Skip to main content

Female Powerhouses Talk Diversity, Inclusion at American Express Women in Music Leadership Academy: Exclusive

At the 2017 Billboard Women in Music Awards, American Express announced its brand-new Women in Music Leadership Academy, dedicated to identifying, developing and strengthening women's leadership…

At the 2017 Billboard Women in Music Awards, American Express announced its brand-new Women in Music Leadership Academy, dedicated to identifying, developing and strengthening women’s leadership profiles and business impact across all sectors of the music industry.

Last month (April 25 to 27, 2018), Amex finally brought its vision to life in the heart of New York’s Financial District, inviting 65 women across two dozen companies — including but not limited to Atlantic Records, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Bros. Records, Scooter Braun Projects, C3 Presents, CAA, WME and nonprofit organizations like National Sawdust, the Grammy Museum and MusiCares — to participate in three days of hands-on workshops focused on networking, leadership skills and communication and management styles.

Highlights of the program included a fireside chat with Deborah Curtis (vp, head of global brand experiences & partnerships, American Express) and Neha Gandhi (editor-in-chief, Girlboss), as well as an industry panel featuring Julie Greenwald (chairman/COO, Atlantic Records), Kerri Mackar (svp, brand partnerships, Republic Records), Danielle Lee (vp, global head of partnership solutions, Spotify) and Samantha Kirby Yoh (partner, head of East Coast music department, WME).

American Express has been running its multinational Leadership Academy initiative since 2008 in collaboration with the Center for Creative Leadership, focusing initially on the nonprofit and social sectors before expanding into music this year.

“From Amex’s perspective, what people often don’t know about us is that we’re as much a B2B company as we are B2C,” Curtis tells Billboard. “That gives us a unique, bird’s-eye view on the impact of diversity and gender inclusivity not just on the customer, but also on the performance of the business. Given our long-standing relationships in the music industry, which are nearing 30 years in the making, the Leadership Academy was a perfect opportunity to bring that perspective and those capabilities to a more specific audience.”


On one hand, empirical evidence of how diverse teams and leaders drive better business outcomes now abounds in all industries. In a recent survey of 1,700 companies across eight countries, the Boston Consulting Group found that companies with above-average total diversity (across dimensions of age, gender, education, industry, career path and migration) had an average of 9 percent higher EBIT margins and 19 percent higher innovation revenues than those ranking below average.

Yet, this picture isn’t completely rosy: the same study found that only 40 percent of the companies studied fully embraced equal pay, open communication protocols, participative leadership and other practices that BCG researchers deemed as “enabling conditions for diversity.”

This gap became a key talking point during the Amex Women in Music Leadership Academy as well — namely that sweeping, aggregate statistics about diversity don’t always address whether companies are actually creating inclusive environments at every level and corner of their internal operations.

During the industry panel, Kirby Yoh outlined how she is researching strategies to encourage this systemic change as a board member of USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (AII), a think tank devoted to studying and advocating for diversity and inclusion in entertainment. Kirby Yoh stressed the importance not just of improving top-level representation statistics, but also of “changing the leaders who are at the table amplifying artists behind the scenes.”

One key project under way at the AII is an open, accessible database of female songwriters, producers and engineers. A landmark study by the AII titled “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” found that across 600 popular songs from 2012 to 2017, only 2 percent of producers and 12.3 percent of songwriters were female. In addition, only 9.3 percent of Grammy nominees from 2013 to 2018 were female.

Another important mission for AII is to pinpoint potential biases across the entire pipeline for music-industry professionals, including but not limited to hiring procedures and educational opportunities. In this vein, the AII recently created an inclusion rider template to help music, film and TV companies incorporate language into their employment contracts that incentivizes promotion and retention of women and minorities in executive roles.


For an entire year, WME was in conversation with Stacy Smith, associate professor at USC and founder & director of the AII, to help develop language for the rider. In Mar. 2018, WME co-CEO Ari Emanuel wrote an official memo calling for all agents at the company to discuss the inclusion rider with their clients.

When asked about what other opportunities remain to improve the diversity picture in music, Greenwald pointed to the stubborn underrepresentation of females in A&R.

“I speak to so many college students and attend all these events and dinners, and am seeing so many fantastic women across marketing, publicity and brand partnerships. But then I look in the A&R department, and there are so few women there,” said Greenwald. “If you have more women in A&R, you’ll have more people actively looking for more female producers and engineers, and introducing them to all these young artists walking through the door. It’s like a sisterhood. We have to get more women behind the scenes of the creative process so that they can make the right moves. I would hire a million women for our A&R department if I could, but I can’t find them.”

Lee discussed how diversity and inclusion have become central tenets of Spotify’s approach to platform innovation, particularly from a content perspective. In Feb. 2018, the streaming service launched its Black History Is Happening Now campaign — which was initially proposed by Spotify’s internal employee resource group BLK@, and fleshed out in collaboration with national activist organizations Saturday Morning and Color of Change.

“Normally, Black History Month is the shortest month of the year,” said Lee. “We’re celebrating us and our culture all year round, but we realized we weren’t really doing that on our own platform. The black community has been one of the biggest contributors to music, so our community within Spotify began talking about creating an annual program to celebrate that contribution.”

Janelle Monáe is the campaign’s first featured curator, sharing playlists of artists who have influenced her work as well as a brief documentary film about Afrofuturism.

Spotify is also currently reviewing applications for its inaugural Sound Up Bootcamp, a weeklong podcasting intensive for women of color. “Talk about an underserved community,” said Lee. “Amplifying that community’s voice is going to be so exciting.”


One unified piece of advice across all speakers in the Leadership Academy was the importance not just of drawing upon one’s innate, unique skills, but also of being focused, tenacious and resilient in communicating those skills and values to managers and colleagues.

“One common mistake I see is the way people package how they want to climb,” Gandhi said during her fireside chat. “People tend to package their climb using time — ‘I’ve already been here for so-and-so many years, so now I deserve a raise’ — versus highlighting what value they’re really bringing into the company. You should focus on value creation, and on what you’re helping other people at the company do, not just on what you want or on anything you think you’re entitled to. Otherwise, you may end up moving backward, not forward.”

Curtis added that being a successful leader is as much about keeping networks and relationships alive as it is about executing on certain quantitative goals. “It’s no longer just about the product: it’s about people’s experiences, and about creating something through the power of helping, inspiring and motivating other people,” she said. “You become accountable for more than yourself.”

Echoing the sentiments of many women in music, Curtis also declared that being the only female in a meeting room is far from a handicap and can work to your advantage, if you go into the situation with the right mindset. She told an anecdote about being the only woman in a room of 11 other managers, but not realizing the gender discrepancy until a concerned male colleague approached her after the meeting was over.

“Sometimes we get caught up in the differences,” said Curtis. “But in that meeting room, I was thinking to myself, ‘I have every right to be in this room. In fact, I’m the one running this meeting.’ You can still acknowledge the power centers at work in the room, but also listen carefully to the multiple perspectives around you, and then step into your own power at that moment.”

“Lean into your difference,” agreed Lee. “Your difference is your power. It makes you special, so use it to your advantage. There was a point in my career where my peer group was all middle-aged white men, and I was thinking to myself, ‘Why am I here?’ But when I realized that I was smart, faster and better in so many different ways and could apply that to a whole range of situations, as opposed to just sitting there quietly because I didn’t feel like I belonged, that’s when things really changed for me.”

Inevitably, these types of situations can initially lead to frustrations and stumbling blocks — but all speakers gave words of encouragement to participants, and reinforced the importance of framing each failure as a potent learning and growth opportunity.

“Too many of us don’t continue moving forward after failure,” said Kirby Yoh. “Don’t feel failure, don’t overthink it — just do it. The moment you fail at one thing, another door will open, and then that will just keep going.”


“When you work hard and stay the course, you get there,” agreed Mackar. “You might not necessarily know what ‘there’ is off the bat, and likely nothing will get handed to you. But when you work hard and find your own path, the truth comes out.”

Curtis also stressed that visualizing one’s growth trajectory five years down the line, and the subsequent value of focused networking and mentorship, does not die down as one moves up the corporate ladder. For instance, Curtis’ own long-term goal is to become a chief marketing officer, and she currently has “internal and external mentors” (i.e. inside and outside Amex) who currently serve in that role and who can help Curtis demystify the necessary steps to achieve that goal.

“We need to be the female leaders that we have always wanted in our lives,” Curtis tells Billboard. “Talking with the Academy participants, it’s clear that we all agree it’s incumbent upon us to share what we’ve learned with other female leaders at our own companies, in our industry and in our wider network. That mutual support is what will propel us forward.”