November 2021 | Kelly Yang HLS '05

by Aissata Bah

When Kelly Yang immigrated to the United States at the age of 6, she didn’t speak any English. She sat through classes and nodded along, desperately trying to understand. At the end of her first year in the U.S., Kelly decided that she was going to work hard and try to find her voice. It was then that she said her first sentence. By the end of her second year, she wrote a piece about her feelings on the plane from China to the States. She ended up winning a writing contest with this piece.

While there may have been grammatical and spelling errors in the piece, winning the contest taught her that she could be a storyteller without having all the perfected skills. “I had the authenticity of emotion, which is the most important thing,” Kelly explains. 

Self-reflection and authenticity persist as key themes in Kelly’s storytelling. Her first book, the award-winning and best-selling FRONT DESK, which follows a ten-year-old immigrant girl who manages a motel, is inspired by her real-life experiences. At one point in her childhood, Kelly worked the front desk at the motel that her parents cleaned. She became more confident using her voice, partly out of necessity since she “had to pretend like [she] ran the place.” Through this experience, she encountered people from different walks of life and further developed as a storyteller.

Kelly graduated from U.C. Berkeley at 17 and enrolled at Harvard Law School with the intention of becoming a lawyer. After being sexually assaulted at HLS and the administration’s mishandling of her case, Kelly became disillusioned with law. Kelly moved to Hong Kong and sought to realign herself with what brought her joy. “The thing that gave me the most joy always, was writing,” Kelly states. “But, I wasn’t sure that I could do it.” So, she decided to follow her second love: teaching writing to whoever wanted to learn it. What started as a passion project blossomed into a business, The Kelly Yang Project, a leading writing and debate program for students in Asia.

While working as an educator to young children, Kelly served as a columnist for numerous publications including The New York Times and The Washington Post. Most of her pieces were about parenting, education, and immigration. Through these columns, she was able to find her bearing as a writer and master the art of writing succinctly, a skill she views as invaluable to her current career as a novelist. Kelly’s path to becoming a novelist arose from two seemingly disparate events: 1) the newspaper she was working for changed hands, subsequently laying off all of its columnists and 2) her oldest son got a really bad report card. 

After getting fired from her job as a columnist, a role that Kelly took very seriously, Kelly felt that her only platform had been taken away. “Let me just stop, take the summer off, and see what happens,” Kelly decided. That same summer, her oldest child—who was 8—didn't receive a great report card and his father wanted him to stay back in Hong Kong and reflect on it. Thus, he wasn’t able to go to the States with his two younger siblings as he usually did during summer vacation. Kelly wanted to take the chance to tell her oldest about her childhood and all of the remarkable experiences that she had. She decided to write a chapter a day and began assembling the drafts to what later became FRONT DESK, which she released in 2018.

Kelly compares her writing process to dating. “It took many dates to get to know the story—to feel comfortable bearing my soul.” Writing about such personal experiences was difficult, but Kelly began to understand that writing was just a constant process of revision, and she gave herself permission to keep going. 

As an Asian woman writing about nuanced topics such as poverty and race, Kelly faced a multitude of challenges to get FRONT DESK published. In fact, her first book was rejected by every single publisher except one. To the young writers who hope to tell stories grappling with topics of identity and find a place within the industry, Kelly offers these words of encouragement: “There are many examples of people who have broken through the gates and have shown that the world cares.” She adds, “We all have an obligation to portray our truth to the world as we see it. People are ready for these stories.”

Following the success of FRONT DESK, Kelly released its sequel, THREE KEYS in 2020, and the third installment of the series, ROOM TO DREAM, this past September. She also has a young adult novel entitled Parachutes that she released in May 2020, which has also received widespread critical acclaim.


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Aissata Bah is a sophomore at Harvard College originally from Atlanta, GA. She is an aspiring television writer majoring in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies with a minor in Statistics. She hopes to create stories that specifically center and affirm women of color.


October 2021 | Vinod Busjeet DBA ’80 - Harvardwood

Written by Dayna Wilkinson

Vinod Busjeet’s background in Mauritius—and his innate curiosity and powers of observation—prepared him well to write his 2021 debut novel, Silent Winds, Dry Seas. An island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar, Mauritius was still a British colony during Vinod’s youth.  “Culturally I have a broad base,” he says. “The British education system exposed me to Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Longfellow--the classic American writers--and of course a lot of Shakespeare and Dickens,  a lot of the Romantic poets, and many post-World War I writers and poets. I was surprised when I met English majors at college in America who hadn’t read Chaucer; I read Chaucer in the original in high school.”

Vinod came to the U.S. and graduated from Wesleyan University. When interviewing for a job at a commercial bank, Vinod recalls, “the interviewer said ‘I’m not sure you’re ready for the business world. The profit motive has to be ingrained in you.’ He told me to go to business school ‘where people aren’t ashamed to talk about money.’”  Vinod trained for business and academic careers by getting an MBA from New York University followed by a DBA from Harvard Business School. In the end, he decided to join the World Bank, which promotes economic development around the globe. “It was more aligned with my values,” Vinod explains. “I’m from a developing country and wanted my work to improve the lives of people in similar countries.

“The job involved a lot of travel and I had no time to write, but I made notes on my surroundings,” Vinod says. “When people gave me their business cards, I’d jot something on the back to remind me of interesting details about them. Also, I often reflected on my childhood. I only started writing seriously after I retired. My first attempt was a screenplay.”

The protagonist of Silent Winds, Dry Seas is named Vishnu Bhushan, and one can be forgiven for seeing certain parallels between Vishnu’s early life and Vinod Busjeet’s. “The novel was a way to take stock of my life and to introduce Mauritius--with all its complexity, joys and sorrows--to American readers,” Vinod says.

“It covers the period leading to Mauritius’ independence, and is both Vishnu’s and Mauritius’ coming of age story.”

In addition to writing quite a few poems, Vinod has outlined his next novel and completed the first two chapters. He has this advice for aspiring writers: “enroll in writing workshops. If you isolate yourself, you won’t know how readers will react or how you compare with other writers.  If you’re writing with the goal of being published, you have to think of the reader.”

Published by Doubleday and endorsed by such bestselling authors as Edward P. Jones, Jennifer Haigh and Tim Johnston, Silent Winds, Dry Seas is available here.

To join Vinod on October 13th at 7pm ET/10pm PT for a Harvardwood Authors Craft Chat, register here.


Dayna Wilkinson is a proud New Yorker currently living, working
and writing in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area


September 2021 | Jaime Dávila AB '07

Jaime Dávila AB '07 is the President of Campanario Entertainment, a prolific source of multilingual content and a production bridge between the U.S. and Latin America. He has various projects in development including Bridges, a multi-generational series to be produced in partnership with Eva Longoria’s UnbelieEVAble Entertainment at ABC. Dávila holds a Master of Science degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University. 

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written by Sophie Kim '24

Jaime Dávila is bringing diverse Latinx stories to the screen. Dávila is the founder and President of Campanario Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based production company that develops content by and for the Latinx community. Dávila founded the company in 2013 in order to address the lack of Latinx representation on-screen. With an authenticity to its Latinx roots and appeal for mainstream audiences, Dávila’s work includes Selena: The Series (a biography about Tejana star Selena Quintanilla) on Netflix, Mexican Dynasties on Bravo, immigration documentary Camelia la Texana for Telemundo and Netflix, the dramedy Como Sobrevivir Soltero, and the family separation and immigration documentary Colossus.

Dávila’s experiences at Harvard inspired him to pursue a career in entertainment. Being part of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals’ tech crew and helping to create theater productions from scratch was a highlight of his college experience. “I loved that you could work together with a bunch of people, have nothing, and then by the end of a few months have an entire show, it was just so cool,” Dávila said. After graduation, Dávila initially pursued graduate school. However, he was inspired by friends who moved to Los Angeles to start careers in Hollywood. After a year of graduate school, he moved to Los Angeles himself, and started working as an assistant. 

Dávila founded Campanario Entertainment in order to not just address the lack of Latinx representation in the media, but to bring Latinx stories to the mainstream. “This majority/minority thing is just not true, we’re already living in a multicultural America, and Latinos, Latinx, Latinas, we’re already part of this mainstream. And so that’s a big reason why I started the company, was to reinforce that message which I’ve always known but for some reason gets lost in the media landscape,” Dávila said. Dávila recounted times when he would be told that telling Latinx stories was “niche,” to which he responded by working hard to showcase Latinx stories and gain viewership. For example, of “Selena: The Series,” which was released in December 2020 and concluded in May 2021, “We proved that when you work with Latinx creators on both the writing side, the directing side, the production side, you could have a huge global hit,” Dávila said. 

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August 2021 | Zadoc Angell AB '03

 Zadoc Angell AB '03 began his career as a TV Literary Agent at Paradigm, where he worked for seven years. Transitioning to Literary Management in 2010, Zadoc joined forces with manager Dave Brown and grew a team of literary managers which they brought with them to Echo Lake in 2013. You can read about his new Co-President position here.

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written by Brandon Boies

If I proclaimed that growing up on a 400-acre dairy farm could lead to an exciting and successful career as a television literary manager, there might be a few objections. Not from Zadoc Angell. I had the pleasure of talking with Zadoc, who was recently named Co-President of Echo Lake Entertainment’s Management Division, to discuss his life story, passions, and overall career as a TV literary manager. He was very personable, extremely motivated, and – as you may have guessed – grew up on a dairy farm in rural New York. 

That’s where we began our conversation. After all, it seemed a bit unexpected to start in a small-town setting and eventually take a career path that would adventure toward the glamorous lights in Los Angeles. Even Zadoc understood the unlikelihood of his own journey. “Few people ever got away,” he said. However, he always felt in tune with his creative side. “I always loved television and storytelling. I was just exploring all of these interests in a place that wasn’t very accommodating.” 

The answer to his problem? Applying to and attending Harvard, where he would study VES (Visual and Environmental Studies) with a focus on film. He reflected on his time there and how he enjoyed the city. More notably, he discussed how his upbringing paired nicely with the challenges he faced being in such a new place with the pressure Harvard creates. “I had this insane farmer work ethic. You have to have a really strong work ethic. And in my case, today, that means to keep fighting for my clients.” 

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July 2021 | Mynette Louie AB '97

What do the films Swallow, The Tale, Children of Invention, The Invitation and the upcoming I Carry You with Me have in common? They are all independent films. They are all lauded by critics. And they are all produced by Mynette Louie AB ’97, who has already made an indelible mark on the world of independent cinema in a remarkably short amount of time.

But it was never certain that Mynette would end up in the world of film, a point we returned to numerous times throughout our conversation. Born to working-class parents who immigrated from China and Hong Kong, Mynette didn’t have the opportunity to form industry connections until years after she graduated college. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t interested, however. In her characteristically peppy and charming manner, Mynette informed me, “I’ve been consuming films like crazy since I was a little kid.” She also attended Hunter College High School, which has produced the likes of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Robert Lopez. “So I’d been around that world, but I never thought it was a practical path,” she told me. “And it still isn’t, it’s a very impractical path. So, I decided to just do well in school and go to Harvard.”

At Harvard, Mynette concentrated in East Asian Studies but focused on Chinese literature and film, never relinquishing cinema from her life. “Leo Ou-fan Lee was one of my professors,” she said, “and he introduced me to a lot of film theory and cultural theory and feminist theory… a lot of my papers [took] a socio-political view of films.” Mynette said that taking East Asian Studies and, more specifically, classes like Lee’s that dealt with fifth generation Chinese films, “was a great education in Chinese sensibilities… and indirectly influenced how I approach story and the kinds of notes that I give.” It also instilled her with a need to make films that, while not overtly political, have something to say about the world around her. When we discussed her filmography, Mynette explained, “I Carry You with Me is about these two gay undocumented immigrants living in New York… The Tale was about child sexual abuse and dealing with trauma… [and] Swallow was about a woman feeling stifled by the patriarchy.” She paused for a moment. “They aim to be entertaining, you know, first and foremost, and compelling… [but] there is something that I want to say with my movies.”

These films would come years after she graduated from Harvard. “After graduating from Harvard with debt,” she laughed, “I was like, gotta find a job to pay [it] off!” She wound up working in marketing at Time Magazine and later in business development at “I didn’t love the jobs that I had right after college,” Mynette said, “But I thought it was a great general media business education that has served me well as a producer.” Our conversation was full of answers like these, because Mynette is someone who chooses not to focus on what a situation takes away from her, and instead on what she gained and how she can apply it to building herself and her career.

It was right after 9/11 that Mynette’s life took a dramatic turn. “A bunch of my colleagues [at] had been laid off and, you know, I was hoping to get laid off and get a severance package and that didn’t happen,” she told me, chuckling. “They [said], if you want to leave you have to quit.” I could almost hear her shrug over the phone. “So I actually did quit my job… and decided to figure out how to get into this film industry once and for all.”

Her decision was courageous, especially considering she still didn’t have any connections in the film industry. Her networking began when she answered an ad with a address. It belonged to a Harvard alumnus working on a PA-starved NYU graduate student film. Mynette worked as a PA on the short film for three days, her first hands-on foray into the film industry. She would go on to produce two more NYU graduate student films. “I feel like I got a free NYU film school education, just by producing these short films,” Mynette told me, laughing. “Then I moved on to co-producing my first feature, Mutual Appreciation.” 

Four years after Mutual Appreciation, Mynette got her first self-described big break when she produced the film Children of Invention, an even more impressive feat considering she was still learning on the job. “As lead producer, I didn’t have a lawyer,” she explained. “Our film was so small, it had a $150,000 budget… I basically had to read a bunch of books on film law, and [make] a bunch of my own contracts, and it was a very DIY effort.” The film got into Sundance and, according to Mynette, “just blew the doors wide open… I was able to build my network from there and continue to produce feature films.”

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June 2021 | Angela Chao AB '95 MBA '01

Angela Chao AB '95 MBA '01 has quickly made a name for herself in both the shipping and philanthropic worlds since graduating from Harvard College with a degree in Economics. After working with the mergers and acquisitions team at Smith Barney, she entered Harvard Business School and during her tenure wrote the case study ‘Ocean Carriers’, which has been added to the first-year curriculum for current HBS students. She currently serves as Chair and C.E.O. of Foremost Group, an American shipping company with worldwide operations.

Ms. Chao is the youngest daughter of Dr. James S. C. Chao and Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, and one of four daughters to attend Harvard Business School. Ms. Chao is well-known for her philanthropy and support of the arts, serving on multiple boards including Harvard Business School’s Board of Dean’s Advisors, as Co-Chair of The Asian American Foundation Advisory Council, The Metropolitan Opera and the Chairman’s Council of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has become a recent and generous supporter of Harvardwood, with a gift supporting Asian American artists for the coming year. 

Ms. Chao credits her family for both inspiration and motivation. “I am very fortunate that I come from a wonderful, loving family, and I have always worked to make them proud. My parents lived values-laden lives.  My mother passed on August 2, 2007, and we still try to honor her in every way we can.  My parents always emphasized curiosity, learning and contribution back to society and our communities.” These values quickly led her to both Harvard College and Harvard Business School.  “Matriculating to Harvard was a dream, and I still feel fortunate every day for my experiences there, which were hugely influential. It was without a doubt because of the people. As a female Asian American with a business career but also deeply involved in organizations that make a positive difference in the world, my leadership style is a direct result of my upbringing, my Harvard education, and the enduring friendships and inspiration from my classmates, many of whom are doing incredible work in fields that are very different from mine. This broad network and the multi-disciplinary approach to education, growth and leadership inform me every day.”

These friendships led her to the arts at Harvard. “I was involved with the arts, but mostly through my friends who were either musicians, artists, or performing artists. I was also involved through my coursework which I treasured. In fact, I nearly declared Art History as my concentration, but I later decided to pursue economics with an emphasis on women’s studies because as a child of first-generation immigrants, I was told I needed a more practical concentration to be able to find a job! I know that is something many of your members will relate to.  My experience demonstrates why Harvardwood is so important – because it gives more people the chance to explore opportunities in arts and media, especially when they don’t have family or other financial means to take such chances and pursue their passions.”

Ms. Chao agrees the past 15 months have been difficult for many in the arts community. “This has been a tough year. So many of our arts organizations are wondering how they will survive. I think it is crucial that we support artists and our arts organizations as much as we can. What I have always loved about art in all its forms is its ability to transcend and to help us see the world and our lives from different perspectives. Arts organizations like Harvardwood play an important role in fostering this creativity and can be a critical part of a necessary dialogue to improve understanding of our community and among communities to build a better, more inclusive world.”  

Ms. Chao continued, “I felt great pride when Chloe Zhao, a woman of Asian descent, won for best director and Nomadland won for best picture. Arts and media have always served as a strong bridge between many cultures, peoples and ideas, and that is especially true today. Sadly, we Asian Americans still face a lot of ‘otherness’, and so it is so critical that our fellow citizens understand our contributions and commitment to our country. We need to break free from old stereotypes and showcase the leadership that Asian Americans are providing across a host of industries. Harvardwood members can be goodwill ambassadors in this regard and help promote a more accurate and positive narrative of our community through their work.”

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May 2021 | Carolyn Strauss AB '85

Is TV moving away from antiheroes? Game of Thrones producer, Carolyn  Strauss (SHS '81), speaks out - Scarsdale Alumni Association

Television executive & producer

by Connor Riordan AB '23

When I asked
Carolyn Strauss AB ’85 about her proudest career moment, I could hear her smile through the phone. “I’m the worst at answering that kind of question. I don’t know!” she laughed. “I love when stuff that I love gets recognized, I think that’s always great… and when you have a show that’s very difficult to do, and then you turn it around. And it’s not me turning it around but the group involved… I think that’s always a really satisfying moment and something I’m always proud of.”

Her humble nature shone through the entire interview. She continuously emphasized the contributions of the artists she’s worked with and made sure to emphasize how fortunate she feels to have her career – which includes 34 years with HBO, being an executive producer on shows like Game of Thrones and Chernobyl (for which she has won five Primetime Emmy Awards), as well as the upcoming TV adaptation of the popular video game The Last of Us.

Coming out of Harvard with a degree in History and Literature, Strauss had no idea she would end up where she is today. In fact, going into entertainment wasn’t even on her radar. “I was trying to figure out, after I graduated, what I was going to do,” she told me. “Maybe I’d apply to law school or whatever. And then I got [a temp job]. And I liked it!”

For a time, she temped for several different workplaces in financing, marketing, publicity, and other areas. Eventually, she found her way to being a temp in the documentaries department at HBO in 1986. In her charming and enthusiastic way, Strauss exclaimed that at HBO, “The people who worked there were really impressive to me, and smart, and it was stimulating… I just thought, this place is kind of cool!”

Strauss’s time at HBO has clearly worked out well for her. She started with a temp job, and clearly liked it there. She moved on to become Senior Vice President for original programming in 1999 and Executive Vice President for the same department in 2002. Just two years later, she assumed the position of HBO Entertainment President before segueing to a producing deal in 2008.

Strauss’s career is the stuff of legend. She has both green-lit and developed some of the most successful shows on television, including Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood and its film continuation (which was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award), Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Wire, along with the aforementioned GOT, Chernobyl, and The Last of Us.

But Strauss doesn’t like keeping the focus on herself and took every opportunity to praise her collaborators. “As producers, you don’t write the shows, you don’t direct the shows, you don’t do any of that, but you find the people who do.” She attributes her success to “…being able to hitch my wagon to the stars, you know, being able to find really talented writers who have a voice, who have something to say, and with great directors, and being able to be part of a team that’s really trying to be excellent at what they do, with a lot of attention to detail, and who are really interested in telling compelling stories about complex characters.”

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April 2021 | Gerry Bryant AB ’76

Concert Pianist / Arts & Entertainment Attorney 

by Sophie Kim AB '24

At age ten, Gerry Bryant knew he wanted to be a concert pianist. More specifically, Bryant started piano lessons at ten years old, and it all took off from there. He went on to study music, graduate cum laude from both Phillips Andover Academy and Harvard, and receive both his J.D. and M.B.A. from UCLA. A classical concert pianist by training, Bryant also plays in PocketWatch, a musical group he founded, he volunteers for multiple nonprofit arts organizations, and he is also currently the Director of Legal and Business Affairs for Southern California’s PBS stations KCET and PBS So Cal (KOCE).

Bryant grew up in a self-described poor family in Cleveland, where classical music was not something he was exposed to. However, he was immediately drawn to it, describing a field trip to Severance Hall in Cleveland, home of the world renowned Cleveland Orchestra. His family didn’t have a piano, but his grandmother had an old piano. “She didn't play but she sang in church. And whenever we would go to my grandparent’s house, I would sit down at the piano and, at ten years old, I’d just pick things out,” Bryant said. When they noticed his talent, his parents arranged to provide him with lessons, and it was years later that Bryant would learn about the sacrifices his family made, with his father working extra jobs, to pay for the lessons.  

However, Bryant didn’t always find an audience in his community. He recounted a story when, at twelve or thirteen years old, some adult relatives and neighbors were gathered at their family home. Someone asked his mother if he would play a song, and she told Bryant, who reluctantly agreed. “So I sit down at the piano, I open up my classical music -- it was probably Bach or Beethoven or something -- and I play my little heart out. After I finish playing, there's dead silence. And finally, one of the adults says, “Uh, okay, boy, that was great, but now play some real music.” They basically could not relate to classical music at all; they wanted to hear some blues or R&B because that's the environment that I grew up in,” Bryant said. 

Bryant always knew he wanted a career in music. However, he pursued a law degree and an MBA because he believed that understanding the music business from a legal/business perspective would be essential to building his artistic career and ensure that he could protect himself and his art. At Harvard, he majored in sociology and minored in music, with an eye towards law and business school. When not studying, he spent his time playing keyboards and accompanying singers at off-campus nightclubs alongside professional musicians and fellow Harvard students, in the process adding other musical genres to his musical repertoire, not just classical music.

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March 2021 | Dionne Harmon AB '01

Executive Vice President of Content & Strategy, Jesse Collins Entertainment

As we were preparing this month’s Alumni Profile of Dionne Harmon (AB’ 01), the news broke that she has just been promoted to Executive Vice President of Content & Strategy at Jesse Collins Entertainment.  Since Harvardwood profiled her back in 2010 (as up and coming DJ Lady Dee), Dionne has rapidly ascended through the ranks at Jesse Collins, just recently becoming among the first Black production team of Superbowl LV in February. 

Dionne moved to Los Angeles the day after she graduated from Harvard. She quickly found her way to MTV, where she worked in casting for the shows Dismissed, Becoming, Wanna Come In as well as music videos for Usher, Diddy, Busta Rhymes and Alicia Keys. She has won the NAACP Image Award four times, and worked for The Kanye West Foundation, Foxx-King Entertainment and OWN before landing at Jesse Collins to work in Development. Once there, she helped to produce many broadcast events, including CBS’s John Lewis: Celebrating a HeroBET AwardsBET Hip Hop AwardsSoul Train Awards and Love & Happiness: An Obama Celebration as well as the comedy specials Amanda Seales: I Be Knowin’ on HBO and Leslie Jones: Time Machine on Netflix.

When asked about last month’s Superbowl, which was considered a success despite the pandemic and reduced live audience, Dionne was reflective. “No matter what the circumstances or limitations may be, you can always find a creative way to execute your vision at a high level. Every previous show has taken place on the field with thousands of people involved both in front of and behind the camera. The challenge for us was figuring out how to still deliver a high production value performance with a significantly smaller amount of people that was not centered around a big stage on the field. We brought together an amazing team in support of The Weeknd and we all worked hand in hand to develop and deliver a show that we all could be proud of. We are thrilled that it was so well-received.”

In terms of how her previous experience with live events will translate into her brand new role: “It’s all connected. Live events fall under the umbrella of unscripted content, and I did casting for music videos, which is a key part of pre-production for scripted content. In fact, there’s a lot of overlap in the development and production of unscripted and scripted content. Whether it’s an award show performance or a scripted series, everything starts with a vision, and as a producer, it’s my job to execute that vision – through budget, directors, art department, wardrobe, special effects, music/score… all of these elements exist on both sides.”

Harmon majored in African-American Studies at Harvard, but jokes she wishes she could go back and switch her concentration to Romance Languages and Literature as she tries to master French and Italian in her downtime. Upon graduation, she found many Black graduates pursuing careers in entertainment, and “we were each other’s support system through all of the ups and downs as we tried to find our places in this industry. It was also helpful to have organizations like Harvardwood where you could meet and network with other alumni in entertainment. It’s funny, because I had no idea I would end up on this path, but nonetheless, my time at Harvard gave me the confidence to be open to new possibilities and to recognize and capitalize on the opportunities that are set in front of me. Most importantly, I learned not to shy away from challenges; rather, to keep my head up and to face them head on."

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February 2021 | Johanna Faries AB '03

Commissioner, Call of Duty Esports at Activision Blizzard

By Eric J. Cheng AB '20

Former NFL VP Johanna Faries Named Commissioner of Call of Duty Esports –  The Esports Observer

While at Harvard, Johanna Faries (AB ’03) had no idea that she would be doing what she’s doing today. This is fair; in the midst of recruiting for financial services positions and graduate school programs, Harvard students rarely ever see themselves as the commissioner and designer of a professional sports league. Neither did Johanna. But by taking things year by year and doing away with tradition, she achieved the unimaginable.  

“If I do well in the next 12-24 months and am hyper-present, it will open new doors.” Thinking about her career and life as a brick building, “taking it one by one” has proven to greatly benefit Johanna. While many people especially today (and even more especially Harvard students and graduates) stress about the future, Johanna has learned to be a proponent of taking the pressure out of the long-term vision and maximizing the present. In a time in which being present in the day-to-day is challenging, yet necessary, this insight resonated the most.  

Now the Head of Leagues for Call of Duty (COD), the game that generated Activision Blizzard more revenue than the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the box office and double that of the cumulative box office of Star Wars, she’s proving that the only path for her is the one she builds herself.

With a title that those in film, TV, and other, more traditional forms of media may not be familiar with, Johanna oversees all aspects of the experience of the Call of Duty League (CDL), from production to "event-izing" to developing microtransactions, on top of all the general management aspects of operating a city-based sports league. Say you’re a mega fan of the Atlanta Faze. Under Johanna’s supervision, you can deck out in gear, tune into the playoffs live, and follow your favorite players, no matter where you are in the world. 

When it comes to providing viewers and fans the best sports experience possible, this isn’t Johanna’s first rodeo. She previously worked for the NFL for over 12 years, most recently serving as the Vice President of Club Development. In developing fan and business development, she’s brought her expertise to a whole new context—a familiar responsibility within a completely unique venture. 

“Activation Blizzard is taking a page from traditional sports leagues," Johanna says. Having years of experience under her belt, she understands how to keep the pages turning. To her, it’s the same competition, mega-brand appeal, and beloved player culture that is behind traditional sports—it’s “the sports leagues of the future”. And even in an increasingly virtual and global fan business, what remains true, as with all forms of media, is the importance of storytelling. 

“There’s a massive storytelling component” in elevating the players, she says. It’s about bringing their stories to life—not as elite professionals, but as humans. Johanna and her team maintain their focus on “star-building”—making sure that COD and Overwatch (a game in which Johanna also heads the league of) are not only brought to the mainstream, but also that the human-interest story is enlivened through depictions of players’ backgrounds, journeys, and resilience. Johanna mentions the first season launch of the CDL, facilitated by a Youtube docuseries about the Chicago Huntsmen. “Who are these people? Where do they live? What are the back-and-forth aspects of who they are as people as well as players?”. When it comes to using the CDL as a story-based medium, Johanna believes that they are only scratching the surface.

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