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.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.