I originally wrote this post back in 2011 for Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday. I did a version on Forbes.com that was a hit as well. A post by a Facebook friend (thanks Sunshine!) of mine reminded me of this article. So I’ve revamped it a little bit and am sharing it once again. Enjoy!
Who doesn’t know this famously, hilarious red-head? Each generation gets to know her all over again thanks to networks like TV Land and Nick at Nite. I Love Lucy was more than just a show about a screwball wife trying to get into show business and her always apologizing husband. It showed that 1) interracial couples existed and cold be accepted, and 2) a woman who’s determined enough to get what she wants can do it whenever she puts her mind to it. I loved her “I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission” attitude. While she was obviously way before my time, I found myself becoming a fan as a child. I Love Lucy had long since been off the air (my parents were kids when the show was on). But in syndication, I was introduced to America’s favorite redhead. I never miss an opportunity to watch the show, or any of the other shows and movies she’s done.
I remember when I was pregnant with my son, she was pregnant with Little Ricky. OK, so Little Ricky was by then a grown man, probably with grandchildren, but I remember being pregnant at the same time (1991) while the show was on the air. She gave birth the day before I did and I remember crying (hormones) because I was so happy for her. I’m not a crazy fanatic or anything, but I told you I love her shows. She was always getting into something, and she was unafraid of the consequences. Yeah, Lucy and I have a lot in common. Who can’t help but laugh when you walk past Grauman’s Chinese Theater or chuckle when you see a box of candy or bottle of wine? My grandfather even had a trunk much like that famous trunk she locked herself into on the show. And who could forget her taking the dramamine and falling asleep on the Staten Island Ferry with Fred when she was supposed to be getting her “pass-a-port” (gotta love Ricky’s accent)?
As we celebrate her 100th birthday, I can’t help but reflect on some important business lessons I’ve taken away from her humor and talent as Lucy Ricardo, but most of all, her business acumen as Lucille Ball. Of course there are many more, but here are the top six lessons I’ve learned from Lucille Ball/Lucy Ricardo.
Own your stuff. Lucy was madly in love with Desi Arnaz and was a success in her own right. But she wanted Desi to experience success as well. In her time, it was unheard of for a woman to have any kind of behind the scenes clout in Hollywood. And definitely not a place for foreigners to have any say. Yes, Hollywood was very racist back then (and in some ways still is today). So what was Lucy’s solution? First, she created the idea for I Love Lucy and insisted to CBS that Desi be her on air husband. If they didn’t agree, she said she’d walk. They relented and gave them a shot. Then came Desilu Productions. In order to maintain creative control (and be profitable) they had to have their own studio. Many people don’t know is that it was Lucy who came up with the idea for Desilu. She let her husband run things but make no mistake, that was her brainchild. I Love Lucy was the first real sitcom developed by a husband and wife team, and under Desilu Studios pioneered the multi-camera shot, and filmed in front of a live audience. Nobody else was doing that at the time.
The most important thing I learned from Lucy is when people deny you, create your own! When you believe enough in yourself to “just do it anyway”, you blaze trails. And when you own your own stuff, nobody can take advantage of you or cheat you.
Do it anyway! How many times have we heard “No Lucy, you can’t be in the show!” from Ricky? How many times did people say “Lucy (Ricardo) has no talent, she can’t sing“? Did she care? Hell no! Week after week she did everything she could to get into Ricky’s show. We all knew she couldn’t hold a tune. But it was fun to watch that spirit, that hubris that she exuded as she forged ahead to get out into the spotlight. I learned from her that even when people say no, do it any way. Everyone’s definition of talent and success is different. Don’t let others put you in a box or try to define you. And did you know that she was 40 when she decided to go for what she wanted (with her career)? She didn’t let the fact that Hollywood considered her “old” stop her from achieving her dream.
Be fearless when you want something. As I sit in my hotel room in Los Angeles, I can’t help but be reminded of Lucy’s trip to L.A. where she created havoc. But then again, when hasn’t she? Sneaking away from the tour bus to find William Holden’s home was brilliant. Of course these days Beverly Hills PD will arrest you before you could get to the front door. But she showed some real guts. She wanted to meet him and wouldn’t let anyone stand in her way. Not even her side kick Ethel, or that big ass dog William Holden had. LOL Now I don’t advocate trespassing on people’s property or stealing (remember John Wayne’s footprints?). But when you have an idea, go for it. Don’t let fear of consequences (most time imagined) hold you back.
Know when it’s time to move on and invest in yourself (and your business). Sadly, as I Love Lucy came to an end, so did Lucy & Desi’s marriage. She had done all she could to hold that marriage together, but it had become a business liability. She had to cut it loose in order to move forward in her career. While she did divorce Desi, in 1962, she negotiated a buy out with Desi and maintained her full ownership in Desilu Productions and focused on her own career. She cut loose the baggage of the past and forged ahead to hone her craft, build her brand (America’s funniest redhead) and give the fans what they wanted. Desilu went on to produce some of the most famous shows of all time (Star Trek, Dick Van Dyke Show, Mission Impossible, My Three Sons, I Spy, The Untouchables, That Girl, I can go on and on). She was the first woman to own a major studio. I’d say that’s investing in yourself in a big way. She not only invested in herself, she invested in others.
Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself (or your business) while still honoring the brand. When you hear the name Lucy you think comedy. Did you know she started out as a “B” movie screen actress? I’ve seen a few of them (after getting to know Lucy Ricardo) and found myself waiting for the punchline. She didn’t set out to be a comedic actress but clearly she found her stride. When she did I Love Lucy, the TV execs didn’t believe she could pull it off. Clearly, they were wrong. She went on to be the number one comedic actress of all time. And not just that. Lucy was responsible for green-lighting many shows that were not the typical comedy prototype. She wanted Desilu to be a studio/production company that wasn’t singularly focused. She realized she had to give the people the content they wanted. And that meant a variety of programming. Studios today need to take note!
Don’t let the fact that you’re a woman keep you from calling the shots. I don’t take anything away from Desi Arnaz. In fact he was responsible for many of the innovations at Desilu. He knew the financial benefits of reruns before CBS or any other studio (he bought the episodes of I Love Lucy from CBS outright, which was a very lucrative decision). But Lucy was no slouch. She had a knack for knowing how to pick just the right programming, and she did all the approving (all of her approvals have gone on to have long runs and remain popular in syndication. Three of the shows went on to become successful movie franchises- Mission Impossible, Start Trek and The Untouchables). When it made financial sense, she bought out her partner rather than sell to someone else or become an “employee”. She showed she could multi-task and still run a successful company. She starred in her own weekly show while still running the studio….while being a Mom. Lucy was the true definition of a #BOSS.
Yes, she is and always will be America’s Funniest Redhead. But make no mistake, Lucy was a hell of a businesswoman who had a command of her career that women today should respect and model. Long before Oprah, there was Lucy. We should all hope to have the kind of brand longevity and business acumen that she had (and still has) today. Happy Birthday Lucy. I’ll be checking out her old home in Beverly Hills and the Lucy exhibit at Universal Studios to pay my respects for a woman who paved the way for women to be taken serious in Hollywood and business. She leaves an enormous legacy and blueprint we should all be paying attention to.
Til Next Time,
Yes Lucy, You CAN Be in the Show…and Own It!
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Adrienne Graham is the Founder & CEO of Empower Me! Corporation (www.empowerme.org), a Growth Strategies consultancy with brand extensions in media, publishing and small business & entrepreneurial education. She provides Strategic Business Growth consulting services to companies with high growth potential to assist clients in creating processes and strategies to effectively run, grow and position their business for success. Check out her radio show Views From the Top on Blog Talk Radio & iTunes. Adrienne is also an avid techie dedicated to promoting diversity in the tech community. She is steadily building her empire one company at a time. Through her project ‘Red Shoe Careers’ she helps companies recruit & retain talented women in technology & engineering, and helps talented women in technology & engineering grow their careers. And her new company CurvyGirlCloset.com helps turn closets into commerce for the plus-sized fashionista. She is also a Mentor for the Straight Shot Accelerator in Omaha, NE, which helps guide startups to successfully launched ventures, and Tampa Bay WaVE in Tampa, FL.