by Laura Frustaci
Melinda Hsu AB '92 was the showrunner of NANCY DREW as well as the showrunner/co-creator of TOM SWIFT. A lifelong genre geek, she started writing at age 8, when she authored a STAR TREK fan fiction novella series on a stack of spiral notebooks in her childhood bedroom in Bangor, Maine. Her TV credits include LOST, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, THE GIFTED, FALLING SKIES, STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS, MEDIUM, and one-hour pilots for Netflix, Quibi, NBC and Lifetime. For her work on LOST, she was nominated for an Emmy and a Writers’ Guild Award. She is an alum of the Warner Bros. TV Drama Writers' Workshop as well as an alum of and presenter for the WGA Showrunner Training Program. She mentors writers and producers through CAPE, helped found the Asian American Writers’ Brunch, and also serves on the Executive Board of the Sarah Jones Film Foundation, which fosters set safety through awareness and accountability.
Melinda Hsu AB '92 is a successful television writer, showrunner, activist, and now podcast host. But if you had asked her when she graduated college, she wouldn’t have been able to tell you she would end up in TV. “I didn’t know I wanted to go into television,” Melinda explains. “I wanted to be a novelist, and then I went to film school and thought I would be an indie filmmaker and write screenplays.” She arrived in LA post-grad and worked just about “every terrible day job that you can imagine,” she laughs. “I was a secretary. I was an office manager at an architecture firm. I was a musical theater pianist, which paid pennies. If it paid better, I probably would still be in musical theater.” But eventually, Melinda ended up applying for the Warner Bros. TV Drama Writers’ Workshop on a longshot with a LAW & ORDER spec script that was the first television content she’d ever written.
She was accepted, and during the program, Melinda was mentored by a writer named Natalie Chaidez (THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT, HEROES, and TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES). Natalie worked with Melinda on the script, pushing her to new heights. Melinda recalls fondly, “The thing that she wrote to me in her introductory letter, and I'd never heard anyone else say this yet in my life, was: ‘I want to see you succeed.’ And that made such an impact on me.”
After the workshop, Melinda began to get hired onto the TV writing staffs of a series of network shows and moved steadily up the ranks to showrunner. “I love being a showrunner,” Melinda notes. “But I also love to create a culture of kindness and inclusion and professionalism. And that is what I’m about.” This guiding energy is instrumental throughout all of Melinda’s work, both onscreen and behind the scenes. It’s evident from the stories she tells in the work she creates, as well as the upcoming projects she has on the horizon. It all stems from some of the formative experiences she had as a young writer.
Recently, Melinda was profiled in BURN IT DOWN, a book which unpacked the toxicity and dysfunction of Hollywood behind closed doors. She subsequently realized how common her negative experiences were for others across the industry. “[That book] was really important to say this was a reality for us, and these are the impacts that it had on us as people,” Melinda affirms. “And one of the things that came out of that for me was a management training seminar idea.”
Melinda is workshopping a management program to bring to writers’ rooms across LA that will provide writers with a framework for how to curate a kindness-driven, positive work environment that’s inclusive and nurturing for everyone. “People need to hold themselves to basic standards of how decent behavior operates in a workplace,” Melinda asserts. “I call the program, ‘It’s Not Rocket Science’.”
The structure of the program is a two-day workshop, in person, based on Melinda’s successful experiences at the helm of the writers rooms for both NANCY DREW and TOM SWIFT. “When you tell people that you’re excited about what they bring to the table, or that you’re all excited together about the thing you all love… they commit and they want to contribute, and they feel safe enough to say I need help with this, or I don’t have the answer right now.” This is what Melinda strives to do in her own work, and what she wants to bring across Hollywood. Her program will focus on equipping writers with conflict resolution skills, creating room norms, fostering communication, and implementing general team building as well as demonstrating how leaders can encourage a positive and empowering workplace environment.
“If a leader walks into a room and says, ‘I want you to treat each other with kindness and professionalism. Show me you can do that. That will please me,’ people would change. It's not rocket science!” Melinda declares. “And this brings me to my podcast, which I just started with Mosaic Management. It’s essentially conversations about changing the culture of Hollywood. But I believe it’s applicable across any industry or any group of people, because it comes down to setting an example. Starting with how important it is to look people in the eye and acknowledge that they did the thing that you asked them to do.” The Lead With Kindness podcast is launching in November, follow IG @leadwkindness for updates.
As is evident through her passion and her track record, Melinda believes that leadership is a teachable skill. And that’s what she aims to help people learn through this management program, as well as her podcast, and in her work with nonprofit organization Girls Inc.
Girls Inc. is working to dispel and counteract limiting stereotypes by lifting up young people who identify as female, trans, non-binary, or questioning. The organization provides mentorship opportunities, community-building events, and leadership skill development in underserved areas where young people may not normally have access to advocacy that encourages them (per the organization’s mission statement) to be “smart, strong and bold”.
“Smart is something that I grew up with as a daughter of immigrants… but strong and bold? We weren’t encouraged to be bold or strong.” The messaging Melinda received instead was “never ask for help, and make yourself as invisible as possible, and make yourself a second-class citizen, and be obedient. The list goes on and on,” she recollects.
“There are a lot of girls out there, and trans and non-binary and questioning youth, who have been told by somebody, whether it’s the culture or their parents, or somebody else in their family, or just somebody in their community, that they're supposed to be a certain way. They’re not allowed to be as bold as a man. They’re not supposed to be as strong as a man. They’re not supposed to be as smart as a man,” Melinda states. “How great to have this organization that says, ‘You shouldn't make yourself small. You should not accept that.’ That’s why I like Girls Inc.”
The organization is hosting its annual Los Angeles luncheon on November 8th, for which Melinda is on the planning committee. Tickets for the luncheon can still be purchased on the website, but there are countless other ways to get involved beyond attending the in-person lunch in LA. “If you’re somebody reading this, and you have a mentorship opportunity or shadowing opportunity in your profession for a young person who is working with Girls Inc, that's amazing,” Melinda encourages.
And Girls Inc. empowered Melinda in her own career as well, demonstrating that we all must continuously work to break down our own internalized misogyny. During the pandemic, Girls Inc. hosted a Zoom film festival, and Melinda directed one of the short films. “That was actually one of the things that gave me enough confidence to say, ‘I'm going to direct an episode of NANCY DREW in Season 4,’” Melinda recalls. “I was telling another female showrunner friend of mine, ‘Yeah, you know, I do want to direct at some point, but I guess I’ll just wait for when it seems like a good time,’ and she was like, ‘No, just put yourself on the roster now. A white, straight cisgender man would do that. Why wouldn’t you?’ And she was right.”
Melinda notes on an uplifting conclusion that in her work, her priority is to lead with kindness, validation, and trust: “I really feel like the best thing I can do as a leader is to tell somebody I trust their judgment. It empowers them to be brilliant and to do the thing that they are a professional at… and I find it empowering, you know, to admit that I don’t have all the answers.” Relying on others and creating communal creative experiences is Melinda’s specialty, and of course, it shines through in every avenue of her work.
Go to www.girlsinc.org to see how you can get involved!
----- Laura Frustaci (AB ’21) is an NYC-based actor and writer. She recently completed a yearlong Harvard Postgraduate Traveling fellowship in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she wrote her first full-length play. While at Harvard, Laura studied English and performed with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the HRDC, On Thin Ice, and the American Repertory Theater.