The key to success in our society is diversity and inclusion. On a broader scale beyond creativity, opening seats at the table for diverse leadership and workforces will give companies more thorough plans to change and continue company growth. Now that society is connected globally more than ever before, does it not make sense to directly apply a global viewpoint to your network? A lack of diversity and inclusion can hurt a company’s visibility and success long-term as a result.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Salim El Arja. As Executive Producer and Founding Partner of Couscous, Salim El Arja has overseen its evolution from a creative production company to a collective of top-tier directors and producers focused on infusing international cinematic storytelling perspectives into the advertising and music video industries. Bucking the traditional seniority structure in favor of treating his colleagues and directorial roster as equals, he chooses to foster a community of like-minded creatives with unique voices under a unified banner.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
My name is Salim El Arja and I’m a commercial and music video producer based in Los Angeles, CA. I was born and raised in Casablanca, Morocco. I grew up as a cinephile, hosting screenings for foreign indie films that weren’t distributed in Morocco, along with shooting my own. There has always been a need for me to gather and share stories, which pushed me to pursue my career and is why I moved to Los Angeles over a decade ago.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Not a book, but a manga for me. I discovered manga at a young age through Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama. There’s a sense of analog filmmaking in manga, which resonated deeply with me: how every shot is anchored in composition and framing, every dialogue bubble with a strong purpose. It has influenced the iconography in my work and my sense of visual storytelling, and I think it’s a big source of inspiration for the short-form content industry.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
It’s not really a quote, but the phrase “hamdullah,” which translates to “Thank God” in Arabic. It’s much more of a constant state of mind on being grateful for anything life throws at you. It’s a great way for me to go past certain events and keep my focus intact.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership, which is often seen as a vertical concept, is for me much more of a horizontal concept. It represents the glue that brings all elements together on a larger canvas. I apply this approach to my leadership style at Couscous, eschewing the hierarchy and thinking of my colleague and directors as collaborators working toward the same goals.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I recently started gardening. I water my plants every day, twice a day, in the morning and the evening. This routine has become almost meditative for me and helps me relieve stress as I gather my thoughts before and after a busy day.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I think that this has been a long time coming and has reared its head in many social movements throughout this nation’s history. Everything that’s happening right now, though difficult, will ultimately be good for this country. It’s growing pains on a national level and it needs to happen.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
I made a pledge under Couscous with CHANGE THE LENS, a great initiative started by my friend Rohan Blair-Mangat and other black filmmakers, including directors Calmatic, Savanah Leaf, and more.
CHANGE THE LENS is an initiative for production companies and ad agencies to pledge for a more diverse workplace for Black people across all company tiers, to match the percentage of Black people in US and London populations (which is 15%). Their endeavor also includes bringing in or consulting with roles like a Head of Inclusion and Diversity.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Understanding the backgrounds and stories of everyone on our team is important to me. We all have different stories that have shaped us into who we are today. Making sure there is a diverse array of individuals on our team is, I think, vital to fostering not only a creative, but a healthy and inclusive workplace.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Be ready for change and open your mind for flexibility. A company can’t change without periods of intentional self-reflection, and stubbornness or denial will directly impede this growth. Continuously monitor changing cultural climates — especially those you work within — and be prepared to acknowledge where your company can change for the better.
- Learn about other cultures and traditions. As I said, a multitude of viewpoints will directly inform a company’s capability to create. If everyone on the executive team is of one background, you miss the full scope of opportunity to reach more people with more compelling work.
- Educate yourself. Don’t assume at any point you know everything there is to know; you can be surest in life that you will never be sure of everything.
- Accept that you will mess up, but keep trying. Back to flexibility, part of making good change is accepting that you have made and will continue to make mistakes. Mistakes are part of learning; accept them and amend them for the future.
- The key to success in our society is diversity and inclusion. On a broader scale beyond creativity, opening seats at the table for diverse leadership and workforces will give companies more thorough plans to change and continue company growth. Now that society is connected globally more than ever before, does it not make sense to directly apply a global viewpoint to your network? A lack of diversity and inclusion can hurt a company’s visibility and success long-term as a result.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I believe that change for a more inclusive and diverse world is underway, but the road for the U.S. is still long and steep. We’re going through a civil revolution for a universally-just cause, but it’s being challenged by our leaders, which makes things that much more difficult.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
No one, there’s a global pandemic. In another life, Nipsey Hussle.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow us on IG @Couscous or view our films on couscous.tv.