2023 – The Year of being Cheeky

From a council estate in Wallington, to Coachella with Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner, a dance-off with Channing Tatum, tips and advice from Bryan Cranston, and Christmas with Jamie Foxx, life has been, in Aletha’s own words, “a journey”.

Wearing a yellow jumper for our interview, Aletha Shepherd, model, actor, producer, writer and director is a ray of sunshine on a cold January afternoon. The adventures that took her from Sutton High School around the world and finally back home to London could fill a book on their own, but where she really lights up is in describing what she’s doing now. It’s all-go at her production company, Shot of Tea, where the projects are coming in thick and fast, staff numbers are growing, and meetings with the likes of the BBC, Channel 4, Studio Canal and ITV are back-to-back in her diary. So what is Shot of Tea all about?

“All our stories are about inclusivity,” Aletha says. “They’re extremely creative and have integrity. We make sure that for every project, we ask, ‘What is this saying about the world? Why are we making this? Why is this relevant now?’ These are critical things that we talk to our writers and business partners about. We make sure that everything we do has a purpose and that we’re passionate about it. I need to feel good about what I’m doing, and I have learnt to trust my gut about everything.”

‘I do feel an extreme sense of responsibility.’

She continues, “We love the female gaze – female characters, female crews including writers and directors – and as a black female, I feel responsible not only to my community but to all those immigrants to the UK, to make sure they have a platform and an opportunity to have their stories told. I do feel an extreme sense of responsibility.”

It might seem like a long way from her childhood in Wallington and her school days at Sutton High School, but Aletha connects all her life experiences – the highs and the lows – back to these formative years. From being hospitalized with meningitis at 17, forced to miss taking A Levels and having to learn to walk again, to being scouted and taking part in the Miss World competition (entering as Miss Guyana). And then, from initially tough and lonely times in LA to later, some of the best of times working with United Talent Agency where doors were opened, and she was propelled to the heart of Hollywood, gaining confidence in her own creative talents.

‘Sutton High School gave me the freedom to discover who I was.’

“When I went to Miss World, I would have conversations with presidents and prime ministers. And I could do this because I was educated to a standard that allowed me to enter any room and talk with anyone from any background. Sutton gave me confidence, and the belief that anything was possible: it made me think I could go out and have any career I wanted. And what I loved most was doing all those things (like dancing, gymnastics, giving presentations and acting) that were part of my personality. If they hadn’t let me be me, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I wouldn’t be in the film business. Sutton High School gave me the freedom to discover who I was.”

Aletha inherited her strong work ethic from her mother, who encouraged her ambitions, and was determined to see her daughter succeed. It was her mother who saw the potential for Aletha at Sutton High School, schooled her in verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests and put the bursary place within reach; something she says, “changed everything about me.” 

Later, in Hollywood, Aletha saw again the impact of hard work and the need to develop her abilities. “Being around all these successful people, I realised that you’ve got to be able to stand on your own two feet. You’ve got to have something to say for yourself and to show for yourself.” One Christmas, feeling particularly frustrated in her career, she asked Jamie Foxx, ‘How do you do it, how do you figure this out?’ He replied that she shouldn’t worry and that she’d get there. “But” she says, “He wasn’t just going to hand it to me. You have to put in the work.” This advice that she “couldn’t just be an actor”, was the push she needed to start exploring the world of writing and producing.

On returning to London, Aletha found herself looking for her ‘film family’, which took her deeper into the creative process. The connections she had made in Hollywood, along with new collaborators and creatives in the UK gave rise to Shot of Tea, and the rest, as they say, is history. She talks about the graft that goes into learning about the business end of the industry, then setting up, financing and running a production company, alongside being directly involved in filming (last year in the USA and with other projects in the pipeline).

‘This is the year of being cheeky.’

But she maintains that instinct is a key factor in her business. “Trusting my gut, and what I call ‘being cheeky’,” she smiles, “This is the year of being cheeky. We do push things a bit, but every time we do, we get a result. And I get to talk about all the stories on our slates, and the writers we’re working with, and the stories that we want to make, turning ideas into visual presentations with pictures and ideas for casts – and watching these stories come to life from the scripts that we’re passionate about is so exciting.”

So what’s next? 

“My ambition is to be able to create 3-5 movies a year that we really love and are passionate about, and 2-3 shows that get commissioned for TV. And to continuously be able to do this, year after year, to become one of the biggest independent producers of film and TV in the UK and ultimately, to win an Oscar. That would be my dream.”

She laughs in a self-deprecating way, but after only a couple of hours with Aletha, our ‘gut instinct’ tells us that Aletha will get there, and probably sooner than even she thinks.

Aletha is one of the just over 6,600 women who have benefited from the life-changing opportunity of a GDST education thanks to its bursary programme, which has been in place for 25 years. GDST bursaries are not just about providing financial assistance: students are given the chance to flourish, to learn and to discover on the same terms as their peers. Find out more about GDST bursaries here.


GDST Life Alumnae Magazine 2023/24

Our interview with Aletha Shepherd was part of our 2023/24 edition of GDST Life alumnae magazine which also includes a whole host of features and articles including stories, tips and viewpoints from a range of alumnae contributors, GDST and school news, our latest alumnae book listings and and how you can keep in touch.