Universal Studio Group Head Pearlena Igbokwe on the Importance of Diverse Leadership

Pearlena Igbokwe Reflects on 2020
Dan Doperalski for Variety

To make sense of all that has transpired in 2020 and what it portends for the media and entertainment sectors going forward, Variety spoke with a cross section of industry leaders about the broad theme of change. For more, click here.

In the midst of challenges, chaos and disruption, it’s leadership that makes the difference. What we’ve learned from 2020, with all of its challenges, is that leadership will be the key to driving success for companies in transition.

Leadership is not just being someone’s boss. Leadership is getting people through difficult times and getting people in an organization to move together toward the same target. Leaders who can inspire others to sit up and say, “OK, we’re doing this” through all of this change — those are the companies that are going to come out ahead in the future.

When we shut down our shows in March, I remember spending a day calling 30 or 35 producers and telling them that we had to stop production because it was the safest thing to do. I was telling everyone, “We’ll evaluate in two weeks,” and at that time I did think we might be back in two weeks.

Once we got into late March and April, we obviously knew we were not going back soon. As people who worked on our shows — our actors, our producers, our crew members — were getting positive diagnoses for COVID-19, seeing how our company responded made me feel like I’m working for the right company. It was “What can we do, and how can we help?” I know that there’s often a feeling out there that corporations are cold and unfeeling. At that time I did not feel like I worked for a cold and unfeeling corporation.

I am now blown away by the fact that we’re back to shooting 31 shows. We haven’t pulled back on our plans for 2021. Production is harder and slower. But so far we have met the challenge. I’ve been blown away by what our whole industry has been able to do. In some cases, our shows may not be able to do 22 episodes as we would like, but to even be able to get 16 episodes in a pandemic is pretty good.

Our industry has seen other big changes this year. The executive ranks at networks, studios and streamers is steadily reflecting more of the diversity of the global audience they serve.

Nobody in this business makes those kinds of decisions cavalierly. No one is getting a job just because someone thinks, “I should have a Black or brown face in that position.” People are getting jobs that they’ve earned via their track record. But perhaps at another time, when we weren’t having a conversation about inequities in our business, more of those people would have been overlooked. A lot of us have been more than ready for a long time but didn’t get the opportunity while we watched other people become more successful earlier in their careers. Now that people of color can look at this business and see people who look like them in these top jobs, it’s possible that they’re no longer going to be as trepidatious about getting into the business.

This moment and this conversation have changed our industry. We can see that it can be a much more diverse industry and that it doesn’t collapse! For the people who now see me sitting here and Channing Dungey taking over Warner Bros. TV and others getting great opportunities — I can only imagine what the next 20 years will bring from the people who are inspired now.

We need more support systems and role models for people of color to aspire to. We who are in these jobs have to work to help that next group do better — even if it’s just a phone call to say, “How are you?” or “I believe in you.” This has to be important to all of us.

As told to Cynthia Littleton