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Feminist Practices

Projecting the Light

Every night, a vibrant sun rises on the façade of a 200-year-old temple in Queretaro, Mexico, followed by a mountain and dessert flowers springing from the ground, giant guitars and fruit baskets, a toro’s head draped in a garland of flowers. The fiesta of light is the brainchild of Mexican-Canadian entrepreneur Emma López, the Creative Director and Co-Founder of AVA Animation and Visual Arts Inc.

In 2016, she was hired by the local tourism board to do what the Temple of Santa Rosa de Viterbo, with its baroque architecture and artistic masterpieces, could not: Keep tourists in the bustling city centre after dusk. She created a jaw-dropping lightshow that illuminates the front of the temple with animation celebrating the natural heritage and culture of the region.

The installation went viral on social media, and soon tourists and locals who avoided the area after sundown were flocking to see the whimsical display, filling up hotels and restaurants. Street vendors churned out profits selling themed merchandise.

One could say, art saved the day, or rather the city’s nightlife and re-activated the local economy.

López saw the transformative power of public art, to build connections and communities. “Some people might see it as an empty form of entertainment, but I see it as an opportunity for positive socialization and community engagement and something that could trigger important changes in our behaviors and our overall moods.”

But to realize her own dream, the pioneer in the field of light projection mapping had to leave her native Mexico – three times.

Learning on the Global Stage

Born in Villahermosa, Mexico, López studied Graphic Design at Universidad de las Américas, where she met her husband, Pedro Narvaez. After graduating, they moved to Toronto to build their reel as freelance graphic designers, working together on animation projects with such companies as MuchMusic and CBC.

They moved back to Mexico to start their company, AVA Animation, but struggled building a network of clients. The couple looked overseas to bolster their reputation and credentials. A client in Yerevan, Armenia hired them to do a light show for the Armenian Opera House. A 3D mapping house in Beirut flew them in to teach them the pioneering techniques of animation mapping.

Says López: “Ten years ago, there were no examples online, no references, so it was an amazing process of discovery, trial and error, see what works, learning, and trying to translate all of the knowledge of animation and design that we already have into these new mediums.”

They soon landed opportunities at festivals across Europe, winning awards in Amsterdam, Moscow and Japan and realizing the potential of what their work could achieve. Those credits helped them win their first project on their return to Mexico— the initiative in Queretaro, which garnered national attention.

For the next 10 years, AVA Animation thrived, building installations and light shows for companies all over Mexico, but that growth came with its own set of challenges. Many clients did not care to deal with a woman entrepreneur. “It’s annoying,” says López of Mexico’s ‘machismo’ culture. “We had some clients who couldn’t even look me in the eyes, but they do see my husband!”

Narvaez became the public face of the company, dealing with clients who didn’t want to work with a woman. That blatant sexism rankled López who built the company to reflect her core feminist values, for instance, rejecting projects that involved objectifying women. When a sport-marketing client asked AVA to project cheerleaders in a way that was demeaning to women, they turned down the project—against the advice of their business advisors.

“We won’t do anything that we don’t feel comfortable with,” says López. “We don’t work on anything we won’t show our daughters, for example. So, there could be money in football and shows but that’s not the thing that we do.”

López appreciates having a business and life partner who deeply supports her values and believes in what she can do. She has a 51% ownership in the company, mostly to make a statement that AVA is a proud feminist enterprise, but they share the work 50/50. López focuses on the creative and client management, while her husband handles the technical side of projects such as the lens calculations, projector placements and software. She describes it as “a process of building on top of what your partner is building, and then you see the reflective work of a team.”

Building a Feminist Future

Her husband supported her decision to leave Mexico a third time, this time to escape the misogyny in business and the wider culture. She was concerned about safety, for herself and her daughters–government statistics show a sharp increase in femicides, 137 percent over the last five years.

“The way I was raised in Mexico,” says López, “there was always an anxiety of being a woman and having to be aware of everything—and the mental baggage was really hard.” She says people are starting to protest now, citing the March 2020 march that saw tens of thousands of people hit the streets across the country to demand government action on the high rate of violence against women. “It’s something that’s been there for a long time. So, I wanted to spare [my children].”

But the move back to Canada was not easy. A legal mistake in their immigration application meant López had to return to school in order for her and her family to continue living in Canada. For two years, she juggled work and care of two toddlers while attending Seneca College for animation.

“[My husband and I] basically felt like we were hitting rock bottom,” she says. “But we realized that going to school allowed us to start building connections, because teachers at the school realized we were doing things differently, that we were doing things with an intention and we already had so much knowledge.” She went onto pursue a Master’s of Art and Animation at OCAD University and participated in the Canadian Film Centre’s Fifth Wave.

Mark Jones, the Chair of Creative Arts and Animation at Seneca College, helped AVA Animation get their first gig in Toronto — their class graduation ceremony, for which they did a large-scale projection of classmates’ work on stage at the Steam Whistle Brewery. This opened doors for several more projects commissioned by international tourism associations, ad agencies, theme parks, light festivals and private events. Their installations can cost anywhere from $10,000 upwards to a million and their permanent staff of four to six can swell with independent contractors, depending on the scope of a project.

Taking Art to the Streets

Since COVID-19, López has seen an increase in city commissions, as cities look to create safe artistic experiences by animating streets with public art. For BigArtTO, a city-led initiative, AVA worked with local artists to project their work onto the sides of buildings and landmarks across Toronto. Working with other artists was a first. “We learned to make spaces like a canvas for other artists, and help them show their work and transform the city with light and experiences to allow communities to feel connected, but in a safe way.”

The company just signed on to another large-scale project with the film and music video producer Director X and museums across the city of Toronto to share untold stories about historic locations in Toronto. Part of this series features a short film on the first abolitionist meeting at St. Lawrence Market, which AVA Animation will project on the walls of the historic market.

“We transform spaces with light and transport people to places they’ve never seen before,” says López, “It’s the wow factor. When it comes to life, it’s like there’s a new skin on the structure.”

Related Readings

Categories
Transformative Ideas

The Write Stuff

Lindy Ledohowski, CEO, Essay Jack (Photo provided)

 

Lindy Ledohowski was on a conference call when an “angel investor” started screaming at her. He was furious because she had declined his offer to buy stock in her company, Essay Jack, after she realized she had enough friends and family eager to invest in her company.

“It was absolutely insane,” the CEO recalls during our Zoom interview, using her hands to animate the wild story. “Shouting is not a way that I would ever invite you to invest in this business.” She characterized him as a tech “dude” so “ full of his own self-importance,” he thinks budding entrepreneurs such as Ledohowski should be groveling for their support.

This incident earned her a reputation for being “prickly” in her business relations, although her cheery attitude recounting the incident makes it hard to believe. Clearly, she has no problem with that label, even embraces it as a woman navigating the fiercely male-dominated start-up tech industry. 

“One of the great things about turning 40 is that you care less about those things,” she says. “I know that the people I care about, my friends and family, if they decide that they don’t like me or I’ve done something wrong, I’ll take that very seriously. But you know, strangers or randos, I don’t care.”

It surely helps that Essay Jack has caught the attention of edu-tech investors and won a bushel of accolades and awards. The software program she helped develop provides tips, tools and video resources for writing essays. She came up with the idea after spending years as a university professor teaching students who were incredibly intelligent, but struggled writing essays. “Essay Jack provides that structure so that you can start writing,” she says, “writing faster and with greater confidence, and going from ‘I have lots of ideas’ to now ‘I’m refining and spell checking my ideas.’”

Instilling greater confidence is a key component, according to Ledohowski. “There is a crisis, especially at the higher education level, with confidence, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy.” She says the program can reduce that suffering by offering tips and techniques so students feel encouraged and empowered to write faster and better.

The application can help any student improve academic writing, but is especially useful as a remedial tool, for those who did not grow up studying in English and last-minute starters as the program provides 24/7 support.

Her company, which launched in 2015, had 12,000 users in 2018 and more than doubled to 30,000 this past spring. During the pandemic lockdown, from March through May, as universities and colleges went online, usage soared by 50 percent, with users around the globe and B2B distributors in Australia, Asia and Canada. And the ceiling is still far off.

Individuals pay $9.99 a month for the service or $99 a year, while bulk buyers such as institutions can lower the per-person fee. The typical user is a keen university student who is willing to put in the work to improve writing skills. Ledohowski says that while the platform is gender-neutral, based on anecdotal data, there are more female users than male. And buyers are more often mothers, who are key decision makers in their children’s education.

The company also skews female, with all the senior positions occupied by women. “When you have a large number of women decision-makers working together, there is a great degree of generosity, collaboration, and a can-do attitude—not just about gender things, but about diversity as a whole,” says Ledohoski.

She and her husband, Rueban Balasubramaniam, a tenured law professor at Carleton University, each own 40.5 per cent of the company with family and friend investors holding the rest. She says her husband doesn’t have an executive role at the moment, but supports her through high-level strategic discussions. 

Their most exciting project at hand is a new partnership with the Ogemawahj Tribal Council, to digitize learning and retention resources for teaching standardized Anishinaabemowin languages in Ontario, with the council retaining ownership of the content.

This new project is one of the many indicators that Essay Jack is growing beyond its initial writing platform, with the potential to support and expand diverse initiatives. Ledohoski expects an upcoming rebranding will include a change in the company name to reflect that. “Essay Jack the name, we’ve kind of outgrown it. A super-duper-writing-platform of awesomeness is kind of what we are now.”

This would be the third name for the company, after starting as Essay Hack—marketing the software as an easy way to improve your writing and “hack” your way into an A+. Conversations with investors and schools prompted that name change.

Growing up, Ledohoski never imagined a life as an entrepreneur though she had an example in her father, who left his position as an economics professor to start a hotel business in Manitoba. Her sister and brother currently run and own the family business, but Ledohowski was determined to carve her own path, aspiring to a life in literature.

She obtained a BA in English from the University of Manitoba in 2000, taught high school for two years, added an MA and PhD in English at University of Toronto by 2008 and, after a post doc then a stint teaching at University of Waterloo, returned to University of Toronto as a tenure-track professor. 

In her 20s, she says her self-worth was wrapped around academic success. With each new degree feeling like another pat on the head, she found that entrepreneurship helped bring her sense of self-worth back into her own hands. 

And that journey has been “gratifying and exciting.” She once thought the reach of her professional career was limited to students in her classes. But Essay Jack has enabled her to help countless students.

“It’s endless how many people can learn to have power over the written word, and then achieve their own goals. There’s this skill set that I’ve been able to develop and translate into software that can now touch millions of people.”


Publishers Note:  Essay Jack is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner. 


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