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August 18, 2014

A Storyteller Goes Back to School

Amanda Kinsey ’12 has produced a film about Columbia University's storied past.

Amanda Chalifoux

Amanda Kinsey ’12 has deep roots in storytelling. The fourth-generation photojournalist and Barnard grad worked as a producer for NBC’s Today Show for 10 years, covering everything from the Olympics to presidential campaigns, winning five Emmys and a slew of other industry awards along the way. Last year she launched her production company, Electric Yolk Media, and the firm’s first documentary film, Treasures of New York: Columbia University, will air on PBS this fall. Kinsey talked with Columbia Business about the upcoming broadcast, what surprised her about Columbia alum Alexander Hamilton, and her advice for fellow MBAs interested in nontraditional fields.

How did you get involved in filmmaking, and how did that intersect with going to business school?

My grandparents were both photographers for Life magazine — J. R. Eyerman, my grandfather, took the famous photo of the audience wearing 3-D glasses in the movie theater in 1952, when 3-D was new. I knew at an early age that I wanted to be a storyteller. My favorite stories are always about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

I started looking at business school because I could see that the Internet was disrupting the filmmaking industry. I was interested in the business side of what I did because my background was entirely in creative storytelling — and at the end of the day, being able to tell stories is also a business. I was also thinking about starting my own production company. So I did the MBA program while I was still working with the Today Show, and it was life changing. It gave me the backbone of business, an understanding of what makes a valuable company, and a feeling that I could build one myself. Having that confidence to take risks is something every entrepreneur needs.

How is Electric Yolk Media different from other production companies? How did your business background inform the structure or aims of the company?

Humans like stories. We connect through storytelling. It’s a frame of reference from which we can relate to one another. In recent years we’ve seen an explosion of story content both on-air and online. Digital marketers and traditional media companies understand that video is a valuable tool in communicating with audiences. Of course, these audiences have become increasingly savvy and the demand for high quality content continues to grow.

Electric Yolk Media meets this demand in a few unique ways. Most members of our team have a journalistic background. This means the stories we produce are both visually compelling and editorially authentic. We tell powerful stories about real people.

Columbia conveyed the importance of delivering a superb product with lean operational costs, as well as the value of clearly defined market segmentation. You have to know your audience. Being a successful creative person is not about putting your head in the sand when it comes to numbers and business. I strive to make smart decisions not only for my company, but also my clients. The combination of a filmmaking background and an MBA give me the tools to do both.

How did Treasures come about?

While starting my production company, I was also in talks with PBS and WNET — they have a series called Treasures of New York, which profiles iconic institutions around New York City. They had previously done a piece, for example, on the American Museum of Natural History that was hosted by Tom Brokaw, as well as a feature on the Botanical Garden, hosted by Sigourney Weaver. They had the green light for an hour-long documentary on the history of Columbia University and were looking for the right director and production company to do it.

That I was forming my company and was an alum of the School really helped to close the deal. I think there was a sense that I understood the university as a student and was familiar with some of its history. I was thrilled to take this on, and it has been a really interesting experience. I started working on the piece last September, completed it this spring, and it will air next month.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in producing the documentary?

The most daunting part was shrinking more than 260 years of history into an hour. I spent the first four months of production in the Columbia University archives, in Butler library up on the sixth floor, going through boxes and boxes of photographs and probably 50 different old film canisters.

Being able to find new and interesting angles on some of the familiar university stories is what I’m most proud of in the film. For example, we interviewed the actress Amanda Peet, who also went to Columbia College, about creativity at Columbia and how there’s this wonderful legacy of attracting creative thinkers. Langston Hughes, a wonderful Harlem poet, came to Columbia to study engineering, and Amelia Earhart dabbled in pre-med; Georgia O'Keeffe, at one point, was at Teacher's College. You have all these incredible people who have passed through the iron gates. Yes, they’re drawn here because of the city, but also to this tradition of real support for new ideas and creative thinking. It’s something that I found as an undergrad at Barnard and certainly at Columbia Business School, and I think it’s very unique to the university as a whole.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Columbia while making the film?

There is this long-standing legacy of rabble-rousers. Alexander Hamilton was an early Columbia student (it was still King’s College at that point) and an integral part of the American Revolution. I wasn't aware that he had been born out of wedlock, orphaned by age 12, and emigrated here from the West Indies, basically on his own. He was determined to get an education and did that at Columbia.

We talk about the big poets, like Allen Ginsberg, who came here for the opportunities and had ideas that were new and different and sometimes at odds with the University. But what’s really amazing is that Columbia embraces change and continues to evolve; there is a commitment to new ideas, to pushing knowledge forward. Columbia Business School is central to that mission. When King’s College opened in 1754, New York was a merchant city and there were people coming and suddenly making fortunes. Columbia was founded to educate these new business people. It has always been an entrepreneurial city, and you need educated entrepreneurs. That’s an incredible part of Columbia’s legacy, and the Business School embodies that idea on a daily basis.

What’s your advice for students or alumni who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs, especially in areas that may be considered nontraditional for MBAs?

New York City has always been a place where people start things — and get them done. When you are just starting out, you have to be open to new experiences and to the incredible resources that are at the School and in the city. People often want to pigeonhole you, but don’t pigeonhole yourself. When you get an MBA, you do it for yourself. There is a skill set that comes from that, and I’m always amazed when a case study that I’ve long forgotten suddenly pops up and is useful or that I suddenly remember group work that I did and think, ‘Ah, I can pull from that here.’ It goes back to being open and not putting yourself in a box.

I think it’s really important to figure out what it is that you feel passionate about, and then look for the support that’s built in to the Columbia community and the city. It can be a little daunting at times, but there is no other city in the world that attracts the kind of people that come here, you know?

What’s next for Electric Yolk Media?

I actually just got back from a month in Florida shooting a documentary on fly fishing for tarpon in Boca Grande, which was a lot of fun and very different from the Columbia documentary. There are interesting fish there that live to be 70 or 80 years old and weigh as much as 200 pounds. It's wild. I just finished filming that. It had a National Geographic feel to it, which I enjoyed. I also have a few other projects that may be in the works soon. It’s always on to the next story.

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