Chances are you haven’t heard diddly about the Walter Kaitz Foundation, the industry’s major national diversity initiative, for nearly a year. If you’re a face in that crowd, you probably will hear something this week, especially if you attend the National Show in New Orleans. That’s because for the first time in a long while, there’s a face in charge of Kaitz—Debbie Smith. And you can bet her dance card in the Big Easy will be crowded to the max. Whether attending meetings, general sessions or receptions, Smith will use the week as she’s used the last month since becoming the foundation’s executive director. Her focus is simple: Get to know as many cable industry movers as possible, while getting them to believe that, with someone running Kaitz under supervision from NCTA, diversity will remain an important part of cable’s future. She’s already met with Spencer Kaitz, the man who created the foundation in honor of his father, Walter. Smith also has met with most of NCTA’s board members. She acknowledged that, at press time, she had not spoken yet with any Kaitz board members, and she’ll make National Show time for "whoever" on the Kaitz board attends. However, as industry officials size up Smith, they also will be wondering what direction the Kaitz agenda will go under her tenure. More importantly, they’ll be wondering if the direction will be enough to not only boost the industry’s multicultural workforce, but generate more senior executives of color all over the industry. Smith and NCTA must decide whether Kaitz will remain a fund-raising clearinghouse for projects undertaken by other cable and media groups—the policy since 2001—or return to the mandate Kaitz lived by the first two decades of its existence. Losing Its Way Under subsidized fellowships lasting six to 12 months, people from other industries were placed with cable operators, programmers and vendors. More than 500 people landed cable roles through 20 years of Kaitz fellowships, funded through the foundation’s annual September dinner in New York, which drew upwards of 1,000 people most years and became such a cause c�l�bre that it literally created a "Hell Week" of industry events and board meetings that were scheduled to coincide with the dinner. Since 2000, Kaitz has raised more than $1 million annually off the dinner. "The original mission years ago was about bringing in people of color into the industry from full-time job backgrounds elsewhere," reflects Curtis Symonds, president of his own multicultural branding company and president of the T. Howard Foundation, which subsidizes media internships. "Now they’ve made a 360-degree turn, and what they would rather do is fund organizations that are doing diversity things for the industry." Art Torres instigated that turn during his much-maligned stint as executive director starting in 2000. At the time, Kaitz was under fire for administrative overruns, resulting in less money for fellowships. The organization also was criticized for failing to persuade key MSOs, programmers and vendors to accept fellowships consistently. Overseeing Kaitz while remaining a major player in California Democratic politics, Torres adopted, with board approval, the current grant-giving practice. Pro-diversity projects from CTAM, Women in Cable and Telecommunications and the National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Telecommunications benefited from the grants. But other foundation awards for California-based entities with scant relationships to cable resulted in another wave of controversy, and Torres left Kaitz early last year under that cloud. Until Smith’s appointment was announced March 10, it was tough to see when Kaitz or NCTA, which assumed the foundation’s management after Torres departed, would determine not only who’s in charge, but what the agenda would be. Updates on Kaitz matters were not widely disseminated, and there was no updating whatsoever on the foundation’s website (www.walterkaitz.org) for more than half a year. The site continued to post the location of last September’s dinner in New York, rather than 2004 dinner info, until nearly April of this year. The dinner details finally appeared on Kaitz’s site March 29, three weeks after Smith’s selection. The news release on her appointment also was posted, along with a promise of a site redesign later on. There still are some details to correct, however: A logo display of Kaitz supporting companies includes AT&T Broadband and Wink Communications, which were respectively swallowed up by Comcast in late 2002 and Liberty Media (under OpenTV) last year. Unanswered Questions The combination of no executive director and outdated Web information left impressions that the Kaitz Foundation was in a state of inertia. "It has been somewhat dormant," says Benita Mosley, WICT’s president and CEO. "Things have been minimal since a year ago. The challenge for Debbie, because the organization has been in this state of flux for some time, is to bring great leadership and put the industry to task. I’ve had some discussions with her, and I’m confident she’ll bring a lot of energy to the table." In the short term, Smith’s energy will be divided four ways once she gets the meet-and-greets over with. There’s awarding the grants from the dinner revenues; organizing the dinner itself; developing a new program to increase cable company support of minority-owned equipment, technology and office management services; and revamping the foundation’s website. Those marching orders come from a master transition plan jointly adopted by the Kaitz board and NCTA’s own board of directors last summer. Smith already has met with Mosely, as well as NAMIC’s leadership. On a Los Angeles trip two weeks ago, Smith attended various NAMIC affairs, including the organization’s first-ever "Creative Summit" for TV production talent of color, and the 10th anniversary Vision Awards, which recognize on-screen diversity among cable networks. Several Kaitz board members also serve on NCTA’s diversity committee, which raises another issue with Symonds. "Do they keep the foundation’s board running things, or do they absorb it under NCTA’s committee and allow them to take over? That’s still playing in the head over there," he says. For now, NCTA treats Kaitz like Cable in the Classroom, which also operates under the association’s auspices, even though it has a dedicated executive director and staff. "Putting all of this together to move forward is the biggest challenge now," Smith declares. "You have to understand the strategic plans, the industry structure and its players. So far, the industry people I’ve met are incredible. If this is what things are like, I’m in for a good experience." Rob Stoddard, NCTA’s senior VP of public affairs and communications, notes that while everything is up for evaluation, Kaitz will continue to operate as a grant process for the near future. "We need to solidify that model so that the grants are well-spent, they produce effective results and measurement of those results demonstrate significant impact," he adds. True, the website could have been updated sooner, Stoddard acknowledges. "We were focusing more on making the transition happen," he says. "All of our membership was kept abreast of the executive search process and on other matters." Moving Forward Smith—new to cable after years of work in both banking and trade associations, but no novice in expanding options for people of color, having recently served as SVP and diversity director for Allfirst Financial Inc.—may guide Kaitz to a brand-new path, directly interceding with cable companies to produce diversity ventures or incentives. "Her background will be good for the table," says Symonds. "She’s a strong person in the field." WICT, NAMIC and the Emma Bowen Foundation for Minority Interests in Media received Kaitz grants last year. WICT received about $43,000 for running diversity workshops at its annual WICT Forum, plus $70,000 toward the launch of its PAR Initiative, which tracks the state of pay, diversity and workplace resources at cable companies. Emma Bowen, which funds four-year summer media internships for students of color graduating from high school into college, used its $50,000 2003 Kaitz grant for a "Link Mentoring Initiative," which enabled 20 students to meet industry leaders last summer in New York for mentoring and professional development training. "It was successful for both the students and the mentors," says Phyllis Eagle-Oldson, Bowen’s president and CEO. "The program was diverse in every way." More than 150 students nationwide are participating in Bowen internships. About 70% of them take industry positions after graduating college, Eagle-Oldson estimates. Recent Bowen program grads include Jada Miranda, HBO’s comedy development manager, and Alturo Rhymes, a CNN business news segment producer. Bowen contributed candidate input to Issacson, Miller, the Boston-based headhunter working on the Kaitz position. Eagle-Oldson is satisfied with the choice, but believes it won’t be easy for Smith. "It will be a baptism by fire," Eagle-Oldson says. "There will be pressure to do something. And she’s jumping right in to get the ball rolling. "We’d all like to have seen the choice made quicker," she adds. "The board was very careful and conscientious about the interviewing process. It never happens as quickly as you think it should." NAMIC’s leadership declined an invitation to comment for this story. An organization spokesperson said Smith should get ample time to size up the industry and determine how Kaitz should function. Symonds’ T. Howard Foundation raised more than $500,000 last year for 41 internships at companies ranging from Hallmark Channel to XM Satellite Radio. There will be at least 55 internships this year, thanks to about $400,000 raised from the foundation’s own New York dinner gala three weeks ago. Symonds is interested in providing a sounding board for Smith about where Kaitz should go—including placing fresh talent from other fields into cable. "Just becoming a funding source is not enough," he says. "It’s about opportunity, a way to get people in the door. Many women and people of color don’t have direction. I hope the board allows her to step out of the box some and give her that forte to not only decide where the funding goes, but work with companies to deal with their diversity issues." Minimally, Kaitz under Smith should explore a way on its own, or through another party with grants, to direct people fresh from college, or from other industries, into cable, Mosley concludes. "There’s a hole and, for sure, Kaitz with a general diversity agenda can start that call for action in a way individual agencies can’t," she says. "Debbie’s got a direct pipeline into the biggest kahunas we have in the industry. Why not have Kaitz be the conversation opener for diversity, then let WICT, NAMIC, Emma Bowen and others provide it?"