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Michelle K. Sugihara of CAPE: “We dream of a world where what we watch on our screens reflects the world in which we live”

At CAPE, we dream of a world where what we watch on our screens reflects the world in which we live. We’ve strategically identified two critical access points to creating systemic change in Hollywood — writers (diversity starts on the page) and executives (inclusion starts with the gatekeepers). Accordingly, our two signature Fellowships — the CAPE New Writers Fellowship […]


At CAPE, we dream of a world where what we watch on our screens reflects the world in which we live. We’ve strategically identified two critical access points to creating systemic change in Hollywood — writers (diversity starts on the page) and executives (inclusion starts with the gatekeepers). Accordingly, our two signature Fellowships — the CAPE New Writers Fellowship and the CAPE Leaders Fellowship — target those constituencies and groom the next generation. Alumni from our writers’ fellowship have been staffed on every major network and streaming platform. Our executive fellowship focuses on junior executives (just below VP) in development, current, or production divisions. As our graduates from both fellowships advance in the industry together, we are creating a feedback loop as more of our executives are reading and hiring our writers. We strive for what I am calling “integrated diversity,” where the diverse aspects of the story are so baked in, they cannot be easily excised or erased by casting choices. By design, it’s a long-game approach, but the effects are powerful. It’s our solution to creating systemic change from the writers’ room to the boardroom to the living room.


As a part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michelle K. Sugihara. She is the Executive Director of CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment). She is also an entertainment attorney, film producer, and adjunct professor for the Claremont Colleges’ Intercollegiate Department of Asian American Studies. She is a leader within TIME’S UP Entertainment spearheading gatherings for AAPI womyn in the industry. She is also a founding member of the Asian Pacific American Friends of the Theater, a member of PBS-Southern California Asian Pacific Islander Community Council, and an associate member of Cold Tofu, the nation’s premier Asian American comedy improv and sketch group. An avid public speaker, Michelle speaks and teaches across the country on various topics including Representation in Media, Women in Entertainment, Diversity and Inclusion, Leadership, and Improv for Non-Actors.


Thank you so much for joining us Michelle. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a fourth-generation Japanese American growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii, I was blissfully unaware of representation and inclusion issues until I moved to Los Angeles for college. I was late to the diversity party and had much to learn, including a new lexicon, such as “Asian” (I was still saying “Oriental,” which carried no negative connotations in Hawaii) and “internment” (I had never heard about the Japanese American internment — now referred to as incarceration — camps). That was the turning point for me, and that new awareness became the catalyst for my crusade for equity and representation. Throughout my career, I’ve fought for diversity on the bench, diversity in academia, and now diversity in media.

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

In October (National Bullying Prevention Month) 2015, CAPE partnered with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the Sikh Coalition to launch #ActToChange, a national bullying prevention public awareness campaign. We held a live event in Los Angeles to raise awareness about bullying and created a toolkit to increase access to available resources to overcome and prevent bullying, with an emphasis on the unique challenges faced by those in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Asian American and Pacific Islander children are bullied at higher rates and stereotypes perpetuated by the media only exacerbate the problem.

At the event, Dr. Vivek Murthy, then U.S. Surgeon General and Co-Chair of the Initiative, shared a candid keynote on his own experiences with bullying as a child. One of the stories he told was of being bullied in seventh grade by another student using The Simpsons’s Apu accent.

It was great to be a part of that movement and to amplify the issues at the intersection of bullying and media.

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?

A few months into my job as Executive Director of CAPE, we had a live event in NYC for our #IAM campaign, and Carrie Ann Inaba was one of our featured speakers. She was also a CAPE board member who I hadn’t yet met in person. I dropped by her hotel room at The London while she was getting her hair and makeup done to chat and to take her to the venue. Her room had a contemporary round coffee table that also extended into a high top if you spun it a certain way.

Kind of like a standing desk contraption, but instead of gracefully rising and lowering with a switch, it actually had to spin. I was dressed and camera-ready for the event. Carrie Ann was seated in a chair getting her hair done, while I stood next to the coffee table. For no apparent reason, the table started spinning rapidly flinging everything on it around the room, including an open carafe of coffee! Luckily, I narrowly escaped being splashed by the coffee (I only had the one dress!). Carrie Ann, who had to keep her head straight while her hair was being curled, saw the whole thing out of the corner of her eye and she thought I was wildly spinning the table for funsies like a little kid and she started cracking up. That was my first official encounter with CAPE board member — and fellow Hawaii native — Carrie Ann Inaba.

The lesson is to be aware of your surroundings and don’t stand next to an open coffee carafe before an event where you need to be on stage.

Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?

At CAPE, we dream of a world where what we watch on our screens reflects the world in which we live. We’ve strategically identified two critical access points to creating systemic change in Hollywood — writers (diversity starts on the page) and executives (inclusion starts with the gatekeepers). Accordingly, our two signature Fellowships — the CAPE New Writers Fellowship and the CAPE Leaders Fellowship — target those constituencies and groom the next generation. Alumni from our writers’ fellowship have been staffed on every major network and streaming platform. Our executive fellowship focuses on junior executives (just below VP) in development, current, or production divisions. As our graduates from both fellowships advance in the industry together, we are creating a feedback loop as more of our executives are reading and hiring our writers. We strive for what I am calling “integrated diversity,” where the diverse aspects of the story are so baked in, they cannot be easily excised or erased by casting choices. By design, it’s a long-game approach, but the effects are powerful. It’s our solution to creating systemic change from the writers’ room to the boardroom to the living room.

Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?

Bo Yeon Kim & Erika Lippoldt graduated from our 2015 CAPE New Writers Fellowship, where they first learned (among other things) how to pitch themselves as a writing team. Perfecting your personal pitch is one of the most valuable skills to master if you want to be a professional writer in Hollywood, and they did a great job with it. At the tail end of the Fellowship, they were staffed on REIGN where they wrote their first produced television script. Since then they have catapulted to Supervising Producer on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY and they are co-creating and writing the pilot episode of the spin-off STAR TREK series starring Michelle Yeoh. They are repped by one of our longstanding fellowship speakers and CAPE Board officers, who is a manager at The Gotham Group.

Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?

1) If you’re not seated at the table, you’re probably on the menu.

It is imperative that marginalized communities are represented in all aspects of entertainment, but especially in the rooms where decisions are made.

2) Until the lion learns to write, stories of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. — African Proverb

We need more inclusive, authentic stories with multi-dimensional diverse characters. Although it seems paradoxical, specificity highlights our universality.

For example, in 2015, Rene Gube, a Filipino American writer on CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND wrote the Thanksgiving episode that featured the first Filipino family on primetime television. To their credit, the production team worked really hard to get it right, including the food that was served in the episode. Everyone can relate to Thanksgiving dinner with family, and it was wonderful to see it from a Filipino American perspective.

3) People can ignore issues, but it’s harder for people to ignore other people.

When we have authentic, three-dimensional characters that reflect the rich tapestry of our world, it aids in understanding and acceptance.

Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?

1) Borrow from the “Rooney Rule”

Established in 2003, the Rooney Rule is a National Football League policy that requires league teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. The rule is named after Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and former chairman of the league’s diversity committee.

The entertainment industry could require that people of color be interviewed/considered for open positions. Frances McDormand’s call for inclusion riders is another method.

As Viola Davis put it, “The only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity.”

Here are a few stats. I encourage reading the full reports.

-Of the top 100 grossing films of 2018, only 4% of directors and 3% of cinematographers were female. (Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film)

-Only 1.4 out of 10 lead actors in film are people of color. (UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report 2018)

-In a study of 900 films from 2007–2016, only 2.7 percent of speaking characters were depicted with a disability, despite the fact that nearly 20 percent of people in the U.S. has one. (USC Annenberg Report)

-8.8% of broadcast scripted series regulars are LGBTQ characters. (GLAAD Media Report 2018–2019)

-8–9% of LGBTQ characters on broadcast, cable, and streaming are Asian American Pacific Islander (GLAAD Media Report 2018–2019)

-Asian Americans directed 6% of TV episodes in 2017–2018. (DGA 2017–2018 Episodic TV Director Report)

2) Support diverse content by voting with your dollars.

I encourage people to be more intentional about their purchasing and viewing habits. We can all use our purchasing power to vote with our dollars and support marginalized stories and creatives.

In February, CAPE, Gold House, and A3 launched Goldopen.com, a clearinghouse for the #GoldOpen lineup of top Asian films, TV shows, and publishing projects premiering in 2019 and beyond. It’s a great resource for people looking for projects to support.

3) Find strength in community and support each other.

The entertainment industry is all about relationships. Find your tribe. Attend events, meet people, and make friends. Recommend each other for jobs and other opportunities. Support each others’ projects. It can be a tough business, so surround yourself with people who care about you and who keep you grounded. In solidarity, we can all rise together.

Think of your network as a bullseye with you in the center radiating outward in concentric circles. Organizations like CAPE provide opportunities for the broader community to engage with each other, but more intimate, identity-specific groups closer to the center of your network are also important. I recently spoke at a gathering of Laos Angeles, a progressive and inclusive movement advancing Lao identity and representation in mainstream media. Likewise, Jes Vu runs a Vietnamese in Entertainment group. Kelly Hu, Grant Kimura, and I run the LA Entertainment Ohana (aka Hawaiian Mafia) for people born and raised in Hawaii who now live in LA and work in entertainment. There are lots of other groups, so find one that resonates with you. If it doesn’t exist, create it.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I try to read at least 2 books a month, and most of them tend to be about leadership and business. My leadership style is somewhere between a coach and a “roll up your sleeves” servant leader. I’m fortunate to have a solid team that I trust, but I could probably learn to delegate more. CAPE only has 2 staff members — me and Jess Ju, my Director of Programs & Operations — so we often must divide and conquer to get everything done. We also have an amazing board that helps us accomplish our goals and mission. For example, we are concurrently running two of our flagship programs, our CAPE New Writers Fellowship and our #IAM Campaign, which often requires us to be in multiple places at the same time. But we all have our mission as our north star, which keeps us on track.

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

1) Self-care is extremely important.

I’ve never been good at self-care. When I was a practicing attorney, I didn’t take a vacation for 10 years. Because the lines between work and play are so blurred now with my current job, I’m really starting to see the need for self-care. Last month, I went on a 3-day “vacation” (Friday-Sunday) to Taiwan, and I ended up answering emails from 4am-9am Taiwan time all three days. As I buckled myself in for the plane ride home to LA, the safety message came on. It’s a message we’ve all heard hundreds of times. But there was one line in particular that stood out this time, “Put your oxygen mask on before helping others.” My goal is to be better about boundaries and self-care, so I don’t put myself on a jet plane to burn out city.

2) Relationships, relationships, relationships.

If the mantra in real estate is location, location, location, then the mantra for the entertainment industry is relationships, relationships, relationships. Perhaps more than other industries, the entertainment industry is extremely relationship driven. Guard your reputation and your relationships — both of them can take years to build and seconds to destroy.

3) ‘No.’ is a complete sentence.

This goes along with the self-care point above. In general, I like to say yes to everything. I have trouble saying no. Someone recently told me the most liberating thing — when you say no to something you don’t want to do, you are saying yes to yourself. Mind. Blown. I am trying to say no to more things this year and am embracing JOMO (the Joy of Missing Out).

4) Perfect is the enemy of the good.

It’s true, I’m a recovering perfectionist. Early in my career, one of my bosses told me, “it doesn’t need to be pretty, it just needs to be useful.” It was a good note.

5) Focus on the things you can control.

In the wise words of Coach John Wooden: Never try to be better than someone else. Always learn from others and never cease trying to be the best you can be. That’s under your control, and if you get too engrossed, involved, and concerned in regards to the things over which you have no control, it will adversely affect the things over which you have control.

You are a person of enormous 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?

One thing some Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders and I have been discussing is an external robust searchable master database of AAPI talent below and above the line. That way, nobody can say “we didn’t know where to find AAPI talent.” We all have our respective databases, so we thought it would make sense to compile everything through CAPE since we are the central hub (we have growing databases for AAPI writers, directors, actors, executives, and BTL, and we are constantly fielding requests).

It would take quite a bit of initial capital funding to build the database, as well as ongoing sustaining funding. There are also some legal and clearance issues.

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

“Assume positive intent.”

Given the fast pace of life today and the myriad people we encounter daily (virtually and IRL), it’s easy to jump to conclusions and get ruffled feathers. Assuming positive intent is a practice I strive to employ with every personal interaction.

In the wise words of Indra Nooyi: Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, “maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Photographer Neil Leifer. For the past few decades, I’ve wanted a signed photo of his iconic shot of Muhammed Ali standing over Sonny Liston. I’m sure you know the one. While most people would love the photo to be signed by Muhammed Ali, I want the photo to be signed by Neil Leifer. I’ve tried to buy it online (via a request on his website) and even went to his photography exhibit in Santa Monica last year, but to no avail. I love the story behind it that is not often told.

Neil covered the fight for Sports Illustrated that night with Herb Scharfman, a senior photographer. They were stationed on opposite sides of the ring, and, as the veteran, Herb chose to sit by the judges’ table, exiling Neil, the young neophyte, to the “inferior” side of the ring that had a poor vantage point. In Neil’s photo, you can see Herb between Muhammed Ali’s legs — what shot do you think he got of that moment? Just goes to show that no matter what your station in life is or what hand you’re dealt (haha, mixing all my metaphors here), you can do something great if you’re ready to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

IG: @CAPE_USA

FB: facebook.com/CAPE

Twitter: @CAPEUSA

Website: www.capeusa.org

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