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Episode 24: Sarah Megan Thomas

Women on Wall Street, Women in War

Janice Ellig, CEO and founder of Ellig Group, sits down with real leaders in this series of game-changing conversations, bespoke to fellow champions of change. Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, equity, inclusion, and diversity.

We are honored to present this month’s episode of Leadership Reimagined with Sarah Megan Thomas, an award-winning actor, producer, and writer having written, starred, and produced three complex female films, featuring women on Wall Street, women in war, and women in sports.

Episode 24: “Women on Wall Street, Women in War”

Tune in as Sarah shares the inspiration behind focusing her theater lens on creating iconic female stories and disrupting gender inequality in the entertainment business. Hear why she is committed to telling stories that have shaped our lives and society, and the impact of women.

Three Major Films

A Call to Spy (2020) – At the beginning of World War II, Winston Churchill was desperate. He ordered his new spy agency to recruit and train women. Interweaving the adventures of female spy, Virginia Hall (played by Sarah Megan Thomas), and other intrepid women whose talents and sacrifices were crucial to Allied espionage efforts during World War II, ‘A Call to Spy’ revolves around three female spies from different nationalities, from different religions, who united to resist a common evil.”

Equity (2016) – Is a female-driven Wall Street thriller. The Film premiered in Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, where it sold to Sony Pictures Classics. The New York Times made “Equity” a Critic’s Pick when it was released theatrically nationwide. The Hollywood Reporter reviewed Sarah’s performance as “subtle, but gutsy.”

Backwards (2012) – An American sports romance and the first feature film on women’s Olympic rowing. Sarah starred alongside James Van Der Beek in this romantic drama.

Sarah Megan Thomas

“The power of the individual is such a timely theme right now.
Whatever you believe in, people may tell you no.
You have to keep trying, you have to open other doors.”

Motivated by the notion “Where are the strong women that I know exist and why don’t we see them in film?” Having not seen female-driven opportunities in the movies for women in war, Wall Street, or sports, Sarah decided to create them. It is with great privilege we present to you this episode of Leadership Reimagined, “Women on Wall Street, Women in War” with Sarah Megan Thomas.

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Show Notes: Sarah Megan Thomas

Sarah Megan Thomas on the start of her filmmaking career

My background is actually as an actress. I was a theater major at Williams College, and then I went on and got a graduate degree in London in acting very well versed in Shakespeare. When it comes to making money, which is the subject of Equity, the Wall Street film, it was difficult. I was bartending. I was getting roles as the Girl Next Door, doing commercials, et cetera. But I wasn’t fulfilled as an artist with the roles I was getting, specifically in regards to them being women’s roles that weren’t very strong. So I decided to just create the work that I wanted to see and start with commercial genres. So take a sports film, a Wall Street film, a spy film and then look at it from a female lens and an independent film lens of “what haven’t we seen in these universes in terms of complex women?” and then create and write those stories. 

A big part of it was wanting to have those products out there – I was missing in my life seeing a female-driven Wall Street movie. I love Wolf of Wall Street. I love Margin Call, but the women are basically props or they’re part of the romance. And I was like, where are the strong women in Wall Street that I know exist, and why don’t we see them in film? Much like the Geena Davis Institute says, “if she can see it, she can be it.” So part of my larger mission is to put these types of female roles on screen so that young girls and women can see them and aspire to be them. 

Sarah Megan Thomas on where to see A Call to Spy

We did get a theatrical release in spite of the pandemic, but it’s now on Netflix as well as on Amazon and several other providers – there are many ways to see it. 

Sarah Megan Thomas on the making of A Call to Spy

We shot the film in Philadelphia and Budapest, believe it or not, even though it takes place in London and France as an independent World War II film. And we used the shooting locations and the tax credits to be in a position to make the film financially. And then we brought on a really strong team of women in front of the camera and behind the camera. In front of the camera, it includes top Indian star Radhika Apte, in her American film debut, playing the role of Noor Inayat Khan. And then behind the camera, I was able to hire a female director, female production designer, female composer in order to have women working together to get this story about these hidden figures of the World War II spy world out there. 

Sarah Megan Thomas on the real-life heroes of A Call to Spy

I really hope the film helps put these women in our history books, because the three women that A Call to Spy follows – Virginia Hall, Vera Atkins and Noor Inayat Khan – were pioneers in the spy field. They were first in their profession who went in to spy in France, knowing there was a 50-50 chance of survival. And these women are basically the Hidden Figures of the spy world. They won every award you could imagine, from the Distinguished Service Cross to the Croix de Guerre, yet they’re not in our history books. There are hundreds of movies about Churchill, but there are none until now about these women. So I really hope that changes. And I think we just need more female storytellers, female writers and producers out there to dig these stories out and put them on screen. 

Sarah Megan Thomas on researching A Call to Spy

The spy files were just fascinating on all three women because in the files were their letters back to London, back to the spy agency, so you could hear part of their voices and how they spoke. Also very interesting, the files had all the notes of how their communications were graded and received by the SOE, which was the British spy agency they worked for. So, for example, for Noor Inayat Khan, who’s played by the amazing Radhika Apte, they would say things like “if this girl’s a spy, I’m Winston Churchill.” They’d describe her as “childlike” or “a doll” And those lines are actually in the movie. Yet she became a huge hero. And when she was captured and tortured, she did not give up any information about anyone. She was very brave. And then my character, Virginia Hall, who was the first female field agent and ultimately became the first woman to work for the CIA after the war, some of her lines in the script are actually directly from the letters she wrote. There’s a great one that I love when they’re questioning whether to put her back in the field. She says something like, “it’s my neck, and if I want to get a crick in it, that’s my prerogative.” That really gave me a sense of her personality. This was a woman who wasn’t going to take no for an answer and was going to do it her way. 

Sarah Megan Thomas on playing Virginia Hall and understanding disabilities

Virginia Hall was born from a wealthy family in Baltimore, and she was head of her basketball team. She went to Radcliffe. She went to school in Vienna and France. She spoke many languages, and she really wanted to be a diplomat. She loved people. She loved traveling. She loved the world and its diversity. Yet when she was 27 years old, she shot her own leg off in a tragic hunting accident with her father’s shotgun and almost died. She had to have her leg amputated and use a wooden leg. And because of that disability and because she was a woman, the US Foreign Service said, “no, no, you may not be a diplomat,” even though she was overqualified. So instead, she became a spy for the British. And then, as I mentioned before, ultimately the first woman to work for the CIA. What I really responded to about her as a human being was this concept that people constantly told her “no,” but she felt she had a calling and a duty to protect the freedom of others. And she wasn’t going to sit by and just let things happen. I think that that is such a timely theme right now, the power of the individual, and that whatever you believe in, people may tell you “no,” but you just have to keep trying. You have to open other doors. So I loved playing Virginia Hall. I did have to play the physicality of her, quote unquote, “limp.” Now, the Germans called her “the Limping Lady,” but her family, when I talked to them, said she tried to hide the limp. It wasn’t that big a limp, so I chose to underplay it. But at the same time, I had to wear this big, heavy wooden contraption on my own leg that was tied to my back until my back went out. And then we had to find other ways of doing it. After shooting, I actually ruptured my own Achilles tendon from playing the role and couldn’t walk for almost a year. And so there was an irony there that after playing her, I encountered some of the obstacles she encountered. 

Something people don’t necessarily talk about is how difficult it is to have a disability day in and day out. I was in a wheelchair for a long time, and I’m a very tall person. I’m confident. I’m used to people looking me in the eye. And when that’s taken away from you, people don’t realize when they’re talking down to you or looking at you a certain way. So I can only imagine. And this was only one year of my life. It was Virginia Hall’s entire life, and this was in the 1940s, and she was a leader. I can only imagine the hurdles she had to encounter day in and day out. Interestingly enough, because it was the 40s, the prosthesis she was wearing was made for men, of course. So it didn’t even fit. It was too big. So she had blisters all around her and just the pain that she endured without complaining day in and day out must have been very difficult to bear. 

Sarah Megan Thomas on her inspiration for Equity

Full disclosure: my husband works on Wall Street. In fact, he worked at Lehman Brothers till the end. And my joke is I like to say that I married a rich man and then he went poor, and I stayed with him for love. So that’s my joke. It’s a bad joke. But anyway, it was on our honeymoon that Lehman went under, and I really experienced as his wife so much of what was in that world at the time. And it was then that the idea came to me: where’s the film about the women? Because all the headlines are following the men. And in social circumstances, like at dinners and drinks, I’ve met some of his coworkers who were women and they were these fantastic badasses. But they are women changing the world on Wall Street. And they’re not all bad people. And to me, the depictions of people on Wall Street were always negative. So I wanted to tell the story about the women on Wall Street who are cutthroat. Some are good, some are bad, but they’re really good at their job, and we haven’t seen that before. 

Sarah Megan Thomas on her inspiration for Backwards

It was my first film, so I wanted to write something about what I knew intimately. I was an athlete in high school and college and I loved Bend It Like Beckham and sports films and wanted to tell one within the rowing world, which we hadn’t seen before, but also within the Olympic world because what I was really interested in is the concept of failing – or quote unquote, “failing” – at the highest level. So what happens if you’re the number one alternate or the person sitting on the bench at the highest level? And I thought that that would be a really interesting story to tell about women athletes who almost make it, don’t quite make their goal and have to rediscover their life in a new way. And I also wanted to tell a film that was rated PG, family-friendly for young girls because again, when I was watching films, there’s a lot of violence, there’s a lot of sex, and not a lot of vanilla. I use the word vanilla, not in a negative way, but in the sense of vanilla films that families can all watch together that are just simple. 

Sarah Megan Thomas on how she approaches new projects

It has to be something that I think I can raise the money for. There’s a good line in Equity: “don’t let money be a dirty word.” And without the amazing investors who have invested in me and my films, you don’t have a movie. So it will have to be something in a commercial genre that I think will sell, that I think the press will pick up on and then once it hits those criteria, yes, I want to tell stories that have yet to be told about women, in commercial genres, through an independent lens. With A Call to Spy, I really loved the “inspired by a true story” aspect, so I think I may go back there for my next film. 

Sarah Megan Thomas on women promoting women in the film industry

I think the situation for women is changing, and I think there’s a lot of optimism out there because there’s awareness that there’s a problem, and people are starting to change how they think about women in film and hire more women in film. But it’s still not great, to be honest. If you look at the statistics, there just are not a lot of female producers, writers, and directors. And it’s going to take more female storytellers and diverse storytellers, initiating it and making the project themselves to continue to have these new stories as opposed to stuff like Spider-Man 100. 

I think you have to be the change that you want to see. In Equity, there was this aspect of women competing. That was one of the relationships. And I do think that that is true to life. There are a lot of women who really support each other and lift each other up. And then, unfortunately, there is, at times, this kind of queen bee syndrome of “it’s me or her, not me and her.” So on my end, I think it’s really important to lift other women up, promote other women, and not be competitive. For A Call to Spy, I hired a female first-time director – she hadn’t solo directed anything before – and a female first-time production designer. She hadn’t production designed anything before, but she was hugely established and talented as a set designer. And after our film, her next project was Julie Taymor’s film that went to Sundance this year. And now she’s working on a Sandra Bullock film. So it just takes that one step, and it really takes women helping each other actively. We don’t need to mentor. We need to lift each other up and help people with our actions. 

Sarah Megan Thomas on the difficulties of raising money for diverse film projects

I think fundraising is always challenging. Equity made a profit, but still it was challenging for the next film. And I was so lucky that I did have a lot of investors that came back for A Call to Spy. But it was a larger budget and I had to raise more. And I think what it takes is to find a community of investors that will not only invest money, but also support and promote the film. They host parties for their friends and they say, “I’m investing in this film or I’m investing in this woman, and this is why, and I think you should join.” And that’s really what has gotten all my films to the end line, is not just finding these amazing investors, but then having them become part of the team and lift everyone up. 

Sarah Megan Thomas on current topics that resonate with her as a filmmaker

I think we live in a very divided country, which the election has brought to light, and I think that’s very sad. But I do want to tell more stories that have diverse men and women of all types. The three women in A Call to Spy, one was disabled and American, one was a Muslim pacifist, and one was a Romanian woman who was Jewish and discriminated against. And yet, despite them being from different backgrounds and nationalities and religions, they united to resist a common evil. They found a way, and their diversity is what proved to be critical to the successes of their respective missions. So I think there’s a way in storytelling to tell positive stories, and that doesn’t mean you don’t have drama and conflict, but you can have real heroes, you can have role models, and that’s really where my interest lies. 

Sarah Megan Thomas’s advice for aspiring filmmakers

Create the work yourself, at least to start. That’s really how in the film profession, most people are successful. So if you want to be a director, direct a short, write it, direct it, get it done. It doesn’t have to be a big-budget feature right away. The good news is that technology has made it possible for you to shoot a film on your iPhone, but just get something done that you’re really passionate about and that showcases you and your point of view. And my other piece of advice is, “don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” For every one investor that says yes, you get a hundred “nos”. And that’s true all the way through the film process, from casting to hiring people. You get so many nos, and at any time you can just like, hang your head up and be like, that’s it, I give up. But don’t do that. Just say, I’m going to make this, I’m going to see it through. And then you will. 

Stay on the path and don’t take no for an answer and get it done. But I will give you another piece of advice that isn’t related to my career, that was very informative to my life and that was after Backwards. I met with Stacey Snider, and I remember sitting in her office, and she said to me, as we were talking about family at the end of our lovely interview, “take it or leave it.” But my advice is, don’t wait to start a family. I had been waiting to start a family, and I’m so glad that I took that advice and had my son, Christopher and I now have my daughter, Madison. But this is a career where you can get obsessed, and as a woman, don’t feel as though you can’t have a family and have a job, because you absolutely can. 

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Tonie Leatherberry was at Deloitte for nearly three decades where she was the principal architect of The Board Leadership Forum and the NextGen CEO Academy, each of which has had a meaningful impact, ultimately placing more than 70 Black leaders into executive-level and board roles. As Chair Emeritus of the Executive Leadership Council, she created the Chairman’s Council of Academic Achievement to address achievement gaps for students of color in America’s educational systems, and as President of the Deloitte Foundation, the mission was to drive initiatives to develop future leaders through education. She is a passionate leader who has devoted much of her professional life to creating opportunities for women and people of color. Tonie is Lead director for Direct Digital Holdings, and a Board Director at Zoetis Inc. and American Family Insurance.

Cindie Jamison was elected Chair of the Darden Restaurants Board (NYSE: DRI) in September 2023, having served as a Director since October 2014 as part of a complete Board replacement slate through Starboard Value’s proxy fight. Since 2013, she has also served on the Office Depot Board (NASDAQ: ODP) where she Chairs the Audit Committee and is a member of the Compensation Committee. In May 2015, she joined the Big Lots, Inc (NYSE: BIG) Board, and became Chair in May 2022. In May 2023 Cindie stepped down from the Tractor Supply Company Board (NASDAQ:TSCO), a position she has held since 2002, where she was Chairman of the Board, after serving as Lead Director, and Chair of the Audit, Compensation & Corporate Governance Committees. Cindie joined the Board of Save the Children in February 2024.

David Chun, Founder and CEO, Equilar, Inc., has led Equilar since its inception to become one of the most trusted names in the corporate governance community. David has been recognized as one of the “100 Most Influential Players in Corporate Governance” by the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), the Disruptor Award by 2020 Women on Boards and Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business. David speaks publicly on corporate governance and board diversity matters, including events hosted by The Conference Board, Deloitte, EY, HR Policy Association, KPMG, NACD, NASDAQ, NYSE, The Society for Corporate Governance and Stanford’s Directors’ College. Prior to founding Equilar, David was a Vice President in the Investment Banking Division of Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette, a global investment bank that has since merged with Credit Suisse. Before DLJ, David was a management consultant with Bain & Company and also Kenan Systems, a telecom software developer acquired by Lucent Technologies. David serves on the boards of the Commonwealth Club of California, PGA Reach, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG). He is on Nasdaq’s Center for Board Excellence Advisory Board and Catalyst’s Women on Board Advisory Council. David is a member of Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), Past Chair of the SF Bay Chapter, a founding member of the Council of Korean Americans (CKA) and a former board member of the Wharton Center for Entrepreneurship and the Asian Pacific Fund Community Foundation of San Francisco.

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Priscilla Sims Brown serves as President and CEO of Amalgamated Bank, a full-service bank, lender and investment manager with a century-long commitment to advancing positive social change. Amalgamated Financial Corp., the holding company for the Bank, is the first publicly traded (NASDAQ: AMAL) financial institution to be a public benefit corporation. Priscilla guides Amalgamated Bank in championing social responsibility through values-based banking, customer-centric services, and mission focused lending, serving individuals and organizations, including climate groups, foundations, labor unions, advocacy groups, political campaigns, and other socially responsible businesses, who care that their deposits are put to work for good. Priscilla is also dedicated to addressing environmental and social justice issues at Amalgamated Bank. More than 60% of the Bank’s lending and select balance sheet investments are high-impact through affordable housing, nonprofits, and climate solutions. Named one of the Most Powerful Women in Banking in 2023 by American Banker, Priscilla has been featured in The New York Times, TIME Magazine, PBS, and CNBC Changemakers, among others.

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Myra Biblowit is the President Emeritus of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the nation’s highest-rated breast cancer research organization with a mission focused exclusively on funding the world’s most promising research. Myra took the helm as BCRF President in 2001 and, after 22 years, retired in April 2023. During Myra’s tenure, BCRF funding enabled breakthroughs in breast cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, metastasis, and survivorship. Myra was widely recognized for leading one of the most impactful, financially efficient, and transparent nonprofits in the United States. Prior, Myra was Vice Dean for External Affairs at NYU Medical Center where she headed the Development, Alumni Relations and Public Relations departments. Previously she led the capital campaign as Senior Vice President of the American Museum of Natural History. Earlier, Myra served as Executive Vice President of the Central Park Conservancy. Myra is a member of the Board of Directors of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, the Housewares Charity Foundation and the Historic House Trust of New York City. She is a member of the New York Women’s Forum, the Yellow for Pink National Council, Extraordinary Women on Boards and serves on the Advisory Board of Project Hope for Ovarian Cancer Research & Education.

Truett Tate is Chairman of a number of Boards, including Reference Point, TLC Lions, Thinkably and the recently retired Chairman of QBE, NA. Truett Tate is also Director of the DEVClever board. Truett has a long and esteemed global executive history including most recently as CEO of ANZ USA, Europe, Japan, Korea and the Middle East. Immediately prior, he was Group Executive (and Board member) at Lloyds Banking Group, responsible for Wholesale & International Banking (Including Global Wealth and International Retail) across the United Kingdom, the Americas and worldwide and prior spending 27 years at Citigroup where he held a variety of senior roles including corporate banking business across each of its regional geographies. Truett’s long board history includes Virgin Group, Ten Group, the BITC, BAB Inc along with many other charitable and academic organizations. A speaker, guest lecturer, philanthropist and professional coach/mentor, Truett has seemingly bottomless energy and passionate interest in a safer, more just, more humane and more sustainable world.

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Janice Reals Ellig

Chief Executive Officer

As the head of the Ellig Group, Janice is dedicated to increasing the placement of women and diverse candidates on corporate boards and in C-suites by 2025. Janice joined the legacy firm in 2000 and became Co-Chief Executive Officer in its transition to Chadick Ellig in 2007; she assumed sole ownership of the company as the Ellig Group in 2017 with a new focus on Reimagining Search. Prior to her career in executive search, Janice spent 20 years in corporate America at Pfizer, Citi and Ambac Financial Group, an IPO from Citibank, where she was responsible for Marketing, Human Resources, and Administration.

Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, inclusion, and diversity. She frequently appears at speaking engagements and as a media guest, and she has penned multiple articles for outlets such as Directors & Boards, Directorship, Corporate Director, The Huffington Post, and Forbes.com. Janice also co-authored two books: Driving The Career Highway and What Every Successful Woman Knows, acknowledged by Bloomberg Businessweek as “the best of its genre.”

A tirelessly active member of the industry and champion of her causes, Janice is Founder of the Women’s Forum of New York’s Corporate Board Initiative and its signature event, Breakfast of Corporate Champions. Since 2011, Janice continues to spearhead this event to honor companies committed to board diversity and to encourage CEOs to sponsor board-ready women for the Women’s Forum database. (LINK: www.womensforumny.org).

Janice is personally committed to several NFP organizations: Board Director of the National YMCA and Past Chair of the YMCA Board of Greater New York; Trustee of the Actors Fund and Committee For Economic Development (CED); Incoming Chair, University of Iowa Foundation; Women’s Forum of New York Past President and Chair of the Corporate Board Initiative; member of the Steering Committee, US 30% Club and The Economic Club of New York.

In recognition for her many philanthropic activities, Janice received the University of Iowa Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011 and the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) Eleanor Raynolds Award for Volunteerism in 2008. Named one of the “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” by Women’s eNews, she was also a recipient of the Channel 21 Award In Excellence for her contribution to “Excellence in the Economic Development for Women.”

“Listening to our clients’ needs, learning their business and understanding their culture is how we present the best talent and provide  a competitive advantage. We place candidates with the character, competencies, commitment, (intellectual) curiosity and courage to make a difference. Our goal is always to go beyond the expected and deliver valuable advice, measurable results and great talent!”

– Janice Reals Ellig

  • Champion of gender parity, diversity, and inclusion
  • Industry expert, speaker, and author
  • Founder of the Women’s Forum of New York’s Corporate Board Initiative
  • Committed board and committee member and philanthropist

T: (212) 688-8671 ext. 226
E: Janice@ElligGroup.com