Clayton Banks remembers the first annual gala sponsored by the National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Communications. It was a small affair held at a night club on the East side of Manhattan in 1993, featuring comedian John Henson. And while the primary goal was to highlight diversity issues within the cable industry, “our second motivation was that we wanted to have a holiday party,” says Banks, a past NAMIC president and president of Ember Media Corp. “So we thought, why not have a holiday party and also do something for the community?” That first event benefited Hale House, which helps care for orphaned and drug-addicted babies.
Since those early days, the NAMIC-New York annual holiday gala has grown into an extravaganza that attracts more than 500 industry executives from across the country, as well as a strong procession of nationally known entertainers and sports figures. Emcees have included Dave Chappell (his show on Comedy Central is now one of the most popular on TV) and recording artist Brian McKnight. “It started out as a local fundraising effort, but I think it has evolved into one of those destination events,” says Manish Jha, ESPN Mobile senior vice president and new NAMIC president. “It has only grown in stature and attendance.”
In fact, many would argue that the annual NAMIC-New York gala has surpassed its local roots altogether. “The scope of the event has gotten larger,” says Banks. “We think that at some point in the future, it might become a national event.”
The gala is also attracting attention from outside the industry, as more and more of its attendees reflect the growing universe of cable-related businesses, including technology companies and other programming and Internet players. In addition, the increasingly high-profile guests and hosts have helped increase the national buzz. All of that is crucial as NAMIC chapters across the country spread the word that hiring and promoting people who better reflect the diversity of cable customers isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s good business. “It gives us an opportunity to help communicate to the folks outside the industry that we’re focused on this business opportunity,” says Jha. “We’re looking at the changing demographics of America.”
As the annual gala event has expanded its focus in recent years, it has also faced moments of reflection and reevaluation. Take Sept. 11, 2001, for example: The gala that year was supposed to be held in Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the terrorist attacks. After canceling the gala, NAMIC-New York leaders decided to reframe the event to “take a look at who is truly making a difference,” says Daphne Leroy, who was president of NAMIC at the time of the tragedy, and is Viacom Inc.’s manager of corporate relations and manager of the programmer’s HIV/AIDS initiative.
In 2002, NAMIC-New York recognized Time Warner Cable for its work on various local and national diversity initiatives, with a portion of proceeds going to the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center to update its computer equipment. Then in 2003, the galas shifted once again to focus on honoring individuals contributing to diversity within the industry, starting with Banks and Douglas Holloway, president of network distribution and affiliate relations at Universal Television.
In 2004, Robert Sachs — the outgoing president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, will be the honoree for his years of work on diversity. In choosing Sachs — who is not a New Yorker — NAMIC-New York is bolstering the idea that the annual gala is becoming a national industry event. “That’s really a signal and a sign of where it’s heading going forward,” says Leroy. “It’s truly national in scope. People are flying in from all over the country. It’s now one of the industry’s premier events.”