When Sherry Gunther realized she could earn a living by making cartoons, she fell in love with the idea. She began her journey as a painter at a California animation studio and, in the blink of an eye, blazed a trail all the way to associate producer status.
Using Gunther’s own words, her swift climb to the top was, “a complete fluke.”
Be that as it may, she proudly holds two Emmy awards for her work as the producer and executive producer of the hit television shows The Simpsons and Rugrats. Now, using the skills she gained in USC’s Executive MBA program, this entertainment industry veteran has her eyes set on even greater heights, this time as the chief executive of her own media production company.
My entrance into the entertainment industry was a complete fluke.
While I was studying mathematics and economics as an undergrad at UCLA, I worked a couple jobs to support myself through school. One job was working at an animation studio called Marvel Productions, just helping out. This was about 1985-1986. When I looked around and realized, “These people make cartoons for a living,” I fell in love with the idea. My eyes were opened to a whole new world.
At the time, I enjoyed painting as a hobby so I asked the studio if I could help paint cells. In the olden days, before everything went digital, each animated character, background, and movement was drawn and then copied onto a clear celluloid material, called a cell, and then painted. Those cells were placed on top of each other so, when viewed one after the other, an actual animation was created. There were lots of cells that needed to be painted, so when an opening presented itself, I was hired on as a color key painter.
The job was great. I could do it on my own hours and I could schedule my work around school which was the priority at the time. The job also paid something like twenty dollars an hour which was pretty darn good for a college student. After quitting my other jobs, I received a call from the head of the union that I was to drop the paint brush immediately. I was a non-union member and there were union members who were out of work.
And so I panicked. I went to the head of the studio who kindly assigned me to help out in the production department. I was put on a show called the Glow Friends as a production assistant.
This is where I found my calling.
After just one season, the producer of the program said he wanted me as his production manager for the following season. It usually takes years and years to work up the ladder so this was very rare. I was just working to do the best I could, but it was a really natural fit for me. I quickly picked up the process of managing shows and all the moving pieces that went into a production.
By the time I finished undergrad, I was an associate producer at my second studio. Needless to say going to graduate school wasn’t a priority for me anymore. But, since I decided I was going to do this for a living, I wanted to have a more diverse experience. Not just working in production, but taking a shot at editing, pre-production, post-production, television, feature, and commercial studios to diversify my skill set. When all was said and done, I returned to television because it was more my pace; faster and busier.
In 1991, I won my first Emmy award. The Simpsons was up for best animated program in the primetime category and I was the show’s producer at the time. Then in 1992, I was the executive producer of the Nickelodeon show, Rugrats, for which we were awarded a daytime Emmy.
I remember we were up against other animations like Ren and Stimpy and Doug, so winning both Emmys was a stunning surprise. You don’t do what you do to get awards; you just do the best you can. When your hard work is recognized, it feels really good.
While I was producing, going to business school wasn’t much of a factor. It wasn’t until I moved into more of the executive role that it entered into my mind. It was always my feeling that it’d be great to have more of the formal skills of being a manager and an executive. The thought was always there, but I was too busy working and raising two daughters to entertain the idea.
Then, around 2004-2005, television animation sort of shrunk and there was a lot of consolidation. I had seen and experienced the forefront of innovation in the industry, but all of a sudden, those opportunities vanished. Everyone was doing a lot of the same old, same old and there wasn’t much room for originality or to try new things. So I found myself at the top of the ladder, but with nowhere to go.
Rather than going from job to job and studio to studio (making other people very rich) I thought, “There’s got to be more I can do to use my talents and experience.”
That’s what business school was for me, a chance to broaden my scope of opportunities. Shortly after I enrolled in the EMBA program at USC, I started to explore other ways to extend what I’d done in the entertainment industry. As I watched my kids’ eyeballs move from the television to the Internet and handheld devices, I predicted there’d be content-based opportunities in Internet and other forms of new media.
I explored the entire field. I spoke to people at all the large companies and studios to investigate what they were doing for kids in the online space. No one was doing anything. Here was an area that was completely nascent and I had something valuable to offer.
While pursuing my EMBA, I did my first global marketing plan on starting an Internet site for kids. It was a perfect opportunity to merge educational with the professional. I actually launched my first entrepreneurial venture as a result.
Pursuing an EMBA is definitely a huge undertaking. At this stage in life you’re not just a student. Most people are busy executives in their 30s 40s and 50s and the majority have families. I was no exception. I had two little girls who, at the time, were 9 and 12 years old. It was definitely a juggling act because work doesn’t give and kids don’t give. But you can’t ignore the studying.
I had an amazing support system made up of family, friends, siblings, parents, you name it. When I graduated from USC, it ended up being a great example for my girls. When they attended the ceremony they were so proud of me and I know they’ll continue to carry that memory with them.
The USC EMBA program was an incredible experience with incredible people. My classmates and professors proved to be great resources in terms of their breadth of knowledge and generating ideas. Ultimately, many of these bonds produced great working relationships with people who ended up investing valuable time, talent, and dollars into my current venture.
This is the single factor that continues to stand out as the most rewarding of my EMBA experience; the network of people. I definitely learned a ton and it was a tremendous learning and growing experience, but the network of people who have enriched my life still continues to evolve three years out of the program. This includes students, classmates, and professors; even the administrative staff. I feel like I’ve added a huge family to my life and it has impacted me in a way I didn’t necessarily expect it to.
The only caveat about the program for me, personally, was that I could have benefited from the entrepreneurial courses weaved in earlier in the curriculum. We had a fantastic entrepreneurial theme at the end. These courses helped develop our entrepreneurial thinking which was particularly significant for someone like me trying to start a business. Many students were in the program to broaden their opportunities and their perspectives. But for many of us, it was about the entrepreneurial dream as well.
Nevertheless, USC helped prepare me for the many hats I have to wear as the founder and CEO of my own company. Masher Media is a content production company that delivers high quality, original entertainment through new media platforms. We are currently building a revolutionary new social 3D virtual world for kids called MyMiniPeeps.com. Having to worry about fundraising, corporate issues, board issues, manage a corporate culture, hiring staff, and creating and managing the product itself, I would say USC prepared me really well.