Jada Pinkett Smith remembers well the crossroads she faced during her rough-and-tumble high school years in Baltimore.
Smith’s life changed when she got the chance to attend the Baltimore School for the Arts and later earned a scholarship to North Carolina School for the Arts. Had she not discovered her passion for acting, Smith believes her path to adulthood might easily have included a stint in jail or worse.
Smith’s memory of that pivotal period drove her to launch the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation’s Careers in Entertainment program designed to open doors for youths in underserved communities. The foundation has partnered with Discovery Communications’ Say Yes to the Prom initiative to provide scholarships, internships, mentoring services and networking opportunities to students in several major cities across the country.
Say Yes to the Prom provides similar mentoring and scholarship opportunities, as well as prom dresses, tuxedos and styling services to 1,000 high-achieving students selected by guidance counselors at schools in economically disadvantaged areas. The program is a philanthropic offshoot of TLC’s popular “Say Yes to the Dress” unscripted series.
Smith said the idea of providing students with formal wear for a rite of passage like the prom appealed to her because of her own high school experience.
“It really provides a level of self-esteem,” Smith told Variety. “You’d be surprised to see how something like this can give a young person the energy to be able to participate in the world in a positive way. You’ve got young people who are preparing for their future. This is an opportunity to put them in that state of mind to encourage them to go in the right direction.”
Smith said she was “involved in a whole lot of mess” during her teenage years, but the fact that she was still seen as worthy of educational opportunities made a world of difference. Landing the scholarship based on the talent she demonstrated at an audition “was the little push I needed to get on the right track,” Smith recalled. “If you just remind kids that there’s good in the world and there are people who want to help you go in the right direction, it can change them.”
The Smith Family Foundation’s partnership with Discovery is to be unveiled Wednesday at the Say Yes to the Prom event at the InterContinental Hotel in Century City.
As part of the partnership, Discovery and the foundation have launched the Discovery/Careers in Entertainment Fellowship program to endow 20 college scholarships and establish more internships. Say Yes to the Prom participants will have access to various programs through the foundation’s CIE initiative and Discovery’s educational and outreach activities.
The Smith Family Foundation launched the CIE program last year in an effort to expose youths to the wide range of employment opportunities in entertainment. Plenty of kids grow up dreaming of being a movie star or a director, but many don’t have a sense of the array of jobs that contribute to arts-related endeavors.
“Most of the time the kids don’t really understand that it takes a large amount of people to make any project happen,” Smith said. “We’ve seen kids come in and say ‘Oh wow, there’s a lot of different ways I can participate.'”
The foundation’s goal is to host job fair-type events in underserved communities around the country. The first was held last fall in New York. Discovery, which is based in Silver Spring, Md., will host the CIE tour for Washington, D.C.-area youths later this year.
Smith added that the program delivers an important message to all CIE participants: success rarely happens overnight.
“People think it’s something that happens with the snap of a finger,” Smith said. “We tell them they have to be very persistent and that it takes a lot of work. You’re going to hear a lot of ‘No.’ For them to hear that from [industry] professionals is very helpful.”
The Smith Family Foundation and Discovery partnership came together after Adria Alpert Romm, Discovery’s chief human resources and global diversity officer, learned of the foundation’s CIE initiative. Romm created the Say Yes to the Prom program in 2012, and she realized that its mission was a good fit with the Smith foundation’s focus. “It’s about helping kids take that next step in life,” Romm said.
Macy’s is also a partner with Say Yes to the Prom, offering a branded line of juniors formal wear tied to the program. The retailer plans to donate 5,000 frocks to support Say Yes to the Prom.
Smith said the outreach efforts of the foundation and its new partnership with Discovery are a source of pride for her family.
“Women and youth are my passion,” Smith said. “I am deeply inspired by the young people that I come in contact with through this program.”