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Joan Brownhill, Founder and CEO of Sweeten, a service that matches people with renovation projects to general contractors. Photo courtesy of J. Brownhill.
Trained as an architect, Jean Brownhill is the Founder and CEO of Sweeten, a free service that matches people with major renovation projects to the best general contractors, offering personal support until the job is done. She has 15+ years of experience in residential and commercial architecture, construction, project management and systems, and while working in Global Architecture at Coach, Brownhill won the company’s Chairman’s Award for the creation of web platforms for construction of stores worldwide.
Brownhill received a Bachelor of Architecture from Cooper Union and was one of nine recipients of the prestigious Loeb Fellowship in 2011 from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where she developed Sweeten. She is one of only 11 African-American female entrepreneurs in the US to raise more than $1M in venture capital. Jean has been named “The Contractor Whisperer” by New York Magazine and one of the “Most Innovative Women” in Inc.’s “Game-Changer” issue for bringing trust and technology to renovation. In her interview with Julia Gamolina of Madame Architect, Brownhill talks about her drive to ensure that the online platforms for architecture are built by those who care about it, her drive to embrace inclusion and diversity at every corner and scale of the company, and her drive to realize all people’s dreams for the most intimate spaces in their lives.
Julia Gamolina: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
Jean Brownhill: I have dyslexia, so anything with writing or reading I wasn’t that excited about. My high school guidance counselor first told me that I should look into architecture. That was the first time I had heard of the profession; no one in my community in Connecticut was an architect.
I wish I could say it was immediate love [laughs] — it was not immediate love, but I was indeed interested. My mom found the Cooper Union, where every student received a full-tuition scholarship at the time. That really changed things — we had no money for me to go to college, and I couldn’t believe anyone could go for free.
What did you learn at the Cooper Union?
I learned everything there. Most importantly, I learned how to be inquisitive and thorough in your curiosity. I still work with Cooper Union today and fundamentally believe the vision that the school sets out.
Before starting Sweeten, you worked as an architect for almost ten years. Tell me about this time.
I first worked for Elizabeth O’Donnell — she had a practice doing high-end residential here in the city, so I primarily focused on interior renovations. Then I moved to a slightly larger firm doing houses out in the Hamptons. Houses in the Hamptons are like beautiful bespoke 10,000-square-foot pieces of furniture. They’re so well-detailed.
I then worked at Coach, where we did every scale — ground-up buildings all over Asia, small interior renovations here, mall spaces, and such. Part of the reason I went to Coach was to see architecture at the speed of fashion. When you’re working on very high-end residential projects, they tend to go on for a while, and retail is as fast as signing a lease and getting the store open in weeks. You also learn a different notion of architecture because the company is looking at its spaces as cost centers that are there to drive sales. The commoditization of it is a totally different thing to think about.
Jean Brownhill on site. Image courtesy of J. Brownhill.
How did the first seed of the idea for Sweeten come about?
I was working at Coach, with a corporate salary, and that allowed me to buy a house in Brooklyn. I was really excited to renovate, especially after spending so many years renovating other people’s homes. When taking on your own though, you quickly find out that when you don’t have a multi-million-dollar budget, it’s a really different experience. A lot of the service level components that an architect provides, like helping people navigate the process, define their scope, find a general contractor, do the CA work — all of that stuff is completely missing for people whose budgets are $100,000 or less because architects can’t afford to take that work on. The renovation process was thus very challenging for me.
At the same time, at Coach, I saw early on that they had some real inefficiencies within the construction group as we tried to build stores around the globe. The way in which we were communicating that fleet of stores to the rest of the company wasn’t effective. When a store would open, for the architecture group that bit was over, but for the rest of the company, it was just beginning.
I pitched my boss that I would build a website to help hand over information from our store architecture group to the rest of the company. He essentially said he was fine with it as long as I kept doing my regular job. I then went and pitched the same to the COO of the company, who gave me the green light. I got partners on the development side, put a stakeholder committee together, and built this website in nine months. The day that it launched, it was a wild success. A week later, the site went down for basic site maintenance, and people were calling my desk screaming about how critical it was to their business [laughs]. From there, I got certified in information architecture and continued to build websites that helped our construction and our architecture group become more efficient.
How did you get the confidence to pitch the COO before beginning to build? I know a lot of young women that have great ideas every day but don’t act on them for fear of not being heard.
I would love to tell you that I just stormed in there and that they listened to me [laughs]. What I actually did was work insanely hard to document the inefficiencies of our system, including our data storage. It was causing issues across our department, with a ripple effect of lessening the company’s productivity. I built my case of the challenge, then presented my idea for the solution.
Look what the Internet has done to other hierarchical, creative industries … If we believe in the built environment and what our spaces look like, then the people who care about it should be building the platforms — not people who just understand the technology.
Now that I know the origin story, Sweeten could not be a more perfect combination of your renovation challenges and your extra work at Coach.
Yes [laughs]. Here I was going through my own renovation and developing this whole new skill set at work. I knew the distributive power of the Internet and what you could do with it, and I had a passion for architecture and could see that there was a customer out there that I felt connected to. There are so many hardworking people out there who save their money to buy a home and want to spend more money to make it really a place that represents them, and I wanted to help them.
Sweeten is a free service that matches homeowners, business owners and the design trade to the best vetted general contractors, providing support until the project is done, which is what I wish I’d had for my own renovation!
A kitchen renovation by Sweeten. Photo courtesy of J. Brownhill.
A dining area by Sweeten architect C. Wall Architecture. Photo courtesy of J. Brownhill.
When did you leave Coach and focus on Sweeten full-time?
I wish the two were closer together [laughs]. I left my job and was doing some consulting, and also became the general contractor of my own home project for a while. During that time, I started doing various presentations about the power of the internet. I was the Chicken Little to the architecture community, saying, “Look what the internet has done to other hierarchical, creative industries — music, journalism, etc. It undermines the business fundamentals, aggregating more wealth away from the creatives, and leads to a lower quality of work. I believe it will come for architecture as well. If we believe in the built environment and what our spaces look like, then the people who care about it should be building the platforms — not people who just understand the technology.”
Most people thought I was insane, but at one of those presentations, an architect, Reese Fayde, who later became my mentor, came up to me. She didn’t know me at all, but after hearing my presentation, she wanted to nominate me for the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard, and she did! At this point, I had launched a couple of companies trying to see how I could use technology to get high-quality construction and design resources to regular people. When I got the Loeb Fellowship, it fortified me to say, “OK, I have one more idea that I think might work, and if it doesn’t, I have Harvard at my back, and I’ll be fine.” About a month before I left for Cambridge, I launched Sweeten, and it took off almost immediately.
What do you mean when you say “launched”?
The original site was just basically the value proposition: a landing page that said that if someone posts their project, I will match them to a general contractor and will track that project all the way to completion.
And at the beginning, you were the one doing all that work.
Exactly. I had a form where people posted their project, but after they did, everything was manual. I had a huge Excel spreadsheet, a ton of emails with Google forms back and forth, and was manually tracking the massive puzzle of the contractors’ progress on each renovation. Luckily, I like puzzles [laughs].
Eventually, I hired Sherataun Nuss, who I made a co-founder after about a year. In the beginning, she was running our blog, because content marketing has always been a huge part of our marketing strategy. We kept telling the stories of successful renovations as a way of providing social proof to homeowners and gain their trust.
You were also doing all of this at Harvard.
Yes, I launched Sweeten and would work on it on nights and weekends in addition to a full course load at Harvard. There, I met Preeti Sriratana at the Harvard Kennedy School; he was trained as an architect but went to the Kennedy School for non-profit work. He first came on as an advisor, and when we both graduated in 2013, I got convinced that I should raise a first round of venture capital. That’s when he came on full-time, became a third co-founder, and really helped scale the business. We were able to hire some engineers who built out the back end of the website, automating a lot of the processes.
… if you want to see a difference, you need to fund people with different perspectives. Doing so will manifest different realities.
Sweeten launched in 2011. What have been the significant milestones for you and the company from then until today?
To this day, I remember the moment when someone who I didn’t know posted a project on Sweeten. Up until then, I had either met someone at a cocktail party and convinced them to post their project, or they were a friend of my mom’s [laughs]. When we got that first project from a complete stranger, it was powerful not only because you see your vision manifest, but also because you feel the responsibility of what you’ve done in a way that’s different.
Since then, many of the milestones have been around the team and hiring. We have people now who have been with us from the beginning — some started as interns, and to see their career flourish has been incredible.
Jean Brownhill with co-founders Preeti Sriratana and Sherataun Nuss. Photo courtesy of J. Brownhill.
Where are you in your career today?
We just launched in Los Angeles, and are launching in Chicago and Miami by the end of the summer. Our goal is to be in all top 35 cities by the end of 2020. That’s aggressive [laughs], but we have been completely heads down, figuring out the product market fit and how to solve this problem. Now, I want us to go out and help as many people as possible.
What have been the biggest challenges in all of this?
Being entrepreneurial, depending on the hour you talk to me, could be the best or the worst. In the beginning, that fluctuation was based on each project, but now that I’m out of the specific details, my focus is getting a group of smart people to work together and stay aligned, and achieve our aggressive goals. This is all challenging! There’s a reason why there’s a plethora of business books about management. Days when we’re all rowing in the same direction, those are great days.
Who are you admiring right now?
There are some interesting green shoots out there, companies that are just starting. They are in the tech and in venture capital space, trying to get more women funded, more black women funded. There is a program called All Raise which is a program trying to get more venture capitalists that are women.
Since 2009, African-American women have received only .0006% of the $424.7 billion total tech venture funding dollars raised, and that’s really frustrating because I truly believe that if you want to see a difference, you need to fund people with different perspectives. Doing so will manifest different realities. It’s frustrating when investors say they are data-and-results-focused which would suggest a meritocracy, but then they fund the same people over and over again! So, I’m admiring the men and women who are starting the new initiatives that focused on moving the needle to change those fundraising stats.
What is your mission? What’s the impact that you’d like to have?
Sweeten is my way of making a more diverse and inclusive world. At every intersection and scale of our company, I really see that mission to embrace diversity imbued, from the team we hire to the general contractors in our network to a wide range of clients (a myriad of age, race, gender, occupation, sexual orientation, religion, political leanings). The common bond is to help people create a space they love, which assumes there is room for everyone and it’s OK for that space to reflect the things that are meaningful to them.
Finally, what advice would you give to those just starting their careers in the built environment?
I’d encourage people to optimize for their obituary. This sounds morbid, but what I mean is, think about the end of your life — who do you want to be and what do you want to have done? In any of these small incremental steps, when you’re thinking, “Will I be a failure? Will I change my career ten times?” Guess what — nobody cares! At the end of your life, that won’t matter. I find so many people that are afraid of the wrong things. I’m terrified all the time, but I’m more terrified of getting to the end of my life and not having lived the full depth of it.
When you start thinking in that bigger and more meaningful way, you really start to make some shifts. When I left my corporate job, everyone thought I was insane. I, on the other hand, thought, “Who cares!” When I looked at the top of the ladder of my corporate path, I realized I didn’t want any of those positions, so why would I keep climbing? I see a lot of people living their lives to prove something to people they don’t even like, and I always think, “Why do you care about those people?” I would advise everyone, both professionally and personally, to think about what’s important to you and to let that be the thing that guides you.
As a partner at prestigious New York City restaurant Cote, Victoria James is quite well-versed in the restaurant and wine industries. Photo courtesy of V. James.
As a partner at prestigious New York City restaurant Cote, Victoria James is quite well-versed in the restaurant and wine industries. Serving as Cote’s beverage director, she recently received a James Beard nomination for the restaurant’s wine program.
Working in restaurants since she was 13, James fell in love with wine and became a certified sommelier when she was 21. She has worked at some of the most prestigious restaurants in New York City and her name has appeared on many notable lists like Forbes “30 Under 30,” Food & Wine’s “2018 Sommelier of the Year,” Zagat’s “30 Under 30,” and Wine Enthusiast’s “40 Under 40.” She is the author of “Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé” (HarperCollins) and the upcoming book “Wine Girl” (March 2020, Ecco/HarperCollins).
Along with Cote’s General Manager Amy Zhou and Events Director Cynthia Cheng, she has also founded Wine Empowered, a nonprofit organization that aims to diversify the hospitality industry by offering free wine classes to women and minorities.
AWT columnist Julia Gamolina sat down with James to find out more about her work and her advice for aspiring sommeliers.
Julia Gamolina: What was the first thing to spark your interest in all things wine?
Victoria James: I’ve worked in the restaurant industry since I was thirteen. Hospitality and the world of restaurants was something that I always loved—I loved serving people and I loved food. Then I was bartending in college while studying psychology, but to be honest with you, I was more interested in partying than I was in studying. None of my classes quite spoke to me, but hospitality continued to appeal, especially interacting with people. t At that age, I was, and I think everyone is, looking for purpose and something that gives you purpose and meaning in this world. For me, there was always an immediate joy that came with making people happy through service, through hospitality.
When I found wine, I found a way to connect on an even deeper level with guests, especially on an intellectual level, and that just clicked. I started to learn a little bit about it, and then more and more, and soon I was going down a rabbit hole and became pretty obsessed, eventually deferring college for a semester to take a wine course. A wine course is really intensive—you are studying constantly because there is an immense amount of information to absorb. I spent all my time doing that, and then one course became two courses, and eventually, I decided to go all in and not return to college.
So although my days begin in the early morning and tick into late night, I go to bed feeling energized. I love what I do, and dream of more ideas for the next day.
What was it about wine?
Wine is a cool thing that can combine so many interests—obviously history and geography, but also taste and people.
How did you become a sommelier?
After taking these wine courses, I got a job at Harry’s on Hanover Square which is in the Wall Street Area and has this crazy amazing $8 million closet of wine consisting of four stories of enormous cellars that date back to the ‘60s. I was constantly surrounded by wine there because, in addition to being a bartender, I was also a cellar rat and helped reorganize the entire cellar.
From there I worked a grape harvest in California, learning all the nitty-gritty details of how wine is actually made, the good and the bad. From there, I turned 21 and decided that I wanted to become a sommelier. By that point, I had wanted to be a sommelier for a while, but it almost seemed too impossible.
I was too young, too poor, and too female [laughs]. At the time, I was also working at a place where the people in charge were quite frankly very misogynistic and not conducive to helping me pursue a sommelier track. I was in an abusive world. So I sent my resume to a bunch of other places and was hired as a sommelier eventually. It involved a lot, but it was a good lesson in not listening to those who told me I wouldn’t be a sommelier. I was probably very underqualified to be a somm when I first started, but I was willing to work 100 hours a week and not complain, so that helped me along.
Since a lot of our readers are not quite wine experts, could you explain what a sommelier is?
A sommelier is a fancy word for a servant. As a wine servant, you specialize in wines and you help explain to your guests about the wines they can have and order. Some people’s definition of a sommelier is a lot broader—someone can just work in wine, period, but I think that the true definition is that you serve wine to guests. For example, I am now a Partner and Beverage Director at Cote, but I still consider myself a sommelier since I’m still serving wine to guests on the floor.
James of is the author of “Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé” (HarperCollins) and the upcoming book “Wine Girl” (March 2020, Ecco/HarperCollins). Photo courtesy of V. James.
Photo courtesy of V. James.
Tell me about founding Cote, and what you did before.
Pre-Cote, I was working as a sommelier at two different restaurants—Aureole and Marea—and I met the owner of Cote, Simon Kim, at Piora in the West Village. As a sommelier, you’re selling wine, but that’s only part of the industry. If you really want to have power and if you want to vote with your dollars, you have to be a buyer. Take, for example, being a buyer at Bloomingdales—you are purchasing product and managing inventory, figuring out what the trends are, doing customer research, et cetera. You’re meeting with vendors, suppliers, distributors, and putting together a list of products. That is what being a wine director means. And now I have a multi-million dollar program, which is crazy. It’s a lot of money, and that means a lot of buying power.
I wanted that power, and to delve more deeply into the industry, so Simon hired me as his wine director buying wine for Piora (his restaurant in the West Village) and then we opened up Cote together, along with a great team. Opening a restaurant is one of the most difficult things ever—not only is it difficult because it’s time-consuming and incredibly emotional, but it’s almost like opening a play. You have no idea how it will be received and you could easily lose millions of dollars. We were very lucky that our concept was well-received and we are doing well, but that was a big fear.
Tell me about your role at Cote.
As beverage director, I basically handle everything liquid in the restaurant—water, spirits, beer, juice, tea, coffee, and, of course, wine. But, in addition to that, because I’m in a leadership role, there’s nothing that doesn’t fall under my jurisdiction—I clean bathrooms, I check coats, I take reservations. Usually, the first half of my day is focused on beverage directing—from the early morning to the early afternoon I’m essentially ordering and overseeing all of the liquid for the restaurant. Then, in the second half of my day, I am a sommelier and leader. We have a great team of four sommeliers here at Cote, and I help them sell wine on the floor to our guests and make people happy. This is the fun part of the day. Sure, curating a wine list is intellectually fascinating and brings me great pride, but all of my joy comes from serving others. This means finding the perfect pairing for a guest (in their budget!) and empowering my team to feel great. The shifts here are long. We open for dinner at 5 pm and our kitchen closes around midnight. So our team will definitely go home tired. Working in restaurants is a hard, blue-collar job, even if it seems glamorous. But my hope is that although their bodies might be tired at the end of a long day, their minds are engaged, and they are empowered. I want the whole Cote team—from the glass polishers to the barbacks to the sommeliers—to know that they have purpose and are important. Because they are.
As a leader and a manager, I can’t just swoop in and sell all of the wine. I am kind of like the hype person. I walk around, jazz up the sommeliers so that they are excited to sell wine, and make guests happy. I walk over to guests and pour them frosé, make people laugh, and help clear tables. When you get to the top of the leadership totem pole, you need to constantly interact with all levels to stay relevant.
So although my days begin in the early morning and tick into the late night, I go to bed feeling energized. I love what I do, and dream of more ideas for the next day.
In addition to your role at Cote, you write a lot—you wrote “Drink Pink” recently—and, in general, are in the media often. As someone who integrates a lot of writing into my life in addition to my job, I’d love to know how you make time for all this.
As you know well, writing is so time-consuming. I try to do it in the early mornings, late at night, or on the weekends. You just have to carve out time for it, and that applies to anyone who wants to do something in addition to their day job. For example, with my second book, “Wine Girl: The Triumphs, Obstacles, and Humiliations of America’s Youngest Sommelier” (Out March 2020 by Ecco), I calculated how long it would take to write over the course of five years, which meant that it would take about two hours a day of work, so I would wake up two hours earlier. It just is what it is, and the other secret is sometimes giving up your social life.
Yes, unfortunately, that is a big part of it. Where are you in your career today?
Today, Cote is crushing it, and we’re looking to expand the brand to other cities. I’m working on more writing and my new book is out early next year. The third big thing I’m working on (with two other women at Cote) is launching a non-profit (Wine Empowered) which is free education to women and minorities in the hospitality industry. Diversity isn’t going to magically happen in restaurants, we need programs that champion for it.
There is this barrier in the wine industry, this initial barrier, which is not only financial. When I was going to wine classes, I was the only woman in the room, it was just not a healthy or conducive growing environment. I’m sure it’s the same in architecture, or finance, or tech—it’s not just the prohibitively expensive education, it’s also the environment. People literally don’t feel safe to grow in these classes. As a woman, you are constantly sexualized and belittled, and that’s me as a white woman. There are so many people who have it way worse because of their skin color, sexual orientation, or religion. That’s why I wanted to expand the program beyond those who identify as women. I wanted those who felt like outsiders and underdogs to get ahead. Stay tuned for the official launch later this year.
Eventually, I truly believe that we will outweigh the boys’ clubs and someday they will become extinct. The more women and minorities that start and run these new initiatives, the better community it will be for everyone.
Yes, talk to me about the boys’ club aspect of your industry. What did you do to get past it?
I didn’t really get past it, the boys’ clubs still exist, I just don’t go to them and instead have made my own sort of all-inclusive club. The boys’ clubs are actually more prevalent than ever, which is sad. Just the other day, I was talking to someone in the wine industry that was putting together a luncheon for the top buyers in the city. They showed me the list of who they’re inviting, and I just said, “You do realize you’re inviting fifteen white men. Is this on purpose?”
What did they say?
They said, “Oh no, these are just my buddies.” I was like, “This is literally the definition of the old boys’ club.” I listed at least 10 other people they could have invited, who were women or minorities, and they were just like, “I’m all for diversity, but I don’t know these people.” Well duh, it takes work! You can’t just lay back and expect change. Their response was basically that they’re not trying to be racist or sexist, and that this is the way it’s always been.
So when people say, “Oh, the wine industry is changing, we see so many more female sommeliers,” some aspect of that is true, but it’s this less overt sexism that is still so prevalent and people don’t realize it. It’s really sad. And although there might be more women selling wine, there are still few places where women can build their careers, places that will support them if they want to start a family. Worse, there are few women and minorities at the top as buyers, managers, directors, and owners.
What we then have to do as women in the industry, is to build our own clubs that are more inclusive. Eventually, I truly believe that we will outweigh the boys’ clubs and someday they will become extinct. The more women and minorities that start and run these new initiatives, the better the community will be for everyone.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career?
A lot of them have been the sexism, misogyny, and abuse that I talked about. To give more context, not only was I a woman in this industry, I grew up in this industry. Coming of age as a girl in the wine industry is particularly difficult—it’s like you have a red X on you because with youth comes a lot of naïveté.
I’d say the biggest challenge has been learning to trust myself and to have confidence – I was insecure for so long because I always questioned, and people around me always questioned, my decisions and my knowledge. You’re constantly being compared to a group of ‘pale, stale, male’ people. Finding my own security and confidence, and also finding mentors and peers that would support me took a long time.
On the flip side, what have been the biggest highlights?
For me, the biggest highlight is bringing joy to people every day. Being able to build a healthy community and to mentor other young women has also been a blast. At Cote, we now have almost 100 employees, and I have to say, it is actually a healthy work environment. This is something the whole management team works on daily. It doesn’t just happen, we all put in a ton of effort and ask ourselves, “How can we make this better?” We also listen to feedback from our team.
I’ve worked in places that are destructive with very negative energy. One of my biggest joys and highlights is to live in such a healthy space and to also create it for others, and I think our guests feel this.
The best piece of advice I can give is a famous quote I try and live by, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
In general, what is your mission? What’s the impact you’d like to have?
My goal is to help diversify the industry and give voices and platforms to people who have previously not had them. There was an article that came out recently where someone in the majority was speaking on behalf of someone in the minority, and nothing makes me more upset than that. A white man speaking for women everywhere. I mean, wow, it was really bad. And the worst part is that the article was written by a woman—so she’s giving him the platform. I think that’s another point, some people don’t even realize what they’re doing because these things are so deeply ingrained.
So that’s my focus—diversify, give platforms to people who have not recently had them, and I truly believe that this will lead to a happier, healthier, restaurant industry.
What advice do you have for anyone just starting their career, but also more specifically, for young women starting their careers?
For anyone starting their career in wine, just from a scholarly perspective, read and learn as much as possible. Not just wine, read a little bit on everything. Read novels. Read the newspaper. You have to be able to sell anything to anyone. That means knowing enough to be able to communicate with people from all walks of life and make that meaningful connection. If you have a ton of wine knowledge but don’t have that ‘bigger picture’ vision, you are missing the whole point.
Specific to the hospitality world, the biggest thing is to focus on making yourself happy first. Focus on what gives you purpose, and how you can bring joy to others because the hospitality world is about serving others. One of the biggest mistakes young sommeliers make is that they’re chasing some elusive certificate or pin or career goal, but those aren’t the people that are most successful—the most successful are those who are in this for the right reasons.
For women specifically, find an environment that’s healthy—in fact, come to Cote! Try to find healthy mentors and other women to help you, and try and mentor others. No matter what your level, mentor those around you. You’re never too young to start mentoring other women—women of all ages need support and that’s the only way to fight the patriarchy, to support other women and find peers who are in this with you.
The wine world is starting to change, but there still aren’t enough women or minorities in positions of power. There is deeply ingrained sexism. Platforms are still given to the old boys club.
The best piece of advice I can give is a famous quote I try and live by, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Hidden Fences Genevieve Gaignard Chromogenic print, 30 × 45 inches, 2017. Image courtesy of Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles.
Some continuity tried to claim me
the wet like the liquid in my eye
crossing the tea-dark water of the river pool
I felt my body’s recognition
of its element and wanting
and I, cradled
in my skull, floating in its own ocean,
felt the thin bone between me and me
a leaning like vertigo, like calling, like
a hum of knowing, close as touch.
So I crossed slowly, ready
never to leave.
All this came back in the blue
under the jetty where we practiced
after the pool and suddenly breathing
became strange, inward swell
of lung, outward give
rhythm wouldn’t beat
and repeat, each step a volition
reflex battled with training
remember, pull in air, not
too fast or deep
Panic has its own pattern,
too fast, too deep, its blue too opaque
fish through which the waves pulse, rise
in a school whole, too much
wonder and alien softness
If I can stop dying, I can see
the water and light make peace here
30 feet below where I do not belong
Gabeba Baderoon is a South African poet living and working in Philadelphia. The author of “The Dream in the Next Body” and “A hundred silences,” she is at work on a new collection, “Axis and Revolution.”
About the artist: Navigating the intersections of race, gender, age, and religion, “The Powder Room” builds upon Genevieve Gaignard’s practice of character-driven self-portraiture in photography as she introduces a new cast of women, each played by her. Continuing the concepts embedded in her recent solo exhibition, “Smell the Roses,” at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, Gaignard’s new body of work employs exaggeration and camp to explore social constructions that relate to her identity as a biracial woman. “The Powder Room” alludes to a confessional space where the artist is alone with her own image, a place to compose the self and reflect on its performance. Through this lens, Gaignard—the performer and the person—challenges notions of beauty as a tool in the construction and presentation of self.
JULIA GAMOLINA. PHOTO COURTESY OF SYLVIE ROSOKOFF.
Woman to Woman: Conversations Across Boys’ Clubs—An Introduction
Working in architecture and having interviewed over 70 of the women who advance the profession, I’ve often wondered about women in other male-dominated fields. My conversations in architecture have inevitably touched on what it’s like to be a woman paving her way in a man’s world, and the world is abuzz with similar conversations happening in Hollywood, in tech, and in politics. There are, however, a large number of other industries that share a lot of similarities and that we don’t hear about as much. After meeting many incredible women in such fields—at The Wing, through friends, and even through Madame Architect—I decided that it was time to write about and talk to them too.
With Madame Architect, I didn’t approach the interviews looking for a certain story or a certain angle—their core is that they are just conversations between two women on the challenges and highlights of our profession. With this spirit, I introduce “Woman to Woman: Conversations Across Boys’ Clubs,” where I speak to comedians, sommeliers, poker players, public defenders—all of whom happen to be women. My hope is that in covering more professions, I can bring back to architecture that which has worked for women in other male-dominated fields, and vice versa, and that in sharing stories across industries, professions, and focuses, women all over will support each other and encourage each other to build a new and different world.
Ally Hord is currently a writer for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” A graduate of Northwestern University, she began her path in comedy in the UCB LA community as a writer on a house sketch team. Ally served as an executive producer at the website Funny or Die, where she was able to work on shows like “Billy on the Street,” contribute to the development of @midnight, and write, direct, and act in celebrity sketches as well.
For the 2012 election, she launched Funny or Die’s political content page “Live Funny or Die” which became a Webby honoree for humor. She also produced two full-length Funny or Die features: “iSteve” and “The Art of the Deal”. In 2018, she sold a half-hour comedy pilot to NBC with Seth Meyers’ company Sethmaker Shoemeyers.
In her conversation with Madame Architect’s Julia Gamolina, Ally talks about her persistence in becoming a writer in the world of comedy and the diversity in today’s writing rooms— advising young women to ask for what they want and to be open about their experiences.
ALLY HORD, AMBER RUFFIN, AND SETH MEYERS DURING A 2018 SKETCH “POINT, COUNTERPOINT.” IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.
Julia Gamolina: When did your interest in all things writing and comedy first develop?
Ally Hord: I grew up doing theatre, taking improv classes, and watching SNL, so acting, TV, and comedy were always interests from the get-go. I went to college for film, putting a pause on comedy and not getting back into it until I graduated and was an audience page for “The David Letterman Show” as one of my first jobs. I got to be in the theatre and see the warm-up and watch the show, and that solidified it for me—I knew I had to work in this world.
What was it about comedy?
I just love that you can digest any life situation or difficult news headline, and send it back out into the world in a way that reframes it as: “It’s not all bad, or at least, here’s another way you could look at this,” in a smart way that catches people off guard and makes them laugh. I always loved that about “Weekend Update” growing up.
“Do you want to be a writer or not? Say no.”
How did you get from film school to “Late Night”?
I’m an elder millennial at 36, so I’m part of a generation that doesn’t really hold a job for ten years at a time—it was very much a freelance existence. I moved to LA, but did so during the 2008 writers’ strike, so I took a job in TV development for a couple of years. At the same time, I was starting to take classes at UCB, I got on a house sketch team, and then eventually started working at Funny or Die shortly after the company had just started.
While I did this, I wrote pilots and TV shows on spec—meaning just writing my own work so that one day when someone does ask for a writing sample, you have good material ready to go that really shows your voice. I did that for about eight years in LA, being in the comedy scene, building a resume through Funny or Die, and freelancing on the side. I submitted writing packets to shows for years, and then one day I submitted a packet to “Late Night” and that was it!
Tell me about your time at Funny or Die.
I was there right after YouTube started and the internet was this wild frontier of comedy videos. The level of production was quick and dirty, so we could churn out videos easily. I was there for four years, first as a producer, and then an executive producer. Funny or Die was one of these exciting places where you could wear many hats, and if you got all of your homework done, you got to write or even direct a celebrity video.
And that’s what I really wanted to do: write. But I was a producer, and also it was a bit of a boys’ club at the time. After years where it seemed like they would never see me as a proper writer, I quit and ended up freelancing over the next two years. Unfortunately, I still had to take jobs producing to pay the bills, but all the while I was doing UCB monthly shows and writing pilots and packets to submit.
AMBER RUFFIN, JENNY HAGEL, AND ALLY HORD AFTER A SKETCH FOR THE 2017 WOMEN’S MARCH FOR LATE NIGHT. IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.
ALLY HORD WITH HER LATE NIGHT COWORKERS AT THE 2017 EMMYS. IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.
How did Late Night happen in this period of freelancing?
I finally got my big break writing on a pilot for Moshe Kasher’s Comedy Central show “Problematic”. It was a non-airing pilot, but it was exciting to be in the room as a writer, and not the one sitting down taking notes as a producer.
During this time, a head producer for an HBO talk show called and said, “You came highly recommended—we have a three-year contract for a producer, and it would start in two weeks.” I went back in the writers’ room and said, “Guys, I really want to be a writer, but this is a three-year gig on an HBO show.” I was expecting them to be like, “Talk about job security, take the HBO gig!” but instead they said, “Do you want to be a writer or not? Say no.” I called the guy back and turned down the job, and three weeks later, I got an interview with “Late Night” to be a writer.
I mean, it was the best advice I could have gotten. NBC liked my writing packet and flew me out to New York for an interview, offering me the job just days later.
You’ve been there for three years—how has it been?
It’s a dream job, truly check marking all of the boxes that I had hoped to—being paid well, paying off my debt, and being in a union with great health insurance, great work-life balance, fair hours, and great vacation time.
We tape at 6:30 p.m., but since Trump tends to drop a lot of news after 6:30 p.m., we put in a lot of last-minute jokes.
What is your role and your day-to-day like?
Every writer here is strong at writing a topical monologue joke, or they’re very good at distilling a topic issue or cultural theme into a sketch. We have a sketch team and a monologue team, and I’m on the monologue team but also write sketches when I have time. For example, for Mother’s Day I wrote and starred in a sketch that was about Hallmark inventing cards for “dog moms.”
In terms of our literal day-to-day, the monologue team gets in a little bit earlier to start writing jokes. We then have three joke deadlines throughout the day, after which we gather with Seth and he reads and highlights the ones he likes. We then have a rehearsal where we gather tourists, bring them into the studio, and Seth reads them all the jokes or sketches or pre-tapes, just to gauge what the audience responds to. We tape at 6:30 p.m., but since Trump tends to drop a lot of news after 6:30 p.m., we put in a lot of last-minute jokes.
This is fascinating—in architecture, the “cycle” of a work product, if you see the work product as a building as opposed to a drawing set, could be something like two to 10 years, but yours is one day! Every day, you prepare for a nightly show.
I would say that’s the best part. If this is your first job in comedy, it is a crash course in how to accept failure gracefully. I could write seven to nine pages of jokes a day, and only get one joke into the show. Ninety percent of our work goes in the trash every day, because if no one laughs at it, Seth kills it. It’s not personal, at all—we have to create a good show, today and every day, and if your material didn’t make it in today, tomorrow is a new chance, and so you move on.
It’s the complete opposite of development in Hollywood, since a TV show, much like a building, can be in development for eight years, and a movie even longer.
Looking back, what have been some of your biggest challenges?
Having the courage and the savings or resources, to step away from a consistent job that was not right for me, or when I was on the wrong “ladder.” Having to take smaller freelance gigs in producing so I could be available for a writing job when the opportunity came was tough because you have to pay the rent! Creative fields are very hard to navigate because of that, and many people don’t have the luxury to take time off to wait for their dream job.
What’s been interesting to me hearing you talk about writing versus producing is that it reminds me of the gender bias we have in architecture, where men are the creative designers that envision and sketch, and women are the project managers, sort of “managing the household.”
Yes, it’s the same gender split. Granted, our writers’ room has a high percentage of women and all writers’ rooms are getting better—but if you go into our bullpen of coordinators, researchers, and producers, there are a lot of women. It was certainly that way at Funny or Die too. I don’t know if women tend towards those roles because of their skills of always being on top of everything, or people just hired them for non-creative positions, but that is how it was. I wore the producer hat for 10 years before getting a writing job.
You had mentioned that Funny or Die was a boys’ club. Tell me about that.
I’m not saying everyone there was exclusionary by any means, but all the people at the top were men—the CEO, CFO, the president, development exec, etc. I think the culture was just that of a group of male friends that had built a company together, and that trickled down. We did have writers that were women, but not many.
Funny or Die wasn’t the only institution guilty of that, in production, and in Hollywood, obviously. I’m lucky to be working at a place now that has adjusted for way more female representation in the writers’ room, and the show is better for it. We have so many different viewpoints about news stories from the women in our room—a gay Latina single mother, an African-American Midwesterner, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, a Korean-American Gen Z’er just out of college—there’s so much more comedy to be distilled from those perspectives than if Seth makes a joke just from his perspective.
ALLY HORD DIRECTING CHARLIZE THERON FOR FUNNY OR DIE IN 2012. IMAGE COURTESY OF ALLY HORD.
On the flip side, what have been some of the biggest highlights?
Getting to work with all of my comedy heroes. The whole business model of Funny or Die was that people could just come and play. People would often tell us, “My film is stuck in development hell, and you’re telling me I can make a 3-4 minute video, and it’ll go live on Monday?!”
We did this April Fools sketch with Charlize Theron, where we pretended that she left her phone at our studio, and we hacked into it and saw that she had recorded a video where she was practicing for a fake Oscars acceptance speech [laughs]. I got to write and direct her in that. Having Charlize Theron turn to you and go, “How do you want me to do this?” is pretty unreal.
Also, I was lucky to sell a pilot this year! Seth and our producer Mike Shoemaker started a production company to develop projects on the side, and the amazing thing about being on their staff is that they offer you a first-look deal. It’s very generous, what they’re doing for their writers.
We live in a world where one of the benefits of social media is that women can be more open about their experiences.
What advice do you have for women just starting their careers?
If there is a boys’ club vibe at your office, just know that that’s a red flag for getting ahead on your merits. I once had a man who was my intern promoted to a position above me just because he was older than me, and my boss said that it would be “embarrassing” for him to continue holding a low position at his age.
A lot of these industries are now correcting for their decades of sexist behavior, but you would be surprised by the things that still come out of people’s mouths in fields you think are more “woke”, especially when they think no one is listening. I have learned to start speaking out against that when I hear it instead of just keeping my mouth shut to not rock the boat. In general, we live in a world where one of the benefits of social media is that women can be more open about their experiences, so I’d like to think that the up and coming Generation Z can speak up for themselves better in the workplace without repercussions.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when first starting out?
I wish I knew to ask for what I want earlier on. When I’ve told people what I’ve wanted, so many people have gone, “Oh! I didn’t know you wanted that! Let me see how I can help you.” For the most part, people want to help if they like working with you—I just didn’t know that I had to ask for it.
Finally, big picture, what do you want to do in and for the world? What’s the impact you’d like to have?
I would love to be a part of moving conversations forward politically where people can laugh but still absorb an important message. I want to be able to look back on my life and know that I was on the right side of history, which is sometimes tricky in comedy, because comedy pushes the envelope.
I also don’t want to regret or feel like I’ve wasted any opportunity I’ve been given. My boss is the head of a production company that wants ideas from us and if I go one year without coming up with ideas to pitch, I will have, in a way, let myself down. People would kill for the opportunity to have studios hear their ideas. I’d be crazy not to take advantage of that, because every opportunity is a gift!
MR. SPLITFOOT BY SAMANTHA HUNT 352 PP. HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT.
Samantha Hunt’s haunting novel “Mr. Splitfoot” tells the story of 17-year-olds Ruth and Nat, orphans raised at the “Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission” in Upstate New York. Ruth and Nat have been Heathcliff-and-Cathy close for almost their whole lives, ever since Ruth’s older sister aged out of the home and disappeared. Led by an abusive man who calls himself Father Arthur, the “Love of Christ!” is a back-to-the-earth endeavor without the bounty, a neo-evangelical commune without the love. When the enigmatic con man Mr. Bell appears on the home’s doorstep with a proposition for Nat and Ruth, the teenagers see a potential way out.
What follows is an upstate gothic complete with anguished ghosts and a haunted mansion. Chapters alternate between two narratives: In the first, the teenaged Ruth and Nat are led into a beautiful but hazardous outside world by the charming Mr. Bell, who teaches them the powers and pitfalls of belief but who has ulterior motives for befriending them. In the second narrative—set 14 years after Nat and Ruth leave “The Love of Christ!”—Ruth visits her niece Cora. With a compelling urgency, Ruth (now mysteriously mute) leads Cora away from the life she knows and onto a strange and difficult journey. Pragmatic Cora struggles with her own crises while traversing New York state on foot, toward a destination known only to Ruth (and of course, the adult Ruth isn’t talking). In shifting between these two perspectives, the reader gradually uncovers mysteries—both natural and supernatural—that have defined the trajectory of these characters’ lives.
Readers will care less about the end of the road than about keeping company with Ruth, who is the story’s luminous heart. And that is plenty.
Though set between the early aughts and our present time, the novel has a decidedly 60s and 70s feel. In one scene, characters dance to records by the Bee Gees, Francoise Hardy, and Linda Thompson. And like the open-mindedness of that time, the universe of “Mr. Splitfoot” is a magnet for self-appointed prophets. Father Arthur espouses a quasi-evangelical doctrine of hard work and self-discipline while indulging in his own alcoholism and his wife’s drug habits. Along her journey Cora meets Sheresa, a self-described “ghost activist,” who explains that the dead are “a totally underrepresented population.” Then there’s Mardellion, a shadowy cult leader whose obsession with the scar covering half of Ruth’s face provides the most compelling reason for flight into the mountains.
Nat and Ruth attract their own share of followers: During basement seances, the other foster children pay five dollars for Nat to summon the spirit of Mr. Splitfoot, who brings word from both dead and absent mothers. Nat channels banal details—“I see your mom roasting a chicken in her pajamas,” or “She’s brushing her teeth while talking on the phone,”—and always ends with the magic words: “She says she’d be with you if she could.” When the past and memory can’t supply meaning for the children’s present, belief wells up to provide an alternate map to the future. Belief in Mr. Splitfoot means believing that a mother would return if she could, that a mother didn’t desert her child willingly, as Nat knows his own mother did.
While Hunt spins a haunting tale, “Mr. Splitfoot” isn’t without its flaws: Too many ghosts and ghost stories are introduced, to the point that the road is littered with portent. A slightly clunky climactic scene slots major puzzle pieces into place while leaving lesser mysteries unresolved. But like Cora, readers will care less about the end of the road than about keeping company with Ruth, who is the story’s luminous heart. And that is plenty.
WOMEN IN SPACES: PAST/PRESENT PANEL DISCUSSION AT FXCOLLABORATIVE, APRIL 2019. FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: MORGAN EVERHART, EILEEN JENG LYNCH, ANGIE LEE, ANNE-BRIGITTE SIROIS, YASSANA CROIZAT-GLAZER
Women are now present in more spaces than ever before—in physical space, representation, and public perception. As diversity increases in the art and architectural worlds, we support and celebrate the work of women in these fields, and question if this presence is enough. On April 29, 2019, a panel discussion “Women in Spaces: Past/Present,” organized by FXCollaborative and A Women’s Thing, brought together women from different but related fields—two-dimensional and three-dimensional, creators and promoters—to explore the rise and future of women in spaces both visual and conceptual.
PANEL DISCUSSION “WOMEN IN SPACES.” PHOTO COURTESY OF BONNY YAU.
Yassana Croizat-Glazer: Why is it important to place women at the heart of what we do? What are some of the ways you have sought in your professional lives to increase women’s visibility?
Morgan Everhart: It’s important to understand who you are, what makes you the way you are, and what matters to you. Some of the best parts of our character come from qualities that are currently identified as female. There are also many significant struggles that come from being women in our contemporary society. We impact our communities by sharing and developing our strengths and opportunities.
Eileen Jeng Lynch: When gender inequality still exists, it is important to highlight the accomplishments and initiatives of those who identify as women. Through my curatorial projects, I have sought to be inclusive and increase the visibility of women. The “Give Voice” Postcard Project provides a platform for all of us of all ages—whether we identify as female, male, or non-binary—to voice our concerns to Congress about issues that matter most. My recent and upcoming exhibitions at The Yard: City Hall Park feature women artists, as do the two exhibitions currently on view at Wave Hill.
“GIVE VOICE” POSTCARD PROJECT BY EILEEN JENG LYNCH. The “Give Voice” Postcard Project is a grassroots, multi-state, advocacy initiative organized by Eileen Jeng Lynch. It’s about making your voice heard by writing to Congress at their district addresses. Using 38 artist-designed postcards, you can help advocate for the issues that matter to you: protection of civil liberties; rights of immigrants, women, and the LGBTQ community; the arts; health care; environment; natural disaster relief; and gun control regulation, to name a few. Stamps and federal officials’ district addresses are included with the cards.
Croizat-Glazer: In one form or another, each of us is preoccupied in our professions with creating visual statements. Because of color’s power to elicit emotion and the fact that it so often operates on a semiotic level in our culture (e.g. red = stop), it can play a huge role in the messages we seek to convey. Could you please talk about the function of color in your work, and how you may deal with the issue of color and gender bias?
Everhart: When painting, you begin with color and end with an image. Most painters, including myself, build their work by color. Color structure determines the expansion or compression of each artwork. There are historically gendered connotations to the form and content each artist explores, such as color, but we aim to intervene on these perceptions.
MORGAN EVERHART LEFT: AS IT SEEMS MIDDLE: THE TWO OF US RIGHT: NEED YOU EVERYDAY.
In our exhibition at FXCollaborative, I showed a triptych of paintings that started with a curved gesture of white and orange paint. I thought that the curve of orange and white in each painting could be interpreted as a landscape or the curve of a figure. When I pushed this idea differently in each of the three paintings, I started to dissect how landscape, florals, and the body are visually depicted. Somewhere between those three subjects, the judgment of the viewer and their understanding of nature and sexuality is questioned.
The question of sexuality often relates to visual representation, which relies more on the subjectivity of the viewer than the content of what is seen. Consequently, a principal drive in art today addresses the sexual in representation—exposing the historically fixed nature of sexuality by breaking apart our visual field. In our exhibition at FXCollaborative, we selected a group of artists who candidly share their perception of self and their surroundings through blending imagined, personal, and appropriated spaces.
LEFT: MARYBETH CHEW, MINISERIES MIDDLE: XIAOFU WANG, HANGING LAKE RIGHT: JULIA GARCIA, CRASH STUDY.
LEFT: XIAOFU WANG, CROONING RIGHT: ANNA PARK, EXPECTATIONS.
Croizat-Glazer: We live in a world where we frequently move in physical spaces that have traditionally underscored and strengthened social inequality—such as medical facilities, mothers’ rooms, bathrooms, and workplaces. What are some of the ways that you have sought to make such spaces more inclusive? Given its divisive potential, what role does art have in these environments?
Angie Lee: In my role as a design director, I provide strategic vision and creative oversight for interior environments across a wide range of scales and project types. I believe there is powerful inspiration in the stories that have silently defined us in the past, so I seek untapped sources for storytelling to expand the range of transformative design thinking. It’s important to recognize, understand, and advocate for the individuality and diversity of needs and desires. As an interior designer and architect, I craft environments that celebrate the multiplicities of human experiences.
PHOTO BY FRANK LINDEMANN, COURTESY OF FXCOLLABORATIVE
“BATHROOMS FOR HUMANS” IS A STUDY THAT EXAMINES COMMON ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT ACCESS, INCLUSION, AND THE GENDERING OF SPACE. DEVELOPED BY CATHERINE JOSEPH AND WHITNEY ODELL, FXCOLLABORATIVE.
Others at FXCollaborative have further explored this as it specifically relates to bathrooms, examining common assumptions about access, inclusion, and the gendering of space. The white paper “Bathrooms for Humans” is an effort to restore dignity to the mundane but necessary tasks of everyday living by bringing bathrooms out of the stranglehold of politics, and back into the realm of public interest and design. Restructuring existing practices and building new paradigms lets us embrace new terrain for the power of good design to take hold and positively catalyze the next generation. Art can fuel and amplify the range of emotions we as designers may not capture within our purview. Color, texture, and content should live in both the art and the design of spaces and loosen the boundaries that too often serve as limitations reinforcing the status quo. I look to art often as an equalizer that sets the table for the unconventional and messy details that we must address to uncover innovation in design.
Croizat-Glazer: What does the word “vulnerability” mean to you? What place does it have in your work?
Everhart: Making art is the most honest thing I can do. If you don’t wholeheartedly believe in what you’re making, people can see and feel that. You must learn more about who you are from what you make so you can establish genuine meaning.
Croizat-Glazer: With vulnerability, the key is getting the dosage right. Show too much and you’re burdening others—show too little and you’ll never really gain anyone’s trust. When you sell art for a living, which is all about creating bonds, people deserve to see a snippet of your soul before they commit to you. One of the ways I most enjoy establishing connections is through YCG Fine Art’s Artist in Residence Program, which allows me to showcase regularly on my website the work and career of different artists, most recently the New York-based painter, Jane Banks.
JANE BANKS NEIN – NINE ACRYLIC ON PANEL, 2006, 8 ¾ X 8 INCHES. IMAGE COURTESY OF YCG FINE ART.
Croizat-Glazer: Who is your audience, and to what degree do they steer your creative process?
Anne-Brigitte Sirois: It’s all about art making. What I mean by this is first and foremost, in anything I do, no matter what the field or the objective, I believe it is always best to follow the process of art-making. As I see it, the path leading to any undertaking is to layer each brush stroke one at a time and feel how it affects the whole until the “painting” is done. And so, in this way, I have to please myself...
Anna Akhmatova is one of Russia’s most revered poets. Her work often criticized Stalin’s Russia by lending a voice to victims of the regime. Like many of her friends and family in intellectual circles, she was considered a threat to the country. Fearing arrest, she and other poets started memorizing each other’s work so it could be spread orally, instead of keeping a written record. Her most well-known poem, “Requiem,” depicts the horrors and suffering that occurred under Stalin. She spent 20 years of her life on “Poem Without a Hero,” which she dedicated to the memory of those lost during the siege on Leningrad from 1941 to 1944.
Hokyoung Kim is an illustrator from South Korea living in New York. hokyoungkim.com
Photo of Nicole Skibola by Cayce Clifford (@cayceclifford)
Life as an entrepreneur is difficult. Life as a cannabis entrepreneur is brutal. In addition to the normal uphill climb of building a customer base, developing a product, finding retailers and scaling, there are the compounded issues of over-regulation, a race to grow (accompanied by a race to the bottom on pricing), and the wild uncertainty that only accompanies a brand new industry. In short, it’s a complete circus.
I was at a dinner party recently with several entrepreneurs who work at Facebook. One was pondering leaving to begin his fifth startup. I watched his face, his incredulous expression intensifying as I described the cannabis market and regulatory “system” (“system” in quotes, because, well there isn’t really a system yet) after he attempted to shrug off my agony as typical startup woes.
Since beginning as a company two years ago, we have had to throw into the garbage thousands of dollars of packaging (thanks to the state changing its mind on packaging requirements again and again). We’ve learned that we have almost zero tax write-offs, (yep, we’re a federally illegal company, yet the IRS is more than happy to take our tax money—IN CASH since there’s no banking yet, either) and we’re first-hand witnessing the “extinction event” of small farmers and craft family brands who are unable to survive the influx of venture capital money and market uncertainty. I can’t tell you the number of times I have sobbed uncontrollably at the steering wheel on my commute to or from work, saddened by the rampant capitalism destroying the spirit of this industry and the looming prospect of my own failure as a small business.
I have learned to give myself space to enjoy them and find bliss in small achievements. These are critical for sanity and survival.
How am I surviving you ask? Here are a few ways that I get through what feels like the most difficult feat of my life:
1. Find your friends.
Befriending other manufacturers (or similar players in your segment) is critical to deciphering obscure regulations, identifying the least horrible legally-mandated distributor or sharing supply chain tips and contacts. Being generous with your knowledge and contacts invites others to do the same. Plus, you have an opportunity to share gossip or snarkily poo poo the latest VC acquisition, together.
2. Know what makes your heart swell.
The golden rule I’ve learned is to never start a company with the sole objective of making money, especially in a very difficult industry. Rather, identify the rewarding moments that come from solving a problem for someone else. For me, hearing from a patient who has found relief from seizures, anxiety, chemo symptoms, or menstrual cramping makes my day. If you are in it for the long haul, you have to find meaning in what you do. If you don’t have that, then, well, you have a decent amount of existential suffering ahead of you.
3. Find joy.
Believe me when I tell you that this one is not easy (conjure again the image of me sobbing, wailing to Frank Ocean at the wheel of my Jetta). There are small moments that come—an award, an email from a patient, a bit of great press. I have learned to give myself space to enjoy them and find bliss in small achievements. These are critical for sanity and survival.
4. Limit fits of IG insanity / jealousy.
I periodically just delete the Instagram app from my phone so as to spare myself the inevitable rabbit hole of unworthiness any creative falls down several times a day. Taking a breather from the scroll of what everyone else is doing and achieving that I am not is seriously important for some perspective. Because after all, how much does it really matter that Kim Kardashian didn’t choose your product for her CBD-themed baby shower?
5. Know that you are more than your company.
This is a big one. Build confidence and a sense of accomplishment in diverse ways. Work on playing that guitar you put down two years ago, learn to surf, take a pottery class. Make the time to remember that you are so much greater than this thing that is consuming all of your time, emotional energy and bandwidth.
At the heart of being an entrepreneur is having the courage to make something that you’d like to see in the world, knowing that you may fail miserably. It’s a huge act of creation and just as important as the final product or service is how you get there and the values you are able to hold close to your heart. Hold onto those for dear life. And don’t forget to laugh at every possible opportunity.
UNTITLED (WOMAN AND FOX) IRIS SCHOMAKER WATERCOLOR AND PAINT ON PAPER 67 × 47.66 INCHES, 2017. PRIVATE COLLECTION. COURTESY OF REFLEX GALLERY, AMSTERDAM, GALERIE THOMAS SCHULTE, BERLIN
Female empowerment. Gender parity. Women’s advancement in the workplace. The topics du jour that dominate both media headlines and the hallways of corporate America are an equally common thread in the daily dialogue of enterprising women across Asia.
The continent accounts for 60 percent of the world’s population (4.4 billion people), and is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, namely China and India, boasting an average growth rate of approximately seven percent.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Asia currently contributes 40 percent of global GDP and will generate nearly two-thirds of global growth in the next few years. Its steady economic ascent for the past 50 years has outpaced North America and Western Europe. China, on average, grew more than seven percent a year with India clocking in growth at more than five percent annually.
For decades, women in major global financial hubs like Dubai, Mumbai, and Hong Kong have been hard at work, often hustling behind the scenes.
Amidst this heady growth narrative, communities across the continent are undergoing seismic shifts in the ways its women contribute to economic development. Nowhere is this visceral transformation more apparent than in Asia’s major urban centers and financial hubs, where the emphasis on women’s ascension into leadership roles and their increasing participation in the labor force is especially pronounced. Hong Kong welcomed its first female Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, this year on the 20th anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to China. In February 2016, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai (arguably the Middle East’s most cosmopolitan city), appointed seven women to his 29 member cabinet, placing them as high-ranking ministers leading some of the most critical city-state initiatives, such as the World Expo 2020.
For decades, women in major global financial hubs like Dubai, Mumbai, and Hong Kong have been hard at work, often hustling behind the scenes. They have taught in schools, performed surgeries, crunched the numbers, answered phones, and often pitched in with family business.
My mother, all of 19, landed in the “desert” that was Dubai in 1977 soon after marrying my father, and just as quickly entered the workforce with her first “foreign” job at an international French bank, where she worked for nearly 40 years. As jobs go, it was a huge opportunity back then for a small-town girl. My parents, both from Mangalore in India’s coastal southwestern belt, were among the hundreds of expatriate Indians that migrated to high-wage economies after India’s independence, mostly to the Arab Gulf countries flush with the discovery of oil, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.
She was the first mom on our block to cut her hair short and learn how to drive.
The seventh of eight siblings, Mom pursued a path entirely her own, making the most of the cards she was dealt. Unlike virtually all of her other siblings who chose to become teachers like my maternal grandfather; my mother, faced with the knowledge that my grandmother (then widowed) was unable to afford her college tuition, opted for short courses in typing and secretarial training after graduating from high school, practical lessons that would help her get her foot in the door for that coveted “office job.”
I remember when I was very young, my mother stood out in stark contrast to the mothers of other children I knew. While she was pregnant with me, she took Arabic lessons and cultivated a deft skill with the language that she maintains to this day. She was the first mom on our block to cut her hair short and learn how to drive.
For thousands of women from that baby-boomer generation, entering the workforce was less about pursuing your passion and seeking personal independence, and more about establishing a path to financial security and family stability. It’s a lesson that’s embedded among countless urban Asian women from Generation X and the newly dubbed “Xennials.”
For Hong Kong-born-and-raised Athena Ng, growing up with both parents working in the 1980s was the norm. Her father was a corporate lawyer while her mother worked in hospitality, and from an early age, she knew she would one day be a working woman too.
LEFT: UNTITLED 13.25 × 7.25 INCHES, 2017. RIGHT: UNTITLED (READING) 61.5 × 34.25 INCHES, 2016. IRIS SCHOMAKER WATERCOLOR AND PAINT ON PAPER
Professional opportunities for women, who now outnumber men in Hong Kong, continue to be plentiful in the Asian metropolis, buoyed by a resilient economy and the easy availability of affordable nannies and daycare. Hong Kong in many ways epitomizes the words of China’s revolutionary godfather Mao Zedong, who once proclaimed that women held up half the sky.
“I loved to read as a child and was incredibly talkative. They called me ‘Miss Dictionary,’” recalls Ng. “I thought I’d follow in my father’s footsteps and become a lawyer, but since my mom worked in finance, from an early age she influenced me towards pursuing mathematics.” Despite not having a natural aptitude for numbers, Ng credits her excellent teachers for helping her cultivate her skill in the subject, one that proved vital in her corporate finance career.
For both Ng and myself, as is the case for most young Asian children growing up, our education was of paramount importance. Academic excellence was expected and encouraged (although not necessarily demanded). My natural affinity for literature and the arts was lovingly cultivated, and even my extended family fawned over my fledgling talents, having never known anyone in the D’Souza clan with a love for writing poems, acting, and painting. This unflinching support inspired me to apply to some of the best journalism schools in America in the hopes of becoming the next Christiane Amanpour.
Ng, who eventually attended the University of Virginia, recalls her parents being quite understanding of her wishes to experiment with her major, although it was a short-lived endeavor. “I knew I had to come back to Hong Kong after university, so after two weeks of trying a philosophy major, and realizing how much writing was involved, it was finance for me!” She graduated from UVA’s School of Commerce in just three years, knowing that her parents needed to save every penny of tuition money that they could.
Like many other women raised by working moms, our notion of money and financial independence is deeply rooted in the words and ways of our matriarchs.
Ng briefly worked in the U.S. before returning to Hong Kong to try her luck in investment banking, where she found ample opportunities to make her mark. “It was a case of good timing,” she recalls. It was the mid-2000s, soon after the U.K. handed Hong Kong’s sovereignty back to China, and Chinese companies were eager to get listed on the Hang Seng index and secure growth capital. At this nascent stage, Ng also began making savvy property investments in the lucrative Hong Kong market. She credits her mother with inculcating this financial wisdom in her.
Like many other women raised by working moms, our notion of money and financial independence is deeply rooted in the words and ways of our matriarchs. “Even if you don’t want to work full-time, you must always do something that keeps you busy in a good way and makes you some money”: the line my mother repeated to me over the years. “Don’t depend on anyone to finance you and your life, not even your husband if you’re married one day. It’s too much pressure in today’s world for a man to be responsible for making all the money. What if he meets with an accident or, God forbid, dies? You can’t just find a job overnight, and you may find there’s no one to help you, not even family or friends. At the end of the day, you can only depend on yourself.”
It’s a lesson that rang true in my mother’s case, when my father met with a serious car accident that derailed our plans to emigrate to the United States and kept him bedridden for six months. I was around three years old at the time and my brother, all of one. It was Mom who kept things feeling normal at home, despite attending to both her job and her convalescing husband. At the time, I was simply happy to have my father at home, understanding little of the pressure that our mother must have felt.
On the occasional trips my parents make back to Mangalore, their conversations with old friends always turn to their amazement at how the India they left in search of economic opportunity has changed so dramatically. The IMF has predicted that India will overtake Germany as the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2022, aided by economic reforms and a substantial young population.
Ironically, while female literacy, educational enrollment, and career opportunities are rising for urban Asian women, many women are choosing to shift their career focus or step out of the rat race altogether in favor of raising their families. A March 2017 report by the World Bank reveals that rising income levels and stability in families are disincentivizing Indian women from joining the labor force. India today has lower levels of female workforce participation than many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, ranking 127th on the gender inequality index and 108th on the global gender gap index. As many as 19.6 million women—equivalent to the population of Romania—dropped out of the workforce between 2004 and 2012, of which rural women accounted for 53 percent, the report said.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the facts are anything but rosy. Research reveals that if women’s participation in labor markets in the MENA equaled that of men’s, the regional GDP could rise by 47 percent over the next decade, and MENA could realize $600 billion in economic impact annually ($2.7 trillion by 2025).
Alternative aspirations, ambitions, and visions for the Asian female identity are typically either criticized or marginalized, although the narrative is slowly changing.
Another factor impacting female workforce participation and acceptance of leadership roles is the pervasive cultural expectation of what “success” as a woman equates to: typically a state of being based on marriage and motherhood. “I feel my mother could have achieved a lot more in her career if she wasn’t also obliged to take care of her children and the home,” shares Ng. “She had a job just like my father, but the difference was that the onus of taking care of the kids’ homework and making sure things at home ran smoothly fell on her, which is the norm in Chinese culture even today,” shares Ng. She believes that even many of her peers today will leave their top-shelf degrees and ambitious early careers behind to have children, or at the very least will settle for jobs that don’t intrude on their domestic life.
Alternative aspirations, ambitions, and visions for the Asian female identity are typically either criticized or marginalized, although the narrative is slowly changing. Never in recent memory has the focus on female inclusion in every aspect of the economy been more pronounced and urgent. And on trend. In February 2017, Nike launched a campaign that spread like wildfire across the Middle East, championing women athletes from throughout the Arab world who are blazing their own trails and even making waves globally, like Zahra Lari, a UAE figure skater who will be the first Arab woman to participate in the Winter Olympics. Portrayals of Asian and Middle Eastern women thriving in fields traditionally considered “unfeminine” have clearly struck a chord.
Politically, several governments are putting money where their mouth is. In May 2017, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—two leading economies in the Arabian Gulf—pledged a combined $100 million to a World Bank billion-dollar fund for women entrepreneurs that was the brainchild of Ivanka Trump.
In the Middle East, women in STEM, gender diversity, and the gender pay gap in the workforce remain hot-button subjects in the mainstream media narrative. The intention to change is widely discussed and some initiatives have already borne success.The Saudi Ministry of Labor launched a special program to increase the number of Saudi women in the workforce “to 28 percent by 2020,” and some studies show positive signs for female workforce inclusion, with the number of women in the private sector increasing by 145 percent between December 2012 and October 2016.
Research widely emphasizes the importance of female entrepreneurship in unlocking exponential gains in sustainable socio-economic development in the developing world. And many urban Asian women for whom joining the workforce may have once been a de-facto route a few decades earlier are bravely venturing into new terrain. One in five startups in Asia is female-led, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“I’ve started to ask myself whether I’m settling for the safe path,” says Ng. “In Hong Kong, I see so many more women than men, especially millennial women, foregoing family expectations of landing a stable job and trying their luck at entrepreneurship. I’m beginning to think of taking my career in a different direction too.”
The future indicates an uphill yet rewarding journey. As generations of working women take inspiration from the likes of Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi and Apple’s newly appointed Managing Director of China, Isabel Ge Mahe, entrepreneurial self-starters are also founding businesses with guts and gusto. In fact, preconceived cultural expectations can actually be a blessing in disguise. “Chinese society places such heavy expectations on men to be financially sound that it gives women the leeway to fail,” says Ng. “And we are taking advantage of that and proving them wrong!”
UNTITLED IRIS SCHOMAKER WATERCOLOR AND PAINT ON PAPER 15.25 × 9.33 INCHES, 2017.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Iris Schomaker explores motifs that have a strong iconic or archetypical power: certain animals, like foxes, cats, or horses, as well as mountains and waterfalls. Her work is figurative with an abstract aspect, achieved through precise composition and reduction of form and color. Among her inspirations are Chinese and Japanese ink drawings and wood prints as well as graphic novels and jazz from the 30s to the 60s.
GIRL IN PRINT DRESS IRMA STERN OIL ON CANVAS, 1938. ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF THE TRUSTEES OF THE IRMA STERN ESTATE & THE UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN IRMA STERN MUSEUM PHOTOGRAPHY: SEAN WILSON
Denigrated by the Nazis, lauded by black intellectuals, embraced by the apartheid-era government, and fitting in everywhere and nowhere, the essence of the noted South African artist is hard to distill—and she’d probably like it that way.
She found her 18 years ago in the stacks of the Lilly Library on Duke University’s East Campus. While leafing through obscure South African auction catalogs for a class assignment, Dr. LaNitra Berger, then a doctoral student in art history, stumbled upon “Pondo Woman,” a painting by Irma Stern. Captivated by the brushwork and struck by the artist’s unusual name, Berger’s accidental discovery turned into a mission spanning nearly 20 years aimed at introducing Stern’s work to a broader audience and reaffirming her importance in larger debates about Modernism in the 20th century.
Now finalizing edits on a manuscript about Stern’s life, Berger spoke with A Women’s Thing about what makes Stern so memorable. There’s no shortage of answers: her legacy is mired in controversy. Though she was a white woman painting the black community at a time when South African artists were not drawing on it for inspiration, her modernist style has been read as both empowering and demeaning by critics of different persuasions. Her own actions were equally complex. She is quoted making objectively racist statements while associating with and providing material resources to the anti-apartheid community.
AWT: Irma Stern! She has a museum. Her work has set a record for South African art sold at auction. So why is she so interesting?
Dr. LaNitra Berger: Where to start? She was both insider and outsider. She lived an almost futuristic life. When you look at how she lived, she lived like a Millennial. She was traveling to all these different countries. Borders meant less to her than to a lot of other people. She’d go back and forth between Germany, South Africa, Europe—she traveled all throughout Africa by herself. She was [in] correspondence with lots of people around the world. She felt comfortable switching between different cultures. But she was also a woman artist trying to make a living in Cape Town in the 1920s, which was a very conservative place. It was definitely not open to a woman being a successful artist.
Maybe she didn’t want to be seen as a radical pro-black artist or pro-establishment artist. Maybe she wanted to be someone who was in the maelstrom.
She was an insider in the Jewish community, but very much an outsider in the Cape Town community. She didn’t look like most Capetonians. She was overweight and had frizzy hair—the community identified her as Jewish and therefore different, so she was an outsider from that perspective. She spent her early years in Berlin as a young artist. Her family had money and she had access to intellectual circles where she met Max Pechstein, a prominent German expressionist artist who immediately saw the value in her work and pulled her into his community. She was an outsider at first but then became an insider in that community. Then somehow she crossed paths with Alain Locke, the African-American philosopher and Rhodes Scholar, who argued that Stern’s work should be emulated by black artists in America. She gets pulled into this discussion about Modernism in black art in the United States. Throughout her life, she was viewed as both an insider and an outsider. And I think that in some ways, very few of us are only insiders or outsiders. But in her case, because of the global nature of her lifestyle, she interacted in these circles where this was very common.
AWT: Wow, so there’s no canonical Stern, so to speak?
Berger: I think that who she was really depends on the moment. When she was very famous in the 1950s during the apartheid era, she received a lot of government support for her work. She went from being considered this radical modern artist in a bad way in South Africa to being considered a modern artist with a European background— as in, European equalling white. Suddenly, she became a real insider. Then in the apartheid system, where everybody’s status was connected to their race, being Jewish put her many rungs above colored and black South Africans. She [moved] in and out constantly. It tells us a lot about how everybody makes this journey. For someone who was born in 1894, she lived through all the most pivotal moments of the 20th century. If you track her through time you can see how she was pulled in and out of these major political moments in Africa, Europe, and the United States.
Irma Stern is not someone you can fall head-over-heels in love with and then forget to be critical.
Maybe she foresaw where she really wanted to be. Maybe she didn’t want to be seen as a radical pro-black artist or pro-establishment artist. Maybe she wanted to be someone who was in the maelstrom. To an extent, her personality was big. She was a very flamboyant woman who loved good food, extravagant meals, beautiful furniture— all the trappings of a wealthy and successful artist. She, in some ways, wanted people to be combative and talk about her and her work, and how she fit in. If you were to resurrect her, she would probably say that this is exactly what she’d want.
AWT: How do you use Stern’s life in your teaching?
Berger: We all have these internal contradictions in some way, shape, or form. Sometimes it’s hardest to admit to ourselves that these things lie within us, and it’s easy for us to judge someone like Stern and say she’s a racist because of what she said. Others say she did people a favor by painting minorities. She’s even criticized for how she fit in with the Jewish community. These types of contradictions are in all of us. I’m glad I picked this topic because Irma Stern is not someone you can fall head-over-heels in love with and then forget to be critical. I’ve enjoyed reading about her life and thinking about her life because it helps me to constantly remember that I have these contradictions too—and that it’s important for me to not judge other people without peeling back the layers.
That’s something I’ve carried with me personally into life, having worked on this topic for so long and as an instructor. It’s how I teach my classes. When I mentor my students, I talk to them about how difficult it is to reach across the aisle, to sit next to someone different, to move to a neighborhood where not everyone looks like you. These are really hard things to do even though they’re tiny steps. They’re difficult! If we can acknowledge that and push ourselves, while living with these contradictions and accepting them, I think that we would see that people could at least acknowledge other people’s humanity a bit more.
CONGOLESE WOMAN IRMA STERN OIL ON CANVAS, 1942.
THREE SWAZI GIRLS IRMA STERN OIL ON CANVAS, 1925.
When you look at someone like Stern, see the paintings of these women, they’re just stunning. You can see that she just felt something when she went out to these areas and painted them. There’s some kind of emotional connection there. Regardless of what she said publicly, she felt a sense of belonging when she went and painted these subjects. That’s moving. They gave her something she felt she wasn’t getting in the white community in Cape Town. That means a lot to me when I think about her and how she fits into the canon of South African art and the canon of women artists.
It doesn’t excuse the statements she made. I’m not making excuses. She made choices and participated in a system that horribly discriminated against women, oppressed women, murdered women, tortured women, and contributed to decades—if not centuries—worth of racial inequality. That’s just not acceptable. But for one person, an artist who was living in a difficult time and was trying to make sense of one particular thing—in this case, race and gender during apartheid—Irma Stern did some very complex work in her paintings.
AWT: Tell me how you think memory plays into the work of Stern.
Berger: Memory is a convenient way and inconvenient way to think about Stern. Where and who you are in the world will affect how you see Irma Stern. She fits no easy narrative.