You’re going to mess up — and that’s okay! Every show brings something new to learn. Even Executive Producers who have been on the same show for years deal with new situations that they have to navigate (and I’ve witnessed it — they make mistakes too).
Asa part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Lacey Kaelani & Jenna Kammo.
Lacey & Jenna are the co-founders of media-tech startup Casting Depot, a marketplace for creators and talent to engage and source gigs. Casting Depot is the only platform to be a complete end-to-end solution for every type of casting utilizing social functionalities to drive engagement for users. Between the two, they’ve cast and developed for major networks like Hearst Digital Media, HGTV, Bustle Digital Group, MTV and more.
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 the story of how you grew up?
JENNA: I grew up in the Metro Detroit area in a traditional Chaldean household (for those who aren’t familiar, Chaldeans are Iraqi-Christians). Growing up as a first-generation American certainly had its ups and downs, balancing American culture and Chaldean traditions (turkey sandwiches vs meat pies for school lunches); the one thing that was always constant, my parents made sure we grew up with a lot of love.
LACEY: I’m originally from Santa Barbara, CA — a small beach town outside of Los Angeles. Both of my parents were entrepreneurs, so it was only inevitable that I become one too. The very first business I had was selling 99 cent erasers to my classmates in 1st grade.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
JENNA: When I landed my first interview for a PA position with a talk show at NBC, my mother actually drove me to the interview — yep, from Detroit, MI to Stamford, Ct. My interviewer asked how long I had been living on the east coast for, I smiled and said, “about two months. I’m loving it here!” — knowing full well my wonderful mother was outside waiting for me. I couldn’t let something as minute as living 11 hours away stop me from getting the job, right? I stayed with that show for 3 years and then got into freelance casting before working on another talk show. The combination of working on talk shows and freelancing on different genres in the unscripted space shaped my knowledge of this industry. What really brought me to this specific career path is that I always said “yes” to every opportunity, every production I worked on was a chance to learn something new. No matter how “crazy” the show was or being told that I could interview for a position in 24 hours — just pack up the car, put the pedal to the medal and got for it!
LACEY: My undergraduate was in economics and my graduate is in finance. I always thought I’d go into economic analytics. I had an opportunity to interview for Nickelodeon Animations’ BA department as an intern and was unfortunately turned down. That was a tough pill to swallow. Instead, the head of the department offered me a position in casting and development. I had no idea what that entailed but took it anyways to get my foot in the door. That internship experience was incredible dare I say… magical? Working in animation is truly special because anything you can dream of; you have the ability to create.
Eventually, that lead me to New York where I continued to intern for the Viacom brand in their development department under one of the SVP’s of Casting & Development. I fell in love with creating ideas for TV shows and the art of “the pitch”.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
JENNA: When you’re casting a series, you may have a couple of weeks before your team sends submissions to a network. There’s a different level of intensity when booking for talk shows — a “this segment is taping Tuesday at 9:20 am and I’m the only making sure this segment is getting booked” kind of intensity. When I first started out, I didn’t understand the level of urgency involved or how to properly interview and book a “story”. My first season working as a production assistant I was actually taken off the team I worked on and made a floater/Studio PA (the booking responsibilities were much less intense). And then about a month later, it all just clicked. I figured out how to book, how to interview, how to pitch to my producer; I was a PA “out-booking” my AP — it felt great! By the end of my first season I was promoted to an AP and I continued to learn and work on my producing skills. You’re going to encounter set-backs but don’t let them define you or keep you from moving forward.
LACEY: The highlight of my early career was being able to pitch a development concept to Butch Hartman as an intern at Nickelodeon Animation. Being able to share one of my first ideas with the “g-dfather” of animation, if you will, was an experience I’ll never forget. No — the idea did not go anywhere… however the feedback was invaluable.
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?
JENNA: There’s so many to pick from! When your boss and your best friend have similar names (and emails) make sure you know who you’re messaging. Dressing up for studio days is a must but wearing shoes you can actually run around in a studio is much more important.
LACEY: As an intern at Viacom, I was tasked by the SVP of Development with grabbing a cake for a colleagues’ birthday. When I went to pick the cake up, the employee had handed me the box upside down. I didn’t double check the cake when I was at the store because I was eager to be quick and impress my boss. I eventually returned to the office and handed the bag to the SVP. I walked away and heard a curdling scream and a loud “WTF”. She embarrassed me in front of the entire office which was AWFUL. This was my first lesson of the importance of due diligence.
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?
JENNA: You can’t get ahead in this industry by yourself. I have a wonderful network of people who are the reason I had so many amazing experiences that helped shape my knowledge of this industry. But the best relationship I have is with my Co-Founder, Lacey. We met by chance, working on casting team together. We grew to respect each other as work colleagues, then a friendship blossomed while working on set and shortly thereafter we had that “I think we can do this better and for ourselves” moment… and now we’re doing just that! We are an honest sounding board to one another; when we have an idea that may not seem feasible, we strategize a way to make it work.
Turning our traditional casting company into a tech company is by far the grandest project we’ve worked on. What started out as just a conversation in our office (“why can’t we make this better?”, “well, what if we actually did it?”, “how would we even start?”, “how much would it cost?”) is now an online marketplace for creators (like ourselves) and talent to engage and source gigs. We work together to turn our ideas into realities. Supporting one another has been our greatest asset.
We have an incredible team now, including our CTO Brad Larson who has become an extension of our family and an honorary Casting Director. He actualized our vision to build a community for talent and encompass the entire casting process into a single database.
LACEY: I attribute my success to my Co-Founder, Jenna. In 2018, we had both been at a point in our careers where we were tired of working for other people. I absolutely hated developing concepts that I wasn’t passionate about, nor made a positive impact on the people that viewed them. She, on the other hand, hated casting for talk shows. We were on set one day and had the typical startup conversation of “I think we can do this better and for ourselves”. We ended up leaving our fulltime jobs about two months later and voilá! Casting Depot was born.
Over the course of 2019 we hustled to get any casting gig we could. We often had moments of self-doubt (and we still do, because we’re only human). We depended on each other to get through truly testing times, but also depended on each other to celebrate the mini victories.
At the end of 2019, we decided to pivot our business. We were consistently frustrated with the casting workflow process and needed a more efficient way of booking talent for our gigs. So — we decided to turn our small casting company into what it is now — an online marketplace for creators (like ourselves) and talent to engage and source gigs. We have an incredible team now, including our CTO Brad Larson who has become an extension of our family, that has been able to encompass the entire casting process and put it into a single database. Our platform saves networks and creators time and a ton of money.
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?
JENNA: You’re going to mess up — and that’s okay! Every show brings something new to learn. Even Executive Producers who have been on the same show for years deal with new situations that they have to navigate (and I’ve witnessed it — they make mistakes too).
You’re going to forget to record a guest’s casting interview. You’re going to accidently leave your headset on while you’re having a conversation with someone else — broadcasting your entire conversation to the crew. You’ll forget to make your script changes. But you’re also going to create content that entertains and/or enlightens your viewers, which is incredibly rewarding. Don’t look at your mistakes as failures, they’re learning opportunities. Trust me, the first time your phone rings on set, you’ll make sure it never happens again.
LACEY: Building a career in television and film is daunting. I’m lucky enough to not only do what I love, but also to have a lucrative career in doing it. What I learned from making the decision to quit my fulltime job was that there’ll never be a good moment to take an incredibly large risk. It’s important to do the things that scare you because the reward will always be that much sweeter.
What drives you to get up everyday and work in TV and Film? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward?
JENNA: What drives me to develop the content that we take to market is the opportunity to entertain and to bring a moment of joy to a viewer’s day. What motivates me with our platform is two-fold: to create a better workflow for casting teams and giving the talent side the experience that they really want out of a casting platform.
We created Casting Depot because as Casting Directors we just hit a wall with the resources that were available to us. These sites were missing something; They don’t understand a casting team’s workflow. And quite frankly, I don’t think they understand what the talent side really wants out of being part of a platform; it’s more than just applying to gigs.
LACEY: When we went to create Casting Depot, we were eager to construct a foundation to support not only the professionals that cast, but also the talent that so desperately needed a reliable marketplace to book gigs. It’s such a massive, decentralized market (5BN dollars) that we knew we had to build something that would give users the ability to create their own communities within our own. We dreamt of conversation bubbles in every type of casting — Broadway actors, aspiring TV personalities, experts that wanted to be on CNBC, and so on. That was our first priority. So — we ultimately ended up building that infrastructure so our industry could choose how they’d want to cast and create.
It has been a privilege to work on a professional network with a deeply rooted purpose. I believe that as we continue to fine-tune our product, we will have a special impact on many careers in this industry.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
JENNA: Of course, our platform is the most exciting thing we’re working on! Lacey and I are constantly strategizing how to make it the best resource for casting teams and talent on the market. While it hasn’t been easy, it also doesn’t feel like “work”. We’re making our vision a reality, which bring so much excitement to our days! We’ve been onboarding users at a rapid rate and taking in their feedback. We’re continuing to build a one-of-a-kind product.
LACEY: Casting is arguably the most important building block in entertainment. A company is only as successful as its team, and consumable entertainment is only as good as the characters that are cast. A Casting Director can cast an entire show, play, AD campaign, etc., but the achievement and tenacity of it are reliant upon the characters.
Despite its importance, the current model of casting is an outdated trade. Known in entertainment as an archaic industry with analog methods of workflow, the current casting process needed a glossy and new makeover. Imagine being an HR professional without recruiting tools (like Indeed or LinkedIn) to source talent. That’s the abbreviated frustration of the casting industry. Awful, right? Chime in our marketplace, Casting Depot, which has been our biggest project to-date.
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?
JENNA: A supervisor at my first job once asked me, “Jenna, is your family kind of like Dothraki in Game of Thrones?”
I can’t tell you how invisible that comment made me feel. But should I fault him? He had never heard the word “Chaldean” before meeting me.
The world is filled with beautiful cultures. We must strive to find a way to use film and television to celebrate and share these cultures with audiences. The content we create touches so many lives. We have the opportunity to entertain but we have the responsibility to educate and to enlighten viewers. When a viewer sees him or herself represented, we have the chance to inspire them, to inspire their actions. As content creators, we have to opportunity to change what’s become deemed “the norm”: the typical girl next door, the heartthrob, the villain. Through film and television, we can reshape how we view one another in the real world. While we create diverse content, I hope network executives realize their responsibility to green light such content.
LACEY: Both my Co-Founder and I are first generation American. On top of that, we’re female. But the entertainment world has shifted over the past few years and it’s an even more exciting time to be female in our industry. Our voices are heard, our opinions matter and better yet — we’re creating content with that message which has the potential to affect culture around the world today. We’re lucky to be a part of a generation that has the power to shift the conversation.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Speak up in pitch meetings.I was always so afraid that my ideas wouldn’t be “good enough” that I just didn’t say anything. Don’t be afraid of a bad idea. Sometimes getting the bad ideas out is how you get to your really good ideas.
- Be ready to write down all your ideas. You never know when inspiration will strike. That little nugget of an idea could be an entire series. Journal, diary, the notepad on your phone — whatever you want to call it. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had just written an idea down the moment I had it. Now, I usually text Lacey every idea I have — you should see our iMessage history.
- Celebrate and enjoy your achievements! Document your success. Take pictures. Share your news with your family and friends. If you moved to another city to pursue your career, keep your loved ones from your home state as involved as possible. They want to share in your success too!
- Take breaks. You deserve them. The beginning of your career will definitely be a hustle! There’s no way around it. But this is a creative industry and you cannot force creativity; It’ll come to you naturally. When I worked on talk shows, I thought I could only give myself a break when the show took its standard breaks (every 5–7 weeks and on summer hiatus); That’s not sustainable for a well-balanced life. Listen to your mind and your body, reset as you need to.
- There will be people who don’t believe in you or your vision — don’t let that stop you! It’s no secret that Lacey and I did not start our careers in the tech world. We found a way to better incorporate technology into our industry but in selling our dream and raising for our seed round, we’ve met those who doubt or don’t understand our vision. There’s a learning curve for us being in the tech world and a learning curve for investors with creatives. If we let the first person who said “no” stop us, we wouldn’t have gotten to those that are saying “yes”!
- It’s your responsibility as a Co-Founder to disagree. Early on I read this article that a CEO’s job is to disagree with others, in turn making agreements much more valuable.
- Take criticism with a grain of salt. Everyone will have their own opinion of your work. Take criticism in moderation.
- Separation between work and personal life will drive creativity. Inspiration will not come from sitting at your desk or your daily routine.
- Track your milestones. Take a notepad and jot down small victories. You’ll appreciate that you did so in the long run.
- Raising seed rounds for a creative company is tough, but possible. As we’re actively raising our seed round, it’s been exhausting trying to sell “the dream” over and over again. I love the feeling I get from every meeting I take which has made the process that much more enjoyable. There’s a massive venture market for creatives, it’s just a tough market to crack if you’re a first-time founder.
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.
JENNA: My number one piece of advice for self-care is to stop using your phone as your alarm and buy yourself an alarm clock radio (if I may add, set it to NPR). I can’t think of a worse way to start your day than with that awful alarm sound.
I also keep my phone as far away from my bed as I can. When I wake up in the morning, I don’t check my email or social media first thing. I take a few moments to stretch before getting out of bed (while listening to the Morning Edition). I believe that even a little bit of phone separation goes a long way for one’s mental health.
LACEY: I have two self-care activities that I indulge in often in order to take care of my mental health. First — I play soccer two-three times a week (or at least, pre-COVID) and work out consistently. Second — I do small things every day that make me smile such as grabbing coffee at a local coffee shop, buying myself flowers and reading thought articles on Medium.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
JENNA: “Surround yourself with the right people”, that’s sometime my beloved Aunt Mae would tell me. Positive people, are a must. But more than that, seek relationships with people who inspire and challenge you to be the best version of yourself — in your personal and professional life.
LACEY: “Everything is temporary”. My mom taught me that growing up. It’s often times something I tell myself or my team when things get tough or there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of a tunnel. Because it’s genuinely true — everything IS temporary.
You are a person of huge 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?
JENNA: I would love to see more diversity and throughout the casting process and ultimately in what we consume as viewers. The hardest part about working in casting and pitching to networks is knowing that you’ve discovered someone great, but a network won’t see beyond their skin color. Knowing that someone who looks like me would be a “back up” option or that my middle-eastern family would likely be typecast as “loud and foreign”, that’s what needs to change. We all deserve to see ourselves represented in film and television — more than one time and in a positive way.
LACEY: If I could inspire anyone in creative, it would be to encourage people to produce content that they genuinely care about. It’s tough working for others on projects with topics that challenge your ethics (which is often times something creatives run into). This is when you have to ask yourself — is it worth it?
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
LACEY: If I could have lunch with anyone in the world, it’d most likely be Bob Iger (tag him, please!!). The acquisitions during his time at Disney were moves and decisions I only hope to one day be able to do. He took the biggest risks in entertainment (especially at the time) during which stakeholders questioned his ability to lead. Obviously, they were very wrong.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
JENNA: Yes! @JennaKammo although I think you’ll find more interesting content on @CastingDepot — you’ll love our trivia challenges!
LACEY: Follow me on Medium & Instagram! @LaceyKaelani
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!