Pearlena Igbokwe. Image: Dan Doperalski/Variety
Pearlena Igbokwe was an English major at Yale, so it’s no surprise that she loves the process of reading and analyzing a literary work, breaking down the text and identifying its major themes and conclusions. In grade school, she was the type of kid who didn’t groan when a book report was assigned.
These instincts have served Igbokwe well in her nearly 30 years as a creative executive in television. But the Showtime and NBC alum, who has headed Universal Television since 2016, didn’t know what work lay ahead in the spring of 1985, as her sophomore year at the Ivy League college was coming to an end. She only knew she needed to hurry up and find a summer job. While scouring the listings and fliers tacked up on the walls of the career services center at Yale, she was immediately intrigued by a notice described as a “summer associate” position at NBC in New York.
Igbokwe, now 54, had felt a special connection to television ever since her family emigrated to New Jersey from Nigeria in 1971, when she was 6. The Igbokwes left behind the terror of living through a civil war and arrived in the land of “I Love Lucy,” “The Love Boat” and Bugs Bunny. Young Pearlena couldn’t get enough TV. The family’s small black-and-white television was her babysitter, her companion and her primary instructor in the language of her adopted home.
“I thought TV was this amazing thing,” she recalls. “It was my best friend.”
During her undergrad years at Yale, Igbokwe spent two summers working for NBC in research, first for the sales department and later for NBC News. As she ran around 30 Rock completing assignments and other chores, she had to pinch herself that she was being paid to kinda, sorta work in television.
“It just opened up everything for me,” Igbokwe says. “That feeling of loving TV and movies for all those years and now being even remotely attached to that world just felt incredible.”
Igbokwe’s path after college took a circuitous route through working in the financial services industry (she had to pay off loans) to business school at Columbia University. After earning her graduate degree, she landed a temporary job at HBO. Within a few months, she had offers for entry-level posts at HBO and Showtime. She opted for Showtime, where she would spend the next 20 years, first in New York and later in Los Angeles when she joined the programming team.
In 2012, when former Showtime chief Robert Greenblatt recruited her to become head of drama development for NBC, she was ready for a new chapter. “I felt like NBC was where I started,” she says. “I knew I would love to be here.”
After four years in drama, working on such series as “The Blacklist” and “This Is Us,” Igbokwe was promoted to president of Universal Television. The studio is riding the Peak TV wave, with some 40 shows in active production for NBC as well as outside buyers, notably Netflix (“Russian Doll,” “Master of None”), HBO (“The Gilded Age”), CBS (“FBI”), Hulu (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”), Amazon (“Forever”) and Freeform (“The Bold Type”). On her watch, Universal TV has upped its volume of output and gained traction on the prestige front. The production arm had two shows in the running for best comedy series at the Emmy Awards last month (“Russian Doll” and NBC’s “The Good Place”).
For most of her career, Igbokwe worked on the buying side of TV, hearing pitches from studio executives and showrunners. The move to being a seller, at a time when Universal TV has been encouraged to shop its wares outside NBC, has put her English major’s love of analyzing stories to good use.
“Pearlena is the kind of collaborator who asks the question that makes all of us step back and look at the piece in a new way,” says Amy Poehler, who has a production pact with Universal TV and was a driving force behind Natasha Lyonne’s “Russian Doll.”
Igbokwe has a natural warmth and a level of optimism that makes a difference. She’s quick to let loose a distinctive throaty laugh that puts others at ease.
“She’s real. In a town where a lot of people have masks on and a lot of pretense, Pearlena is real, down-to-earth good people,” says producer Debra Martin Chase, who has known Igbokwe for years and recently signed a first-look deal with Universal TV.
Poehler pays Igbokwe the ultimate compliment as a leader: “Pearlena’s got a little bit of Leslie Knope in her, that’s for sure,” she says, referring to the earnest city employee she played on the NBC/Universal TV comedy series “Parks and Recreation.”
Igbokwe has reached a point in her career and in her life where she’s reflecting on the arc of her story. For years she didn’t share much with friends and colleagues about her experiences growing up in Lagos during the 1967-70 period of Nigeria’s civil war with Biafra. But of late, she has opened up about how she was shaped by her family’s struggles during those formative years. “Sometimes you need some distance from a story to understand it,” she says. “I saw a lot of things.”
Igbokwe vividly recalls the horror of running into the woods with her mother and younger brother to escape aerial bombing raids above their village. She remembers the sound of helicopters that dropped food and humanitarian aid supplies out of the sky for the villagers. Also seared in her memory is the day when she was about 4 when she became determined to grab a sack of salt for her mother from an aid drop. She positioned herself in the perfect spot and dove on the ground as soon as the drop hit. She didn’t count on getting trampled by dozens of adults doing the same thing.
“They all just piled on me until finally someone was yelling, ‘There’s a kid under there!’” Igbokwe says. “When I got up, I was covered in salt from head to toe. I walked back through my village looking like one of the White Walkers from ‘Game of Thrones.’”
The visceral memories of war and violence and scrambling for food have given Igbokwe perspective on the life she has made for herself as a respected figure in entertainment. As the mother of two teenagers — a 17-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son — she can only imagine the fear that her mother faced in Nigeria, trying to protect two young kids while also working to secure the promise of a new life in America.
Igbokwe’s father, a teacher, was the first to leave for the U.S. with the help of an American couple that had befriended the family. Pearlena, her mother and her brother followed two years later. It was an emotional roller coaster for a 6-year-old, between the reunion with her father and the culture shock of leaving Africa to settle in Montclair, N.J.
“I remember having the sense that we finally made it,” Igbokwe says. “I remember the feeling that people thought we were lucky. I was going to America.”
Most of Igbokwe’s relatives still live in Nigeria. She often wonders why fate determined that her family would be in a position to leave for a safer environment offering greater opportunities. “I’m the most grateful person in the world,” she says. “I don’t take for granted anything that’s happened in my life. From the world that I came from to work in the entertainment business — none of it was supposed to happen.”
Igbokwe broke ground for the industry in becoming the first black woman to run a major television studio. She earned her way to that shot by naturally demonstrating the mix of business savvy, creativity and empathy that makes for a strong leader in entertainment, in producer Martin Chase’s view.
“It’s so lovely to have a woman in charge who is very giving and very gracious and smart as a whip and a great manager,” says Martin Chase. “There’s no ego with Pearlena. It’s about the work. It’s important to her that everybody around here feels good about what they’re doing.”