Kenneth L. Shropshire, faculty director for the Wharton Coalition for Equity and Opportunity, is joined by industry leaders Nzinga “Zing” Shaw, CEO of Attack the Glass, and sports and entertainment attorney Jaia Thomas to address pay equity and under-representation in entertainment.

They discuss their experiences in developing diversity initiatives, including targeted hiring practices, mentorship programs, and curating resume databases. Shaw and Thomas offer insights on how to enhance visibility and opportunities for women, people of color, disabled communities, and LGBTQ+ professionals in sports and entertainment. This interview is part of a special 4-part series called “Opportunity Matters.”


Kenneth Shropshire: Welcome to Opportunity Matters. Today we’re going to focus on entertainment. The issues in entertainment deal with both representation and inclusion. As we’ve been doing in this series, we’re going to try to look at both the problems that exist in this industry, as well as some of the solutions that are out there.

We’ve got two great guests who will join me in the conversation today. First is Nzinga “Zing” Shaw. She’s the president and CEO of Attack the Glass. She’s an experienced C-suite executive with extensive hands-on experience and knowledge spanning diversity, equity and inclusion, change and crisis management, human capital management, employee relations, talent acquisition, organizational and strategic planning, branding, and community engagement. Previously, Zing was the Recording Academy’s chief DEI officer at a pivotal point in the industry, and she was the first chief inclusion and diversity officer at four blue chip organizations: Edelman, Starbucks, Marsh McLennan, and the NBA. I’ve met her along the way, mainly in the sports context, and have enjoyed getting to know her further now that she is doing this great independent work.

Also joining us is Jaia Thomas. She is a sports and entertainment attorney with over 15 years of experience. Those who know me knew I was going to get an attorney on here sooner than later. She’s a founder of Diverse Representation, a company aimed at increasing the hiring and exposure of Black attorneys, agents, managers, and publicists in the sports and entertainment industries, in addition to creating the first ever directory of Black attorneys, agents, managers, and publicists in sports and entertainment. Diverse Representation also curates various diversity initiatives throughout the country.

Let’s start off setting the stage. We’re in awards season in the entertainment industry. This has been a flashpoint in some ways to illustrate the absence of diversity in the entertainment industry. Zing, why don’t you give us some thoughts on the biggest issues in terms of diversity, equity, inclusion, and the opportunities to address those.

Nzinga “Zing” Shaw: It’s such a great question, Ken. It’s really what a lot of people are talking about right now. What are the challenges, what are the things that are stopping diversity, equity and inclusion from moving forward, particularly in the entertainment industry? There are a couple of things at play. First and foremost, there are a lot of conversations around pay equity, whether it’s pay equity regarding gender and women not receiving the same compensation as their male counterparts. We hear about pay equity across race. Hearing that white individuals are earning more money than ethnic minorities. There are also a lot of discussions around representation of the LGBTQ community and how that shows up on the acting side, if you’re talking about roles, or in the sports side, prominent athletes that are able to come to the forefront. There are also issues around ableism, and people who have disabilities not being able to break through the glass and have representation of their demographic set. So, there are a lot of big equity issues in entertainment.

I want to underscore the underrepresentation of minorities. It’s something that we’ve been hearing about a lot. This includes on-screen portrayals, behind-the-scene roles, whether we’re talking about actors, writers, directors, producers, key decision-makers, the list goes on. We have a lot of things to grapple with in this field right now. And we’ve got to be very open and honest about the things that are not equitable in this industry if we’re ever going to get to a point where we’re able to move the needle forward.

Shropshire: This is a very interesting time where some of us are stuttering at using the phrase “DEI.” There’s even absence of people listening to what the issues actually are, if you use that phrase. So, I really appreciate the way that you’ve broken down the kinds of concerns that exist, and that it’s not just race, it’s not just gender. It can be someone who’s from a poor setting who can’t find their way into Hollywood to get the opportunity that someone that’s been raised in Hollywood is able to do. And that’s a lot of what we’ve been trying to get people to think about across these industries and the topics that we’re talking about in this series. Opportunity — I mean, it’s the oldest piece of the constitution of the United States, although there were some problems in the initial document. It’s the idea of opportunity for all, the idea of equal opportunity and access.

Jaia, what are your thoughts on the issues that are there? And if you could, tell us some about Diverse Representation.

Jaia Thomas: I started Diverse Representation about four years ago. As a Black woman attorney, one of the issues I was seeing in the industry was that a lot of my clients were Black, and oftentimes I was the only Black person on their team. Whether that was a Black athlete or a Black entertainer, I would be their attorney but their agent would be white, their publicist white, their financial advisor white, their manager white. Their entire team would be white. And I felt like this was an issue we weren’t talking about.

I felt like when we talked about diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry, the focus was always on the talent. Making sure that the faces we saw on screen were diverse, but paying very little attention to the folks who were representing those people on screen. Because if you really started to peel back the layers, those faces were not diverse at all.

That’s why I started Diverse Representation. I didn’t really have a plan for it. I didn’t know what it was going to turn into. I really started because I wanted to get the information out there. I heard a lot of Black actors and a lot of Black athletes say, “I don’t know any Black agents. I don’t know any Black attorneys.” I started it as just a database of, “Here are all the Black attorneys. Here are all the Black agents. Here are all the Black publicists,” so that there can no longer be an excuse of, “I can’t find them.” Well, now you can, and it’s free, so now we’re going to have to think of a different excuse.

I just wanted people to be more cognizant about the people they were hiring. A lot of Black talent, they would get on these platforms and preach about diversity and preach about Black this and Black that. But then when you look at their teams, there are no Black people in sight. I just wanted everybody in these spaces to be more cognizant about the people they are hiring and the people on their teams.

Shropshire: Jaia, I’m flashing back to one of our first conversations. I think I told you at the time that I had written a book about sports agents in 1989 or 1990 or so. One of the things that we did in the book was talk about the number of Black agents in the sports business and how easy it was to count them. You know, it wasn’t problematic. For example, one of the big deals in sports is who’s representing the first top 10 draft picks. Then, there were no African Americans representing any of the draft picks, even though the top draft picks were largely African American. There has been this dramatic change in some ways. I was asking you about how to keep track. It was very easy to keep track of back then. But it’s a good thing to say it’s not that easy to keep track of now.

Zing, you’ll probably have some reaction to this, too. The age-old comment from people who are hiring is, “I can’t find anybody. I can’t find anybody.” Historically, there was a little bit to that. Now, that doesn’t exist. What kinds of steps are we taking to get over that barrier? “Well, here they are, and you’re still not hiring them.”

Shaw: First, we have to have a recognition that diversity does not welcome deficiency. I think a lot of times when corporate organizations or individuals are thinking about representation and who they’re going to bring on board, they believe that if you say the word “diversity” you’re almost asking them to water down the pipeline or the talent pool in terms of the quality that they’re bringing to the table. That is just not a fact. Diversity does not equal deficiency. Diversity just means that we are widening the aperture so that we can tap into a variety of talent pools and look at new and unexpected talent.

I think one of the core issues around innovation is ensuring that there are so many different points of view that you can really go outside of yourself and outside of the status quo and identify something that is new and unexpected and different. That’s really what diversity aims to achieve. Ken, to answer your question when it relates to people and/or organizations that say, “Thank you for being able to materialize these diverse candidates. However, we just can’t find a natural fit,” what they’re saying is that they’re not ready to let go of the status quo. They’re not ready to look at a different type of leader or learn from someone who is not a person that they’re usually used to working alongside or working under.

We’ve got to really peel back the layers of this onion and figure out, what is the real core issue? I’ve been hearing a lot of rhetoric on social media and traditional media that is very anti-DEI. It’s interesting, because think about what DEI stands for. Diversity means difference. Equity is about making sure that we are providing opportunity for everyone to reach thir maximum potential by giving them tools that are applicable to their needs. And inclusion is making sure that we are curating spaces and environments where people feel like they can belong in their authentic way.

When we hear phrases like “anti-DEI,” I like to really challenge the people who are challenging our status. I say, “Well, are you anti the D? Are you anti the E? Are you anti the I?” Because when they really have to sit back and think about what they’re against, it’s not necessarily the things that DEI truly stand for.

Shropshire: It’s often a self-determined definition of what DEI means. I’m actually anti-acronyms, partly for what we just heard from you, the idea that if you say it, that’s a lot different than this DEI thing that people have put a bullseye on.

Jaia, I know one of the ways that Diverse Representation has addressed some of these issues is that you have worked with companies to help them to figure out ways to meet these candidates, to get to know them better. Part of the earliest of solutions that we began to point to in the academic space was the idea of networking and getting to know someone and breaking down barriers in that kind of way. Why don’t you tell us about some of the corporate relationships and programming that you’ve done?

Thomas: We have a lot of corporate partnerships with companies like CAA, WME, Lionsgate, Warner Brothers Discovery. And a lot of these companies say the same thing. “We can’t find Black candidates.” Just as a little asterisk, for Diverse Representation, I know that’s our title. But we’re very specifically focused on Black people in sports and entertainment. We’re not as all-encompassing as other organizations. But that’s something we heard from a lot of our partners. “We just can’t find Black candidates for these spaces.”

We’ve tried a couple different things to help rectify that problem. A couple years ago, we started an executive pipeline program because that was a big complaint we were hearing from a lot of the companies. “We’re able to find Black candidates at the entry level, but when it comes to executives, C-suite, we just can’t find them.”

We’ve created Black executive pipeline programs for various facets of the entertainment industry to help equip Black candidates to become executives and work in conjunction with these studios, with these networks. We’ve built out resume databases that house thousands of Black candidates that our partners can access when they’re looking to hire. We have created a Black entertainment career summit, where it’s a three-day program and studios, production companies, networks, come in and talk to candidates about job opportunities, how to get your foot in the door, and have on-site interviews.

Honestly, it’s been a hodge podge of a lot of different things. Some things have worked, some things haven’t. But we’ve worked with our partners to try a lot of different things to see what’s really going to move the ball forward.

Shropshire: What programs have had noted success for you, and what kinds of things are you tweaking? It’s an ongoing process, I know. I do a lot of work with the NFL, and part of what we’ve found is you’ve got to constantly tweak these programs. Whatever it is you think you had right, it’s not going to be right tomorrow unless you move forward. What are some of the learnings that you’ve had along the way?

Thomas: One of our takeaways is, I think sometimes the short-term programs actually work better than the long-term programs. Some of our short-term programs, where it’s only for a week or even a weekend, sometimes are stronger than the ones that are six months to a year long. Some of our pipeline programs that we created that were three months long, six months long, those were a little harder to sustain, just because the interest level waned with participants. Kind of hard to keep up with people over the course of six months. People would change jobs. They move. It’s just a little more difficult to keep people focused for a longer period of time. So, we have found a lot more success with shorter programs or events that are only for a couple days or a week.

Probably our most successful program, in terms of really getting Black folks in the door, has been our Black Entertainment Career Summit. There had never been a program specifically aimed at educated Black folks on various careers in the entertainment industry, so that has been a really great program. A ton of people have been hired as a result of it, because we do onsite interviews. All of the networks, production companies who participate do onsite interviews with people attending, and we’ve seen a lot of great success come out of that.

Shaw: If I can weigh in on that really quickly, because I think what Jaia’s talking about is absolutely right, and I just wanted to build on it. When I was the global head of diversity at Starbucks, we used to do a lot of work that was intersectional in nature. What I mean is that we would cross-collaborate across demographic sets and use our employee resource groups as a means of getting representation across the board. We would create projects for different ERGs to collaborate on together. I remember one project in particular where there were three demographic sets that came to the table. It was the Black Partner Network, which were employees in the Black and African diaspora communities, the LGBTQ community, and also the Pan-Asian community.

Those three groups came together around an innovation challenge that Starbucks was spearheading as it relates to new products. What I can tell you is that when the work was intersectional and people really had to spend a lot of time with one another in communities that they were not used to collaborating in, there were a lot of insights and aha moments that came out of that.

We realized that a lot of the way that DEI is perceived, unfortunately, is in a stereotypical fashion surrounding segregation. Because the nature of ERGs can feel very much like segregation, you know? The Blacks are going to have their group, and the LGBTQ will have their group, and the disabled will have their group. If we’re not figuring out ways to leverage each of these demographic sets and help them come together in ways that they can be supportive of one another while also standing proud in the skin that they were born in, then we’re really missing the mark. I think a lot of times, what organizations are doing is keeping the status quo surrounding the mindset of DEI being segregationist versus a collaborative community.

Shropshire: Zing, have you found anything that’s really distinct about entertainment versus the other industries you’ve been in?

Shaw: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the entertainment industry is very unique for a variety of reasons. It’s unique because it’s the one industry that we look at to glean some sense of joy and hope for a variety of communities. I mean, if you think about the pure nature of what entertainment sets out to do, it sets out to keep people engaged during times that are troubling. It sets out to make people laugh, even when the world can certainly throw things at us that are hard to digest. When you think about athletes and what they represent, it makes us hopeful that you can work hard, put your best foot forward, collaborate with teammates, and reach the sky.

I think the entertainment industry is very different than a lot of industries. For example, food. Food is certainly something that is a necessity for us to live. I just don’t know that people think about it in the context entertainment can bring to the table when you think about finding joy and interconnection. Anytime I go to a sporting event, I look across the arena and I’m always floored at how many different types of people are convening in one space, excited to cheer for one entity. You look around, and there are Black people and white people and Asian and Latino. And you have disabled and LGBTQ and old and young. It really is just a beautiful array of what humanity looks like, when you think about who is coming together to be entertained.

When you think about your industry and entertainment collectively, and who it can bring together, it’s very important for the industry to recognize that representation matters. Having an array of people that we can look at as an on-the-field product or on-screen product is just as important as who you’re attracting to your venue.

Shropshire: Zing, I want to make sure I ask you this question because I know you think about these things on the big level, from the C-suite kind of space. What kinds of conversations are taking place about Islamophobia and antisemitism in the top levels of these companies? And more specifically, what kinds of conversations should be taking place and what kinds of actions should they take?

Shaw: I’m so glad you brought this topic up, because it certainly is front of mind for all of us that are witnessing what’s happening in the world. Companies have been addressing antisemitism and Islamophobia, particularly in the entertainment industry, by a combination of things that all involve awareness, education, representation, also policy changes. There is progress that is being made. I think there’s a lot of work that can still be done. But some of the things that I’ve seen in entertainment are with industry stakeholders, including studios and production companies. They’re implementing D&I initiatives to promote representation of diverse communities including Jewish and Muslim individuals.

Some of these efforts include targeted hiring practices, mentorship programs, the inclusion of diverse voices in decision-making processes. That’s huge. Also educational programs. There are a lot of efforts to educate industry professionals on the nuances and impacts of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and they have been implemented. Training programs and workshops are addressing stereotypes, cultural sensitivity, the importance of accurate representation in storytelling.

Last, I’ll just say that there have been a lot of responses to controversies that we’ve seen play out on social media and in traditional media. There are instances of antisemitism or Islamophobia in the entertainment industry often met with a public outcry. In response, industry professionals, studios, networks, are issuing public statements condemning this behavior. They’re taking corrective action. They’re re-evaluating content and severing ties with individuals involved. So, I think these are topics that are going to be front and center for a long time.