Women of the Year 2021: Thunderbird’s Jennifer Twiner McCarron is Evolving the Future of Storytelling
From Olympic athletes and tech startup founders to social impact champions and business changemakers, our inaugural 2021 Women of the Year guide features 37 impressive leaders who are making a difference, both individually and as a collective. They’ve all navigated incredible obstacles to get to where they are (often on an uneven playing field) and yet, despite this, have still managed to summit their industries and change Canada—and the world around them—for the better. In our series of one-on-one interviews, get to know each honouree a little better: their values, mission, lessons learned, and the other women that inspire them in their own lives.
Jennifer Twiner McCarron
President and CEO, Thunderbird Entertainment Group
What is your elevator pitch to the world?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: As the CEO and president of Thunderbird Entertainment Group, I am a fierce advocate for female representation and the authentic representation of BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ communities on-screen and off, and someone who passionately believes that every person deserves to see themselves positively represented in mainstream media.
What excites you most about the work that you are doing?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: I am constantly inspired by the talented artists and creators I am lucky to work with each day, and thrilled about the amazing content we are creating for some of the top broadcasters and streamers in the world, from Disney+ to Netflix to NBCUniversal and more.
As content creators, at a time when high-quality content has never been more in demand, we are in the unique position of influencing society through the content we create, and we recognize the weight of this. This is why we are focused on telling high-quality authentic stories that positively portray people of all cultures and backgrounds, such as our Peabody Award winning animated series Molly of Denali for GBH/PBS or our up and coming Young Love for HBO Max, which is based on the Academy Award winning Hair Love.
Where do you think you have made the most impact in your company and community?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: At Thunderbird, we are proud to be known for our people-first culture. I see it as a true privilege to be the president and CEO of this company, leading a 1000+ team across four cities, in our efforts to create premium content that is authentically inclusive and diverse. We will always prioritize a safe environment that allows room for growth, even by making mistakes, which can often be our greatest teacher. We believe in encouraging creativity and pushing boundaries, and this can mean embracing mistakes as learning opportunities because they offer a path to innovation and an invitation to learn and do better.
I am also incredibly passionate about advocating for women in the workplace. I know how important having a “yes” attitude is, and I strive to lead by example in this area. This is why I’m committed to creating a flexible work environment at Thunderbird that allows women and parents, especially, to say “yes” more often without having to sacrifice work-life balance. Visibility is so important in the workplace for women in entertainment—the latest Women in View report shows that disparity still strongly exists within the industry, with women-led films continuing to be financed at the lowest level and only about 37 percent of television series are showrun by women. And there is even greater disparity in the industry for women of colour.
I am grateful for the strong women I had the privilege of looking up to at the beginning of my career, and I hope to also be an example for the next generation of women. Because of this, I also dedicate time to championing organizations that align with this value, like the Wired Women Society and the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, and serve on several boards, including the Vancouver Economic Development Advisory Board and the CKNW Kids’ Fund Board.
What kind of problems are you trying to solve?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: Content is used to entertain, educate, and sometimes as an escape. As content creators, we feel a social responsibility to create content that spreads a positive message.
Historically, we’ve also seen women (and especially BIPOC women) be underrepresented in mainstream media, both on screen and behind the scenes. This continues to be a prevalent issue according to Women In View’s latest On Screen Report: of the 43 percent of women in key creative TV roles in 2019, only 6.4 percent were Black women and Women of Colour, and less than one percent were Indigenous women. At Thunderbird, we are trying to do our part to address both. We are always looking to promote women to leadership roles (i.e. our C-suite is made up of three women) and to create opportunities for underrepresented groups. One example of this was a partnership announced earlier this year with Wapanatahk Media, an Indigenous, female-led production company focused on authentic Indigenous storytelling. We are also producing shows that feature a BIPOC-led cast, like the recently picked up Gut Job, Styled, and Deadmand’s Curse for Corus. We are proud of the strides we’ve made in recent years (in 2020, our children’s series Molly of Denali won an esteemed Peabody Award for its authentic representation of Alaskan Native people) but recognize there is so much farther to go and we are committed to doing the work.
What does progress look like to you? How do you measure it for yourself?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: I measure progress in many ways. Having a happy and healthy working environment tops this list and I am thrilled to see people start and progress within our company. Retention of team members from production to production is key, as people can learn new skills and become more confident to innovate. This results in the production of incredible content, which then leads the development of strong trusted relationships with our partners, and EBITDA and revenue increases, all of which enable company growth. Over the last few years, a new industry mandate around diversity and inclusion has been evolving, and I am thrilled to execute on this with a concerted company effort around authentic representation on and off screen.
What are you doing that no one else is doing?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: It doesn’t feel right to say we are doing something that no one else is doing. However, I strongly believe that with every decision we make, we always put our people first and we are committed to “walking the talk.” This is a value that was instilled in me growing up, and it’s something I strive to do at Thunderbird everyday as well. For example, in spring 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, we quickly transitioned over 1,000 team members to remote working set-ups to prioritize their health and safety, as well as the health and safety of their families. And, we are committed to a hybrid work model moving forward that allows our team to pursue the best work set-ups that works for them.
Additionally, in 2020, in response to the Black Lives Matters movement, we looked inward to see what we could be doing better. This led to updating our company-wide anti-racism policy, implementing diversity and inclusion training for our teams with KITH+Common, and creating an internal BLM group. The employee-led group offers a safe space for employees to share personal stories, holding space for BIPOC artists and guest speakers to share their stories, and the creation of an animated short focused on members’ experiences of racism.
Was there ever a turning point in your career that fundamentally changed your business for the better?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: I would say that the turning point in my career was actually at the very start, when I got my first job as a Production Assistant. It was early on, on set, when I learned that creating an environment where people felt safe was of utmost importance. As I worked my way up in the industry over the years, I have always prioritized a safe environment where nobody feels like a number and emphasized a culture of positivity that allows excellence to occur.
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve built your company?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: In the business of entertainment, things can change on a dime and you can’t always anticipate what is on the horizon. With that said, I care deeply for people and will always lead with a people-first mentality. I hope this is the impact and legacy I leave behind no matter where my career takes me, but I also realize that the work we are doing at Thunderbird is so much bigger than I am.
What has been the most challenging part of building the business?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: We are in a unique business and with demand for content at an all-time high, the opportunities are endless. Learning when to say no to opportunities that aren’t the right fit for us has definitely been one of the most challenging components of this business. We are committed to telling stories that align with our mission of creating meaningful, diverse, and inclusive content, and that means partnering with partners and storytellers that also value this.
What has been the most rewarding part of building the business?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: Without question, the people and lifelong relationships I’ve built, and getting a front row seat to watching some of the most immensely talented and intelligent people’s careers soar.
What questions do you think all leaders should ask themselves before building a company?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: I think it’s important for all leaders to be incredibly self-aware and to keep their ultimate vision and end goal in mind, while staying true to their values. Questions I ask myself regularly are: What is your final destination? When you are at the end of your career, how did you make people feel? Who did you help and empower along the way?”
In your experience, what do you think is the quickest way to get people on board with your mission?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: Leading by example. For me, this means leading with kindness and operating with integrity.
What is your mission? The bigger picture?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: According to a recent SVOD Forecasts Update report, the global video streaming market is expected to grow exponentially and reach nearly $224 billion USD of global revenue by 2028—an increase from over $50 billion USD in 2020. As content creators, this presents a great opportunity. My mission is to lead Thunderbird to become the next big global studio with a focus on creating content that authentically portrays people of all races and backgrounds. This means working with partners that align with us, and ensuring our content is of premium quality to stand out in a saturated market. Most importantly, I want to lead my team in creating content that brings joy to all people. I truly believe that everyone deserves to see themselves reflected back on screen in a positive light. I am very dedicated to my part in making this happen.
How do you define success? What does it mean to you?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: Success will always be reflected in the quality and happiness of our people. I surround myself with people (many of whom are women) who uplift and inspire me. I truly believe that the happiness and well-being of my team defines the success of the company. If we have a happy workforce, we will continue to attract top talent, which ultimately creates the content that builds a billion-dollar company.
What is one lesson that you hope people will learn or walk away with from your work?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: True leadership is when you are more invested in the success of others than yourself.
If you could go back and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: Be kind to others, but to yourself, too. There will be days when it isn’t easy, but you can only do your best and try your hardest again the next day.
Who is a woman in the community that you admire?
Jennifer Twiner McCarron: Sarah Nathanson and Barb Harwood, our COO and CFO. They are kind, smart, hard working, multi-tasking c-suite executives who effectively juggle parenting with exceptional work and who care deeply for people. They always operate with the utmost of integrity.