Anna Deavere Smith on creating creativity at Viacom
MTV's artist-in-residence talks about the leading ladies of Viacom and their secrets to staying on the cutting edge.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- In the early part of this decade, I spent a couple of years in and around MTV Networks, as its artist-in-residence, where my focus was the company's diversity initiative. Having spent my career backstage or onstage, I was new to the corporate world. I was struck by the MTV staff's enthusiasm for sharing ideas and hearing new ones. I also noticed that there was no archetype for success here; the wellsprings of creativity and management clearly had many different sources.

In August when I sat in on Fortune's roundtable with Viacom's (Charts) top women, I wondered: how did these women come to spend their lives translating culture to masses of people? In Judy McGrath's case, it was her desire to find a tribe on the cutting edge, even in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and hearing her father's recordings of Duke Ellington, which he had the "good sense," she says, to play, every day. And having grown up "in an era where music was all about politics and social issues," she says, she took MTV into politics (with "Rock the Vote").

Gail Berman, who grew up New York's Long Island, discovered the power of culture by going to theater on a regular basis - and not just musical comedies. She remembers her first play: "Slow Dance on the Killing Ground," a drama that touches on race, the Holocaust and personal truth - 1960's fare at its most searing. She was seven years old at the time.

For Debra Lee, given her interest in African American culture and black owned businesses, going to BET was a dream come true. Any way you look at it, she's a pioneer. The same people who laughed when she left the fast track to go to BET in the early days call her now, to ask for jobs.

Cyma Zharghami's father was Iranian, her mother Scottish: first generation immigrants. Of her parents' lives in Englewood, New Jersey, she says, "There were a lot of cultural cues that they missed." Hence, she and her siblings were often leading them on the cultural landscape. Nickelodeon, similarly, she says "..has kids saying to their parents 'come with me, look at this...' rather than the other way around."

These women spend every day immersed in understanding what young people want. I noticed that they became notably more animated when they began talking about their own children. Girls are quoted mostly. When Gail mimics her daughter asking, "How was your day?" I heard the child's concern and gentleness. Of the boys, Cyma quickly, deadpan, zips in: "They don't talk." Everyone laughed. "I think well of young adults," McGrath reflects. Indeed, all four of them do. And that, perhaps is the real secret to their success.

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