Not every university grad can create her own career like Melissa Silverstein did. After earning an MFA in theatre management at Columbia University, Silverstein tried her hand at theatre production. Ultimately, she concluded that the opportunities weren’t there for her—in part because of gender discrimination within the industry. An entrepreneur from the #MeToo generation, Silverstein was unwilling to abandon the arts, and so she refocused on gender parity in the film industry.
The founder and publisher of the website Women and Hollywood and the co-founder and artistic director of the annual Athena Film Festival, Silverstein holds a B.A. from Brandeis University in addition to the aforementioned Columbia University M.F.A. in theater management.
“Learn from failure” and “redefine what it means to be a success” are just two pieces of advice from this pioneer. As Silverstein told Noodle: “Role models are really vital. Seeing other people who have been successful, and the road they’ve taken to get there is really important.”
As she approaches mid-career, moving from start-up to growth and maintenance in her company, Silverstein notes the importance of seeking mentors—and, in turn, mentoring others.
How do you describe the company you run out of your Brooklyn apartment?
An initiative that focuses on gender parity in Hollywood. Women and Hollywood strives to increase opportunity by and about women through a variety of initiatives: advocacy, a website, going to festivals, and working with other organizations to push for parity.
It seems that you’ve been expanding into new areas in the past few years now that you’ve gained a reputation in the field.
We have a consulting arm that helps amplify women-centric content and a big partnership with the Athena Film Festival where our objective is to highlight films that focus on women’s leadership. It’s a media company—that’s where I’m pushing it now. It’s evolving.
I’m curious, looking back, that your grad school experience didn’t lead directly to this career. What were your considerations when you choose a grad program?
At Brandeis, what I learned was how to be a critical thinker. I channeled that skill into my MFA from Columbia in theater management (I think now it’s called producing). I went directly from undergrad at Brandeis. I didn’t apply to any other programs. The reason I went there was that I didn’t have to take a standardized test. I’m a terrible test taker. I looked at programs where I didn’t have to take an admittance test.
What weighed on your mind when you made the choice to attend Columbia, and what did you learn there?
I didn’t want to go to law school. It was a recession. I figured I’d go to grad school, and then figure it out later. It was expensive then, even though I had a fellowship. I don’t know if I’d be able to make that kind of decision nowadays; it’s too much money. Columbia taught me that I was really good at something and that I have value to contribute.
And, now, while you’re not producing theater, you are a leader in entertainment and media. It’s not unusual for students to enter a professional school with one plan and branch off once they hit the workforce. I got an MBA in arts management and ended up being an arts journalist. Was this the case with you?
I didn’t last very long in the theater business for many reasons, including institutional sexism. As for my recoupment, I don’t quantify it so linearly. Everything I did gets me to the place I am now. I met a lot of people who continue to get me to the right place. I grew a lot. I learned how little power I actually had.
I grew up hard when I worked in the theater industry. I figured out it wasn’t for me, and that was the right decision. But I’ve always been a pop-culture person. I was very good, top of my class, at grad school. It wasn’t about the schooling, it was about the industry. I know it’s different now but when I came into it in the 90s it was very hard for me to become successful and envision a career path forward.
Your experience of harassment post-grad school (and along the way) seemed to prime you for your creation of your own career trajectory advocating for gender parity–what are some achievements of Women & Hollywood that you can tie back to that experience?
There’s no one specific thing to tie back to that experience and other experiences I have had. We are all the sum of our experiences.
What would you tell others if they shared this worry about getting a graduate degree that does not lead directly into a profitable career?
I would say that their concerns are valid. It’s a very hard time to be making decisions related to grad school when you don’t necessarily see what’s at the end of the road. I go back to thinking about where people are, what they want to learn, and how they want to grow. For me, I needed more growth before I could enter the workspace. I needed to have a sense of confidence in something that I’m good at. College was for me a lot about understanding that I could be smart because the testing was always determining whether you’re smart or not… and that was always hard for people, like me, who don’t test well, so then you’re plagued by self-doubt. I spent a lot of time in college learning how to think.
As a college senior, how did you decide where to apply?
I only applied to one place. I had done a lot of theater when I was in college and started producing stuff when I was there. Getting stuff done is what I do. It could be in a variety of different industries. I’ve basically been a producer; it’s has had different names but it’s been the same thing.
You have had some hard knocks but you are really coming into your own. How do you measure your own success?
It’s critical to reclaim the definition of success. When we talk about films, often box office receipts is the definition of success. What does success mean? It’s not always monetary. You need to pay your rent and eat. Everybody’s definition of success is different, and it’s often male-centric and patriarchal.
I agree we need to redefine what success is. How do you define it?
Working on something that I am passionate about, good at and am able to be a part of the change. Success is fulfillment. Do you feel like you’re making a difference in the world? Are you contributing or just leaving a carbon footprint? Are you moving the dial toward a more just and equal society? I feel like that’s a good definition of success. I’m now also really trying to build on that success, and make it financially successful in a new way.
Do you have any advice for students who want a career like yours?
I made my career up. You have to be focused—and also be able to pivot. You are a composite of the totality of all your previous experiences, wrong turns, and right turns. Think about how to process your experience. If you have to pivot, then pivot. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure; it just means that you have to be something else.
What is your advice for students who know they want to go to Columbia University?
Make sure you can see the endgame given the high tuition. Make sure you’re not going for the wrong reasons. If you’re going to spend that much money and you’re going to be in debt, know that if it doesn’t work out, you can leave. It’s a lot of pressure to find your vocation at 21. I loved being in the theater—the live stuff—but it didn’t last for me. Understanding it wasn’t going to be my career was the hardest and best decision I made.
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