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Allied Arts & Media

StrikeUp’s Uppers and Downers

Katie Chappell, UK Entrepreneur

I’m a UK illustrator and I draw pictures for conferences and events to make the boring stuff more interesting and accessible. 

In the olden days (pre-pandemic), I got to travel around the UK and Europe to draw at events. Alas, for the past year, I’ve been drawing virtually from my studio in the rural windy North-east coast of England and was thrilled to be invited along to illustrate and write about StrikeUp 2021 Digital Conference for Women Entrepreneurs. Usually held in Canada, this year it was 100% online, and therefore global and accessible. Hooray for COVID! Silver linings an’ all that. AF means ‘as fuck’, but if you don’t know what it means probably other people will also be confused so I’ve removed it.

The event overall had a slick, interactive online environment, and a diverse range of speakers: The Hon. Mary Ng (Canadian minister of small business), Manjit Minhas (from Dragons’ Den), Melissa Davis (President & Brand Architect of Ugly Dukling), Dr. Shimi Kang (Author of The Tech Solution), and Elana Ben-Ari (toy designer turned social entrepreneur) to name but a few. 

StrikeUP Conference opening, March 4 2021
StrikeUP Conference opening, March 4 2021

The conference began with an acknowledgment of territory – something I’d only seen from Australian course creators, but I was so excited to see here. Claudette Commanda acknowledged Canada’s Indigenous land (that colonial settlers *cough* Brits *cough* took from First Nations) and looked to the promise women entrepreneurs hold for our global economic recovery. We are leading the financial recovery. Yes, we bloody are! *punches the air*. Mmm. A bit of female entrepreneur pride palette cleanser to cancel out the ancestral colonial guilt?

Immediately, I was blown away by the accessibility of the event. Not only were there closed captions (a rarity in UK/US online events, in my experience) but also a sign language interpreter! It made me pause – is the UK just completely and utterly behind the times? We’re over here banging on about accessibility but, in reality, we are miles and miles behind. We have so much work to do.

Anyway, after a rich cultured introduction, the first speaker, Manjit Minhas, started the conference off with a bang. The co-founder of Minhas Breweries and Distillery and one of the dragons on CBC’S Dragons’ Den spoke energetically about how she and her brother created a small craft brewery they grew to include several companies with revenues over $100 million.

The bits that stood out for me were Manjit’s incredible strategies for pitching:

1 Who are you?

2 What are you selling?

3 When are you selling it? 

4 Where does your business take place?

5 Why does your business exist?

I also admired her attitude toward negotiation. 

Dream bigger! 

Ask for more. “You get what you negotiate!” 

I was feeling inspired by her talk and buoyed by the discussions, until somebody asked Manjit, “How do you stay confident?” and she responded.

While I can’t bear to remember the advice word-for-word, it boiled down to this: looking good = feeling good. Take pride in your appearance! Eat healthily. Dress well.

My face dropped. You wot, mate?

Um…forgive my ignorance but I was over here thinking that confidence came from pride in your work. Doing a good job. Feeling like you are making a difference in the world. Not picking out a good outfit and eating carrot sticks! URGH. 

My experience as a teenager dealing with an eating disorder gave me first-hand evidence that closely linking self-worth to appearance is a Bad Idea. A first-class ticket to crazy-town. A lose-lose scenario. “STOPPPP” I wanted to yell into the event’s fast-flowing chatbox. “IT’S NOT TRUEEEE.”

If, as female entrepreneurs, we are reduced to looking good = feeling good then ewww, no thank you. I don’t want any part in it. I’ll be over here being visually unappealing, yet confident in my abilities, thank you very much. Pass me another cookie. Have I got crumbs on my dungarees? Oh well. #sorrynotsorry

Ok, rant over. Moving on to the rest of the sessions, there was a wonderful pick-your-own adventure feel to the whole thing. 

The menu of tasty entrepreneurial snacks on offer:

Real-Time Strategies for Business Success: A Conversation with Women Leaders

  • Wellness, Connection & Adaptability Solutions for Times of Challenge
  • Become the Only Logical Choice (French Only)
  • Women at the Forefront: Women Entrepreneurship Fund + Economic Recovery
  • Fireside Chat With Hon. Mary Ng (Canada’s Minister of Small Business)
  • Relentless Adaptation

I opted for ‘How To Grow’ with Sarah Stockdale. Here’s an abbreviated blurb: “You’re a founder or exec planning out your growth strategy (and) probably feeling uneasy about how to find, prioritize, and plan for growth… we’ll… dig into how to build your strategy and set your team up for success.” Or, as Sarah says it: “Founders ask me all the time when they should hire their first growth marketer, and I look at them and say, it’s you.” 

Sarah is the founder of Growclass, “…an intensive marketing course to help level up as a professional in an inclusive, friendly learning environment.”

If I had to sum up the whole session in one sentence it would be this: Find out what is working well and do more of that. 

Obvious, but golden. 

I really enjoyed Sarah’s infectious optimism around homing (honing!? Never know which one is correct) on what’s going well in your business. It made me think about which bits of my business that are currently working. 

“Look for what is currently working in your business, and supercharge that,” says Sarah.

Yeees, you’re speaking my language, Sarah Stockdale!

I’m all about that: “Improve the good, outsource the bad.” Over here in the UK, business curriculum is obsessed with getting you to improve the things you’re naturally terrible at. I never understood this. The main thing about being an entrepreneur that I love is that business asks, what are you good at? Do more of that! What do you absolutely suck at? STOP. Hire somebody else to help you, or take it entirely off your hands.

After a break for a late lunch – with actual crumbs on my dungarees now – I tuned in for “Women at the Forefront: Women Entrepreneurship Fund + Economic Recovery.”

I was surprised/shocked/astonished (I never know which word is appropriate) to learn that in Canada, only 16% of small and medium-sized businesses are owned by women. The Canadian government, however, is investing $5 billion to double the number of women-owned businesses by 2025. Yaaas.

In the UK, 29% of SMEs are owned by women. I’m one of them, and I can confirm that not having a gross man-boss is 100% worth the scary tax stuff, the patronising financial advisors, and the occasional waves of self-doubt.

Get that Canadian Government Women Entrepreneurship Fund dollaaaaar.

At the end of the day, I closed my laptop feeling inspired, if slightly Zoom-fatigued. 

I know it’s a long flight, but can we meet up in person next time?

THis is a graphic recording of things talked about at the March 4th StrikeUp conference
StrikeUP Conference Graphic Recording by Katie Chappell

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Allied Arts & Media

Buddies for Life

Photo of woman drying dog's hair
Stella and Jada. Photo by Jack Jackson, Toronto

In the lead up to International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31st, we asked Toronto photographer Jack Jackson to talk about the inspiration behind the newly launched Don’t You Want Me Rescue Grant, which provides a queer or trans person with the means to adopt a rescue dog.

Jack answered, by sharing stories of some of the folks who inspired the Don’t You Want Me photography Project and Grant, including his own.

Picture of trans man
Eli. Photo by Jack Jackson, Toronto

Eli is a trans-masculine person who is most comfortable in the liminal space between “F” and “M”: “I acknowledge that life is really hard AND really wondrous, and I believe the more that we can fearlessly be honest about our struggles and come together as loving supportive chose family and community, the more ‘life preservers’ we will ALL have to share. I can’t own a dog right now because I’m living a life that has weird hours and a low paying job that I believe, is in part, connected to my queer and transness. I wish I could.”

IMage of man and dog
Pam and Storm. Photo by Jack Jackson, Toronto

Pam and Storm: “The love of a dog who is terrified of everything is one of the most special and gratifying bonds imaginable. We are constantly helping each other grow and push past our hardships.”

Person with a dog
Nic and Chuck. Photo by Jack Jackson

Nic and Chuck, Non Binary, Kichwa Otavalo: “It’s funny how we transform ourselves to survive. Chuck, being from Australia, grew more fur to survive our winters; me, I grew more self awareness. I found where I needed to be in life. Chuck is my constant reminder of the power of resilience and of giving ourselves second or sometimes third or fourth chances.”

Man with his dog
Finch and Freya. Photo by Deb Klein

Finch and Freya: “On days that I’m really struggling, she can still make me happy or proud or laugh or less alone. And when she’s anxious I can reassure her that the world is scary but she can do it because she has before and will again and just saying that out loud sometimes is a good reminder to me.”

Reuben and Luna. Photo by Deb Klein

Reuben and Luna: “Going from being so scared to be left alone, not having a name or knowing how to walk on a lead to being her happy, balanced, wonderful self has been nothing short of a joy to behold. Taking a lead in her rehabilitation gave me the purpose and connection I was craving.”

Photo of woman drying dog's hair
Stella and Jada. Photo by Jack Jackson, Toronto

Stella and Jada, Pansexual Femme: “Growing up there had always been a dog by my side. I moved away from home at 18 and not only lost my best friend but also myself. I struggled for years with depression and mania, not being diagnosed with bi-polar until my early 30’s. I felt extremely lonely and always the outsider…. Baby Jada’s huge now. She’s also been a huge factor in me getting clean and sober. She has turned my life around and I will never be able to thank her enough.”

Picture of man and a dog
William and Bella. Photo by Jack Jackson

William and Bella, Man of trans experience: “She saved me, I know it’s meant to be the other way round, but without a doubt, she saved me. The 3 best decisions I’ve made in my life are transition, sobriety and Bella.”

Picture of man with his dog
Jack and Jet Jackson. Photo by Max Lander

The Project was in part borne out of my own experience of coming out as trans in a new country. I was in a relatively ‘good’ position compared to many trans people, yet it was still the most traumatic and isolating period of my life, far more so than a pandemic. My story isn’t unique. I moved from a small conservative island to a more liberal progressive city but, with that distance, you often lose all sorts of safety nets. I lost almost everything during my transition. And then came Jet.

On paper I was in no position to get a dog. I really had nothing other than crippling anxiety and a roof over my head for the next six months. But Jet changed everything. Because that’s what happens when people have something to love, something to nurture, something to fight for. She was the start of a business, photography work that I love, a completely new life and a new family. Without a doubt, she saved my life.

Some people think the name of the Project is sad, but the Project was always meant to not only provoke dialogue about the effects of discrimination to a mainstream audience, but also to be an absolute celebration, to show how, against all the odds our participants have triumphed. What we should be sad about, however, is the people that were not able to take part in the Project as they are no longer with us. Trans people are an absolute gift to the world; their experience and insight are an invaluable contribution to the advancement of equality for all.

Statistics on Trans People in Canada


of trans adults have considered suicide


of trans adults have attempted suicide at some point in their lives


of Canada’s homeless youth identify as LGBTQ


of trans Canadian earn less than $15,000 a year


of the queer and trans community reported significant impacts on their mental health due to the pandemic compared 30% of non queer/trans people

LGBTQ people may experience intersecting forms of discrimination- such as racism, sexism, o r poverty alongside homophobia or transphobia that negatively impact their mental health.

Publishers Note:  We must do more to support the trans community. Please consider a donation to the Don’t You Want Me campaign here and learn more about the fight for trans rights organizations here. 

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Allied Arts & Media Featured

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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