Intrepid Woman: Jacki Zehner on Bringing Wonder Woman to the Big Screen

JackiZehnerBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Until the early 2000s, Jacki Zehner was focused on building a stellar career on Wall Street. When she was named partner at Goldman Sachs, she was the youngest woman and the first female trader to have done so.

But upon getting involved in leadership, she began to develop a passion for equality that led to a fixation on the DC Comics superheroine Wonder Woman, who was famously portrayed by Lynda Carter in a 1970s television series. Zehner began questioning why a feature film on the character has never been produced.

“We should care that we see images and stories on the big screen that inspire us, rather than just entertain us, and superhero stories do this. Little kids walk out of a movie theater wanting to have super powers and save the world. The fact that there are no female super hero films in 2013 makes me crazy. I want to take my daughter to one.”

That passion for equality led her to an entire new career in philanthropy, as President of Women Moving Millions, and an outspoken commitment to fighting the status quo. It’s also opened doors to the world of film and entertainment. “I never thought about a career in film,” she explained. “My first desire was with the Wonder Woman film. It was the only thing I thought about doing until I got involved in a much bigger way. I’m now proud to be an advocate and an investor in Gamechangers, a fund that invests in women directors of feature films.”

Last week, to coincide with a new PBS documentary on Wonder Woman, Zehner and her cousin Laura Moore released a report called “Why No Wonder Woman” [PDF] on the history of the character, and why the feature film production has yet to happen. Zehner still holds out hope that it will – even if she has to write the screenplay herself. She’s asking people to help create a groundswell of support by liking the report’s facebook page and signing the petition.

She said, “Let’s ask for what we want in the world, ladies. I’m asking for it and I’m asking others to ask for it with me.”

Justice and Equality

Zehner developed what she referred to as an obsession with Wonder Woman during her time at Goldman Sachs. Having risen through the ranks to become the youngest woman ever to become a partner at the firm, she began focusing more on leadership development.

“I was very involved in diversity programs and I had an awakening about what it meant to work for so long in a real absence of women. I had a great career there, and 99 percent of the time I was loving it, so I wanted more women to see that opportunity.”

Nevertheless, she continued, women were virtually absent at the senior leadership level. While preparing a presentation on leadership, she began questioning what it means to be a hero, she explained.

“I always loved Wonder Woman as a child, and I loved the idea of superheroes. But she disappeared from the media as I grew up. Then I reconnected with her while working on leadership at Goldman. I had this idea of ‘Be a Superhero,’ that people are doing wonderful things but there was a lot of self interest. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could put the politics aside, and think about truth and justice and equality?’”

She continued, “Even though I was very successful in my Wall Street career, I’m much more right brained than left brained. I think my biggest talent is being strategic and creative. Which is why, all of the sudden, I started obsessing about this screenplay. It unlocked my right brain and it’s been that way ever since.”

Zehner left the firm in 2002 and spent a few years “just catching up on life,” she recalled with a laugh.

“I took a screenwriting course in 2003 – I really thought my destiny was to write this screenplay,” she explained. She began working on a project, but when it didn’t develop into a powerful enough screenplay, she moved onto other things. “But Wonder Woman was always in the backdrop of my thinking.”

Philanthropic Career

She began working in wealth management and focusing on how she was investing her own resources, getting more involved in philanthropic activities. Today she is the Chief Engagement Officer and President of Women Moving Millions, a network of individuals who have dedicated gifts of $1 million or more to help improve the lives of women and girls. Last week, she was honored with a Global Philanthropy Award by the Global Fund for Women. “It was very special – they don’t usually do galas, but they were celebrating 25 years and $100 million raised. The GFW is the largest funder of grassroots women’s organizations.”

She continued, “I don’t think we can hope to have change unless we empower and resource change agents. These women are heroes. They risk their lives every day, and the way they take on the status quo is beyond my imagination.”

At the gala she got to share a stage with Hillary Clinton, Christiane Amanpour, and Jennifer Buffet.

“My goal for the next few years is gender equality around the world,” Zehner said. “Of course that’s a big goal. We’re just beginning to see what women’s leadership looks like in all realms. We’ve had examples before, but now we have amazing women leaders commanding center stage. Critical mass is coming. So that’s my big goal.”

“I made the decision after watching Hillary Clinton at the gala that if she becomes President, I’d very much like to take over as the Global Ambassador for Women and Girls,” she added with a determined laugh.

Getting Involved in Film

When Zehner moved to Park City, Utah with her family in 2010, she began getting more involved in film because of the proximity of the Sundance Film Festival. “In the first year, when Miss Representation was released, I offered to host a party. Gloria Steinem was there, and Geena Davis was there, and Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the filmmaker, was there. It was so exciting, and then that turned into a formal initiative called Women at Sundance.”

That experience also led Zehner to get involved with Impact Partners, a social impact film investment group, and she is now developing a portfolio of films she has invested in. She was recently executive producer of the film Ready to Fly, a documentary about Lindsey Van and the quest to bring women’s ski jumping to the Olympics. The group is working to get it on television leading up to next year’s Winter Olympic games.

Zehner’s cousin, Laura Moore, wrote the bulk of the report and it was released last week to mark the airing of the new documentary on the challenges that have stood in the way of a feature film about Wonder Woman, as well as Wonder Woman’s influence on other entertainment heroines. Zehner made a gift in support of the film, she says, and has been in constant contact with the director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan.

Advice for Wonder Women

When asked her advice to other women on pursuing their passions outside their careers, Zehner is cautious. “I was lucky,” she explained. “I had the financial resources to do what I want to do. I’m mindful that I have a lot of choice and want to respect other women by recognizing that.”

But, she continued, she encourages women to look for careers where they can exercise their passions. “If you can find a way to make a living that is aligned with your passion and your talent – that’s your nirvana. We call that passion, pay, and purpose. And within those three P’s there’s also a place for using your best skills and talents.”

“But there is something about putting your passion on paper,” she continued. “Even if it’s in your spare time. Whatever it is, I would have to say, there’s something so powerful about naming it. This project really meant a lot to me.”

She also encouraged women to focus on the small ways they can make a difference. “Millions of small actions will change the world,” she said. “If we all did one small act to change the world every day, what would happen? Can you imagine it?”