In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
More than a decade ago, Gloria Calderón Kellett was a 25-year-old aspiring actor, but a spate of rejections from roles she didn't even want left her feeling dismayed.
“Every audition was for a part as a gangbanger's girlfriend or gangbanger's sister. That's it,” Calderón Kellett recalled to Entrepreneur. “I wish that was me being hyperbolic.”
But rather than give up on storytelling, Calderón Kellett switched gears and started writing. She wrote and directed plays and short films and worked her way through writer’s rooms, developing her craft on series as varied as How I Met Your Mother, Rules of Engagement, Devious Maids, Mixology and iZombie. In 2008, after three years as a co-producer on How I Met Your Mother, she started her own production company, Small Fish Studios.
Calderón Kellett hit a major career milestone last year when she stepped into the role of executive producer and co-showrunner of Netflix’s reboot of famed TV writer Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time. The show gave Calderón Kellett the opportunity to write characters inspired by her own Cuban-American family.
The series follows Penelope Alvarez, an army veteran, nurse and single mom played by Justina Machado, who is raising her two kids with help from her mom Lydia (EGOT legend Rita Moreno). The show has been lauded for its funny, thoughtful and nuanced take on issues ranging from mental health, immigration, LGBTQIA+ rights to supporting veterans after they come home. After an outpouring of support from fans and critics, it was renewed by Netflix for a third season.
Calderón Kellett shared that one of the most gratifying parts about creating the show have been the responses from people who feel seen on screen for the first time.
“It just tells people that they're not invisible and that they're seen and valued,” Calderón Kellett says. “People would reach out to me on Twitter and [talk about] seeing the [Cuban coffee brand] Bustelo. They said ‘when I saw the Bustelo in the kitchen I started crying and I didn't know why I was crying.’ It was all of these grown people telling me they didn't realize how much they were starved of this thing until they saw it. And that really touched me.”
Calderón Kellett recently joined forces with other creators including Shonda Rhimes, Lena Waithe and Jill Soloway to launch 50/50 by 2020. The initiative was developed to help ensure that the decision-makers and leaders in the entertainment industry are representative of diverse audiences.
That extends to the way she staffs her show. In a tweet from early March, Calderón Kellett shared that for season two, all 13 directors were women, people of color or both, the writing staff was 50 percent female, 50 percent people of color and 20 percent members of the LGBTQIA+ community and the guest cast was 61 percent women and 50 percent people of color and disabled people.
“What we do affects culture. What we can put out into the world goes into people's homes and you can see the change happen years later,” Calderón Kellett says. “Culture can affect people and then it affects policy and that policy can effect change. We feel like that type of work is really important. And it starts behind the scenes.”
Entrepreneur spoke with Calderón Kellett about creating opportunity and why something that feels like a weakness can actually be your biggest strength.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me about a time that you needed to create an opportunity for yourself or others? How did you approach it?
My whole career has been creating an opportunity for myself. I was an actor and there was nothing. So I thought well, I'm going to write stuff that's reflective of who I am — a little Latina who's funny, who doesn't have an accent and who's not super dark, I'm very fair — and let's see what happens there. By writing for myself I basically created a writing career. We have to start creating our stories in whatever way that means for us. If you don't write, then find people. Learn how to produce.
The other thing that was important to me was doing my own outreach. I basically ran my own diversity program. I taught at [my alma mater] Loyola Marymount. I have been able to hire seven of my former students, all either women or people of color. I hire them because they're amazing. It's really rewarding to see that if you take the time to foster these young voices, then they shine.
What was at stake for you in this moment? Did this experience change how you think about leadership?
I've been fortunate because I've been in a lot of great situations [and writer’s rooms]. I hear horror stories from other women and I did not experience that. Is there sexism and misogyny? A thousand percent. For the most part I was in really great spaces that lacked people of color and women, but were at least decent guys. You get to see things run poorly and you get to see things run well and I think every writer in every room takes note of what they would do differently.
For me, I value the time of the staff and I really like my family. So we don't spend a lot of time watching YouTube videos and screwing around. We try to [organize our time] in an efficient manner so we can get everybody home so they can go live some funny and interesting stories and bring those in the next day to talk about.
I'm also so grateful that my first time as a leader was with Mike Royce. He really mentored me into showrunning. He has always supported my vision and really lifts me up. That's such an important thing too, the good men that I think get lost in the story.
What personal traits or strategies do you rely on to create opportunity for yourself and others?
I'm a very sensitive person, which I feel affects my writing in a positive way. I'm very empathetic. In the beginning of my career, I'd get very sensitive in the room, I'd have to go to the bathroom and then I cry it out in the bathroom, throw water on my face and go back into the room. For the longest time I thought that was a weakness. But then I realized, that's just who I am. I'm tough in other ways but I am sensitive and that can actually be a great thing because I really feel for other people when they're going through stuff.
Now, being the boss, I feel really sensitive about my writers in the room, making sure that they feel comfortable and there's boxes of Kleenex on our table so that if they're crying, it's with us. I think every one of my writers has cried in the room, just telling a personal story or getting cathartic about something that they're experiencing and sharing with us. Sensitivity is a trait that is actually one of my biggest strengths.
When you experience a setback, what do you do to keep going? How do you get unstuck?
I get real mad and then, I've got to be honest, I move on pretty quick. I don't sit with it very long because the sitting in it, it's like sitting in dirty bathwater. There's nothing that can be done in that space. You just got to drain the tub, get out and move forward. It sucks. Feel it. Get it out then move on so that you can make a change and fix it.
People who want to advocate for themselves don't know always know how. What are actionable steps they can take to make themselves heard? What steps do you take?
This is not just in Hollywood, you have to find your allies and people that you feel comfortable talking to. It's also trying to get to a space where you're able to confront people — which is a really hard thing. I really try when I feel uncomfortable with a person to get okay with them really quickly. I've realized that when you confront someone and say, “Our chemistry is a little off. We have to work together. How can we do that?” That opens them to be emotionally open to you. I've always had positive results with it.
The days of women sitting in the workplace or people of color sitting in a workplace thinking they have to push through it by themselves — I really hope those days are over. The only way that we're going to be able to truly advocate for ourselves is if we can do it verbally.
Has there been a counter-intuitive or surprising way you've opened doors for yourself?
The idea that if you build it they will come is fascinating. As a showrunner, I've gotten more acting work than when I had an agent and I was an actor. By creating this show, I have weirdly created a space where people do want to hire me as an actor. Which is funny because that was the intention 12 years ago.
Directing is also something I wanted to do for really long time. I've done a lot of theater directing. In [looking to support] 50/50 by 2020, we were trying to find more female directors that do multicam [for us] and I realized there was no Cuban woman that's done multicam, ever. I was talking to [director] Pam Fryman about it. She goes “I know somebody who’s amazing who's Cuban. It's you, Gloria.” She really supported me and said “you can do this.” I shadowed her and a few other people, and I did it and I loved it so much.
By me doing it, it opens the door for other people. I have to go in there and crush it because if I do then people will go, “oh, maybe we should give more people opportunities.” You've got to be undeniable, because if you suck they're going to go, “oh well, we tried and they suck.” If you're going to bet on anything you should bet on yourself.
Was there a blind spot that you had about leadership and opportunity you worked to change within yourself?
I was broken by the system for a while. If you're in enough rooms where you're told women are not funny or women are not as funny as men, you start to go ‘oh maybe I'm not.’ I remember I was finally in a room with another woman of color and they made a joke about us. They called us spic and span. We're both Latina. I started making jokes about it. I started speaking in an accent and being ridiculous when I was pitching. That's how I dealt with my discomfort.
At that time I really thought, I've got to work within this system and make these white guys not feel uncomfortable for calling me a racial slur. I look back on that and I'm embarrassed. I'm embarrassed because there was somebody else that was a lower level person that I should have stood up for. Thankfully, I've gotten to apologize to her and she wept in my arms and said, “What are you talking about? You were great.” When you grow up in a broken system it's hard to break through. And now thankfully I don't let anything like that happen.