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Green-Lighting DiversityKelly Edwards ’85 Knows Where to Find Talent

There have been speeches, hashtags, and columns about the lack of diversity in Hollywood. From #Oscarssowhite to the call for more females in directors’ chairs, the public has been clamoring for more diversity in front of and behind the camera. As Vice President of Talent Development and Programming at HBO, Kelly Edwards’s goal is to bring lasting diversity to film and television.

That requires two things, says Edwards: executives expanding their contact lists and more people of color with green-lighting ability. For Edwards, that means bringing unknown but gifted executives, directors, writers, and more to the attention of her fellow HBO leaders.

“This is, and always will be, a town of ‘who you know.’ But if you don’t know many people when you go to staff up your series, crew up production, or hire an executive, your choices are limited,” says Edwards ’85. “I can guarantee you the people I put up for jobs are every bit as talented as the next guy, but they haven’t always had the same access. My job is to push the doors open to let them into the room.”

Edwards has found talent in many places—from film festivals to comedy clubs. At HBO, she’s spearheaded two programs that help groom tomorrow’s leaders in film and television. HBOAccess is one. It gives writers and directors a foot in the door, offering them opportunities to work on HBO-affiliated programs. They don’t work on the big hits—they aren’t directing episodes of Game of Thrones—but they typically work on new and original projects associated with HBO and Cinemax.

“The first people who came into the program were Ryan Coogler [the director of Creed, Fruitvale Station, and the upcoming Black Panther], and Nisha Ganatra, who ended up winning a Golden Globe for Transparent,” Edwards says.

The eight-month-long writing program received 4,000 applications in three days this year—there are only eight spots. Both the writing and directing tracks provide mentoring and education, along with the work, she says.

HBOAccess graduates are working on shows like Timeless, Life in Pieces, Fresh Off the Boat, and Jason Alexander’s upcoming series, Hit The Road. Others are creating independent films and documentaries premiering at film festivals and showing on HBO Go, HBO Now, and other outlets.

Edwards’s other initiative, HBO Salon Dinners, brings talent and executives together to break bread and toss back a few cocktails during the summer months, connecting HBO’s decision-makers with outside senior talent—editors, writers, directors, cinematographers, and others. The idea, she says, is that the guests have actual conversations, as opposed to perfunctory interviews.

“We keep things loose and fun,” Edwards says. “So far, the resulting meetings and hires have been great.”

When she first started in the entertainment business, no one was talking about diversity. Her first job in the industry was working as a story editor with a major casting company that worked on a lot of Brat Pack films. “Not many people of color walked through the doors,” Edwards says.

It wasn’t until she moved to Fox, and later UPN—which catered to more diverse audiences—that she began working with more varied casts and crews. In fact, during those years she helped produce breakout hits like Martin and Living Single.

Before getting the call from Fox, Edwards says she was ready to look into a new career because the nepotism in Hollywood left few jobs for those without contacts. She ended up at Fox through a diversity program.

“I think the untold story is just how successful the diversity programs are overall,” Edwards says. “Many of today’s show-runners got their start that way, but because writers and directors don’t announce that they were the ‘diversity hire,’ those successes don’t get widely reported.”

Kelly Edwards ’85 says the entertainment business has always been about “who you know,” which puts people of color and women at a disadvantage. Her job is to bridge the gap.

Edwards’s job at NBCUniversal was the first to put her in charge of increasing diversity. There, she was responsible for all of the company’s television groups. A few years before landing at NBC in 2007, the NAACP had threatened to boycott the four main television networks because there wasn’t a single lead character of color on their shows. Negotiations led to an understanding with the networks that they would increase their minority talent—both in front of and behind the camera—and each network was regularly and publicly graded on their progress.

At NBC, Edwards led a group under the auspices of Paula Williams Madison ’74—then Executive Vice President of Diversity for NBC—and was tasked with working with the executive producers of each show to increase diversity.

Edwards credits Madison with encouraging her to make creative decisions and to be bold in her advocacy of others—traits she continues to display today.

“You need that kind of fearlessness to do this job, and Paula was a great example of how to do it well,” she says.

In her nearly seven years at NBC, Edwards brought in a diverse pool of talent—especially executives—for NBC and its other networks: Oxygen, Bravo, and USA Network. By hiring these executives, Edwards says, a domino effect took place.

“Just look at who Issa Rae, Jill Soloway, and Ava Duvernay have hired. They don’t consider hiring a woman a risk. And people of color aren’t an afterthought,” she says.

In her role at HBO, Edwards’s previous experience has come in handy. She knows many talented individuals whom she can and has recommended for work on NBC’s shows.

Perhaps one of Edwards’s best assets when it comes to finding talented executives is her side project, Colour Entertainment, a networking group for executives of color in the industry that she co-founded in 2000. With more than 400 members in New York and Los Angeles, the group hosts gatherings, panel discussions, and training. Three times annually, they organize a dinner with the CEOs and presidents of studios and television networks.

One day, Edwards says, the people you see on film and television—as well as the staff behind the scenes—will reflect what you see in America. Until then, she says, she will continue to open doors.

“My hope is that I can continue to fight for others for as long and as loudly as I can, until the conversations change and diversity organically becomes the norm,” she says.