How Steve Sheldon of EPIC Entertainment Group Is Helping To Make the Entertainment Industry More Diverse and Representative

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We celebrate and promote diversity, both in terms of the events we produce and the performers and guest-facing teams we hire as well as behind the scenes. We strive to be inclusive in ways that are authentic. We encourage performers to bring their own unique ‘spin’ to their roles and in doing so have been able to support the growth and development of some incredible talent and groundbreaking entertainment.

As a part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Steve Sheldon.

Steve Sheldon is an award-winning event and entertainment producer. He is the co-founder and managing partner of EPIC Entertainment Group along– a collective of producers, experiential marketers, and creative designers focused on producing live events and immersive entertainment experiences.

Steve has been locally and nationally recognized for his ability to manage large-scale projects and dynamic teams. Most recently he has co-produced Crayola IDEAworks in Charlotte, NC, and the holiday light show at Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, among many others. He also produced and operated the first Ice Adventure Park in the United States, as well as one of the most infamous haunted attractions in the world, and developed an internationally renowned exhibition about the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

Throughout his entertainment career, Steve has produced and operated hundreds of events, festivals, concerts, marketing activations, and exhibitions that have collectively drawn over four million attendees.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I came to the world of entertainment and live experiences entirely by accident. I was an Exercise Science major at USC and had planned to become a chiropractor, but during my junior year I suffered a pretty serious nerve injury and lost feeling in a significant portion of my left arm and hand (definitely not ideal being that I’m left-handed). My doctor told me I may never get that feeling back and that I should rethink my career path. Little did I know I was already on my way. I had been working in an alumni development office since I was a freshman where I helped to organize and produce events for alumni and donors. Tailgate parties at football games, social mixers, that sort of thing.

Since it was too late to change my major and still graduate on time, I just filled my schedule with as many classes in business and marketing as I could fit and stayed on track. I also took on another job as a call screener for ABC Radio’s talk radio station in LA (KABC). I worked my way up to become a show producer (Gloria Allred was one of the first on-air hosts I worked with) and within a couple of years, after I’d graduated, I was hired for a role in the marketing department where I got to help produce live broadcasts, listener events and other promotions. I also oversaw public relations for the other ABC stations (ESPN Radio, Radio Disney and KLOS) and had the opportunity to be involved in events like concerts, hurricane relief drives, blood drives, movie screenings and more. One of my favorite events was a wedding between two listeners who had met only on the air on one of our shows — never in person — until they got to the altar (before the dawn of reality television…it was reality radio).

Eventually, I took on a role producing events in Downtown Long Beach where I was able to develop an annual calendar of events to drive interest and foot traffic to the area. From food festivals to concerts to bike races and New Year’s Eve fireworks shows, I was able to help create a really fun atmosphere in Downtown that had a significant impact on local businesses and residents.

From there I was recruited to create an events program at The Queen Mary, the 1930s luxury ocean liner now permanently docked in Long Beach, CA. Along with an incredible team, I was fortunate enough to build, we created a very successful annual events program that drew more than 250,000 attendees to the property each year. BBQ and bacon festivals, concerts, spectacular Holiday attractions, LGBT+ Pride parties and so many more.

In 2016, my business partner (who also worked with me at The Queen Mary) and I decided it was time to create EPIC Entertainment Group and develop our own brand. While we were essentially abandoning ship, we parted on great terms and worked with the then-leasehold owners of The Queen Mary who hired us to continue producing some of their largest annual events, including The Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

An interesting project had the opportunity to work on was the development of an exhibition about the late Princess Diana and the Royal Family. Early during my tenure at The Queen Mary, I became aware of a nonprofit organization made up of a group of ladies who owned the largest private collection of Royal Family memorabilia in the world, including the largest collection of privately-owned dresses that once belonged to the late Princess.

I worked very closely with this group for months to curate their entire collection for public exhibition for the first time ever. I oversaw a multi-million-dollar renovation to create a custom gallery space, I met Princess Diana’s friend and hairdresser, I worked with Kensington Palace to capture video content and — the most interesting part — I became the trusted transporter of dresses, which meant I carried the late Princess’ dresses in my carryon luggage to and from various locations in the U.S. and the U.K.

I had the very surreal experience of being in the conservator’s private room at Kensington Palace while she very carefully transferred dresses into my carryon luggage and then I traveled by myself with dresses valued at $1.2M all the way back to a secured location at The Queen Mary so the dresses could be prepared for installation.

At the end of the day, we put together a fantastic exhibition that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for breast cancer awareness and other charities that were amongst the late Princess’ chosen causes and celebrated her legacy of giving back and that sticks with me as one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I once almost had the headliner of a concert I was producing removed from the backstage area during sound check because I didn’t recognize him and had no ID on him. He was very laid back and gracious about the whole thing, but it could have been an ugly situation. I think what I learned from that interaction was that everything is not always as it seems and you can’t be too careful when making judgment calls and decisions on the fly, no matter how insignificant you think they are. When the stakes are high, every move you make could have unintended consequences.

Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?

The world of entertainment, as progressive as it is, still has a long way to go in terms of representation. Minorities are under-represented in key roles both in guest-facing/performance roles and in back-of-house positions of influence.

At EPIC Entertainment Group, especially being that we are minority-owned and managed (by a gay man and a woman of color), we pride ourselves on being inclusive in all that we do and in doing everything we can to make sure that our events and productions are representative of all sexes, races, ages, abilities, orientations, and gender identities.

We celebrate and promote diversity, both in terms of the events we produce and the performers and guest-facing teams we hire as well as behind the scenes. We strive to be inclusive in ways that are authentic. We encourage performers to bring their own unique ‘spin’ to their roles and in doing so have been able to support the growth and development of some incredible talent and groundbreaking entertainment.

We work really hard to make sure that we and our productions are safe spaces where everyone feels welcome. Where our guests — no matter who or how they might identify — can probably see themselves represented in one way or another in our characters, our story, or our staff.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?

I think the fact that we really do strive to create safe and inclusive environments for our teams and our guests has given us the opportunity to impact many people. I once had an actor on one of our shows tell me that he only felt that he could be himself at work because his family was not accepting of his sexual orientation and that being in an environment with others who were out, proud and successful gave him hope for his future. I’ve seen team members from vastly different backgrounds go from stand-offish and rigid to bestie status because they had the opportunity to spend time and engage in real conversations with people, they otherwise might not have had a lot of interaction with. We’ve seen team members who were shy and reserved and unsure of themselves blossom under the mentorship of a very diverse team of leaders. And I’ve seen big, tough, heteronormative-behavior-exhibiting guys let down their guards and dance with gender-bending characters at LGBT Night celebrations.

Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?

  1. The impact of seeing ourselves represented in the world around us is significant. Seeing someone ‘like us’ doing something we might aspire to do gives us hope and the drive to do so.
  2. The portrayal of minorities in entertainment roles has a significant impact on the perception of minorities in the real world. Seeing a minority character portrayed in a non-stereotypical role, for example, can go a long way in helping to open minds and drive deeper conversations.
  3. Diversity behind the scenes is equally as important. Including the perspectives of those with different life experiences and backgrounds in the development of characters, storylines and narratives can have a huge impact on both the execution of the show or project as well as the perception of the audience.

Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?

  1. Prioritize diversity. Normalize inclusion.
  2. Celebrate diversity in a way that allows people from different walks of life to engage with and learn about others.
  3. Be accountable. Be open to hearing what you are doing right, what you could do better and to adjusting when warranted.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

A good leader is one who can get down in the trenches with their team, when necessary, but who can also maintain a thirty thousand foot perspective to make sure the team is moving in the right direction overall. Someone who can see and appreciate and nurture the strengths that each team member brings to the table and motivate them to realize their full potential. Someone who inspires others, who does what they say they’re going to do, is accountable and is willing to make tough calls. A leader wants to work alongside their team vs. a boss who wants to be followed.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt…until they prove themselves unworthy and then proceed accordingly.
  2. Plan your work and work your plan…but know that the work may involve changing your plan as new information becomes available. Adjusting to the situation at hand is a critical key to success.
  3. Not everyone is on your team. Not everyone wants to see you succeed. Keep your circle tight and pay attention to the ones who don’t clap for you.
  4. When faced with a choice between doing the easy thing or the scary thing…always do the scary thing.
  5. Never take ‘no’ for an answer. Manifest your ‘yes.’ (Disclaimer: this obviously applies only in business, not in personal relationships).

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

One of my core tenets in life is ‘Love is Everything.’ It is literally the antidote to so much of what is wrong in the world. If we showed more love toward one another through kindness, understanding, compassion, empathy, inclusion, and forgiveness I think we would find ourselves in a much happier, healthier, more balanced and more peaceful world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A friend and mentor once told me “Don’t be so everywhere that you’re really nowhere.” In other words, don’t over-commit and spread yourself so thin that you’re not able to be fully present in the things you commit to. I honestly struggle with this one on both personal and professional levels. As much as I want to do it all, it’s important to know when and where to draw boundaries so that your time spent, and energy invested are more meaningful. I will master this…at some point!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

At this risk of sounding like a gay cliché, Dolly Parton. She has done so much in her life and career that I aspire to. She’s talented, funny, warm, kind, generous and thoughtful and she’s managed to be all of those things and to accomplish all that she’s accomplished really without any negativity or controversy. She’s leveraged her success to help those in need, has quietly and humbly made a huge impact on the world around her through her charitable work. She has been a strong ally and advocate for the LGBT+ community since long before it was ‘cool.’ I would love to have the opportunity to sit with her and absorb some of her mojo.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on IG @stevemsheldon and follow EPIC on @epicentertainmentgroup

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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Edward Sylvan CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group
Authority Magazine

Edward Sylvan is the Founder and CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group Inc. He is committed to telling stories that speak to equity, diversity, and inclusion.