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Hillman Grad, the multi-platform entertainment company founded by actor, producer and Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe, has bolstered its executive ranks with a new round of promotions: Naomi Funabashi has been named president of film and television at Hillman Grad Productions, with Justin Riley as vice president of operations and business development; Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright is now executive director of the Hillman Grad Foundation; and Marquis Phifér is head of cultural marketing.
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Since its inception in 2015, and under the leadership of Waithe and Rajani, Hillman Grad has grown to include six divisions and 20 employees, rising to become one of the most prominent companies in entertainment, with a focus on amplifying and celebrating the stories of diverse, historically marginalized communities and developing a new generation of underrepresented creatives.
“I’m thrilled that Naomi, Justin, Lacy, and Marquis are stepping into leadership roles here at Hillman Grad,” Rajani said in a statement announcing the promotions. The quartet will serve as department heads, joining Albert Cooke who oversees the company’s music department, Hillman Grad Records.
“All four have demonstrated an incredible commitment to our mission to give underrepresented artists a platform and have worked tirelessly on behalf of our community,” Rajani noted. “Our growth as an organization is a testament to their efforts. I’m grateful to call them my colleagues and know that they will thrive in their new positions.”
Funabashi most recently served as SVP of film and television at Hillman Grad Productions, a position she held since April 2021. In her new role as president of film and television, Funabashi will oversee all scripted and unscripted projects in development and production for Hillman Grad, in addition to managing the department team and continuing to grow their unscripted branch. She will also continue to co-lead the company’s publishing division alongside Rajani and serve as an executive mentor for the Hillman Grad Mentorship lab.
Raised by immigrant parents from China and Japan, Funabashi is said to have “always been drawn to stories that celebrate and examine identity, multiculturalism, and diversity.” She began her career at CAA in the books to film department, where she sold titles including like Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Remember Me Like This,” before moving into producing at Heyday Films and then Mandeville Films, where she worked on features including Disney’s live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast,” Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of “Wonder,” and Tom Harper’s “The Aeronauts.”
Funabashi then transitioned into television at Freeform, where she oversaw projects in development centering around and created by underrepresented voices & perspectives reflecting contemporary American life, including the Asian coming-of-age story “AZNBBGRL,” which she bought and developed. Her upcoming projects at Hillman Grad include season 5 of Showtime’s “The Chi” and the BET+ original dramedy series “Birth of Cool.”
Riley has been promoted to vice president of operations and business development at Hillman Grad Productions, where he’ll use his extensive knowledge of the industry, finances, and employee output to oversee operations across multiple departments, staff, and projects, while simultaneously identifying and executing the company’s strategic goals, mission, values, and beliefs.
He joined Hillman Grad in 2020 as the founding executive director of the Hillman Grad Foundation, where he led the development and launch of two inclusivity-focused initiatives: the Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab — which offers opportunities for marginalized storytellers to connect, grow, and accelerate their careers in television and film through personalized instruction from industry professionals in writing, screen acting, and executive development — and the “Rising Voices” program, in partnership with Indeed – which allows ten BIPOC filmmakers to create short films with a production budget of $100,000 each.
Prior to joining Hillman Grad, Riley was a small business executive and higher education DEI practitioner, and also worked as a producer on Facebook’s Emmy-winning show “Red Table Talk.” A graduate of Chapman University, Riley earned his undergraduate degree in television and broadcast journalism and recently completed his master’s degree in leadership development.
With Riley’s move, Wright takes over as executive director of the Hillman Grad Foundation, joining the company from BLD PWR, Kendrick Sampson’s nonprofit initiative to mobilize the entertainment industry in support of grassroots organizations, where she most recently served as associate director. In her new role, Wright will work to expand opportunities for creatives from marginalized communities, implementing programs and structure that provide emerging creatives with an inclusive and representative community coupled with resources to assist in authentically developing their craft.
At BLD PWR, Wright was a key member of the initiative that played a pivotal role in co-hosting Los Angeles’ Black Lives Matters marches in 2020 and launched their #Hollywood4BlackLives campaign, which was endorsed by talent like Waithe, Tessa Thompson, Michael B. Jordan and the late Chadwick Boseman, among others. During that time, Wright collaborated with grassroots organizations across the county on issues ranging from mental health to climate justice. She has also worked for Creative Artists Agency Foundation, Color of Change’s #ChangeHollywood initiative, Range Media Partners and Michael B. Jordan’s ObsidianWorks.
Trained in politics, Wright previously worked on various campaigns including Randall Woodfin for Birmingham Mayor, Jon Ossoff for Senate, Joe Biden for President and Kamala Harris for the People. She is currently a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau, Asian American Women’s Political Initiative Advisory Board, Asian American Futures’ Movement Leaders Circle Board, Covenant House California’s Special Advisory Committee and is the board chair of The Objective, a nonprofit newsroom that holds journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices.
Phifér has been appointed to head of cultural marketing, after joining Hillman Grad in 2019 as a marketing executive. In his new role, he will oversee and implement new branded acquisitions for the company and its projects.
During his tenure, Phifér has led all marketing, strategy, and social media campaign management efforts for the company, its projects and Lena Waithe-branded content, including TV and film campaigns for Universal’s “Queen & Slim”; Showtime’s “The Chi”; BET’s “Boomerang” and “Twenties”; “Showtime Presents: Sounds from the Chi Concert Film”; the documentary series “You Ain’t Got These;” Netflix’s “Master of None”; the Peabody Award winning documentary “Mr. Soul!”; and the SXSW Grand Jury Award nominated short “The Beauty President.”
Phifér also executes the company’s experiential activations, earning a Webby Award nomination for “Master of None Presents Moments in Love: A Music Experience,” a live music experience featuring performances by Black queer R&B artists, as well as a taped conversation between Waithe and Grammy-winning singer Maxwell. He oversees all brand partnerships for the company, including Indeed: Rising Voices Season 1; AT&T’s “Artists You Should Know” Series; StockX’s “Lena Waithe & Láolú Campaign For A Cause;” the Hillman Grad Care-Package Series featuring 15 POC brands; and the Been Free: Incarcerated Artists NFT Project with Huma House. He also supervised Waithe’s partnerships with Mercedes-Benz, Häagen-Dazs, Adidas, and The North Face. Plus, he created and executed an in-store campaign with Sephora in support of support Black-owned brands and creators, which included the “Hall of Black Beauty,” a visual celebration of the contribution Black creators are making in the space of beauty with live music performances, and the “We Built This” interview series highlighting founders of Black brands. Additionally, Phifér spearheads Hillman Grad’s digital branded content.
Upcoming projects include the launch of Hillman Grad fashion; marketing for season 5 of “The Chi;” Audible’s “KYM;” and the BET+ original dramedy series “Birth of Cool.”
Born in Houston and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Phifér attended Morehouse College, where he discovered his passion for brand storytelling. Throughout his career, and during his tenure at Team Epiphany, he’s overseen marketing campaigns for some of the world’s top brands before he went on to start his own marketing firm MPI, where he executed and managed the global strategy development, tactical recommendations, and measurement for programs spanning over LVMH, Soho House, Viacom, and Diageo.
[Pictured: Naomi Funabashi, Justin Riley, Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright and Marquis Phifér]
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