Women in Business: Debbie Chinn, Executive Director, Carmel Bach Festival

04/21/2015 05:31 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

Debbie Chinn currently serves as Executive Director of the Carmel Bach Festival, which celebrates the works, inspiration, and ongoing influence of J.S. Bach worldwide by immersing audiences in a festival experience integrating music, education and ideas, and by meaningful community engagement throughout the year

Over the past 20 years, Debbie has held executive leadership positions at CENTERSTAGE (the State Theater of Maryland), California Shakespeare Theater, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, and the San Francisco Symphony.

She began her career at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), University of San Francisco, and Center Theatre Group of the Music Center of Los Angeles where she specialized in volunteer event management and institutional fundraising. She served as a consultant for the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, providing strategic guidance towards the implementation of the Philadelphia Orchestra's China Residency program, which launched in May 2012 with a five-city concert Tour of China, and served as the kick-off to the 40th anniversary of President's Nixon's historic visit to China.

Debbie specializes in organizational assessment, strategic planning, fundraising, program planning, volunteer management, board and staff development, and special events.
She serves as Board President of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras (ACSO), the statewide organization providing resources to classical music producers and presenters. She also sits on the board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters, a national coalition of ensembles created by and for artists. Her past board affiliations include Theatre Communications Group (the national consortium for professional nonprofit theaters in the United States), Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, California Arts Advocates, and George Soros' Open Society Institute's Leadership Council.

How has your life experiences made you the leader you are today?
I had an extraordinary childhood growing up on Long Island (NY). When I was three years old, my parents started a restaurant called Mah Jong which was a very simple establishment with one dining room and a small bar. It eventually ballooned into an extremely popular night club with two dining rooms, two bars and two lounges complete with Polynesian music and entertainment by the time I was in high school. Our restaurant was a place filled with vibrancy, laughter, a sense of community and belonging, and these were among the many reasons why customers kept coming back. It wasn't so much a business as it was a place where life-long relationships were built and where you could forget about the troubles of the world....even for a couple of hours. We were "Cheers" long before that TV series ever came into being and I have tried to replicate that sense of home in every job I've had.

My parents, who emigrated to the U.S. from China, were profoundly grateful for their good fortunes once they settled here. They used Mah Jong as a base for all of their philanthropic gestures and never turned down a request to support the local little league team or donate food to the local shelters. Each year, they would host a fundraising event in support of the Chinese Cultural Center of Long Island and provided countless free meals to social agencies.

I never realized it then, but what I was learning in those days was how to cultivate and nurture relationships which in today's non-profit parlance would be described as "development" work. The fact that philanthropy was ingrained as a family value at a very early age has always stayed with me and I have tried to lead by good example to give generously - in time, resources, attitude and spirit - and inspire others to do the same.

How has your previous employment aided your tenure?
Having run the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey and California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes), I understand the difficulties associated with having a dead white guy as your core artistic inspiration and trying to convey his relevancy 450 years after his birth and, with Johann Bach, nearly 330 years after he was born. Many of the initiatives that we started at Cal Shakes were enormously successful and I have worked to replicate some of those programs at the Carmel Bach Festival, particularly our Community Engagement programs which are designed to connect our Festival more meaningfully in the areas that we now serve. This year, we accomplished a goal that I had envisioned for Carmel Bach Festival two years ago, which was to move towards a year-round presence by virtue of music residencies, Baroque training classes, in-school visits, and a new fall concert series in Seaside, California. We are learning that there is a great appetite to learn more about Bach's work and his influences on contemporary works, including jazz and hip-hop. And many of my own views were challenged when I assumed that a younger generation wouldn't gravitate towards classical music. On the contrary, we have discovered that there is a groundswell of students of all ages who think Bach is actually pretty cool.

What have been your highlights and challenges at CBF?
A highlight is always the return of our musicians in July for our annual festival. There is a palpable and inescapable wave of energy that descends upon our region. The pace quickens, the noise levels rise, the buzz gets more intense, the excitement builds and it's one big energy rush which envelops all who are lucky to be in that vortex. Being with our musicians is such a huge thrill for us all as it signals the start of a month-long reunion among our ever-growing Carmel Bach Festival family. It's always a personal highlight when I see more families and young children coming to our concerts and enjoying a shared experience together.

As far as challenges, it is a constant concern as to how Carmel Bach Festival - as an auditory form of entertainment - can connect to an increasing fast-paced society who is more accustomed to visually stimulating experiences. Also, with our Festival taking place during one month out of the year and in relatively small venues, it means we are leaving a sizeable majority of the populace out. We need to take some brazen and bold steps to reimagine a new business model so that more people can participate in our work, and we are making some good strides in this area.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in music?
Simply put, I say go for it. We need more women - and men - to take their places as musicians and also in roles as conductors, concert masters, principals, directors, composers, board presidents, executive leaders, funders, donors, corporate philanthropists, and other decision-making positions. Music and the arts address our primal need to express, connect, reflect, and discover great joy and wonder. Now, more than ever, when we are overly distracted and on information overload, we need the arts to move us towards spiritual simplicity. Music escorts us through our entire life: from before we are born when the mother sings to the unborn child in the womb until the day we are called home, music is in our life every single day. We lean on music to help us through the toughest tragedies and, when it's time to celebrate, the most happiest of occasions. A career in music and the arts allows us to have enormous transformative influence; the power of music, with its softest of notes can move a grown man to tears as well as stir the collective souls of an entire nation. I can think of no nobler profession than a career in the arts.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career?
If I could talk to my 30 year old self, I would congratulate her for taking the initiative to build and sustain a network of colleagues who represent so many diverse sectors - accountants, mechanics, doctors, actors, directors, historians, futurists, teachers, chefs, etc. Over time, these networks have fused with other networks and one of the greatest joys I have is watching my friends, family, and colleagues meld with each other. The networks that I've built have guided me to unimagined career and friendship opportunities that I could not have realized on my own.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I'd like to think I've gotten better at it as I've gotten older because I've learned how to set boundaries for myself. At the moment, I have three spiritual "home plates" that I try to touch each month: one is being back in the theater environment - whether it's seeing a show or hanging with my fellow theater rats. I am much more relaxed and centered in that environment. The next is satisfying my appetite for travel - elongated weekend trips at the bare minimum - which allows me to return to work feeling mentally rejuvenated. Finally, I equally love being home alone with no interruptions or demands of me. I think this nurtures the introvert in me which, from time to time, yearns for a little attention. This monthly trifecta is a wonderful counterbalance to the routines of work.

What is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
There are still confounding problems regarding gender and salary inequity, along with a double-standard on what it means to be a "forceful" leader. For women, being told that we are too strong or tough is often given as a criticism, whereas I can't help but think that those comments would ever be conveyed to a man in a similar executive position. Someone suggested to me once that I try to be more tender. I replied that I was more of a skirt steak than a filet mignon.

How has mentorship made a difference?
I didn't have the opportunity to study arts administration or go to grad school to learn about business. I stumbled into non-profit management and learned by trial, error, my gut instincts, and through the generosity of so many wonderful mentors who guided me through periods of uncertainty and career awkwardness. I've had exceedingly kind mentors, but my most influential mentors have always been the tougher ones who didn't allow me to settle for mediocrity.

Now I'm at a point in my life where I have much more clarity and empathy for what it is like to be starting off in your 20's and 30's and I've worked to institute opportunities to empower the next generation of future arts leaders. For example, at the Carmel Bach Festival, we recently created a Fellowship program in partnership with CSUMB (California State University of Monterey Bay) whereby 1-2 college seniors are given an immersive learning experience to learn what it takes to produce an intense music festival. Moreover, this extends to learning how to read a budget, how to work in a team environment, being an active participant at meetings, doing public speaking, handling persnickety personalities, dealing with set-backs, and all of the things that their college courses don't necessarily cover.

When I became the Managing Director of the California Shakespeare Theater, one of the most generous mentorship acts came from Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone (who subsequently became my business partner for 7+ years). He met me for breakfast and invited two renowned Managing Directors in the Bay Area: Susie Medak (from Berkeley Repertory Theater) and Heather Kitchen (then from American Conservatory Theater) to join us. Here I was - a relatively new Managing Director whose credentials paled in comparison to Susie and Heather's achievements - unsure of what I could possibly have in common with them and imagined a conversation where I basically remained mute. The four of us sat down and then Jon promptly got up to leave. I asked him rather nervously where he was going and he said he didn't need to be there; that all he wanted to do was bring me into a mentorship orbit so that I could bond with my new colleagues. I'll never forget how generous they were of their time, their reassurance, and their offers to help me get introduced to others. It was then that I decided to always pay it forward.

I would encourage us all to help the next generation of emerging leaders regardless of the field and sector. I had the great fortune of seeing actor Kevin Spacey give a keynote speech at Arts Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. several years ago. I was so moved by his eloquent remarks, which was an homage to his mentor - the legendary Jack Lemmon - which was simply this: "If you're lucky enough to have done well, then it's your responsibility to send the elevator back down." So this is what I'd like part of my legacy to be.

Which female leaders do you admire and why?
I've always admired my cousin, Phyllis Wise, who is currently the Chancellor at the University of Illinois. She was a trailblazer for her renowned research in the areas concerning women's health and gender-based biology long before women went into this line of work. Her ground-breaking research has added importantly to understanding how estrogen and other hormones affect the brain and the immune system and has advanced significantly the field of women's health. I didn't fully comprehend the extent of her impact until one Sunday in 2004 when I opened up my Sunday newspaper and saw that she was on the front page of Parade Magazine, cited as one of America's "quiet heroes". What I admire most about her is her class, grit, toughness, and determination as she handles the myriad of challenges associated with leading a major university. These traits are counterbalanced by the fact that she is one of the most humble and down-to-earth human beings I have ever known. How she finds time to bake cookies for her staff while researching ways in which the unique physiology of women makes them more susceptible to cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease and has helped explain why estrogen is a powerful protector against conditions such as stroke and cardiovascular disease in some women but not in others is, well, simply awe-inspiring. I have a reminder post-it on my monitor at work: WWPD which stands for "What Would Phyllis Do" and I refer to that to help me put my own work challenges into perspective.

On a different side of the trailblazing spectrum, I've long admired the late and great Joan Rivers. The numerous ceilings that she continued to smash for a younger generation of comediennes are simply astounding when you look back on her own career trajectories for which there were few role models. To have persevered through personal and professional set-backs only to come back stronger whether as an actress, author, playwright, fashion designer, or humanitarian is a great inspiration to keep trying new things and never going stale.

What do you want the Festival to accomplish next year?
I intend to continue smashing down outdated perceptions of our work. I recognize that when one mentions "Bach" or "classical music", there is often a visualization that we wear white powdered wigs and dance to the minuet. One of the greatest satisfactions I get is when people realize how far that is from the truth. So I would like us to continue to stretch ways in which patrons can re-discover the timeless greatness of Bach's work through our innovative programming, our thought-provoking humanities series, and our new Music and the Mind series, which explores the ways in which music positively impacts the brain and cognitive learning.

I would also like for us to continue to do a better job of connecting with communities that don't have access to music and music education, and to be a stronger cultural citizen in our region. I feel very strongly that we all have a responsibility to open up possibilities for learners of all ages to enjoy our Festival regardless of economic circumstances. I am hopeful that we will build upon the good momentum that we started two years ago by making Carmel Bach Festival regarded as more populist, welcoming, fun, irreverent, and slightly wacky.

This past summer, I received one of the sweetest compliments from a gentleman who came to one of our concerts at the Carmel Bach Festival. He pulled me aside and said, "Miss Chinn, you've really energized this place and when I see you, your staff, the volunteers, and everyone running around all charged up and smiling, it's so entertaining that I feel I should be paying more for my ticket." I'd like to receive more of those kinds of comments.