Tips From The Top: One On One With Jenna Segal

I spoke to Tony Award-winning producer Jenna Segal about her journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Jenna: Thanks Adam! I’m a storyteller passionate about women’s voices. The thing that surprises people given my platform is why I admire the Kardashians. They embody female empowerment. They teach money management, home equity and build billion dollar businesses. Kim uses her influence to reform the justice system! Similarly, I leverage my position to fight for women’s voices in entertainment by applying my activation impulse from my years in theater, film, television and politics with the goal to move the needle on women telling their own stories through word, dance, direction and governance.

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth

Jenna: Despising being told “no” got me here! My parents encouraged me to argue my case. I often felt that “no” was an unacceptable answer from my parents or teachers. They appreciated that and would open their minds and I won some battles. 

The 1990s recession was instrumental to my growth. I was in high school when my father lost his job and things that I had taken for granted, like getting a car or paid college changed. Fortunately, I hustled: I babysat, stuffed envelopes, and made bagels Saturday mornings. My college schedule was: classes, job, internship.  I LOVED structure and having my own money– still do. That recession cemented my can-do attitude. When I stopped working for a television network to raise my children, I re-evaluated where my strengths really were given my schedule. I wanted to amplify women’s voices in the entertainment world. 

By supporting American Ballet Theater, I understood funding more female choreographers would amplify women’s leadership in dance. As such, I act as both Board Trustee and donor to change the game. On Broadway, if a producer calls me to discuss a project with zero female creative leadership, I can warmly explain my business model of impact investing and stick to my model by not investing which equals impact. 

Adam: What inspired your passion for diversity? What are your key messages for leaders on the topic?

Jenna: My passion for championing women was inspired by my parents’ diverse world. My mom was an ESL teacher and I was around all types of people.  My father’s work took him all over the world and we’d inevitably wind up with houseguests from Pakistan, Mexico, China, and Korea. My focus on women came from not seeing them in leadership roles.

In business, no matter what the field, if you are only talking to people who look like you, you are missing more than ½ the world and the rest are a different race or ethnicity. On Broadway, nearly 70% of tickets were bought by women in season 2018-2019, and ⅔ of movie tickets were bought by households with children under ten. Eight in ten adults (77%) say women face a lot of pressure to be an involved parent; (49%) say the same about men. Viola! Two hours of sharing a story together is an involved experience. For me, this translates into producing, investing, or giving to work that I believe women want to see, often with children. Last year, the result was a Tony Award for Hadestown and Nomination for What the Constitution Means to Me. I recouped both of my investments and made a profit.

Philanthropically, the Heidi Thomas Initiative produced six world premiere theater pieces written by women, and ABT’s Women’s Movement allows women to choreograph their own steps. Previously 65% of the company were female but only 7% of the choreographers. In one year, the same stage changed to 30% female choreographers. Parity is a win/win. Industries win when their decision-makers reflect their consumers.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Jenna: Knowing when to listen and when to command the room is essential for leaders. My father gave me the book The One Minute Manager when I took on my first management position, and to this day I still follow its principles. Leadership is in your gut. The tug and passion to do more means do more but having the intellectual curiosity to ask what you can or should be doing better and why, is next level.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders? 

Jenna: I learned my best tip for success “KIS” Keep It Simple from skiing for the first time at 38. Look down the mountain, you’ll fall. Just focus on the next turn. Come to me saying “I want to make a Broadway show!” My first question is “Where’s your script?” If the answer is “Just an idea,” I provide some shows or films with which the idea might align and say, “Read these scripts, and get back to me with your thoughts.” This is the first turn, but few people return. I’ve brought shows to Broadway by taking one turn at a time, adjusting for the next turn and then committing.

Adam: What are your best tips for people hoping to make it in the entertainment industry, either on the creative side or on the business side? 

Jenna: Go where the business is. If you want to be in film or TV, move to LA. If you want to be in theater, New York, or a place with great local theaters. To learn the business, DO NOT GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL. Live it. Get a PA job and schlep. Learn budgeting. If your budget is $5, make your shoot happen with $5 dollars. If you can’t, you won’t make it long term.

Adam: What are some of the best lessons you have learned from your experience producing Broadway plays?

Jenna: If no one is offering you money after relentlessly pounding the pavement, you don’t have a show, no matter how much you think you do.

Adam: What makes a play a success creatively and commercially? And how do you win a Tony?

Jenna: A play’s commercial success depends on getting a theater. If you have six weeks from getting a theater to Broadway opening, most likely you will lose your money and everyone else’s. Creatively it’s in the eye of the beholder. My model is to support female led creations and creators. By 2020, women are expected to control $72 trillion/32% of all wealth! Investing in women creators for the 70% of women who buy tickets is logical.

Any producer who tells you that their show is going to win a Tony is a really good promoter. No one knows. It’s a horse race and you have to be a bit of a gambler with your time or your money. Best bet is to see who the creative team is. Has the director OR writer ever had a show on Broadway? If the answer is no, chances are slim. Broadway wants you to earn your stripes. It’s rare for a newcomer to win a Tony. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received? 

Jenna: Jeffrey Seller, Hamilton, told me no one knows whether a show is going to be a hit until it’s a hit. It freed me to model my business to Impact Invest and produce shows written or directed by women. If the show’s a hit, I’ve made money and impact. If not, one more woman had a show on Broadway, changing the Tony win dynamic.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward? 

Jenna: Pay it forward by using what makes you great. It may be making money, use it by investing in nurturing talent. It may be marketing, market when experts say, “it’s not worth it.” If it’s talent, use it because there has never been a time to share your talent more broadly. Teach, volunteer, share what you’ve got because you never know! 

When COVID-19 closed Broadway and the world, I wanted to do something. I love the ensemble (chorus) so I employed ensemble dancers to do workout classes (Get In Shape GRRL) on Facebook. We gained 10K followers worldwide in two weeks, 94% women. This project was born out of: loving dancers, dancers loving dance, and women needing joy in times of tragedy. 

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Jenna: Now is the time for those in positions of power to have conversations of inclusivity. Speak up. Women make up +50% of the workforce, let’s create 50% of the boundaries. When someone tries to schedule a meeting with me at 5 PM I say “No, I have three children at home, but I am free at 8 AM and I take my last call at 4.” I’ve had many women come up to me and thank me. That’s progress.

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