Where Characters — and Women — Matter

Tremendous! CEO on How She Came to be a Storyteller

I‘ve wanted to be a storyteller for as long as I can remember.  As a little girl in Iowa, long after I was supposed to be asleep, I would read mysteries and adventure stories with a flashlight under the covers.  Books transported me to places I’d never even heard of and the characters I met inspired me to travel and ultimately tell stories of my own. 

My professional storytelling career began as a news reporter and anchor at WCCO-TV, the CBS O&O in Minneapolis. Thanks to the station’s commitment to global news, I was sent to cover news in Africa, Central and South America, Europe and even to live for three weeks with former headhunters in Papua New Guinea.  But after 17 years in broadcast journalism and with three young children at home, I felt something was missing. I wanted to tell stories that were more than a minute and a half long.  And after so many years of focusing often on what was wrong with the world, I wanted to feature people with the passion and audacity to make things better.

Tremendous! Entertainment was born from a desire to tell stories that elevate the human spirit.  With Jane E. Durkee, chief operating officer, and Shannon Keenan Demers, senior vice president of production and creative, at my side as “the matriarchs” of the TEI family, we’ve been able to do just that for almost 20 years. 

Many have debated whether women make better leaders than men and studies first published in the Harvard Business Review certainly give women the nod.  In my experience, women excel at driving results, but they also tend to be more collaborative, more empowering and more likely to spot opportunities that mere analytics miss. This heart-led filter not only generates content that inspires and entertains, it creates a company-wide culture that retains the most talented women and men and ultimately leads to financial success. 

Take Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern (pictured), a franchise we created in the early 2000s that is now Travel Channel’s longest-running series still in premieres. The series explores cultures around the world through the lens of food, and it celebrates the ordinary, yet extraordinary lives of people who may look different but who exemplify ideals we all value.   True, eating blood pudding or sautéed rat may seem foreign to most Americans, but early on when Andrew discovered a tribe that was willing to offer up its only meal in three days to him or a man who happily risked his life at sea with nothing more than a ball of string and a rusty knife so he could feed his family, we knew we were on to something special -- something that viewers would respond to.  

And when it comes to giving women a voice, you don’t often think of the Middle East as a place where women are in leadership positions or own their own businesses, but when we were researching Dubai for Bizarre Foods, our supervising producer, Tammy Bloom, was pleasantly surprised to discover a woman who owns a camel farm and employs mostly men. She also found two women who started a global gourmet food company, a woman executive at a thriving camel dairy and a young women entrepreneur with a successful food and travel business.  Suffice it to say, we made it a point to feature all these stories in our Dubai episode.

Whether it’s ghost hunters who want to save lost souls, a band director in the Deep South who builds character above all else or two buddies who inspire a new generation to explore nature, Tremendous! Entertainment seeks out ordinary people doing extraordinary things because we know that characters who are loud and passionate about making the world a better place ultimately speak to all of us. 

And when you treat co-workers like family, allow them to express their creativity and give them the flexibility to spend time with their loved ones, you find engaged and talented people who are committed to their work and willing to go that extra mile. 

That heart-led filter, coupled with our Midwestern roots, ultimately influenced our motto, “Where Character Matters.” Those three words inform our work on screen and behind the scenes. When everyone believes in the mission and feels good about what they are producing, it shows on the bottom line and helps fulfill the dreams of an Iowa-born storyteller.

Colleen Needles Steward is president and CEO of factual-based entertainment company Tremendous! Entertainment in Minneapolis.  

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