For honorees Mindy Kaling and Giselle Fernandez, the 2013 Girls Inc. Los Angeles Celebration Luncheon was an exercise in knowing your audience.
While both women were being honored for their outstanding achievements (alongside NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment chairman Bonnie Hammer and Disney/ABC Television prexy Anne Sweeney), both Kaling and Fernandez were quick to acknowledge that they were far from the only success stories in the Beverly Hills Hotel ballroom. (Event chairs included Cheryl Saban, NBCUniversal president of entertainment Jennifer Salke and CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler; host committee members included Stephanie Savage, Molly Sims, Dawn Ostroff and Susan Rovner.)
In a room packed with industry muscle, Fernandez couldn’t pass up the opportunity to slip in a pitch. “I found a lot of mentors in literature,” she said, remembering being inspired as a young girl by extraordinary women such as Nellie Bly. “Like Beryl Markham in ‘West with the Night.’ For all the ladies here in Hollywood, she’d make a great movie.” Fernandez went on to drive the Girls Inc. message home in terms the Southland crowd would surely understand. Referring to Hispanic women: “There’s a 50 percent dropout rate,” she said. “When we do make it to college… less than 12 percent of us graduate from higher education and yet we’re the fastest growing emerging market in this nation.”
And when Kaling set out to deliver an empowering message to the young women in the room, she knew she had to make a disclaimer. “I want to say something to all the young people who are here — I realize that most of the people here are already incredibly successful so maybe this isn’t that useful — but don’t let people cast you as the side character in your relationship, in your job, in your life,” she said. “They might not see your potential. They might say things like, “That’s so cool that you’re part of the angry mob. Just be glad that you’re on stage. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad people. They just don’t know you like you know yourself.”
While this multihyphenate may be the only woman of color to create, write and star in a sitcom currently on the air, Kaling shared memories of being cast in school productions as beggars, vagrants, and members of the angry mob — marginalized characters who never got the chance to speak. (Sweeney later showed her solidarity by sharing that the one-time musical theater buff only played a flying monkey in “The Wizard of Oz” and a dancing Indian on the island of Lost Boys in “Peter Pan.”) “For many people in the world, I am a side character,” she said. “I’ve never been thin or pretty in a conventional way, or tall or white — as far as I can remember. And people have trouble looking past this. But fortunately for me, I’m the side character that has the sense of confidence and entitlement of a main character. “There’s no premium for a girl who looks like me,” she continued. “So I had to make room. Any role I’ve had I’ve had to make for myself. And people tell me ‘no’ more often than they tell me ‘yes.’ But I figured out that you only need one yes.”
Hammer and Sweeney also told tales of the trade, sharing some of the obstacles and triumphs they found along their way to top brass. Hammer drew parallels between the stories of bullying she’d heard from Girls Inc. scholars with the politics of the C-suites. And while the other speeches showed a keenness for the audience, Sweeney began her speech asking for the opposite. “Once upon a time,” she said, interrupted by a ballroom full of laughter. “Oh come on, you invite someone from Disney and you’re surprised at ‘once upon a time?'”
Girls Inc. started in New England during the Industrial Revolution and seeks to inspire all girls to be “strong, smart, and bold” through research-based educational programs and experiences.