If you have an eye for the creative and a story to tell, Natalie Hodge would like to invite you into her dream.
“I really focus on connecting to people’s heart through my work,” said Hodge, president and CEO of Rudy’s Girl Media, which is based in Martinsville. “There’s always an important human story, and people are always looking for positive human stories that are entertaining as well.”
Hodge has tried a bit of everything in her career, and the adaptability that comes with it could be the secret of the success of her company. From New York to Hollywood and everywhere in between, Hodge has tried just about every way to tell a story, and that creativity has been both a blessing and a necessity.
“As an entrepreneur, you have to be a creative problem solver,” she said. “All the entrepreneurs I’ve spoken with have been creative in their ability to solve high-level problems.”
It’s no surprise, then that a media mogul such as Hodge has found some of her greatest inspiration in highlighting the challenges, trials, and successes of other locals in Hometown Hustle, a series of 10-minute episodes featuring entrepreneurs and their stories in the area.
The idea was about “inviting people who ‘had a dream’ into my personal dream, and giving them voice and access to something,” Hodge said. Entrepreneurship and small business ownership frequently involve “stories about life and sacrifice and commitment,” she added. “Everyone has a story of loss.”
Hodge’s story of entrepreneurship goes back for generations, which is why she has gone from “Unemployed to Unstoppable,” as the title of her book suggests.
“I always knew I was going to own my business,” she said. “I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs.”
Hodge’s father and grandfather owned a store in Leatherwood. “I knew I would have something,” Hodge said, but it took a lot of years and traveling to find her way into the burgeoning hometown media empire she’s created.
The name Rudy’s Girl comes from her parents, Rufus and Judy. “They’re really the two biggest influences on my life,” she said, with her dad being a business owner and her mother a musician and artist. “I really wanted to pay homage to them and all they’ve invested in me,” she added.
One of the main ideas behind Rudy’s Girl is to educate people on film production and take some of the fear factor out.
That’s where the “Hometown” in Hometown Hustle comes into play. The talent and resources are out there to create whatever you can envision, regardless of the market you’re in.
“The mission became even more important, because it’s not a traditional business for this community.”
It took years and a lot of miles to find the mission, however.
Hodge’s impressive resume includes a degree in justice & policy studies from Guilford College and a master’s degree in African-American studies from Cornell University in New York. She has worked in academia, in housing, and as a writer, producer and actor before moving into workforce development and starting Rudy’s Girl in 2016. A writer by birthright, Hodge started working in student housing in New York before moving to Los Angeles in 2013 to continue that work. She later moved on to the Art Institute of California-Los Angeles, where she was an adviser to art students.
Hodge published her first book, The Biggest BUT in the World, in 2015, at which time she was also working on a television project based in New York. Doing promotional work in New York while living in Los Angeles meant she “blew through her savings” in the process, she said.
“At that point, I knew I had to pack up the L.A. apartment and figure out something to do to become financially stable again while I’m still working on my projects,” she said.
During a visit back home in Martinsville over the holidays, Hodge said, an idea occurred to her: “There’s no place like home.” She found a way to do the things that gave her inspiration without needing to live on the coast.
That led to Hodge founding Rudy’s Girl and becoming a special project coordinator at Ross Innovative Employment Solutions.
“It was just an amazing experience to be a part of workforce development,” she said. “That is an important part of my story, because it hooked me into my love again for this area. Now, I’m tied into these incredible people and our mission for our region to re-define itself.”
Step one in that definition comes as education and showing entrepreneurs the tools to success are out there and available.
“Being back here and talking to entrepreneurs, I’ve found there were a lot of folks who didn’t know about resources available in the community like grants and small business development programs,” Hodge said. “I saw that people who were interested in starting their own businesses didn’t understand the support systems available to get a business moving.”
As a result, Hodge feels she has a duty to spread the word.
“I feel like this is both sides of my mission,” she said. “I got into this specifically to do film and television work, but I really love helping entrepreneurs. It’s been a really great way to connect with people and funnel them into the resources that I’m aware of.”
The seeds for Hometown Hustle came during that time.
“One day, I was in the Danville workforce center and met with a colleague about producing a short film,” Hodge said. They came up with the idea for a film about a man who returns home after being incarcerated and struggles to find meaningful work. That film, Sell, was a truly collaborative effort, and the result looked different from something produced by a media agency in a major market. As Hodge points out, everyone has seen innumerable films and shows filmed on nameless, busy streets in NYC or in the bustle of Southern California. With Sell, the vibe was different.
“Unlike filming in New York or L.A., where this is commonplace, it was a completely new experience in this community, and everyone chipped in,” she said. “There was all this energy, and people were excited about seeing themselves and local landmarks.”
The film was screened at Greenrock Correctional Facility in Pittsylvania County, “and that was a mind-blowing experience,” Hodge added.
“From there, that set us on a trajectory to screen the project at some colleges and universities,” she said. “But before that could get rolling, it was 2020.”
Suddenly, the struggles of the entrepreneur became headline news, as businesses everywhere fought to thrive and survive amid the pandemic.
“I was really inspired to hear all the ways people approached that as a business challenge,” she said. “Whether through offering new or more products and services, offering a bigger online presence, or other ways of adapting to the climate.”
That’s where the seeds of Hometown Hustle were planted. The result has been to turn the dark times of 2020 into a celebration of the individual and the entrepreneurial spirit.
“It feels empowering,” Hodge said. “Once you change that view of what your community is,” then “this light bulb goes off (that says) ‘I can do anything.’”
One consequence of the pandemic from a media perspective has been the breakdown of a lot of self-imposed barriers for content creators, Hodge believes.
“We’ve seen unknown folks who have achieved a high level of success on YouTube or TikTok,” she explained. “I think the playing field is becoming a more equal space. As a result, there will be a more equal distribution of voice. We will get to that point, and it will be a more balanced production space.”
However, Hodge said people in this part of the country have to get out of the mindset that big things can’t happen in small towns.
“I have hustled more with film and TV here than anyplace else I’ve lived,” she said, adding that many content creators learn on the fly. “I’m a self-taught professional myself.”
“This is my pay-it-forward to other content creators,” she said. “This can happen everywhere.”