Black History: Being Your Own Director

NBCU Academy Presents “Behind the Story”

NBC News Now correspondent Priscilla Thompson sat down with NBC News events producer Ugonna Okpalaoka to talk about the importance of developing a broad support network to help nurture and grow your career. 

This week, our “Behind the Story” focuses on taking charge of your own career path.


Ugonna talks about what she learned from directing her first documentary film, “Gloves Off,” as well as managing multiple creative projects: 

Priscilla Thompson: What would you say was the biggest challenge you encountered as you were working on “Gloves Off”?

Ugonna Okpalaoka: This might seem like an easy answer, but COVID-19. We had to shut down production because all of a sudden travel shut down, life shut down… the world shut down. So I think that’s when we sort of pivoted and started to think, okay, with the material that we do have, how do we still tell this story? 

Thompson: And as you reflect on your documentary experience, what do you feel you’ve learned that you’ve been able to carry back over into your role at NBC?  

Okpalaoka: Moving into the production side of the news division meant that I was learning a lot more about the business of media. You know, as a producer at the TODAY Show, my job was to care more about the editorial, and now I deal a little bit more with like, okay, how do we fund this? And how do we make sure that this is also benefiting the company and bringing value to everything else that we’re doing?

Thompson: You talked about how important your support system was, but a piece of that also sounds like it meant having to be transparent with your support system and your stakeholders and letting them know when you were overwhelmed. Can you talk to us a little bit about how you approach those conversations? 

Okpalaoka: I think a really important part of producing is managing expectations all around. Having those conversations at the onset made it easier in the moments where I did have to speak up and advocate for myself and explain that things were a little too hard. People were understanding and incredibly supportive. I mean, listen, it still meant early mornings, late nights, flying all over the place and trying to make things work, but at least I felt like people were all on the same page and everyone kind of understood that I was doing my best to juggle both.