Q&A with Harvardwood Leaders: Reflecting on 20 Years

This year's celebration of Commencement and Reunions in Cambridge is extra special because it's also Harvardwood's 20th birthday! We recently caught up with Mia Riverton Alpert AB '99 and Adam Fratto AB '90, two of Harvardwood's three founders, and President Allison Kiessling EdM '05. They shared their thoughts on Harvardwood, then and now—and twenty more years into the future! 

everyone___joey_and_dona.jpg2018 Holiday Party, L to R: Adam Fratto, Mia Riverton Alpert, Joey Siara (Board member),
Dona Le (Executive Director), Stacy Cohen (Co-Founder), and Allison Kiessling 

Q. You have all remained deeply involved with Harvardwood! What are the most exciting or standout changes you've seen the organization undergo in the last two decades?

Mia: I am most excited about our evolution into an organization that works toward positive changes in our industry and our society—by providing resources to bolster the talents of our wonderfully diverse membership, by using our network and platform to amplify traditionally underrepresented voices, and by engaging in programs designed to support people who are making a difference in communities in need.

Adam: The hiring of paid staff has made a massive difference.

AllisonI came in through the Writers Program, so it is really moving to me to see all the new writers come through and the motivated, amazing volunteers that have taken on each successive iteration of the program. It’s very difficult for an organization to not get entrenched in its own ways, but our volunteers have kept the program nimble—it keeps evolving and getting better every year. 

Q. Does Harvardwood today match the vision you had for the organization's future when you founded it 20 years ago? 

Adam: No. It is way bigger, better, cooler and smarter than I ever imagined.

Mia: To be honest, I did not have a grand vision for the future of Harvardwood 20 years ago. There were two primary goals in the early days—to connect our alumni arts, media and entertainment community, and to better educate students about potential career paths in those fields. At the time of my graduation, a lot of peers were defaulting into jobs in consulting and investment banking because those were the companies proactively recruiting on campus—not that there’s anything wrong with those career paths, but I felt students should at least have greater access to “alternative” resources so they could make more informed decisions. Twenty years on, Harvardwood has definitely exceeded my expectations in those two areas (though we are always aiming higher!), and I’m also delighted that our mission has expanded to include utilizing the arts, media and entertainment as forces for social change.

Q. From your perspective, what is the greatest challenge Harvardwood has faced or is currently facing? Thoughts on how to overcome this challenge, if it's ongoing?

Adam: We need increased funding to improve our programs and better serve our members.

mia_andrea.jpegMia: Agreed. Fundraising has been and probably always will be our greatest challenge. We started as an all-volunteer organization and recently brought on our second part-time staff member, who focuses on development (Andrea Schmitt, pictured to the right)—we have low overhead, but we’d love to provide even more programming, online resources, fellowships, financial assistance, and community service projects. As we are the “go-to” resource for Harvard students and alums interested in arts, media, and entertainment careers, we’re always trying to dispel the notion that we get funding from Harvard University or the HAA (we do not)!

Q. What Harvardwood achievement are you proudest of? 

bowmans___mia_adam.jpgAdamHow many members we have worldwide.

Allison: I am really proud of the writers whose careers we have helped launch. For a lot of writers, it takes years and years of sticking with it to break through. I think we have helped bring some very exciting new voices into television and film, and I love seeing their careers grow. 

Q. What do you value most about the Harvardwood community? 

AdamIt has become a great source of mutual support for folks in the greater Harvard family.

Allison: Yes! I value the camaraderie and support. There can be a lot of flaky people in the entertainment and arts, but people in the Harvardwood programs and the volunteers just keep showing up and doing what they say they’re going to do. That kind of energy is really inspiring to be around—it really helps you stay focused on your own goals and want to be there to help others with theirs. 

Q. What's your funniest or most-fun memory from Harvardwood?

allison_mia.jpegAllison: When we first decided to have a mock “pitch” night for the TV writers program, I invited a bunch of really talented, high-level writers and execs to come hear the pitches—and they said, “yes”—I was so excited and I really wanted the writers to get the most out of the event. So I gave all the modules what I *thought* was an inspiring, motivational spiel about the event, pitching and how special our guests were—because I wanted them to get excited and really work hard on their pitches. But on the night of the event, only about a third of the writers from the program showed up. And later, I discovered it was because I had terrified everyone with my “inspirational” spiel. They were so afraid of screwing up in front of the guests and not having a mind-blowing pitch that they didn’t come at all. I took a different approach the next year :). 

Mia: I fondly remember driving a van full of Harvardwood 101 students all over LA the first year that we launched that program (2003). We wisely decided to hire a bus and driver for subsequent years. Our inaugural cohort was an incredibly talented group that included Cort Cass, Helen Estabrook, Grainne Godfree, and Michelle Kung, among others.  In addition to all the professional events, we had a fun night out at a karaoke bar as well—I’m pretty sure Cort and I sang a Madonna duet (thankfully those pre-iPhone photos have been lost to the ages).

Adam: I'd have to say... hilarious strategic meetings with the Harvardwood founding team over Chinese food. 

Q. What do you hope to see Harvardwood achieve 20 years from today?

AdamA clubhouse! But let’s not wait 20 years...

AllisonI love all the community service and community-minded work we’ve been doing [spearheaded by Co-Founder and Harvardwood Helps director Stacy Cohen AB '89]. I am excited to have that grow and find more points where it intersects with people working on their art and working to get their careers launched.

Mia: I would like to see a multidisciplinary fellowship program for recent grads to support their work, with a focus on promoting underrepresented voices.  I’d also love to see even more involvement from folks in the visual arts, dance, theater, journalism and other non-film/TV disciplines. 

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