Thursday, May 3, 2012

Italy - Vietnam - Ethiopia, My Version of Eat - Pray - Love

I was asked to give a presentation to the UCLA Anderson School of Business Board of Visitors this afternoon. Let me be clear, that's a SUPER BIG DEAL!!! The Board of Visitors are all the top of industry icons who help and advise the school and chart the path ahead. It's the kind of room that can send even a really great speaker into a cold sweat. I was honored, terrified and determined to be as honest as possible about what I've learned these last two years. Here are my remarks, if you're so inclined. It's kinda all I had the energy to write this week, so stay tuned for something on the witty and brief side next week!


"Thank you so much for the introduction and thank you all for giving me time to tell you a story. I call it Italy – Vietnam – Ethiopia and like the journey of the author of Eat Pray Love – my adventures are also about a divorce.

Now not the man - woman kind of divorce, that’s another speech. Today, I am going to share with you how my travels with the Anderson School of Business have helped me heal from the disillusionment, disappointment and heartbreak from an industry I have spent my entire life working in.

When I started the EMBA program, I was producing a small drag racing reality series.  After spending 7 years on the business side of entertainment, I was thrilled to be able to join the ranks of the storytellers. There is nothing more exciting than to be able to share a story that inspires, empowers, and invigorates an audience, and in my little world of racecar drivers, that’s exactly what we were doing.

I wanted to produce an inspirational series for women and decided to create something in the world of burlesque. I found a troupe called The Lalas Burlesque and crafted a "Sex and The City" style series set in the LA dance scene about five women who supported each other to achieve great things. Dramatic, sexy, empowering, and inspirational. Something men and women would watch, because every woman has an inner Lala! We shot the tape - beautiful, sexy powerful tape circulated it to our agents and networks and got a few bites. 

Then I had a phone call that would change the future of my career, and hopefully will eventually change the future of the biz. A network executive called and said. 

"Summers, can you add in some footage of them 
cat-fighting in costume?"

It was at that moment that I knew my relationship with the traditional structure of the entertainment industry was over. There was NO WAY I would make that kind of show and despite what that particular network executive thought, there was NO WAY that is what the audience actually needed and there was NO WAY that it could be good for the brands advertising on it.

So I took a hiatus and traveled the world with UCLA.

My first international trip with Anderson was studying luxury branding and marketing at Milan’s SDA Bocconi. A few classmates from my EMBA program joined and for a week, we immersed ourselves in the opulent world of the luxury market. We studied wine, fashion, yachting, hospitality, jewelry and automotive. My team and I focused on understanding the luxury automotive market and learning about the world of Ferraris, Maserati, and Bugattis. We set up test drives and analyzed the business structures, revenue drivers, and ultimately marketing stories created by these brands. 

I was privileged to study with students from top business schools all over the world, some of whom I’d met at our own elective block the previous June. We became fast friends and continue to interact through social media, sharing ideas, business plans, and life's stories. I began to establish a global network of business professionals.

 It was nice to get out of Hollywood for a while. The guys sure are cute in Italy.

After that extraordinary adventure in understanding stories of opulence and the critical role the integration of the fairy tale plays into the success of luxury markets, I returned and spent a semester studying Negotiations, Management Communications, Operations and Quantitative Marketing (aka Customer Info Strategy). Adding layers to my understanding of my own business as well as learning about decisions made in other industries that might advise changes in entertainment.

At the end of the semester, I was lucky enough to slide in last minute to Professor George Abe and Professor Bob McCaan’s trip to Vietnam to study Doing Business in South East Asia.  I traveled with 50 other students from Anderson to Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, and Ho Chi Min city.  We visited wood blind factories, the largest confectioner in Vietnam and heard speakers on banking, real estate, corruption and infrastructure expansion. One of the most compelling speakers was a fellow Cal Berkeley alum Phil Tram who started Glass Egg, a special effects and animation studio in Vietnam. The innate artistic culture and young population of Vietnam lends itself to a highly creative and tech savvy pool of human resources. Phil saw an opportunity to create a business in Vietnam that added value not only to the end product of feature films or video games, but also did good for the community. I was impressed and fascinated by this intertwining of capitalism and doing good.

On our day off, a couple of my classmates and I toured the Vietnam war museum and for those of you who haven’t seen it, the destruction is devastating. I stood paralyzed on the third floor of the museum and cried. That afternoon we were scheduled to take a cooking class after a tour of the market, and it couldn’t have been a more poetic juxtaposition. To go from such devastation to spending the afternoon learning to create with a sweet Vietnamese master chef. Destruction to creation. In the face of tragedy, how can we re-create?
I had one week between returning from Vietnam and packing up with my Strategic Management Research team to head to Ethiopia. So off I trekked with my motley team of 5, a physician, an engineer, an operations expert, a technologist, and a tv producer go to Ethiopia. Sounds like a bad reality show!

Our master thesis project, funded by Johnson & Johnson, is to create a succession plan and develop sustainable business structural recommendations for one of Ethiopia’s largest and most essential NGO’s. ProjectMercy was founded in 1978 after its founder Marta Gabre Tsadick, the first female senator of Ethiopia escaped the rise of communism, murder of her mentor Emperor Haille Selasse and execution of many of her fellow cabinet members. Upon arriving in the United States, Marta and her husband Deme dedicated their lives to the plight of Ethiopia. 35 years later, Project Mercy runs a school for 1600 children, a hospital that sees over 40,000 patients per year, is building a new high school and orphanage, running a dairy cattle breeding project to increase milk productivity, and heavily involved in agricultural development and field testing. 

Believe it or not after all that Ethiopia has been through, they never really got around to figuring out what to grow.

The problem faced by Project Mercy is similar to many extraordinary, world changing businesses. It’s the Steve Jobs problem. Ethiopia style.  The Charismatic leader, in this case Marta can literally move mountains at a business’ inception, but sustaining such productivity beyond the founder’s tenure can be perilous at best.

But it’s not as simple as naming a successor. Longevity of any brand, organization, or foundation instead relies on understanding the core value offered to its clients and anchoring those values in its brand - like that of Ferrari. The business structure and operations needs must be clearly articulated, and understanding what the innate cultural and human resources of Ethiopia can bring to the project is essential, just as Phil Tram recognized when he built Glass Egg in Vietnam. 

I will conclude with one more story from Ethiopia about a little girl we met. Pictured here, holding her housemother’s hand is Lydia and this is where I truly fell in love.

Lydia was abandoned by her mother outside of Project Mercy at just 6 months old. One night the children heard crying and crept around the gates to find its source. Tangled in the thorny brambles was a sweet and scared infant. A little girl picked her up and for the next year, Lydia wouldn’t let anybody else hold her without screaming. Over time, through the persistent love, diligence and kindness of the children at Project Mercy she began again to trust. Eventually she took the hand of her housemother and the other women on the compound.

When those five goofy UCLA students offloaded from the bus for our tour of the PM kindergarten, there stood a four-year-old little girl with arms wide open waiting simply to embrace and welcome us. Give us love. - All of us. Even the big white guys!

If Lydia can learn to love and trust in spite of a world that had taught her only to fear, then I’m willing too to take a shot at trusting in the art of story telling and willing to take a risk at trying to bring inspirational stories back to media.

So I know we are not all storytellers in this room. But I believe that my EMBA version of Eat Pray Love applies to every industry, every business and I challenge you all to contemplate.

- What is your brand and what are your core values? Are they aligned?

- What resources can you find exactly where you are to utilize and what can you do to do some good in your business community.

- and lastly, How can you build a structure that will leave a legacy of trust, inspiration, and affect positive change in the world?"

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

A Power Blonde Gets Camera Ready - 1 Min - 5 Minute Makeover Not much more too it than that! Here's how I go from just a wee bit mid workday drab, to super camera cute for appearances like the ones on Huff Post Live! It's a five minute job if you start with the right tools. I'm a Laura Mercier and Nars kinda girl!