Brett Fallentine, BS 03 (business), and BA 03 (film studies), is releasing his documentary Fire on the Hill: The Cowboys of South Central LA on several streaming platforms this month, including Amazon Prime Video. The film centers on a group of urban cowboys and the last public horse stable in South Central, Los Angeles—and the aftermath of a mysterious fire that destroyed it. PBS will broadcast Fire on The Hill in June to celebrate the federal Juneteenth Holiday.
An award-winning documentary and commercial director, Fallentine started his film career as an apprentice editor to George Lucas on the film Star Wars, Revenge of the Sith. He now runs his own film company, Preamble Pictures. He is currently working on a new film about a family that defied all odds to survive the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma.
Haas News: So how did you find the story that became Fire on the Hill?
Brett Fallentine: I had heard about this riding community when I moved to LA, and I became really fascinated with it—the juxtaposition of this rural equestrian lifestyle in this neighborhood with rival gang culture located at the juncture of two major freeways in Los Angeles. It’s a place that you would never expect to see something like this happen but it’s this culture that’s been there since the1940s. A lot of famous riders have come out of this stable who’ve gone on to become world champions in rodeo, but no one really knew that at the time. Ultimately, that was one reason why I became so interested in the story.
So how did you find the Hill?
I went to places where people said they’d seen the riders before and no one showed up. Through several trips, I found manure and followed a trail that led to the Hill horse stable. I started interviewing and one interview led to another and another and they invited me on a ride. I wasn’t sure of the story at first, but after the Hill stable fire, I started learning about the history of the stable, the impact it had on the youth in the community, and why having this culture was important for them. I ended up meeting their families and watching them grow up over subsequent years of filming.
Did making this film shatter a lot of stereotypes for you?
One of the big themes that started to emerge was that positive stories like this one don’t really emerge from South Central because popular media tends to focus on the area’s violence and crime. I grew up in the 1990s when movies like Menace II Society and Boyz n the Hood popularized that area. So I believed that part of LA was dangerous and I avoided it. When I learned that this riding culture existed it sparked my curiosity enough to go down there and see for myself. I became interested in the story behind the Hill and the community of riders I met really changed my mind and my feelings about this area in a way that never would have happened otherwise.
Watch the trailer for Fire on the Hill.
You track multiple stories in the film, all different and compelling.
We follow Ghuan Featherstone, who worked with the youth in the community at the Hill. Among the rival gangs, the stable has always been a neutral zone that provides a way for kids to not only work with animals but to work with kids from other neighborhoods who they would not normally interact with. Since the fire, Ghuan has started a non-profit inspired by the Hill Stable called Urban Saddles. We follow Chris Byrd, a rising bull rider from Compton, who enters his rookie year of professional rodeo. There’s also Calvin Gray, who having found freedom on the back of a horse, must choose between the cowboy lifestyle and his family. Their stories shine a fresh light on what it means to be a modern “cowboy” in an urban world.
Their stories shine a fresh light on what it means to be a modern “cowboy” in an urban world.
How did Ghuan work with local youths? Were there challenges?
The kids in the neighborhood would wander into this stable, just mesmerized. They would first learn to care for the animals and eventually get to ride. But one of the quick lessons learned is that these animals are big and you can’t force them to do anything so you’re going to have to work with them. Ghuan told me about kids who learned to solve differences based on how tough they were. Soon they found out that you can’t really do that on a horse. You have to be willing to work with a horse and those insights started to carry over into how they were settling their differences back in their neighborhoods. That became an important message throughout the community.
How long did you work on this film?
I began filming in 2011 and the stable fire happened a few months into the process. The film took about five to six years after that to make because the subject’s stories were constantly evolving, even while we were in editorial. So I’d grab my camera and follow up on their stories. We completed the film in 2019, and showed it at festivals. Amazon Prime picked it up and released it in 2020, a time when the world was focused on Covid. So we’re thrilled to have it re-released on streaming channels like Amazon and have it nationally broadcast later this year through PBS.
We’re thrilled to have it re-released on streaming channels like Amazon and have it nationally broadcast later this year through PBS.
You said that you rode horses during the making of Fire on the Hill. Where did you learn to ride?
I did have some experience riding as a kid and riding was something that was always around me, but I had never really learned to ride until making this film. The cowboys provided a lot of opportunities to ride in South LA after the cameras had wrapped for the day. The men and women there were very open and willing to teach me and it’s become more of a part of my life now.
You entered UC Berkeley as a molecular and cellular biology major. How did you land in film?
I switched majors my sophomore year, which is pretty late in the game, especially going from science into the arts and business. I had always been behind a camera as a kid, making little movies and commercials growing up, but my family was science-focused, so that was the assumed route. I was in class in a lab one day and there was kind of an epiphany where I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ and at that moment I switched from being an MCB student to double majoring in Film Studies and business at Haas.
How do the two degrees work together in your career?
They work hand in hand. I started working on Star Wars, Revenge of the Sith during my last semester at Berkeley, and I was using a lot more of what I’d learned at Haas than I was with the film studies. Over the years, I’ve found myself going back to what I learned in marketing, accounting and organizational behavior. Film is a business and having that knowledge has been super important to me.
Merrick Robinson Osborne is the first postdoctoral scholar hired in a new Berkeley Haas program focused on racial equity in business. Osborne, who grew up in Portland, Ore., studies how organizations address (or don’t address) prejudice at work and how that impacts social hierarchy.
The new role was created through a $1 million gift from Allan Holt, MBA 76, in support of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) efforts at Haas, which include building a pipeline for new faculty who have a commitment to racial equity in business.
As a postdoctoral scholar, Osborne will research new ideas, collaborate with Haas faculty, and advise doctoral students. He received a BA in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before earning a PhD at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in 2022.
Osborne recently discussed how his family influences his work, his research findings, and his future teaching plans with Haas News.
Who are some researchers who inspired you?
At the beginning of my PhD program, I was fascinated by a lot of the work by Haas Professors Cameron Anderson and Jenny Chatman, and I’m still very interested in their work. But I also hold interest in how other fields of study speak to the work that I want to do. Recently I read Audre Lorde’s book Sister Outsider, which was provocative because it spoke to the way I’ve been seeing diversity efforts develop. She says that “Black and third-world people are expected to educate white people about our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions”. I wanted to represent this in my field because I think it has a very practical application.
How do you see it applying?
There are a lot of social hierarchy-related questions in her book. How do white people see people of color explaining racism? How do these conversations that Audre Lorde describes lead to conflict? And how did that impact her status and power? I’m starting to see more intersections with my work outside of my own field, which is really exciting.
Your mom is an experienced social worker and therapist. Has she sparked any research ideas?
My mom, dad, and sister have all touched my research in different ways. My mom’s job as a licensed clinical social worker, and experienced therapist, is to dive under the surface and ask more about what her clients are experiencing. Part of what I want to do is understand the assumptions that we hold about the way our world operates and the way people operate together in the world. But I also want to challenge those assumptions. In talking with my mom, I get a sense for how I can start asking questions.
My dad had a career in corporate America, where he was the first and only person of color. While rising to an executive position, he had to navigate a lot of issues that play out in the work that I am doing. He’ll say,”Oh, that actually relates to this experience that I had or that relates to something that I saw somebody else doing.” An important question is how to make the workplace a better place, especially for people who experience it as a dangerous place, or at least a mildly unsafe place.
An important question is how to make the workplace a better place, especially for people who experience it as a dangerous place, or at least a mildly unsafe place.
My sister’s interests have also shaped my research. She graduated from Howard University, an HBCU, before coming home to work in Portland. Very white spaces are not completely alien to either of us, and I think she has been comfortable moving back. But within that comfort, she does experience some discomfort. And a lot of discomfort that we share comes with being asked to do diversity work at work. Talking to her about her experiences has helped inspire and motivate me to develop research that speaks to her experiences, because I know she is not alone in having them.
What did you focus on during your PhD program?
My dissertation was on confronting prejudice at work, and what happens to a disadvantaged group member who witnesses an advantaged group member confront prejudice and then asks for that person’s input. There’s a lot of depth to it. For example, two men and a woman are in a room. One of the men says something problematic and sexist. The other man speaks up, but then asks for the woman’s input on what she experienced. I was curious about how one disadvantaged group member views these confrontations—when a man speaks up before the woman even has a chance to—and how that woman feels about being drawn into these spaces involuntarily.
At a broader level, when there is a display of prejudice at work, people look for insight about how to address that display effectively and increase inclusion. And oftentimes, they don’t know whom to turn to so they turn to people who they think are best suited for addressing prejudice, which are usually the people who are directly impacted by the prejudice display. I think that can be good, and that can be bad. It’s just important for us to really dissect what happens to the people whose input is sought, and the outcomes they experience.
What will you be working on at Haas in 2023?
A lot of my work now for the next month or two is going to be finishing up my work from USC. I do want to explore more with the folks here on how disadvantaged group members view diversity efforts more broadly. I’m excited to do that through avenues like the Culture Center that Jenny Chatman co-directs, but also through the research and teaching of Drew Jacoby-Senghor and Sa-kiera Hudson, who co-teach the new core course called Business Communication in Diverse Work Environments. I think it’s really important and nice to see the work that’s being done here up close and in person.
How do you feel about racial equity efforts at Haas, compared to other academic environments you’ve experienced?
Something I realized a couple of years ago is that the onus is on academia to make it clear that these are spaces where it’s safe for a marginalized person to operate in. What’s becoming increasingly challenging is learning how to signal that effectively. Part of what I hope for as a postdoc is that I can be a Black man who experiences success here. I want to show other people of color and marginalized people that they can come here and experience success and signal that to other schools too.
Something I realized a couple of years ago is that the onus is on academia to make it clear that these are spaces where it’s safe for a marginalized person to operate in.
Do you plan to teach?
I did an introduction to organizational behavior class for undergrads at USC. I enjoyed it, but I realized that I just wasn’t excited about it in the way that I wanted to be. That was in very large part because I felt like I wasn’t talking about things that really interested me. The MBA classes here include some really stimulating material both for the students and the professors who teach it. So I’m hoping that if I work hard enough, I can put myself in a position next year to teach.
Gender stereotyping of female experts
In 2020, women earned 84 cents for every dollar that a male worker took home, a Pew Research Center analysis found.
Common explanations for this disparity—which is present across most industries and professions and is larger for minority women—include the perception that women are less likely than men to negotiate raises and promotions, women’s disproportionate childcare responsibilities, and stereotypes about women’s and men’s respective talents, which influence the industries they’re steered toward or from.
A new paper by Haas professors Mathijs de Vaan and Toby Stuart highlights an underexplored impact on the livelihoods of women—particularly those working in high-skilled, client-based professions—long after they’ve committed to their industry of choice. The researchers reveal that gender stereotyping can weaken clients’ perceived trust in female professionals’ core offering: their expertise.
“All high-skill, client-based markets depend on trust, because the consumer is a non-expert relative to the provider,” says Stuart. “If you hire a financial advisor, a mechanic, or a physician and you don’t trust them, what do you do with the advice they give you?” Most likely, he notes, you’ll seek a second opinion.
Drawing from the comprehensive Massachusetts All Payer Claims Database, Stuart and de Vaan examined whether physicians’ gender determined the perceived value of their expertise as measured by how often patients sought second opinions.
The majority of patients preferred seeing specialists who shared their gender, including for first-opinion visits. And both men and women were more likely to opt for second opinions if the purveyor of the first opinion was a female specialist. However, male patients were much more likely than women to seek a second expert opinion.
Male patients in particular tended to switch to male specialists for their second opinions—and since patients most often stuck with the second specialists, what naturally followed were significant disparities in billings. On a per-patient basis, female specialists generated 10.7% lower billings than their male colleagues in the year following the average patient’s first visit.
Stuart says gender stereotypes about competence may harm women with professional expertise in many fields, from finance to law to management consulting. “We hold all of these gendered beliefs about work even if we are not aware of them, and they have a way of becoming reality.”
Wendy Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American, was raised to give back to society. So when presented an opportunity to speak up against assaults on Asian Americans, she didn’t hesitate.
It was March 2021 and eight people, including six Asian women, had been murdered by a gunman in Atlanta. “The killings were a breaking point for the community,” Nguyen says.
Soon after, entrepreneurs Dave Lu and Justin Zhu sought her advice on how to promote a pledge they were writing to stop Asian American Pacific Islander hate crimes. Nguyen had been in marketing for some 14 years in the areas of social advocacy and health. How, they asked her, could they bring attention to protecting and supporting members of the AAPI community?
“We have to publish it in the Wall Street Journal,” Nguyen told them.
The pledge was published on March 31. “We thought if we could get 300 people to sign this letter, we would have done well,” Nguyen says.
More than 8,000 people signed, from Door Dash drivers to former President George W. Bush. It was the start of Stand with Asian Americans.
Since then, SwAA has raised over $1 million and made grants to more than eight nonprofits. One recipient held a contest to design the best AAPI hate-crime tracker. Another developed a youth program to register and drive voter turnout among the AAPI population.
“We are recruiting and inspiring the next generation of Asian American activists,” says Nguyen. “Activism can happen anywhere: home, workplace, streets. We want to be an outlet for anyone looking to contribute.”
A wave of pay transparency laws aimed at reducing inequities is giving millions of workers access for the first time to information on what co-workers make and what potential employers will offer.
Yet comparing salary information is nothing new for employers. While U.S. antitrust law prohibits employers from directly sharing salary information with each other, most mid-sized and large companies routinely use aggregated data from third parties to get a read on the going rates.
The effects of this widespread practice, known as salary benchmarking, have never been systematically studied—until now. Following White House concerns that benchmarking may be used to suppress wages and benefits, a new study offers the first evidence on its impact on workers.
The conclusion: Benchmarking does not have a negative effect on pay for the average employee. While some salaries decrease and others increase after a company uses a benchmarking tool, salaries overall simply move closer to the benchmark.
“If there was a negative effect on salaries, it would be suggestive of anti-competitive effects,” said Associate Professor Ricardo Perez-Truglia, who authored the new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper with Zoe B. Cullen and Shengwu Li of Harvard University. “That’s not what we found. If anything, we see some small salary gains for low-skill occupations.”
The researchers used aggregated data from the nation’s largest payroll processing firm to see how much employers paid new hires in hundreds of job categories before and after they used the payroll firm’s salary benchmarking tool. They found that employers paid new hires much closer to the median wage after searching the market rates for those job titles.
As a result, some new employees earned more and some earned less than they would have otherwise. “For the most part, they sort of cancel each other out,” said Perez-Truglia.
Direct sharing prohibited by law
Although U.S. law prohibits employers from directly sharing information about their employees’ compensation with each other, they can access aggregated salary data from third parties such as management consultants and payroll processors. As part of the study, the authors surveyed human resource professionals who set pay at medium and large companies and found that 87.6% use salary benchmarks, usually from multiple sources.
In July 2021, Biden issued an executive order encouraging the attorney general and Federal Trade Commission to consider revising federal guidance that lets neutral third parties share compensation information with employers—but not employees—without triggering antitrust scrutiny. “This may be used to collaborate to suppress wages and benefits,” the White House said in a fact sheet.
At that time, there was no research on the impact of benchmarking. Perez-Truglia said regulators may be responding to studies and news reports suggesting that industry consolidation is giving employers too much market power when it comes to setting salaries.
The new study, which began in 2019, looked at starting pay offered to new hires at 586 firms that gained access to the benchmarking tool between January 2017 and March 2020. The online tool is easily searchable by job title and is based on real, aggregated and anonymized payroll records of many millions of employees.
The researchers divided the new hires into two groups: nearly 5,300 new hires where the company had searched the benchmarking tool before hiring, and a “control group” of 40,000 hires in the same companies that had not been searched. They compared pay for the two groups in the five quarters before and five quarters after the company first gained access to the salary data.
As a second control group, they looked at salaries offered to about 157,000 people hired during the same time periods in comparable roles at similar companies that never gained access to the more precise salary tool.
‘Compression toward the benchmark’
They found that on average, both high and low salaries moved closer to the benchmark. Among “searched” positions, the absolute difference between the new hire’s starting salary and the median salary for that position dropped from about 20 percentage points before the firm gained access to the tool to about 15 percentage points after. This drop is “large in magnitude, corresponding to a 25% decline,” the authors wrote.
To illustrate this “compression toward the benchmark,” suppose the median pay for a bank teller is $40,000. Without that information, one bank might pay $30,000 and another $50,000. “Once they see the benchmark information, they are much more likely to pay new hires around the $40,000 benchmark,” Perez-Truglia said.
The researchers added that “the effects on salary compression coincide precisely with the timing of access to the benchmark: The compression was stable in the quarters before the firm gained access to the tool, dropped sharply in the quarter after the firm gained access, and remained stable at the lower level afterwards.”
For searched positions, compression around the median wage was much stronger among low-skill positions, which generally don’t require more than a high school degree, than high-skill ones. Dispersion around the benchmark dropped by 40% for low-skill jobs versus 14.6% for high-skill ones.
“This finding is largely consistent with the anecdotal accounts in interviews with compensation managers, according to which low-skill positions are treated as commodities and thus should be paid the market rate,” the authors wrote.
They did a similar analysis looking at average salary levels and found that benchmarking “does not have a negative effect on the average salary. If anything, the effect on the average salary is positive, but small in magnitude and statistically insignificant.”
Specifically, they found the average starting salary for all searched positions was either 0.2% lower or 1.7% higher than the two control groups, respectively.
There were some statistically significant gains for low-skilled employees: Their average pay increased by 5% or 6.7% depending on the control group. The study also found that the small boost in salary for low-skilled employees increased their retention. More precisely, there was an increase of 6.7 percentage points in the probability that those employees were still working at the company one year later.
“This evidence suggests that firms may be using salary benchmarking to raise some salaries in an effort to improve, among other things, the retention of their employees,” the paper says.
For high-skill positions, starting pay went down by 2.9% or 1.6% depending on the control group, “but those effects must be taken with a grain of salt, because they are statistically insignificant,” Perez-Truglia said.
“Typically low-skilled employees are less likely to negotiate than high-skilled employees. They are often made take-it-or-leave-it offers,” Perez-Truglia said. Benchmarking could provide “more equality for those workers.”
There is also a growing body of literature on pay transparency, but much of it focuses on giving employees more access to information, usually as a way to reduce gender and racial pay gaps. A new law in California requires all private employers with 15 or more employees to provide pay ranges in all job postings starting Jan. 1. Colorado, Washington, and New York City have passed similar laws.Although employees can’t access the same kind of “super-sophisticated” pay data that employers can use, Perez-Truglia said, they can use online sources such as Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Teamblind.com and Levels.fyi to get a read on competitive salaries. Companies are also consulting these sites, he added, which generally rely on employees reporting their pay at current or past employers
When Mike Smith, MBA 98, was 16 years old he mapped out a plan that would help achieve his career goal of becoming a CEO of a public company by age 42. But after working for a dot-com startup that would later go bust shortly after its launch, Smith learned quickly that the best laid plan doesn’t always work out.
“These [career] journeys are super windy, they’re rarely up and to the right,” said Smith. “My advice is to embrace the zig zags.”
Smith said he’s grateful for those who helped him build his career as previous COO of Walmart.com and Stitch Fix, and now as general partner and co-founder of venture capital firm Footwork. He spoke with MBA students and the Haas community about his career successes and failures, talent management, and cultivating a workplace culture at a recent Dean’s Speaker Series talk held on Nov. 1. The event was co-sponsored by the Berkeley Culture Center.
In his current role, Smith, along with business partner, Nikhil Basu Trivedi, backs early-stage startups focused on consumer technology, many of which are founded by BIPOC entrepreneurs and women. Their portfolio includes Table 22, an online tool that helps restaurants build subscription models, and Cradlewise, a smart crib that helps babies and their parents get better sleep.
The former Stitch Fix COO also talked about his experience with leading diverse teams, hiring employees who have forced him to be an excellent leader, and the value of mentorship.
Watch the complete DSS talk here: