We are a community for Black students, alumni, faculty and staff at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business.
I see you’re currently a Director at Altman Solon. Prior to that, you were Associate Partner at Deloitte, supporting their Media + Entertainment clients, at SONY as an SVP of Strategic Planning + Development, and various VP and SVP positions at Warner Bros., amongst other experiences in consulting at Accenture and as an engineer in the U.S. Air Force.
Collectively, you have a range of supply chain and strategic operational experience, was this what you always wanted to do? What inspired your career path?
While I was pursuing my MBA at UC Irvine, my goal was to become a vice president with supply chain responsibilities, specifically targeting the Far East. I achieved that goal in my second year at Warner Bros., just four years out of school. So, I had to come up with a new plan.
For guidance, I reached out to people I greatly respect—not all of them in business. Getting that outside perspective helped me to ask better questions. Instead of asking how I could succeed in my current position, these informal mentors helped me ask whether I was in the right role, whether I was in the right part of the industry.
Things in the media & entertainment industry change so quickly that doggedly following a long-term plan just doesn’t work. I’ve focused instead on building a personal brand based on a deliberate set of expertise, always asking myself if I am in the right place to grow that expertise. This constant reevaluation of my surroundings has resulted in a role shift—both within and between companies—about every three years.
Today you’re at Altman Solon as a Director, Equity Partner, Management Committee Member and Los Angeles Office Lead. What’s a summary of your responsibilities in your current role?
As the LA Office Lead, I’m tasked with growing our firm’s presence in Los Angeles. It’s almost like being an entrepreneur with a safety net, since I have the backing and support of the firm behind me. That said, nearly everything is on my plate, including negotiating office rent, developing local business relationships, raising local awareness with TMT companies of our brand, and partnering with local universities to recruit young talent.
One of the most important parts of my job is to ensure that the Los Angeles employees are getting everything they need to succeed. This goes beyond just providing computers and notepads—it is about morale and well-being. People do their best work in an environment that supports their own growth, not just the growth of the firm.
I am also active in helping create a positive working environment across the firm as a whole. When I joined the firm, there were only four Black employees in our consulting practice. So, with the support of the firm leadership, I founded an internal ERG group called Black Diaspora. This group helps to provide a sense of community among our growing numbers of Black employees. Since we are spread all across the United States, we meet virtually for “water cooler talks” where employees are invited to discuss topics ranging from recruitment and retention to the latest trending show on the streaming platforms. The sense of community this group fosters helps retain employees who might otherwise feel isolated.
I also sit on Altman’s Diversity Steering Committee, where I work with my colleagues to develop strategies to increase the diversity of our firm as a whole.
How did your Black ERG group improve your business or transform the company?
As the Black Diaspora group grows, we are thinking more and more about supporting the firm’s commitment to diversity through education. I am especially proud of the programming we created for Black History Month and Juneteenth, including speaker events that were widely attended across the firm. As a global firm, we also get to celebrate Black holidays from abroad. For example, we celebrate the UK Black History Month in October.
In addition to educational programming, the Black Diaspora is also actively involved in our recruiting efforts. Having a Black representative at recruiting events helps to attract Black candidates for all sorts of reasons, including that we can introduce our Black Diaspora group!
As someone who is advising global entertainment clients on entering new markets, what markets are exciting you right now?
This is a transformative time for media, and I’m proud to champion and lead our annual emerging media and technology study. In recent years, many of our clients have turned to us for help in developing virtual production capabilities. Last year, we built on our expertise in this area to assist clients with IP-based workflows for delivering live, streaming content to consumers and how organizations can leverage cloud technologies to develop a competitive streaming platform. These topics are still hot today. Also hot are operational sustainability and, of course, Artificial Intelligence (“AI”).
I read that Altman Solon conducted a market study on conversational AI, evaluating current market size, competitive advantages, and future growth prospects. Where there any findings from this study that surprised you or maybe debunked any previous misconceptions you had about AI? What should organizations be mindful of when considering tapping into this technology?
We’re trying to be able to open up the idea that so many companies are already incorporating AI solutions but we’re only just getting around to understanding generative AI, which is controversial but also very exciting. We look at all various branches of AI as part of our study. For me, I tend to add a technology layer to research and a lot of that was honestly spurred by my time at Merage, since so much of our curriculum was tech-focused. That informed my strategic thinking fundamentals because how you win in the marketplace is still the same, but today technology just becomes a bigger enabler of that equation. A couple thoughts for organizations considering AI:
First, there is no doubt in my mind that AI will have some touchpoint in everyone’s life—whether personal or professional. This will happen. The question is how that will manifest itself. We’re already seeing some preliminary incarnations, like Siri, Alexa, or even ChatGPT. But we are still in the very early stages of adopting these technologies.
Second, we need to recognize that today’s AI is a tool—not a replacement for human thinking and contributions. A lot of people look at the new technologies and worry their job will disappear. I don’t think that will happen—at least not for another 25 years. Instead, I encourage people to think about AI as an assistant. No studio is going to replace a screenwriter with AI today, but a screenwriter can leverage AI tools to jumpstart an outline for a story. The real value from AI today is how it can assist you or make your life easier.
My advice for organizations: Now is a good time to start getting smart on the topic. AI solutions can’t be developed, and you can’t just give AI a large dataset to disgust. Developing an AI tool requires a constant feedback loop iterated over months, if not years. Once the tool is developed, the transformative power is astounding. I’ve talked to people who work in post-production who are using AI to perform color correction; now a once cumbersome task that required months of effort can be completed in a matter of days.
There’s a lot of investment going into AI, so it’s an exciting time for new developments. Definitely read up!
You hold a range of professional memberships, including serving on the Dean’s Leadership Council for UCI Merage. What does that entail and what initiatives are you excited about?
I believe that if you successfully climb a career ladder, it is your responsibility to reach back behind you and help others move right along with you. I began my efforts to give back by looking into non-profits, joining boards for organizations with missions that align with my vision of the future, like A Thousand Joys and Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy. Then, when I saw that Merage had appointment its first Black Dean—Dean Williamson—I knew I wanted to be involved.
As a member of the Dean’s Leadership Council, I provide access to the media and entertainment industry but also engage with other alumni. For me, it’s about helping accelerate more opportunities for Black alumni and students.
Connect with Derek Powell on Linkedin.