Twelve years ago, The Hollywood Reporter and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles joined forces to form the Women in Entertainment Mentorship Program. Every year since, high-ranking female entertainment execs — Netflix’s Cassidy Lange, Starz’ Alison Hoffman and ID PR’s Mara Buxbaum all participated last year — meet up with high school junior girls from underserved communities in South and East Los Angeles, helping to ready them for college and beyond. Four mentees each year even receive full-ride scholarships to Loyola Marymount and Chapman University.

Last year, during the pandemic, the program’s 18 mentor-mentee pairings shifted to video meetings. Among the pairs that had to adapt were Kobalt Music executive Jeannette Perez and her mentee, Jessica, who were first matched in November 2019. They’d only met in person a few times (including a dinner in West Hollywood the day before the lockdown) before they had to transition to virtual meet-ups. “Obviously it’s not what we expected,” says Perez. “But we were able to pivot.”

One upside, though, was that Perez was able to get some of her colleagues to drop in on Zooms for mock interviews with Jessica. “I wanted to push Jessica out of her comfort zone and help build her confidence,” she says, noting it gave her mentee the chance to ask those other execs — some of whom attended colleges she was applying to — questions about their career journeys. “We have such an intentional program that we’re flexible and make it fit for whatever the students were going through,” says Debbie Martinez, manager of the program.

The exercises also helped instill Jessica with more confidence at school. “In AP government, I was very shy, but thanks to Jeannette, I learned to speak up for myself when I disagreed with someone or when I just wanted to make my voice heard,” says the senior at Amino Watts Charter High School. Since she was a junior during the mentorship, much of Perez’s time was spent helping her with her college application. They’d pull up their master Excel spreadsheet of potential schools and take advantage of the screen-sharing feature to go through college essays.

The work paid off, too. Jessica is headed to UCLA in the fall to study political science, with hopes of becoming a civil rights and immigration lawyer. And it turns out her meetings with Hollywood executives had some impact on her plans: She wants to minor in film, television and digital media even if that doesn’t ultimately land her in the entertainment business. “It’s just an interest that I want to explore more,” she says.

Though the pair’s formal mentorship concluded in December of last year, they decided to keep up monthly Zoom check-ins as Jessica gets ready to transition to college. “We felt passionate about continuing the journey and continuing to check in on one another,” notes Perez, who is sitting out this next year of mentoring as a new crop of execs have joined the program (among them: Paramount Television’s Jenna Santoianni, Disney TV’s Janet Daily and Universal’s Tracy St. Pierre.) For Jessica, the chance to be mentored by the executive has been nothing short of life-changing: “I don’t think I would be in the place I am right now if it weren’t for the program.”

A version of this story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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