(Above: HBO's Joy Osuna Benfante (podium) with Jesse Weinraub, Lisa Heller and Jackie Glover)

By Mary Johnson

Recently, HBO’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department began a quarterly Student Speaker Series that features HBO employees and students from various nonprofit organizations. HBO's relationships and partnerships with these nonprofits directly support the company's general CSR mission, which is to drive philanthropic, pro-social, employee and community engagement initiatives with a focus on education to identify and nurture the next generation of creative storytellers.       

The most recent speaker series took place in November in the HBO Theater in New York City. Students from Reel Works, Educational Video Center, Opening Act, Year Up, Young Women’s Leadership Network, and Urban Arts Partnership gave their undivided attention to some of the most well-respected executives within the documentary filmmaking industry: Lisa Heller, Jackie Glover, and Jesse Weinraub (HBO Documentary Films). All of these organizations have similar programs that give students the opportunity at storytelling through filmmaking.

In the first part of the session, Lisa, Jackie, and Jesse candidly discussed their career paths and the challenges they faced. Lisa, Jackie, and Jesse were earnest and honest with the students, whose ages ranged from about 14 to 20 years old. Some were budding teenagers, others were on the cusp of starting their career, but all were incredibly engaged and inspired. What some students found most relatable was that none of these now-established executives started their career in documentaries, instead stumbling upon that path by taking advantage of opportunities given to them. One student said, “I saw my friend was making movies and I thought maybe I could try that. I knew I liked to tell stories but I never thought of being a filmmaker before I heard of Reel Works. Now that’s all I want to be.”

The floor then opened to Q&A. One student asked, “Are you learning something new every day?” Lisa responded immediately with a smile and said, “That’s the true luxury of our job. Every single day I learn something… new Stories, new subject matter, new ways to make films.” Jackie added, “We’re constantly learning. We receive new subject matter all of the time. We have to do research so that we can become experts on that subject matter which we are presenting.”

The executives went on to answer questions on a range of topics, from the documentaries that they choose to develop from scratch versus those that they choose to buy to questions about their biggest obstacle in their career and how they overcame it. “The goal of the series is to encourage students to connect with employee talent and it’s also an easy way for executives to give back to the community,” said event organizer Joy Osuna Benfante (HBO Corporate Affairs). The interactive and educational event was considered a huge success for both employee and student.

Immediately after the Q&A, 14 students from Reel Works were given the opportunity to pitch to either Jackie or Jesse. They presented their film to the documentary executive, then received feedback on their pitch and their story itself. Many of these stories were personal to the students and Jackie and Jesse left feeling extremely impressed with the creativity and ability of the middle school students. When asked what she thought of the whole experience, Stephanie Williams (Co-Founder & Artistic Director at Reel Works) said, “This was so great. It gave the students a tremendous perspective. Pitching in front of us is one thing, but taking it to a room with an executive from HBO—people who create some of the best documentaries on the planet—I think the students learn to hone their story skills better. Besides getting the feedback, there is something really profound about being able to experience that thing of pitching your idea. It gives the students validation in their art.”

The first of the series took place in the summer of 2015 featuring the organization Petals-N-Belles where Nikki Bethel (SVP HBO Organizational Effectiveness) spoke to students and answered a series of questions. Our upcoming speaker series will be announced early in the New Year.