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Driving Diversity in Hollywood - A Leadership Talk with Lindsay Wagner

Updated: Feb 15


Headshot of Lindsay Wagner

From Oscar-winning actors, directors, and writers, to chart-topping musicians, world-class athletes, and brands, United Talent Agency (UTA) represents some of the biggest players in the entertainment industry. In addition to representing clients like Issa Rae, Ali Wong, Bad Bunny, Kevin Hart, and Greta Gerwig, UTA has also expanded into content production and strategic advising, reflecting their drive to stay at the forefront of the industry's evolution. 


With that eye to the future, UTA brought on Lindsay Wagner in January 2022 as its first-ever Chief Diversity Officer to craft a comprehensive strategy for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) that permeates every aspect of UTA's operations. 


Wagner’s day-to-day responsibilities range from supporting agents in their client relationships to shaping inclusive talent-sourcing processes. But beyond policy-making, Wagner’s position centers around understanding how each person within the company can uniquely contribute to the DE&I mission and engage leaders across the industry for meaningful partnerships. It’s a dynamic role, and in a conversation with Peggy Kim, FUTURE NOW Founder and CEO, Wagner told attendees that “no two days have ever felt the same.”


But despite the ever-changing day-to-day reality of Wagner’s job, at the heart of her role lies a single question: “How are we using our influence, our scale, our power to make sure that we are continuing to do good alongside all communities here in entertainment?” Underlying her passion for DEI is her commitment to social justice. 


Earlier in her PR / Communications career, Wagner was reluctant to own the title of “activist” and feared retribution from her colleagues, but the deaths of Eric Garner in 2014 and Walter Scott in 2016 turned the tide for her.


“I think it was Christmas Eve when the news had gone out about the murder of Walter Scott,” Wagner recalled. “I had tears streaming down my face, and I said, ‘That’s it. That’s enough.’” Now, Wagner proudly introduces herself as “an activist and organizer.”


In 2016, Wagner was working at a public relations agency in New York. In her free time, she joined protests and volunteered with the Justice League NYC, “an intergenerational and community-led movement that believes in and embodies the principles of Kingian nonviolence.” 


Dr. Martin Luther King’s teachings on love and change are the inspiration for her grassroots activism.  She shared, “Whatever you can do to champion others to your cause has to start with empathy, love, and some common ground.”


It was at Justice League NYC that Wagner identified her strengths and began leveraging the skills she gained through her years in PR. “I realized this is what I’m really good at. I’m great with media…with storytelling, with words, writing, and executive visibility.”


Then, when she became involved with March2Justice, a march from NYC to DC calling for criminal justice reform, Wagner realized that she didn’t just want to volunteer. She wanted this to be her new career path.


“That changed my life. It changed my perspective forever,” she revealed. “I came back from that thinking, ‘I can’t just continue doing luxury lifestyle PR. I can’t not help in some way to make the world a better place.’” Wagner decided to pivot her career to the DEI field, combining her passion for justice with her media savvy.


Entertainment seemed like the perfect place for Wagner’s newfound purpose, as few things in our culture have the power to shape minds as stories do. 


“What ultimately led me to entertainment,” Wagner explained, “was when I was thinking about my mission and purpose, the impact and influence that entertainment has on generations, the way people see themselves, and refer to themselves, and the storytelling that gets passed on through that. You are now at the heart of cultural influence.” 


But, as Wagner knows, diversity goes beyond onscreen representation. She envisions UTA’s impact as reaching into the heart of people and culture. She is dedicated to advancing DEI across the industry, ensuring that her work is not just an internal initiative but a broader commitment to positive change.


An initiative that Wagner holds close to her heart is the Find Your People Program, an educational program for aspiring filmmakers made possible through UTA’s partnership with Issa Rae’s management and production company, ColorCreative. 


“[This program] really helps champion people from underrepresented communities into the industry,” Wagner gushed. 


The training program provides resources, mentorship, and guidance in the seven main disciplines of filmmaking, and culminates with a short film pitching competition for possible funding. The 2023 cohort included 28 aspiring writers, directors, producers, editors, cinematographers, costume designers, and production designers. 


When asked what her favorite part of the job is, Wagner responded without hesitation. “For me, it’s really about working with a variety of people. I love people.” And, she is passionate about understanding their stories and strives to be the voice for the voiceless. 


“Doing this work, you have to be… the person in the room that says what others are thinking but haven’t quite said,” she explained.


In this way, Wagner identifies herself as a "good troublemaker," echoing the late John Lewis, and emphasizes the importance of courage and empowerment in her work. “Feeling empowered to be courageous and helping other people find that courage is a huge part of my job and something that I really look forward to every day.” 


Wagner got her first career break through a conversation with a customer while working part-time as a bartender. Her outgoing nature and ability to connect with people led to an offer for an internship. With every opportunity, she continued to build relationships, eventually landing a job at a PR agency in New York City where she worked for 9 years. 


An effective communicator knows their audience, but for Wagner, it’s also about empathy. That’s what helped her get that internship, and it also informs how she leads her team today. 


Wagner learned early on the importance of authentic connections and the impact of showing up in critical relationship-building moments. Being a good colleague, asking questions, and delivering on promises are foundational elements in the relationship-focused entertainment industry, and are beneficial in any role.


“When someone walks into my office, I can feel everything that they’re carrying with them,” she said of her leadership style. “Being a person who is very empathic and takes it all in, I tend to carry that with me. I’m able to really sit and listen to people, to understand and not necessarily respond, and really try to walk alongside them.” 


For those entering the workforce, Wagner recommends getting out there and talking to people. “This industry is hugely based on relationships. If you just sit in your office… without getting a chance to understand the people around you, then you’re not really building those relationships.” 


Wagner compared relationship building to money in a bank. “Think about the deposits you're making [into relationships] in parallel with the withdrawals. But make sure that the deposits you’re making are significant enough so when you are withdrawing, you have a lot to choose from in that bank.” 


Wagner added that a lesson she wished she had learned earlier was the strength and confidence that comes from being your authentic self. Despite the challenges of showing up entirely as oneself, she advocates for leaning into elements of your identity that drive you forward. Authenticity is not only crucial for maintaining mental wellness in the workplace but can be the force that guides your career in directions you find meaningful. 


“Truly understanding the business and becoming the best version of yourself to contribute to the success of the company is really vital to how you are able to continue to be your true authentic self,” she added. 


Just as Wagner brought her empathy-led approach and social justice passion to UTA, bringing your unique perspective to the table will help you become the best at what you do. As Wagner said, “We all have something unique to give.”

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