The first thing Janet Rollé will tell you about herself sums up the very attitude that has propelled her into executive positions at CNN, BET and, until last year, Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment. “I have a saying, ‘I like to be about it before I talk about it,’” she says with a laugh.
For Rollé, the daughter of a Caribbean immigrant (her mother is Jamaican) who started dancing at the Y as a child, that meant the decision to become American Ballet Theatre’s first Black CEO had to be carefully weighed beforehand. “It’s nice to be the first, but I am absolutely determined not to be the last,” says the 60-year-old as the summer dance season arrives. Here, Rollé speaks about her time at ABT and its new beginnings.
ESSENCE: You’ve held C-suite roles at top companies, but early in your career, dance was at the center. You graduated undergrad with a dance degree, before heading to Columbia Business School for your M.B.A. These days, do you think of yourself as a creative first or as an executive?
JANET ROLLÉ: I think of myself as an artist first—because I believe business is an art as much as it is a science. Art is what makes the best businesspeople successful. There are lots of different ways to look at problems, challenges and opportunities. There’s a level of creativity in your thought processes and the way that you see the world—or the way that you see an audience or a consumer base or a product. That is really the difference between the businesspeople we admire most and the ones I would describe as maybe financially successful but not admired in the same way that we admire artists.
ESSENCE: The ballet world has been deeply criticized for being very much one color. How do you see ABT continuing to champion diversity?
ROLLÉ: What’s critically important is that we get to a place, particularly in the ballet world, where it’s not seen as a novelty for us to be doing quote-unquote diversity, but it’s part of the fabric of what we do, so that we don’t even have to talk about it anymore. The separation of these activities from the core and organic operations of an organization, ultimately, doesn’t get us where we’re trying to go. I look forward to when we don’t have to have conversations about there being a separate initiative or council, and that it’s just who we are. That’s absolutely my goal for ABT.
This summer, our first one back in person, we have the great Alonzo King creating a work. Alexei Ratmansky’s “Of Love and Rage” will be part of the season. We are also doing Don Quixote, which is always a piece people enjoy. But what you will see, in the selections of these diverse works as well as in the casting of the works, is that ABT continues to live its values of being truly American.
ESSENCE: Hearing you speak about ABT’s future and about your passion for supporting creatives, I can understand why you took this opportunity as CEO. This role seems so personal.
ROLLÉ: And you know what? That’s why Beyoncé understood why I left Parkwood. To her great credit, and consistent with her generosity as a person, is that she literally said to me, “I understand that dance is your first love.”
American Ballet Theatre’s summer season begins June 13 through July 16 at the Metropolitan Opera House.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.