Categories
Allied Arts & Media

Breaking Up With Patriarchy in Film and TV

A collage showing popcorn, a camera, film reel and three women, two brown and one white woman
Collage: Shreya Patel, Rabiya Mansoor, Window Dreams; Bonnie Anderson (top), Moxie Productions

British filmmaker Amma Asante once said: “Don’t take no as a full stop, treat it like a comma.” Three women indie filmmakers (Bonnie Anderson, Moxie Productions; Rabiya Mansoor and Shreya Patel, Window Dreams Productions) are doing just that. These filmmakers aren’t asking for a seat at patriarchy’s table. They’re building a better one on their own.

Film has always been a brutal industry for everyone but women bear a disproportionate brunt of the pain. A 2021 report by Women in View found women were afforded significantly fewer film contracts than men by two major funders and far less funding. BIPOC women fared the worst. A story in World Economic Forum in March reported that while the MeToo movement uncovered gender power dynamics in Hollywood, inequities behind the scenes garnered less attention: fewer than 20% of directors and writers of the 250 highest-grossing U.S. movies were women (according to a recent study). It isn’t lack of education that holds women back – a 2018 report found equal representation of women in higher education in film and television.

Indie Film Making: The Road to Freedom?

While building one’s own company doesn’t make systemic oppression and challenges vanish, the autonomy that comes with going indie provides film makers with the freedom to produce content that matters to them, their way, and in ways that aligned with their feminist ideals. Moxie Productions’ Anderson recalled an incident where a male actor ignored her – even though she was director and producer, and looked to her male Director of Photography instead. She hasn’t hired him again. For the keepers though, she provides a work experience “I wasn’t finding in other places.” She loves hearing how working on her set is fun. “I want everybody to have that feeling when they’re on set because that’s when you get the best work done.”

Photo of three people. A man, two women.
Left to Right: Jorge Molina. Andrea Grant and Bonnie Anderson of Moxie Productions. Photos by Denise Grant.

For the co-CEOS at Window Dreams (below), going indie means you can put people and relationships first. “If there is no friendship, this doesn’t exist, and it’s not fun anymore,” Patel said.” “You don’t have to be lonely at the top.” The system pits marginalized creatives and producers (they are both of South Asian descent) against one another. There is often only one ‘diversity’ seat at the table. “Our mindset has always been, well, we’ll just build our own table or we’ll just make the table bigger,” Mansoor said. “There could be seats for everyone.”

Anderson took the leap into independent film making after years of industry experience that included lighting designer, theater director, playwright and actor. Technology has helped get hers and other women’s derrieres in seats. When cameras and lighting got smaller, and editing apps became available (“Film is really all created in the editing room”) she realized: “I’m tired of waiting for other people and I want to just create things for a living.” She learned how to edit through YouTube videos and appointments at Apple Genuis (“They were great”) to make her first film ‘GPS Love’: “A man falls in love with his new GPS and finds himself.” 

Leveraging Technology, Global Networks and Diversity

Window Dreams has been busy during this pandemic. Learning to leverage new technology has helped. The Toronto-based Mansoor had wondered whether she would ever have the opportunity to be in a writers’ room with people from New York and Los Angeles. Then virtual meetings became the norm.  Their documentary, ‘Unity’ (logline: “Love spreads faster than a virus”), had over 100 cast from almost 70 countries. While Patel slept, videos arrived from different time zones for her to edit when she woke up. ‘Unity’ was the closing film at the Unified Filmmakers-Munich International Film Festival last year. Their music video, ‘Freedom Dance,’ with Bollywood and other celebrities was directed virtually by Patel. It went viral and was reported in Rolling Stones India. “I’m retiring,” Patel joked. (She is obviously decades away from retirement!)

Anderson said that if she could change one thing to support the advancement of women, she would appoint more of them “To be head of where the money is.” The Women in View’s On Screen Report found women give other women more breaks. They refer, for example, to the ‘showrunner and producer effect’. When women occupy these positions, their teams have far greater representation of women in creative roles like writers, directors and cinematographers. When women of colour are the producers, the playing field for other women of colour is significantly more level.

A study done earlier this year, Building Inclusive Networks in the Film and Television Industry, found BIPOC women and non-binary individuals viewed networking events as vital to gaining industry access. Yet, most participants felt ‘unwelcome’ at industry events. Lack of diversity, micro-aggressions and cliquishness were some of the reasons cited. Participants felt greater inclusivity in networking opportunities would lead to positive outcomes: better programming for more accurate reflection of current reality; greater authenticity in the stories; fewer stereotypical or sexualized portrayals of women; on-screen reflection of the diversity of Canadians.

Left to Right: Shreya Patel and Rabiya Mansoor, Window Dreams

Even for Patel, with her expansive global network and a gift for networking and connecting – “That’s where my forte is when it comes to business” – access remains a challenge. Though there’s no lack of funding opportunities, finding them is a problem. Peers are generally tight-lipped for fear of competition. Mansoor and Patel feel funders need to promote these opportunities better, while supporting applicants to ensure strong submissions. They found out about the Bell Fund Slate Development Program late but hustled to submit their application. They got funding for several projects including the comedy series Layla is Relevant (which they also star in) about “A former child star and current nobody” who moves back to Sarnia (Patel’s hometown) with her single mom and gamer cousin.

No Money? Carry On!

Lack of funding never stopped these women from pushing ahead on their dream projects. Anderson had pursued funding before Moxie Productions without much success. She realized: “I’m going to create a production company and make money from it. And from that money, I’ll be able to create my own personal work that I want to do.” She has a thriving business in educational videos (For the purpose of training doctors and other professionals) and actor and musician promotional reels. This allows her to take financial risks that help other women like her improv partner Kate Ashby. “I Just thought Kate needed her own television show,” Anderson said. Talk with Kate Ashby was a talk show with a twist where prominent guests like actor Susan Coyne decided on the next guest (only revealed to Kate on camera). A new season of SNAK (four-minute lively interviews with celebrities like Sandra Shamas, Jean Yoon, Peter Mansbridge) is launching. “This is something that is dear to my heart and we celebrate Canadian talent,” Anderson said.

The women at Window Dreams pursue stories about social justice knowing their payday may be far off. Years ago, while Patel was doing humanitarian work in India, she watched helplessly as poor children were waiting to be treated for terminal illnesses. She knew documentary filmmaking could shine a light on marginalized people and create change. Window Dreams’ Girl Up about human trafficking in Canada took years to develop without funding. A feature film about domestic human trafficking is in the works.

Emerging Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Policies are Helping

There is reason for aspiring women indie filmmakers to be optimistic. Commitments to gender parity by publicly-funded organizations such as CBC, Canadian Media Fund, and the CRTC have increased the number of women directors in film and television. Mountains still need to be moved to increase representation of BIPOC women and all women in key industry roles like cinematography. However, women in film are increasingly leveraging the power of trust, connection and collective action. They are also helping each other out. They are helping each other out. Organizations such as Women in Film and Television (WIFT), Fem Script Lab, and Women in the Director’s Chair (WIDC) offer development and networking to support women’s advancement in the industry.

Anderson, Mansoor and Patel participated in the Canadian Film Centre Media Lab’s Fifth Wave Initiative, a development program that integrates intersectional feminist ideals with entrepreneurship. For Anderson it was “mind blowing” to be connected with women who were rooting for her success. The enthusiasm of mentors and others to make connections to help their business thrive was invaluable.

What’s their advice to help the next generation of women? Anderson would like everyone to see business differently. “It’s not sales; it’s building relationships.” Mansoor would tell them to have “The confidence to run with an idea, knowing there are wins and losses”. “Don’t give up,” Patel would advise. “Entrepreneurship is a long road.”

We can all help make that road a little smoother.

TIFF (September 8 – 18) has a category of films ‘Directed by Women’. These films deserve our support.

Publishers Note: The FitIn is a part of the Fifth Wave, 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 ally and content sponsor at the Lighthouse level. Applications for Cohort 5 are OPEN!

Related Reading

Categories
Our Voices

Hurtling Towards a Metaverse Future

Photo of a young woman wearing a blue v neck sweater and a virtual reality headset.
Candice Houtekier, founder, Art Collision. Photo by B. Mulholland, Moo Company

“The frenzy was really unique,” Candice Houtekier said, recalling her first Collision technology conference in 2018. Houtekier had recently obtained a graduate degree in Art History and Video Games from the University of Montreal and was working at a contemporary art gallery. At the Collision conference she met tech-savvy entrepreneurs working at the intersection of art and blockchain technology. “It was avant-gardist,” the 29-year-old said.

“I remember thinking art fairs, art events and art organizations in general are really late,” she said, thinking back to how dated the arts world seemed compared to what she experienced at the Collision event. She wanted to change that. Six months after the conference she launched her own business. She had the perfect name: Art Collision.

Working at the Intersection of Art and Technology

Like many entrepreneurs Houtekier said “Yes to everything,” at the beginning. Her clients were independent artists, collectors and smaller arts organization wanting to improve their digital presence.  She helped them with things such as website design and analytics.

“But with years, I learned what I’m good at, what I like to work on, and what is profitable for my business,” she said. While she still provides more routine technical support, there has been a seismic shift in her business in a short time. In 2020, virtual reality services were less than ten percent of revenue. A year later it jumped to almost twenty-five percent. More and more clients are from around the world.

While the overall value of NFT art has dropped precipitously recently, Houtekier maintained it is a sound longer-term investment for savvy art collectors. She gave the example of the American abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler.  Someone who bought one of her paintings in the 1970s and flipped it two years later probably lost money. “But if you resold it forty years later, well you’re probably going to make a lot of money.” Houtekier helps her clients succeed in the world of NFTs. “I think the scene is a bit overwhelming because there is a lot of information, a lot of new vocabulary, and a lot of scammers,” she said. “I show to my clients how to enter the scene in a secure peaceful way.” This includes everything from how to open a crypto-wallet to minting an NFT to showcasing clients’ artwork in a metaverse where it can be exhibited “In a professional and beautiful way.”

Houtekier is a solopreneur with a strong team of collaborators like Brendon McNaughton, co-founder and CEO of Art Gate. She introduced herself to him at an art fair after noticing cynoculars in his hands. “Wow, what’s going on in your headset?” she asked. “Show me what you can do.”

Art Gate is a metaverse that leases space to art galleries to exhibit beyond their brick-and-mortar spaces. Imagine this: An art collector from anywhere can visit an art gallery thousands of miles away. They enter the Art Gate metaverse via their laptop or virtual reality headset. This gallery may be designed to look traditional with white walls or something completely outrageous. Similar to an in-person experience, there are even greeters and tour guides—sometimes these are bots. Art Collision and Art Gate collaborate on several art fairs every year and a month-long biennial with talks, discussions and gallery tours.

 A New Land Owner in Cryptovoxels

Last year, Houtekier expanded her footprint in the metaverse by buying a parcel of land in Cryptovoxels. Cryptovoxels (like Art Gate) is a metaverse that works well for exhibiting art. Her first project on her property was designing wearables (digital clothes for avatars). Her collection of designer hats was a hit with other Cryptovoxels land owners, artists and art collectors. “Or just people having fun and meeting the community and partying,” Houtekier said. After all, making a fashion statement in the virtual world is as important as in real life.

This wearable project built Houtekier’s competencies for selling digital assets in the metaverse that translated to her core business of helping artists. Many artists work with NFTs but there is not enough gallery space around to exhibit and sell their work. Houtekier collaborated with an architect to create Floating Point Gallery in the web3 to support emerging artists.

Art Collision’s first exhibit in Cryptovoxels was the work of Canadian artist Antoine Lortie (@agrophobe). “I fell in love as soon as I discovered his work,” Houtekier said. With the wearable project and her first art exhibit under her belt, she was ready to do more. She has recently added four new artists to her roster and has more exhibitions planned for later this year.

Avatars Empower Us

The metaverse opens up possibilities beyond creating and exhibiting art. Houtekier said it also empowers people by allowing them to create avatars as a form of expression. “It’s about being yourself; it’s about choosing who you want to be,” she said.

Houtekier said some metaverses are very inclusive where avatars can have different skin colours (even blue!), religious symbols, assistive devices like hearing aids, robotic parts for limbs—and more. “The metaverse is giving us the opportunity to lay the foundation of a gender-neutral world where people can adopt the gender traits they want,” she said. One of her female colleagues “Always wears a pretty moustache” during their team meetings in the Horizon Workrooms metaverse. “You can now be a woman, a man or a sandwich!” she joked. What about Houtekier’s digital incarnation? “I embrace my female traits,” she said. Her avatar sports sneakers and a little skirt—and of course, a hat!

Houtekier spent a lot of time as an avatar during the pandemic. She joined empowerment groups in the metaverse like Meta Angels where she met other women interested in sharing intelligence about the blockchain. She expanded her network across the globe thanks to Natural Language Processing which removed language barriers. However, the metaverse can only go so far in building networks. She is looking forward to live conferences, art fairs and openings. “It’s going to be a great spring and a great summer and a great opportunity to meet the community again and to connect with people in real life,” she said. “It’s important to have a real time conversation with people one-on-one, face-to-face.”

The Future of Art Collision

Houtekier’s said she feels very privileged to work in an area she loves and to feel so well supported by the arts community and her collaborators. Art Collision has accomplished a lot in just a few short years. But Houtekier is set to take a big leap forward.

“We are ready to work with larger art organizations, museums, the government, and academic institutions”, she said. Art Collision is currently working with the Canadian government to help transition from the traditional Canadian art scene to a more digital one, and advance the empowerment of women and minorities in the metaverse.

“We have the tools, the experience and the skills to really make the Canadian art scene a better one.”  Houtekier is “Ready to do a great digital transition.”

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Publishers Note: Art Collision participated in the Fifth Wave  Initiative, 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 minimum of 50% participation per cohort by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth ally sponsor at the Lighthouse levelApplications for Fifth Wave Connect are open. Apply here

Related Reading

Projecting the Light

A pioneer in the field of light projection mapping, Emma López transforms public spaces and minds through the power of art.

Read More »
Categories
Our Voices

No Person is Ever Just One Thing

image of a white woman in a black tank top. She has tatoos on her left arm and shoulder. Short hair.
LiisBeth contributor and author Lori Fox. Photo by Mark Kelly

If this book was a Venn diagram, the intersecting circles would represent the relationship between rage, compassion, and survival. Lori Fox has crammed a lot of life (and moving) experience in their thirty-something years on this planet. They are unique, as we all are, by default: “I’m a visibly queer and non-binary person who grew up in a time and place when that was even more dangerous than it is now, who has lived and worked in communities and settings where my queerness was often a threat to my safety. I should, statistically speaking, be dead. Probably more than once,” writes Fox.

Blunt and unapologetic, recurring themes and ideas are intertwined and interconnected throughout the book and include, but are not limited to, financial instability, mental health struggles, sexual assault, emotional and physical abuse, the unconditional love of pets, and the consequences of speaking truth to power.

This Has Always Been a War (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022) is also about the duality and complexity of our human existence. One can be enemy, stranger and lover all at once. We can be both strong and vulnerable. Fear and courage often ride side by side in Fox’s camper truck or beat up cars. Shame snuggles up to pride and perseverance is the shadow side of surrender.

At times laugh out loud, at times jaw-droppingly shocking, Fox writes about the hard things. They write about the things we think we shouldn’t say. “It’s because I won’t nod, smile, and keep my fucking mouth shut.”

The writing is compelling and gripping. Every essay flows like a draft beer from a fresh keg in one of the many restaurants Fox worked in during their seventeen years in the service industry.

You’ll find descriptions like:

“Her making excuses, dodging responsibility, calling down some folksy morality or looking to a fucking magical dead-ass zombie carpenter to fix the things she, herself, refused to fix.” When Fox disclosed a sexual assault by a family member to their mother.

“This novel, like its narrator, needs to take itself firmly by the shoulders and pull its head out of its own ass, because pay the fuck attention.” From Fox’s take on Sophie McIntosh’s novel, Blue Ticket.

“It was partly furnished, and in the nightstand there was a bottle of KY Jelly and a pair of edible underpants with a bite taken out of the crotch.” Describing one of the numerous apartments they’ve lived in.

 If you are uncomfortable with hearing about poverty, hunger and abuse, you should read this book. If words like cunt, dick and mother-fucking asshole make you squirm, buy this book and challenge yourself to walk a mile (or thirty thousand) in Fox’s shoes -worn out flats or a pair of boots with a knife tucked into the side.

Because what does Fox want readers to do? Open their minds. Ask questions. Never assume.

Fox takes responsibility for their choices but argues that some choices are not available to many. The book peels back layers on topics that have shaped Fox’s shapeshifting existence to reveal the raw and tender truth of their lived experience. Here are a few excerpts that stood out.

ON JUSTICE

“We are not paid fairly for the things we make, yet things can be denied us or taken from us if we cannot pay for them. If we refuse to obey the rules of the people who have those things, we will be punished. If we refuse to be punished, we will be imprisoned or killed.

We are told, when these things happen, that this is justice…Serve us or starve. Work or be evicted. Obey us or live in misery. What part of that sounds like a choice?”

From This Has Always Been A War

Lori Fox, Author of This Has Always Been A War, is also a LiisBeth contributor.

ON DUALITY

“I think about that photo [a young man in a leather jacket, clean cut, smiling warmly, leaning up against the side of a black-and-chrome Harley Davidson motorcycle] a lot, about how there’s no one story, no one straight narrative that can be told about a person, no matter how much we would like there to be. Everyone you know, including yourself, is a shapeshifter, some of us more so than others. No person is ever just one thing.”

From Every Little Act of Cruelty.

ON LUCK

“Only a small part of my survival can be attributed to my own choices and skills; something I learned while I lived out in the bush is that sometimes good things happen to you, and sometimes bad things happen to you, but mostly, things just happen to you. You can be the fittest, most cautious, most competent bushperson around and still get mauled by a bear or drown in a river for no goddamn reason at all other than it’s just something that happens. You can prepare and do your best to avoid bad situations, but the amount of power you have to control your fate is limited. The bush—and the wider world—is amoral and impartial to both your success and your suffering. Some people find that hard to stomach, but I find it tremendously comforting. Often, things just are.”

From This Has Always Been A War

In short, we need more books like this.

We need to read the stories of despair and suicide attempts and crippling depression. We need to share our own stories of resilience and courage and survival. Because, as Fox puts it: “If things are the way they are because this is the only system we have, then we need a new fucking system.”

“It’s a system of learned helplessness. And it doesn’t have to be that way”, they write.

While the rants and tangents are on point with some laugh out loud metaphors, some trimming back to pieces where a point has already been made might allow the prose to pack more of a punch than it already does.


We recommend buying a copy of Fox’s book from your local indie feminist bookstore or via the publisher here

Related Reading

Categories
Our Voices

FitIn’s Marathon to Investor Funding

An image of a white woman at a gym wearing a tshirt that reads "fit in".
Catherine Chan, founder, FitIn.io. Photo credit: Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real

The hashtags on FitIn founder Catherine Chan’s LinkedIn profile tell the story of the long hard road to investor funding: #breakthebias, #fundingforwomen, #economic inclusion. Her first foray into the school of hard knocks was at an investor boot camp. The male instructor insisted the stepping stone to investor money was raising money through family and friends first. “If your friends and your family aren’t willing to invest in you, investors consider it a red flag,” she said. Unfortunately, Chan didn’t know people with deep pockets like the male MBAs who tapped their old classmates and colleagues for cash. Although she was “fish-wife swearing” to herself about the injustice of it all, she found the experience invaluable. “I knew that my own money was going to have to last me a lot longer than everybody’s else’s.”

Despite the long hours devoted to FitIn and two external leadership-level roles, the 48-year-old founder and single parent looked surprisingly relaxed for a Friday afternoon. Appearing on Zoom in a leopard print top with chunky reading glasses resting casually on top of her head, her calmness spoke to the value proposition of her business. Chan had long suffered from depression and fitness changed her life. As she approached forty, she decided to train for a marathon. “By the end of it all, I was a whole new person,” she said. “The only thing that has ever given me peace is a workout. I wanted that for everybody else in the world.”

How Does FitIn Fit In?

FitIn is a shared economy platform connecting fitness and wellness providers with fitness and wellness enthusiasts who visit FitIn’s ‘marketplace’ where classes and events are aggregated. This one-stop shopping makes fitness and wellness more accessible, i.e., no more scouring the internet! Fit-preneurs (Chan’s name for her providers, typically independent personal trainers, wellness practitioners and smaller fitness studios) use FitIn to market their services and process customer payment at an affordable rate.

Screen shot of the Fitin.io website

Running the Investor Funding Marathon

Chan is reluctant to share negative experiences about what it’s like trying to raise funds as a female in a tech-enabled business without a male technical co-founder. She shared one story as an example. During her pitch to a group of angel investors, an older man told her: “There’s a David somewhere in that marble” and that she was “onto something.” But then asked the sort of question less often posed to male founders: “Aren’t you concerned that someone with more money is going to build the exact same thing as you but a lot faster and better?” She bit her tongue but wanted to say: “You know, you have the power to make that not happen.”

While Chan has not yet acquired venture capital or institutional funding, she did secure two angel investors at an Open People Network pitch event. And, a few friends and family are now investors too. Unfortunately, grants for her type of business are scarce. Chan said funders often think of fitness as just a fun thing people do on weekends. “They don’t get the impact it can have socially, and economically when you have a healthy population,” she said.

It should be just a matter of time before Chan raises the money needed to accelerate the growth of FitIn. After all, she has a unique offering. FitIn combines the best features of business unicorns Mindbody and ClassPass.com into one product. What’s more, FitIn is a social enterprise that supports—rather than exploits—gig economy workers. Chan plans to launch an affiliate shareholder program, which she said is “A virtuous cycle economy within the platform itself.”

Mentorship at the Heart of Success

Chan amassed skills for successful entrepreneurship even before realizing this was her dream. She obtained a graduate degree in classics in 1998 which has proved to be invaluable. Her degree integrated diverse disciplines from philosophy to politics to analyze the chain of events in a bygone era. “It’s that big picture mentality,” she said. This education also honed her presentation skills – key for pitching investors.

After graduation, Chan did reception and admin work before her upward trajectory began in sales and training at well-known corporations. Eventually, she grew weary of office politics and under-representation of woman at the top. After being let go from her last corporate role, she decided to pursue a business idea percolating for some time. She began searching ‘start-ups’ on Facebook.  Networking events at places like Startup TO and Startup Canada began to fill her feed. “I let the algorithm feed me all the information I needed,” she said. She immersed herself in the startup landscape like at that investor boot camp. FitIn was born.

Two years ago, Chan participated in Fifth Wave’s Connect Accelerator Program. Her mentor Val Fox was “absolutely amazing.” One piece of advice Fox offered was for Chan to seek freelance work rather than devote all her time and energy to FitIn. This has allowed Chan to keep a roof over her and her child’s head without the stress of cash flow, and grow FitIn on her own terms rather than accept funding with conditions that might be in opposition to her own feminist values.

Chan is paying the mentorship she received forward. “I don’t think I can ever pay back in my lifetime of helping people, but boy I’ll try,” she said. She was recently appointed as Entrepreneur in Residence at Fifth Wave, and also mentors women at Elizabeth Fry Society Toronto. Mentoring others has helped her grow as an entrepreneur. She recalled a saying about how people barely remember things told to them but remember things forever when they teach it to others.

The Funding Marathon Continues

FitIn is still in its early days. While most of her Fit-preneurs are in the GTA (where Chan lives) she has big plans.  “I would really love to create a virtual fitness tourism type of economy,” she said. This would involve getting fitness and wellness providers in rural communities onto her platform, giving them access to a wider audience.

“So, give me a million dollars and there is no way I am not expanding across Canada in a heartbeat, making sure we are supporting communities and accomplishing our mission of helping Canadians get healthier physically and mentally.”

If you would like to invest in FitIn, Catherine Chan can be contacted at catherine@canwcc.ca


Publishers Note: The FitIn is a part of the Fifth Wave, 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 ally and content sponsor at the Lighthouse level. Applications for Cohort 5 will open this summer.

Related Reading

She Scores!

Kristi Herold became CEO of one of North America’s largest sport and social clubs by targeting one goal: making sports accessible for everyone.

Read More »
Categories
Activism & Action Featured

Gaming for a Greener Future

Photo of asian woman in a blue puffer coat with spring cherry blossoms in the background
Jane Li, founder of Springbay Studios. Photo by Springbay Studios.

Jane Ji hopes for a better future.

In efforts to make her hope a reality, Ji works with an eco-focused mindset that includes educating young people through gamification. Her feminist enterprise, Springbay Studios, develops interactive children’s games and experiences that aim to engage kids with environmental science. The climate crisis belongs to everyone. But it’s the youth of today whose future is at stake. Ji’s goal is to empower young people to take action toward building a world where humans and nature live in harmony.

Where It All Began

Ji grew up in mainland China and when she entered the job market in the 1990s she found work with a Taiwanese gaming company that was hiring anyone with an engineering background.

It’s rare that a feminist biomedical engineer ends up in the gaming industry but that’s what happened to Jane Ji. Her first job in the video game industry was a programmer, writing code. Through experimenting with software development, Jane discovered her passion for digital storytelling and that video games were an ideal tool for learning.

“It was kind of an accident, but fortunate for me to find something I really love,” says Ji. “I think a lot of people who have an engineering or science background are also interested in art.”

Back then, Ji was chosen for the job because of her skills and qualifications, not her gender. She remembers the fairness of not being judged as a female in a male-dominated industry and went on to use the same equal opportunity hiring practices years later within her own enterprise.

Ji became the lead game designer at the company and worked on a game that was based on the classic Chinese novel and love story, Dream of the Red Chamber. Being the lead gave her the opportunity to design with a feminist lens where she fostered a collaborative and inclusive environment with the other programmers and artists. She worked with another female engineer who led the software design and they were the only female-led team within the company. While the men focused on traditional time-based strategy games, Ji took a new approach to gameplay  that included simulation plus role play about emotion.

However, the gaming industry faced many challenges in China. Software piracy and illegal licensing was a big problem in this country. Ji couldn’t see a future in her home country as a game developer and decided to immigrate to Canada in 2000.

The Path to Springbay

Her sister Grace was already in Toronto so Ontario was the obvious choice. Once Ji was settled, she sought out work at companies which were making games that aligned with her feminist mindset and values of learning and caring for others. She attended conferences like the Game Developers Conference to network and meet people in the gaming industry. Ji worked as a freelance consultant before co-founding Springbay Studio in the early 2000s with her business partner—also her sister—who had a degree in computer science as well as managerial experience.  

Springbay’s original tagline was: Create Fun Gameplay From a Feminine Perspective.

Original Springbay business card. Photo provided.

This perspective was – and is – how Ji sees the world. Her perspective includes nurturing and supporting people and preservation of the natural environment in which we live. Springbay projects reflect and promote the creators’ feminist values of equality and inclusion. They benefit women, men and youth, because players come in many shapes and sizes.  

Springbay’s early projects included games like the Living Garden at a time when Facebook games were gaining popularity. The game reflected feminist values “I always think, when we play something, I hope that we learn something,” Ji says.

Another early Springbay project was inspired by the book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. The game, Mark and Mandi’s Love Story was distributed by Big Fish Games and is still available for purchase. Ji worked with a team of artists, programmers and developers to create the game. Ji enjoyed the challenge of using game design to present the different ways that men and women view certain subjects in a fun and lighthearted way.

New Perspectives, Bigger Impact

After Ji had children—who are now both young adults who have attended university—she was motivated to create more meaningful gaming experiences that had a bigger impact. She had always been aware of climate issues but her research was an eye opener and as a mother felt a responsibility to take action to care for the future, for her kids. “We are biological creatures. If this biosphere is messed up, we do not get a chance.”

When Springbay looked at who their audience was and the content they were building, it became clear they should start with children. Screen time is an ongoing issue for young people growing up in today’s digital work and Ji is well aware of the pros and cons of what online learning can offer. “If we are developing a game, we’re not going to glue them to the screen, because this is not how you are going to build a foundation,” she says.

Springbay’s mission is to use gamification as a way to encourage young people to learn about and take action toward sustainable lifestyles. The innovative products are on a scalable, gamified platform for global educators to inspire greenhouse gas emission reductions.

The beauty and benefit of gamification is that it provides the feeling that you are playing a video game, but it’s not truly a game. Players are earning badges and points in a structured way that involves user interaction. The iBiome-Wetland game and app and the iBiome-Ocean school editions offer resources for students to build and explore natural habitats in virtual settings. The blend of virtual learning with real life field trips is a winning combination in that nature doesn’t necessarily guarantee results such as spotting a specific type of wildlife. But you can count on the online version to deliver. Educators have told Ji how the gaming components keep students engaged and complement their teaching units on the ecosystem and natural habitats.

Springbay’s recent endeavour is the League for Green Leaders.

Springbay Studios video that features youth talking about their experience with the games.

The goal of the League for Green Leaders is to give young people an opportunity to build a virtual ecosystem where they can learn about biodiversity. Including ‘leaders’ in the name was a deliberate choice says Ji: “We’re trying to make our children become the leaders rather than be the sufferers for the eco side.”

It’s Not Easy Being Green

What’s missing? What would help?

In addition to building sustainable lifestyles, sustainable funding is what Springbay needs develop their learning products. Ji says that guaranteed monthly income from donations or ongoing matching funds from accelerator or government programs would be a step in the right direction. 

But funding is hard to come by. Some days are more discouraging than others. In some cases, it has come down to a matter of semantics where Springbay has been excluded from government funding because they don’t meet the criteria requirements of ‘clean technology’. The term ‘clean technology’ is limited to tech such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars. Ji isn’t arguing that these sectors aren’t important but insists that environmental education needs to be part of the equation if we are going to limit global warming in the near future

Still, she has hope.

“Our games are not all gloom and doom,” says Ji. “I think people are trying different ways to convince people that if we work together, there is hope. We cannot change this by ourselves.” 

If people think that the younger generation aren’t mature enough to tackle these complex issues we need only look to examples such as Greta Thunberg, the origin of Earth Day or the success that Springbay has seen.

My fourth graders really enjoyed tracking their CO2 footprint by participating in the League for Green Leaders Pilot Program.”  – Lynne Caffee, Pennsylvania, USA

“This smartly designed environmental sim lets kids explore three wetland habitats. By drawing connections between different species and creating a web, kids learn about producers and consumers, and about predator/prey relationships.” Common Sense Education, Best Learning Apps

“See what happens when you add extra of one species to your biome. Students will see right away how species depend on one another and how easy it is for an ecosystem to get off-balance.” American Association of School Librarians, Best Teaching and Learning App

 


Publishers Note: Springbay Studios is part of the Fifth Wave  Initiative, 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 minimum of 50% participation per cohort by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth ally sponsor at the Lighthouse levelApplications for Cohort 5 are open. Apply here

Related Reading

This Woman Rocks

A mining company tried to force Sabrina Dias out. Rather than leave the sector, she set up her own shop, determined to help a laggard industry have a more sustainable future.

Read More »
Categories
Our Voices

RADICAL IS BEAUTIFUL

A beige collage that has text that reads "Every morning I wake up on the wrong side of capitalism" as graphiti text, and a Banksy image of a bar code on a cart pulled by a white tiger"
Banksy "Barcode Tiger" mashup collage--pk mutch

My entrepreneurship journey started as a teenager. I signed up for a local entrepreneurship education program where high school students could run a business with the help of business leaders from around the region. Turns out I was good at it… REALLY good at it. Several awards, scholarships and two national conferences later, I found myself at a crossroads. Should I study commerce in university? Yes and no – I have a Bachelor of Science in Language Honours degree. All is not lost.

After completing a post-graduate certificate in Human Resource Management, I went on to spend a decade working in HR for some of the world’s most recognizable brands. My interest in entrepreneurship never faded as I began to see how large businesses failed to honour human beings as mission critical to the success of any organization.

I began to wonder about what it is to run a business. I began to question what a business actually is versus commerce (The exchange of goods & services for money). The years I spent in the dank depths of capitalist endeavours made me realize I never want to be a part of such a venture – a venture where systemic oppression (namely capitalism & white supremacy) reigns supreme.  

I had the distinct opportunity to experience innumerable instances of anti-Black racism in my career. No matter how much work I accomplished, intellectual property I produced or technology I mastered faster than others, I was still a Black woman seen as slow, lazy and a threat to the established order. 

I also began to wonder about commerce… and how my enterprises can be commerce. As I worked to bring my own enterprises to life, I happened upon the concept of radical entrepreneurship. (Holla!)

Many books, journals and conversations later, I decided to define what radical entrepreneurship meant for me as a Black woman and a person of the global majority. Radical entrepreneurship happens when you start an enterprise that transcends racism, capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy.  

It’s a return to commerce: the exchange of goods & services for money.  It’s treating people as equals, with respect, paying a thrive rate wage AND distributing wealth, educational opportunities, upward mobility influence and sharing connections (money is not the only kind of wealth), ensuring health, wellness, and not working people 16 hours a day (which people did). In short, commerce as community – a spiritual and activist endeavour undertaken to enjoy the process of work; trading (We love working at something as humans) while lifting up others in the process.

Radical entrepreneurship is having the courage to step outside societal norms to run your enterprise as you see fit. There are elements you will definitely need like good recordkeeping and an accounting/bookkeeping practice. However, the radical part means your enterprise is contributing to eradicating social injustice.

Capitalist business education will tell you that your business’s sole goal is to earn money for investors and to place profits over people. Radical entrepreneurship values people, their contributions and their livelihoods. 

Yet, I’m still a Black woman with light-skinned privilege in this dominant culture – a culture where awareness of anti-Black racism is now in the limelight and still somewhat of a trending hashtag.  Corporations are taking advantage of this golden-hued PR opportunity to allocate a teeny fraction of their sizable quarterly profits to Black entrepreneurship initiatives. Let’s not forget the countless mentorship opportunities that ultimately don’t cost anything but look good on paper.

The Black community is not a monolith but is widely perceived as one. I constantly see Black entrepreneurs who are regarded as (air quotes) successful by white capitalist standards put on display to say “Hey, we’re not racist… look at this cishet, neurotypical, able-bodied Black person who is now a millionaire.” 

To put it simply, not all skinfolk are kinfolk. 

Huge barriers to funding opportunities continue to exist within the Black diaspora.  There’s a significant divide and significant conservatism in the diaspora. Cishet neurotypical, able-bodied Black people who are willing to accept the crumbs of capitalism may indeed be successful in obtaining a few loonies but it’ll be nowhere near the resources available to their white counterparts.

Studies have been done about the hardships that Black female entrepreneurs face. The proposed solutions are literally steeped in capitalism & white supremacy. Black venture capitalists are still capitalists.  We also haven’t talked about the extraneous hoops Black women entrepreneurs have to go through to access the few funds (e.g. Being asked about your sexual orientation on a loan application which, last I checked, is a human rights issue) and even then no one seems to trust Black women with a significant amount of money…there are hair & nails to be done after all.

In navigating this world, I find myself having to explain myself constantly. I have an Honours Bachelor of Science in Language. I’m fluently bilingual in Canada’s official languages. I have worked in global head offices for some of the world’s most recognizable brands. Mastering new technologies is easy for me.  But all people see is Black… and immediately assume I’m not qualified enough, not skilled enough, not professional enough…the list goes on.  

Professionalism – for the record – is deeply rooted in white supremacy.

My mere existence is resistance in and of itself. When those days come where I wonder if my enterprises will actually thrive despite the seemingly insurmountable barriers that line my way forward, I have to remind myself that being a Black radical entrepreneur is more than a radical act. By choosing commerce over capitalism & white supremacy, I’m now actively creating change. I’m learning by doing. I’m gathering more knowledge and insight every day.

Dominant culture can keep their crumbs of capitalism. I won’t scale my enterprises in 3 months or less. I don’t exist to make money for those who’ll remove it from the economy at large and hoard it for their own purposes. I won’t pander to those who choose not to see my worth or genius in favour of my skin colour.  

Radical entrepreneurship is going to be the way forward for this Black entrepreneur. 

Related Reading

A Black woman wearing a red scarf entrepreneur gazing outside a window.

I Have a Seed

Althea Branton was interviewed by an intake manager at a startup accelerator. Shaken, she took her rage to the page.

Read More »
Paul Taylor, Executive Director of FoodShare at WE.Gordon Neighbourhood House Director Paul Taylor in one of their gardens, Salad maker ?? speaking with passersby, Exterior shot of the the building.

A Recipe for Justice

How one organization radically stirred up conventional business practices to heal communities — and flourish in difficult times.

Read More »