RJ Harper- Leadership and Living Your Best Life
By Fati Gorezi
Robert Harper Jr, is a NYC- based award-winning filmmaker and producer from Germany. He is an alumni of Brown University, Digital Film Academy and Harvard Business School where he studied film, finance and international economics. He has also worked on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs in their prestigious investment banking division as an Associate and later developed and managed international banking conferences while with Euromoney, LLC in both NYC and Hong Kong. In 2007 he produced the film “Typecast,” an “Official Selection” at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. He is a passionate environmentalist and has appeared regularly on American television with MSNBC, NBC, VH1, MTV, TeIeMundo and Dateline NBC. I had the pleasure of speaking to him and asked him to tell us more about what drives him, the challenges he has faced, his future plans and more!
Tell us about your childhood, your parents, and what shaped you into who you are today
I was reared in Nuremberg, Germany, the Bavarian town famous for the Nazi tribunals of 1946. I have, since then, always had a keen sense of right and wrong. During my youth, I spent some quite idyllic summers romping around with friends and family in the Black Forest, France, Switzerland and other parts of eastern Europe. My nomadic family moved a lot but I still call places like California, Italy, Texas, Kentucky, Georgia, Oklahoma and Germany home. I also lived in Costa Smeralda, Italy for a time as well and after visiting more than thirty countries, I don’t think there is a more paradisical place on the planet than the scattered islands of the Mediterranean. The summer of my junior year in high school, I was a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Business in their LEAD Program. Living in NYC that summer changed my life and I have cherished living in the NYC area ever since. It’s great for children to experience the planet in their youth and those many live-abroad experiences still govern much of how I see the world today.
How would you describe your career as a filmmaker and producer?
I took the career road less travelled and wouldn’t change it for anything. My career has been a winding road, a path that no other professional has been down before. I’m proud of that fact on many levels. I’m very curious by nature and firmly believe our existence as humans is a life-long learning process. I worked on Wall Street as an Investment Banking Associate at Goldman Sachs for a time doing $300M municipal bond deals in cities across America. However, filmmaking was my real passion, so when I barely survived the World Trade Center bombing in 2001, I went back to film school in NYC at Digital Film Academy to brush up on my skills in editing and directing. I’m an alumni of Brown and Harvard University and Brown, in particular, has one of the best Semiotics departments on the planet. I’ve been spending time recently filming underwater as well. I just edited some great shark footage from the ‘National Association of Black Divers’ (NABS). A few years ago, a film I produced and directed won the “Audience Award” and “Best Musical Score” award as part of the NYC Film Race where more than 200 experienced film professionals compete to make a film in just 24 hours. That film contest is a gargantuan production and planning undertaking and I had thirty crew members working for me. It was great to win those filmmaker awards in NYC and many doors opened for me in the film business after that because I think I’m still such a Goldman Sachs-type workaholic.
Sometimes filmmakers make sense of things in their own lives through their work. Do you feel you do that?
On some levels, modern life in America doesn’t make a lot of sense but having a great sense of humour about it all often keeps me smiling. Passionate, filmmakers strive to tell unique stories, so our lives do show up in the work. I produced an award-winning comedy that screened at the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago and it centered around two Italian-Americans trying to make it big in Hollywood. The film was a combination of fiction and non-fiction but some of my own comical adventures in the entertainment industry was certainly thrown into the plot. I have a very funny (and random) story about me and Robert DeNiro drinking solo for an hour at the Supper Club that, looking back, became a life-changing interaction for me. DeNiro is the nicest Hollywood icon ever but during our conversation he made me realise that, in many ways, anyone is acccessible to me in the movie business. Eventually, I went on to work with acclaimed music video director, Hype Williams, NAS, MethodMan and Diddy on “Belly” and many other independent films as well. Senator Cory Booker also hired me to do a lot of very successful Democratic political Ad work in New Jersey and now there are several politicians in office who I’m proud to say, “I helped win their elections.”
/ Hair: Felicia Verna – EllureZion
What has been the biggest challenge you faced and how did you tackle that challenge?
In 2011, a group of environmentalist friends and I sued multi-national, PPG Industries in federal court for dumping over one million tons of toxic chromium 6 waste in a largely Black community in America. Chromium 6, if you don’t know, causes lung cancer and the toxic waste had been there for more than thirty years. Critics said we were crazy and would never win in court because that multi-national firm makes about $14 billion dollars a year and Jersey state courts are very corrupt. I, however, kinda knew we could win because I understood the power of the media and social media and I felt like we were on the right side of justice as well. And Obama was in the White House. I made some shocking environmental Youtube films about chromium that got the national press interested and five years later, one of America’s top polluters, settled that federal case in record time to the tune of $600M. That chromium 6 case was really the Erin Brocovich story on steroids.
How important is having the right motivation to be successful?
Passionate motivation is critical for success! Cutting corners never really works out too well. You just have to always want to outdo the competition. Be smarter, be more curious, be more strategic and most importantly, do your homework better than everyone else. I’m confident I learned that formula in high school and from my parents because I graduated third in my class. Adult life really begins in high school and many adults wake up to that fact too late in life. I have worked alongside some of America’s top billionaires including Alex Rovt, David Tepper, Michael Bloomberg and Bill Rudin. I’ve learned those industry titans are principally motiviated by the work they are passionate about. Bloomberg will go down in history as one of the best mayors of NYC and he was earning a $1 a year from that job. His passion was fixing the fixable things in New York City while in office and you can only do a job like that for so long with the right motivation.
Who have been your greatest influences in life and why?
God, Sade and time! British/Nigerian singer Sade had been my wife in way too many dreams of mine (lol). My parents and grandparents have also certainly influenced me most intimately but my personal heroes are an eclectic group of global icons of history like: Shaka Zulu, Huey Newton, Queen Amanirenas, diver Carl Brashear, Thomas Sankara, Piye (Nubian King of Kush), Hannibal (the Godfather of Strategy), Steven Biko and boxer, Muhammed Ali. They were all pretty unapologetic and proven leaders with a vision. They were true BOSSES!! And that’s a rare commodity today. And as for film influences, my favorite films are “Cinema Paradisio” and “The Red Balloon.” My former girlfriends have accused me of being a mushy, film romantic sometimes. I’m also a big fan of the legacy of films by Jean-Luc Goddard, Helmut Lang and Akira Kurosawa. I’ve come to realise that my tastes in film tend to be a curious mix of film genres. I gotta say that director, NYU professor and Hollywood activist: Spike Lee also impacted a large part of my early inspiration.
The world is being shaken up with some momentous changes coming. How do you see the future, the role of women, and is it bright?
I’m a realist. Thanks to the internet, world communities are waking up and organising revolutions and I think some of this global turmoil presents an incredible opportunity for visionary female leadership to emerge and there is now, more than ever, room for broader diversity in our global, state and local institutions. Women wield incredible power on this planet. Some of that power is still untapped though and I’m not completely sure why. I’m excited to see more women working together and prospering. I am very inspired by the incredible life story of Global Man founder, Mirela Sula. She is such a big personality and business trailblazer for women around the world. It’s so refreshing to see leaders like her that fully understand that diversity matters. I look at women like Meghan Markle, the new Queen of America, and have high hopes that women’s growing influence will continue to shape a better, more peaceful and sustainable planet. I really like that t-shirt that says “The Future is Female” because global power surely can’t be “all-male” forever if we as a species intend to stick around.
Can you tell us a little about your out-of-work life and your personal interests?
I’m a proud PADI-certified scuba diver and a board member of the ‘National Association of Black Scuba Divers’ (NABS.org). I hope that global marine conservation is part of my legacy but equally as important, I hope more Americans learn to swim and/or teach their children to swim. Statistics show that about “65% of Americans can’t swim the length of an Olympic pool.” My fantasy is to make basic swimming a requisite for high school graduation – starting with Americans. “Nine people die each day from drowning in this country and six of those nine people are minorities.” These alarming statistics have to change! It’s July, summertime, so let’s teach our youth to swim. Save a life! Promoting scuba diving all over social media to my 60K followers and beyond is my way of nudging people softly to “be cool” and learn to swim because you can’t get to certified scuba diver status without knowing how to swim.
What is your experience of working with women? And what is your opinion about their talents and skills?
I have some incredible and talented sisters whom I love very deeply. Throughout my career I have worked closely with women and I have high hopes that the brilliant global women leading the charge for equality in the workplace will continue to prevail. As an African-American male, I understand the role that discrimination plays in the workforce against women. Businesses need to be held more accountable in our court systems for the on-going global wage discrimination that is a sad fact of life for too many women. However, women need to continue to band together and support each other on all levels of the corporate, political and financial landscape in order to make meaningful and lasting changes. A tremendous opportunity was potentially lost for all women when Trump won the presidency but the tide is turning on many fronts for women internationally and the #MeToo Movement has driven a necessary stake in ground that frankly says, “Enough is enough!”
Can you tell us more about “MEN AGAINST DOMESTIC VIOLENCE”?
I was selected by activist, Lila Green to be Mr. October 2018 for the annual ‘Hunks4Hope’ calendar (www.Hunks4Hope.com). The calendar’s mission is to raise awareness and critical funds for persons (both women and men) affected by domestic violence. I’m honoured to be among such a committed group of sexy male model “Hunks” who stand as advocates and spokesmodels against domestic violence. The calendar has been a great way for many of us men to finally talk openly about our personal views when it comes to domestic violence. My journey with this very successful annual calendar has been educational and very inspiring. There are so many complicated layers to the constant struggle of trying to address these kinds of traumatic relationships that I have found myself being called in the middle of the night numerous times this year because someone heard about the calendar and had a friend that needed to be rescued. I certainly don’t have all the answers yet but its been been great working with a network of organisations that support our mission. Abusers themselves often require an intervention themselves. Too many men grow up watching loved ones get abused and think that is tolerable behaviour. At the end of the day, domestic violence is really an issue of trauma…and it affects both sexes. I have learned a lot in the last year and actively engaging men in this controversial conversation is frankly critical. Men do have views on domestic violence and it’s important to explore those experiences as well. For far too long, men have been seen as the potential enemy when it comes domestic violence but ‘Hunks4Hope’ is actively challenging that notion in a big and very refreshing way. The “Hunks” have supported all of the annual galas celebrating domestic violence survivors and when we show up, all the ladies in the room invariably want their calendars personally signed. I gladly sign but I always give a kiss too. The 2018 calendar I’m in has been ‘Hunks4Hope’s’ best-selling year and I’m happy to have been given the opportunity to represent the growing community of males standing up against domestic violence and sexual harrassment in any form.