Hollywood's Business Managers Get Frank About Improving Diversity

Illustration by Borja Bonaque Alandi
Illustration by Borja Bonaque Alandi

Amid renewed nationwide and industrywide demands for racial equality, leaders are starting a pipeline to financial professions as early as middle school and pulling talent from different backgrounds: "There needs to be room for their voices, their stories and their experiences."

As nationwide protests in the wake of the high-profile police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have revived conversations about racial inequality, Hollywood is grappling with its own systemic and sustained racism. In cataloging their shortcomings, studios, networks and agencies began outlining charitable giving to social justice causes and upping POC talent to positions of power. Many business management firms that service the entertainment sector are also looking internally at how they can become more inclusive in their own ranks, which would in turn allow them to better manage the money of a diversifying industry.

Like Hollywood at large, insiders note that the upper echelons of top-tier business management firms remain overwhelmingly white. "In any school I have ever gone to and in any professional organization, I am usually one of a handful of women and oftentimes the only person of color," notes business manager Laura Gordon, founder of Gordon & Associates. Adds Reggie Gooden of 818 Management, "I have tried to wrap my head around why, and I know business management is like accounting on steroids."

According to a 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, of the roughly 2 million accountants and auditors in the U.S., only 8.5 percent are Black and 8.9 percent Hispanic. The National Association of Black Accountants estimates that out of 650,000 certified CPAs in the U.S., only about 5,000 are Black. Says Gooden, "When we are looking at young talent — people who are just starting their professional lives — it would behoove senior business managers to not go to the same watering holes that they’ve been going to."

In talking to THR, several managers say private schools like Harvard or the University of Southern California are traditional feeders to top firms. "Although I was accepted to USC, we couldn’t afford it," says Freemark Financial’s Steves Rodriguez, a first-generation university student, of attending Cal State Northridge over a private school. "It didn’t mean I was any less talented."

Rodriguez is a graduate of the California State University system, where 43 percent of approximately 482,000 students identified as Hispanic or Latino, according to data collected by CSU from 2019. By comparison, 15 percent of USC’s student population for the 2020-21 academic year identify as Hispanic, according to the school.

Many note that awareness of financial professions, including business management, remains low within Black and brown communities. "Culturally, that [profession] has not been accessible or promoted to us as minorities," says Gooden.

But now, organizations like the National Association of Black Accountants and the National Society of Black CPAs, the latter of which was just incorporated this June, have the goal of starting the pipelines into financial professions as early as middle school. Business manager John McIlwee echoed that sentiment. "Financial health comes from a place of security, and historically that security has been harder to come by in diverse communities," he says, adding that teaching young students about things like basic banking and how credit reports work could have a significant impact.

"I think the lack of diversity in the business management field stems from possibly less opportunity to be involved in finance from a younger age."

As in much of Hollywood, there are financial barriers to breaking into business management, as entry-level positions tend to pay less than their equivalents at big accounting firms.

Rodriguez — who co-founded nonprofit Making Education The Answer, which mentors and provides college scholarships to Latino youth — notes that hiring inclusively requires recognizing not only racial bias, but also classicism and socioeconomic stratification. "It does reframe your perspective," he says. "You realize that there are so many talented people coming from so many different environments that don’t get those chances. So my partner, Andrew Meyer, and I prioritize trying to provide those opportunities.” When asked where they are looking for future candidates, at least two top business management firms say their human resources departments are reaching out directly to HBCUs for future recruitment and participation in career days.

Pulling talent from different cultural backgrounds also benefits firms from a business perspective because business management by its nature is more interpersonal than traditional accounting.

"Because we have so many Latino people at our firm, we have quite a few Latino clients," says Rodriguez. "We are able to identify and talk with them in a way that resonates." Advising clients how, where and when to spend money requires an empathic understanding of behaviors and desires that sometimes stem from cultural backgrounds rooted in race. "How do you express what to do with that money to a client, when you have never had any of those challenges or are not a part of a culture who has had to face a lot of those challenges?" says Gooden. In order to really create a pipeline of talent, though, he says young employees of color need to work on a variety of accounts. "You want to match someone who looks like me with a rapper or ballplayer, and that’s it. But, in order to create larger conversations and have an employee who will be a new business manager one day, you will want to train them across all your clients."

Gordon, who sits on the board of Women in Film, says there is no easy fix, but she’s hopeful that the conversations spurred this summer will allow for a more equitable entertainment industry at large, and also within her corner of it. She surmises, "As we move into this next phase, the dominant culture can’t add bodies and say, 'We checked it off the list.' There needs to be room for their voices, their stories and their experiences."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.