The Journey to Greater Representation
Ann Johnson: Welcome to "Afternoon Cyber Tea" with Ann Johnson, where we speak with leaders and influencers in tech about what is shaping the cybersecurity landscape and what is top of mind for the C-suite and other key security decision-makers. I'm Ann Johnson, and today we are going to take a brief departure from cybersecurity and ransomware and cyber fraud to talk about some important topics that are near and dear to my heart - diversity, inclusion and representation. And to help guide us through this conversation, I've invited Jeff Rivera to join me. Now, Jeff is an American author, producer and co-founder of Collective 5 Entertainment. He has an impressive body of work, including more than 200 books, television, radio and digital publication. He is an internationally sought-after speaker. He is a mentor, and he's an inspiration to many folks, including myself. Welcome to "Afternoon Cyber Tea," Jeff.
Jeff Rivera: Thank you so much.
Ann Johnson: It's really amazing to have you on the show, and I appreciate you spending time with us. And I know we're going to talk about diversity and inclusion and how representation really matters. But before we get there, I was hoping to learn more about you and have you talk to the audience about your journey and what brought you to where you are today.
Jeff Rivera: Yeah, it's a sort of a long story to tell you a whole life story in a couple of minutes, but I think (laughter) - I think I can manage it. You know, I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is an unusual place for a Black American to be born, certainly at that time. And then we moved to Oregon. And I was born in what I like to call American poverty. And what this means to me is when you basically, according to the government, make too much money for welfare or food stamps, but you also don't have enough to eat. It's that sort of limbo period. And so there were many times as a family - there were three of us kids and then my stepfather and my mom - where we hardly had anything to eat. And this means specifically, if we were lucky, it was some sort of stir fry or stew on a good day. But typically it could even be something like a bag of cornmeal. And that's without sugar (laughter), you know?
Jeff Rivera: And so, you know, but during that time, I think that I really relied on my talent in the arts to get through that difficult period because I was passionate about writing. I was passionate about anything to do with the arts. And so that really led me through a difficult time. We continued to struggle, and it eventually led to my mother, my brother and I becoming homeless. And we lived in a two-door, black Buick in Las Vegas. And we had with us all of our pets. We had a pet cockatiel. We had a pet turtle. We had a goldfish in a cup. And it was a really struggling time. When I tell people this and they're like, there's no way you went through that - but I - you know, I really did. This was our life. In fact, there were times when we would go to the Wendy's drive-thru in the middle of the night or whenever they were almost about to close, and we'd ask if they had anything left over because we knew they were going to throw these items out. There were times when we would get up early in the morning, and we would go to the grocery store in hopes that they had little samples of cupcakes and whatnot to eat.
Jeff Rivera: It was a really, really challenging time, but I think that when I look back, I wouldn't change it at all because it really led to my career taking off at some point because one thing led to another. We were able to get out of that situation, and I was able to get a job working at Kmart, basically doing stock work and whatnot. And there I met a young man who really changed my life. He came from kind of a work release program. He had been a juvy, a juvenile delinquent. And he used to tell me this story about how he was trying to win his girl back. And that story really, really resonated with me. And so years later, I started to create a story that infused more of my life in it. And it was a love story, a love story that I decided to encompass in the world of prison boot camps because there was a prison boot camp in Nevada, not far from Las Vegas. And just more things that were in my life personally - and created this story that eventually became my first book, which is called "Forever My Lady." And I self-published it online before it was really trendy to do so. And that led to me getting a book contract with Warner Books, which was then rebranded as Grand Central Publishing.
Jeff Rivera: And after getting that book published, that just made my career take off like a rocket in many ways, a bumpy rocket, but a rocket thus (laughter) nevertheless. And so, you know, that led to me writing - becoming an entertainment reporter, writing for different publications, like The Huffington Post and other publications, which led me to meeting a lot of high-profile people. And I became a marketing consultant for them. I was able to make really great money doing that. And that led to me continuing to write and realizing the whole time I was producing. And I was putting people together. I love putting people together. I think that comes from being a child of divorce, you know? The idea of people being separated doesn't feel great, so putting people together feels better. So basically, that led to me doing what I'm doing today, which is - I am a partner at Collective 5 Entertainment. It is a management and a production company with a single mission, and that is to tell universal stories through the lens of Black and brown people. And we have two units - one which focuses on books, and then my unit focuses mostly on film, television and audio. Fortunately, we started this business about a year and a half ago and have garnered over 14 TV development deals thus far. We have unscripted deals with major companies. We have scripted deals with major companies. Or one of our partners just had the No. 1 book in the country, just - things are really taking off. But our mission is to really open doors for people who have - who are part of these marginalized communities - people of color, people - part of the LGBTQ+ community - anyone who really has a story that needs to be told. We really specialize in even representing people who we like to call - are the why-haven't-you-been-discovered-yet-type people - people like myself back in the day where they just need a break. They've got the talent. They just needed a break. And so that's really became (ph) our mission. And I'm so, so happy to be on "Afternoon Cyber Tea" to talk to you about this.
Ann Johnson: Jeff, that's amazing. There's a lot to unpack there. So let me - to start with, when I invited you to the podcast, I didn't know you and I had similarities in background. I spent half of my childhood in southern Utah. We also qualified - I like the way you put it as, you know, American poverty. I used to call it food insecure. And I remember those days of, you know, eating the discount-brand macaroni with the - you know, the powdered cheese mixed up with whatever we had in the kitchen, right? And if we wanted something other than water, it was a Kool-Aid packet that, you know, we mixed in. So that childhood really creates a lot of resilience in adults. And whilst it was hard - and I actually started working in a restaurant at 12 and made sure that I had all of my meals there or made sure I had - you know, when I was working, I ate there. But - because I learned very quickly that you had to kind of take care of yourself and take care of those around you. And there was no one that was going to do that for you. So it creates a certain type of person. It also gives a lot of empathy, which I hear in you and the way you're trying to give back with Collective 5 Entertainment. Amazing. It's just an incredible story, so thank you for sharing with us. And like you said, it's hard to share your life story in a couple of minutes, but you did a....
Jeff Rivera: (Laughter).
Ann Johnson: Yeah, you did a brilliant job, so...
Jeff Rivera: Thank you so much.
Ann Johnson: I imagine there were people along your journey that really helped shape your life, that were mentors, helped your experience. Can you talk a little bit about some of those role models and what you learned from them?
Jeff Rivera: You know, it's really interesting. We talk about mentors. I think a lot of people look for role models. And they're looking for Gandalf or somebody to come and in a beautiful costume or "Cinderella" or somebody - you know, somebody - you know, the godmother in "Cinderella" or the - you know, the Good Witch of the North to come, you know, sprinkle pixie dust on them and rescue them. My role models didn't come in those forms. Sometimes, they were very rough and tough people. I think many times they didn't realize they were a role model for me. I think they - they gave me what I like to call the gift of poverty. There's a lot of gifts that come from poverty. There is a lot of tools - like you mentioned, resilience that comes from growing up in a difficult situation. And these role models along the way would give me a bit of knowledge. Sometimes, they showed me what not to do. And sometimes, they showed me what to do. And sometimes, that was done in a very caring, compassionate way and sometimes, not so much. But I learned a lot from them, and some of those people on the way were definitely my teachers. I had great relationships with my teachers especially in elementary school and in middle school. They saw something in me, a gift in me, a talent in me, encouraged me in their own way. I think about - one of my first role models that I can think about is probably my third-grade teacher. Actually, I would even say my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Ross (ph). She saw immediately in me that I could write, encouraged me. My third-grade teacher saw that I could write. She put me in a talent and gifted program. My fourth-grade teacher also encouraged me. I had three teachers in fifth grade who also were in the arts - very much encouraged me. So along the way, the teachers, the educators along the way were definitely role models. I would say my mother, she is an example of resilience. She definitely encouraged me along the way as well - through so many people along the way. My talent agent as a kid - when I was about 14 years old, I took the bus to meet what would become my talent agent. Her name is Kathy Wilson. We're still friends, very close friends to this day. She believed in me at a very early age, saw something in me. So I think I would definitely say those people in particular have been instrumental. I still have role models in my life. I still have mentors in my life, very much so. And my mentors have mentors. And sometimes, these people don't realize that they're mentors, and sometimes, they do. But I think that if - for the listening audience, if they're looking for a role model and looking for a mentor, they may need to open their eyes and realize that they may have had one all along. And the best mentor may have been somebody who showed them what not to do in life. They could be maybe a parent who wasn't so great or a boss or some other type of family member or whatnot. But these role models and mentors do exist.
Ann Johnson: Yeah. And I think that that's important. And I think everyone who's successful - right? - has had role models and mentors along the way. And one of the things that I would say is that to your point, they're not always the people that you think they'd be, right? For me, it's been important to have people around me that pushed me, have people around me that were a source of inspiration, a source of mentorship, coaching, tough love sometimes, right? And maybe not even folks that, you know, thought they were actually being my mentor, but just I looked at, and I watched how they lived their life and said, I want to be like that. Or to your point, I don't want to be like that, right? Yeah. This is something I'm not going to do.
Jeff Rivera: Right. Right.
Ann Johnson: But, you know, when we get to tech in a lot of industries, we don't see the C-suite and senior leadership teams to be as reflective - right? - of the rich diversity we have in our general population. It's getting better in places. There's certainly intentional and deliberate efforts in places. But in your experience, you know, what sort of impact does this have, right? As you watch folks from marginalized or underrepresented communities growing up and coming to the workforce, how does the lack of representation impact them? And more importantly, what types of things can we do to turn it around?
Jeff Rivera: It's so important, and it goes beyond just marginalized, you know, communities and underrepresented communities. Just seeing somebody visually who is like you - and whether that means that they are a person of color or someone of the same gender or sexual orientation or geographical location that looks like you - really makes a huge impact on people just to know that it's possible, that they, too, can do it. Sometimes they don't even see themselves being able to do something in a career until they see somebody who looks like them or from their same background doing it. It has a huge impact on a lot of different industries, whether that be the arts and entertainment industry, the tech industry and beyond, to be able to see somebody who really looks like you or from the same background.
Ann Johnson: Yeah, I think it helps you, right? It gives you confidence and a little courage to go take those risks that you may not have considered taking. If you say, you know, she made it or he made it, then, you know, I could go there. I could potentially make it, right?
Jeff Rivera: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I think it makes a big difference. And I think what happens sometimes when you're part of the majority is maybe you don't understand the importance of it because you think, well, why does it matter if they're - one of my least favorite things people say is well, I don't see color, as if that's a good thing. You need to see color, because to say, you know, I don't see color is very dismissive. It means, I don't see you. I don't see the differences. I don't see the challenges that you've been through. And it's important to see differences, and it's important to celebrate those differences and see them as an asset instead of something that is not an asset.
Jeff Rivera: It's really important to really see somebody, to see color, to see - and I understand the intention behind that. They're trying to say, like, hey, I judge you by your character instead of what you look like. I think it's very important to really be conscious of people's differences, what they might be going through, to not be dismissive in that way, to understand that just because you haven't been through something doesn't mean that it doesn't exist and that the challenges people have been through really deserve to be respected and understood. And we need to really celebrate those differences and find ways to be able to come together through that lens.
Ann Johnson: You know, I like the way you put it, and I'm going to own up to something. As I mentioned, I grew up in a very nondiverse place, right? And as I got older, I used to say - not, I don't see it, but I'd say, I don't care. You know, it doesn't matter to me. Everyone should have the same seat at the table. Everyone should have the same voice. And I didn't acknowledge - it took - it was a journey for me to understand that even that was dismissive because I'm not acknowledging other people and the struggles they went through to get where they were. And it was - you know, it's a - I'm a work in progress, just like everyone is. But I always felt, oh, I'm super inclusive, and I'm super open and everything. And when I stepped back and looked at it, that may have been true, but I also wasn't in any way acknowledging the hardships and journeys that other people took to get where they were and understanding them as individuals, right? I was just kind of saying, it just doesn't matter. And it actually does matter.
Jeff Rivera: Yeah, I think you're right. And I appreciate that. I think that's easy to do. I think that, sometimes, men do that to women. They're like, oh, what's the big deal? You know, everybody has the same opportunities. Well, they really don't. I think that, sometimes, people do need - people are willing to stand on their own merits, but they need to be able to - given a shot to do it. And when we're not conscious that people who don't look like us or from a different background may not have even gotten a chance to stand on their own merits - when we realize that, it really changes everything. And, sometimes, you do need a little bit of a nudge to be able to get people who are from marginalized communities in a particular industry because if you don't consciously choose to do that, it will never happen. You know, and so we have to push it, those who really care to be supportive and, you know, to really put people at an opportunity, especially decision-makers. I think it's interesting when people hire maybe human resource executives or any type of executive that's going to be bringing in, recruiting people - that those people who are recruiters or human resources - that they come from the same community that you want to attract, because they'll often bring in those kind of people. I mean, it goes beyond just color or gender and whatnot. I think about - I never ask for a referral from a particularly flaky person because good chances are they're going to bring in other flaky people. So I like to bring in people who are what I'm looking for, and they will find more people like themselves. So I would encourage anybody who's in a position where they really do want to have someone who is a part of a marginalized community to really have a recruiter or human resource person who is from that community, as well.
Ann Johnson: I can't emphasize that enough. You know, as a woman who's been in tech over 30 years - and especially early in my career, I was the only woman - right? - in a room full of men. And it felt uncomfortable and awkward. And all my interviewers were men, right? And they all looked alike, and they all sounded alike. And one of the things we do here at Microsoft is we want diverse interviewers in the process also because they're going to approach the situation with their empathy and their lived experience that, you know, other folks aren't going to bring to the situation, right? So I think what you said is just incredibly important, that if you're going to be recruiting, you need to have members of the community as part of that process all the way along.
Jeff Rivera: Thank you so much. And I hope that people take that to heart.
Ann Johnson: Yeah, I hope so, too. Look. I have to be optimistic that we're making progress, right? I see more and more representation, but we're also backsliding a ways. There's been, you know, some backlash. And it's a difficult time for a lot of people right now. So we need to acknowledge that whilst we've made progress, we're always one step away of going completely backwards.
Jeff Rivera: Exactly. Yeah. We have to be really conscious of it. I think that especially after the George Floyd incident, there were a lot of performative press releases put out about helping marginalized communities. And some of them - that's pretty much all it was - was a press release. Or, sometimes, the executives would line up meetings with, for example, people of color. And OK, I did my mitzvah for the day, and that's it, you know (laughter), and nothing else came from it. And so we have to go even further. We have to really - you know, really make sure that these commitments are followed through.
Ann Johnson: Yeah, exactly. And I think that performative virtue signaling - it's something that, you know, I personally try to avoid. And I was talking to someone else recently about the, you know, putting action behind it, right? Mentoring folks from marginalized communities, hiring folks from marginalized communities, creating opportunities for folks, making connections, right? The one thing we talk about a lot as women is women are - there's an expression that women are overmentored in tech and undersponsored. And that sponsorship of putting someone forward and being the person that says, you know, this is a wonderful candidate for your role, and I highly recommend them proactively, right? Finding that opportunity to make those connections is something we could all constructively do every day. And it's what your - it's what your organization is doing. It's - I love what you're doing thematically. It's wonderful.
Jeff Rivera: Thank you so much. And really - it's really interesting - and I think you probably have found the same - that you never know how some word of encouragement or some comment you might make will make an impact on somebody for life. I think about - there was a particular executive from a major media company who messaged me on Facebook about two or so years ago. And I'd never had an interaction with her before. But she asked me if I had ever thought about writing or producing for kids and family. And I had written kids' books, but I'd never really thought about it. That one question set me on a trajectory I was not expecting. It opened up so many doors, just by her asking me that. There are times - and you probably have found the same - when you might have said something to someone to encourage them. You never really thought anything about it. But they come back to you years later and say, you know that thing you said to me years ago? Remember when you did such and such? Like, that changed my life. And it's amazing what you can do to really make an impact on people just by being encouraging. It can also work the other way around. That's why we have to be really careful about not discouraging people, you know, saying the wrong thing. But I think that it can really make a tremendous impact on people.
Ann Johnson: Yeah. And I'll paraphrase Maya Angelou when I say that, you know, people may not remember what they said, but they remember how you made them feel. And it's something - you know, years later, people will remember that. I actually had someone come back to me recently who I had sponsored through a scholarship for some training, and they said I changed their life. And it was like, you know, to me it wasn't a huge thing to do. To them, it was, like, this super impactful experience. And I was like, that - those are the types of things we need to be doing. I know you do a lot of mentoring. I know you do a lot of - you know, invest a lot of time and personal energy in supporting personal and professional development. Talk about a little how, you know, you're lifting up the next generation.
Jeff Rivera: Sure. I think that it's sort of ingrained in me to try to help people. I think it's ingrained in a lot of us to try to help people in what ways we can. We all have a superpower. We may not recognize it as a superpower. It could be something like being able to speak, do public speaking or able to do legal work or able to do tech or able to bake cookies. Whatever your superpower is, we all have something. My superpower is, I think, being able to put people together. So what I did was I found that there was a real gap between emerging artists and the veterans who have all this knowledge and wisdom. And so about a couple years ago, I created a program during the heart of the pandemic called the 1-Hour Mentorship Program. And this really bridged the gap between emerging artists and veterans. And it allowed, in the course of an hour, for these veterans to answer any question from the mentees that you can't just Google, you can't just watch on YouTube, those really personalized anecdotes and tips and whatnot that sometimes get cut out of interviews. And so I reached out to people whom I didn't have a relationship with whatsoever such as Steven Soderbergh. And he said, yes, he would love to mentor our mentees over Zoom for an hour. In fact, he did it twice. And for those of you who are not familiar with Steven Soderbergh, he is an Oscar-winning director - directed a lot of really amazing films such as "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich" and many others. And he was our first 1-Hour mentor. Then, we ended up working with people like David E. Kelley. He created a lot of shows. You can probably research who he is. We did Julianne Moore. She was amazing - Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore as well as Michael Douglas - Lee Daniels and a number of other major studio executives from the film and television industry and beyond. And we've started to also reach out to people in the tech industry, in the startup industry, people in the media industry who wonder that same thing. They want to give back over course an hour and answer those questions. And it really has made an impact. People have not only learned a lot, but have had doors open to them that they normally wouldn't have. And that really feels good to know, that we've done something that would really make a difference in people's lives and could have an impact on them for generations.
Ann Johnson: That's amazing. And the fact that you were able to get that really, you know, powerful voices - right? - voices people recognize and understand and listen to, to support this effort is incredible 'cause they will have such a high level of impact for the audience and for the folks that need to hear it.
Jeff Rivera: I certainly hope so (laughter).
Ann Johnson: It definitely will. So you've made - you know, we've made some progress in the past few years. And I know you have a lot of other exciting projects in the works. Can you talk what you're most excited about, you know, moving forward and how you're thinking about accelerating progress in 2022 and beyond?
Jeff Rivera: I think on a personal level, I'm really excited about all the television programs that we are developing that will showcase people of color and others from marginalized communities, just to - communities we don't normally see on television, to tell their stories whether it be scripted or unscripted, and be able to put on these projects voices behind the scenes to help support it. I'm really excited about that. I'm - we have 14 TV development deals thus far, and I expect that we have quite a few more before the end of the year. I think also I'm really excited about the 1-Hour Mentorship Program because we are going to elevate it in a way and upgrade it to a 1-Hour academy shortly, which will be this ongoing school that'll be mostly online for a specific area. So if there's anyone who's listening that wants to support that in some way, wants to find out ways that they can help us with that, you know, you can always reach out to me. So we're really excited about that mostly because that's going to not only train people, but also provide a pipeline for them to meet those introductions that you mentioned before, but also - hopefully also employment as well - or if they want to be entrepreneurs, to be able to put them on the right path, to have the right kind of support to do that as well.
Ann Johnson: That's incredible. And I hope that our - some of our listeners either take advantage of it for themselves or pass it along to people that they know who can take advantage of it. This has been incredible. It's been incredible insights. If there's one or two things you want to leave with the audience today, you know, how do they connect with you? Is there a website? You know, how do they follow up? What would you like to leave with the audience?
Jeff Rivera: I think that they can check out our website, which is the letter C, the number 5, entertainment dot com. Or they can email me, which is Jeff - J, E, F as in Frank, F as in Frank, at c5entertainment.com if they want to find ways that they can support what we're doing. I think that - I think - if I could leave something with listeners today, it would be that you can really have an impact on somebody. What you do - whether it be smiling at somebody at the grocery store instead of scowling or reaching out to giving encouraging word or donating money or time - can have a real impact on people's lives, maybe more than you ever know.
Ann Johnson: Jeff, thank you so much. And I do think the little - like, random acts of kindness, you know, that smiling at the grocery store, I try. But, you know, we all have bad days, and we all get caught up in our own head, right? And just getting out of your own bubble and recognizing that people around you might be struggling - particularly, you know, we're in a difficult time right now where more people are struggling - and acknowledging that and trying to open yourself up, it's such wonderful advice. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Jeff Rivera: And thank you.
Ann Johnson: And many thanks to our audience for listening. This concludes Season 5 of "Afternoon Cyber Tea." But don't fear. We'll be back later this summer with Season 6 with another great season of exciting guests and conversation. Join us wherever you get your podcasts or on afternooncybertea.com.