Sophia Chang is known for managing some of the biggest names in R&B and hip hop such as Raphael Saadiq, Q-Tip, the rap group A Tribe Called Quest as well as members of the iconic Wu-Tang Clan including RZA, GZA and the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard. She talks about her experience in her memoir The Baddest BItch in the Room, which she is currently being developed into a scripted series at FX. Now, as a woman of color who has been in a leadership position, Chang is paying it forward with her new mentorship program Unlock Her Potential.
The mentorship program launched in September to bolster women of color so that they can “break up the boys club” and ascend to C-suite, directing and other leadership positions. Under the program, mentees will be paired with a mentor and will have the opportunity to connect with them one-on-one for one hour every month for a year.
To do this, Chang has recruited over 100 mentors from various disciplines in entertainment. This includes producers like RZA, manager Michael Ostin, Tomorrow Studios President Becky Clements, Monami Productions’ Mona Scott Young, directors Jim Jarmusch and Bao Nguyen and Better Things co-creator, producer, writer and star Pamela Adlon. The mentorship is currently accepting applications through October 5.
“What Sophia wants to do with Unlock Her Potential is everything — education and advocacy from the ground up,” said Adlon. “Women — particularly women of color — need to be supported by everybody. I am excited to meet my mentee and offer my experience and knowledge to help a BIPOC filmmaker get her foot in the door, share her stories and get to WERK.”
“I also know that she’s a very busy woman,” Chang said of Adlon. When she asked her to be a mentor, Adlon did not hesitate. “She said, ‘I’m in’.” The collaboration worked out beyond the mentorship program as Deadline has exclusively learned that Adlon signed on as executive producer of Chang’s aforementioned FX project.
Deadline talked to Chang about the mentorship program, how there is a lack of mentors for women of color and how she hopes Unlock Her Potential will change all of that.
DEADLINE: How does your own experience in the industry help inform what you wanted this mentorship to be?
SOPHIA CHANG: That’s a good question. I have been mentored for 33 years now by Michael Ostin, the son of Mo Ostin, who is the long time chairman of Warner Bros. Records and started Reprise Records with Frank Sinatra. Michael then went on to become the head of A&R at Warner Bros. Records and then was the president of DreamWorks Records.
I met him because I worked at Paul Simon and Paul was signed to Warner Bros. Mo had signed Paul to Warner Bros. So that’s how I met him and without it being formal, he became my mentor. He has been with me for every single, personal and professional step of my life.
I remember calling him with all these ideas. I told him, “Oh, I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that” and he said to me, “Sophia, you can’t boil the ocean.” And just that statement was so instructive. He’s totally right because, you know, we get to a certain point where we have access to lot of different ideas. We get excited about a lot of different ideas but you can’t possibly do everything. So little things like that have been really helpful as well as the much bigger gestures, which is making introductions and stuff.
DEADLINE: So how did your relationship with Michael fuel Unlock Her Potential?
CHANG: It’s not like you get a mentor and suddenly they’re making introductions and they’re getting you jobs and writing you reference letters. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about guidance. It’s about advice — and that’s what I really hope that people understand that they can get out of it. I mean, 12 hours over a year is extraordinary. Who else gets access like that?
Mentorship has been everything to me because I still need advice. I still need someone to say, “Okay, Sophia, slow down” or “Pursue this idea, leave that one for now”. I have to say that for me, as a Korean Canadian woman in the industry, I really wish there was a Sophia Chang when I was younger. I really do. I wish that there was somebody that was out there sharing knowledge and saying the things that I am saying with candor about what goes on in the industry so that I could avoid making a lot of the mistakes that I had made. I already have this. I have the luxury of having Michael as my mentor.
DEADLINE: This mentorship definitely seems like you are paying it forward — especially for underrepresented voices.
CHANG: One of the things I talk about is that there are women of color that don’t even think about getting mentors. So it’s not that they’re not even available but they’re not even thinking about it. That’s a huge problem…so that’s part of what I want to do as well — get the message out that mentorship is real. It doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to get the perfect mentor but it means that there is this tool out there that you should really try to access that could be helpful to you.
I can only provide mentors for 106 women. If you don’t get it here, go find it somewhere else. People ask me, “How do I get a mentor?” and I would say, “Look in your industry. Go look at the people that you admire, there are a number of them. And just figure out how to send them a cold email.” The worst that could happen is that either you don’t get a response or you get a no but the best that could happen, that’s a different story.
DEADLINE: When you were developing Unlock Her Potential, were you thinking about the long term effects of this program that would differ from other diversity and inclusion programs that Hollywood offers?
CHANG: I have no idea what else Hollywood offers so I don’t know. I know they exist. This is not an original idea. I don’t know about the success rate or the failure rate. I only know what the f*ck I can do and I know that I do what I do like nobody else can. Did I think about longterm effects? Of course. But I also was very specific in my program. My program is one hour per month for a year. It is limited because in order for me to get the caliber of people that I got, I knew that I couldn’t be amorphous.
I am also very clear, this is not a pitching vehicle. You’re not allowed to pitch your mentor. Mentors can have caveat. My caveat, for instance, is that I’m not going to listen to your rap demo. I don’t do that anymore. I’m not interested. I’m not qualified. So it is all about managing expectations. If people come to Unlock Her Potential and they think after a year it means they have a job or they have sold their script, then this is not the right program. That is not what I am promising. What I am promising is that you are going to be connected with some of the greatest minds in their industry. You could probably change somebody’s life in 10 minutes. Imagine what you could do in 12 hours. If after 12 hours, you have not grown substantially, then there’s something wrong with the dynamic.
DEADLINE: What were you looking for when you were creating this all-star roster of mentors?
CHANG: Well, number one, I know them all personally. They’re either friends and or colleagues. I knew that they would understand the importance of this. They all truly believe that diversity of thought and opinion and perspective can only enrich a project in no matter what discipline. The notion that any room should be 90, 100%, 80%, 70% straight white men is ludicrous. It seems like such a fundamental tenant that diversity of opinion only makes something more robust.
I was looking for was people who are very accomplished in their fields — that doesn’t mean title. I don’t have a title. My title is “The Baddest Bitch in the Room” (laughs) It’s about people who have been doing what they do and are passionate about it and want to share their knowledge. I think there are people out there who are extremely talented, extremely experienced and have a lot to offer, and then don’t. We were put on this earth to be in service of others. I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out how I can be in service of others and this takes on a myriad forms. Whether it’s me speaking for other middle-aged women, single mothers, Asian people, Asian women, Koreans, whatever it is — I believe that I’m in service of others. Unlock Her Potential is a very tangible manifestation thereof so I really was looking for people who excel at what they do and whom I truly believe would be giving and want to engage with people. They’re not doing it just because I asked. They’re not doing it just because it looks good on their resume. These are people that already, I believe to the degree that I know them, already believe that mentoring women of color is something that is important and urgent.