From the boardroom to the red carpet, Agnes Lee, 36, is a force to be reckoned with in the fast-paced world of film finance. Never content to settle for anything less-than, this trailblazer has forged herself a new path and is offering her clients a unique perspective when it comes to making their cinematic dreams come to fruition.
Though her firm, Community Equity Associates (CEA) Group, is based out of Tampa, Lee lives a good bit of her life on the road between New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and London. Prior to joining CEA Group as a Senior Advisor in Media, Entertainment, & Television, this globetrotter explored an assortment of careers before unearthing her passion for project finance—a focus perfectly suited for her unique capabilities.
As a single, career-driven woman, Lee admits she has faced some challenges along the way. Through this adversity, Lee has grown stronger by maintaining an upbeat attitude and charming sense of humor despite any setback. In this GRAVITAS interview, Lee talks about her soul-searching years of college, adventures abroad, and how she broke her way into the competitive field of media finance.
When did your interest in finance first come about?
Well, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do while I was in undergrad and I didn’t really have a mentor to guide me. I pursued finance because that just seemed to be what everyone around me was doing at the time. My teachers kept telling me, “Agnes, you’re not stupid, but I don’t think you should go into medicine.”
Then you spent some time in Washington, D.C.?
Yes, I went to Washington, D.C. by myself. My parents were shocked and concerned. Despite their hesitation, I transferred from USF to George Washington University and began studying politics.
While at George Washington, I had pretty much every internship under the sun. I worked at the Department of Justice during the big Microsoft antitrust case. I was essentially working for Janet Reno at that time. In fact, my mother still has the picture of me with Janet Reno…even though we’re all registered Republicans in my family. I also worked with Mazda, the car company. I worked with lobbyists as well. Truly, I had every office job you could possibly imagine, and I was still stuck trying to figure out what I wanted in my career.
Did you work all the way through college?
Yes, I did. I was fortunate enough that my parents could afford my college education. They worked really hard to fulfill their own American Dream so I didn’t really have to worry about money. For me, it was about trying to figure out what to do with my life.
Once I started working, I became so focused on the work that my education kind of took second place. Ultimately, my grades suffered because of my extracurricular work. One time, I was even put on academic probation, which led my career advisors to tell me, “You’re never going to be a lawyer because you’ll never get into any of the decent law schools.” So, I thought, “Okay, I need to pull it together and start focusing on academia.” I became motivated and found the will to pull my grades back up.
You ended up spending some time in London during your education. How did that transpire?
Interestingly, one of my professors, the head of the political science department, was pulling together a program to send a handful of American students, specifically students in poli-sci and international affairs, abroad to London to work as research assistants for the British parliament. He put me forward, and I was accepted into the program.
My parents wouldn’t give me the permission to go, so he called them up and implored them to let me go. See, when you get a call from a professor—especially in an Asian home—it’s a pretty big deal. Needless to say, I went to London.
The strangest thing happened the moment I stepped out of the airport; I felt home for the first time in my life. After that summer, I called my parents to let them know I wasn’t coming back. They could not understand or accept this news. That’s when they threatened to cut me off financially. Fortunately, I had all this money squirreled away from various small jobs, so I said, “Fine. I don’t need your money.”
I completed my law degree with honors because this time around I was studying areas that actually interested me. My parents were shocked when they saw me becoming very academic and studious for the first time in my life.
How did you land your first job at Universal?
I was applying to many internship programs during my first and second years at law school, but I was having trouble getting into one because of the thick competition. Then, one of my girlfriends, a former banker, found herself working at Universal Pictures in business development. She told me, “Agnes, you don’t have the personality to be an investment banker. You need to consider entertainment.” As it turned out, they had an internship available in international productions and acquisitions, out of their London offices. I didn’t think I stood a chance, but they ended up offering me the internship the very same day I applied.
I was there for five years, but ultimately I saw a glass ceiling at Universal, so to speak. There were also a lot of gender politics at play—something I didn’t really appreciate. For example, finding out that the male finance analyst, who started out at the company making less than I, was now making close to 20,000 pounds more than me. That might have been the final straw.
Apart from that, I was making all sorts of decisions for the company that were well above my pay grade. My boss was such a lawyer; he couldn’t make a decision to save his life. In fact, he actually got rid of my title because he didn’t want people who were transacting with me to know how junior I was…leaving me title-less. He even jerked me around with a promise of promotion.
Ultimately, I’m so glad he was like that because I would not have had the opportunities it presented me. If I had started out my career doing in-house work at Universal Los Angeles, for example, they’d probably have had me just do talent deals, day in and day out. But at the Universal International group, I got a wide breadth of experience. Basically, I was able to figure out how it all works in a larger sense by becoming a point person for Universal International.
What was your next move after Universal?
I had an amazing opportunity to work in Hong Kong heading up business affairs for a Hollywood studio looking to open offices in China. Sadly, the financing didn’t work and they just couldn’t raise enough capital.
At the same time, my mom became ill again and I moved back to Tampa to be close to her. That’s when I found out about CEA here in Tampa. The discovery was truly a gift because it allowed me to be close to my family, as I was beginning to feel as if I neglected them in my own pursuit of success.
Initially, part of me was sad about missing out on all the different hot new happenings in London, L.A. and Hong Kong. But the CEA’s chairman, Rick Michaels, made me see the light. He told me, “If you’re a shot-caller, people come to you. The business comes to you.” CEA has offices in 60 cities across the globe, but we are based here in Tampa because that was more convenient for our chairman. Another benefit is that I can stay one arm’s length away from all the stupid Hollywood gossip. It keeps me grounded.
How does that affect your approach to the business and your clients?
I think my clients and my investors find it refreshing. At first they’re like, “What? You’re in Tampa?”
The fact of the matter is that I didn’t do this on my own. It was because of my chairman’s pedigree and the firm’s prestige along with their long history of business and contacts that gave me the professional equity that I needed.
What do you do at CEA?
When I first started working for CEA, I sat down with Rick to tell him about some of the special projects I had in mind. I told him that I wanted to do things differently and together, we carved out a different type of business for investing banking and financial services apart from what the rest of the industry is doing.
The world of media and entertainment financing is ever-changing. With all the things that are happening in the virtual reality space, the new media space and the new content space are so much more diverse. None of it fits neatly into the studio model that once existed. And I know that because I used to be the studio. I see how it can be done differently. The studio business is still the studio business, and the studios are going to be fine with or without me, but who I really benefit are the content makers, the producers, and the investors that want to finance projects without losing out to the studios or having the studio take the lion’s share. It’s about creating a smart business for my investors and the producers so everyone gets what they want. That’s the business that we’re building. And here I am today.
So, how long have you been at the firm?
I officially joined in 2014, as a supervisor.
So, this is all still pretty new?
Oh, yes. I initially joined the team as a senior advisor and I became a managing director this last fall. So, it’s all fairly new.
Are you married? Do you have children?
No, no. Yeah, I don’t do that.
Not at the moment, but I do date. Truthfully, I do not want to get married, and I don’t want to have kids. I love my life. I love dating whom I want to date when I want to date them, and I love leaving them the moment I’m no longer satisfied. What’s wrong with that?
Some women seem to make harsh judgments of this, but I believe the choices I make in my relationships should be accepted the same way the choices I make with my hairstyle or fashions are; people shouldn’t try to psychoanalyze me. They always think I have daddy-issues when in reality, I’ve had the best relationship with my father. And let me tell you, when I am dating, my men treat me like a queen because I don’t settle for anything less.
Can you tell me about the women in your field and whether you had any mentors to look up to?
The friendships I developed with the women while I was at Universal International I still hold onto today. I think I found a really great group of women in the industry who try to stick together because there’s so few of us.
I finally found a mentor at another studio who taught me not to lose sight of myself and not to “play the man’s game.” So many women try to be ballbusters or badasses because they’re trying to beat the men or play their game. This mentor was the one who told me to stop. She shared with me some of her experiences and let me know that she had regrets about trying to mold herself to be “one of the boys.” She said to me, “You’re quirky, funny and you’re sweet. You care about fashion and the way you look, and you should. If that’s the kind of woman you want to be, then own it.”