After pushing products in the corporate world, Nekisa Cooper found something she could pour her heart into.
As an associate brand manager for kids' toothbrushes at a large consumer products company, Nekisa Cooper threw herself into her job. "I loved helping to oversee a product from conception to distribution," she says. "It was a lot like being an entrepreneur—I was part of a team managing the bottom line." After three years, she hoped for a promotion, but it never came. "I thought I would be rewarded for getting great reviews and spending face time with the higher-ups. But after I was passed over, I felt as if I couldn't win."

Two years earlier, in 2001, Cooper had been inspired when her friend and coworker, Dee Rees, quit her job to study filmmaking. Now Rees, who was about to begin shooting a short film about an unarmed boy who gets gunned down by the police, mentioned that she needed a coproducer to help schedule crew and corral equipment. Cooper began devoting evenings and weekends to Rees's project. "Film producing was similar to what I had been doing as a brand manager," she says. "I was making sure the pieces were in place to get something produced—but this time I was a lot more passionate about the product."

Soon Rees called on Cooper again to produce her thesis, Pariah, a 27-minute drama about a girl coming out as a lesbian in Brooklyn. Cooper felt a tremendous connection to the story. "I had been out to my friends and family for years," she says, "but I identified with the character's struggle." In 2007 she quit the corporate world and cashed in her 401(k) to help finance the film, which won the Audience Award at the 2007 Los Angeles Film Festival. When it came time to translate the short into a full-length picture, Cooper wooed investors and coordinated day-to-day tasks like tracking the budget and setting the shoot schedule. Last year Focus Features bought Pariah at the Sundance Film Festival, and the film went on to play in select cities to rave reviews.

Cooper and Rees are currently developing a cable TV drama called The Ville—a one-hour show set in present-day Nashville—and Cooper feels confident she's found her calling. "An artist can come to me with a vision, and I have the skills to pull together all the components. I call myself the dream-maker, because they have the idea, and I'm the workhorse who makes it happen. I love that." —Penny Wrenn

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