Hollywood Producer & #TimesUp Advocate Helping Women Step Into Their Power And Tell Their Stories

Laverne McKinnon | photo by Wyoh Lee

If you aren’t familiar with Laverne McKinnon, rest assured you are most likely already familiar with her work in Hollywood and in the activist space. Laverne is one half of a powerhouse producing team that heads up K&L Productions (the “K” being Kay Cannon who wrote and co-produced the ‘Pitch Perfect’ movies). They are responsible for producing the Netflix series ‘Girlboss‘, which chronicled the rise of Sophia Amoruso’s iconic Nastygal fashion brand. But it’s not just her work behind the camera for Hollywood productions that has garnered her success. As a Japanese-American industry executive with over 20 years of successful programming experience in Hollywood, she understands the barriers women, especially women of color, face in the entertainment world and has utilized this understanding for the #TimesUp movement.

She led the pilot program for the #TimesUp Asian American and Pacific Islander leadership workshop where she challenged traditional perspectives of management, encouraged participants to have difficult conversations, and to make a stand. She has leveraged her executive experience into leadership expertise, helping other artists recognize their powerful potential beyond just the creative aspects of their work.

Her role as a coach, a natural extension of being a producer, is to help people access their own inner wisdom and vision so they can find the empowering meaning in their stories. Laverne has a unique perspective on entrepreneurship, challenging traditional workplace culture and helping other women take the lead in all aspects of their working life.

We couldn’t wait to dive into the world of Laverne McKinnon in this interview, and put some of her words of wisdom into practice in our own lives!

How did you first get into the world of TV producing?
A significant portion of my career has been on the network side at CBS and EPIX where I got to work with incredibly talented writers, producers, actors and directors. As rewarding as that was, I really longed to be “on the front lines” of the creative process and also to honor my entrepreneurial spirit. I love helping people across their finish lines and producing allows me to do that. So after ten years at CBS, my friend Cam Jones gave me a shot to produce and hired me to head up television for the company he created with Mike Newell (‘Four Weddings and A Funeral’, ‘Harry Potter IV’.) It was a huge learning experience – I got so many passes on pitches that I wanted to quit, but Cam wouldn’t let me. I’m forever grateful to him. 

How did you meet your production partner Kay Cannon? 
Kay is an extraordinary woman! We met working together on the Netflix series ‘Girlboss’ – I was heading up television for Charlize Theron’s company and we were looking to turn Sophia Amoruso’s book into a scripted series. I’d been a fan of Kay’s from afar and was thrilled to pieces she said yes. During production (which is essentially crisis management), we discovered that we loved and respected each other even more when the going got tough. We decided to co-found a company together because we have shared values and a vision: to champion underdog, under-served stories and voices.  

You are involved with the #TimesUp movement, leading the pilot program and leadership workshop for Asian Americans and Pacific Islander women in the entertainment industry. Can you tell us what some of the biggest barriers are for this demographic of women? 
First off, here’s some dismal context about AAPI women in leadership – and the sad truth is that there isn’t a lot of research to draw from which also needs to be addressed:

  • Of the 1,223 directors of 1,100 top films, 3.2% were Asian (which translates to only 20 Asian directors of popular movies released from 2007 to 2017) from a Women and Hollywood study. 
    • Three Asian female directors worked across the entire 11-year sample of films (from a USC Annenberg report).
  • In terms of corporate decision makers: a total of 95 individuals comprised the C-suites across the 7 major media companies evaluated. A full 82.1% of prestigious C-suite jobs were held by males and only 17.9% by females. Among these women, only 4 were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. (Also from a USC Annenberg report.)

From my own personal experience as an Asian American woman and in conversations with other Asian American women, we are often taught to be humble at the expense of having a voice, to be grateful at the expense of advocating for ourselves, to strive for a “perfect” ideal at the expense of truth and authenticity. I believe many women have the same experience, and this is both an unconscious and conscious barrier – within ourselves and in our society. The New York Times did a poll of voters in swing states which was featured in The Daily Podcast from November 4, 2019. One of the shocking results: “We also asked all of these voters whether they agreed with the statement that most of the women who run for president just aren’t that likable. And 40 percent of them said they agreed with that statement.” It’s a huge indication that the issue of women in leadership is a complex one with a lot of internal and external challenges.  

My hope is that we can change that narrative in part through story-telling and leadership training.  

Hollywood is still very slow when it comes to diversity and representation, but we’re seeing a shift in this the more women and minorities are in power. Why do you think there is such a reluctance for the industry to diversify?
I’m not sure I see a reluctance as much as a lack of tools, competence and resources. Change happens when people want and know how to change, and that takes skill. There’s always a “honeymoon” period during transitions/shifts/transformation – and then there’s a dip because it gets hard. And during the dip, patterns re-emerge and it takes great, great, great effort to maintain not just the resolve, but the ability to move forward. And we all possess unconscious bias – we are drawn to what feels comfortable and familiar. Change happens when we get outside our comfort zone. So there’s a push-pull of I want change, but I can’t tolerate the discomfort that change brings. One of my favorite teachers/coaches Kain Ramsay says, “How much we relate to change is directly correlated to how much we are able to move forward in life.”

For women who work in environments that are toxic and feel they don’t have any power to take a stand, how do you suggest changing the culture around them or finding a way forward? 
There are several topics here so I’m going to separate them:  toxic work environment, feeling powerless to take a stand, changing culture, moving forward. 

Let’s start with feeling powerless – I’ve coached many people around this issue.  We always start with values – what are your core values and how are you honoring them?  Sometimes we step on our own values by saying yes to working with people or companies that are not aligned with our core values. It’s doing a self-audit to see if we are aligned internally with what’s important to ourselves. Because when we’re not living our own values, then we feel powerless. 

Taking a stand requires knowing what you’re taking a stand for … so we take a look at what is your “why” – what’s your life purpose — which is not your job. Your job/career is a manifestation of your life purpose. Once again, you may not be honoring your life purpose and that’s why it’s hard to take a stand because you don’t know what you’re making a stand for.  

The ability to move forward resides in large part in living your values and life purpose. Values are your north star so they guide you. Every choice comes down to are you honoring your values or not?  Your life purpose is the rudder keeping you on track – how are your choices a manifestation of your life purpose? 

Laverne McKinnon | photo by Wyoh Lee

What frequently keeps us stuck and unable to move forward are those “saboteur” voices that tell us things like: you’ll never find a new job, no one wants to hire you, you’re a failure, etc. Everyone has these voices. They are not you, and they are not a reflection of your values and life purpose.  

When working in a toxic environment, your values are being stepped on either by you, someone else or the situation. So how can the culture be changed? It’s a simple, but not easy answer. Culture comes from values – and the folks in charge may not be honoring their values, they may be listening to those nasty saboteur voices. Which is where leadership comes in … being the head of a department or the CEO is only one kind of leadership style. You can be and ARE a leader  … change can come (in part) from making a stand and having a conversation. And that conversation may be with yourself or with others about what and whose values are being honored? (Carolyn Myss talks about how “People suffer when they pursue a dream that doesn’t belong to them.”) If your values aren’t aligned, you probably aren’t working with “your” people and it may be time to make a change. But you gotta get super curious before you can make that assessment. 

As a woman of color yourself in the film and TV world, what are some of the barriers or experiences you faced and had to fight against in your career? 
Pay equity is probably the biggest big one. I was once paid less than a male white subordinate who had less experience, education and success. While the company adjusted my salary when I found out and spoke up, it continues to make me wonder how I was short-changed throughout my career. I discovered the inequity purely by accident, and it hurt my heart because it was women in charge who allowed this to happen. Makes me wonder what unconscious bias was at play.  

More and more women are starting production companies, hiring other women, funding other female-driven projects and creating opportunities for themselves and their peers. Do you see this as a game-changer in Hollywood?
Hell yeah! Kay and I have been able to champion so many women and people of color as writers, directors, producers. It takes a lot of breaking down barriers, but we see the quality of story-telling improving as a result of fresh and under-represented perspectives. 

Have you seen any major changes in the film and TV world since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements emerged in the past couple of years?
Statistically no, but anecdotally yes. This type of change takes time for significant results to be seen and have effect. It’s critical that we build and maintain our stamina, develop new skills and tools, own our unique leadership abilities, and don’t wait for others to make a stand. Never give up, never surrender!

You are a coach and workshop leader for small groups as well as large corporations. What do you share with them and how do you equip them to make a difference in their work environment?
I always go back to values and purpose. So many of us have or are living other people’s values and don’t know our life purpose. So we are on a constant swinging pendulum of (mostly) feeling powerless and powerful.  I equip people to come from a place of empowerment so they can choose how they want to make a difference not just in the workplace, but in our world. 

You help other women access their power through your leadership workshops, but we’d like to know: what makes you a powerful woman? I don’t see myself as powerful. I do see myself as creative, resourceful and whole. I am connected to my talents, gifts, values and purpose so that I can make a positive impact on the world. I am constantly working on myself, listening deeply, and leading with curiosity, compassion and courage. I am able to navigate and overcome any problem/challenge/issue that comes by way because inherently as a woman, I am a creator. And so are you! 

Laverne McKinnon | photo by Wyoh Lee

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