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Stephanie Graves: How She Leads at the Disneyland Resort and Marries Art With Business

KESTAN Community is a series where our co-founder and designer, Stephanie, interviews inspiring women in our community. 

Stephanie Graves lives in the intersection of art and business. As Entertainment Manager at The Disneyland Resort, she’s no stranger to a world where creativity meets work. It’s a job that requires her to stay organized amidst varied responsibilities, keep a cool head while dealing with a range of crises, and handle countless interpersonal relationships as she leads her team. 

We sat down to discuss what good leadership looks like, how to prioritize health (and why that’s important to your career), and how Stephanie ultimately marries her creative pursuits with a thriving career. 

You’ve pushed a lot of boundaries. You were the second female in history to audition for Drum Major at USC (a position that wasn’t filled by a woman until 2019), and also a founding member of USC Chamber Ballet. Is this something that you consciously do or is it just part of your nature? 

I do think it’s part of my nature. Once I recognize a need, there’s no doubt in my mind that I will step up to do it. It's why I gravitate towards the live entertainment world. You’re constantly trying to do something in a new way, and hopefully the outcome is something that impacts another person.

Why is it so important to push these boundaries?

Whether in my career or the world, we can’t keep using the same strategies when things are changing. We have to find new ways to do things or we’ll suffer consequences. We’ll either be left behind, inefficient, or stagnant as people. That’s why you have to keep finding new ways to do things better.

How do you define “better”?

Progress, not perfection.

What interests you about the creative arts, and how did you ultimately choose live entertainment as your main area of focus?

All the things! Both sides of my brain are very active. I love being artistic, and I am absolutely in love with the art of storytelling. That is what sets my soul on fire. But on the flip side, I love leading teams, I’m very analytical, and I love to find the most efficient ways to do things. There are spaces in live entertainment where you have to lean on both skill sets equally. It was one of the places, if not the only place, where I could see the intersection of all of my skill sets and all of my passions coming together. 

Was it a straightforward path to come to this realization?

It took a moment because I initially wanted to be a journalist. I think that opened my eyes to the art of storytelling, but I didn’t know what was possible in the world of live entertainment growing up. I just wasn’t exposed to all the options in high school. In college, I started to get exposed to more options but it wasn’t until I reached my professional life that I saw people doing things I had never heard of. When I saw that, I went, “Oh, that’s it. That’s what I want to do.” You don’t know what’s out there right away until you live on this earth a little bit and you explore.

Do you have any advice for women trying to find their place in life? 

Talk to as many people as possible. There are so many people willing to give their time and energy to others coming up. To give them advice. To give them guidance. It’s the only way you find out what’s really out there. There are jobs that I had not heard of  that I know of now. I would never have known had I not stopped and taken the time to just talk to people and ask them questions about their journey. 

What about for our more creatively inclined women. Any tips for getting into the arts?

If you are looking to get into any sort of creative career, there is no one path. There is no formula. There are best practices, but there is no copy paste. That’s the reassuring part, but that’s also the hard part. Because that means no matter what, you’re forging your own path. You can't walk down something that’s been paved ahead of you. So it's a double edged sword.

Forging your own path can be quite daunting though.

There’s going to be a lot of people who have different ideas on what they think you should do. But you are the subject matter expert on your own life. You get to decide what dreams you want to go after and when you want to keep pushing forward and when it no longer serves you. 

Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, because the most practical thing you can do for yourself is going for that dream. It’s there for a reason. 

And what if it seems almost impossible?

What we’re going through now is temporary. This is just a temporary moment in time. You can be stubborn about your goals but still flexible about your methods. So I’ll be flexible about adapting to the changing world and what I’m having to do to keep myself mentally and emotionally charged. But there is absolutely no reason to change the goal. Why am I going to make a permanent change for a temporary time? 

Going back to your present career, what does being an Entertainment Manager entail? 

It really depends on the department, your company, the day itself. There’s always a certain amount of administrative work no matter where you go. Paperwork is paperwork. There are high levels of crisis management and organization. The biggest difference between working in an entertainment line of business versus other industries is your product is not a thing. It is a person’s performance. At the end of the day, that is a big part of your responsibility. You’re not just asking people to sell an item, but to put themselves out there on a daily basis. You’re really responsible for human beings and their nature, much more than a hard item or product. 

Having to deal with so many different people and personalities sounds really difficult. 

In the creative world there are a lot of unique and a lot of big personalities, but that’s part of their strength. You don’t want to deny or squash that. You want to channel that energy. That strong personality is oftentimes what sells that performance. You want to bring that out and channel it towards the end goal. 

What drew you to Disney?

Initially, it was because I lost my job and I needed another one. That’s how it started, but I stayed because of all the previously mentioned reasons on why I love live entertainment. I didn’t know that a lot of those opportunities were out there until I was hired into Disney, but once I saw them there was something that clicked. I can do all the things I love and there is no limit because I’m working for an organization that is constantly trying to, as Bob Iger would say, “disrupt ourselves”. We’re always trying to find a new way to do something before somebody else. So you’re never going to get bored. 

You were previously a performer at Disneyland. What’s the transition like between being on stage and then being behind-the-scenes?

I knew that I eventually wanted to transition out of performing full-time. As much as I still think that it's important to keep my artistic soul alive, I wanted a cerebral challenge in my career. I wanted to be a leader. That was always inevitable. It was just figuring out what path to go on and then taking the steps to go on that path. I’ve always been a leader, so in some ways for me it was a very natural end goal.

You’re someone who values good leadership, and finds importance in inspiring and guiding your team. What do you think makes a good leader?

As a leader, you have to own every aspect of your team, your business, and your responsibility. You don't shy away from that. The second big core part of leadership is that it’s never about you. If at any moment in time you’re there for yourself then your priorities are wrong. 

You’re trying to make it better for those around you. Once you make it better for your team, then your team can make it better for whatever greater purpose they’re trying to serve. For example, if it's a live entertainment product, you take care of your people and they can give their best performance. And you don’t know who in the audience needed that performance that day. 

My end goal is that I want people to come into work and enjoy what they’re doing. Because if they do that, then they’re going to make the impact on whoever is coming to enjoy it. 

As a female leader, do you have advice to other women on how we can work together to help each other rise up?

First and foremost, we need to find some security in ourselves. If you’re not secure in yourself, you’re not able to help the person next to you when they’re down. Competition also isn’t a bad thing, but there’s a proverb: if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together. As a society, women leaders need to work together, collaborate, and find ways to get our personal experiences out there so that women who come behind us, or come alongside us, can learn from our experiences. 

Looking into your past, what has been the most challenging moment in your life and how did you overcome it?

Last year was one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced. At one point I was moved to three different teams within the first six months of the year. As much as I loved the amount of knowledge I got from that experience, that amount of change in a short amount of time can really take its toll on you. When your schedule changes every few weeks to a few months, it’s really hard to find that time to take care of yourself. It adds up after a while. But at one point you have to say “enough is enough”, and I became tired of being in survival mode. I was ready to thrive. 

That’s when I really leaned into the overall health and wellness passion that I have now. I’ve really restructured a lot of my habits. If you’re going to be ambitious, you have to find ways to level up. That’s what a lot of this year has been about. 

You are a champion of mental and physical health. How do you make this a priority in your life? 

You have to set boundaries, and you have to learn that taking care of yourself is not a selfish act. I know that I’ll be able to give so much more because I’ve set those boundaries. We talk about ambition and what you have to sacrifice to get to a certain goal, but I think we take it too far and we sacrifice the wrong things. 

If you can help it, you should never sacrifice your sleep. You should never sacrifice your eating habits. You should never sacrifice your peace of mind. What you sacrifice is bad habits. You sacrifice spending time on things that don’t necessarily serve you.

Ambition is a beautiful thing, but if you burn yourself out you’re never going to actually fulfill your mission. Or you’re going to get there and be too tired to enjoy it. What’s the point of that? 

How do you find time to balance your career, your health, and your creative pursuits outside of work?

I love the quote “you can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once”. I know that I can’t do all the things I love all the time. There are certain things that have to stay habits, like going to the gym or a dance class. So it’s a matter of scheduling those things ahead of time and setting boundaries. 

Then there's the bigger picture. There are certain times of the year when I know it’s a busy season at work. Then, I’ll consciously choose not to take anything on outside of work because I will just run myself ragged and I won't enjoy myself anyways. 

How would you describe your approach to melding the arts and creativity with a successful career? 

There are very few things in life that are mutually exclusive. When I take the time to be a better artist, I go back to work as a better person and leader. I’m more refreshed and more attentive. Also, when I’m leading in the same world I’m an artist in, it’s a really humbling experience. I always remember where I started and how the performers I’m leading feel, because I left work and went back into their shoes in a different environment.

Art is not about being the best in the room. Art is about giving your full authentic self in the best way you know how. There’s a place for you if you’re doing it because you love it. 


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