Categories
Feminist Practices

A More Accessible Future

A mature indigenous woman with blond hair smiles over her shoulder. She is wearing large hoop earrings and a lavender blouse
Brooke Wobodistch, president of Closed Caption Services. Photo provided.

Imagine this: It’s May 2020. You are in the middle of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders caused by the novel coronavirus. There is no vaccine yet, and much of your life is online — especially on Zoom. 

In one such Zoom meeting, you start seeing what speakers are saying appear at the bottom of the screen. They’re being typed by one of the participants in the call in real-time.

The text you are seeing is called a closed caption. Closed captions aren’t always typed out by volunteers. Sometimes it’s automatically generated and sometimes it’s done by artificial intelligence (AI), but the accuracy of such services vary. For real-time transcription, ideally these captions are created by employees of companies that provide closed captioning — companies like Closed Caption Services (CCS). 

CCS is a Canadian family-owned business whose mission, according to its president Brooke Woboditsch, is “to build better accessibility in media.”  

This mission has gained momentum over the past year and a half as around the world, organizations and communications have moved online during the global pandemic.

Says Woboditsch: “By the time fall 2020 came around, I would say we must’ve had over 30 new clients in those last six months … There was a massive rush for people to put their businesses online — especially a lot of businesses where there’s multimedia content [like] film festivals, educational institutions, artists’ presentations and talks, museum exhibits.”

Strengthening the Family Business

Woboditsch’s father Larry Gavin was a broadcaster, and Woboditsch grew up helping her dad in his work. 

In 1994, Gavin started Closed Caption Services (CCS), providing fast and reliable services in closed captioning, offline captioning, live captioning, web captioning and audio-described video.

CCS started by providing captioning services to the now-defunct Canadian media company CHUM Television’s new CityTv stations and network of ‘A Channels.’ CCS then began working with Rogers, CTV (now Bell), NewCap, S-Vox, Cogeco Television), Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Pattison Group, TVO and more.

Woboditsch, who is Indigenous and was adopted at birth, also dabbled in television production in her late teens and early twenties. Working at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), she learned more about her Indigenous culture and history. 

She said it was “always the plan” to take over the company from her father one day. 

“We didn’t discuss transition or the future of the company. It was just that I was ‘the future’ and the company would go to me someday.” 

That day came in 2016. With the decline of her father’s health and after 10 years as the general manager, Woboditsch took over as president of CSS. 

Come 2020 Woboditsch would be called on once again to lead a company. Only this time, it would be in the middle of a pandemic while the world — still not accessible — was moving online.

The Business Case for Closed Captioning

Disabilities occur when people who have impairments confront inaccessible environments, prejudiced attitudes, or other situations where their needs for participation are not met. 

According to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), different types of disabilities include but are not limited to mobility, vision, and hearing impairments, visible and invisible disabilities, episodic disabilities, intellectual and learning disabilities, neurodivergence, chronic illnesses, mental illnesses, and limb and facial differences.

According to a 2018 article by the Web Accessibility Initiative, at least one billion people, or 15 per cent of the world’s population, have a recognized disability. 

In Canada, a 2017 estimate by Statistics Canada found that 6.2 million Canadians have one or more disability, with disabilities related to pain, flexibility, mobility, and mental health being the most common disability types.

Captions play an important role in improving digital accessibility for people with disabilities and those who do not speak English as their first language or are not comfortable doing so. 

Captions refer to text on a television, video screen, or other visual display that transcribe oral speech or dialogue as well as capture background audio. Captioning increases the accessibility of media for a variety of people — including people with disabilities and people who speak different first languages — by communicating all audio sounds that may otherwise be missed by some viewers, including sound effects and other non-speech elements.

Along with helping businesses interact with existing customers who may be people with disabilities, Woboditsch says closed captioning in particular also helps businesses expand their audiences by capturing new customers. 

Disabled Canadians are estimated to control $6.9 trillion in annual disposable income and more than seven million Canadians report their mother tongue is neither English nor French. 

CCS believes that high-quality accessibility services help to increase the reach of your content to at least 10 per cent of your audience. 

An article from UK-based Zen Elements from earlier this year says that three in four disabled people and their families have walked away from a UK business citing poor accessibility and/or poor customer service. 

In a similar vein, a 2019 survey by Scope, a UK-based charity trying to improve digital accessibility, found that half of the people surveyed who experienced problems buying goods or services through a website, app, or in-store machine did not purchase the product. Another 48 per cent found a different provider and purchased their products elsewhere.

Captioning also helps businesses meet compliance standards like those put forth by the Canadian Radio‑television and Telecommunications Commission, which require that 100 per cent broadcast content must be captioned and that Primetime shows be audio described, and Bill C-81, which is an act to ensure a barrier-free Canada. 

The bottom line, Woboditsch says, is to normalize accessibility as an essential part of providing high-quality and equitable services to all audiences. 

”We want people to think of accessibility when they’re putting any content out there. If I’m going to have a meeting, if I’m going to sell a product — whatever my business is [doing] online.”

The team at Closed Caption Services (CCS). Screenshot via CCS's website.

Finding Community and Improving Services for Underserved Communities

“Entrepreneurship can be a lonely place; you’re alone in your world when you’re at the top and it’s hard to ask advice from the people who are working for you,” says Woboditsch. “It’s hard to be vulnerable or show doubt, even though I do … to be able to have some people who have a variety of experiences in different areas of business, whether it be financial management or feminist business models, things like that.”

But the Fifth Wave accelerator program was different from the other entrepreneurship programs she’s been a part of in that it gave her the opportunity to take a second look at her business and figure out “where it is in the world today.” 

“I really asked myself, what do you want in life? And then I worked backwards to how I [was] going to get there with my business.”

For Woboditsch, the need for increased accessibility is clear: her company gained over 30 new clients in the first six months of the pandemic, 99 per cent of whom have become returning clients. 

The support she has received from the accelerator program has ultimately helped her move towards a future where high-quality accessibility services are provided to underserved communities. 

“I want people to remember that there’s a wide variety of people out there who use various forms of accessibility services, more than just the ones that I’ve been talking about today. American Sign Language (ASL) is one of them, and multiple languages as well,” Woboditsch says. 

“I want accessibility not to be driven just by compliance or doing it because we have to. I would like to see a world where people are choosing to provide high-quality services that improve accessibility.”


Publishers Note: Closed Caption Services 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 sponsor at the Lighthouse level. Applications for Cohort 4 open Nov. 22nd! Apply here

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Categories
Feminist Practices Transformative Ideas

When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Lemon Aid

Rachel Kelly, founder of Make Lemonade, 2019. Photo provided.

Like the many enterprises that relied on in-person interaction, Make Lemonade, a Toronto-based, women-centric co-working space for entrepreneurs was suddenly squeezed dry by the pandemic and closed its doors in August 2020. It was the third closure in three years of a well-loved physical co-working space focusing on women — the others were Shecosystem and Women on the Move. LiisBeth talked to Rachel Kelly, the 30-year-old founder and sole owner of Make Lemonade to learn about the journey and where they are now–given the pandemic. 

LiisBeth: Let’s rewind to get the full story. Why did you start Make Lemonade?

RK: It was 2015 and I had been freelancing for a couple years, bouncing from coffee shop to coffee shop and working from home — way before it was cool. One day while travelling on a streetcar to yet another café, I realized I couldn’t keep lying to myself. I was trying to convince myself that this way of working, like a nomad, alone, was great and that the indie freelancing life was sustainable for me. It occurred to me in that moment the key thing lacking in my work life was a day-to-day community of colleagues.

Around this time, I signed a salaried contract with a company I was freelancing for and let go of all my freelance gigs. And even bought a couch! But shortly thereafter, they called to say the contract was cancelled. They never told me why but I suspect it had to do with their budget.

I reminded myself, I am only 26 years old. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.

The old dream I had of starting a co-working space for independent freelancers like me resurfaced. And I have to thank my parents for inspiration. They were also entrepreneurs and taught me to dream big and worry about the details later. Which is exactly what I did.

I started by creating an Instagram account called Make Lemonade to gauge interest about the idea and guess what … it generated traction! In fact some people already thought the space existed and actually emailed me saying “you might like this space” not realizing I was the one posting about it. Ha! With this validation, I got to work. I put together a business plan. Landlords required me to submit the plan along with an offer to lease the space because we were a startup. I looked for places that offered bright, natural light and a canvas that made shared work possible. Finding a space with a good landlord was also important. The commercial rental market was hot at the time. I found a beautiful 3,000 square foot space at 326 Adelaide Street West in the heart of downtown Toronto and quickly signed a five-year lease.

LiisBeth:  Tell us about the Make Lemonade Community? Who showed up?

RK: At first, I thought the space would attract mostly 25 to 35-year-olds but we ended up with members from of all ages — all the way into their sixties. Members paid $500/month for a three-month plan with a fixed desk; $300/month for Monday to Friday access; $30/month for community membership. Make Lemonade offered a communal kitchen, phone booths, printing and mailboxes. About 80 per cent of the members — or our “lemons” as we affectionally referred to each other — were full-time self-employed creative types, writing or producing professionals and other artists. Other members included graduate students working on their thesis, a few salaried folks looking for an inspiring focus zone and people with full time jobs who needed space to work on their side-hustles.  

One of our members, Breeyn McCarney, is wedding dressmaker who designed non-traditional wedding gowns. She lived in Hamilton but most of her clients were in Toronto so she regularly booked our meeting rooms for client fittings. When her customers came for their final fitting, she would host a champagne celebration in our “virtual” patio room, an indoor room that was decked out to look like an outdoor patio.

Breeyn hosted beading workshops for aspiring artists — they worked with their hoops and beads and used Make Lemonade as a production space. At its peak, we had over 200 members.

Many of our members have seriously grown their enterprises since joining the Make Lemonade community. For example, when newcomer to Canada Katy Prince joined, she could only afford to come on Mondays (half price days) at first she didn’t have many friends or a network. Katy significantly expanded her network while at Make Lemonade. Today, Katy works for herself as a full-time coach and has a handful of staff members. Katy’s experience is testament to the benefits that co-working spaces have to offer and we are proud to have helped play a role in their success.      

LiisBeth:  Did you ever participate in startup program or receive any startup or government grants to help finance or start your business?

RK: No. Truth be told I never applied! I didn’t really know what was available.

Liisbeth: What happened when the pandemic hit?

RK: In early March 2020, we started to hear all about the coronavirus I remember going to sleep one Sunday night knowing the next day I would have to close our doors. At first, we thought it would only be for a short time, but it soon became clear the closure would last for a while. When we made our announcement (a year and a half after our temporary closure) in August 2020 that the doors were closing, we received close to 300 comments on just one Instagram post. I still haven’t read through them all because it’s emotionally overwhelming. What’s important to note — and also bittersweet — is that our busiest time were the months leading up to the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rachel Kelly’s announcement on the closing of Make Lemonade’s physical coworking space in Toronto. Screenshot via Instagram.
 

When the pandemic hit, we were not sure what to do but quitting was not an option. Our mantra was (and still is): when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. We had to try something new.

My staff member, Ashley Fulton, Director of Good Vibes, and I began brainstorming about how we could bring and keep the community together online. We started with free virtual co-working meet ups. Then added free daily support calls. Next, we added a short newsletter called “Your Daily Dose of Sunshine”. We later added online co-working sessions and work sprints and didn’t charge for any of it.

Once we were confident we had something worthwhile to offer, we invited people to start paying us for the services. And a good number of them did.

Over time, we added more features such as accountability calls and introduced The 4-Week Challenge that involved working on goals for four weeks in community. People loved it and paid to participate! We noticed multiple repeat participants for the program and eventually turned it into a new service called the Get Sh*t Done Club. 

As time went on, we learned that while the physical space with tables and internet access was great, our real strength was supporting entrepreneurs through all the highs and the lows of business ownership. Lemonade became more like lemon aid.

Today, the Get Sh*t Done Club is still running strong as a 12-month online business foundations community that supports entrepreneurs to hustle less, grow more and have more fun. We do virtual kick-off brunches, offer workshops on goal setting, host work sprints, brainstorms and facilitate small  groups within the program. We have an event called the Lemon Mixer—an open conversation where members ask for what they need and are able to give back by offering services or expertise. Members also get full access to our Business 101 online course. And of course, we have fun! We celebrate successes with an honour roll and give shoutouts and cheers when progress happens for someone.

LiisBeth: As a player in the women’s entrepreneurship ecosystem space, what would you like to see change or happen in the coming years to further strengthen the women’s enterprise space?

RK: It almost seems ridiculous with the kind of company that I created that I didn’t get a “Hey, welcome to the women’s entrepreneurship support world.” Or a “Did you know, these are the resources that are available?”

We build community for others, but where is OUR community support?

LiisBeth: What’s Next for Make Lemonade? You?

RK: Looking to the future, we have some new ideas percolating, including meeting up with our “lemons” in real life again.

Things have been tough, but the pandemic was the catalyst for creating something bigger than the physical space. It led us to creating an online community and a new way of providing members with the support they need. The pandemic was also a wake up call. Which means it’s time to start making lemonade again … whatever that looks like. Funny how things are kind of coming full circle.

Also, when I think about what’s next, I’m reminded of how my parents started out and where they are now. They founded an automotive manufacturing company. But like so many businesses, that’s not how the enterprise started. Believe it or not, their original business was selling fruitcakes. So whenever I worry about not knowing what the future holds, I remind myself, I’m still in my fruitcake, or perhaps lemon cake, phase. I’m experimenting with different ingredients, making up recipes to see what works best.

LiisBeth:  Thank you for sharing your incredible and inspiring story

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Categories
Feminist Practices

When the Obstacle Becomes the Way

Hermine Mbondo, founder of B4brand, a bilingual branding and marketing agency in Toronto. Photo provided.

Storytelling transformed Hermine Mbondo’s life and continues to shape her work to this day. 

Born in Cameroon into the Bassa tribe and raised in France, Mbondo now lives in Toronto. She fondly remembers her childhood and all the stories she heard when she visited her grandmother’s village. Back then, every night Mbondo would gather with all of the other kids in the family to listen to stories told by her grandmother and her aunts. 

But these stories were not ordinary fairy tales.

“When you are a child, you don’t realise [right away]. But then slowly, you realise the stories were not just fairy tales,” Mbondo says. “It was really about either warning us about things or teaching us about something.” 

One of the stories Mbondo remembers vividly is a different interpretation of the story of the tortoise and the hare.

In Mbondo’s version, the hare tells the tortoise that both of them should kill their mothers because there was a poor harvest and everyone in the village is going hungry. The hare says they can use their mothers for a feast. The tortoise is tricked by the hare and kills its mother, but the hare does not. 

Mbondo says the moral of this story is to choose your friends wisely and be careful about who you trust. She says the stories she heard as a child, while sometimes scary, were always meaningful and were meant to teach life lessons.

Flash forward many years and Mbondo is now sharing her own meaningful stories through B4brand — a branding and marketing agency she founded in Toronto in 2017. 

An Accidental Marketing Agency 

Like many women entrepreneurs, Mbondo didn’t start out thinking she wanted to be a business owner someday. Within a few months of job hunting after moving to Canada in 2016, she realized that as a newcomer, landing a job and pay cheque that matched her level of experience was going to be impossible. 

“I was still able to do a lot of things but it wasn’t at the level of what I was doing — or earning — in France. I was the head of marketing there,” she says. “[Work I was hired for in Canada] wasn’t challenging enough. There was nothing to justify [staying] — plus I didn’t have the same kind of salary. After a year, I was starting to think, ‘What can I do next?’” 

Around the same time, a company that Mbondo had worked for back in France asked if she would be interested in moving back to lead their marketing department.

But Mbondo didn’t want to move back to France. She knew the job being offered to her would return her to the same position of working for someone else, on their terms, with no room for growth. By this time, she knew she wanted to call the shots and work “with” the company instead of “for” it. Pitching the idea of being an independent contractor led to her landing her first client as a solepreneur. They worked out an arrangement that allowed Mbondo to have more autonomy in her work, and in late 2017, she officially launched B4brand, which now operates as an incorporated marketing agency. 

Marketing with Purpose 

In a competitive industry like brand management, B4brand stands out in three distinct ways: 1) it focuses on people-driven branding, 2) it has the capacity to work seamlessly in both of Canada’s official languages, and 3) it makes innovative use of Bassa storytelling culture. 

Mbondo says that while all three aspects of her enterprise are important, the emphasis on people-driven stories is the foundation that grounds her and her business. Engaging with clients whose values align with her own has led her to work with brands that focus on the needs of people rather than the features or benefits of a given product. 

“I’ve seen different things in marketing — I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Marketing can be used to trick consumers into purchasing products or services. I wanted to do things differently,” she says. 

Mbondo wants consumers to connect with brands that align with their own ethics and principles so that ideally, they make purchasing decisions based on shared values. 

“I talk with the business owners, get to know them, and try to understand not just what they’re doing, but why they are doing it,” she says, “because for me, it’s very important to understand the ‘why.’” The conversations are litmus tests that help her choose brands that, in her words, truly “have a greater purpose.” 

For example, when an opportunity came her way to work with an entrepreneur who was looking to launch a new line of spices from Western Cameroon, Mbondo first researched to find out if they operated in an ethical manner. She sealed the deal after learning the company was paying their employees fair wages and creating a safe working environment for women in western Cameroon.

Through her work, Mbondo wants to challenge the idea that industries like brand marketing can only be made more inclusive by hiring diverse employees. While this is important, she says it limits the possibilities of human resources. What she wants to see instead is an emphasis on the diversity of products and services as well as the diversity of people. The international spices are an example of this because they bring “diversity to the shelves” of mainstream grocery stores. While the spices have not yet been launched officially, another client of Mbondo recently launched. 

“I think for me, the way I see diversity and inclusion is in the everyday things, and food is part of that [when] we go grocery shopping.” 

Passion Projects Helping Build Community

Another passion project of Mbondo’s is the Global Impact Hub — a one-stop learning hub for social entrepreneurs to connect, educate and amplify diverse voices.

Mbondo has partnered with several organizations over the past few years to provide bilingual entrepreneurship training to fellow entrepreneurs and small business owners. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, she found that many such organizations didn’t have the tools, resources, or knowledge to transition online. 

Mbondo explains, “[Entrepreneurs and small business owners] usually wear many hats and they are overwhelmed. Sometimes, all they need is the little push, especially since the road to running a successful business while making a difference can feel difficult and lonely. So, I decided to support them by offering a place to develop supportive relationships with fellow game-changers as well as access marketing tools and resources.”

The Global Impact Hub aims to combat this overwhelm by creating space for entrepreneurs to work it out together. 

“Through this membership-based online platform, social entrepreneurs will be able to sharpen up their marketing skills from anywhere and at any time through valuable content [like] marketing resources, tools, workshops and meaningful ways of connecting.”

B4Brand's Global Impact Hub.
B4Brand's Global Impact Hub.

Finding Community Through Shared Experiences 

As a newcomer and female entrepreneur, Mbondo’s participation in startup business development and accelerator programs played an important role in helping her build B4Brand. 

After starting the enterprise on her own, she learned valuable resource management skills in a program for newcomers to Canada called the Newcomers Entrepreneurship Hub alongside others who were also starting their own businesses. The Fifth Wave feminist accelerator program for women in digital media, operated by the Canadian Film Centre’s MediaLab, showed her how to hire and manage independent contractors whose values aligned with her own on a per project basis. Today, she has the structures in place to contract like-minded freelance graphic designers and copywriters to create campaigns that everyone feels good about. 

Three years into running her own business, Mbondo says that financing growth continues to be a struggle. Growth accelerator programs however, have helped her to connect with other business owners and funders who make her feel less alone and boost her confidence, helping her to keep going even when things are difficult.

“Everybody’s going through the same struggle — on different levels, obviously, but we’re going through the same things so it gives some reassurance to be like, ‘Okay, I’m not the only one,’” Mbondo says. 

Marketing at its core is a form of storytelling. What motivates Mbondo to show up for work every day is the opportunity to combine her love of people-driven stories rooted in culture, history and tradition with the personal values she shares with her clients.  

“I still love stories. I also learned that as an independent business founder, you can be choosy about the clients you work with and I’m supporting causes with my work,” Mbondo says. “I somehow managed to do well by doing what I love and wanted to do as a child.”

Last year, Mbondo was listed as one of Canada’s Top 100 Black Women to Watch in Canada. 

This year? B4brand is a finalist for the 2021 Toronto Star Readers’ Choice Awards in the Best Advertising/Marketing Agency category. Voting continues until Sept. 19, 2021.


Publishers Note: B4brand 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 Media partner and ally. Applications are OPEN! Apply here

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