News & Events

Reese Witherspoon, Advocate for Women-Centric Storytelling, Visits Vanderbilt Business

May 16, 2024

By Lacie Blankenship

Reese Witherspoon joined Thomas Steenburgh, Ralph Owen Dean at Vanderbilt Business, for a question-and-answer session in late April. In front of students, faculty, and staff, Witherspoon and Steenburgh touched on Nashville’s abundance of opportunities and their mutual entrepreneurial spirit. Witherspoon also discussed her roots, networking, collaboration, intentional storytelling, and more. 

Pictured: Reese Witherspoon in a headshot provided to Vanderbilt Business.

Reese Witherspoon, provided photo

For many, Reese Witherspoon is a household name, notably known for her roles in feature films like Walk the Line, Wild, Election, and Legally Blonde, as well as Emmy award-winning TV series Big Little Lies, Little Fires Everywhere, and The Morning Show. The award-winning actress, producer, New York Times best-selling author, and entrepreneur was introduced as a “friend of Vanderbilt Business” by Samantha Hoefs, a graduating Vanderbilt MBA candidate and the outgoing president of the school’s Distinguished Speaker Series (DSS). The event was hosted at Management Hall. 

Event attendees got an intimate glimpse into Witherspoon’s Nashville upbringing and life experiences, during which she credited growing up in Nashville for shaping her perspective on the intertwined relationship of artistry and collaboration. “Nashville has always been an artist’s comfort zone,” said Witherspoon after Steenburgh nodded to her soft spot for the city.

Seeing gender disparity

Witherspoon recalled that after choosing to pursue acting professionally, she saw that storytelling was controlled primarily by men. While the gap has slightly shrunk since Witherspoon ventured into the entertainment industry, the 2023 Hollywood Diversity Report found that diversity disparity, be it gender, race, ethnicity, ability, etc., is very much alive and well. Regarding gender, this recent study found that only 15% of film directors are women, despite the American male-to-female ratio nearing 1:1, skewing with slightly more women than men. 

“It became very clear to me that there weren’t enough roles for women, especially women of color and women with disabilities,” said Witherspoon. “Women’s stories were not being told with adequate representation, and even the ones told lacked the authentic voice of women themselves.”

Making space for women

In 2016, Witherspoon established the media brand Hello Sunshine to put women at the center of every story. Hello Sunshine includes scripted and unscripted television, feature films, animated series, podcasts, audio storytelling, and digital series. It is also home to “Reese’s Book Club,” a dynamic online community. Witherspoon’s venture building Hello Sunshine was and continues to be intentional and thorough. The concept was dreamed out of her lived experiences seeing a lack of women in storytelling; she embraced her entrepreneurial spirit by addressing the issue. Hello Sunshine came after years of Witherspoon exploring the industry. She learned the business forward and backward with different roles and internships before making her first leap with a self-funded production company, Type A Films. Type A Films was merged with Bruna Papandrea’s Make Movies to create Pacific Standard, a now subsidiary of Hello Sunshine.  

“I wanted to understand how money was made, how money was lost, what problems needed solving, and I wanted to understand where I fit into that puzzle,” Witherspoon said. “I realized that I wasn’t going to make a lot of change in an existing company, and I decided to use my resources to do something different and get more stories told by women and for women.” 

Witherspoon also spoke on valuing her connections, especially the women-centric community she is so proud to be part of. She named several women who have propelled the force that is Hello Sunshine, all of whom are connections she made over the years or through “a friend of a friend.” Some of these women include Sarah Harden, CEO of Hello Sunshine, and Lauren Neustadter, President of Film and Television of Hello Sunshine.

The event concluded with a few questions from the audience. Witherspoon’s conversation with Dean Steenburgh, touching on the motivation and pioneers behind Hello Sunshine makes it evident that her dedication to empowering and advocating for women extends not only within, but far beyond her network. The conversation centered on Witherspoon’s desire for women to have a more central role in storytelling, but the spirit of innovation, inclusivity, empowerment, and collaboration is applicable regardless of gender. 

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