It’s no secret that Lena Waithe is someone who believes in not only putting in the work to get where you want to be, but staying committed to making sure you’re not the only person who looks like you at the top when you get there.

As simple of a concept as that may seem, the producer, director, actress and Emmy Award-winning writer has brought the saying to life through her craft in a way that has solidified her as a true change agent in Hollywood today. Speaking with ESSENCE Entertainment Director Cori Murray at the inaugural ESSENCE House: Hollywood, Waithe encouraged those on their way up to remember the importance of opening doors for others as they go on to achieve success.

“When you get to the front of the line, then it’s about how do I stay at the front of the line? Who’s next to me at the front of the line? And who am I looking back and bringing with me to the front of the line,” she said. “I think that’s really the space that I’m in now.”

Reflecting on her own journey thus far, she also shared a word of caution about remaining focused on the doing the work required in the present instead of focusing heavily on the “reward” to come.

“Don’t get too caught up in the the finish line,” she added. “Because you can’t take all the things that come with the trophy if you haven’t done the marathon.”

An Emmy Award for Master of None, a critically acclaimed film in Queen & Slim and host of other notable credits ranging from creator, to executive producer to writer for culture-shifting television shows like Dear White People, The Chi and Boomerang are just a few of the accolades Waithe has under her belt thus far. With a new decade underway, she’s now looking ahead to her latest small screen project, Twenties.

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“It’s been a journey and, that to me is what Twenties is really about,” she said of the upcoming BET series that’s set to premiere on the network this March. “I really wanted to play with the idea of [the lead character] Hattie chasing her dream, but I also look forward to showing what it looks like when you catch it. And how it’s not as glamorous as you think.”

Recalling a quote from a fellow creative about how “having your own TV show is like being beaten to death with your own dream,” Waithe jokingly elaborated on how she’s found truth in the analogy through her own experiences, but made it clear that she also she welcomes—and appreciates— the challenge.

“Nothing could be closer to the truth for me,” Waithe said. “Because, The Chi has tried to kill me eight times, Boomerang tried to take me out…twice. Twenties was like, waterboarding me. But, you know, they’re all like my children that I’m grateful that I went through that labor with and the scars are tattoos that I wear with pride. “

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