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The Feminist Recovery Strategy

Dee Brooks, founder of Accelerate by Design and Pandemic Study participant
Dee Brooks , founder of Accelerated by Design, says "It is all one complex, interconnected mess.”

As Dee Brooks (she/her) prepared to launch a consulting business, she was understandably excited. She had worked more than a year to develop a market strategy for her company, Accelerated By Design. Aimed at corporate and not-for-profit clients, her firm would commercialize years of academic research into collaborative future-making through dialogue.

By February, 2020, Brooks had assembled a team of four, including herself, and expected to hire more staff. She had rented a space in Toronto’s downtown core, designing it as an immersive digital media experience for clients. She had sold tickets to a launch event. Revenue was trickling in. Future-making looked bright.

Then, the pandemic ruined everything.

“It was an utter catastrophe,” said Brooks. “We were in the middle of going to market with a new offering, something we thought was super innovative. That strategy was destroyed, the market changed, and we lost access to child care for six months.”

Brooks let her team go and refunded the ticket buyers. As she watched her big dream drip away, she grieved. “It was indescribably difficult. For me, this was my baby. It was the culmination of years of effort.

“Not all that work was lost, but a large portion of it was,” she said in a recent Zoom interview from her home office.

Brooks planned to offer a blended in-person and digital collaboration experience for her clients. But now, she has switched gears to go fully digital — which she had anticipated doing — but the pandemic fast-forwarded everything.

Digital-only delivery is a different ball game. Accelerated By Design will no longer be differentiated by its in-person experience. But the switch also means the   can serve a global audience, rather than a regional one.

Brook’s story is emblematic. A recent study — The Pandemic Effect: Exploring COVID-19’s Impact on Women/Womxn-led Digital Media Businesses in Ontario — chronicles the challenges Brooks and her contemporaries face through disruption and recovery.

The Pandemic Effect

The research collective,  Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab (CFC Media Lab), OCAD University and Nordicity, funded by Ontario Creates Business Improvement Program, surveyed 28 women/womxn-led digital businesses in Ontario over five months in 2020. They gathered quantitative data through a survey and qualitative insights through a series of interactive workshops. The study report was released today.

The Pandemic Effect drew participants primarily (though not exclusively) from existing networks established by the CFC Media Lab’s Fifth Wave Initiative, Canada’s first and only feminist accelerator program. These businesses value purpose as much as they do profit, according to Nataly De Monte (she/her), managing director of Fifth Wave.

“Women in this space had a feminist perspective at the start,” said De Monte. “They’re already thinking about business in a regenerative sense, rather than an extractive one. And we wanted to know how feminist business practices could be applied to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.” 

Below is a ranking of the top impacts from the time of the survey data and the respondent’s 3-year future projections if COVID-19 was to continue. Impacts coming down in priority might be a sign of others taking priority - or - may indicate that the companies expect to have already dealt sufficiently with it within the 3-year window.
Above is a ranking of the top impacts from the time of the survey data and the respondent’s three year future projections if COVID-19 was to continue. Impacts coming down in priority might be a sign of others taking priority - or - may indicate that the companies expect to have already dealt sufficiently with it within the three year window.

“That larger adaptation is the growing pain,” for digital media, De Monte explained. “It is not that they have to learn technology and become tech savvy. These businesses are already there. It is about how they adapt to the new and changing ways of the current context.”

The Hits and the Misses

One might assume digital media companies would be well positioned to respond to an increasingly tech-focused economy. In fact, the survey showed that only 21 per cent had seen sales or personnel grow during the first six months of pandemic. About 50 per cent reported being fine for now. Another 18 per cent said they would survive but may have to lay off people, and 11 percent indicated they were in dire straits and may go bankrupt.

The pandemic also affected productivity—about 21 per cent reported they were more productive than usual during shutdowns, 61 per cent were operating at a slower pace and seven per cent had stopped working entirely.

The survey and workshops used a strategic foresight model to examine the trends and drivers behind deep social change, asking respondents to evaluate the issues affecting them both now as well as three years into the future.

Increased stress and focus on mental health was the top concern among respondents, both now and in the future.

The purpose is to show the 22 drivers and trends the participants came up with
Pandemic Effect Study, Page 19. This is a snapshot of the trend/driver board created in Miro from the first workshop. These are the top 22 trends/drivers noted from the survey, as well as 8 new trends created by the workshop participants.

That is no surprise to Brooks, who said her mental-health challenges are far from over. As a new business, Accelerated By Design is not eligible for most government support programs, which are based on past revenue. She is still hoping to be eligible for rent subsidies.

Having her younger child back in daycare since September has freed up some hours for Brooks, who is working from home alongside her partner. But now she is a team of one at her company, strategizing her business recovery in isolation. Having paying clients is still in the future.

Little wonder that burnout emerged as a key theme in workshops. Suzanne Stein (she/her), director of OCAD’s Super Ordinary Lab, which helped execute the online events, said that participants “moved into an ideological realm” when discussing stress.

“We were starting to see participants questioning how the economy works. They were starting to say: ‘Wait. Why are we working in an industrial revolution model, which is distractive and harmful?’”

The Feminist Future

That feminist questioning can prove tactical. The study report describes specific strategies that digital media companies expect to use in the coming years. Among the ideas:

  • valuing emotional labour
  • developing healthy remote work cultures
  • using virtual reality to host events
  • being more flexible about where and when to work
  • encouraging local economies
  • baking intrapreneurship into business practices
  • creating more and different partnership models

The conversation among digital entrepreneurs kept coming back to partnerships, community and collaboration, said Stein. Companies that act like they are part of an ecosystem will survive the coming years. Entities that were once competitors  see themselves as potential partners.

Fifth Wave workshop for women in digital media on the feminist business model canvas, March, 2020.

Stein pointed out that it is hard for individual companies “to mobilize that kind of impact on their own. The next wave of innovation is not going to be about any individual or company, it is going to be about collaboration.”

Heeding that advice will help companies cope with future disruptions, Brooks suggested. “Maybe the pandemic is the first of a series of shocks… One thing that concerns me is that people are thinking: What are we going to do about the next pandemic? But climate change will present the next problem.”

The Pandemic Effect survey is repeatable, said Julie Whelan (she/her), associate director of Nordicity, a consultancy that designed and analyzed the survey. It could be used to gather information about other disruptions in other sectors and regions. It also includes a set of take-home worksheets participants can use as a thinking tool for planning for future disruptions.

“At the start of the pandemic, we were thinking the shocks or impacts of COVID would be intense but temporary,” said Whelan. “But, of course, what we have seen is that the experience is ongoing. So, there’s a chance to rethink how we operate and how we support businesses, maybe using some of the strategies identified (in the report) to build resilience for future shocks, which are undoubtedly around the corner.”

Despite that uncertainty, Brooks said she is optimistic about the future. While diversity and inclusion have always been a foundational concern for her and her team, she is finding that potential clients are now more interested in that conversation.

“We have this tendency to think that we can separate things out. But you have got to talk about it all at once. As horrible as it is, it is unclear that George Floyd would have been the catalyst that he was if it were not for the pandemic. And it pressured the pandemic. So, I am not so sure we can treat them separately. It is all one complex, interconnected mess.”

An intersectional feminist approach takes into account cultural complexity, which makes it a useful framework for pandemic recovery planning in any sector. But operational changes cannot be stopgap measures, Stein emphasized.

“In some ways with the survey, we were left with a bit of a cliffhanger. The implications of the pandemic are still running forward. What is important now is to keep moving,” she said. “We have to keep the momentum of some of the thinking. We have to keep the dedication to working together.”

To download the study, click here. 

Publishers Note: Fifth Wave Labs is Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media. It 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 social justice 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 and ally. Interested? Apply here.

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Our Voices

Sticking it to Sexism in Gaming

Sasha Boersma, Co-Founder, Sticky Brains Studios

Sasha Boersma grew up playing video games.

Both her parents played. Her mother was especially interested in ones based on stories and puzzles, recently testing out one that Boersma is developing. Boersma was a fan of games made by Sierra Entertainment, a woman-owned and led company co-founded by Roberta Williams.

So, she never understood the perception that women don’t enjoy video games. She co-founded her own company, Sticky Brain Studios, in 2013. But a year later, the GamerGate controversy exploded and Boersma saw indie women game developers and critics horribly harassed online, some even leaving the sector because of it.

That’s when Boersma determined that video games are not the problem—the toxic masculinity within the community is. She recognized a lot of things needed to change—and that she could lead that change, making the digital content company she founded with colleague Ted Brunt a feminist antidote to an often sexist industry.

Building a diverse team

The cofounders met while working together at Marble Media in 2008, Boersma in business affairs and Brunt in content strategy. Both were helping create interactive digital content for TV with a strong focus on kids. While each of them ended up leaving Marble for their own reasons, around 2012 they found themselves getting hired onto the same projects as freelancers, with Boersma in business development and funding, and Brunt in content strategy and development.

They soon realized they had complementary skill sets to run their own studio and combined their 30 years of experience to start Sticky Brain, focusing on creating family-friendly digital content primarily for young Canadians.

Having worked together before helped the partners hit the ground running. Neither wanted a hierarchical structure for their organization, a primary reason they decided to employ people on a freelance and contract basis. It has freed them from having to manage a full-time staff and given them flexibility to work from home and on their own time. As a result, Boersma, who is neurodiverse, and Brunt, who is an active dad, are able to plan their days in the way that works best for them.

That strategy has also enabled them to work with a wide range of people, including other stay-at-home dads. Says Boersma: “In the digital and tech sector in a heterosexual relationship, the women take the year off and have a kid but, often, they’re highly educated and they want to get back to work. And then the dads are like, ‘I want my time with my kid.’”

Boersma and Brunt both knew a slate of stay-at-home dads eager to work around their kids’ daycare and nap times. “It’s funny,” Boersma adds, “because sometimes we think about feminist business practices as all about supporting women with kids. But I think of the fact that we can support dads’ engagement with kids, in a way that supports women too … to me it’s about supporting what a family unit needs.”

Cutie Pugs: Games for a Preschool Television Series

Working with a diverse group of people has also helped Sticky Brain create diverse digital content, including the award-winning Bath Time and Peekaboo Pugs video games for kids based on the Cutie Pugs live-action TV series; and The Restricted Adventures of Raja, a digital graphic novel and game created for RedRover, a US charity that helps animals rescued from disasters or neglect as well as animals with life-threatening illnesses. The aim of the Raja project is to teach children aged 7-11 empathy for animals and how caring for them will mean fewer animals suffering in shelters.  

Most recently, Sticky Brain launched Kimono, an app that enables users to design kimonos and dress up kimono dolls—while they learn about Asian culture and the role clothing plays. Created by a team of Southeast Asian developers, Kimono is the brainchild of Sticky Brains artist and animator Connie Choi.

Creating feminist content  

When taking on projects, Boersma says the Sticky Brain team considers two things: is the content is family friendly; and does the organization employing Sticky Brain want to work collaboratively? “Are the clients our partners? Are they wanting to be engaged? We’ve worked with a number of small independent studios in Toronto who love working with us because they enjoy the fact that we’re collaborative. We don’t just take the idea and go away and say, ‘Here’s the final thing, approve it.”

Cheesy is seeking to visit the 7 Wonders of the World!

Sticky Brain is currently collaborating with Bloom Digital, a Toronto-based feminist narrative gaming company led by independent game designer Miriam Verburg. Their first game, LongStory, is an LGBTQ+ friendly dating sim (think simulation) designed to foster stronger relationships and inclusivity. Sticky Brain is also turning LongStory into a web series about queer teenagers that Boersma hopes will encourage conversations about different gender identities and sexualities amongst teenagers and the gaming industry as a whole.

Brunt sees such projects as a way to tell and share stories that mainstream gaming companies don’t. “We love doing work that we think supports positive change in the world and that helps people who are underserved. Those are the things that are not necessarily financially hugely rewarding because that’s how pop culture works. But that’s okay with us because we’re fine making a reasonable living by making good things.” He adds that building diverse creative teams has, over the years, “brought certain people together who seem to make something greater than their individual skills.”

Implementing feminist business practices

This summer, Boersma participated in Fifth Wave Labs, Canada’s first feminist accelerator for women in digital media. Created by the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) Media Lab, the program helps accelerate and sustain the growth of women-owned and led enterprises in southern Ontario’s digital media sector.

Boersma says interacting with other feminist entrepreneurs prompted her to think through critical questions: Can a profit-seeking business be considered feminist? What does it mean to give back to the community?

For Boersma, the answer to the first question is “yes”—if the vision and mission of the company is feminist. For her, a feminist business must uphold certain ethical values—paying its employees properly, minimizing impact on the environment.

“There’s a whole lot of movement around people to be like, ‘No, we’re going to shake up how we do business and how we participate in the economy,’ and I find it all really fascinating. So, I’d like to have the label of “feminist business practices” for what we’re doing. And I like that there’s other companies that are trying to do this as well.”

In an industry that is ripe with toxic masculinity patriarchal practices, Boersma says that changing the industry also requires upending institutions, beginning with digital funds and investors. “For a lot of us who are women or femme identifying, when we’re trying to get the funding, it feels like it’s much harder.”

Boersma recently applied for funding for a project with two Black Canadian filmmakers, telling the stories of enslaved African Canadians through virtual reality. The feedback she received for the proposal? Women don’t enjoy VR games.

“We have to work extra hard to show that there is a potential audience for what we’re doing because people see this work as niche,” says Boersma. “And yet study after study shows that 50 per cent of gamers are women.”

But she is not deterred. She believes the only way to change things in the industry is to stay in the industry.  

“I think in video games in Canada, we have an opportunity to grab all these stories and experiences that are not currently being told by the mainstream gaming industry and create them to serve specific audiences.”

Publishers Note:  Sticky Brains Studios 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. Apply here today.

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