Thriving As A Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry: Zenaida Mendez of Manhattan Neighborhood Network On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry

An Interview With Ming Zhao

Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

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Education in the field you are interested in, such as continuing education or hiring a coach. I used to take, and still take from time-to-time, short courses and seminars in the field, especially in technology since so much has changed in 15 years. When I took this job, I took a Saturday computer class from 8 am — 5 pm in order to learn how to use the CG, how to create PowerPoint presentations, and to learn many ways to do my reporting and presentations on the Mac.

In the United States in 2022, fields such as Aircraft piloting, Agriculture, Architecture, Construction, Finance, and Information technology, are still male-dominated industries. For a woman who is working in a male-dominated environment, what exactly does it take to thrive and succeed? In this interview series, we are talking to successful women who work in a Male-Dominated Industry who can share their stories and experiences about navigating work and life as strong women in a male-dominated industry. As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Zenaida Mendez.

Zenaida Mendez is the Director of Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) El Barrio Firehouse Community Media Center and was recently awarded the 2022 Jewell Ryan White Award for Cultural Diversity from the Alliance of Community Media. Mendez has an extensive career in public service, community activism, television production, and filmmaking, and is currently the executive producer of several monthly MNN productions. As a social justice activist, she is an avid voice for tolerance and has many years of experience working as an advocate for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights, as well as economic, racial and environmental justice. She also just began her second term of the Board of Directors of New York Women in Film & Television.

Thank you so much for being here with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a little more about your childhood “backstory?”

I was born in Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic (DR). My parents moved to a beach town in the DR when I was two years old, to Boca Chica. My childhood in Boca Chica was fabulous: I learned how to swim by the age of four, ride a bicycle, and played outdoors with my sisters and neighbors.

I came with my parents to the United States (New York City) at the age of 14. At home we always listened to the radio (news, comedy, and novelas). Back then when television arrived, I particularly liked watching television. I attended I.S. 61 in Corona, Queens, and Flushing High School. Later on, I attended John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

What led me to this career path is my love for working with the public, specifically with the diversity found in NYC communities. I very much liked the fact that public access television is a form of non-commercial mass media where the general public can create television content about news and events that are happening in their neighborhoods. The same concept led me to co-produce some independent films.

I learned about public access television in the 1990s through my neighborhood community board. I was taken by how it works and started my own television program. Later on, Ruth Messinger, who was the Manhattan Borough President at that time and who had a seat on the MNN Board of Directors, appointed me to the Board, on which I served for a couple of years.

In 2006 I received a call from an MNN Board member letting me know that the organization was looking for an External Affairs Director and believed I was the person suitable for the position. I was happy with the job I had at the time and simply agreed to go to the interview with the new Executive Director of the organization just to please her. The interview went very well but I was still not thinking of accepting the position if it was offered, mainly because I was working with the National Organization for Women (NOW). I enjoyed traveling to different states, learning about women’s rights, and engaging women of color about NOW. Several days later the position at MNN was offered to me, and I reconsidered and accepted. I served as the MNN Director of External Affairs for my first nine years. Since 2015 I have been serving as the Director of MNN’s Community Media studios in East Harlem.

These 15 years working in a field that is mostly dominated by men — at all levels — who often assume you don’t know how to do your job based on your gender, calls for a lot of strength. I’ve had vendors ask to speak with the male studio manager. Women working in these fields go to work every day suitably prepared with the added task of proving their worth and abilities — a weight our male colleagues do not have to bear.

Community media has given me the opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless. My main objective continues to be expanding the station’s community engagement partnerships with local nonprofits, artists, and media personalities such as journalists, veteran Hispanic radio personality Malin Falu, Filipina journalist and professor Christina Pastor, local journalist Carlos Cabrera, some former elected officials, and community groups such as Union Settlement, National Black Leadership Commission on Health, the Fortune Society, and several others.

Our once-a-month film club has given local filmmakers the opportunity to showcase films that many times have only been seen in just a few film festivals. I very much enjoy my job and have a lot of leverage and discretion in the television productions and management of the station.

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

The most interesting story to me is having the good fortune to be able to work with MNN’s Youth Media Center at the East Harlem site. Many of those young people are now working as professionals in various media fields. Recently Marianne Cruz, a former Ms. Dominican Republic and now a TV personality, was in NYC filming. I was one of her guests on her TV program. Another young woman who participated in MNN’s Media courses was the person assigned to media outreach, Isveny Pichardo, who now has her own PR firm. She credits to some of her success to what she learned at MNN Youth Media Center. I also met many people who I admire while working here such as Dr. Cornel West, Deepak Chopra, New York Women in Film & Television CEO Cynthia Lopez, Whoopi Goldberg, and many more.

You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Teamwork: I value the contributions of the people who work with me. I consistently create opportunities for their personal growth and advancement. Through the years many media students have enrolled in internships with me. Currently, there are two of those former interns working full-time at MNN, one as a production coordinator and the other in the program department in master control. I also promote from within — my current Production and Studio Manager used to be one of the MNN Production Coordinators.
  2. Social skills: As per our commitment to community engagement we have in place various projects: a) MNN opened the doors to local artists so they could display their art at MNN’s Luisa Capetillo gallery.

b) I invited elected officials and community organizations to do virtual town halls to keep the community informed of where to get food, get tested for COVID-19, and many other needed services.

c) In 2020 and 2021 New York Women in Film & Television, Hope Community Inc., and Dominican Women’s Development Center were able to do their gala fundraising virtually at MNN El Barrio Firehouse Community Media Center.

d) Once a month, a film club for local filmmakers would show their documentaries.

3. Commitment to diversity and inclusion: I was recently awarded the 2022 Jewell Ryan White Award by the Alliance for Community Media for Cultural Diversity. This annual award is given to those who show an outstanding contribution to a process that encourages, facilitates, or creates culturally diverse and/or non-mainstream community involvement in the field of community media. The diversity of programming that I oversee as an Executive Producer run from The Radical Imagination with sociology Professor James Vrettos, Both Sides of the Bars with the Fortune Society, Makilala TV with four Filipino journalists, to Punto de Vista with journalist Carlos Cabrera, is an outstanding feat.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you help articulate a few of the biggest obstacles or challenges you’ve had to overcome while working in a male-dominated industry?

Throughout my career, I have struggled sometimes with equal pay — realizing that I have not been paid at the same level as men occupying my same role. And as a woman I also find we sometimes have to advocate for ourselves — and each other — to get credit for our ideas and initiatives.

Can you share a few of the things you have done to gain acceptance among your male peers and the general work community? What did your female co-workers do? Can you share some stories or examples?

Basically, I’ve found in the past I sometimes had to work three times more than my male counterparts to gain respect for my decisions. One strategy I’ve suggested to young women I mentor: Don’t argue. Let the men implement their own suggestions and when they fail, wait for them to recognize the brilliance of yours. I’ve always found my female co-workers for the most part to be very collaborative and enthusiastic. At MNN, I have an excellent team of co-workers.

What do you think male-oriented organizations can do to enhance their recruiting efforts to attract more women?

  1. Start with leadership. Get a buy-in from leadership by explaining the benefits of encouraging more women applicants for open positions.
  2. Create a brand & culture where women want to work.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Education in the field you are interested in, such as continuing education or hiring a coach. I used to take, and still take from time-to-time, short courses and seminars in the field, especially in technology since so much has changed in 15 years. When I took this job, I took a Saturday computer class from 8 am — 5 pm in order to learn how to use the CG, how to create PowerPoint presentations, and to learn many ways to do my reporting and presentations on the Mac.
  2. Be ready to let them know when something is not appropriate. Do not laugh at jokes or comments that put anyone down. Do not get emotionally involved with a coworker.
  3. Emulate other successful women. I learned a lot from the struggles of Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters, and other female producers on TV and in films.
  4. Be clear about your goals. I want more people to know about MNN’s services and opportunities. Therefore, I do a lot of networking, attending organizational events, and accepting invitations to speak, as well as using the social media tools at my disposal.
  5. Train recruiters to recognize stereotypes and unconscious biases about the work women can do and the myths about women in male-dominated roles.

If you had a close woman friend who came to you with a choice of entering a field that is male-dominated or female-dominated, what would you advise her? Would you advise a woman friend to start a career in a field or industry that’s traditionally been mostly, men? Can you explain what you mean?

It is important for us to enter those fields because women live longer than men and we are also the larger population. Therefore, we need to have experts in all fields.

Have you seen things change for women working in male-dominated industries, over the past ten years? How do you anticipate that it might improve in the future? Can you please explain what you mean?

A lot has changed. There are more women in non-traditionally “female” jobs, but we need more.

We need more women to bring women into those workplaces. More women are choosing to have their own businesses in order to be more flexible and have time for their families.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have lunch or breakfast with activist professor Angela Davis, journalist Oprah Winfrey, or Francia Marquez, Vice President of Colombia.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

Co-founder and CEO of PROVEN Skincare. Ming is an entrepreneur, business strategist, investor and podcast host.