Boardroom hears from Latasha Gillespie about the evolving relationship between tech and entertainment and how diversity, equity, and inclusion fit into the discussion.
Latasha Gillespie has spent her career, as she puts it, “leaning into the yes.”
Over the years, the Southern Illinois University grad has reached out of her comfort zone — first as a financial analyst, then in the world of HR, where she recognized her niche was all about helping people. Today, she’s the Head of Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Amazon Studios.
Amazon recruited Gillespie in early 2017 to lead its worldwide DEI department out of its Seattle headquarters. She previously led similar efforts for the e-commerce and tech giant’s corporate arm for two years before trekking to LA to build out Amazon Studios’ DEI function for customers and content. She has occupied her current role for the last four years.
Her focus includes bringing intimacy coordinators to Amazon’s production sets, meeting with internal staff one-on-one on DEI metrics, and developing initiatives to secure safety for everyone in vulnerable entertainment environments.
To get a better sense of her ongoing efforts, Boardroom spoke to Latasha Gillespie about the evolving relationship between tech and entertainment, how diversity efforts fit into the discussion, and the path that led her to her current role with one of the world’s most iconic brands.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MICHELAI GRAHAM: What does a typical workday look like for you?
LATASHA GILLESPIE: As a people leader, I spend quite a bit of my time during the week meeting with my leadership team or colleagues to talk about people strategies in terms of how we make sure we’re setting our people up for success. We also talk about being thoughtful about how we engage people to do the work and ensure they have what they need to do it. That’s a significant portion of every day.
Outside of that, my day is typically spent working with a content creator. At any given point in time, we have several projects in the making for television and film; sometimes, I’m working with a content creator because we’re working through a difficult subject matter to do our content smartly and thoughtfully. Sometimes, that means pulling in external resources, too.
I work with our marketing team to think about how we effectively engage audiences that we are actively trying to attract and bring to the service by helping them understand how we are programming content to their needs.
But also, there are days when something goes wrong. We make it a safe environment for people to feel comfortable and free to raise issues. It’s my team’s job to go in and figure out how we can help remedy the situation in a way that leaves everyone feeling heard, valued, and respected.
It also helps us learn what mechanisms we want to set up as a company — for example, in the last couple of years, we’ve seen more need for mental health resources on our production sets. It’s not just for the actors, it’s for everybody. That’s been a great thing we’ve brought to the table that maybe five years ago people weren’t thinking or talking about.
MG: Why is it essential to have robust DEI initiatives at big tech companies?
LG: At the end of the day, we’re all in service to customers. We love to say at Amazon that we are genuinely customer-obsessed, so we move heaven and earth to get packages to customers in two days. But how are you equitably obsessing over customers? Thinking about Amazon’s consumer side of the business.
When we’re thinking about a product or service that we’re rolling out, who are we envisioning as the customer? Is it the soccer mom that lives in the suburbs with a minivan and 2.5 kids and a dog? Is it the single person who lives in a five-story walk-up in Brooklyn? Is it a person who is in a wheelchair and has to navigate being able to receive packages that way? So, who are you thinking about as a customer, and how do you build?
I always say we should build products and services for people on the margins because it will benefit the masses.
MG: You’re off of the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month. What was your experience there, and what are your thoughts on how the tech trade show is transforming?
LG: The engagement was amazing. My relationship with CTA [Consumer Technology Association] goes back probably five years when I sat on the corporate side of Amazon. At South by Southwest, we did a panel on diversity that was really engaging and the start of a great relationship. I’ve worked with them through the pandemic. This year was my first opportunity to actually be in real life at CES, which is great.
We did a Chief Diversity Officer panel with executives from four very different companies and industries. The conversation was so rich; we talked about the need and the importance of having diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the design stage of your process. But then, we also discussed practical ways each person in attendance could innovate from their seat.
You didn’t need to be the Chief Diversity Officer or somebody in the C-suite to make a difference in your organization. It’s about understanding from the seats you sit in.
I talked about when I was in the manufacturing industry, safety was the most important thing above everything else, so my whole DEI strategy was really around emotional safety. Whatever’s organic to your organization, how do you think about ways to be inclusive? And then, how do you think about the processes germane to your work, and how do you embed DEI in them? Because the minute you ask someone to do something extra or outside of the usual process to be more inclusive, you increase your risk and chances that they won’t do it.
MG: How are you prioritizing DEI in the evolving tech industry landscape?
LG: In the entertainment space altogether, I think the murder of George Floyd was a pivotal moment.
Those of us who are in the business of putting images in the world have to be responsible about it. We rolled out an inclusion policy and playbook in response to this. Like, “Yep, we need to hashtag. Yep, we need to give money and donate to the right causes.” Still, we also need to do some internal inspection and figure out where we need to change policies, systems, and structures that hold us accountable to the kind of images we put in the world.
And then, you think about how you layer tech onto that. Now, you’re being more responsible with the harmful things that could happen in the world, and you’re stopping that. Take it a step further — how do you be proactive to do better at that? So how are you analyzing the images you put in the world and the share of time you’re giving to people of color versus white people on screen? The share of time you’re giving to women and non-binary folks on-screen, and are there roles and characters in service to themselves and their own story, or in service to a man or a male character in your content? What kind of agency do they have?
It’s also about thinking about accessibility. Like right now, even getting things closed captioned is still a push in our industry. It’s not just gonna benefit folks who are hard of hearing, but it’s also gonna benefit people who are elderly or people who speak English or some other language as a second language.
MG: What sort of story is Amazon Studios looking to tell with DEI at the forefront?
LG: You can expect to see Harlem season two come out in a few weeks. Everybody’s excited about that. We have a movie coming out this spring with Jay Ellis starring. We have a great holiday movie coming out later this year with Eddie Murphy and Tracee Ellis Ross. We have a Yara Shahidi young adult movie coming out.
Everybody is still binging and enjoying Riches, too. Black Twitter says it’s one of the most accurate depictions of the diaspora. It’s beautiful dark-skinned people. It’s all of the things.
MG: As a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (hey, Soror!), how do you leverage this experience into your DEI role at Amazon?
LG: One of the hilarious things we laugh about is that Deltas run Amazon. Listen when I tell you we are all over the place in big and small ways, I’m not joking. We have our own Delta group and Slack and Chime channels. Whenever a new soror gets hired, we welcome her into the fold and let her know all the resources and support she has across the organization. We are our own little Black girl mafia.
MG: Any final thoughts on the dynamics of your work and the opportunities ahead?
LG: I tell people this all the time: It’s not rocket science, it’s just intentionality and accountability.
In one year, our women of color writers went from 12 to 21%. Women of color directors went from 11 to 21%. Women of color showrunners went from zero to 13%. You just have to be intentional, and you just have to be accountable. That’s one reason we made the inclusion policy and playbook open source; you don’t have to enter an email address or anything to download it. I want as many people to take it and use it as possible.
I don’t care what industry they’re in; I tell people to adopt it and adapt it. Adopt if you don’t have anything better, and if you figure out how to do something better, adapt it and share it back with us because we consider it a living, breathing document, and we’re always happy to learn from other people.
We’re adapting it and rolling it out globally this year in key locations around the world. I’m super excited about that.
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