My twin sister TK Quann and I have teamed up with Spike Lee Joint x Uber Presents ‘Da Republic of Brooklyn series. Featuring Uber Driver-Partners; Brittany “Sunny” Shen, Domingo Nolasco, Malka Khan, Keith Mabry and Rodney Christiansen who are using Uber as a vehicle, figuratively and literally to pursue their passions on their own terms.
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‘Da Republic of Brooklyn’ inspired me to the core, leading me to reflect on my own hustle and how I felt connected with Brooklyn at a very young age.
*Photos: Terry Gates
I remember visiting NY on the weekends with my family since I was 7 years old. One weekend I specifically recall since we visited distant cousins of ours that relocated to Brooklyn from Maryland (our original home town). Even then, despite my age I felt a deep connection with the borough and it’s residents. The energy was undeniable…little did I know this would become my home but I knew for sure I would somehow be connected with it.
When I cofounded my site, Urban Bush Babes (UBB) in 2011, I had quit modeling at the time, had an uncompleted college education and was currently working another full time job in NY. Granted I was grateful to be employed but it was not a career choice I wished to pursue for the long term. Despite the long hours of my 9-5, I did not let that deter me from working on my passion. So everyday, 7 days a week after work I would go home to write and develop my website. Yes, I have to admit there would be some sleepless nights (ok many, many sleepless nights), but I was determined to meet my own personal deadlines regarding articles and content I had in mind for UBB. Sleepless nights also included no play. Everyone at my 9-5 knew not to ask me to join them after hours, I had work to do after hours, and they knew my intentions. Even in the beginning when I continuously declined, the respect and encouragement I received from my fellow work comrades was nothing less than genuine. I wasn’t surprised because many had their own passions they were pursuing as well, hustling to make those passions come to fruition. Despite the support, I had no freedom in taking time off or controlling my own schedule through my employer, these factors would have helped tremendously.
The hustle eventually enabled me to work full time solely on my website and brand in 2014, in short becoming my own boss.
I knew this was one of the reasons why I felt so connected with NY, there are so many others like myself, like you, who embodied the same drive, doing the necessary to make their dreams a waking reality.
Which is why TK and I are so inspired to collaborate with Spike Lee Joint x Uber Presents ‘Da Republic of Brooklyn series.
The featured Uber drivers Sunny, Domingo, Malka, Keith and Rodney embody the spirit, strength and endurance of what it means to really hustle for something you love. For when I think of hustle the word “love” comes to mind, for without love, hustle can not survive.
The Uber brand has created an atmosphere in which drivers have time to pursue their passions by 100% creating their own schedule, while generating a sufficient income to support those passions, unfortunately this is often not the case as many of us are familiar with. Click here to watch their individual stories.
Scroll below as TK shares her story and our exclusive interview with one of the 5 featured Uber driver-partners; Sunny, who shares even more insight on her passion and how Uber is encouraging her drive.
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Watching Uber Presents: ‘Da Republic of Brooklyn’ was a refreshing and inspiring reminder of how all of us are connected by our stories of perseverance, struggle and hustle to pursue our goals. ‘Da Republic of Brooklyn’ is a series directed by Spike Lee which features Uber driver-partners and their stories of hustle in BK. The series will certainly make one reflect on their own hustle story.
Ever since I was a little girl I knew that one day my path would lead me to a career involving writing however the path you expect many times turns into the least expected and most surprising one. When I first moved to Brooklyn I felt an instant connection. A connection that I was not the only one hustling and it was a bond that fueled my own hustle. I gleefully became entrenched in the spoken word circuit. I had been writing poetry and short stories for many years and performing poetry was a new and exciting avenue. Poetry evolved into rap and I began songwriting. As one knows NYC is a conglomerate of dreams inundated with creative aspirations and while working to bring those dreams to a reality one must find work in the meantime that pays the bills because you quickly discover dreams alone do not suffice with your phone service or landlord. I worked on my craft everyday after 9 to 11 hour shifts working in the service industry as a cocktail and restaurant server.
Living in Brooklyn while working on my craft helped fuel that energy because I live amongst so many others who are doing the same. I continued performing at open mics and met other creatives along the way which led me to perform in Europe every summer for festivals in front of audiences that reached 30,000 to 500,000. I opened for some of my favorites artists. I travelled to Mauritius, Croatia, Macedonia, Solomon Islands, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Poland, Italy, United Kingdom, France, Albania, Romania and Russia. I never dreamed my passions could take me to these places but I did and do believe that hard work can take you places you never imagine for yourself.
Albeit I was living my dream during the summer festival circuit that way of life was only seasonal and during the off time I was still working in the service industry. Cipriana had co-created a site that focused on positively highlighting women of color; specifically black women. I joined the site three years into its birth as an executive contributor which allowed me to flex my writing muscles in other ways outside of music. Cipriana and I are also huge fans of vintage shopping and thought that visually we could show women that you don’t have to spend a ton to look great when living on a budget like ourselves. We started to get some amazing feedback and positive traction which were the seeds for budding career in the fashion industry. I never once envisioned I would have a career that involved fashion however when I was able to merge the two, my love of writing about topics of a social or political nature and fashion, it made complete sense. I was able to leave the service industry after ten years and pursue a career that opened many doors in various arenas. Most importantly I was making a living doing what I love and being surrounded by others in Brooklyn who had also found that joy was a huge source of inspiration.
The type of energy I discovered in Brooklyn is unlike any other place I had experienced. My success didn’t happen overnight and I haven’t nearly reached all I hope to accomplish but I understand what it feels like to hustle for your goals. Hustling is striving for what you want to achieve and I continue to strive everyday to proudly contribute to my own hustle story. I appreciate the steps that Uber is taking to support those with their own hustle stories. Uber is helping to facilitate those goals with a structure that allows drivers to work on their terms in way that is conducive to their goals and not counterproductive as many of us have encountered with some lines of work. We all have different wishes, dreams and goals. Our hustle stories may be different but we are the same in our desire to bring those goals to fruition.
You will meet many in Brooklyn who share the same interests that drive their hustle stories such as Uber driver; Brittany “Sunny” Shen. Read further as we explore her inspiring and courageous hustle story in our exclusive interview.
Cipriana: What drove you to sign up to drive for Uber?
Sunny: I started off a delivery service and was walking to deliver packages. I don’t know why I started off walking. I don’t know why it didn’t click to use a bike right away but it was probably about five to six months of walking that I wanted to move on from this delivery service. That’s when I signed up for Uber. I love Uber so much more because I gravitated more towards the logistics of the app and also they pay you every day. That is one of the biggest reasons why I stick with Uber along with the bonuses. They give you a lot more bonuses so if you do four or five trips you they give you a $15 to $20 bonus so that definitely helps out a lot. I just fell in love with riding my bike and making money at the same time.
Cipriana: Do you have a goal or a plan for your earnings? What do you intend to do with your earnings as far as savings?
Sunny: I was looking for an apartment but ended up doing air b&b month by month just to give myself some more time to look. Trying to find living in New York and pursuing acting which is the reason why I came here were my main goals. I really wanted to do training just because I thought that would be fun and could be useful to have that. I was looking at acting schools and the William Esper studio spoke to me the most with their acting technique. So that was two of the biggest things however I’d also have to add traveling. I’d love to do a lot more of that.
Cipriana: What advice would you give to another driver about getting started? Taking their First Trip?
Sunny: So basically the advice that I would give is just to be patient and be willing to spend all day out there because that’s how you make the most money. I’m running into a lot more women Uber bikers and drivers and that’s really, really, really exciting when that happens because I want to know more about them. I’m like, “Oh, why are you doing this?” I remember I ran into a lady the other day. She actually approached me. She was like, “Oh, you do deliveries.” I was like, “Yeah.” So she was asking me all these questions. She said, “Well, how can I get started? How much do you make? What times do you work?” I told her to just be willing to spend a few days out there where you spend all day like a 12 hour shift because that’s how your going to be able to make your most money.
TK: You mentioned in your Uber film feature that your favorite thing about riding for Uber is the flexibility….
Sunny: Yes. Exactly. So if I get tired and I want to take a break I can just turn my app off. I’m not obligated to stay online if I don’t have an order.
TK: You create your own schedule?
Sunny: I do create my own schedule and that’s not through the app. They don’t have a schedule that you sign up for on the app. It’s just whenever you feel like working. That’s why it’s like an independent contractor job. They say that you’re not really an employee of them so that’s the beauty of it.
TK: What was your experience working with Spike Lee? Or rather what did you learn by watching him that could help you with your craft?
Sunny: So working with Spike, obviously as an actress, it was reassuring for me that I was on the right path. What are the chances that I moved to New York and I choose to do a Uber job…
TK: Of all things. Why would you think that working for Uber would land you in front of Spike Lee?
Sunny: Yes! It was just amazing working with Spike on set and being connected to that energy. It was like working with somebody that you know. He didn’t feel like a stranger. He was very family-like. He made you feel like…
TK: Welcome.
Sunny: Welcome. Yes, that’s the word. Working with Spike was enlightening. I learned a lot and just based on how he works. Spike works really fast. His brain is like a computer. You know how you can analyze something and then you don’t even have to communicate it and then everybody around you kind of gets it? I think it was necessary for me to be around a director of his stature to prepare me for the future. I think that’s why i had this experience. Just to experience what it is like to be on a professional set with a director with the career field that I chose to go into.
Cipriana: Let’s go back a bit. Tell us about who you are and your background?
Sunny: I was born and raised in St. Louis and I have four brothers and a little sister. I was in foster care from age five to eighteen and then I was back and forth until my mom finally gave up her parental rights at eight. I was back and forth between group homes and foster homes. My dad ended up dying when I was 12 so from there I was just trying to go through life to find my way and figure stuff out.
When I was in high school that’s when I kinda got a sense of who I was outside of being in foster care because a lot of homes were restrictive. I was living with this Spanish family and they were very religious. They made me believe that basically pop culture, anything besides Christianity, was really terrible. Really bad. So I kind of felt like I was put in a box.
When I was able to leave that home I grew up a little bit more because I was able to branch out into the world and figure out what I like. I figured out acting was what I like when I took an acting class in high school. I started to find an outlet for a lot of my emotions and stuff. Also found writing as an outlet when I was around 15, 16 years old.
When I turned 18 I was living with this foster family. It’s just very sad that most foster homes are controlling and don’t really understand foster children in the sense of the trauma that a lot of foster children go through with the detachment of their parents and not a sense of a social standing because you have to move around a lot. Unfortunately most foster parents are in it for the money and I think a lot of behavioral problems stem from that; not being able to be stable.
However when I was with this family they were the opposite and very understanding of a lot. I found an acting school that I got accepted to. I traveled to Chicago to audition for the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. I was accepted and they gave me a school and I had all the tuition but nowhere to live. I guess I really wasn’t that ambitious at the time saying, “Oh, I’ll find somewhere to live in New York.”
So I always kept that at the back of my mind when it didn’t work out. So I was still with this family but my grandparents were another critical component of me and my brother’s lives. They really came in and helped provide a foundation for us but they were back and forth in our lives. I remember at the time I was with this family my grandparents weren’t in my life at that time. When they found out I was living with this family they wanted to get back in my life for whatever reason.
I was very happy at this home but they said, “Yeah, come live with us. You know , we got your back.” Of course you want to be with your family. I had just graduated high school and was still living with this family and my grandma invited me to live with her. Long story short I had some gay friends at the time and you know some grandparents are very old school so they didn’t like the fact that I had gay friends and said, “Yeah, Sunny, we don’t really support that.”
Next thing I know my grandma for some weird reason, even though I told her I didn’t really have a desire to, was really trying to push me to go stay with my mom. I’m said, “I don’t wanna do that. I don’t feel comfortable with that.” I’m estranged from my mom. My mom had another kid after she gave us up.
One weekend she finally persuaded me to go over there. They always come and pick me up at a certain time. I noticed that they were late at this time. I’m thinking what’s going on? I was very happy to be with my Mom and little sister but I was ready to go back with my grandparents. Next thing I know I see my older brother and my granddad bring all of my stuff in these big bags to my mom’s house. They said, “Sunny, we decided that we think you should be living here with your mom.” I had to emancipate myself before I moved in with my grandparents. I didn’t have a choice to stay in the foster care system as I was informed that if I was going to live with my grandparents I would have to emancipate myself and would not be able to return to foster care.
So now I couldn’t return to foster care after my grandparents kicked me out to force me to live with my mom and I didn’t feel comfortable with that. My brothers had some resources for some shelters and they helped me get into an independent living program with a group home that I was staying with when I was 13 or 14. So that was my

TK: You have become a positive young woman that has left the foster care system and found stability within a company like Uber that helps you facilitate your own goals and dreams. What piece of advice would you offer kids who are going through the foster care system and are having a difficult time?
Sunny: Hmmm…
TK: Perhaps expand on the song that would best describe your life? ‘Hold On.’ Holding on through difficult times. What did you do for yourself?
Sunny: That is a good question….
TK: Maybe something along the lines of how you found something that was cathartic for you which is writing.
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Sunny: Yes writing! I would say get to know yourself. Spend some time with yourself and figure out what it is that drives you to want to be a better person in order to get out of your situation. I think that’s the biggest thing. When you find a creative outlet you can explore your emotions, you can heal from your trauma and you can allow yourself to overcome the circumstances that you’re in. You don’t always have to victimize yourself. I feel like when you find a creative outlet you find a way to channel the trauma that a lot of foster kids go through and when you’re able to do that you can basically step outside of that body and step into a new one. I think that’s what I did with the changing of my name and everything. I would also add to get away from the area where you experienced all that trauma. Really important and it was a big thing for me and my older brother Brandon. He moved as soon as he graduated high school. He moved from St. Louis and he found a way to leave through education. Find a way to expand yourself and move away from the area.
TK: Expanding your horizons.
Sunny: Yes, expand your horizons.
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