Obamas’ Higher Ground Expands Executive Team, Priya Swaminathan to Exit

Joe Paulson was hired as head of business and strategy

Higher Ground Team Photo, July 2021 Obamas
From left to right: Joe Paulsen (Head of Business and Strategy), Ada Chiaghana (SVP, Film & TV), Mark R. Wright (VP, Film & TV), Kira Rakshit (Executive Assistant), Alex Pitz (Director of Development), Tonia Davis (Head, Film & TV), Janae Marable (Editorial Assistant), Dan Fierman (Head, Audio), Mukta Mohan (VP, Audio), Anna Holmes (Creative Director, Audio), Julian Mowatt (Operations Assistant), Not Pictured: Crystal Zhang (Executive Assistant)/Photo Credit: Leigh Keily

Former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground Productions has expanded its executive team. Priya Swaminathan, the co-head of film and TV at the company, will step down from her role later this summer as part of the change.

Swaminathan was Higher Ground’s first hire, and she oversaw the company’s Oscar-winning “American Factory” and the Oscar-nominated “Crip Camp.” Tonia Davis will now serve as the sole head of film and TV.

Among the company’s new hires are Joe Paulson as head of business and strategy. He was formerly special assistant to the President at the White House and was deputy chief of staff to the former president, having worked with the Obamas since the earliest days of the campaign in 2007 and overseen the creation of Higher Ground.

The company also hired Dan Fierman as head of audio, creative director Anna Holmes and Mark R. Wright as VP of film and TV. Fierman and Holmes oversaw the launch of “The Michelle Obama Podcast,” which is the most-listened Spotify Original to date, and “Renegades: Born in the USA,” Barack Obama’s podcast with Bruce Springsteen. And Wright will focus on scripted feature films and will report to Tonia Davis.

Swaminathan chose to depart Higher Ground on her own and called the experience of working with the Obamas “life-changing.”

“We are so grateful to Priya for her tremendous impact at Higher Ground these past few years. From her work on ‘American Factory’ and ‘Crip Camp’ to launching our kids and family programs Waffles + Mochi, We The People, and everything in between, her work has laid a remarkable foundation for the future of Higher Ground,” the Obamas said in a statement. “We started Higher Ground because we wanted to tell stories that not only entertain, but also inform and inspire. We are so proud of the work this team has done in just a few short years. This talented leadership team at Higher Ground will continue to bring fresh perspectives, compelling characters, and a healthy dose of inspiration to all of our projects.”

“Working alongside Tonia and the Higher Ground team has been a life-changing experience. President and Mrs. Obama are inspiring leaders who push all of us to challenge the status quo, to be tenacious and empathic in everything we do, and to invest in the people we work with as much as the stories we have the privilege of telling. I am honored to have been a part of this family and can’t wait to see what stories they tell next,” Swaminathan said.

Higher Ground’s upcoming content slate includes series “Ada Twist, Scientist,” “Firekeeper’s Daughter,” the docuseries “Great National Parks” and the comedy series “The G Word” with Adam Conover, which is based on a book by Michael Lewis. They’re also planning a series of six different love stories written by six prolific Black authors for a series called “Blackout.”

On the film side, the company is producing “Rustin,” the story of gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington as directed by George C. Wolfe, “Exit West based on Mohsin Hamid’s critically acclaimed novel, and “Satellite,” a science fiction film written by Ola Shokunbi. Higher Ground recently presented Kevin Hart’s “Fatherhood” and is behind the Michael Keaton Netflix drama “Worth.”


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