Not just anyone begins their career at Harpo Studios, the production company owned by Oprah Winfrey, it takes someone who has gone further than the average and pushed past fear and complacency.
Zach Perlinski is one such person, leveraging his experience in college to land a production assistant job with Harpo Studios despite competing against other applicants with much more experience.
“A week went by after my initial interview and I didn’t hear a word,” remembers Perlinski. “Finally, I received a follow-up call and they were still deciding. They were a bit worried that I didn’t have enough paid work experience, but I relentlessly pushed hard for big opportunities while at Ball State University so I could land a great job like this.”
I explained that though I’m fresh out of college, I have what it takes. Just a couple days later, I was an employee of Harpo Studios.”
Getting hired at Harpo Studios may be the ‘victory moment’ for Perlinski, but there was a long journey to get there – to learn more about how the Ball State University graduate made this opportunity become a reality, and how you can follow a similar path, read on:
I preach often that internships are one of the most valuable parts of education – you had two very interesting internships while at Ball State, let’s start with working in the news department at WFLD in Chicago – we’re talking a top 5 market – how did you get that internship and how much were you able to do and learn?
Perlinski: Hands down, my internships were one of the most critical aspects of my collegiate career.
During my sophomore year, I was ready for real world experience. I came across the name of an assignment editor at Fox Chicago, so I emailed her my resume and cover letter. To ensure she received those materials, I actually drove up to Chicago and dropped off everything… I figured, what’s the worse that could happen?
Shortly after that, I accepted an offer to join their internship program.
My experience at Fox Chicago was an important stepping stone. From working the assignment desk to covering some of the biggest stories of the summer, I pushed myself to learn as much as I could in my 3-month stint. I developed strong critical thinking and time management skills. My supervisor at Fox became one of my most supportive mentors and a foremost reason I wanted to become a producer.
Many people stop at one internship (big mistake) but you took it to a whole new level, interning for Late Show with David Letterman where you assisted head writers Eric and Justin Stangel – I have to imagine that was a whirlwind four months – can you explain the benefits of working on such a top notch production?
Perlinski: Working at the Late Show was… well, as you can imagine, an incredibly exciting experience.
For 20 years, the Late Show has brought smiles to millions, and to be part of that legacy was integral to my education. I spent nearly all my time with the writing staff… running scripts, typing up Top Ten lists, assisting during show tapings, and even ordering dinner for the team every night.
It was a high-pressure environment, but I learned how to focus and keep calm.
On many occasions, I’d run into Dave in the hallways or before tapings. He’s one of the greatest people I’ve had the privilege to work with… and a Ball State Cardinal! I’m proud to say I even appeared on an episode of the Late Show.
Ball State has a unique approach to education, immersing students in work-like experiences as part of their curriculum. During your time at Ball State you acted as Executive Producer of a 30 minute documentary exploring Negro league baseball in Indiana – how did you get inspired to pursue this concept and how did you really know how to put together a 30 minute documentary? That is not an easy task!
Perlinski: The beauty of Ball State is defined in two words: immersive learning.
As a sophomore, I was a photographer for another 30-minute documentary focusing on sexual assault awareness. This was my first true taste of “immersive learning” and a full-scale documentary production. Sure enough… I loved it. Over the next two years, I fine tuned my technical skills, mastered my love of storytelling, and strengthened my leadership abilities.
At the end of my senior year, I found myself at the helm of an entire crew… overseeing everything from in-depth interview questions to the music score. The concept of the film originated from a professor at Ball State, and I was tasked with bringing that dream alive. I’ve always loved baseball but diving into the Negro leagues was a meaningful experience. We had heart-to-heart conversations with some of the last great ball players. It was never just about producing a film… it was about preserving their incredible legacy for future generations.
After graduating you were looking for production assistant jobs and eventually got hired by Harpo Studios – Oprah Winfrey’s company. Take us through the interview process at “Super Soul Sunday”.
Perlinski: In August 2011, I received an email from a producer at Harpo Studios in Chicago. She knew I was looking for a job, so I (very quickly) sent over my resume and cover letter. Just a couple weeks later, I was invited to interview at the studio with a handful of producers. The interview lasted two hours, and we chatted about everything from my resident assistant position to my internship with David Letterman. They were impressed, and I was just honored to interview at the former home of The Oprah Winfrey Show!
Why do you think you were hired for the job? Was it a particular skill you had that they needed or was it something different?
Perlinski: It wasn’t one particular skill or one particular experience that they loved. It was the unique mix of creative and technical skills I cultivated for four years at Ball State.
Once you were hired, what were the main expectations of your role?
Perlinski: Well, production assistants do just about EVERYTHING. I organized team files, printed scripts, coordinated legal clearances, drafted social media, and developed relationships with book publishers and stock footage companies.
Within a year and a half you were promoted to Associate Producer on “Super Soul Sunday” – again, you weren’t the only PA at Harpo Studios, what do you think you did to make yourself noticed and worthy of promotion to AP?
Perlinski: My professors always stressed the importance of working hard and being genuine. That’s exactly what I brought to my role at Harpo Studios. I propelled myself far past the job requirements. I asked myself, “what can I do to put my mark on Super Soul Sunday?” I crafted a role as a behind-the-scenes photographer for Ms. Winfrey and her guests, worked closely with our graphics team to develop the beautiful brand of Super Soul Sunday, and even helped script segments.
What are the three most important skills someone needs to get hired for production assistant jobs?
Perlinski: Superior organization skills, an ability to quickly and creatively make decisions, and a willingness to always keep learning (this includes using feedback/criticism to your advantage).
How are the roles different as you’ve grown from production assistant to associate producer?
Perlinski: It’s an exciting—and challenging—learning opportunity. My focus is no longer on legal clearances or organizing team files… I’m now responsible for helping script entire episodes, working directly with our editors, and even pitching future guests.
What’s next on your career path and what do you think it will take to get there?
Perlinski: That’s a great question. I know that storytelling is my true calling.
When I look back at all of my experiences over the past several years, I never could have imagined where they would lead me. So, with that being said, I’ve always expected the unexpected. There’s a certain mystery about where my career will take me. No matter where I go next, it’ll require more hard work, dedication, and perseverance than ever before.
As for where exactly that’ll be, you’ll just need to stay tuned.