An array of entertainment industry changemakers and stars gathered Tuesday at Milk Studios to celebrate The Hollywood Reporter‘s first-ever Young Executive Fellows and Empowerment Award honoree Oprah Winfrey at the inaugural Empowerment in Entertainment event.
As a gray morning gave way to sunny L.A. skies, Anthony Anderson, Ciara, Selena Gomez, Netflix’s Cindy Holland, Bela Bajaria and Lisa Nishimura, CNN’s Don Lemon, Alicia Keys, Sherry Lansing, Eva Longoria, Kumail Nanjiani, Amazon’s Jennifer Salke and Jill Soloway walked the red carpet before the afternoon event, which coincides with THR‘s first Empowerment issue, featuring Winfrey on the cover and a list of 50 “Agents of Change” who are empowering more diverse voices in Hollywood.
Other guests including One Day at a Time co-showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett, producer Stephanie Allain, Queer Eye‘s Bobby Berk, Caitlyn Jenner, Ali Wong, Lil Rel Howery, Trixie Mattel, Logan Browning, Shark Tank’s Lori Greiner, Diane Warren, Maria Shriver, actress-singer Kiersey Clemons, Robin Givens, Little star/producer Marsai Martin, singer-actress Eiza Gonzalez and Terri Seymour enjoyed chicken paillard and Bernier chardonnay, as Ciara welcomed the audience and opened the event with a call to action.
“The time has come for those of us fortunate enough to be in this room to give underrepresented communities a bigger voice, show our appreciation for each other, and shout out our love,” the Grammy-winning performer said. She urged them to help amplify the voices of the next generation, asking them to take a moment to celebrate the 20 participants in the inaugural Young Executives Fellowship, who would be celebrated later during the event. “I am proud of each and every one of you,” she said.
Actor-comedian Nanjiani warmed up the room with jokes about influence in the industry: “Hollywood is famous for its ‘power’ events: Power rankings, Power 100 Women in Entertainment, power lunches, Power Lawyers, endless talk about making a live-action Powerpuff Girls movie,” he noted, to laughter through the room. The message, however, got serious when he explained what empowerment means in practice: “Opportunity for people and groups of people who haven’t traditionally had opportunity.”
After introducing the day’s lineup — the “Coachella of lunches,” he joked — he closed with some words for the young people in the room. “Do your best, but feel OK to fail. Feel empowered to fail,” he said before introducing THR‘s editorial director Matthew Belloni and executive vp and group publisher Lynne Segall.
Segall took to the podium alongside Belloni to thank all the talent in the room for their work, along with the event’s partners, including presenting sponsor WME, platinum sponsor Amazon Prime Video and sponsors Entertainment One, Imax, OWN, Starz and Casamigos. She added that the day mourned the loss of John Singleton, who died on Monday at 51, “who exemplifies what this program is all about.”
Belloni then introduced the event, which originated a year ago during an office discussion: “We’ve all been to a ton of these events where it’s talk, talk, talk and no action,” he said, noting that the Young Executives Fellowship would be the start of converting some of that talk to action. Belloni then ceded the stage to the event’s keynote speaker, CNN Tonight host Don Lemon, who urged Hollywood to “resist the easy path” in celebrating diversity and inclusion. After admitting that he felt “dread” at the prospect of delivering a speech that might praise the value of diversity but not inspire action, Lemon told the story of Max Robinson, the first network TV news anchor of color. Robinson was imperfect, and had his struggles, the anchor said — but he created “controversy” and realized early on that to achieve his goals, he needed to speak out and break some rules.
“If we want change, you’re going to have to embrace the unknown, feel uncomfortable and face the same risks Max Robinson faced,” Lemon added. “It’s hard. But it is the only way we will make real change.”
Singer-actress Gomez then took to the stage to introduce the inaugural class of 20 Young Executives Fellows — high school students chosen from underserved schools in Compton, Inglewood and Los Angeles who will participate in a two-year program to introduce them to leadership roles in entertainment. The program, first announced in December, aims to create a more inclusive pipeline to leadership by providing the students with mentorship and a curriculum that will instruct them in marketing, production and business affairs. Advisory board members for the program include Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel, Salke, attorney Nina Shaw and Compton Mayor Aja Brown. The program will start with a three-week-long summer camp course at USC’s film school.
After an emotional video introduced several of the Fellows, Gomez brought each of them to the stage as the crowd rose in a standing ovation. Gomez then announced that Howard University and Emerson College have each agreed to fund a full-ride scholarship for a participant in the Fellowship. She also added that each would be receiving a MacBook Air computer, gifted by Twitter. During the announcement, Winfrey was also seen with tears streaming down her face; Salke stopped several students as they walked back to their seats to congratulate them.
Earlier in the event, Belloni had also announced additional funding for scholarships for the group: $100,000 from Skydance Media and $250,000 from WME.
When Keys took to the stage to present the first-ever Empowerment in Entertainment Award to Winfrey, she noted that when she started out in the industry, she always wanted to act like Winfrey, who “shows us that you can have tenderness and sensitivity; you can care about the world — oh, no — and the people in it! You can have a heart and still be a badass.” Winfrey embodies the Empowerment Award, Keys said, because she “builds roads for others,” through Oprah’s Book Club, Oprah’s Angel Network, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa and other efforts. The award will henceforth be known as the Oprah Winfrey Empowerment in Entertainment Award, Keys added.
When she took the stage, Winfrey addressed the students in the room: “The trajectory of your lives is about to change … because you’re going to have access. You’re going to see what’s going on.”
She then noted that the current political climate has necessitated that the attendees take action to make change. “There is a time to let things happen, and there is a time to make things happen,” she said. “This new program and this extraordinary award is actually a declaration that now is the time to actually make some things happen.” Winfrey acknowledged those who had already prompted transformation of the industry — including DuVernay, Brie Larson and Frances McDormand — and remembered moments in her career when she demanded more equality in her field, like when she asked for pay equity with a male co-anchor and threatened to quit The Oprah Winfrey Show so that her female producers would get a fair raise.
Winfrey addressed the Young Executives Fellows, telling them she sees “hope” in their eyes. She then reminded everyone, quoting Netflix producer Shonda Rhimes, of “our power to say no to assholes … our power to say that the way things were done yesterday does not define how we will do them tomorrow,” and received a standing ovation.
As the crowd filed out, Winfrey was surrounded by admirers. Salke and Ciara shared a hug, and Amazon head of diversity, equity and inclusion Latasha Gillespie exchanged high-fives with the Young Executives Fellows.