Newhouse alumna uses fellowship to create web series on budding businesses in Berlin

By Katie Czerwinski

December 1, 2015

'How to Make It In' by Justine Simonson '02 features aspiring business owners abroad


Give Justine Simonson a video camera, a plane ticket, and a few small business owners and she’ll create something exceptional. The 2002 Newhouse alumna spent the past summer in Berlin, Germany, with her projectpartner, Marcus Lehmann, who also happens to be her husband.

Together, the two scoured the city in search of “passion projects” founded by people who inspire their German community and other aspiring millennials. The stories they found became the foundation of the first season of Simonson’s new web series, “How to Make It In: Berlin.”

“Over 60 percent of millennials want to start their own business,” says Simonson, “and it’s not just young people—it’s for any person who’s in their 30s daydreaming, ‘What would my life be like if I did something else?’ ” Simonson had asked herself the same question and found an answer in Berlin—a breeding ground for modern entrepreneurs, as the city is an affordable and easy place to start a business.

Justine Simonson (far right) and Marcus Lehmann film musicians for "How to Make It In" Provided photo

Since graduating from the television, radio and film program at Newhouse, Simonson has been a writer at Dick Clark Productions, a producer at WNET (New York Public Media), and president of Co Lab Productions, Inc. She was also an associate producer on “The Revolution” project for the History Channel and “Inside the U.S. Secret Service” for National Geographic. After working in a variety of fields since graduation, Simonson was eager to launch a project of her own.

Last spring, Simonson obtained a fellowship from the Made in New York Media Center, which had partnered with Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg to launch a new creative residency program between the United States and Germany. The program sent two New York digital media professionals to Berlin-Brandenburg for several months while two professionals from Europe made a similar trip to New York City.

From April to September, Simonson and Lehmann worked to find their stories for the “How to Make it In” series. By early summer, they had discovered several entrepreneurial gems of Berlin—an international pantry, an indoor campground and a Tennessee-style barbecue joint.

During each five-minute episode, Simonson takes viewers on a visual journey through a business, asking owners about various aspects of their start-ups: their product, their location, their customers, and of course, how they made it in Berlin.

Each business offers something new to Berlin, even a product as simple as an ice cream sandwich. Zwei Dicke Bären, which translates to “Two Fat Bears,” brings this American favorite to the streets of Berlin in the first episode of the web series.

Other featured businesses include Lisa Lang’s ElektroCouture, which features clothing and jewelry infused and designed with rechargeable lights in them.

But why focus on Berlin?

“Berlin is a fantastic city, full of artists and dreamers,” says Simonson. “It’s a city that is constantly reinventing itself and figuring out what to do with what it has.”

By filming the series in Berlin, “How to Make It In” appeals to more than just aspiring entrepreneurs. “You can see how Berlin has been shaped through history,” says Simonson. “Since it’s so visual, the series also reaches travelers looking for new adventures.”

Between 2,000 and 7,000 viewers have viewed episodes since the first one aired in mid-August. The most popular episode to date has more than 7,500 hits, and features the owners of a high-end men’s barbershop called Barber’s. The business offers luxury hairdressing as well as beard grooming in an effort to merge new and old German techniques. The owners, Tarik and Rami, felt these services were necessary because “Germans deserve to look good, too.”

The sixth episode in the 10-part series is scheduled for release soon. Simonson and Lehmann are already planning a second season, working with their editor to scope out potential funding and locations in Australia, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Simonson often credits parts of her success to professor Richard Dubin, who taught a documentary film class during Simonson’s time at Newhouse. 

The filmmaking team is already scoping out locations and stories for a new series. Provided photo

“From the moment I met Justine, I could see she had the makings of an excellent storyteller,” Dubin says. “There are several of her qualities that would benefit all of my students: her curiosity, her enthusiasm, and her delight in other people’s stories.”

Simonson shared that delight in the most recent installment of the web series, “Rita In Palma.” The episode, which premiered on Nov. 12, features a fashion label owned by Ann-Kathrin Cartensen. The business is known for its handmade couture accessories, crafted with the help of Turkish employees who are fondly referred to as the “crochet queens.”

Because these Turkish women often arrive in Berlin as refugees, Cartensen has taught them life lessons on how to succeed, eat healthy and be competitive in a city like Berlin. Since being featured in Simonson’s series, two German fashion blogging websites—Journelles and Les Mads—have recognized Rita In Palma for its intricate handmade designs.

“She is reaching across cultural ties to older Turkish women who immigrated to Berlin without a formal education,” says Simonson, “but they have techniques that are intricate and detailed in Turkish and Greek culture.” 

Like the other small business owners in the series, Cartensen is more focused on her public influence than her monetary gain.

“This is a person putting their heart and soul into their community,” says Simonson of each of her Berlin subjects. “Here’s someone who dared to do something.”

Katie Czerwinski is a freshman magazine student at the Newhouse School.