‘Humanity and Grace’: Female Leaders Pay Tribute to Those Who Inspire Them

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, Variety is putting the spotlight on women around the world who have had a big impact on the entertainment industry in the past 12 months.

But who are the leaders that inspire them? We decided to find out, quizzing executives, talent, producers and and talent around the world in conjunction with our annual International Women’s Impact Report. The answers ranged from political figures such as Kamala Harris, Jacinda Ardern and Michelle Obama to industry figures such as former CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem, Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon, Beyoncè and filmmaker and activist Ava DuVernay. The late Nelson Mandela, Jamie Tarses and Ruth Bader Ginsburg got shout-outs while the stars of HBO Max’s “Veneno” tipped their hats to leaders in the LGBTQ community. A few also saluted their mothers; many could not limit their answer to one person.

EXECUTIVE ROLE MODELS

Bela Bajaria, head of global TV for Netflix, mentions her mother first. “But I was also very fortunate because I worked early my career for Nancy Tellem, and Nancy Tellem was amazing an executive who’s had three kids and was super-involved in many philanthropy things,” Bajaria says. Tellem, now a member of MGM’s board of directors and executive chair and chief media officer of Eko, was “a really great female executive role model to me,” Bajaria says.

Georgia Brown, head of European originals for Amazon Studios, draws leadership inspiration from Alex Mahon, with whom she worked at Shine. “And Alex continues to be a huge inspirational leader for me; she has achieved just incredible amounts on top of having a great job and amazing family,” says Brown, who is based in the U.K. “She commands loyalty that I’ve not witnessed in many other places. And she continues to be a fantastic mentor to me and many other women in the business.”

Pauline Duarte started her career working with Beyoncé, and saw first-hand the “hard work, dedication, sweat and tears” needed to make it. The head of Epic Records France also credits Michelle Obama and businesswoman-turned-French-politician Elisabeth Moreno, who hails from the same Cape Verde islands as her parents, as key role models.

Daisy Edgar-Jones, Golden Globe nominated star of Hulu’s “Normal People,” found her inspiration on set. “Lenny Abrahamson, who directed ‘Normal People,’ would probably be one of the most inspiring leaders I have worked with,” she says. “As a director he created such a warm and encouraging environment for all the cast and crew, which really enabled us to do our best work, and also have fun during the process.”

Natascha Baldwin, the U.K.-based executive VP of Decca Publishing, meanwhile, admires Ava DuVernay for her success in bringing under-represented stories to the screen. “Her creative spirit and opposition to the ‘rules’ of the Hollywood establishment inspire me as I challenge myself to go out in the world and lean all the way in,” she says.

Having portrayed Queen Charlotte on Netflix’s hit “Bridgerton,” Golda Rosheuvel knows how to flex power with the curl of her lip. She likewise chose DuVernay as a role model. “She’s a trailblazer: compassionate, driven, and like Shonda Rhimes a symbol of humanity in an industry that has struggled with representation and inclusion,” she says.

Fellow “Bridgerton” star Nicola Coughlan first became inspired by Rhimes while reading her 2015 book “Year of Yes” as a struggling actor, never imagining she would one day star in the Netflix romance series that is executive produced by Rhimes. “It sounds super cheesy, but it’s genuinely true,” Coughlan says. “Something that I really appreciated about it was that it was very anti self-pity,” she adds. “I appreciate women who have had to struggle for their place in industry, and fight for it, and then become such powerhouses like that.”

POLITICAL POWERBROKERS

U.K.-based Phoebe Dynevor, who plays Daphne on Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” readily offers America’s first female vice president, Kamala Harris, as a leader that inspires her. “She’s at the forefront of female power right now,” she explains.

Kenya-based Dorothy Ghettuba, who manages African originals for the streamer, was among those invoking former first lady Michelle Obama. “Michelle possesses the integrity and dignity that is rarely seen at her level of leadership,” Ghettuba says. “Her sense of empathy and ability to relate to people at all levels while remaining completely authentic and her ability to balance her public and private life is inspiring.”

Jane Turton, CEO of U.K.-based All3Media, praises Obama for being humane, successful and witty. “She proves you can be a good person and be successful. Just look at what she is doing in TV production … and she has barely started,” she says.

From her Berlin perch as Spotify’s global head of editorial music strategy, Manuela Wurm looks to New Zealand for leadership goals. Soon to become a mother for the first time herself, she describes Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as “living proof that a flourishing career and motherhood are not mutually exclusive.” She also called out “inspiring and fearless” female bosses at Spotify.

Juliana Algañaraz, CEO of Endemol Shine Brazil, also singles out Ardern. “She has embraced motherhood, like me; I have three children,” Algañaraz says. “She handled the pandemic in a very efficient and a humane way.”

Lucy Dickins, the U.K.-based co-head of WME’s music group, finds leadership inspiration from another female prime minister – Sanna Marin of Finland, a 35-year-old mother of one. “Sanna’s leadership has been widely praised including her recent work to keep coronavirus case levels at one fifth of European Union average,” says Dickins. “She’s a great example of how a working mother can lead and be successful.”

FORERUNNERS & TRAILBLAZERS

“I’ve always been inspired by leaders that are brave enough to challenge the norm, with enough creative resilience to break through barriers, and human enough to lead from the heart,” says Jennifer Mullin, CEO of Fremantle. “Last year, we lost one of our greatest female leaders, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion for women, human rights, and family.”

Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios, is impressed by the athleticism of tennis great Serena Williams, as well as her other qualities. “I draw inspiration from many people and places, but I’m a huge Serena Williams fan,” Salke says. “I think she embodies such awe-inspiring strength, passion and humanity.”

Former ABC Entertainment president and producer Jamie Tarses, who died last month following a stroke, was forefront in Kelly Luegenbiehl’s mind. “We made a number of series and pilots together over the years, and I had such respect for her as a female executive, but also just as a human being that was smart and kind and generous and really supportive of other women,” says Luegenbiehl, VP of global franchises for Netflix. “And that’s the kind of role I hope to be able to play in the future as well.”

Adjoa Andoh, who portrayed Nelson Mandela’s chief of staff in the 2009 movie “Invictus” considers the late apartheid leader from South Africa her biggest inspiration. As a biracial person with a father of African descent, the implications of apartheid were not lost on her. Andoh praises his stoicism and courage during years of imprisonment as well as his humor and zest for life. “I find the humanity and the grace and the courage of the man mind blowing,” she says.

And Italian producer Donatella Palermo found career inspiration in director Charles Laughton’s work as a small child. While watching his famously scary “The Night of the Hunter,” she begged her mother to do something. Her mom told her that in movies “only the director can do something,” which in her mind has made them immensely powerful ever since.

Eleonora Andreatta, head of Italian originals for Netflix, draws inspiration from great female scientists who pursued their work despite obstacles against them. “For example, Rita Levi Montalcini was a Nobel laureate after a career as an Italian neurologist in times when it was difficult for women to graduate,” Andreatta observes. “She used to say that the way women are treated in a society is also a barometer of the civilization of this society, a concept in which I recognize myself.”

POETS & ACTIVISTS

Rola Bauer, MGM President of International Television Productions, finds Canadian poet Rupi Kaur to be particularly inspiring. “She embodies the struggles and frustrations that many of us have to deal with,” says the Munich-based executive.

Across the globe in Rio de Janeiro, Malu Miranda found Amanda Gorman’s inaugural address inspiring. “She was so poised,” says Miranda, who heads Amazon Studios’ originals for Brazil. “And I really felt like her message cross borders and touches different nations all around the world.”

“Veneno” star Lola Rodriguez considers Spanish activist and actor Carla Antonelli, the first trans person to serve in a Spanish legislature, inspiring for her steadfast commitment to the cause, calling her “a gift to us all.” Fellow series stars Jedet and Daniela Santiago call out American drag queen Marsha P. Johnson. “She was the first transgender person of color in the ‘70s who fought for our rights at great personal risk in a highly intolerant era.” Santiago says. “She set up a shelter for transgender persons and helped a lot of people. Thanks to her, the trans revolution was launched; she died fighting for us.”

And castmate Isabel Torres salutes Spanish trans singer the TV presenter Bibiana Manuela Fernández, better known as Bibi Andersen. “She’s been a role model for me ever since I was young girl,” Torres says. “She braved the prejudices of her time and marked a before and an after in a Spanish society that was very backward then.”

When actor Elizabeth Debicki met Brita Fernandez Schmidt, executive director of Women International U.K., she was immediately awed by her “compassion, fierce intelligence and unshakable commitment to the cause of creating sustainable positive changes in lives of the women the organization works with all over the globe.” During the pandemic, Debicki notes, the organization has put its regular programs on pause to combat the global health crisis and the emotional fallout it has created. “I adore her and feel very fortunate to learn from her in the coming years.”

TOO MANY TO CHOOSE

Vanessa Craft, director of content partnerships for TikTok Canada, admires those who lead with “openness, strength and creativity,” namechecking Michelle Obama, Serena Williams and Ava DuVernay. She also cites future leaders such as social activist Janaya Khan, clean water advocate Autumn Peltier and Kissy Duerre, named as one of TikTok’s inaugural Trailblazers.

Laura Fernández Espeso, CEO of the Mediapro Group, mentioned Gloria Steinem, Bob Iger and Steve Jobs “as two important references,” former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer for being successful in traditionally masculine sector (science and technology), and Phoebe Waller-Bridge for the power of her writing. The change she “brought to the way of telling stories about women has been a breath of fresh air on TV,” Espeso says. She also mentioned Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama.

Gbemisola Ikumelo, writer and star of Amazon’s upcoming series adaptation of “A League of Their Own,” confesses that many people and things inspire her. “On some days it’s Dario Fo or Viola Davis. On others, it’s a bowl of ice cream,” she says, adding Jesus for his accessible storytelling abilities. “Epic ideas, accessed by many.”

Jem Aswad, Anna Marie de la Fuente, Paula Hendrickson, John Hopewell, Jenelle Riley, Mark Sutherland and Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.

(Pictured: Netflix’s Bela Bajaria, actor Elizabeth Debicki and Fremantle’s Jennifer Mullin)

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