Jodi Delaney of the Television Academy Foundation: “Follow what lights you up, be as fearless as you can be and never look back”

Follow what lights you up, be as fearless as you can be and never look back. We have an unknown number of years and they do go by quickly. As part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jodi Delaney, Executive Director of the Television Academy Foundation. The […]

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Follow what lights you up, be as fearless as you can be and never look back. We have an unknown number of years and they do go by quickly.

As part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jodi Delaney, Executive Director of the Television Academy Foundation. The Foundation is the charitable arm of the Television Academy dedicated to promoting and expanding inclusion and diversity within the television industry. Through its signature Internship Program and College Television Awards, the Foundation provides educational and professional development programs for students with diverse backgrounds. Delaney oversees the Foundation’s daily operations and provides strategic leadership for its initiatives to fulfill the organization’s mission to identify, advance and empower future television leaders.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background?

My bags were already packed the day I graduated from the University of Minnesota in my hometown of Minneapolis. I flew to New York City the next day with my brand new briefcase and fresh resume, for a weeklong adventure that turned into a journey of almost 20 years. NYC was and still is a heart place for me: I built my career there starting as a fundraiser in the art/dance/music community and moved into television just a few years later. I’ve had a very blessed career and am so grateful to have come of age in the most exciting city in the world.

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

While I started in the nonprofit arts community, my sights were always on television. I slept on friend’s couches for the first few years and just kept working and networking until I became a producer and writer. Somehow, I survived my first job as a PA on a music video — a dismal failure! Luckily a producer saw that I was good at organizing people and things and I moved up quickly. I eventually found my place in nonfiction storytelling and landed in news anchor Peter Jennings’ documentary unit, where I learned how to tell personal stories in a compelling way, working with many of the legends of ABC News. When my kids were little I shifted careers after a move to Santa Fe — another heart place — where I got to stretch my professional wings working on what were definitely the coolest jobs I could ever have found in state government: in both cultural affairs and economic development. It was in New Mexico that I learned how to practice and advance diversity in its truest sense, which is about creating an ecosystem of inclusion and training and opportunity.

We are very interested in looking at diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture and our youth growing up today?

There are countless reasons why diversity in film and television is important. You can be what you can see, and television can show us what’s possible through representation. The social impact of media cannot be denied, and authentic portrayals of people with disabilities, people of color, and the beautiful array of all of humanity is powerful beyond measure. All stories deserve to be told, and we need to hear them.

Tell us about the programs the Television Academy Foundation provides to help increase inclusivity within the industry.

I’m so proud of my team at the Television Academy Foundation and the generous board members who have led the way with great energy and expertise. For many years we’ve made diversity and inclusion a distinct priority, with a focus on creating points of access to the entertainment community for those who wouldn’t normally have it. We have a renowned Summer Internship Program that’s run by a team of dedicated professionals who connect young people with industry leaders in a meaningful way; this program has now added opportunities for transition-age foster youth and students from partner pipeline programs in Los Angeles, in addition to a special opportunity for young people who want to explore careers in unscripted television. We also host the College Television Awards and Summit and an annual conference for media faculty across the country. In addition, we produce an astonishing online archive, The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, featuring interviews with television legends which is in a new phase of growth and transition. We are hell-bent on making sure that our programs are inclusive and impactful, as well as true points of connection to what’s happening in television today.

How has the pandemic affected these programs?

We’ve had to pivot everything, just like everyone else. My team and I have found many silver linings and to be honest, so many opportunities revealed themselves to us in ways that we could never have anticipated. For instance, with help from the Irvine Foundation we were able to implement a robust new platform for our alumni to really connect for the first time, and we saw our ability to reach even more students and teachers across the country with the use of technology. In 2021, even though we won’t be able to have a College Television Awards competition since many students’ films were postponed due to the pandemic, we created something new, opening up an affiliated online College Summit to students nationwide in May, which is something that would probably never have happened if we weren’t forced to become very light on our feet and take advantage of the opportunity to be as creative as we could be. Apple TV+ came on as a presenting sponsor, and now our reach with this program will continue to grow and serve more and more students all over the country. The Loreen Arbus Foundation, Johnny Carson Foundation, STARZ, KIA Motors, Warner Media and so many incredible partners continue to encourage us along the way and elevate our programming, and it’s incredible how our supporters have been able to stick with us even during a worldwide pandemic. So I’m filled with gratitude. Truth be told, a lot of what we’ve learned in 2020–21 is going to stick, and that’s a good thing.

We understand a new diversity internship program was launched this year, please tell us more about that.

The Diversity and Inclusion Internship Program originated in the hearts of its founding donors: the legendary Jon Murray of Bunim/Murray Productions, Cris Abrego, President and CEO of Endemol Shine Holdings and Banijay’s Chair of the Americas (and the new Chair of the Television Academy Foundation’s Board of Directors), in addition to Stephanie and Rasha Drachkovitch of 44 Blue Productions and Jim Berger of High Noon Entertainment. Thanks to their generosity we’ve now created an endowment that will support diversity in the unscripted television space in perpetuity, starting with five special internships per year for students to learn from professionals at these renowned production companies. I can’t overstate how much their leadership has meant to the creation of this program, along with my longtime development lead Karla Pita Loor, who is also fiercely dedicated to social justice and inclusion in entertainment. Our first two pilot cohorts were very successful, and we’ll be opening applications for the next round on April 7, 2021.

What drives you to get up every day and work in this field? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward?

I get my energy from the students we serve, the stories they tell, and the promise of all that we are creating together to make the world a better place. The depth of their talent, and the excellence that is promoted by the Academy as well, inspire me to find ways to help amplify their voices and make sure everyone’s story gets to be told. This is the change I am passionate about: finding ways to learn about, fully understand and dismantle the systemic racism, sexism, ableism, ageism and homophobia that plague our institutions. When artists and storytellers express themselves freely, positive change follows.

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

One of the most exciting projects we have going now is the preservation and re-vision of our Interviews program, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2022. This archive of oral history-style interviews is now over 900 strong, and we continue to raise money for a Preservation Fund to assist a new partnership with the USC Digital Repository that will assure that these stories remain accessible for the next hundred years and beyond. At the same time, we’re forming a working group of industry professionals to advance the archive in terms of diversity and technology, which is a grand opportunity to both expand the archive’s reach and its potential to educate both students and fans about the history of television.

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

Where to begin? I’ve been lucky to lead so many projects over the years that have fed my soul and touched the lives of others. I’ve interviewed military veterans and civil rights leaders and movie stars; I’ve attended feast days at Native American pueblos and flown in hot air balloons; I’ve worked with compassionate educators and anti-poverty activists, environmental warriors and barrier-breaking artists who have moved me to my core. And now I get to attend the Emmys! As a kid I never had a clear picture of what I wanted to be, and now I’ve traveled the world, made incredible friends and worked with accomplished colleagues in all kinds of disciplines. It’s all been interesting and exhilarating and humbling.

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?

One of the worst on-camera interviews I ever did as a young producer at ABC News was with a famous astronaut who will go unnamed, which resulted in my whole crew having to shut down what was a very expensive location at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, and for which we’d prepared for weeks. It went off the rails quickly and I just couldn’t get it back on track. I thought for sure that I’d be fired on the spot, but my boss at the time wanted to give me a chance and ended up flying all of us from NYC to the subject’s home in California just a few weeks later to give it another try. In the end it was a mediocre interview instead of a terrible interview, but we got the job done. It was a humbling moment for me and a lesson about control: sometimes you can be very prepared and the result won’t be all that you dreamed. And then you move on to the next with humility and hope.

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 today? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve had some wonderful mentors so it’s difficult to share just one. I think I learned the most from the man who was the Board Chair of my nonprofit in New Mexico: he was a Republican who sometimes voted for Democrats, an oil man who also owned a wind farm, and an attorney with impeccable integrity and sound judgement. Whenever there was a gray area the organization had to consider, he erred on the side of what was right every time, and taught me how to keep my wits about me when faced with tough decisions. His calm demeanor at every turn taught me to take the time to always be thoughtful about the next move. I’m grateful to him every day for showing me how this can be done.

(left to right) Delaney with David Ambroz, Executive Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Disney, participated in the Foundation’s public event The Power of TV: Trans Visibility in Storytelling, at the Television Academy’s Saban Media Center in North Hollywood, CA, in 2019. (Photo courtesy Phil Mccarten/Invision for Television Academy/AP Images)

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

Don’t be afraid. You are worthy of having all that you dream. Believe that this is so. It’s true.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”?

I wish someone had told me:

  1. Follow what lights you up, be as fearless as you can be and never look back. We have an unknown number of years and they do go by quickly.
  2. Your way is not the only way: stay open and see what’s revealed to you. There are so many possibilities beyond your own imagination.
  3. Children know everything about what makes a great day and can remind you when you forget. My children, stepchildren and now grandchildren have taught me so much and continue to do so.
  4. You will fail and break in many ways and for many reasons, and you will survive.
  5. Save your money and buy stock as early as possible in Apple, Amazon, Google and Tesla. Having a crystal ball about these things would be something, wouldn’t it?

Can you share with our readers any self-care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.

I hike and dance on a regular basis, and bike and swim whenever I can. I began a yoga practice over 15 years ago and got my certification to teach four different kinds of meditation during the pandemic. I teach an online session every Sunday morning and have been able to help a handful of new private clients use meditation techniques to alleviate stress reactions and headaches. This has been really satisfying and actually contributes to my own wellness! I’m passionate about de-mystifying meditation for those who think they can’t do it because they can’t sit still or “clear” their minds. It’s not actually possible to clear your mind: We have upwards of 6,000 thoughts per day with more than 80% of those recycled from the day before. The bottom line is that meditation calms your nervous system, which with regular practice results in changes to the brain that bring about a meaningful difference in your response to stress. It’s been a godsend to me these past few years and I love sharing it with others.

Can you tell us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If your path demands you walk through hell, walk as if you own the place.”

Enough said. 🙂

You are a person of influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

In addition to lifelong learning about diversity and social issues, I’ve been studying aging and midlife transition for the past several years. Through my background in philanthropy and social justice I’ve come to understand that, especially as we get older, we are all agents of change. That is the message I want to share. Once you understand that you have the power and ability to address what concerns you and take steps to make it better, you uncork an unstoppable energy that inspires others to do the same.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, if so, why?

Michelle Obama. She is an inspiration and a role model as a professional and a mother; our kids are about the same age. Her ability to connect and communicate a message of love and compassion, with humor and grace and style and beauty, is a guiding light.

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on LinkedIn and @jdelaney25 on Twitter.

Thank you for these wonderful insights

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