moment — pivoting from an in-person Brooklyn festival with thousands of attendees to a virtual one in 2020 by building a streaming platform, hosting an industry conference on Zoom and an awards ceremony that aired on Facebook Live.
Kotee, born in Liberia, emigrated to the States with her family as a young girl. Her parents’ university credentials did not translate well on arrival. Instead, she remembers her parents working 16-hour days and summoning “superhuman strength” to rebuild a life here.
A scholarship from the Wight Foundation to Blair Academy and then NYU opened doorways, although Kotee writes poignantly about her experiences of struggling in these predominantly white, privileged environments.
Even in NYC, Kotee was struck by the lack of diversity in the classrooms and corporate media offices she found herself in. Launching the Bushwick Film Festival (while still a student at NYU) was a way to counter this omission — in the workplace and in the larger film industry. 50% of films shown at the Bushwick Film Festival are directed by a woman or person of color. In 2018, Kotee started the Bushwick Film Institute to empower underrepresented storytellers with programs like Bushwick Stories.
Bringing independent cinema to local and global audiences, the festival is one reason this Brooklyn neighborhood boasts such creative and cultural capital. City officials have taken note: “No one does it better here in the borough of Brooklyn,” says New York mayor and former Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. "Ever since the film festival has come to Bushwick, they have really done an amazing job at showcasing local talent and focusing on Black and Brown filmmakers" says current Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso.
I’ve always understood the significance of being an immigrant woman of color leading a film and entertainment company. By starting the Bushwick Film Festival, I could be intentional with how I built this platform and ensure that my staff, the films we selected, our audiences, and even our partners fully reflected the diversity of New York City.
When asked what advice she’d give to aspiring NYU media professionals and entrepreneurs like herself, Kotee says “It’s really important to learn how to be a good collaborator, always putting the project and collective goal first and trusting your team. In most cases, success takes time and solid relationships. There's a lot of value in nurturing your current relationships with your classmates and growing in the industry together rather than focusing on how to get the ear of the top executive now. You all are the future of the industry and a lot of opportunities come from good long term relationships. Finally, I would say define what success is for you and not what others think it is for you."