Meet the Producer Behind Essence Music Festival’s Empowerment Experience and Much More

Gina Charbonnet makes events happen. And her events aren’t just any events; they are events that spark conversations and encourage social change.

Take the Essence Music Festival’s Empowerment Experience, which her company, GeChar, an entertainment and production agency, executive produced. Charbonnet is also coordinating producer of numerous entertainment events for such organizations as the NAACP and the National Democratic Committee.  She’s also worked with the New Orleans Jazz Festival and Black Girls Rock!, among others.

She has also worked in film and video, where her credits include associate producer of the critically acclaimed “Faubourg Treme” Documentary, supervising producer of David Talbert’s Soul Theatre Series, “Eve’s Bayou,” “War Zone II,” “Fait Accompli,” “Orleans,” and music videos for Mystikal and John Boutté.

Charbonnet is a former visiting lecturer in the University of Southern Mississippi’s Entertainment Industry Program.

Charbonnet, whose family owns the famed Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home, is also the co-founder of the Beautiful Foundation, a New Orleans nonprofit for teenage girls of color as well as the GeChar Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting social change through arts, education and entertainment initiatives.

Charbonnet fills in on future plans and much more.

TNJ: What led to you starting GeChar?

Gina Charbonnet: I started my company after I took an entertainment law course my first semester in graduate school. I had worked on film, festival and event production and found myself managing budgets, contracts, talent and logistic information and wanted to create a consulting company that could offer production management services. Post receiving my graduate degree in Arts Administration and after spending some time in academia, I started working for myself full time in 2004. What have been some challenges in building GeChar?

Gina Charbonnet: Being a business owner, I have my ups and downs like any other business. Looking back on one of the most memorable challenges was getting to the point of working for myself full time, which meant I was now responsible for not just managing clients, but was also the sole provider for myself. I had to be patient with myself working through all the new personal responsibility that came along with being the sole proprietor of my business as well as my life. How did you get into the field?

Gina Charbonnet: I grew up in my family’s funeral home business and learned early on that life’s milestones, even one’s last passage from life to death is a production. I watched my grandfather and my father work with families on fulfilling their loved one’s last wishes, which meant coordinating and managing the logistics of the families, the staff, churches and graveyards. Watching my dad arrange and direct funerals that were so significant to their families and our New Orleans culture inspired me to want to know more about storytelling, planning and managing the logistics behind the stories, creative projects and productions–creating organizational tools and calling the creative shots behind the scenes is where I found my calling.

My production interests were piqued when I convinced my film studies professor to let me work as a production assistant on a TV show, study independently and turn in assignments versus attending classes the last couple of months before I graduated from college. What do you enjoy the most about what you do?

Gina Charbonnet: Pitching concepts and ideas to clients, partners as well as talent and developing creative content based on pitched concepts. The ultimate gratification is watching your work come to life and experiencing the audience’s reaction as well as the talent’s reaction to the audience; nothing compares to the feeling of knowing the content you created evoked emotion and has touched lives. What was the highlight for you at this year’s Essence festival?

Gina Charbonnet: Just seeing the incredible amount of beautiful Black people embracing our culture, owning our space and connecting with each other and the brands that represent us really brought tears to my eyes. In these tumultuous times where everything is so off balance politically and socially and we are still seeing ourselves portrayed in the media as angry and violent, it was heartwarming to see the hundreds of thousands of us show up and invest in our community–that was truly my highlight of the festival.

Empowerment Experience programming highlights the Lena Waithe Keynote Conversation that took place on Friday, July 6 and the Prison Reform Conversation that included Remy Ma and Meek Mill, moderated by Lester Holt; the conversation really dropped some knowledge on the Festival audience. How did you partnership with Essence first come about?

Gina Charbonnet: I started working with the Essence Festival in 1996 as a production assistant and the following year I assisted the coordinating producer that was working with the production company producing the festival locally in New Orleans and worked myself through the ranks from an administrator to a coordinator, to a production manager, to a line producer, to producer to executive producer. I have a 20-plus year history of working with the Essence Festival, and it was 12 years ago that my company GeChar was approached by the then general manager of the Festival and asked to produce the Empowerment Experience programming separately on our own versus being a subcontractor of the New Orleans Production Company that produced the Festival.

From that point on, we worked with the Essence Festival as a production partner and have grown our role as executive producer of its Empowerment Programming. How did growing up with entrepreneurs affect your decision to be an entrepreneur?

Gina Charbonnet: I had a very unique childhood growing up watching my father and his father work in the funeral home business in the New Orleans. Seeing them work in a business that was really about serving the community and that provided this incredible amount of TLC to their customers during a time when people are grieving as they are putting this intense amount of energy into perfecting their loved-ones’ last rite of passage–instilled in me this indelible passion and pride to create my own legacy and the drive to figure out a way to tie my love for community & my culture to a money making business. I knew early on I was meant to walk to the beat of my own drum, that my willpower was bigger than who I was on the surface and I had to trust it and God–that they both would lead me to creating and developing a business that was cutting edge while creating processes and systems that add efficiencies and value to projects. As our company mantra states “We Consciously Move The Crowd” towards a concept, an idea, a message by connecting brands with audiences and influencers with the realization of engaging experiences through art, culture and media. What is the toughest part about being an entrepreneur?

Gina Charbonnet: Having to wear so many hats, really getting to know the business and finance side and truly understanding the value of your brand and the services you offer. I am blessed to have a great support system of accounting, legal and business experts that I consult with on various aspects of GeChar, but as an owner you have to dig in and understand your company’s financial statements, legal verbiage and learn how to plan how to pay yourself, the IRS, plan your annual finances, save and create a 401-K. Most importantly, figuring out your exit plan. What is the most rewarding?

Gina Charbonnet: For me, the most rewarding part is knowing I did not use my last name to get me in door. I had to work hard to develop GeChar’s brand and I am self-made. Feeling the respect others have for me, being able to mentor the staff that works with me, creating a legacy that has created change, empowered lives and knowing I am leaving a footprint behind so that others can take my lead and continue to create content and tell our stories for the next generations–that is what I am proudest of. What’s next for you this year?

Gina Charbonnet: Oh man, where should I begin? I came up with the phrase Manifest18 in late 2017 as a way to make myself feel better about some challenges and disappointments I had faced which turned out to be cathartic and sparked an intense amount of change across the board in my life. I knew, inwardly, that I had to change my thoughts and the way I saw my myself, and incorporate practices such as writing and meditation to work through the stuff I had pushed aside for years as I was growing my brand–really dealing with who I was holistically and how I wanted to reposition my business. On New Year’s Eve of 2017, I threw a Manifest18 Vision Board Party and invited my close inner circle known as #TheDopeGirls to eat, drink and create the life we wanted to have in 2018. In the beginning of 2018, I was enrolled in a Community Development Finance Course at the University of New Orleans to learn about the community side of real estate development with the intentions of buying a building to house GeChar, INC and The GeChar Foundation. We are currently updating our business plan for the GeChar Foundation and eying properties in the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans.

What we’ve realized is that GeChar has to own and develop signature projects that will continue to brand us in the arts, cultural, entertainment and production space and we just got funding to develop BrassOut! a brass band music concept that could take place locally or can be franchised across America and abroad. Personally, I am developing my presentation and speaking skills to do speaking engagements and honing my creative skills to write a book with the hopes of eventually developing a TV pilot. Of course, GeChar will continue to develop our client roster through production partnerships with brands and other production companies.

We have been using the #Manifest18 hashtag on most social media posts that touch upon our achievements and accomplishments on @GeCharPresents accounts and my personal IG account @g.therese and we are so looking forward to seeing what else #Manfest18 has in store!