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Latasha Gillespie: ‘Women have to be bold and fearless because there is nothing to lose’

By Tobi Awodipe
28 January 2023   |   4:19 am
Latasha Gillespie is the Global Head of Diversity, Equity Inclusion and Accessibility at Amazon Studios and Prime Video.

Latasha Gillespie

Latasha Gillespie is the Global Head of Diversity, Equity Inclusion and Accessibility at Amazon Studios and Prime Video. In her role, she builds mechanisms to improve the diverse representation of talent, dismantles long-standing barriers to success in the entertainment industry and tells inclusive stories that are accessible and marketed to a globally diverse audience.

Latasha previously led the Global Diversity and Inclusion (DEI) Organisation across Amazon Corporate, where she worked with Jeff Bezos and the Board of Directors on Amazon’s DEI strategies and progress. Prior to Amazon, she spent 20 years living and working all over the globe in Finance and Human Resources positions with Caterpillar Inc. Recently honored as a 2022 Multichannel News Wonder Women, GLAAC named her Executive of the Year in 2021. She ended last year on the cover of Inclusion Magazine for leading the charge on implementing inclusive and equitable practices. In addition, she was honored in Variety’s 2021 Women’s Impact Report and Variety’s 2021 Inclusion Impact Report.

In this interview, she tells TOBI AWODIPE about being a voice for the underrepresented, what it takes to be an original Amazon creator, and holding the door open for other women.

When did you realise you wanted to be an advocate for the underrepresented?
MY whole life! I grew up as the only little black girl in my school, class, and club, so I learned what it meant to be the ‘other’ very early. My father taught me how to use my voice and own the power of my voice, and he instilled these in me right from when I was a little girl. He told me I had to fight twice as hard; to stand up and advocate for myself.

By the time I got to high school, I was very comfortable standing up for myself to the extent that when I saw other people experiencing something similar to what I was experiencing or had experienced, but didn’t have that voice, I felt like I needed to lend mine to theirs. So, even before I formally started doing this work, I have always been doing this work informally.

How has the public reacted thus far, knowing that making this information public will result in Amazon being held accountable to everyone?
The great thing is that people have been really encouraged, because everyone in this industry wants to do better, but don’t necessarily know what ‘good’ looks like. Everyone keeps saying, ‘we have to do better at inclusion,’ but what does that actually look like?

When we put the Inclusion Policy and Playbook out, we didn’t put it out because we have everything solved and it was all-perfect; we put it out because we have to do this together. So, we are urging everyone to please adopt the playbook, adapt and share it with us. There is no pride in ownership. We have to put the process and systems in place to do and be better.

How do you ensure that each initiative helps Amazon’s main mission?
Our main mission is to delight customers, and everything we do is tied to equitably obsessing over customers. We ask ourselves how to equitably obsess over historically underserved customers, meaning we have to go the extra mile and do more to catch up in those places.

This work is about being intentional with every decision and putting speed bumps into the creative process to help us think consciously about our decisions. Some people say, ‘we don’t have a lot of women here now, but we will make it up down the road.’ Every single decision matters when we are trying to make progress with inclusion.

What demonstrates your motivation to attain the goal you’re currently pursuing at Amazon?
We’re the first studio to put our policy out there, and it’s a great way of showing that we’re committed to following it through and are invested in its success. We are also the only studio with diversity in the green-light assessment. So, when you bring your film to us, we’re involved from the onset and want to know if your film would help us reach underserved markets and customers; if it would help us equitably obsess over those customers, and if green-lit, what it would do to our numbers in front and behind the camera, as well as above and below the line.

We also want to know if said film would do anything that would cause harm or give out a negative stereotype about women or a tribe so that viewers don’t feel offended or hurt when they watch. We want people to be able to see themselves and their lived experiences through our films.

You’ve had a great career, what has been a defining moment for you?
It was when I chose to leave the manufacturing industry, where I had worked for over 20 years. I had been living in Singapore, having the time of my life, and suddenly decided to leave and work for Amazon. When I look back, it wasn’t about Caterpillar or Amazon; it was about me asking myself if I knew how to leave, how to move from where I was comfortable, and I knew everyone to go to a new place and start afresh.

It taught me that I don’t always have to know everything, but I have to be open to learn new things, and as long as I stay open and willing to learn, I will be okay.

You consider your job to be the ‘world’s best job,’ what does a typical day in your life look like?
There’s no typical day. Some days, I get to do amazing things; I travel the world a lot and see the people I serve. I cannot advocate and build systems for people I don’t know and have a one-on-one experience with. You have to understand how people live and operate to do the things that put the systems in place that they need.

I speak for Amazon around the world, and when I’m not doing this, and I’m in the heart of my day-to-day job, I might spend some hours on the phone with filmmakers, looking for how to make the overall process better for them. We are a home for talent and when we say this, we mean it. When any talent works with us, I want them to feel seen, heard, valued, safe and comfortable, knowing they’re home. When things go wrong, we work together to make it better.

I also spend time with our creative executives, giving notes because we read all the scripts, watch all the content and give feedback. If a story is about a particular community, we bring in someone from that community to ensure we get everything right about that community. We have, and fund partnerships with over 20 organisations that specialise in this work so that when filmmakers are making their films and need outside help, they don’t have to worry if this will affect their budget. I never want the budget to be the reason we don’t do the right thing in whatever we do. I also attend a lot of meetings daily and occasionally go to sets when I can.

What advice would you give to your younger self who is unsure about her life’s path and desires to understand what to do?
Take more risks! Women, especially black women, are more risk-averse than other people because we know how tough it is, especially as other women have sacrificed to get us to where we are today. We know there are not enough women in top positions, and we are trying to hold the door for other women coming behind us, and because of this, we tend to play it safe.

We always fear to ‘rock the boat’ to not ‘ruin’ things for the women coming behind and tend to play it safe. Women have to be bold and fearless because there is nothing to lose, only to gain. If we don’t take this moment to use our power, we can’t help the women coming behind us. So, I’ll tell my younger self, take more risks, God will catch you. Jump off the cliff; God will catch you. Don’t wait till you are old before taking risks.

A 2019 UNESCO report shows that in Europe, only one in five films is directed by a woman, and only 16 per cent of funding goes to films directed by women. Moreover, another study cited in the report reveals a significant under-representation of women in key creative positions, including directing, even though an almost equal number of women and men graduate from film schools. What, in your opinion, can be done to bridge this gap?

Sadly, this gap isn’t just in films. If you look at black women tech startups, for every one million dollars a white male gets for a tech startup, black women get 36,000 dollars. This is a systemic problem in every industry, which is why we cannot simply talk about this alone; we need to change things.

We need to go into organisations and change systems and structures. Racism and sexism would continually repeat and perpetuate themselves because they are systems built on keeping certain people in power and certain people out. Unless these systems are intentionally disrupted, they will continue to happen, and we would all be accomplices to it if we are not intentional in the disruption. That is why the policy had to happen for us. If you want to wear the title of Amazon Original, wear the brand and take our money, these are our expectations from you.

At Amazon, we have seen a significant increase in numbers of women of colour creators, writers and directors. All this only happens when you put policies and structures in place as you hold yourself accountable. You cannot leave things to good intentions because they don’t work. If they did, the world would be a better place already. This work is important because for the needle to be moved systematically, the system needs to be disrupted, and this is what I am trying to do every day. I want to disrupt the system in the name of good and for good, which gives me joy; this is why I have the world’s best job.