Justin Key ’13 MBA doesn’t walk a lot of straight lines. After graduating with a mathematics degree from LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee, he turned down a job offer from the renowned Oak Ridge National Laboratory to move to Los Angeles and pursue acting.
“Oh, my family was pretty livid about that,” Key says, laughing. “If there were wills, I’m pretty sure I was taken out of them. They just couldn’t understand it. I’m the eighth of nine kids who grew up on a farm, playing with pigs. Nobody else has left. My mama, who has taken it upon herself to keep me humble, had the best response: ‘Who said you're pretty enough to be on TV?’”
In Los Angeles, Key’s divergent path sprouted new offshoots. As he kept writing, auditioning and acting, he became intrigued with the business side of entertainment. In 2012, he applied to Mount Saint Mary’s MBA program. Key was nervous as he prepared for his interview with Janet Robinson, PhD, the program’s founding director. He wondered if she would turn up her nose at an actor applying.
“It was the exact opposite,” Key says. “She was so excited about me being an actor. She told me, ‘With that experience, you’re going to be the secret weapon that nobody sees coming.’ I couldn’t see that yet, but it’s turned out she was right.”
Today, Key’s divergent paths are intertwining — and flourishing. Key’s business, ultimately, is whatever Key is doing at any given time. He founded Mindset Mgmt Group as a consulting firm that specializes in entrepreneurship and entertainment strategies. Key currently consults a pair of Fortune 500 companies on general business practices and on diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, drawing on all aspects of his background to connect with everyone from C-suite executives and tech leaders to content creatives. “When I’m preparing presentations and speaking to large groups, I draw on the fruits of my labor in the MBA program all the time,” he says.
The epitome of a Los Angeles multihyphenate, Key is also a published author, adjunct professor (of both mathematics and entrepreneurship), motivational speaker, and a second-year student at Indiana Wesleyan University pursuing a doctorate in business administration. As for the acting that first brought him westward? That’s going well, too. His latest project is one that he can thank his wisecracking mother for.
“It can be tough being an entrepreneur during times of crisis. But it’s also a prime time to be bold. The enterprises that are thriving now are the ones nobody had heard of a decade ago. So don’t shy away from what’s new. As an entrepreneur, especially right now, you really have to be comfortable with discomfort. Every ‘no’ right now isn’t a setback; it could easily be a setup.” --Justin Key '13 MBA
“Mama Knows Best” started off as a social media lark, recounting funny conversations with his mom back in Tennessee. One of the posts — about how Key got in trouble for not telling his mother he was OK after a small earthquake — went viral and producers eventually came calling. He’s now developing a script to turn “Mama Knows Best” into an animated TV series. An audiobook version has already been published.
Key had wanted the audiobook to be a surprise for his mother, but on the day it was being recorded, the actress portraying his mom — Debra Wilson, of “MADtv” fame — wanted to hear her voice. So, Key cold-called his mother from the studio, on speakerphone. “And it’s the middle of the day so she answers with, ‘Well, I see you still ain’t got no real job,’” Key recalls with a laugh. “That was pretty much all Debra needed to hear!”
Of course, avoiding a “real job” and exploring new opportunities is exactly what’s made Key as successful as he is today. “That’s always my advice to other entrepreneurs: Be open to every possibility,” Key says. “We’re typically raised or conditioned to see only certain careers or avenues as open to ourselves. But if you’re open to as many possibilities as there really are out there, you’ll be surprised what you discover.”
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