The Quintessential Gentleman caught up with HBO’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility & Corporate Affairs Dennis Williams to discuss what CSR means to him, how he created his role, and “using our powers for good.”
Tell us a little bit about your background and what your role entails as the SVP of Corporate Social Responsibility at HBO.
I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas and attended Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where I majored in English. For a long time, I thought that I wanted to teach but I didn’t know if I could do that for my entire career. After college, I taught eighth grade for one year and realized that middle schoolers were a complicated group of people and that maybe my passions would be better used elsewhere. What I desired to do, and was trying to express through teaching, was to find a way to give back to my community.
Growing up, I didn’t know what was possible [in terms of a career path]. I only knew what I was exposed to. Proximity so often dictates awareness. In my community, I saw hard working professionals such as teachers, post office workers, nurses, but I didn’t know anyone who worked at the only media company in my town, which was Hallmark. I didn’t see myself as a corporate executive because I didn’t see corporate executives around me. I moved to New York City in 1997 after meeting an African American executive who told me about an internship opportunity at Time Warner, the parent company of HBO.
From that internship, I met another brilliant African American executive who offered me an opportunity to work for HBO in the Human Resources department. I worked as a recruiter for a bit before transitioning into affiliate sales.
Following my roles in affiliate sales and marketing, I started working on projects which focused on multicultural audiences, and how we speak to and give back to those communities.
In 2010, my current boss asked me “What do you want to do?” I am forever grateful that someone forced me to define – not a job- but my ideal role at the company. I responded that I was interested in Corporate Social Responsibility.
Back then, we didn’t have a CSR team, so I started to share ideas with him for what that could look like. He asked me to put together a proposal and six months later, in September of 2010, I was asked to join his team and build the corporate social responsibility program. What started with three people is now an amazingly robust bicoastal team of 12.
Wow! So you created your own lane?
Yes, which was incredibly rewarding. I come to work every day to do the job that I architected and defined, of course, with a tremendous amount of senior level support for the idea.
What are some of the challenges of your role currently?
We are in a very unique and privileged place here at HBO that allows us to engage with a number of nonprofit groups around numerous social issues – many of which are found organically in our content.
The challenge is: there’s a lot to talk about, which makes identifying and prioritizing a difficult task. You want to be able to say yes to everything, but that isn’t feasible. However, if we want to talk about domestic violence, Big Little Lies allows us to do that. If we want to talk about the refugee crisis, Cries from Syria allows us to do that. And if we want to talk about gender equality, shows like Vice and The Deuce allow us to have those conversations and clearly, there’s a lot to talk about.
Do you feel that because HBO is such a well-established company it makes your job easier?
Absolutely! I can do this [Corporate Social Responsibility] anywhere, but doing it here — with the kind of support I get from senior leadership, talent, and our employees — is an essential component of our success and allows me to do my job well.
It takes an entire community of supporters which includes our talent, showrunners, development executives and employees across the company. All of whom understand that we are doing more than just entertaining.
Diving more into some of the inspiration for your content, who or what inspires some of your initiatives or campaigns?
I think each campaign is inherently unique, and inspiration comes from various sources. In the world of CSR, [inspiration] also has to come from a personal and authentic place. If we’re talking about an issue, I’m usually communicating with someone for whom that issue is personal. I try to listen to why the issue matters to them and not use my voice, but create a campaign or an initiative that speaks in their voice, or allows their voice to speak through our platform. Inspiration starts at a personal level, whether it’s because I have a direct relationship, knowledge of the topic, or because we’ve gone out and spoken to someone who does.
I don’t want to sound cliché here, but it’s like figuring out how we can do the best with the resources that we have. If you’re in a position of power or privilege, the question you should always ask yourself is, “Are you using your powers for good?”
At HBO, we’re in a position to inspire change and start conversations in a way that others might not be able to do themselves. We must use our powers for good.
Any other new initiatives you’d like to talk about?
In 2018, we will celebrate women in front of and behind the camera. I’m excited to see what we can add to a very important conversation happening now in our culture.
For us, this is about sending a very clear message that HBO is a place that welcomes all stories. There are a number of our shows that are written, directed, or produced by women. I’m glad so many people are engaged in a long overdue conversation about gender equality.
In addition to that, every day there’s something new that comes across my desk, whether it’s partnering with our talent, like Yvonne Orji from Insecure with the nonprofit partnerships that are important to her; meeting with folks like Jay Ellis [also from Insecure] about issues that are important to him; or talking to our showrunners about providing career opportunities on their sets in Hollywood. All of those things keep me very excited about what l am doing.
Any recommendations or thoughts on how a company could strengthen its CSR initiative?
It has to be authentic and intentional. People have to be committed to CSR because it’s the right thing to do. The conversations about CSR being important, solely, because of the bottom line, I think are short-sighted conversations. We can’t do good only if it profits us.
CSR is actually the exact opposite, and what true philanthropy should be about. l am always skeptical when I hear people talk about if something “makes sense for the business,” in terms of dollars and cents. I think there are ways that CSR makes sense for the business that are not financially quantifiable.
I would move the conversation into what obligation do we have to use the tremendous amount of money, human capital, and intellect to tell stories and impact lives. If you do that from a sincere place, it will make your brand stronger.
We now know that CSR is important in the mind of consumers. You will get to the consumer satisfaction piece if you’re out there doing the authentic CSR work. To your consumers, it will read genuine. There are numerous examples of when consumers smelled the phoniness of a brand because the company is doing for the wrong reasons or from the wrong place. If it comes from an authentic place then that says, “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do with our resources,” then I think you’re headed in the right direction.
How do you define success in your role?
In a lot of different ways. Success is seeing students in our program exposed to situations and opportunities that are new for them, but also impactful and life-changing.
Success is seeing talent from one of our shows take time from an incredibly busy and demanding schedule because they care deeply about a nonprofit or specific cause. And there’s a long list of talent, such as Allison Williams from Girls, who is one of the most passionate people I know, about her nonprofit that’s focused on providing educational opportunities for kids who are performing below grade level.
To sum it up, success is when we’re all on the same page, moving in the same direction and giving our time, energy and resources to people who need them the most.
What is your definition of the Quintessential Gentleman?
This is going to sound obvious, but the quintessential gentleman cares about his community and his world and wakes up every day asking how he can make himself and it better.
I have a 3-year old son and for me as a gay black man, the journey to becoming a father was something very different and unique. I made that decision, as a single man, to start a family, intentionally. I think we are all responsible for the children in our community. I wake up every day with a living example of why it’s important for us to do every single thing we can to make the world a better place. I want my kid to grow up in a world that’s better than the one I grew up in. Somehow, we don’t talk about that very much. We don’t talk enough about the legacy of what we leave to our children, what was passed down to us.
We have to get back to some of those conversations and when you do that, then it ceases to be about you. It becomes about something greater than you. And for me, that has been exemplified in the relationship with my son. Now, I go to work and I do the work for the both of us, not just for myself.