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Love the Hustle: A Leadership Talk with Tolani Holmes, SVP of Unscripted Development for MTV Entertainment

Updated: Apr 23

photo of Tolani Holmes

In her free time, Tolani Holmes, the SVP of Unscripted Development for MTV Entertainment, likes to text her friends, who just happen to be the wives of Staten Island’s most infamous mafia godfathers. This may seem like risky business to anyone who’s seen “The Sopranos,” but it’s just a regular Tuesday for Holmes. 

As a producer on VH1’s “Mob Wives,” Holmes spent five years getting to know the mob wives and considers them friends. “They’re like my family,” Holmes told FUTURE NOW CEO and Founder, Peggy Kim. But how did an English major from the University of Michigan end up rubbing elbows with the families of men whose crimes could fill novels?

Put simply, hustle.

Holmes by no means had her career mapped out in college, but, as she said, “I always knew I [loved] stories. I love reading. I love telling stories. I love reading stories. And so I always knew I wanted to be a storyteller in some capacity.” Like so many 90s kids, Holmes had grown up watching television, but didn’t know how the sausage got made, so to speak—she only knew the bright and shiny final product. “You don’t really think of the business side of it, where it's strategy and marketing and PR and all these other things,” she said. 

But she knew she had to start somewhere. So, Holmes worked to get on a set.

Her first job was as a Production Assistant (PA) on a music video shoot. She was in awe of the scale and speed of things. “If you've never seen it in real life, there’s no way to know what it looks like, what it feels like, what you're supposed to be doing.” 

“I remember even being daunted by the way people were speaking—everything’s immediate [and] quick… It’s just a lot going on, a lot of moving parts. And it can be very intimidating, especially for someone like me… I was an English major, I’m kind of nerdy.” 

Still, she described the set as “fantastic.” It was there that everything fell into place for her. “You can see who the producers are, what the crew does…I remember so clearly being on that set and just something clicked and I finally understood: we’re making something, and it’s a business.” 

Being a PA is hard work, to put it lightly, and exhausting both physically and mentally, but Holmes was ALL IN. It was her energy on this music video set—her “hustle”—that got her the next job, and the next, and the next. 

“When you're a freelancer,” Holmes explained, “you have to… [get in with a] group of producers that can bring you to their next gig. That helped me get a gig, and then [I was] off and running, and then I got a job as an AP [associate producer] at a production company after that.”

That company was Pie Town Productions, which created lifestyle shows for HGTV, Food Network, and others. Among their most well-known shows is Rachael Ray’s “$40 a Day,” where the famed cook traveled to other cities and endeavored to eat three meals a day for $40. 

“What I loved about Pie Town,” Holmes said, “was that it was so small that the owners of the company let us do a lot of different things.” There, she cut her teeth on everything from pitching to casting. “Anything they needed me to do, I would do,” she said. “There was a great foundation for everything…. Back then, essentially what I was doing was development, because they had a lot of smaller projects that needed to be worked on and strengthened, and because the team was so small, I was able to do that.”

Her time at Pie Town prepared her for her current role at MTV, which she describes as “[bringing] ideas to life,” which “can include anything from…ideating around a concept, or trying to execute different franchises that we have and figuring out how we can make a spinoff.” 

In order to do her job effectively, Holmes explains, “That means viewership. You know, what are people watching? What are my competitors doing? How are other shows that I'm trying to pitch within doing?” she explained. “I need to know what dating shows are out there, how they’re performing, why they’re performing well, what’s working, what’s not working. There's a lot of research that goes into how we decide what is working and what’s not working. How we can tweak something that is working and make it even better? What [do] we remove or add in? Do we add a different host? Making a concept stronger, better—all of that is part of development.”

Similarly, Holmes must keep an eye on her shows’ performance, which has become more complicated in the streaming era. “Streaming is also very different from how they measure linear because we measure streaming by the amount of people that signed up,” she said. So not only does Holmes need to anticipate how a show might perform on a linear channel, but if “we move it to streaming, how then will it push people to sign up for Paramount+?” 

Still, even if the metrics might look a bit different nowadays, “the job is the same in that…you’re trying to attract the most viewers and…that is timeless,” Holmes added. The other constant is that the industry is ever-evolving, and that’s why I say you always have to stay on your toes. Stay relevant, always educate [yourself]. I feel like I've been in this business for so long and I'm still learning.”  

For a show to have potential for success, you need to have a great concept, compelling characters that viewers can relate to or care about, and a hook.

Holmes explained, “In the mafia culture, the women are in the background, forced to hold the family together when things go down,” but “Mob Wives” gave them a chance to shine on their own. “That was crazy,” Holmes laughed. “That was a crazy, beautiful, wonderful experience. We were trying to do something real…and it all just clicked.”

But even if you find great characters, you still have to earn their trust, especially for a show like “Mob Wives.” 

“We were tapping into a world where you’re not supposed to talk about these things,” Holmes said, but her honesty during the filming process allowed the wives to open up to VH1’s camera crews, and the emotional catharsis on that show was real. “I try to be as transparent as possible—this is the story we’re trying to tell, this is why we’re trying to tell it,” Holmes said. “It’s collaborative.” 

Collaboration has always been key for Holmes. There’s no room for complacency, which Holmes knew even from the beginning. “I’m not just sitting here waiting for someone to tell me what to do. I’m going out and I’m trying to see what’s going on. I’m asking people, do they need anything? I’m following people that I think are doing something that I should know about. I guess I am a natural hustler,” Holmes admitted. “That's my go-to, even in my current job. So that never gets old.”

Her number one advice for listeners? “You can’t wait. [I] cannot stress that enough. Do not wait. Nothing is going to fall into your lap.”

So get out there and hustle!



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