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Leading the Way for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Disney Channel

Photo courtesy of Theresa Helmer

By Lauren Filippini (Alpha Chi, Butler University), editor

This August, Disney Channel announced a new executive role “to accelerate racial and cultural diversity and inclusion in creative content for a global audience of kids.” The first person to fill that role of executive director of integrated content strategy and development is Theresa Helmer (Iota Psi, Elon University) – and she made her way to this influential position through self-advocacy and a passion for serving children.

“Kids in our generations now are the most diverse,” Theresa explains. “As one of the largest media companies globally, I believe that we are uniquely positioned to set the conversation around any variety of topics, so it is imperative that we are having a conversation that resonates with kids of today and tomorrow.”

Even before stepping into her new role, Theresa has been part of these conversations. She has been involved with Disney’s Black employee resource group for the last several years, most recently as its co-leader; some of her work with the group has included hosting safe space conversations, authoring documents and creating a testimonial video to share the perspectives of Black employees.

All of this was in addition to her official role as Disney Channel’s manager of platform strategy and later as director of social media strategy. Only eight years after her college graduation (and after only six years at the Walt Disney Company since starting as a social media analyst in parks and resorts digital marketing in 2014), Theresa has risen through the ranks by advocating for herself and proving her value to the company.

“I’ve never been shy about what I want,” she says. “I’ve never waited around for someone else to take control of my career. I realized in the early part of my career – and I still feel like I’m early in my career, by the way – no one is going to champion me more than me.”

It’s a skill she honed at Elon University through mentors who taught her the value of networking, as well as from Alpha Chi Omega, where she served as chapter president.

“I think that anyone who has been involved in leadership in a sorority has been pre-equipped with skills for navigating corporate America,” she reflects, pointing to skills she built in collaboration, conflict resolution and responsibility. “I feel very much that my Alpha Chi experience has a direct correlation with how I’ve been able to operate.”

Two years ago, Theresa participated in a Disney Channel summit on diversity and inclusion. While a taskforce was built and embedded within company culture, Theresa says she also realized the company needed a dedicated resource to do this work full-time, as opposed to those who were working toward diversity and inclusion in addition to their primary roles. So she created a job description and team document “of what I thought needed to be in place in order for this work to really have a long-term impact,” she explains.

After conversations with colleagues and mentors, she acknowledged the company wasn’t yet at the point in its diversity and inclusion journey for this full-time role, and she put her documents to the side.

But this past summer saw a changing dialogue that created an environment at the company for this work.

“We saw unprecedented focus on racial injustice and systemic disenfranchisement of Black Americans,” Theresa explains. “I think so many factors played into why at this moment people are so committed to this diversity, equity and inclusion work. [With the pandemic], so many of the distractions for day-to-day work that we’ve built up in our society have gone away…You are intently focused on yourself and what you see day to day, and it’s really hard to ignore what’s going on in the world.”

When the president of the network announced a new commitment to diversity and inclusion work, Theresa pulled out that job description from two years ago and updated it. Thanks to Disney’s meet-and-greet culture and her work with the employee resource group, she had connections in senior leadership and began to share her job description and the reasons she had the skills and passion for a full-time role in diversity and inclusion.

“This is my opportunity, I’ve been in this space, and I’ve been doing the work,” Theresa says she remembers thinking. “I felt like I didn’t have anything to lose except not speaking up for myself and for what I believe is the right path for not only myself but what I value for the business and the audience.”

Theresa says that everyone at Disney Channel is ready to begin the work of creating more inclusive stories for kids around the world. In her role, Theresa will focus on the practicalities of that work in terms of the creative process, research and strategy, shifting the company to what she describes as “a more inclusive and equitable model” that tells the multi-faceted stories of kids who have not traditionally been represented in the media.

“I’m motivated by what the audience wants and needs and by what I wish I could have had at that age in terms of representation,” she says.

Her role will also prioritize building partnerships with colleagues and stakeholders at the highest decision-making levels of this global company.

“We are aiming to reach and build a lasting relationship with audiences that frankly are not represented across the board in any industry,” she explains. “In order to be competitive and best serve the consumer, you have to have a reflection [at the executive level] of who you are trying to reach. There needs to be an infusion of new perspectives, new voices, different generational makeups to drive the change we’re boldly stepping into.”

She also recognizes her responsibility to the children watching the Disney Channel: “Kids are the future. I know it’s cliché, but the social norms, the social mores, the foundation of culture is built at a young age,” Theresa says. “It’s where all socialization and understanding begins.”

And Theresa is passionate that this understanding must include diverse perspectives and experiences. “At the end of the day, what I believe is most important and what my role is at the Walt Disney Company is that I am delivering an experience that is inclusive and equitable and can uniquely change the way that people view Black people and other underrepresented groups,” she explains. “My goal is to ensure that our young audience is getting the content that reflects them and their reality. That’s all that matters. My focus is on the audience and what they need and want.”

This story was originally published in the winter 2020 Lyre. The magazine is sent to all collegiate members and alumnae members who achieve the Life Loyal Roll through cumulative gifts to the Foundation. Learn more about the Life Loyal Roll on our website.