#StartWith8Hollywood Program Offers New Hope for Women of Color in Hollywood

Clockwise from top left: Cassian Elwes, Iram Parveen Bilal, Craig Mazin, Jessica Rhoades.
Owen Hoffmann/Getty Images; Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images; David Livingston/Getty Images; Gregg DeGuire/Getty Images

Clockwise from top left: Cassian Elwes, Iram Parveen Bilal, Craig Mazin, Jessica Rhoades.

With BIPOC underrepresented in every industry segment, the organization aims to knock back "exclusion by familiarity" to get women of color in the same room as decision makers.

It started with a hashtag. This summer as nationwide calls for racial and social justice hit a fever pitch, Thuc Nguyen, founder of The Bitch Pack, and Cheryl L. Bedford, founder of Women of Color Unite, teamed on a new mentorship concept to help pump Hollywood’s diversity pipeline.

#StartWith8Hollywood began as a social media campaign that has since turned into a grassroots diversity, equity and inclusion program, based on a simple premise: established industry professionals pledge to give time and insight to eight women of color to help them further their careers.

In its first cycle that ran from June to July, which required no fees and was run purely by volunteers, #StartWith8Hollywood connected 300 mentees with 75 industry professionals. It’s a long list that included veteran indie producer Cassian Elwes, Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin, Moana writer Pamela Ribon, Level Forward CEO Adrienne Becker, filmmaker Iram Parveen Bilal, Doctor Strange writer C. Robert Cargill, Locke & Key executive producer Aron Eli Coleite, Pearl Street's Fanshen Cox, Warner Bros. vp Cate Adams, Dirty John executive producer Alexandra Cunningham, Gersh Agency's Frank Wuliger, Eric Garfinkel, Jeff Greenberg, Amanda Smith, and Adam Van Dusen, Tripod Media's Jessica Hargrave, Lucifer showrunner Joe Henderson, WME's Holly Jeter, Miramax's Munika Lay, Quibi's Don't Look Deeper creator Jeffrey Lieber, Underground Management's Josh McGuire, Circle of Confusion's Casey Minella and Samantha Starr, Sharp Objects executive producer Jessica Rhoades, Monkeypaw's Win Rosenfeld, Fremantle's Jenni Sherwood, and Field Trip Prods.' Hailey Wierengo among dozens of others.

Women of color remain underrepresented in every industry employment front in 2019 according to a recent UCLA study. To improve those statistics, Bedford notes it is more important than ever to knock back "exclusion by familiarity" and get women of color in the same room as those who could be hiring and funding their efforts in the industry.

Nguyen says the idea for the program was sparked by her personal experiences being apart of the #StartWith8 initiative by tech venture capitalist firm Alpha Edison, in which tech pros committed to taking meetings with eight women from outside their networks, all to further relationships and improve upon the diversity in the venture ecosystem. "I thought why not transfer this into entertainment?" Nguyen says.

Noting she had tried to launch a #StartWith8 version for Hollywood multiple times before, Nguyen gives credit to stay-at-home orders and a swell for social justice across the nation for making this recent attempt far more successful. "All eyes are on different companies and organizations to see how they respond to protests. I feel like I've been saying the same stuff until I turn blue in the face for years now. I've seen different organizations and initiatives that have gone on for decades. Then when you look at the statistics, you wonder why things haven't changed."

Nguyen and Bedford give major kudos to the hardworking volunteers of #StartWith8Hollywood for spreading the word on social media, fielding a mass influx of emails once #StartWithHollywood began trending, and eventually setting up over 600 meetings between mentors and mentees in the first wave of the program. One such volunteer is program director Manon de Reeper, who is also founder and CEO of indie film magazine Film Inquiry, who sums up her involvement as "doing what Hollywood should've been doing."

When asked what #StartWith8Hollywood aims to achieve as it grows and develops, Nguyen shares a recent story of an agent seeking an Asian American drama writer and her thinking, "There's only probably a million of us."

"It's not like women of color aren't prepared. They're ultra prepared," Nguyen says. "They have lots of samples, went to school for screenwriting. Despite this, it's still so hard for them to make contact."

De Reeper adds that when designing the program alongside Nguyen and Bedford, the end goal was "organic diversity and honest involvement of women of color in the industry that is not forced or performative" and hoping the entertainment industry recognizes "the fact that these women are talented and deserve a place in this industry."

Ahead of the program preparing for its second cycle, slated to begin later this year, the success of its initial run can be viewed across Twitter, with mentors and mentees praising #StartWith8Hollywood for crafting conversations that may have never occurred before. Nguyen notes that of the meetings that happened thus far, many mentors are "leaving the door open" for women of color they've connected with.

As for Bedford, she acknowledges that despite year-after-year dismal statistics of diversity in Hollywood, she feels grounded in her current work and what #StartWith8Hollywood will provide moving forward. "This time, I wouldn't do it if I didn't have hope. I wouldn't max out five credit cards. I wouldn't do what I do if it weren't for the fact that I have hope."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.