Careers and Coffee: Women in Film and Television

By Ama Debrah

This past Tuesday, the “Careers and Coffee” event series at the Barnard Career Development office hosted a special talk on women in film and television, featuring Barnard alumna Nancy Mendelson Gates, co-head of the TV Talent department and the head of the newly opened New York office of United Talent Agency (UTA). As a true expert in the business, Gates shared her tips for not only getting started in a career in television, but also shared wise words on pursuing any vocation after graduation.

On the right, Barnard alumna Nancy Mendelson Gates,
with Lori Laughlin
(Full House, 90210)

Gates began her talk describing her “circuitous career path” to working at UTA. After graduating with a degree in political economy from Barnard, Gates held a wide variety of jobs, including working for non-profits and medical editing. When attending the University of Texas at Austin for her business degree, where the gender ratio was 20% women, 80% men, Gates first experienced sexism in the workplace. “I was a Jewish woman from New York at Austin Texas business school,” Gates joked.

In her late twenties, Gates moved to Los Angeles and got a job in the UTA’s Agent Training Program. Although Gates said she almost wasn’t hired because she was “too educated and too old,” Gates worked her way up from the mailroom and became one of the fastest-promoted UTA agents after less than two years. Gates, however, did not define herself as a “movie person,” saying that she preferred the business and quick-paced nature of television. At UTA, Gates represents big names such as Patrick Dempsey, Brooke Shields, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Kenan Thompson. Now, after working in the Television Talent department for over 15 years, Gates has returned to New York to expand the UTA with an office on the east coast. While overseeing the new agency, Gates still maintains her previous role as a television agent by representing and signing new talent.

“Gates’ talk was a reassuring reminder that it’s not necessary to have a clear vision of your future career path after college, and that the most important thing is to remain open to the changes and chances life throws your way.”

When asked if she regretted any of her past occupation choices that didn’t pertain to her eventual career as a talent agent, Gates affirmed that she valued every opportunity as one of the many life skills that fully prepared her for her current line of work. As advice to aspiring actors, Gates said that it was vital for people who wanted to be in the television industry to do “time in LA.” Gates was very blunt about the challenges of acting, especially as the television and film industries change to accommodate the developing technological climate. Although Gates admitted that making it in the business today is “a bit of a crapshoot on both sides,” Gates underlined the importance of gaining as much experience as possible and using connections, whether they be acting coaches or directors, to get ahead. Instead of headshots and resumes, Gates said that being successful is really about the work you do as an actor.

Whether your aspirations are to see your name in lights or are just to figure out what classes to take next semester, Gates’ talk was a reassuring reminder that it’s not necessary to have a clear vision of your future career path after college, and that the most important thing is to remain open to the changes and chances life throws your way.

Ama is a sophomore at Barnard and Food Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Photo courtesy of Life.

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