Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright is the executive director of the Hillman Grad Foundation, which is Lena Waithe’s development and production company that she runs with CEO Rishi Rajani. Wright is a petite, slender woman with a burst of energy that manifests itself in the rapid cadence of her speech. This woman speaks fast — and as New Yorkers we are often accused (correctly) of speaking like we are chasing our words, so imagine just how fast Ms. Wright speaks.
She’s excited and frankly, she should be. Wright gets to go to work every day at Hillman Grad Productions. There, Wright oversees the Mentorship Lab and Rising Voices initiatives, now in their second year, in partnership with Indeed. During season two, the company screened 10 filmmaker finalists at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.
Getting into the eight month, tuition-free program is hard because it is fiercely competitive. For the lucky few who pass the test as mentees, they are given the opportunity to enhance their creative skillset through personalized instruction provided by industry professionals. This creates additional pathways to bring more people from diverse backgrounds into the entertainment industry.
The Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab is about their business fam[ily] with a deep commitment to infuse new narratives and perspectives in front of and behind the camera. Bring to the front of your mind what a laboratory looks like.
In the Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab, creative energy is mixed to find just the right chemical compounds to bring ideas out of the creators’ heads and into the world. To get the perfect alchemy, they arrange a robust slate of workshops, educational resources, professional development and networking opportunities for a cohort of diverse writers, actors, and aspiring creative executives.
The program includes television writing, screen acting, and executive development instructed by Carolyn Michelle Smith (co-director of Acting Track), Behzad Dabu (co-director of Acting Track), and Michael Svoboda (director of Writing Track), among others.
Now, what makes it really exciting is that the lab is an extension of the production company – a piece of a larger puzzle, so to speak – that is creating a sustainable pipeline of talent across film and TV (with plans to expand into other spaces including music, publishing, fashion, and more).
Program participants have a chance to directly interact with an impressive list of guests that include actors, directors, casting directors, editors, union representatives and publicists. Many of the names on the list are integrated with the company at-large, whether that is through a project, a client, or a partnership.
This is where Waithe’s program is different than others. She’s not about the public relations posturing. This hard working, visionary is determined to help as many creatives as she can to build their futures.
Let me roll something back and have a moment. There are millions of creative people who never got an opportunity. Facts – in Hollywood, talent is just one part of what makes or breaks a career. When it’s all said and done, when the proverbial dust settles, the winners standing in that coveted circle must have tenacity.
Waithe has the strength on tap. This fellow Taurean definitely hears the word “no,” but it gets translated into “how,” followed by a strategy to break down barriers. This is why, if I was ever walking on a street and saw Waithe in a catfight, I would not have to wait to be tagged in. I am throwing hands because when she wins — now listen — entire worlds win and that’s the stuff of legend!
In light of these facts, it’s clear why Ms. Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright, executive director of the Hillman Grad Foundation, moves with the speed of sound. Wright is a seasoned player in the industry. She previously served as the associate director of BLD PWR, an initiative founded by actor and activist Kendrick Sampson to mobilize the entertainment industry in support of grassroots organizations.
Additionally, she’s an alum of the Creative Artists Agency Foundation and the political campaigns of Randall Woodfin for Birmingham Mayor, Jon Ossoff for Senate, Joe Biden for President, and Kamala Harris for the People.
Currently, she is a board member of Covenant House California’s Advisory Committee, RAINN Speakers Bureau, InsideOUT Writers junior board, GoFundMe’s AAPI Community Fund, and board chair of The Objective.
Remember, this program is only in year two. Filmmakers Johnson Cheng, Gabriela Ortega, and Stacy Pascal Gaspard from season one were selected for a one-year residency with Indeed as filmmakers-in-residence. Ortega’s film for Rising Voices Season One, “Huella,” was an official Short Film selection at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Also, three directors from the first season were hired to direct an episode in season 5 of Hillman Grad’s “The Chi” – Deondray, Quincy LeNear Gossfield, and Boma Iluma. Iluma has directed two music videos with Hillman Grad Records artist Davion Farris including “Bad Guy” and “Tunnel Vision.”
Johnson Cheng recently directed an episode of the first season of “American Born Chinese” (Disney+), an upcoming genre-hopping action-comedy series, and shadowed director Destin Daniel Cretton on the pilot. The team squeezed in 15 minutes for me to speak with Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright and here’s what she shared about the program.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: Thanks for taking this time to chat. I see how busy the team is and congratulations to the second-year creatives that are screening their shorts at the Tribeca Film Festival. That’s major.
LACY LEW NGUYEN WRIGHT: You’re welcome and yes, this festival is special.
LAS: Talk to us about the program, please.
LLNW: What’s so cool about this program is not just a $1,000 grant to do a short film, we pair them with mentors who help them. They network with the producers who help them staff up. They help them figure things out and how to manage the $100,000 budget and create beautiful works of art.
LAS: That’s major. How has the creative community responded to the shorts, so far?
LLNW: People and the industry are responding very favorably. They love the videos [and season one] have gone on to [screen at] different festival circuits. I think that’s what’s important, that this is not a grant program.
LAS: This is not a grant program.
LLNW: This is a talent and mentorship development, pipeline program.
LAS: This is life-changing (in my opinion) because you can help many people shape careers that can sustain entire families.
LLNW: Exactly. We don’t leave them without support. We assist them in many ways like finding representation if they have challenges on their first job or if they want to bounce ideas. They always have someone who will pick up that phone, to call them and these mentors shepherd them.
LAS: Oh, Ms. Lacy — if feel a tear forming in my eye! This is collaboration.
LLNW: Yes, this program is a really amazing collaboration and not just between but also with the team at Indeed, Ventureland, and PRETTYBIRD.
LAS: It takes a creative village.