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.
"Steal the mesh underwear you get from the hospital," a friend said upon learning I was pregnant with my first daughter.
It was the single best piece of advice I received before giving birth in December 2013. My best friend delivered her daughter eight months previously, and she was the first to pass along this shared code among new moms: you'll need mesh underwear for your at-home postpartum recovery, and you can't find them anywhere for purchase. End result: steal them. And tell your friends.
My delivery and subsequent recovery were not easy. To my unexpected surprise, after almost 24 hours of labor, I had an emergency C-section. Thankfully, my daughter was healthy; however, my recovery was quite a journey. The shock to my system caused my bloated and swollen body to need weeks of recovery time. Luckily, I had trusted my friend and followed her instructions: I had stolen some mesh underwear from the hospital to bring home with me.
Unfortunately, I needed those disposable underwear for much longer than I anticipated and quickly ran out. As I still wasn't quite mobile, my mother went to the store to find more underwear for me. Unfortunately, she couldn't find them anywhere and ended up buying me oversized granny panties. Sure, they were big enough, but I had to cut the waistband for comfort.
I eventually recovered from my C-section, survived those first few sleepless months, and returned to work. At the time, I was working for a Fortune 100 company and happily contributing to the corporate world. But becoming a new mom brought with it an internal struggle and search for something “more" out of my life--a desire to have a bigger impact. A flashback to my friend's golden piece of advice got me thinking: Why aren't mesh underwear readily available for women in recovery? What if I could make the magical mesh underwear available to new moms everywhere? Did I know much about designing, selling, or marketing clothing? Not really. But I also didn't know much about motherhood when I started that journey, either, and that seemed to be working out well. And so, Brief Transitions was born.
My quest began. With my manufacturing and engineering background I naively thought, It's one product. How hard could it be? While it may not have been “hard," it definitely took a lot of work. I slowly started to do some research on the possibilities. What would it take to start a company and bring these underwear to market? How are they made and what type of manufacturer do I need? With each step forward I learned a little more--I spoke with suppliers, researched materials, and experimented with packaging. I started to really believe that I was meant to bring these underwear to other moms in need.
Then I realized that I needed to learn more about the online business and ecommerce world as well. Google was my new best friend. On my one hour commute (each way), I listened to a lot of podcasts to learn about topics I wasn't familiar with--how to setup a website, social media platforms, email marketing, etc. I worked in the evenings and inbetween business trips to plan what I called Execution Phase. In 2016, I had a website with a Shopify cart up and running. I also delivered my second daughter via C-section (and handily also supplied myself with all the mesh underwear I needed).
They say, “If you build it, they will come." But I've learned that the saying should really go more like this: “If you build it, and tell everyone about it, they might come." I had a 3-month-old, an almost 3 year old and my business was up and running. I had an occasional sale; however, my processes were extremely manual and having a day job while trying to ship product out proved to be challenging. I was manually processing and filling orders and then going to the post office on Saturday mornings to ship to customers. I eventually decided to go where the moms shop...hello, Amazon Prime! I started to research what I needed to do to list products with Amazon and the benefits of Amazon fulfillment (hint: they take care of it for you).
Fast forward to 2018...
While I started to build this side business and saw a potential for it to grow way beyond my expectations, my corporate job became more demanding with respect to travel and time away from home. I was on the road 70% of the time during first quarter 2018. My normally “go with the flow" 4-year-old started to cry every time I left for a trip and asked why I wasn't home for bedtime. That was a low point for me and even though bedtime with young kids has its own challenges, I realized I didn't want to miss out on this time in their lives. My desire for more scheduling flexibility and less corporate travel time pushed me to work the nights and weekends needed to build and scale my side hustle to a full-time business. If anyone tries to tell you it's “easy" to build “passive" income, don't believe them. Starting and building a business takes a lot of grit, hustle and hard work. After months of agonizing, changing my mind, and wondering if I should really leave my job (and a steady paycheck!), I ultimately left my corporate job in April 2018 to pursue Brief Transitions full-time.
In building Brief Transitions, I reached out to like-minded women to see if they were experiencing similar challenges to my own--balancing creating and building a business while raising children--and I realized that many women are on the quest for flexible, meaningful work. I realized that we can advance the movement of female entrepreneurs by leveraging community to inspire, empower, and connect these trailblazers. For that reason, I recently launched a new project, The Transitions Collective, a platform for connecting community-driven women entrepreneurs.
As is the case with many entrepreneurs, I find myself working on multiple projects at a time. I am now working on a members-only community for The Transitions Collective that will provide access to experts and resources for women who want to leave corporate and work in their business full-time. Connecting and supporting women in this movement makes us a force in the future of work. At the same time, I had my most profitable sales quarter to date and best of all, I am able to drop my daughter off at school in the morning.
Mesh underwear started me on a journey much bigger than I ever imagined. They sparked an idea, ignited a passion, and drove me to find fulfillment in a different type of work. That stolen underwear was just the beginning.