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Higher Ground Expands With Executive Hires: Priya Swaminathan Steps Down, Joe Paulsen Joins as Head of Business and Strategy

Higher Ground Team Photo, July 2021
Leigh Keily

Priya Swaminathan is stepping down from her role as co-head of film and television at Higher Ground, the media company founded by President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.

At the same time, the former president and First Lady announced several new additions to the company’s executive team, most notably hiring Joe Paulsen, an old Obama hand, as head of business and strategy.

Swaminathan, a former executive at Annapurna, was the first hire the Obamas made when they launched Higher Ground. She has helped grow the company since joining it in 2019, overseeing the rollout of the Oscar-winning documentary “American Factory” and the Oscar-nominated “Crip Camp.” The decision to leave the company was Swaminathan’s own and she remains a favorite of the Obamas, as evidenced by a glowing statement they released.

“We are so grateful to Priya for her tremendous impact at Higher Ground these past few years,” the Obamas said in a statement. “From her work on ‘American Factory’ and ‘Crip Camp’ to launching our kids and family programs ‘Waffles + Mochi,’ ‘We the People,’ and everything in between, her work has laid a remarkable foundation for the future of Higher Ground.”

With Swaminathan’s departure, Tonia Davis will continue as the company’s head of film and television.

Swaminathan said, “Working alongside Tonia and the Higher Ground team has been a life-changing experience. President and Mrs. Obama are inspiring leaders who push all of us to challenge the status quo, to be tenacious and empathic in everything we do, and to invest in the people we work with as much as the stories we have the privilege of telling. I am honored to have been a part of this family and can’t wait to see what stories they tell next.”

Paulsen is a trusted veteran of the Obama world, having served as special assistant to the president at the White House and deputy chief of staff. He has worked with the family since 2007, joining in the early days of Obama’s precedent-shattering presidential campaign.

In addition, Dan Fierman, former president of Epic Media, will lead the company’s podcast projects as head of audio and will be joined by creative director Anna Holmes. The two oversaw the launch of “The Michelle Obama Podcast,” which became the most listened to Spotify Original to date, as well as “Renegades: Born in the USA,” a series of conversations between President Obama and Bruce Springsteen, and the recently released “Tell Them, I Am,” a show that explores the lives of Muslims.

Mark R. Wright joins the team as vice president of film and television. He will concentrate on scripted feature films and will report to Davis.

Prior to his time at Epic, Fierman led news coverage at MTV and was the editorial director of the late lamented sports and pop culture site Grantland.

Holmes is an editor, writer and creative executive whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic and The New Yorker. She was also founder of Jezebel.com.

Prior to joining Higher Ground, Wright was an executive at Macro, where he developed and produced Juel Taylor’s directorial debut, “They Cloned Tyrone,” and worked on “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Tigertail” and “Raising Dion.”

Higher Ground’s recent films include the Netflix comedy “Fatherhood” with Kevin Hart, and the upcoming “Worth” starring Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci. The company is also producing “Rustin,” the story of gay, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington; “Exit West” based on Mohsin Hamid’s critically acclaimed novel; and “Satellite,” a science fiction film written by Ola Shokunbi.

Photo: From Left to Right: Joe Paulsen (Head of Business and Strategy), Ada Chiaghana (SVP, Film & TV), Mark R. Wright (VP, Film & TV), Kira Rakshit (Executive Assistant), Alex Pitz (Director of Development), Tonia Davis (Head, Film & TV), Janae Marable (Editorial Assistant), Dan Fierman (Head, Audio), Mukta Mohan (VP, Audio), Anna Holmes (Creative Director, Audio), Julian Mowatt (Operations Assistant), Not Pictured: Crystal Zhang (Executive Assistant)
Photo Credit: Leigh Keily