Being the First Penguin: Jumping into Film to Change the World.

Remember being a kid, when you had no qualms about jumping in feet first, or better yet, taking a running start to dive-bomb into the deep end of a pool?

I loved that feeling. The adrenaline. The fear. The thrill of it all.

In my 20s I jumped into everything — the good, the bad, the ugly — eyes wide shut. Career wise, I was the low woman on the totem pole with nowhere to go but up. Why not roll the dice? I had nothing to lose!

At 34, over a decade into my career, and a business (co)-owner at that, it’s fair to say that my leaps of faith are now more measured steps. This day and age, I’m usually calculating risks. Don’t get me wrong, my entrepreneurial spirit still has a healthy pulse, but my vision for what’s possible is balanced by my business partners’ astute opinions and weighed by the reality of clearing payroll for our staff every other week.

That’s why the announcement of the AFI / NBCUniversal Impact Grant this week was a great reminder of what I intrinsically knew as a kid and the importance of being the “First Penguin.”

First Penguin by Zsofi Lang

Let me explain. First about the penguins and then about these game-changing new “Impact Grants.” And how my uttering of an idea at a meeting became a reality… all because I jumped.

The late Randy Pausch, a former professor at Carnegie Melon University gave out a “First Penguin Award” each year to honor a student who encountered the biggest failure in taking great risks to pursue a goal. First Penguins, you see, brave subarctic temperatures and expose themselves in open waters that might be filled with predators. They jump anyway, usually in the face of little to no agreement. In doing so, they come face-to-face with the starkest of circumstances: death or the first to feast on a yummy meal. Regardless of the outcome, the fate of others is dependent on their willingness to jump.

This is not dissimilar to being an entrepreneur: asking funders to back your unproven initiative or idea, scaling your company, or launching a new (unproven, again) pilot program. Sure, life and death are not at stake, but social or political suicide often are and either could wipe out one’s career.

Earlier this year, I had a First Penguin moment of my own. No, I was not standing on the edge of an iceberg. My surroundings were much more amenable at a swanky restaurant near my residence in Washington, DC, but for me, the stakes were still high. Thanks to the support of a colleague and mentor in my field, I had the chance to pitch a longtime idea to the very limited group of people who could make my crazy-big-dream-idea an actual reality.

This one-day-someday unrealized wish in my head was to facilitate a political advocacy training for filmmakers with issue-driven films. To arm them with tools and best practices that would multiply and actualize the potential impact of their films, starting right here in DC. In and of itself it wasn’t going to change the world, but done right, it would empower filmmakers to bridge the gap between the inspiration that occurs at the end their film and actual political change.

The proverbial subarctic temperature was uncomfortably cold, but the predators were at bay. I was in luck, and it paid to be the First Penguin that day.

Perhaps even more valuable than the First Penguin, is the second. It’s the buy-in from Penguin No. Two that sets new propositions in motion, opens the floodgates, and enables others to jump in feet first too.

In my case, Penguin No. Two was Michael Lumpkin, the incomparable and newly minted Executive Director of AFI DOCS, the premier international festival that takes place in the heart of our nation’s Capitol every year. It’s dedicated to screenings and events that connect grassroots audiences with filmmakers and policy leaders, leveraging the power of story to inspire change. Clearly the festival was the seemingly perfect home to my now not so crazy sounding idea, but that day at lunch it was anybody’s guess.

In the months following, Michael advocated internally at the American Film Institute (AFI) and worked with his colleagues to bring the right project backers on board. I advocated internally as well — this was a pilot without existing funding to cover the bandwidth of my day-to-day, let alone the efforts of our staff. I, too, reached out to funders, which frankly, I didn’t really have the balls to do. But I did it anyway and asked people to invest in our theory, in our proof of concept to strengthen advocacy through film and ultimately, to help us change the world.

The AFI DOCS IMPACT LAB, we called it, would be a two-day program to provide select filmmakers with unique training opportunities in political advocacy, grassroots communications, and grasstops engagement. The Lab would better educate filmmakers with issue-driven films on the proof positive tactics and strategies that advance social and political change. In addition to exclusive trainings with some of Washington’s most sought after tacticians, Lab participants would be given direct access to policy leaders themselves and meet with legislators and Congressional aides to advocate for the important issues highlighted in their films.

Sounds great, right?! Here’s the thing: at nearly every turn, any reasonable person would have pulled the plug and s/he would have been righteous in doing so. But the waddle of other penguins had already followed us into the sea. So with our passion, might, and the will that comes when your back is up against the wall, not to mention the increasing support of a cadre of epic humans — our only option was to succeed.

I’m so glad I jumped. I’m even more thrilled that Michael did too.

AFI DOCS IMPACT LAB Participants on Capitol Hill June 2015

Our pilot was great, our Lab a success! In its first year, we ushered a total of 12 filmmakers from 7 documentary projects through 10 trainings and various meetings with staff and legislators on Capitol Hill. More important than the Lab itself is what transpired. Thanks to NBCUniversal’s incredible support of AFI and their commitment to create impact through film, Lab participants were invited to apply for an inaugural AFI / NBCUniversal Impact Grant.

As a result of the new AFI / NBCUniversal Impact Grants (totaling $75,000 in its first year), awardees — The Conversation, Most Likely To Succeed, Peace Officer, and Salam Neighbor — will be afforded the means to reach a broader audience, connect them to meaningful actions, and implement long-term social change. The grantee’s films couldn’t cover more pressing topics of our time: implicit racial bias, the weakening U.S. education system, police brutality, and the escalating Syrian Refugee crisis. Funding to give these stories life and empower them to effect policy and create social impact is more important now than ever before.

In addition to the funding for these films to build social campaigns, this new initiative will enable our respective teams, AFI DOCS and Picture Motion, to validate the theory behind our proof of concept. Through a special partnership with the inimitable Caty Borum Chatoo — another First Penguin type I might add — the Co-Director of American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact, we’ll co-author a white paper report documenting the social impact of each of the grantee’s films.

So be the First Penguin and jump. Your idea might be the one that changes the world.


Special thanks to the following people for their unwavering support and for making my First Penguin moment possible this year:

Emily Verellen and The Fledgling Fund, Jamie Shor, Michael Lumpkin and AFI, Beth Colleton and NBCUniversal, Steffi Decker, Caty Borom Chatoo, Christie Marchese and Wendy Cohen and our entire PicMo team, Bob Creamer, Brad Jenkins, Rodell Mollineau, Sam Drzymala, Dan O’Meara, Jack D’Annibale, Katherine Brown, Dave Solimini, Tony Johnson, Hailey Snow, Josh Weinberg, Jeremy Holden, Damara Catlett, Shilpa Nadhan, Ivory Zorich, Lauren Belive, Micaela Fernandez, Jen Nedeau, Sabrina Hersi Issa, Meredith Fineman, and a generous unnamed donor.


If you want to hear more about penguins, cupcakes, chaos, and bringing nothing to the work that you do, check out my Creative Morning Talk, “The 21st Century Weapon of Mass Construction” here: https://creativemornings.com/talks/heidi-nel