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Alumna seeks—and finds—unique talent in many places

Northwestern alumna Emily Gerson Saines, founder and president of the boutique talent management company Brookside Artist, put the spotlight on talents of all kinds at the 2014 School of Communication Convocations Saturday, June 21. The annual ceremony celebrates the school’s new class of alumni. More than 300 graduates of the Class of 2014 participated in the ceremony, including two new graduates from Northwestern’s NU-Q campus in Doha, Qatar.

The convocation featured remarks from University President Morton Schapiro, Dean Barbara O’Keefe, presentations of diplomas by department chairs and other faculty members, and a performance of “You’ve Got a Friend” (Carole King) by Elizabeth Stewart (C12).

Introduced by Paige Rotando (C12) at the first ceremony and Justin White (C12) at the second, Gerson Saines apologized to the gathered new alumni and their families for not being a “super-famous” speaker. “My job is not to be in the limelight. It’s to aim the limelight,” she said, pointing out a few high-caliber current and former clients the audience would recognize. “So your not knowing who I am is a great measure of my success.”

Gerson Saines, who currently represents actresses Hayden Panettiere and Cynthia Nixon and actor Ansel Elgort, the young male lead of the recent hit The Fault in Our Stars, advised the new graduates to rely on their innate talents—even if at first they aren’t the talents they wished they had.

Gerson Saines referenced a moment in her life as a Northwestern student when she worked backstage at the Waa-Mu Show, but wanted to be as talented as all her friends in the cast. One friend set her straight that what she was doing—making things happen—was a skill. With this in mind, she helped produce a music video for a group of friends, winning a student Emmy Award and founding the School of Communication student group Niteskool, which still makes music videos for young musical artists today.

Though she took that “make it possible” attitude into her career at Creative Artists Agency and then William Morris, her next step—becoming a mother—tested that resolve. She had two sons (one, Maxwell Saines (C13) listened from the audience. The younger was diagnosed with autism.

“The little I knew about autism I had learned through a communications disorder class I took here at Northwestern and the rest I knew from the movie Rainman.” Gerson Saines said. Dashiell Saines was diagnosed in 1995, when the incidence rate was one in 10,000 children. Today it is one in 68 children and one in 42 boys.

“Why was there so little awareness?” Gerson Saines remembered thinking. “Why was there so little research happening? Why were there so few classrooms equipped to handle children with autism? Why was there not a community talking about this? Why weren’t ‘they’ doing anything? Then it occurred to me: there is no they. We had to become the ‘they.’ If we wanted something to happen, to change, we had to do it. I had to do it. I had to make it possible.”

In 1997, the Saines family joined with other parents to create The Autism Coalition for Research and Education, raising money for biomedical research, education, and advocacy. By 2005, the group became the founding organization of Autism Speaks, now the world’s leading autism science and advocacy program.

Her son’s autism would also play a role in Gerson Saines’s career. After she left William Morris to start her own management agency, Gerson Saines decided to produce a film based on a book that had helped her understand her son’s diagnosis. Thinking in Pictures is the autobiography of Temple Grandin, a woman diagnosed with autism in 1949. Though Grandin’s mother had been advised to put her young daughter in an institution, Temple Grandin went on to finish not just high school but college, then graduate school. She holds a doctorate in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is a leading expert on the livestock industry and animal behavior.

“Temple’s mother believed that, though she was different, she was not less,” Gerson Saines said. “Her mom believed that if she pushed and encouraged her daughter, anything was possible. And she was right. Temple’s unique perspective became her gift.”

Temple Grandin, a film made for HBO starring Claire Danes, went on to earn 15 Emmy Award nominations. It won five, including Outstanding Made for Television Movie.

Gerson Saines said she was gratified by the tens of thousands of messages she read on Facebook about the film, many from parents of children with autism.

“If we ever question whether our lives have the ability to make a difference,” she said, “the answer is yes.”

Read the full text transcript