Justin Key wears many hats – he is an actor, author, DEI facilitator, entrepreneur and creative. Over the past 15 years, the Rossville, Tennessee native has been able to weave his passions together into a long career that most can only dream of. Accustomed to giving back, Key created the Justin Key Scholarship for high school seniors in his hometown and author of the self-help bookMind Control: Change the way you think so you can live a life WITHOUT LIMITS. When the multi-hyphenate fails to inspire the next generation to pursue their purpose while maintaining authenticity, he consults with Fortune 500 companies on DEI practices. Apart from utilizing his entrepreneurial acumen, Key’s talents as a skilled actor have led him to appear on platforms such as Netflix, BET, Amazon Prime, and more.
For(bes) Culture caught up with Key to discuss his career path, the intersection of creativity and entrepreneurship, and the influence his family has had on the man he is today.
For Culture: Thanks for joining me today, Justin. You are an actor, entrepreneur, DEI facilitator and author living in Los Angeles. Can you dive a little deeper into what you do for those who are unfamiliar?
Key Justin: I own my own consulting agency and consult on topics ranging from diversity and inclusion to entrepreneurship and the entertainment industry. All of these things go hand in hand when it comes to being under the umbrella of my company, Black Theorem. I was able to really focus on that and what works so well is that those are my ways. I stay in my lane. That’s why, to some people, it might sound like, “Oh, he’s doing a lot or he’s doing too much.” It’s like, no, I’m in my lane and actually I have degrees in all of these areas. I have a degree in mathematics; I have an acting degree and I have an entrepreneurship degree. These are all areas that I have studied, that I have mastered so it does not come out of my wheelhouse. Even though I’m still learning; growth is uncomfortable. Initially, when I started my consultancy, I was consulting creatives on how to maneuver in the industry, how to make sure you had enough money to stay in the entertainment industry, how to diversify your income and doing all these different things that you’re not necessarily taught in school when you’re majoring in the arts. Often it’s not really a lack of creativity, but rather a question of finances, exposure and opportunity. I was able to really use those skills that I had to start working with Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies and now I’m able to give back to the creative community and it’s a ridiculous blessing to be able to fall down that particular path .
For Culture: Can you say more about how you mix your creative passions with your entrepreneurial activities?
Key: It was not easy. Imposter syndrome was so prevalent. When I was in the corporate space, I was afraid to say I was an actor. When I was in the creative space, I was afraid to say, “Oh, I own my own business too” because I didn’t want people to think I wasn’t serious or that I wasn’t serious. not focused enough and I got a lot of that. I got a lot of side eyes and the eyebrow raised like, “What are you doing? Oh no, you can’t really make it in Hollywood doing all that other stuff. You gotta focus on acting.” I really allowed so many different opinions to dictate my abilities, to dictate my conduct, to dictate my state of mind. Now I realize I can focus and focus on my ways, not just acting, not just entrepreneurship. Frankly, it’s show business. It’s not comedy, it’s not singing, it’s not dancing, it’s show business. When you realize that many creatives can then create their own paths and truly thrive in business and the creative arts.
For Culture: What advice would you give to other creatives who would like to do the same?
Key: The advice I would give to my creative colleagues is to understand that there is no secret formula and it’s okay if you have to create your own plan. It’s going to be harder, it may be more stressful, and it may cost you more time, anxiety, and money, but it’s the way to go. Understand that there is no single formula. I can’t follow Jonathan Majors’ path because it was completely different from mine. What you need to do as creatives is find the formula that works for you and then add your own personality, add your own mindset, add your own way of seeing the world, your art and your creativity. This is what will really differentiate you from other creators, but also allow you to create the life you want.
For Culture: When did you give yourself the power to create the life you want?
Key: When I realized that rest and adventure were part of the equation and not just rewards for success, it completely changed the way I think, the way I act, the jobs I do, when I plan vacations when I plan mental health days because the life I want encompasses all of those things. I’m not saying these things don’t work for others – they just don’t work for me. I don’t dream of working 24/7 because I understand that experiences and adventures influence my art and creativity and they also give me the opportunity to network with people who can potentially be co- star of a TV show or even be a customer as we sat next to each other in first class on the way to Paris.
For Culture: How do you think your upbringing in Rossville, Tennessee influenced who you are today?
Key: This is the foundation; I am a country boy. Most of what I do is service oriented. When I book a job, a percentage goes to the service. Back home, we had our own farm, so being with my grandfather, I was delivering food to families going through tough times, when people were losing loved ones, so that was instilled in me from the start. Being in Rossville and growing up on that farm and being surrounded by amazing Southerners who love Jesus, but who would also rally behind someone if they lost their job taught me a lot. If someone lost their farm, that means we feed you until you’re up and we’re not going to talk about it. This service component is such an important part of my life and how I come back to entertainment. I want to be authentic in the roles that I take. I work in Hollywood but I don’t want to succumb to certain stereotypes that negatively portray people and creatives and the way the world sees us. Rossville really set the tone for how I see the world and live my life.
For Culture: You moved to Los Angeles right out of college and you’ll be two decades in a few years. What is the most important lesson you have learned on your path to success?
Key: One of the lessons I learned that helped me stay in Los Angeles for almost 20 years without returning home was to teach myself. Once I learned myself, I started attracting people like me. If I’m here pretending, if I’m here trying to be someone else, that’s the kind of people I’m going to attract. It wasn’t until I started to be authentic myself, to bring my peasant nature, to bring my love for numbers and to be nerdy and mathematical, but also to be creative and artistic and also to love business , like “Oh, that sounds so cool.” I started to attract these people into my life. These multi-hyphens, people who loved to play as much as I did, who are diverse and act like me, who are entertainment and business, and then finding out that I wasn’t alone. There are people who have the exact same mindset and they are the same people who now power my life. They are people who think like me and act like me, but who also bring their own experiences, their own backgrounds and their own culture for me to grow and for them to grow, and then we all grow together.
For Culture: Longevity is hugely important in this industry, and you have continued to not only sustain your business, but to continually thrive. Why do you think this is the case and what do you attribute this to?
Key: I think I have longevity because I know how to pivot and understand that growing is uncomfortable. Instead of feeling uncomfortable and then stopping or quitting, I don’t do that, I turn to what’s next. Like when I graduated from acting the writers strike happened and no one was working so I pivoted then started using my math degree and started a business tutoring. Once again, I was in my lane. I wasn’t doing something that was stressful, something that was reluctant. I didn’t always know what the outcome would be, but I did what my soul felt was right. We really need to start embracing that uncomfortable feeling and understanding that growth is happening, not running away from it and not stopping, but facing it head on.
For Culture: How do you show yourself grace?
Key: I show myself grace by resting. I show myself grace by going and experiencing other creative outlets and not just always being focused on my own art, my own talent, my own creativity, but also supporting others. Also, when I learned to give grace to others, I then turned it around to learn to give grace to myself. I’m still in balance and still bumping into brick walls, but I think I got it.
For Culture: What is the legacy you want to leave behind?
Key: The legacy I want to be behind is a legacy of service, a legacy of building your own plan, and a legacy of self-care. I want to leave a legacy of giving, because if people don’t sacrifice and give for me and for me, I wouldn’t be where I am. I want to continue to seize this torch and then pass it on not only to my family members but also to my mentees and my friends and my godchildren. The legacy of the blueprint, knowing that you are creating your own blueprint. When you realize that you are creating your own plan by doing things that other people may not understand, by doing things that no one has ever seen before, that’s OK and honestly, you should expect that. I want when people see me to know that I love myself for who I am. I take care of myself. I want them to understand that there is nothing wrong with taking a mental health day, taking a vacation, traveling the world. I want you to truly experience as many of God’s creations as possible.