Wonya Lucas, who was named CEO of Hallmark Media in 2020, revealed in a new profile by the Wall Street Journal that her drive to succeed as a Black, female executive in the entertainment industry is due in part to the inspiring and famous members of her family who broke barriers long before she did, including her uncle — major league baseball legend Hank Aaron.
Lucas said a lifetime of experiences dealing with racism and witnessing her family navigate hatred and hardship has fueled her desire to ensure Hallmark’s programming continues to evolve so that every viewer feels seen, represented, and loved.
Wonya Lucas Says Uncle Hank Aaron Addressed Racism With ‘Calm and Grace’
In a Wall Street Journal article published on December 24, 2022, Lucas said her highly-accomplished family, including parents who both graduated from college, set an example for her of persevering through adversity.
Her dad, Bill Lucas, played for the Atlanta Braves before becoming the team’s general manager in 1976, which made him a historic figure as Major League Baseball’s first-ever Black GM. Sadly, he died in 1979 of a brain hemorrhage, according to The Atlantic, three weeks before Lucas graduated from high school. Meanwhile, her mom was an elementary school teacher who later served on the board of Turner Broadcasting System.
Lucas learned a great deal from her uncle, Baseball Hall of Fame’s Aaron, who broke one record after another while also navigating racism, including receiving death threats when he eclipsed Babe Ruth — who was white — as baseball’s home run king, according to the New York Times’ obituary after Aaron’s death in January 2021.
“Despite all the hatred directed towards him, he never hated anyone,” Lucas told the WSJ. “Seeing how people can hate you that way just for doing your job had a profound effect on me.”
Lucas said that when she faces racism, including receiving her own death threats when she became general manager of the Weather Channel Networks in the 2000s, she remembers that Aaron taught her to handle such adversity “with calm and grace.” To this day, she said she and her two adult daughters have to deal with suspicious neighbors in the luxury, mostly white residential community where they live in Atlanta.
After graduating from Georgia Tech, Lucas started out as a product engineer for Westinghouse Electric, then got her MBA in finance and marketing at the Wharton School, which she put to use at Clorox and Coca-Cola, conducting research and testing to meet consumers’ shifting demands.
Eager to shift into the entertainment industry, she asked for help from Julia Sprunt, the corporate VP of public relations and marketing at Turner Broadcasting, who’d been her boss back when she was a summer intern after business school. Sprunt arranged interviews with “every senior leader at the company,” Lucas said, revealing that they all said they couldn’t see her “fitting in” there.
So Sprunt created a role for Lucas, who remained at the company for eight years in marketing research and strategy roles for TNT, TBS, and CNN before moving on to leadership roles at the Weather Channel, the Discovery Channel, and Public Broadcasting Atlanta. Hallmark came calling in 2020, along with a chance to help the network evolve.
Hallmark CEO Wonya Lucas Says Championing Diversity is a Solid Strategy
Lucas, who told the WSJ that data is her “love language,” said that her efforts to diversify Hallmark’s casts and storylines are part of her data-driven strategy to expand the network’s appeal while still providing its core viewers with the Hallmark stories and stars they know and love.
“People may think that I’m diversifying because I’m a Black woman, but I’m being strategic,” she said. “We don’t all look alike, we’re not all shaped alike, and it’s important that different people get their love story. People want to see themselves.”
Lucas replaced longtime Hallmark CEO Bill Abbott, who has since launched his own network, Great American Family, featuring several former Hallmark stars who signed exclusive deals with him including Candace Cameron Bure and Danica McKellar.
Since Lucas took over, Hallmark has produced movies with more diverse casts and crews, including the network’s first-ever productions featuring a plus-size heroine, a gay couple, a romance between people with Down syndrome, and films centered around Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. The more inclusive strategy seems to be working; in the fourth quarter of 2022, Hallmark remained the most-watched entertainment cable network in the U.S., reaching over 44 million unique viewers per Nielsen data.
Lucas says her strategy is actually just mirroring its parent company’s long history of embracing diversity and inclusivity.
“This 112-year-old brand leaned into diversity very early,” Lucas told the WSJ, sharing that Hallmark introduced Spanish-language cards and its Mahogany line for African-Americans 35 years ago and sold same-sex marriage cards as early as 2008.
“I’m just translating the essence of the brand into media,” she explained.
“There’s something about the positivity and emotional safety, that everything’s going to work out in the end, that really uplifts people,” she said, noting that she also wants to make sure that their feel-good movies are “culturally authentic.”
“For us it is about showing that there are common elements to every love story, regardless of who you are,” she added. “I mean, we all want love, right?”