Breaking the Mold

“More than once, I’ve been mistaken for the secretary or court reporter—and once I was even mistaken for the person delivering lunch!” says Jennifer Ortega, senior VP and deputy general counsel at Viacom.
“More than once, I’ve been mistaken for the secretary or court reporter—and once I was even mistaken for the person delivering lunch!” says Jennifer Ortega, senior VP and deputy general counsel at Viacom.

Being hailed as one of the most influential and powerful Latinos in the entertainment industry is no small feat. As a senior vice president and deputy general counsel for Viacom Media Networks, Jennifer Ortega was awarded this coveted title in 2011 by the prestigious The Imagen Foundation after “a lot of courage, hard work, and a lot of luck,” as Ortega sums it up. But she also attributes her success to a series of generous mentors throughout her life—an important role that she now embraces herself.

Based in Los Angeles, Ortega describes her current boss at Viacom as not only “incredibly supportive and one of the smartest people I know,” but also as a major reason why she has happily stayed with Viacom for so long. “I’ve learned so much from him over the last eight years. I have always had incredible bosses who were very generous and took me under their wings, teaching me from the bottom up. I’ve been really fortunate, but it’s not the case for all or most attorneys in this industry, especially attorneys of color.”

As solid as Ortega’s career has turned out, the California-born Latina had no definitive ideas in college about a career direction. Overwhelmed by the infinite number of possibilities that awaited her out in the big wide world, she finally followed in the footsteps of her first important mentors—her aunt, a former New Mexico state court judge, and her older sister, the managing attorney for the legal services unit of the US District Court for the Central District of California. Ortega regarded law as a “great basis for anything and a good challenge,” and initially assumed she would take up a career in intellectual property litigation, but after a law school internship with Lucasfilm Ltd. in Marin County, she was in love. Ortega became riveted by the business side of creating, distributing, and marketing content and the legal concepts of trademarks and intellectual property aspects—the basis for the entertainment business.

After obtaining her law degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1997, Ortega joined Katten Muchin Zavis as an entertainment transactional  associate. Three years later, she agreed to help establish an entertainment department for law firm Morrison Foerster. Ortega counts these years as invaluable experiences thanks to the strong support of the law firm partners.

As Ortega’s career grew and thrived, she became involved with The Imagen Foundation, drawn by the need to give back because of the people who invested in her. But she also believes in the importance of providing examples for young people of color. As a Latina and a mother of two, all of which are not the “expected norm” in her executive position, Ortega knows it’s not easy to break the mold. “More than once, I’ve been mistaken for a secretary or court reporter—and once I was even mistaken for the person delivering lunch! Unfortunately, based on stereotypes, that’s what people have come to expect when I walk into the room, and it’s upsetting and challenging in some ways too,” she says.

In the nonstop entertainment industry, where careers are built on relationships, a focus on diversity tends to get lost in the shuffle—something that Ortega sees as a constant challenge.“Large media companies have diversity programs, but it’s important for them to be committed to them at all levels, because that translates to the creative side and the content,” she explains.

Ortega has been busy crafting deals for film and television entertainment clients for almost 15 years, but making it to the top hasn’t been easy. Being prepared, confident, and knowing the business is important, she says, but it’s the ability to build client relationships that transcend one deal—that’s what takes you to the next level. “It’s a collaborative process. You have to be thoughtful, have integrity, and make sure you have 360 degrees of their trust,” she explains.

The past three years have introduced a new role for Ortega: mother of two. How does she maintain the work-family balance? “Very carefully! And every now and then you really hope a ball doesn’t drop somewhere,” she jokes. But with her husband’s hands-on help and Viacom’s strong support of working mothers, the multitasking Ortega manages to keep everything afloat.

However, the challenges of the entertainment industry are ever present. With the evolution of new media and new rights, Ortega must address these changes as part of a policy-making committee at Viacom, where she looks at how the company creates and implements deal-making and drafting of policies, and how contracts should and can be made.

Ortega’s driving principle is that “you just can’t stop. I have two little boys who need me and a husband whom I adore. So, you just keep going. I truly enjoy what I do, and I enjoy working with people so much. It’s a full life, but a really good one.”

UPDATE:

After press time, Jennifer Ortega has stepped into her new role as senior vice president of business affairs and deputy general counsel for MTV, VH1, and CMT.

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