Exactly two years before Oscar Night 2018, I had begun working as an entertainment industry executive in Hollywood. Being a black woman in entertainment is challenging given that the industry was historically designed solely around the interests of white men. This has led to a white, male, celebrity bubble of protection and avoidance -- and breaking through this bubble requires tenacity, stamina and a courageous commitment to truth-telling.
Fortunately, some white male celebrities are open to hearing this truth, and are committing themselves to making real, positive change. This is, in part, how I ended up two years ago as Head of Strategic Outreach at Pearl Street Films -- whose owners are Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
A regular part of our conversations at Pearl Street over the last two years includes recognizing that intent does not equate to impact. We as a company are now more focused on our impact. One initiative towards this commitment is the Inclusion Rider. The attention given to the Rider after Frances McDormand's Oscar speech was surprising and helpful. Yet, as I gained more attention after Oscar night, I started to observe the disparity in attention and reverence paid to women who have worked towards inclusion in the industry far longer than I. That's why I asked Swaay to help me publish this short list of women who have been integral in the push for inclusion. You may not read about them in the news every day, but they are well known in the industry, have been committed to -- and have made important strides towards -- real change for years. They are role models for tenacity, stamina, and truth-telling. I am fortunate to have met and learned from these women early in my career as an executive. I know they will inspire you in the same way they have inspired me.
Kelly Edwards is the co-founder of Colour Entertainment — a non-profit organization focused on nurturing entertainment industry executives of color from assistants through the C-suite
Kelly Edwards, Head of Talent Development, HBO
Kelly and I met at the launch event for Project Greenlight Digital Studios, created by Adaptive Studios as a positive response to some of the criticism directed towards Project Greenlight. Kelly has been working on building an inclusive pipeline in Hollywood for over 30 years. She is the co-founder of Colour Entertainment -- a non-profit organization focused on nurturing entertainment industry executives of color from assistants through the C-suite. They hold networking events, seminars and offer mentoring. There is no other program that specifically works towards identifying, nurturing and developing future executives that is as consistent and successful as Colour Entertainment.
Kelly has worked at NBC Universal, Fox and helped develop the shows Girlfriends, Martin, Clueless, The Parkers, and Living Single. Currently she's guiding and supporting emerging storytellers in her role as Head of Talent Development for HBO.
Angel's contributions to Project Involve have been integral to its continued success and in nurturing filmmakers with the highest standards. Like the HBOAccess program, participants work in cohorts to write, produce and direct a short film. Angel Williams
Kelly plans to shoot her directorial debut this summer.
Through Significant Productions, Nina and her partner of Significant Forest Whitaker continue to develop meaningful and marketable content. Nina Yang Bongiovi
Angel Kristi Williams, Independent Filmmaker
By far the most important education I've received around storytelling and independent filmmaking came via Film Independent's Project Involve. When I started at Pearl Street, I wanted to establish an inclusive database of filmmakers to consider for future hiring, so I reached out to Film Independent for recommendations. That's when I met Angel Kristi Williams. She had been a Project Involve Fellow and later went on to run the program alongside Francisco Velasquez (who has led PI since its inception in 1993).
Angel's contributions to Project Involve have been integral to its continued success and in nurturing filmmakers with the highest standards. Like the HBOAccess program, participants work in cohorts to write, produce and direct a short film. Last year one of these final films, Emergency, won a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Angel grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and got her BA in Visual Art from the University of Maryland and her MFA in Directing at Columbia College Chicago. Her shorts The Christmas Tree and Charlotte have garnered awards and screened at festivals around the world. She is now in pre-production on her first feature.
Nina Yang Bongiovi, Film Producer
I met Nina at the introductory meeting of the Kellogg Foundation's Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation narrative change initiative. This was my first meeting with Hollywood 'heavy hitters,' and I was still trying to figure out just how assertive I could be in my new role. When Nina introduced herself, I immediately felt at home and knew that I could speak my truth.
Nina criticized the industry myth that films starring People of Color would not do well overseas. After studying Entertainment Management at USC, she had spent a number of years forging relationships between the U.S. and Chinese film markets. She had the experience, relationships and knowledge to back up her questioning of this myth. She also had proven development success with films that many said wouldn't 'sell' like Dope and Fruitvale Station. Of course, Fruitvale Station gave us Ryan Coogler - who definitively laid to rest the idea that films starring People of Color have no market overseas.
Through Significant Productions, Nina and her partner of Significant Forest Whitaker continue to develop meaningful and marketable content. They recently produced Netflix's Roxanne Roxanne, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and the soon-to-be-released Sorry to Bother You directed by Boots Riley. While many are talking about diversity and inclusion, Nina is out there creating and distributing content that reflects the varied and complex experiences of People of Color.
Karen is a role model for working to dismantle inequities in entertainment from within.
Karen Horne, SVP, Programming Talent Development & Inclusion, NBC Entertainment and Universal Television Studios
I'm not sure when Karen Horne sleeps. Her dedication to industry-wide change means she's present and active in all kinds of initiatives beyond her 'day-job' -- which is also focused on creating and maintaining an inclusive pipeline. She's also one of the warmest and most welcoming people I've met in Hollywood. She greets everyone with a smile and makes time for people who are just starting their own journeys in entertainment.
Karen's 'day job' is Senior Vice President, Programming Talent Development & Inclusion for NBC Entertainment and Universal TV Studios. She is responsible for most of NBC's diverse talent initiatives - including NBC's Female Forward, NBCUNIVERSAL's Short FilmFestival, Writers on the Verge, the Emerging Director Program, and StandUp NBC. Her wide range of experience includes stints at HBO, Nickelodeon Productions, Walt Disney Network TV and the black Filmmaker Foundation. Karen is a role model for working to dismantle inequities in entertainment from within.
Simone Ling dedicates her time to projects that often struggle to get financing because they go beyond essentialist representations of women and other People of Color and LGBTQ communities
Simone Ling, Independent Producer, Story Consultant
Simone and I have been plotting as co-conspirators on changing Hollywood ever since we met early into my role at Pearl Street. We immediately clicked because of our culturally mixed backgrounds (Simone is an Asian/Hapa woman, born and raised in England). She dedicates her time to projects that often struggle to get financing because they go beyond essentialist representations of women and other People of Color and LGBTQ communities.
As an independent producer, Simone's credits include work on Aurora Guerrero's directorial debut Mosquita y Mari, a 2013 Indie Spirit Award nominee, and Anahita Ghazvinizadeh's first feature, They, produced with Zoe Sua Cho, that premiered at last year's Cannes film festival. A story analyst, consultant and mentor for clients as varied as Universal Pictures, the Sundance Film Institute, and AFI, Simone also sits on BAFTA/LA's Scholarship and New Talent Committees.
These brief introductions don't begin to do these women justice. They have all produced more content, have more experience and won more accolades than what's here. They deserve attention, gratitude, access -- and funding -- and I hope sharing a little about them here might be one more step in that direction. Please follow and support their work - we are all better off because of it.
Eboni K. Williams and Cheslie Kryst have a lot in common, as Iman Oubou Founder & CEO of SWAAY as well as host of the Women Who Swaay podcast puts it, "They're both badass attorneys, they're both from North Carolina and they've both competed in the Miss North Carolina USA pageants." And they also both took over our podcast on the most recent episode, straight from the headquarters of the Miss Universe Organization!
Cheslie is a successful licensed attorney who also happens to be the reigning Miss USA 2019, with plans to represent our country in the upcoming Miss Universe competition. Not only is she at the height of her pageant power, but she is using the notoriety to create positive change for all of the women in her life, much like her role model Eboni K. Williams. Williams is a journalist, author, attorney and speaker; from her long history as a pageant queen she has risen through the ranks of male dominated industries from law-firms to Fox News. All throughout her journey she has persevered with intelligence, tenacity and poise. Lucky enough for us, she has kindly put her reporting skills to use and got candid with Ms. Kryst about supporting their fellow women, the current state of race in America and their history together as pageant compatriots. All of these topics are incredibly close to their hearts as powerful black women using their influence to create a better future for all women in America.
Oh and, as previously stated, both are complete and utter badasses.
During their podcast takeover they talked about it all, from pageants to politics. It's clear that both of these women are motivated by an altruistic spirit and are strong supporters of #womensupportingwomen. Eboni even read a passage from her book, Pretty Powerful: Appearance, Substance, and Success, in which she outlines how her own career trajectory was so positively affected by the incredible women who mentored her in different stages of her life. She completely shuts down the idea of the "woman on woman teardown," calling it a "pitiful dynamic" tied to the "long and very hurtful history of women." This idea that in order to compete for a spot in the old boy's club, women must first fight off their own gender is not only reductive but it also supports an outdated social structure that was built to greatly favor male success. Throughout history women have been encouraged to look at one another as competition, one more obstacle to pass by. However, all that has managed to do is to pit us against each other, fighting for the few meager seats at the table allowed for women while we ignore the real problem. The problem isn't about the lack of seats allotted for women; the problem is that men are still the ones making the seating arrangements, and it's time for that to change, something that both Cheslie and Eboni understand well.
Race is another topic that is incredibly important to both of these women, and they have quite the in-depth discussion on it during this podcast. Cheslie, who is biracial and self-identifies as black, laid out her point of view on race. She voiced her frustrations for never feeling like she had her own box to tick, being stuck to decide between "black, white, or other" in standardized situations like the SATs. Existing as someone stuck between two cultures has been incredibly challenging, and though she found some solace in the black community, she felt less welcomed by her white peers. Self-identifying as black is something that has allowed her more agency in regards to her own identity, and though she still faces difficulties she realizes how important it is to be a confident black woman in the esteemed position she is currently in. Both Cheslie and Eboni seem to bond over the idea that no matter the successes, they both revel in the victories of their fellow women of color. Each of them is motivated to see more women of color in powerful, visible positions to inspire future generations. It's not about their own success; it's about respect and renown for any and all women of color.
I may have just provided the highlight reel, but the full conversation shared between Cheslie and Eboni on the Women Who Swaay podcast is a must listen. These two women managed to make me laugh while restoring hope for a better America all within a half hour of listening time! Seriously, go get those headphones, right now. You will not regret it.