Executive Vice President of Content & Strategy, Jesse Collins Entertainment
As we were preparing this month’s Alumni Profile of Dionne Harmon (AB’ 01), the news broke that she has just been promoted to Executive Vice President of Content & Strategy at Jesse Collins Entertainment. Since Harvardwood profiled her back in 2010 (as up and coming DJ Lady Dee), Dionne has rapidly ascended through the ranks at Jesse Collins, just recently becoming among the first Black production team of Superbowl LV in February.
Dionne moved to Los Angeles the day after she graduated from Harvard. She quickly found her way to MTV, where she worked in casting for the shows Dismissed, Becoming, Wanna Come In as well as music videos for Usher, Diddy, Busta Rhymes and Alicia Keys. She has won the NAACP Image Award four times, and worked for The Kanye West Foundation, Foxx-King Entertainment and OWN before landing at Jesse Collins to work in Development. Once there, she helped to produce many broadcast events, including CBS’s John Lewis: Celebrating a Hero, BET Awards, BET Hip Hop Awards, Soul Train Awards and Love & Happiness: An Obama Celebration as well as the comedy specials Amanda Seales: I Be Knowin’ on HBO and Leslie Jones: Time Machine on Netflix.
When asked about last month’s Superbowl, which was considered a success despite the pandemic and reduced live audience, Dionne was reflective. “No matter what the circumstances or limitations may be, you can always find a creative way to execute your vision at a high level. Every previous show has taken place on the field with thousands of people involved both in front of and behind the camera. The challenge for us was figuring out how to still deliver a high production value performance with a significantly smaller amount of people that was not centered around a big stage on the field. We brought together an amazing team in support of The Weeknd and we all worked hand in hand to develop and deliver a show that we all could be proud of. We are thrilled that it was so well-received.”
In terms of how her previous experience with live events will translate into her brand new role: “It’s all connected. Live events fall under the umbrella of unscripted content, and I did casting for music videos, which is a key part of pre-production for scripted content. In fact, there’s a lot of overlap in the development and production of unscripted and scripted content. Whether it’s an award show performance or a scripted series, everything starts with a vision, and as a producer, it’s my job to execute that vision – through budget, directors, art department, wardrobe, special effects, music/score… all of these elements exist on both sides.”
Harmon majored in African-American Studies at Harvard, but jokes she wishes she could go back and switch her concentration to Romance Languages and Literature as she tries to master French and Italian in her downtime. Upon graduation, she found many Black graduates pursuing careers in entertainment, and “we were each other’s support system through all of the ups and downs as we tried to find our places in this industry. It was also helpful to have organizations like Harvardwood where you could meet and network with other alumni in entertainment. It’s funny, because I had no idea I would end up on this path, but nonetheless, my time at Harvard gave me the confidence to be open to new possibilities and to recognize and capitalize on the opportunities that are set in front of me. Most importantly, I learned not to shy away from challenges; rather, to keep my head up and to face them head on."
Commissioner, Call of Duty Esports at Activision Blizzard
By Eric J. Cheng AB '20
While at Harvard, Johanna Faries (AB ’03) had no idea that she would be doing what she’s doing today. This is fair; in the midst of recruiting for financial services positions and graduate school programs, Harvard students rarely ever see themselves as the commissioner and designer of a professional sports league. Neither did Johanna. But by taking things year by year and doing away with tradition, she achieved the unimaginable.
“If I do well in the next 12-24 months and am hyper-present, it will open new doors.” Thinking about her career and life as a brick building, “taking it one by one” has proven to greatly benefit Johanna. While many people especially today (and even more especially Harvard students and graduates) stress about the future, Johanna has learned to be a proponent of taking the pressure out of the long-term vision and maximizing the present. In a time in which being present in the day-to-day is challenging, yet necessary, this insight resonated the most.
Now the Head of Leagues for Call of Duty (COD), the game that generated Activision Blizzard more revenue than the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the box office and double that of the cumulative box office of Star Wars, she’s proving that the only path for her is the one she builds herself.
With a title that those in film, TV, and other, more traditional forms of media may not be familiar with, Johanna oversees all aspects of the experience of the Call of Duty League (CDL), from production to "event-izing" to developing microtransactions, on top of all the general management aspects of operating a city-based sports league. Say you’re a mega fan of the Atlanta Faze. Under Johanna’s supervision, you can deck out in gear, tune into the playoffs live, and follow your favorite players, no matter where you are in the world.
When it comes to providing viewers and fans the best sports experience possible, this isn’t Johanna’s first rodeo. She previously worked for the NFL for over 12 years, most recently serving as the Vice President of Club Development. In developing fan and business development, she’s brought her expertise to a whole new context—a familiar responsibility within a completely unique venture.
“Activation Blizzard is taking a page from traditional sports leagues," Johanna says. Having years of experience under her belt, she understands how to keep the pages turning. To her, it’s the same competition, mega-brand appeal, and beloved player culture that is behind traditional sports—it’s “the sports leagues of the future”. And even in an increasingly virtual and global fan business, what remains true, as with all forms of media, is the importance of storytelling.
“There’s a massive storytelling component” in elevating the players, she says. It’s about bringing their stories to life—not as elite professionals, but as humans. Johanna and her team maintain their focus on “star-building”—making sure that COD and Overwatch (a game in which Johanna also heads the league of) are not only brought to the mainstream, but also that the human-interest story is enlivened through depictions of players’ backgrounds, journeys, and resilience. Johanna mentions the first season launch of the CDL, facilitated by a Youtube docuseries about the Chicago Huntsmen. “Who are these people? Where do they live? What are the back-and-forth aspects of who they are as people as well as players?”. When it comes to using the CDL as a story-based medium, Johanna believes that they are only scratching the surface.
Award-winning social entrepreneur and author of the new book Unstuck Together
By Jenny Tram AB '22
2020 was a year of immense challenge, adaptation, and reevaluation.
Our diverse membership touches professions and spaces that span every corner of every industry, all of which have changed immensely due to the global pandemic and its subsequent effects.
We at Harvardwood believe we should begin 2021 by profiling a delightful, standout professional who exemplifies purpose-driven passion -- not merely success -- in all of her endeavors. If nothing else, we hope this read shines light on what is a truly stellar creative career. We couldn’t be prouder to introduce Laura Weidman Powers AB ‘04.
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Powers is an award-winning social entrepreneur, speaker, teacher, coach, consultant, and author. Her journey since Harvard is one to marvel at.
Her new book, Unstuck Together, is a non-fiction story about how she and her husband packed up their lives -- and their new baby -- and set off to travel across 11 countries and 48 cities in under a year, in order to reconnect with what makes each of them happy. From spending 2 months in Marrakech, to finding time (and childcare) to go on 100 “dates” while traveling, to having a multilingual child that considered home to be “wherever the three of us were… no matter how long we’d remain”, the book is a fascinating read. It speaks to those who are both ambitious and adventurous, those who have obligations and want new opportunities, and those who are looking at uprooting their lives and creating a new normal for their families. So how’d Laura arrive at this juncture?
“I was way more interested in extracurriculars than academics while I was at Harvard!” said Powers of her time in undergrad.
In particular, her passion back then was CityStep, a program in which students at the College volunteered to teach dance at nearby public schools with under-funded arts programs. She had joined the organization during her freshman year, and remained actively involved during the rest of her time in college, even serving as Director during her junior and senior years. Passionate about dance, she spent a great deal of time dancing outside of CityStep as well, performing in several pieces with the Expressions Dance Company most semesters. Powers even considered pursuing her love of travel by studying abroad, but ultimately could not bring herself to leave CityStep.
When it was time to graduate, most of my classmates were going into consulting and i-banking -- two things that I had no interest in (to be honest, I didn't understand what either was, just that they were supposedly desirable).
Upon graduation, Powers decided to lead CityStep professionally. The program had been at Harvard for 20 years then, but it had never expanded beyond Cambridge. She moved to West Philadelphia and spent a year setting up CityStep at the University of Pennsylvania and in the local public school system; by that spring, she and her team had a sold out performance at the main theater on campus, and Powers even had a set of undergrads lined up to run the program the following year. She then handed CityStep off, and today, the program is in its 15th year at Penn and has expanded even further.
As someone who considered herself to be a "nonprofit person" who is passionate about the arts, Powers also led operations for a public art project in New York City that decorated the city’s yellow cabs with hand-painted art for its 2007 centennial.
“But I was convinced that I needed more exposure to different methods of thinking and building if I was going to be effective in the public sector,” said Powers.
Los Angeles native, film and television writer/producer currently working on Freeform's The Bold Type, and founder/editor-in-chief of the award-winning website Good Black News
By Simi Shah AB '19
In 1990, a few months out of Harvard, Lori Lakin Hutcherson found herself back in her old stomping grounds: Los Angeles. An ardent lover of the arts -- music and television and all things LA -- she took up a job at The Wherehouse, a record store. She recalls, “It was back when everything wasn't just in the iTunes Store or Apple. You actually had to go into a physical store.”
But music wasn’t the only thing at Hutcherson’s fingertips. While working there, Hutcherson doggedly shopped her resume around Hollywood. But her big break came in the form of a friend who couldn’t believe that this young, talented Harvard grad hadn’t nudged her way into the industry yet. Within a week, she landed her first Hollywood job as a “glorified production assistant,” on Fox’s series, True Colors. By the second season, she found her way to the writer’s seat as a writer’s assistant.
From there, a cascade of opportunities followed.
It was the 1990s. The NAACP and media outlets like Variety were doing deep reporting on the lack of diversity in the industry, including at Fox. “There were no Black executives at Fox and barely any in Hollywood in general,” Hutcherson confirms. In an effort to hire more diverse talent, a Senior Vice President at 20th Century Fox that Hutcherson was well acquainted with tapped her for a development role. Six and a half years into reading scripts and overseeing development and production, Hutcherson herself had earned the title of Vice President in the studio’s development department.
Despite advancing to what she describes as a “dream career” as a high-paid Hollywood executive, there remained a nagging feeling in the back of Hutcherson’s mind as she approached her 30th birthday.
Hutcherson’s first love was always writing. “I started writing because I love telling stories and I always gravitated toward them.” A history and literature major at Harvard, in the midst of taking film classes and the like, she found herself doing television roundup write-ups for The Crimson. Any opportunity she got, she would take, to write about music, television, and the arts. And after nearly seven years at Fox, she decided to bet on herself and find her way back to the writer’s seat.
She hasn’t looked back. “Since then, it’s been a typical writer’s life. Sometimes you’re on a show, and sometimes you’re not. It’s a roller coaster, but being a television writer is a role I enjoy deeply.”
Writer of Netflix's When They See Us, ABC's upcoming Mason-Dixon & Searchlight's Alvin Ailey biopic
By Carly Hillman AB '15
“Oh, I should re-read that,” Julian Breece AB ’03 whispers to himself as he scans his bookshelf and reads me his favorite titles, as if he were reminding himself to call an old friend to catch up. I’d asked him about his favorite books from college, and the final addition to the list is not a book, but an admission: “I could go on forever.”
His adoration is apt, because those books changed his life. Before he read them, he had a plan: he was going to be an academic. He would graduate from Harvard, get his masters, next his PhD, and then he’d become a professor. There were some questions of course (like whether he’d get a Rhodes Scholarship) but the general route was mapped. Then, he started the thesis writing process. “That was when I realized, ‘Oh, hell no. Academic writing is not for me,’” he remembers.
With the help of a few creative writing classes he’d taken, he started to realize that he didn’t want to just write about the authors he admired—he wanted to do what they did. He switched to writing a creative thesis, and esteemed novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid signed on as his advisor.
Breece followed the creative path out of Cambridge all the way to Hollywood. He’s now written for shows like The First, When They See Us, and First Wives Club. Currently, he’s writing a screenplay about Alvin Ailey, which Barry Jenkins is set to direct, and working on a TV show at ABC with Lee Daniels.
Becoming a creative was more of a homecoming than a pivot. Breece grew up acting in his hometown of Washington, DC. He describes himself as a theater kid, which, upon deeper questioning, is a humble depiction. He was an actual working actor who performed at The Kennedy Center and appeared on shows like Teen Summit. Ultimately, he quit acting (“I embraced the fact that I was an introvert”) but continued to chase what had drawn him to acting in the first place. “Acting was a way of communicating,” he says, “and I always had something to say.”
Executive Director and CEO, Entertainment Technology Center at USC
By Woojin Lim AB '22
Kenneth S. Williams AB '78 began our hour-long conversation with a flip-side marketing pitch on why film school students should consider returning to a virtual fall: having a firm grasp of collaborative software solutions and non-in-person digital tools could well-position a job-market candidate entering a world bestrewn with uncertainties such as the COVID-19 resurgence. “The old way of in-person work will soon be replaced by the new normal,” he says. “A lot of companies are not only looking for temporary work-arounds, but they’re trying to find permanent solutions to future-proof themselves.”
As the Executive Director of the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at USC, Williams shared his reams of first-hand observational knowledge on the colossal shifts in the film and entertainment industry. His work at the ETC, a collegial post he’s taken up for eight years, stands at the forefront of groundbreaking entertainment technologies. Bringing together major studios and tech companies, Williams has led research, projects, prototypes, and demonstrations in areas of immersive entertainment experiences, cloud-based remote production and post-production, AI, and machine-learning-driven applications for media and entertainment.
Vice-President, Current Programming at Warner Bros. Television
By Carly Hillman AB '15
Kelly Goode AB '83 was a teenager when she learned a secret about working in entertainment: “Hollywood work is not glamorous.” That realization came while she was fetching coffees as a Production Assistant for her father, who had transitioned from a career in education to directing commercials and public service spots.
“I watched him being a leader, but also being incredibly resourceful because he was working on lower-budget projects,” she recalls. “They weren’t huge productions.”
Now, Goode does work on huge productions—but that appreciation for hard work and resourcefulness has stayed with her. As Vice President of Current Programming at Warner Bros. Television, she acts as the liaison between the producers of a show and its network or streaming service. She hears season pitches, sees story areas, reads scripts, and, when a show is in production, looks at the dailies and rough cuts. “You’re in the trenches with everybody as a partner,” she shares with me.
SVP and GM, TV and Digital Media at MarketCast
By Simi Shah AB '19
Richard Cusick AB '92 is in the business of media. Over the course of his illustrious career spent with organizations like Yahoo, IAC, and MarketCast, he has dedicated years to building, shaping, and re-inventing companies.
But he wasn’t always in this business. Cusick's foray into media and technology began with a familiar crisis of faith in the wake of September 11, 2001. A banker for Lehman Brothers, Cusick worked a stone’s throw from the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks. As the world fell apart, Cusick fell back on an open question in his life: “doing what you feel like you should do versus what your gut tells you.” He decided to take the plunge.
CEO of PEN America, Author of Dare to Speak
By Carly Hillman AB '15
It was towards the end of my phone interview with Suzanne Nossel AB '91, JD '96 when I started to laugh at one of my own questions. I had jotted it down before we spoke, a standard interview line: “Who have you modeled your career after?” But now, after hearing in detail about the stepping-stones of her wide-ranging career, it was clear the question did not apply. Nossel’s path was unique, and she mapped it herself.
Here’s a summary of the route: She’s worked as a mediator of political violence in South Africa’s townships, a law clerk on the DC circuit, a consultant at McKinsey, Deputy to Richard Holbrooke while he was UN Ambassador, a Vice President at Bertelsmann, an Executive at Dow Jones, the COO of Human Rights Watch, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations at the State Department, the Executive Director of Amnesty International, and finally, now, as the CEO of PEN America and author of the upcoming book Dare to Speak. Rather than climbing the proverbial career ladder, Suzanne Nossel has been scaling a career mountain.