The origin story of the T. Howard Foundation (THF) is fundamentally a story about the opportunity to make a difference and the generosity to share opportunity with others. The year was 1993 and Scott Weiss, then Executive Vice President at Turner Broadcasting (now WarnerMedia), noticed that all his peers in the industry looked just like him. In honor of T. Howard, the visionary behind TV transmission technology, Weiss formed a new organization that would address the critical lack of diversity in the media industry.
Fast-forward to today and while some good progress has been made, much work is needed to address the fact that many leadership teams are still very homogeneous. This is the sort of challenge that drives Jo Pamphile, who has been President and Chief Executive Officer of the T. Howard Foundation for the past 13 years.
Pamphile fervently believes in the power of opportunity. As a young fashion designer, Pamphile empowered high school dropouts to express their inner strength, boldly own their image and take that onto the catwalk of life. From the hopelessness she witnessed working in the South Bronx in her early career to the optimistic resilience she has cultivated within the young students at the THF, she has made it her mission "to create opportunity" and help catapult today's diverse students into high potential leaders of tomorrow.
THF essentially works to create a level playing field in our very uneven world. By curating a highly selective and fiercely competitive program that elevates the ambitions of diverse students from across the country, it opens the door to addressing the state of homogeneity that still plagues many senior leadership teams across the media and entertainment businesses.
The industry is embracing the THF programs with a voracious appetite -- both student applications and corporate placements are "up significantly and have broken all records," Pamphile said. From their internship placements to graduate programs, the foundation is providing a structured and elegant solution -- addressing industry pressure to solve for diversity issues during this era of #MeToo and greater civic discourse on inequality.
According to Pamphile, for all the corporate attention on diversity and inclusion, there is a critical element that is still missing. She calls it by a simple name -- "acceptance" -- and believes truly accepting diverse candidates goes beyond giving them a role and inviting them to speak at a meeting. "It is about the person feeling they are being valued, not just for being a 'diverse' candidate, but valued for their ideas, their thinking and, above all, their individuality," she explained.
To underscore just how far acceptance can take you, Pamphile shared the story of her "superstar talent," Rosalyn Durant, an alumna of the program who epitomizes the mission of the foundation. Today, Durant serves as Senior Vice President, College Networks and Programming at ESPN, where she continues to break old stereotypes in the highly male-dominated arena of sports broadcasting.
The THF has perfected the art of leadership development -- from their stringent screening process to their rigorous orientation program to their engagement platforms targeting men (given females account for 66% of students currently) and students in STEM. The THF program attracts a diverse mix of students, with the majority being of African American background (65%), followed by Hispanic (under 20%), Asian and Caucasian. Even before starting their corporate roles, students are groomed for success with comprehensive orientation programs, alumni discussion panels and mentoring conversations. Students go on to challenging internship roles across various functions in marketing, on-air talent and production, operations, legal, finance and human resources.
Brian Vaught, Senior Vice President, Talent Inclusion at Publicis Media, who also serves on the THF Board, explained how their three-year partnership has been extremely rewarding. "Our agencies (and clients) benefit from a more diverse and culturally representative talent pool," he said. "Bringing greater diversity into our industry is what will drive innovation and help future-proof our business because when you have diversity of talent, you have diversity of thought -- which is then reflected in the work we produce for our clients. The team at T. Howard has proven time and again how committed they are to delivering quality candidates to their partners, and our alignment with them has been invaluable."
The THF has amassed an impressive roster of partners from across the media ecosystem -- from agency holding companies like Publicis to cable networks like Showtime and WarnerMedia to cable operators like Comcast and telcos and tech companies like AT&T and Facebook.
When our conversation turned to ROI and the well-established evidence that diversity drives financial results, Pamphile shared a novel idea: assign responsibility for diversity and inclusion outcomes to the CFO. This would, Pamphile said, "elevate its strategic importance to the long-term financial growth of the organization. It's not going to work just having a D&I officer; there needs to be a mandate tied to the bottom line."
It is precisely this bold thinking that the business of equality needs. When I asked Pamphile how she deals with the inevitable frustrations and challenges that come with running a mission-based non-profit, she coyly smiled and shared with me a new mantra she used the evening before at an NYU diversity panel: "Don't get mad. Get magnificent!"
Being magnificent might just be the winning antidote to address bias in the opportunity game -- a game that Pamphile is working tirelessly to equalize, revolutionize and, above all, humanize.
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