May 2013 | Harvardwood Founders' Spotlight

Harvardwood Founders' Spotlight: Stacy Cohen '89, Adam Fratto '90, & Mia Riverton '99

By D. Dona Le '05

In terms of academic manpower and resources, Harvard students ordinarily want for nothing. But as recently as 15 years ago, before Harvardwood was founded, many students wondered how to best go about pursuing careers in the arts and the entertainment industry—more specifically, in Hollywood.

Founders.jpgOne of those students was Stacy Cohen '89, who concentrated in the History of Architecture and finagled the department into letting her write its first film-related thesis. While at Harvard, Cohen had no idea that Adam Fratto '90, just a year behind her, was interested in a similar career path in the moviemaking industry.

And even after Cohen and Fratto connected in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s and began hosting informal mixer events for Harvard alumni, it would be years before they were put in touch with Mia Riverton (AB ’99). Together, the three of them would combine their contacts and form Harvardwood.

Cohen entered college with the intention of becoming a veterinarian before discovering that the study of biology was pretty unappealing. However, she had "always passionately loved movies, watched them, consumed them. I would go through these completely obsessive periods of basically learning an entire genre or piece of the history of movies, and then it was director-based. I’d see all their movies and read all kinds of books about them, but it never occurred to me that I could do it too.”

Although Harvard’s VES department was certainly thriving in the 1980s, its faculty members were more interested in cinéma vérité than they were in Hollywood blockbusters. Without a clear-cut network to consult for advice or useful contacts, Cohen improvised.

Cohen’s older sister, also a Harvard alum, had given her the September-October 1987 issue of Harvard Magazine, which featured an article called "The Harvard Powers in Hollywood.” But Cohen had no way of getting in touch with those Harvard powers—there was no database, no Internet, no LinkedIn to facilitate her search.

So she moved to Los Angeles on her own and reached out to a Harvard peer who was working as an assistant for Edgar Scherick (AB ‘50). Cohen had a half-hour meeting with the contact, who told her "how to find my first assistant job and what it would be like. He described gassing up the car and picking up the dry-cleaning, and I said, ‘Great.’”

Soon thereafter, Cohen had her first job as a production assistant.

Back in Cambridge, Fratto, whose "earliest memories are watching ABBOT AND COSTELLO movies on a gnarly old black-and-white television with my dad,” concentrated in Social Studies and wrote his senior thesis about horror films.

"I couched it all in a lot of cultural theory and critical blah blah blah,” he quips. After graduating in 1990, he moved to New York to explore theater. He came with ample experience, having directed seven shows as a Harvard undergraduate.

After directing a Broadway show, Fratto spent a year living in China and then moved to Los Angeles for the University of Southern California’s MFA film program.

"There was so little networking among Harvard alums so I was out here knocking on doors and trying to break into the biz, talking to anybody who would open up the door. Stacy was kind enough to give me twenty minutes of her time.”

And this was how two-thirds of the Harvardwood triumvirate met—while Riverton was still attending high school in Indiana, although she’d already begun performing as an actress, singer, dancer, and instrumentalist.

During her first few years in LA, Cohen remembered the difficulty she’d experienced making contacts in Hollywood, so she reached out to Harvard’s Office of Career Services and offered to be a resource for current students. Cohen began making time for informational meetings with recent graduates who moved to Los Angeles looking to break into the entertainment industry. She also used the OCS as a way to find and hire reliable Harvard interns, whom she needed for her office-based development job at Disney.

Cohen’s pay-it-forward generosity, in combination with the proactive networking of students such as Fratto and Riverton, eventually led to the founding of Harvardwood.

"When I realized that I wanted to do something creative, the OCS basically said, ‘Sorry, you’ve got to figure it out on your own,’” laughs Riverton. Thanks to Cohen, by the time Riverton was a senior at Harvard, the OCS did keep a binder filled with handwritten contact information of Harvard alums working in Hollywood; Cohen was in that binder.

Once Cohen got to know enough Harvard grads in Hollywood, she organized a mixer for everyone in 1996, when Riverton was just entering Harvard as a freshman. Fratto stepped up to help Cohen organize subsequent events, and an informal version of Harvardwood came into existence.

"People were realizing there were a lot of Harvardians around in LA,” Cohen explains, "but no connective tissue between them at all. That’s when Adam and I started hearing about a newer graduate who also had a lot of friends from the later 1990s in Hollywood.”

"When I got to LA,” continues Riverton, "it was 1999 and email lists were just becoming mainstream. I wanted a way to keep in touch with everybody, so I listed a few dozen people who were classmates. Through word of mouth, that list grew, and then the three of us got in touch. I was delighted to find there was a huge network of Harvard people that I had simply not discovered yet in Hollywood.”

While a handful of other people were involved in the initial founding of Harvardwood, Fratto explains, "Of the group of people who would get together, there were three of us who actually pushed it forward. It went from these mixers to more outreach, as we started to do more ambitious events that set us on the long road toward becoming what Harvardwood has become now.”

What it is now is a worldwide network of Harvard students, alumni, faculty, and staff who are pursuing careers in the arts, media, and entertainment and are benefiting from each local chapter’s unique events and programs. Harvardwood was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in 2002, and since then, official chapters have sprung up in major U.S. cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago and in places as far as Toronto and London.

Perhaps what is most impressive about the trio of founders is their motivation, their willingness to spend the time, energy, and sheer hard work needed to foster Harvardwood, particularly in its early years.

"In the beginning, the first three to four years, it was a lot of work,” confides Riverton. "I probably spent 40 hours a week doing Harvardwood stuff; it basically constituted a full-time job, right when we were starting to incorporate.”

In the mid-2000s, Cohen, Fratto, and Riverton expanded the Board of Directors to distribute the workload and, just as importantly, to make sure Harvardwood would evolve from the interests and passions of its members, not just of the founders. Each Board Member was required to fulfill a specific function, and as the non-profit grew, the Founders decided to hire Kelley Nicole Purcell (AB ‘02), initially in a part-time role that has since become an (almost) full-time Executive Director position.

As of this year, the current president of Harvardwood is Allison Kiessling (EdM '05), a former Board Member who managed the Harvardwood Writing Program.

"It’s a big step for us to have someone who’s not a Founder step into the role of President,” says Riverton. "The hope is now that we’ve disentangled our ‘power bloc’, others can see themselves in that position and strive to reach that pinnacle of Harvardwood leadership.”

"Non-profits start on the basis of the passion and elbow grease of a few people, but if they’re going to survive, they have to become bigger than that,” says Fratto. "So I think that stepping back a bit is good—not just for us personally but also for the health and longevity of the organization.”

Given that Cohen, Fratto, and Riverton have separately established successful and demanding careers for themselves, one might have expected them to assume more backseat roles in Harvardwood’s management sooner. All three were already working in the entertainment industry when they founded the organization, which was not crucial to furthering their careers.

But this willingness to cultivate a network that helps fellow alumni in Hollywood stems from the challenges they encountered as Harvard undergraduates, as well as from the helpful opportunities they were given.

For instance, Cohen credits Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. for enabling her career as an executive producer, and she met him through a fellow Harvard alum, John Manulis (AB ’78), who was working for Goldwyn in the mid-1990s.

"I wrote [John Manulis] a letter and said, ‘I’m a Harvard grad and I would appreciate if I could get help with my career.' Goldwyn agreed to it and at the meeting, he was so funny and nice and accommodating,” recalls Cohen. "He was encouraging and gave me lots of advice about how to get onto the track that I was interested in. Within five minutes of meeting me, he’d picked up the phone and called someone who needed an assistant at Disney. That’s how I got my first job.”

That experience in part inspired Cohen to do the same for other Harvard alumni who trekked to Los Angeles "because it’s so easy to help and when you’re not plugged in, you don’t know about any jobs; it’s very insular.”

Mia agrees. "It can be a very difficult industry to crack because it’s so relationship-based.”

Thanks to Harvardwood, alumni in Los Angeles and beyond have made invaluable professional and personal connections.

"There have been many instances of members collaborating and finding really fruitful business opportunities through their affiliation with Harvard,” says Fratto.

On a more personal note, Riverton met her husband—David Alpert (AB ‘97)—when his company Circle of Confusion approached Harvardwood about establishing the Writers’ Competition seven years ago. Today, they are co-producing a feature film written by a winner of that competition, directed by another Harvard graduate, and financed by Harvard alumni.

But Riverton didn’t always expect to remain so intertwined with Harvard College.

Noting that Harvard has historically churned out numerous graduates who become investment bankers, doctors, and lawyers, Mia initially envisioned a career in finance and thus chose Economics as her concentration. Thanks to her Advanced Standing status, she graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa one year early.

However, "Getting involved in the arts at Harvard changed my mind and shaped what my goals eventually became,” she explains. Given the challenges of Hollywood networking, "I did not think Harvard would have any relevance in my post-college life except for the friends that I made there.”

For many Harvardwood members who might share that sentiment, the opposite has turned out to be the case. Part of the organization’s success is due to its ability to draw upon the invaluable Harvard network while also establishing a separate identity from the university. Although Harvardwood was one of the first Shared Interest Groups (SIGs) recognized by the Harvard Alumni Association, it was founded outside of that alumni umbrella and with a well-defined, independent mission.

According to Fratto, "We don’t have an agenda other than helping alums and doing cool stuff. There’s no financial motive, there’s no back door trying to drum up support for Harvard in general. I’m personally very excited about our efforts to really encourage visual arts, performing arts, journalism—all of those things that are sister fields and are part of our core mission.”

He does acknowledge that Harvardwood may be perceived by non-members as a program for "over-advantaged kids helping over-advantaged kids become even more advantaged,” although that could describe a broad perception of the university in general. Even Harvard alums themselves may be reticent to seek connections to the College after graduation, but Harvardwood has positively impacted alumni relations.

"It’s really led to a lot of people having a different perception and relationship with the university in general,” Fratto says. "They realize the value, camaraderie, networking, and standards that being an alum brings.”

Cohen is quick to point out that other universities such as USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Northwestern provide supportive networks for their alumni in the entertainment industry as well. The founders have in fact assisted such universities in starting organizations similar to Harvardwood, volunteering their time and offering insight gained from their own experiences.

"We’ve become a model for university alums in general of how to do this kind of thing. When they look at best practices, they seem to point to us, which is nice,” adds Fratto.

To Cohen, Harvardwood stands out because "we’ve taken it so many levels beyond networking with all of the different programs to professionally develop people and also to contribute in other ways.”

In fact, Cohen is currently the Director of Harvardwood Helps, established in 2010 to encourage and enable members to raise awareness of meaningful community service projects. More recently, Harvardwood has taken further steps to demonstrate its commitment to bettering the community, reflecting the direction it will take in the second decade of its existence.

"Part of what we’re doing is activating this amazing community, this resource, to provide the members with opportunities and resources to enact positive social change,” says Riverton, "basically to make the world a better place through the arts.”

To that end, Harvardwood will soon offer financial support to members working on significant community projects through the Harvardwood Heroes grant program. Four $500 grants will be awarded to winning proposals submitted by current Full Members; the deadline to apply for Harvardwood Heroes is June 1.

Harvardwood Heroes is only one of many valuable programs offered by the non-profit, and as local chapters continue to spring up, members can avail themselves of an increasingly global network, exclusive job opportunities, and professional development groups. What started with the founders’ desire to connect with like-minded Harvard graduates and to help future generations of students pursue their artistic talents and passions has blossomed into a full-fledged organization that boasts over 5,000 members.

As Cohen, Fratto, and Riverton take a step back to watch their organization flourish with the talents of its members, now is a particularly good time to acknowledge and thank the original Harvardwood heroes. Through their dedication, vision, and love of the arts, they’ve created a nurturing environment for and given voice to those Harvard graduates who may not necessarily become i-bankers, doctors, and lawyers, but artists and dreamers instead.

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