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Nkechi Okoro Carroll isn’t a ‘unicorn.’ Inside the TV empire she built to prove it

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Los Angeles Times
Max Gao
October 3, 2023

Nkechi Okoro Carroll was at a crossroads.

Two decades ago, the showrunner behind the popular CW teen sports drama “All American” and its HBCU-set spin-off, “All American: Homecoming,” was a newly married economist for the Federal Reserve Bank, moonlighting as a playwright and director at New York black-box theaters. She had settled into a heady routine: Arrive at work by 6:30 a.m., where she would spend the day analyzing domestic and foreign markets; clock out at 5:30 p.m. and head down the street to rehearse productions through the night; go home to shower and sleep a few hours; repeat. But she knew it wasn’t a sustainable long-term plan.

“One day I was shooting a short film in New York overnight and I was driving back home, and it was one of those moments where I fell asleep at a traffic light,” Okoro Carroll recalls. “Thankfully, my foot did not leave the gas or brake pedal. But when I woke up, I was like, ‘You have to pick one. This double thing is not going to last long, and it’s going to kill you.’”

With the support of her educator husband, Jonathan, Okoro Carroll decided it was time to move to Los Angeles, where she pursued screenwriting while maintaining her job at the Fed until she landed her first gig on the short-lived “Bones” spinoff “The Finder” in 2011. During her down time, she effectively created her own master class in making television — downloading scripts from the internet to learn about narrative structure, sitting in the back of acting classes to meet prospective performers, and doing background work to learn about the jobs of crew members.

Before the “All American” series, both renewed earlier this year, she cut her teeth as a writer and producer on a trio of Fox procedural dramas — “Bones,” “Rosewood” and “The Resident.” With the Tuesday premiere of NBC’s propulsive missing-persons drama “Found,” Okoro Carroll will join Shonda Rhimes as the only Black women to have run three network dramas during one broadcast season.

Filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood, who first met Okoro Carroll at a Black moms group, says that the writer has made a conscious decision to ensure that she was never the only Black woman in the room: “She has made it and is intentional on using her power and influence to raise the next generation of Black writers.”

“The whole mission statement behind my company, Rock My Soul Productions, is to create content that leaves the world a better place than how we found it,” says Okoro Carroll, whose shows explore timely social issues that directly affect people of color in America. “I’ve made no secret about 90% of that is me trying to make the world a better place to leave my sons in. I have an 11-year-old and a 16-year-old, and I want to give them the most fulfilling, joyous, amazing life experience I can. I always believe that God gives us certain weapons, and the weapon he gave me was my keyboard.”

The youngest of four children born to Nigerian parents in New York, Okoro Carroll was raised in Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire and went to a boarding school in England, where she was introduced to Shakespearean plays and briefly performed with a youth theater group in Oxford. She soon developed an interest in American television, with a steady diet of daytime soaps (“General Hospital”) and classic teen dramas (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “One Tree Hill”).

Okoro Carroll, who studied economics as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania and as a graduate student at New York University, channeled her experiences at the Fed into a spec script that landed in the hands of “Bones” creator Hart Hanson, who was charmed by her effervescence and fought to get her in his writers rooms despite her rookie status.

“You have the feeling that making her sit in a chair is like putting her in handcuffs; I wondered how anyone so exuberant could sit still long enough to write a script,” Hanson recalls. “Someone with Nkechi’s charisma can be a pain in the ass in the writers room, but she wasn’t like that. She was a team player. I often found writers in Nkechi’s office, [and she was] helping them with their stories — or vice versa. It means a lot when a writer seeks out another writer to help them through a tough patch.”

Establishing a sense of community has remained at the core of Okoro Carroll’s ethos. In 2014, she teamed up with Lena Waithe and Erika L. Johnson to create Black Women Who Brunch, a network of Black female television writers that began with a dozen people in Okoro Carroll’s living room and has since grown to include more than 270 members.

“We were tired of being called the ‘unicorns’ in our [writers] rooms and by the executives we were interacting with,” says Okoro Carroll. “As I was moving up in the business, if people came to me and they were like, ‘We can’t find people like you,’ I didn’t like that I couldn’t roll the names off my tongue. I knew they were out there, but I didn’t like that I couldn’t be a resource.”

Black Women Who Brunch has become an invaluable source of support for writers seeking work and mentorship opportunities — and its members even helped provide financial assistance to those who were struggling during the recently concluded writers’ strike. “I have mentors and mentees in that group, so it brings me so much joy that I don’t really see it as an obligation,” Okoro Carroll says. “I see it as part of the tools for my self-care and keeping myself sane in this industry.”

Okoro Carroll’s steady rise through the ranks is a lesson in tenacity — and she knows she remains the exception rather than the rule. In a report published by the Writers Guild of America in 2022, white men constituted 57.7% of showrunners in 2020; by contrast, only 6.9% were BIPOC women. Having spent the first 14 years of her professional life in the world of finance, Okoro Carroll likens showrunning to being the CEO of her own company — overseeing budgets and employees, thinking on her feet, and managing the demands of various stakeholders. (No stranger to the managerial aspects of the business, the prolific Greg Berlanti, whom Okoro Carroll put on her vision board in the early aughts when he was showrunner of “Dawson’s Creek,” specifically praises his producing partner’s “interpersonal talents.”)

Sonay Hoffman, the co-showrunner of “Found,” adds that Okoro Carroll “walks the walk”: She has promoted people of color on both sides of the camera and inspired fierce loyalty among her employees, who have aligned themselves with her messaging. (Marqui Jackson is Okoro Carroll’s co-showrunner on “Homecoming.”)

“Her expectations are high, because she puts in the work and expects the same from those around her, and we all want to work hard for her,” Hoffman says. “It is possible to be a strong, decisive leader, but also cultivate a joyful environment. These things are not mutually exclusive.”

What still excites Okoro Carroll about her job is the immediacy and accessibility of network television, which has been her bread and butter. “Through a show like ‘All American’ or ‘Homecoming,’ if someone watching that show is now a fan of [Daniel Ezra’s] Spencer James or [Michael Evans Behling’s] Jordan Baker, and they run into my son on the street, maybe when they look at him, they’re not seeing a threat because he’s a 6-foot-6-inch young Black man,” Okoro Carroll says. “They’re seeing a young boy with a dream, with family and friends, that is going to grow up to be something great. And that’s one more person that is helping him make it home at night.”

Okoro Carroll hopes “Found,” a passion project she’s been mulling for the last five years, will have a similar impact. One of the few scripted shows to premiere this fall, the NBC crime drama follows the lives of whip-smart public relations expert Gabi Mosely (Shanola Hampton) and her crisis management team, which specializes in tracking down marginalized people often overlooked by authorities and the mainstream media. But unbeknownst to her colleagues, who all have personal experiences with abduction, Gabi has kidnapped her former kidnapper, Sir (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), and has been using him to gain insight into the mind-set of a criminal. (While some may call Gabi an antihero, “I like to call her a complicated woman who is showing us what happens when healing goes a little bit wrong,” says Okoro Carroll.)

Although inspired by the work of the Black and Missing Foundation, Okoro Carroll says she didn’t consult the group until the end of production. Instead, she and her writers drew inspiration from real-life cases and personal experiences. (Natalie Wilson, one of the organization’s co-founders, gave her seal of approval during “Found’s” first preview screening.) “There were some cases where we found out after the fact there’s a real-life case that’s similar. But that’s how prevalent the problems are; even the worst version we could think up in our heads is happening to someone as we speak,” Okoro Carroll reveals.

After the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Hollywood studios and networks vowed to further diversify the industry, but many of those efforts have stalled amid cost-cutting measures and ongoing labor disputes. Having started out at a time when most shows were making 22-episode seasons, Okoro Carroll says she is “ecstatic, overjoyed and grateful” that a new three-year agreement has been reached between the WGA and the major studios, because showrunners need the additional support and many of her mentees have been struggling to make ends meet under the existing system of short episode orders and residual payments.

For Okoro Carroll, who says she grew up inserting herself into her favorite shows because of the dearth of positive Black representation, greenlighting diverse stories is not a matter of being altruistic or filling a quota; it simply makes “good business sense.” Similarly, she has challenged herself and other showrunners to consider the effect that their actions will have on inclusion efforts.

“I’m always going to fight for what’s right, and we can always do better, but I’m always going to be eternally grateful for the career I have,” Okoro Carroll says. “I am a girl that grew up in West Africa who thought this should have been a completely unrealistic dream. [But] now I get to walk onto these famous lots that I grew up watching TV shows from. I get to hear young adults come up to me and tell me how my shows made a difference in their life. That is just the most amazing gift.”

Photo credit: Black and Missing Foundation

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