Antoinette Zel will tell you, much of her motivation comes from inspiring America's 43 million Hispanics, particularly young Latinos, to dream of a future that includes getting an education, building a career and having an impact on this country's future.
“I feel I'm one of the lucky ones who was able to grab the brass ring,” says Zel, 42, senior executive VP of network strategy. Zel was born in New York City to parents who had fled Cuba only a few years earlier. “I was given tremendous opportunities in my academic career and my professional career. You have to give back. That's what motivates me every day on the professional side.”
Zel, the married mother of three young boys, says she's also driven to inspire her children, which she does by example.
She began her career as an entertainment lawyer at Reid & Priest in New York City after earning a B.A. in English from Tufts University and a law degree from Columbia University in the late 1980s. In 1991, she joined the legal team at MTV, helping to launch MTV Latin America, where she became president in 2001.
In 2004, Telemundo President Don Browne lured Zel to the network two years after NBC Universal acquired it. She was assigned to overhaul mun2, a bilingual cable network that had languished since its debut, also in 2001.
“We have opened opportunities for the youth market, not only in terms of who we serve but also in who we recruit,” says Browne. “We have well over 100 employees, many of them young Latinos who are getting opportunities in this business and who speak back to the audience. It's been one of our big success stories, and Antoinette has led that.”
She definitely gives back. Zel is on the board of directors at Imagen Foundation, an organization created in the 1980s to improve the portrayal of Hispanics in Hollywood. She is also active with the Cuban American National Council.
Since June 2005, Zel has overseen the strategic direction of Telemundo, which includes developing research studies, marketing and promotions.
Zel also oversees business units with the greatest potential for revenue growth. That includes cable television and new media, such as the Yahoo!/Telemundo partnership that began last year.
The audience for mun2, which has about 11 million subscribers, is still small. It averages fewer than 200,000 viewers each week for multiple episodes of its top-rated programs. But the network's audience is on the upswing, increasing 46% in primetime on a year-to-year basis among Hispanics 12-34 in the first quarter.
Moreover, mun2's programming has been evolving to better reflect the issues concerning young Latinos, including such documentaries as the Peabody Award-winning For My Country? Latinos in the Military.
Zel moved much of mun2's operations from Miami to Los Angeles. That includes a new research facility for Telemundo networks and a studio for mun2.
“The studio is like the brick-and-mortar expression of the mun2 identity,” explains Zel. “It is an investment on Telemundo's and NBC Universal's part to create a very physical space that young Hispanics can view as their home. It's not derivative, and it's not for anyone else. It's theirs.”