Emmy-Winning Executive On Building A Second Career From Her Side Hustle


I first broke into the entertainment industry as a content development intern for the production company, Island Pictures. That's where I met my first mentor, Ms. Kathie Fong-Yoneda and learned the importance of having someone genuinely care about your growth.

She was giving with her experience and advice, affording us equal opportunity to participate on every level. Her mentorship was my original inspiration to do well and treat people nicely. I reflect back on that time and value the importance of being mentored by a strong female executive. Starting out, I never dreamed I'd one-day lead the global production for an award-winning visual effects studio, while balancing my own adaptive clothing company.

After graduating film school, I started as a VFX Producer on the TV show “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." When it came to visual effects, I loved the marriage between tech and creative and began putting in the time, energy and sacrifice to learn everything about it. When Zoic Studios started up in 2002, I came on board as the VFX Producer for the Emmy-winning television series Firefly and Battlestar: Galactica. Through thousands of television and feature film titles, I've moved from Head of Production to Executive Producer, and into my current role as Senior Vice President of Global Production. It's been a long haul, but it's certainly never dull.

In our industry, visual effects is still male-dominated, with the percentage averaging around 65 percent men, according to a poll of my peers. But speaking strictly from the VFX studio point of view, I've seen progress in those numbers.

It all begins with hiring qualified women who apply for the job postings. Visual effects is a niche tech industry and a lot of women don't think about it as a career opportunity. So we have work to do by spreading the word and getting more women to recognize VFX as a viable career path. At Zoic Studios, we have women working in every technical, creative and management department of the company. We can crew a show from top to bottom with women only and have done so. It's something to celebrate and keep talking about, so young girls can see opportunity, enter this more diverse tech industry, and excel in it.

Shifting the Conversation

Part of the diversity conversation should really include the idea of keeping women in the industry, not just recruiting women. Visual effects suffers from a heavy expand and contract employment model. Between international tax credits and shrinking budgets, you find companies having to fluctuate every few months in order to stay in business. The challenging aspect of this rollercoaster model is that VFX teams are forced to live abroad, chasing work from one country to the next, and living away from their families sometimes for long periods of time. It's tough financially, on relationships, and establishing roots which hit men and women equally hard. After a period of time, some will drop out of the industry, which was already comprised of a lower percentage of women.

It will take influential thought leaders to change the current system over time. But women have a powerful voice to bring to the table and I hope the next generation unites the industry on this issue.

Fueling My Passion With a Side Hustle

When a family member was born with cerebral palsy, resulting in loss of dexterity and mobility, it was the eye-opener that inspired me to launch Adaptive Life Company, a service, and adaptive clothing business. Faced with additional challenges related to her health and physical abilities, our family thought “what could we do to change the world for her, and others in similar situations to make it easier?" Currently, she's entering her early teens, so she's at an age where clothes and fashion are important to her. To normalize her dressing process, we're making clothes she can get on by herself using one hand and still look cool, young and trendy. With her input, we're re-engineering and re-thinking conventional clothing construction. We want to do away with buttons, zippers, lace ties, and buckles, but also conceal the fact that the clothes have been altered.

I knew from the get-go that launching my own company was going to be hard and it really is. It's been months of researching and educating myself on the process, wondering if people would "get it," be open to something new, and be supportive of the bigger impact this could have on people's lives. But inside of all of that, the biggest challenge so far has been to not give up through all of the mistakes. Every step in this new industry is unfamiliar territory, every plan has gone out the window, every mistake has cost extra time and money. But I own my mistakes, take a transparent approach, and do not make the same mistake twice.

Finding Balance

It takes a lot of organization and planning ahead to make sure my jobs at Zoic and ALC don't cross focus paths. During the day, I dedicate my time to Zoic Studios, which is a busy and complex tech/creative company. There are always clients, employees, and shows that need special attention, so the days are full of budgeting, travel, operational oversight, and meeting with Hollywood's leading creative television and filmmakers. Adaptive Life Company requires a different approach and set of responsibilities than that of visual effects.

Luckily, all of the strong foundational skills crossover and are helpful for juggling both roles. Calendaring progressional milestones, due dates, heavy budgeting and negotiations, touch-base meetings with teams to monitor production- and a willingness to pick up the phone and call people instead of sending emails, are important in both positions. Both companies are "people" businesses, so communicating and connecting via phone calls, Skype and in-person all matter. I get more out of a 10-minute call or meeting than I can with 30 emails. I'm also a good listener and not afraid to ask questions. You'll always see me with a notebook writing down lists and checking off details.

There's a lot of support from individuals and families in the community which ALC represents.

We talked about ALC and its mission with focus groups, parents, clothing and product designers, as well as industry fashion and investment leaders. There's a lot of support from individuals and families in the community which ALC represents. But I'm also challenged by some people who believe it's not a worthy endeavor. Opinions range from thinking there are not enough people with disabilities to support manufacturers adapting their designs for commercial marketplace, thinking people with disabilities don't spend money on luxury items like fashion or products, and a feeling that adaptive products somehow enable people to become less active by making tasks too easy. I've heard it all.

I try to listen to the criticism and find the "message behind the message" so I don't close myself off from hearing it. It's important for me to address criticism with a goal of meeting in the middle, or hopefully winning people over based on simple facts.

There are 65 million people in the U.S. alone who have some form of an impairment or disability. Globally, there are one billion people with a disability. Everyone knows someone who's been seriously injured in an accident, fighting in the military, born with a disabling genetic condition, or challenged by the natural aging process. We can all benefit at some point in our lifetime by adaptive-designs created to make life easier when facing adversity.

Though the idea of making adaptive products, when the world has existed so long without them, may seem like a small endeavor- when a physical disability hits home and you're living in it- it's a huge deal. It's been amazing to see the connection between compassion and humanity as a throughline for my entire career. Working in entertainment can impact change by showing more diversity on screen and hiring more women and minorities behind the camera. And having the opportunity to further promote diversity and inclusion across both careers has been more rewarding than I could have imagined. When there's humanity in the mission, it makes the effort of juggling two careers worth it.

7min read

The Middle East And North Africa Are Brimming With Untapped Female Potential

Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.

A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.

The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.

Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization ( publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")

The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."

This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.

She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."

Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.

"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei

While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.

Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.

The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."

This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.

Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.