Shonda Rhimes never had a mentor—she had her fans and Twitter instead

I’d like to thank the tweeters.
I’d like to thank the tweeters.
Image: AP Photo/Inivision/John Shearer
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TV producer and writer Shonda Rhimes is one of the most powerful people in American television, responsible for ABC’s Thursday night lineup (she created Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, and is an executive producer on How to Get Away with Murder). The success of the newer shows, especially Scandal, is due in part to the attention they get on Twitter, allowing fans instant access to the actors and Rhimes herself.

It makes sense, then, that Rhimes told a room full of women tonight that she didn’t have a mentor in the television industry. Instead, she learned from her fans.

Rhimes, in a Q&A with CBS news business analyst Jill Schlesinger at Deutsche Bank’s Women on Wall Street conference, had this to say about the way fans have shaped her career:

I learned how to write television by writing Grey’s Anatomy. And you had asked me if I had a mentor. But I didn’t, because I didn’t know anybody in television when I started working in television, because Grey’s was my first job. But what’s been great about having this access to the fans is you do hear what works and what doesn’t. And I don’t mean, “I like the storyline, I don’t like the storyline.” I learned this type of storytelling device works, or this way of telling a story works, or this character makes sense, or this idea I’m trying to get across is effective. I learned what works by listening to the audience.

Rhimes’ relationship with her 723,000 Twitter followers has extended beyond the screen, most recently when a New York Times story about her newest show referred to her as an “angry black woman,” which Rhimes and many others took issue with.

“The only way I knew the article in the New York Times existed was because I turned on my computer in the morning and all of my Twitter followers were enraged. And I thought, ‘Well something’s happened here,'” she said at the Women on Wall Street conference. “And so we were having a conversation.”

Rhimes also talked to the audience of Wall Street women about her experiences working in a field where men predominate—like the time a group of older male executives weighing in on the pilot of her first show, Grey’s Anatomy:

I remember being pulled into a meeting with a room full of men. I don’t know who any of them are now, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them again. …It was a room full of much older white men and I was told in a very concerned, very paternal voice that they felt that nobody was going to watch a television show about a woman who had a one night stand with a guy the night before her first day of work. That women did not do that, that she was—I’m just going to say the word—she was a slut, that they were very disturbed about the message that we were putting out there and that it was going to be a disaster. And I remember sitting there thinking, like “Wow, they have no idea what women are doing.”