When Lena Waithe asked Rishi Rajani to join her Hillman Grad production company, he worried her busy schedule might make her inaccessible, but she is heavily involved in all aspects of the company.
"Lena is just as fierce as a producer as she is a writer and an actor," says Rajani, the firm's president of film and TV. "She's always pushing to make sure we're not letting any projects just sit. It's because Lena is who she is that we're able to push people forward in a way a lot of other companies can't or won't."
Hillman is constantly seeking new voices to create inclusive and entertaining content that fits the company's mission — to deliver protest art that spans all forms of diversity, including racial, gender, sexual, economic and geographic.
Series like Boomerang, The Chi and Twenties and movies like Queen & Slim promote constructive conversation, he says, by telling the stories of people who have historically been "othered" by society.
After graduating from NYU, Rajani interned at Morgan Spurlock's company, Warrior Poets, and a couple of off-Broadway shows.
While interning at Fox Filmed Entertainment in New York, he says, he made a discovery: "Not only that this is a job and career that exists, but it's something I really like, I'm good at, and want to be a part of."
Colleagues encouraged him to move to L.A., where he landed at talent agency UTA and worked in the mailroom before becoming an assistant.
From there, he moved to the Paradigm agency and then to production company Studio 8, where he was a development exec before Waithe lured him to Hillman Grad.
Rajani loves helping to launch storytellers' careers, and only the quality of their work matters, he insists — not what's on their résumés. "We're taking risks on people that maybe wouldn't have otherwise gotten a shot."
Having grown up in an Oregon suburb watching TV and movie heroes whose skin color never resembled his own, the London-born exec wants all viewers to see characters with whom they can identify.
"It's important to tell stories about people of color that aren't just about the struggle of being someone of color, and to tell stories of people with disabilities that aren't just about them being disabled. It's about showing that they're real people.
"They have their own hopes and dreams, aspirations, love lives, interests and hobbies. They're human beings. The more we can tap into that and just tell stories of humans, the more we get that shift into acceptance."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2020