When I was asked to write about leadership in entertainment from the Asian Pacific Islander perspective, I took some time to think about what I wanted to say and share. I have worked for some of the most beloved and respected brands in the industry, I have learned and been mentored by the best, and I have fulfilled a number of childhood dreams. All of this leads me to what I want to share here.
Ever since I was a young girl, I knew I wanted to be a part of Hollywood. I didn’t know how or where or what path I’d take to get here but I knew this industry inspired me and gave me the chance to dream. I grew up in the Midwest as the first born to immigrant parents – like many Asian Pacific Islander American kids growing up second generation in the United States, my parents wanted me to become a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse or someone Asian American culture deemed to be ‘respectable and could make a good living.’ But for me, I had dreams and other non-science/non-math talent – ever since I can remember, I have always had a knack and an interest in writing. I wrote poems and scripts (even before I knew how scripts should be written). I joined the high school newspaper staff. I wrote. For me, writing was an escape and a way to tell stories. Writing gave me the opportunity to champion awareness around issues that moved me. And, being a latchkey kid, television and newspapers were my babysitters. Watching television was a treat (had to finish schoolwork and earn good grades first) and newspapers connected me. Years ago, I was interviewed for an NBC internal newsletter and I shared that when I was a little girl I would read my hometown newspaper’s front page out loud to my Barbie dolls and stuffed animals – imagining I was the ‘next Connie Chung.’ Years later, when I found myself in the office of the president of NBC News at its headquarters in New York City and seeing Connie Chung’s picture grace the hallways – I just wanted to transport back in time and tell my eight-year-old self that you’ll get there and not to give up!
I mention Connie Chung because back then, she was one of the very few Asian American faces you saw on television. And, while Connie Chung is Asian – she’s Chinese and I’m Filipino (with Chinese on maternal side) however, I look more Filipino and when I compared us two, we really don’t look alike. When Janet Jackson guested on “Diff’rent Strokes” in the 80’s – I looked at her and thought, she looks more like me, rounder face, darker complexion and I looked up to her. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I yearned to see people who looked like me on TV and in films.
Fast forward, I went to college in Southern California and landed an internship in the industry which led to my first gig (sports production) after graduation. I was lucky to work for a manager who supported my career goals and encouraged me to follow them – which was to work at a major broadcast television network in publicity and since NBC and ABC were my favorite TV networks growing up (at the time, there were only three networks and then four later), I knew I wanted to work at either network. Thank goodness I had hustle and networked hard to make a connection and I did. It still took several years after that initial outreach but I eventually got the call that would change the trajectory of my career forever “Hello, this is NBC Human Resources...” You would’ve thought I just earned an Emmy or Oscar nomination by the scream I let out after picking up that message – it’s a moment, I’ll never forget (and probably my neighbors, too). All my dreams, all my hard work, all the arguments trying to prove to my parents, family, extended family and community that ‘yes, you can have a career in entertainment’ – all of it paid off. And, from day one I always treated my time at NBC as my first and last. I didn’t care if you ran the network or made my breakfast burrito in the morning – I greeted everyone I came into contact with on the old NBC Burbank Lot.
That first year at NBC was also a good look into what would be a parallel passion in my career – diversity.
In high school, I became more aware of diversity, in particular learning from history and our country’s Civil Rights Movement and the modern day dynamics within the student body population. I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian, middle to upper middle class, conservative town and my high school was representative of that. There were a few minority students and while we weren’t many, we did have a voice. A classmate of mine and I went to student council – she was African American and I, Asian American – and we said ‘we have a voice, we may not be many but we have a voice’ and we asked for a seat in student council – the leadership agreed and thus, the Minority Student Affairs Committee was born. Ever since then, I have always had an interest in other cultures, in sharing differences and celebrating what makes us unique.
Going back to NBC, my manager had me serve as the publicist for the network’s Talent Diversity Initiative and I loved it. I was able to connect a personal passion to my day job. I then continued to grow within the company and moved to the film side after NBC (then under GE) bought Universal and then, later promoted into a corporate role to help launch the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts enterprise-wide.
Throughout my years at NBCUniversal, I grew personally and professionally. Honing my craft as a corporate communicator and connecting with our diverse communities inside and outside the company. I gained confidence and a stronger voice – even though I knew I could speak up and did, as evident from high school – but now, it was polished, diplomatic, and more thoughtful.
In addition to just being hired on from day one at NBC, I am equally as proud to be a founding member of NBCUniversal’s Asian Pacific American employee resource group on the West Coast. Back then we were a small but mighty and passionate team of employees who redefined how the company saw us and we helped the company build a more inclusive work environment, not to mention boosting the company’s brand and image to external stakeholders, especially those in the greater Asian Pacific Islander community in Southern California, the state and nationwide.
It is here that I really reflect on Asian Pacific Islander leadership in entertainment. Our group would share best practices and meet with other API employee resource groups in the industry (and outside) and while we were each other’s competition, we knew that tackling the lack of diversity in Hollywood required each and every one of us. We knew we needed leaders. We needed decision makers to hire, develop our stories, and increase our visibility in front of and behind the camera. We knew we needed the community’s support. We needed other diverse communities to stand with us. We knew we had each other. And, from those early gatherings, I’ve witnessed a number of my colleagues grow into the leaders we always saw them to be. They’ve become decision makers. And, while we still have a ways to go, I can now turn on the TV or go online or to a theater and see faces like mine, see the faces of my Asian Pacific Islander brothers and sisters and I stop to smile because I remember when there were very few, if any.
Being a leader isn’t always about titles. Being a leader is a collaborative effort. Being a leader means influencing others. Being a leader makes change and disrupts the norm. Being a leader is bold. Being a leader means to use your voice and empowers to do the same. And, for the Asian Pacific Islander community, we need to support and develop our next generation of leaders. For without this leadership, our faces, our stories, our voices will remain invisible in entertainment and beyond.
Laarni Rosca Dacanay is an award-winning communications professional with expertise in entertainment. She spent nine years at NBCUniversal (NBC, Focus Features, NBCUniversal Corporate) and is currently consulting for NBCU’s parent company, Comcast. She serves as Vice Chair for the PBS SoCal Asian Pacific Islander Community Council. Laarni is an active member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Asian American Journalists Association, Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, Public Relations Society of America and Entertainment Publicists Professional Society. Based in Southern California, you can follow her at @laarnid1 on Twitter.