Filmmaker Sandra Sheppard: “Why It’s So Important To Find a Mentor”

Find a mentor. Having benefited from some amazing mentors, I’m committed to mentoring a younger generation. We have a robust internship program and work with talented students who might be interested in research, educational media, animation, production and more. I meet with them often to provide input and advice. Honestly, these bright and energized students […]

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Find a mentor. Having benefited from some amazing mentors, I’m committed to mentoring a younger generation. We have a robust internship program and work with talented students who might be interested in research, educational media, animation, production and more. I meet with them often to provide input and advice. Honestly, these bright and energized students are filled with innovative ideas — they teach me a lot!

I had the pleasure to interview Sandra Sheppard, Director and Executive Producer of Kids’ Media and Education at THIRTEEN. An Emmy award-winning producer and media executive with over twenty years in public television, Ms. Sheppard is spearheading THIRTEEN’s growth in children’s and educational media through original broadcast and digital content, educational resources, and strategic partnerships.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Sandra! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I’m a native New Yorker who grew up in a loving family and had a wonderful network of friends. My father was an engineer and my mother taught at an independent school. She actually taught me high school mathematics which, thankfully, was a subject I relished. I like to think of myself as a non-nerdy student — I loved to learn, was an avid reader and student artist, and pushed myself to excel. As a family, we were travel “adventurers,” spending many summers visiting friends overseas and soaking up nature and culture. My mother taught me three life lessons that guide me daily: be independent, stay positive and give back to others.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I graduated from Duke University with a degree in economics and fine arts, I did not expect to end up in public television. But, an internship in my early 20s and a fantastic female mentor paved the way for my career as an executive producer. Producing is a highly creative and collaborative process, and at THIRTEEN, we’re committed to providing our audiences with quality storytelling that entertains and enlightens.

Early on, I travelled the country producing educational documentaries and observing diverse children’s approaches to learning and media. As a mother of young children, I also understood firsthand the power of public media to educate. So, I formed a new children’s media unit at the station. Our mission is simple: Create educational video and digital gaming content that opens minds, ignites curiosity, and treats children as young citizens of the world.

Over the past decade, I’ve been lucky to work with talented educators, writers, directors, animators, and actors on iconic and popular PBS KIDS series including Cyberchase (math and problem solving), Angelina Ballerina: The Next Steps (music and dance), Thomas & Friends (friendship and teamwork), Oh Noah! (Spanish language learning) and many more. I’m currently working with a book author and illustrator on a delightful new preschool project that celebrates growing up with comedic and heartwarming storytelling.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I created the popular PBS KIDS series Cyberchase more than a decade ago, and it is nowone of the most influential math media projects for young children. In every episode of this Emmy Award-wining series, three curious kids enter cyberspace, are challenged by a dastardly villain and use math and problem solving to save the day. Our villain is voiced by the brilliant Christopher Lloyd, and Digit, the lovable cyber-bird, is voiced by the comedian Gilbert Gottfried. In addition to the television series, kids learn through interactive math games and mobile apps, and outreach that brings hand-on math to diverse communities nationwide. And importantly, more than 30 research studies have shown that Cyberchase improves children’s knowledge, skills, and attitudes about problem solving and math.

For me, the most interesting and gratifying stories are from viewers who share how they’ve been impacted by our projects — like a young entrepreneur who credits Cyberchase for inspiring his successful energy start-up, and a young woman who learned to love math by watching our shows and went on to pursue engineering.

In recent years, we’ve expanded Cyberchase to address the growing need for environmental education.This unique dual focus taps into children’s love of nature and their concern for the planet and offers new opportunities to showcase math as a real-world tool. Many viewers tell us about how Cyberchase influenced their childhood, their pursuit of STEM degrees and even careers. One young man credited the series for his work at an energy startup.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on, I was working with Gilbert Gottfried to deliver a stand-up performance at a big PBS meeting with 1,000 plus executives in the room. I tried — many different times — to ask Gilbert to do a run-though so I could ensure the comedy would work for the room. Well, like most comedians, Gilbert didn’t need (or want) to do a run-through. When we went on stage, he made fun of our station president (at that time), the mediocre breakfast and our pledge fundraising programming. I was on eggshells, but he turned out to be a huge hit.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

We are committed to bringing the power of media into the classroom.

With the rapidly changing media environment, we’re continually innovating to meet the needs of young learners. That’s why I’m so excited about our slate of interactive gaming projects such as Mission US. Winner of the “Games for Change for Most Significant Impact” award, Mission US is a free series of online role-playing games that immerses young people in the drama of our past and addresses a pressing need to improve young people’s understanding of US history. Mission US takes students from the Revolutionary War to Westward Expansion to the Dust Bowl, and beyond. Mission US has become the largest online history education platform for middle school students, with 2.7 million registered users in all 50 states. We’re currently in development on two new missions exploring Japanese internment during WWII and the Civil Rights movement. We’re also currently developing Time Snap, a virtual reality spinoff for high school students that will launch in 2020.

Beyond our work in classrooms and on the screen, I’m very excited about the direct service work my team provides to the community. Every year, we offer early learning workshops for 2,000+ NYC parents and educators about best practices for using media. Currently, the team is working in the South Bronx with partner organizations, including a settlement house, library, homeless shelter and museum, to provide parenting and afterschool science and literacy programming. And finally, our Parenting Minutes digital series — available in multiple languages — offers parents helpful tips and information about early childhood development, health, education, and raising kids.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • Be independent. Although producing is a collaborative business, every project needs a leader to ensure the creative vision is met. One former boss tried to convince me to develop a new series as “scripted live-action,” when I knew animation was the better choice. I respectfully disagreed and ultimately helped her see that my decision would be the best creative approach.
  • Take smart risks. Innovation requires risk taking. Several years ago, I expanded my team’s portfolio to include interactive learning games. Although the team did not have these skill sets, they were excited — and a bit daunted — to develop them. The risk was well worth it since THIRTEEN’s learning games are used by millions of children nationwide to enhance their problem solving, perspective-taking, STEM skills and more.
  • Find a mentor. Having benefited from some amazing mentors, I’m committed to mentoring a younger generation. We have a robust internship program and work with talented students who might be interested in research, educational media, animation, production and more. I meet with them often to provide input and advice. Honestly, these bright and energized students are filled with innovative ideas — they teach me a lot!
  • Accept rejection and move on. In a creative business, you pitch a lot of new programming ideas to executives. Along the way, there will some rejections. Try not to take it personally and move quickly on to creating the next great idea!
  • Listen to your audience. We work with researchers to test our early media concepts with children, parents and teachers. If they tell us that a character is not identifiable or a storyline is confusing, we make changes. And we evaluate our final products to make to make sure our media is meeting its learning outcomes.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not burnout

I have a few tips that help me avoid burnout:

  • Build a team of colleagues who are smart, trustworthy and likeable
  • Be strategic about expanding your professional skills
  • Continually seek new and diverse talent
  • Balance idealism with pragmatism
  • And finally, family is always my priority.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of goods to the most amount of people what would that be?

An estimated 130 million girls worldwide remain out of school and face incredible barriers to education. We must fight harder for gender equality to ensure all girls— and of course, all boys- have access to equal education opportunities. I am a great admirer of Malala who advocates every day for young women to achieve these universal rights.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are many women who have mentored me, and I value them all. However, Tammy Robinson, a former VP of national programming stands out. She was encouraging, fair, transparent and went out of her way to find opportunities to help her producers grow professionally. Early on, she asked me to work with Mel Stuart, an independent director (who also directed Willy Wonka) on a POV documentary, The Hobart Shakespeareans. This riveting film told the story of an inspirational inner-city Los Angeles school teacher who transformed the lives of 5th graders by teaching them Shakespeare. The project was both rewarding and challenging, and Tammy knew it would teach me a great deal about creative vision. She was right.

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