Checking in with THR's mentor program
EmptyOn a sweltering Saturday in Lynwood, Calif. -- almost a world away from the power offices of Beverly Hills -- 100 women wearing hard hats and carrying power saws and tool belts are helping to build 10 houses for the Hollywood chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Melanie Cook is one of them.
"The plank's not straight," says Cook, glue gun in hand, turning to a slightly meek young girl at her side, Joanna Cabrera. "I'm afraid you're going to glue it the wrong way."
In her 9-to-5 life, Cook is a partner at Ziffren Brittenham and one of the most respected entertainment lawyers in town. In her other life, she is one of a dozen top industry professionals who, late last year, agreed to take part in The Hollywood Reporter's inaugural Women in Entertainment Mentor Program, a joint venture with Big Brothers Big Sisters, made possible through the generous financial support of the Gersh Agency and the Nielsen Co.
They've been joined by other high-level entertainment executives -- from Disney Media Networks co-chair Anne Sweeney to THR editor Elizabeth Guider to Leslie Siebert, Gersh's senior managing partner.
Since these mentors started working with their mentees in January, it has been a learning experience on both sides.
"It's been invigorating to see Ivanique blossom into a more articulate, centered young woman," Guider says of her mentee, Ivanique Dooley. "And for me personally, it's a privilege to bond with someone who's on the threshold of life, trying to figure out what interests her and what her talents are. To be able to help shape that process is \enormously rewarding."
Notes Siebert, "When I first met Nayeli (Henriquez), I asked why she picked the agency business, and she said because she wanted to be an actress. After working here, I told her, 'You won't want to be an actress.' Now that pilot season is over, my goal is to get to know her on a more personal level because she inspires me."
Here in Lynwood, inspiration isn't the first thing that comes to mind. It has been a busy day for Cook and Cabrera, 16, a senior at Santee Education Complex who wants to follow Cook into law. While the Mentor Program involves a commitment through which each girl spends one afternoon every two weeks in her mentor's office, Cook -- like so many other mentors -- has taken her mentoring role much further.
Now she's looking into the possibility of signing up Cabrera's family for one of the Habitat houses. Like all our mentees, Cabrera comes from the inner city and her family has not had it easy, financially. Her father works at a glass company during the day and has another part-time job at night at L.A. Live's ESPN restaurant.
"My mom works there, too -- she cleans from 12-7 in the morning," says Cabrera, sweet-faced and tanned. "My brother is in college, but he lives with us in our house, so now there are seven of us in two bedrooms. We're really crowded: In one room (are) my uncle and my cousin, in another it's my mom and me, and in the living room are my brothers and my dad."
She states it simply as a matter of fact, not as a bid for self-pity. Self-pity, indeed, is the last thing you'd associate with her. But combining work with fun seems a novel concept for this straight-A student who plays volleyball, is on the debate team, is president of her class, and wants to attend either Harvard, Stanford or USC before heading to law school. She recently received a Dawn Steel scholarship, named after the late Hollywood executive, that will pay for an SAT prep course this summer. And Cook has been helping her, too.
"I never get bored when I'm with her," Cabrera says. "I have just learned so much, and to keep my options open and want more. My goal in the future is to be just like her."
In the San Fernando Valley, on a windy Wednesday afternoon, another mentee also wants to be like her new teacher.
We're in the war room of CBS' veteran entertainment news program "Entertainment Tonight." Half a dozen producers are gathered around a cherrywood conference table, alert as they watch every frame of the first feed of their show, to be seen imminently in 209 markets around the U.S.
Sonia Gonzalez, a 16-year-old in a pink top and sparkly black sweater, is right there among them. She's the mentee of Linda Bell Blue, "E.T.'s" larger-than-life executive producer, who sits at the head of the table munching on a Chinese salad as she maps out strategies, orders new photo shots, rewrites tag lines -- and invites Sonia's advice.
"I ask her about production," Bell Blue says. "When we're about to go out to the world and there are only seconds to make a decision, (the process) takes my breath away." What does Gonzalez think of the length of the piece on Russell Brand? Gonzalez approves, and wants to see more -- and Bell Blue agrees.
"It helps me to watch the satellite feed with her and ask what she likes, what she thinks of stars like Katy Perry or the MTV Awards," Bell Blue says. "She represents a big part of the audience we want to grow."
That's good news for Gonzalez, a senior at Santee and the daughter of Mexican immigrants, who has now experienced every aspect of producing a daily entertainment news show, under the auspices of Bell Blue and two deputy mentors, writer-producers Debbie Gorman and Heidi Clements.
Seeing her now, it's amazing how much she has grown from the time when I first met her eight months ago, on a bus taking this young woman and her fellow mentees for a photo shoot that graced the December cover of our Women in Entertainment issue. At that time, she seemed so hesitant, except for the green streaks in her hair and vivid splashes of color on her eyes.
"I want to go to college," she told me vaguely, "but I don't know which one. I like fashion and creating my own handbags. I like animals and am thinking about maybe taking care of them, and I might like to be an electrician. When I say this to most people, they just laugh out loud."
She's matured since then, with the green streaks softened to blond, shyness turned to a surprising wisdom for a girl of her age. In her time here, she has learned to focus, defining herself as a future clothing designer. Because of that, Bell Blue has teamed Gonzalez with "E.T." fashion honcho Anya Sarre, who has helped Gonzalez design her own line of clothes and purses. This summer, under their auspices, Gonzalez will attend a program at Los Angeles' Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.
But that's just part of what the mentor program has brought her. Clements has trained Gonzalez in writing and producing; Bell Blue has taken her behind the scenes at the Golden Globe Awards; Gorman has escorted her to the MTV Movie Awards. She's seeing Hollywood and she's seeing the world.
It would be wrong, however, to think of this as a one-way street. The experience has meant more to Bell Blue than she ever expected. "I have nieces and nephews, but I don't have children; I didn't raise a teenager," the producer reflects. "She filled a hole in me that I didn't know I had."
In the heart of Beverly Hills, a few days later, Maira Solis, 16 and a senior at Roosevelt High School, is already at ease in the sleek white offices of William Morris Endeavor, where she has her own desk and a computer just a few feet from her mentor Nancy Josephson's office.
Josephson, a partner at WME, grew up as the daughter of one of the most famous agents in the business, Marvin Josephson, but her heart has gone out to Solis.
She knows how hard the young girl has had to struggle to keep her 3.8 GPA, given her parents' tumultuous divorce, a custody battle and other family problems. To maintain her equilibrium, Solis put much of her energy into her greatest passion, music -- she plays violin in a mariachi band and also sings.
Because of that, "We took her to our music department; we invited her in for great guest speakers," Josephson says. "I went to see her band over the holidays and it was really great."
Says Solis: "She (is) even helping to design a music program for me this summer."
Education was the mentor's priority. "I was raised in privilege; I went to Brown and Harvard, but I never took it for granted," she says. "My father is a self-made man, my mother is a Holocaust survivor, so I was never spoiled. Nothing was handed to me. They said, 'We will give you an education, but you've got to fight for yourself.' "
Now Josephson is making sure Solis gets to fight, too -- and has the education to do it.
To that end, she's started a hard-core college prep push, with Solis tutored once a week in her office, because Josephson knows the cold reality: Even though Solis has that 3.8 GPA, she struggles with math and chemistry. So far, the tutoring program has raised her scores 300 points.
"She's an A student, she's on the track team, she is an incredible musician, she's a wonderful candidate for college," Josephson notes. "And since I am a bit of an expert -- only as a mom -- I said, 'Let's do it together.' "
Solis' mother cried when she found out what Josephson was doing, the mentee says. "She said, 'I think God brought you into our life.' "
But the reverse is also true, Josephson says. "I have a girl who responds and says, 'Yes, I'll do the work!' Not every girl is going to say, 'Great, I'll come to your office once a week to do more lessons.' I got lucky -- I got a girl who is motivated."
Motivation may be the toughest challenge for all of our mentees and the crucial element their mentors can teach them best.
"My mentor was my grandfather," Siebert says. "He always pushed me to go to college, take care of myself, always be a businesswoman, follow your goals."
That's something Sweeney knows better than anyone, having started her career as a special education teacher. But she also knows it's a lesson that will need to be imparted to her mentee, Georgina Portillo, over and over again.
"We have to be available when the formal (mentorship) year ends to guide them and answer questions," she says, "to offer guidance then as well as now."
Availability is often complicated when the women themselves have careers to deal with; indeed, one early mentor, then-Lifetime president and CEO Andrea Wong, dropped out when she lost her job this year. But Lifetime quickly stepped in and Danielle Carrig, Lifetime's senior vp advocacy and public affairs, impressively filled Wong's shoes.
For now, Sweeney has not had to face any such problem. Her guidance has been centered on showing Portillo how the entertainment business actually functions.
Working with deputy mentees Kendra Johnson and Charissa Gilmore, as well as Sweeney, Portillo has gone through the entire process of launching a new summer series, "My Generation," a show about high school friends who see each other again 10 years after graduation. She read drafts of the script, watched screen tests, observed production and screened the final pilot.
She had a similar run with "Brothers & Sisters" and then diversified to the Disney Channel and Disney XD, on shows like "Phineas & Ferb," where she met with animators as well as the president of Disney Channels Worldwide, Carolina Lightcap. She shadowed global communications distribution vp Gilmore through a major event planning meeting for the Disney International Group, and then interned at the event. Like Solis, she has also been set up with an SAT/ACT prep course. And, like all the mentees, Portillo has learned to emulate, not just listen.
"Everything is very interesting," says Portillo, who admits she is getting sad that the program will be over. "I look forward to it every week and I am glad someone else will get this chance next year."
She adds: "It has changed me in a lot of ways."
But perhaps none of the mentees has changed as much as Gonzalez.
Speaking of Bell Blue, she marvels: "When I met Linda, I was blown away. I was like, 'Wow, she's a go-getter. She doesn't like to be bossed around. She's the boss.' "
At the time, that seemed inconceivable to her. Now, she says, "That's what I want to be."