As Marco Shepherd sat in the darkened movie theatre and watched the premiere of Independence Day: Resurgence, he waited for the credits to roll. Then he felt his heart race. There on the black screen in white capital letters, under the word co-producer, was his name. Seeing his moniker attached to a big blockbuster film was a proud moment.

Shepherd, who graduated from Virginia Tech with degrees in communication and graphic design in 2005, had always dreamed about going into the film industry. Yet his aspirations were not without obstacles. His math scores were high, and he felt family pressure to go into engineering. And, although he was a U.S. citizen, he was originally from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. English was not his first language, and he found writing in it to be particularly challenging.

“My adviser, Marlene Preston, taught writing, and she was the first to give me a D or an F on a paper,” Shepherd says.

He explained to her why his writing skills were lacking. Rather than lowering her requirements, she gave him advice that still resonates.

“No one will care about your excuses in the workplace,” she told him. “Step up to the plate. You’ll have to work twice as hard as most of the Americans born in this country. People will judge you on what you produce.”

To improve his written communication, he spent time at the Virginia Tech Writing Center. It was lessons like these that helped him refine his skills and made for lifelong mentorships, such as one with Stephen Prince, a professor of cinema studies.

“His classes gave me a deep understanding of film,” Shepherd says. “So when I came to Hollywood, I knew there was more than the production and business sides of the film industry. I needed to understand the history and the story of how filmmakers were able to achieve what they achieved. Ultimately, it would be the difference between being a filmmaker and a master.”

He began his career editing commercials for a marketing firm and working as an assistant to various filmmakers in the entertainment industry. Then in 2009, Centropolis Entertainment, the production company of blockbuster director Roland Emmerich, hired him as a second assistant. Shepherd rapidly ascended into his current role as head of production and development of Centropolis in 2015.

He is now responsible for overseeing physical production of the company’s films and television shows, hiring actors and screenwriters, raising financing, packaging distribution deals, and seeking out new talent and scripts to develop and produce.

Shepherd believes it’s a great time to be in Hollywood. With the #MeToo movement training the klieg lights on Hollywood’s role in sexual harassment and sexual assault, he’s drawing on his Virginia Tech experiences and the university’s motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) to move forward.

“With Hollywood in the spotlight, we have the power to influence not just our industry but others,” he says. “In the eyes of the world, we can help change things. We can create safe and healthy workplaces. People will be happier and work harder. And they’ll be more productive and creative.”

Ensuring a peaceful environment is crucial, Shepherd adds, as it allows him to bring all the dynamic people involved in moviemaking together and helps them thrive.

“Film is about teamwork,” he says. “I depend on a team of strong people who dedicate themselves to specific areas. Each person — whether it’s a production assistant or the head of a department in production design, cinematography, or lighting — brings an expertise to complete the big picture.”

Written by Leslie King and photographed by Claudette Barius