Photo shot by Justin Wu

Talent on Tap – Lauralee Sheehan and Digital 55 Put Women First For A Change

In a world where change happens so slowly and sometimes goes backwards, it can be very difficult to get ahead in some industries that are saturated with inherent prejudices, run by white males using outdated practices designed to maintain a traditional model. It has oppressed good and talented individuals for all the wrong reasons and for far too long. There has been an awakening and it’s time to break the mold and conventional thinking. Old practices are slowly being swept off the stage to make way for an entirely new brand of business owner, that doesn’t really depend on the colour of your skin, your gender or sexual orientation – it’s your talent that counts. If you’re wondering why the aliens haven’t made contact, it’s because the world is still so divided. In a world where a simple hello to a passing stranger has become taboo, awkward and over analyzed, it takes a group effort to evoke new strategies. We can talk about climate change but culture change/shift is another priority that sometimes flies under the radar. Protests are one way to say ‘enough is enough’ but platforms are not always easy to build and they can require many hands.


The diversity of media ownership is nearly non-existent in Canada. In a study by the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project (CMCRP), it was concluded that 70 per cent of the media landscape was made up of four conglomerates: Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Telus, and 100 per cent of these companies are run by male CEOs. According to Lauralee Sheehan, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Digital 55, a Toronto-based digital content studio serving purpose-driven organizations. “The majority of independent and mainstream media-based companies in Canada are run by businessmen who have never spent a day working in the media.” How can we cultivate a diverse, informed society when the narrative has been predominantly controlled by only a fraction of the population? 


Lauralee is passionate about instigating societal change towards diversity and inclusion, anti-discrimination, and advocating for women in STEM and digital media. She’s dedicated her rapidly-growing agency, Digital 55 to address these issues through producing digital content, cross platform media and digital learning course modules to educate, entertain, and inspire critical thinking. “In order to shift perspectives, shape policies, and champion for social and systemic change, women ought to have a greater voice (and greater access to funding) to produce media.”


I love talking to people that are changing the world one mountain at a time and Lauralee Sheehan has the endurance and tenacity to take on Everest. The Digital 55 team is female led and their focus is shining a light on cultural anthropology and giving a voice to societal issues that need our attention. With their finger on the pulse of media, entertainment, politics, gender parity and cultural shifts, they are able to forecast trends long before they happen and document the issues arising from it. Brilliant minds bring fascinating subjects to the forefront and Lauralee, along with her team have dedicated their efforts to building platforms through media to represent a mirror that we don’t like to look into often. 


I caught up with Lauralee at her home in Toronto and it was a real privilege. She was inspirational, smart, motivating and very passionate about cultural anthropology and watching the meter for the red line. Roll the tape!         


HNMAG “You’ve discovered that 4 conglomerates – Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Telus are run by male CEO’s. How can the public have a part in changing it to reflect more parity in the industry?”

LAURALEE “That’s a good question and something that we think about often. What’s interesting is, we get to be involved in a lot of conversations in deconstructing this. We’re in a couple of media incubators for female media producers, content producers and media entrepreneurs. These conversations are on the forefront, in terms of what’s happening on the IP side and who owns it, as well as other voices and storytellers. The large percentage of them not getting funded and not being produced by diverse voices is quite alarming. In saying that, I love that there is more knowledge in general, on the social purpose side and from people that might not be producers but still want to support authentic content from producers they might not be familiar with, because that opportunity wasn’t there before. As for my own involvement in the industry, I’m involved in some incubators, involved in conversations, listening up for any new government legislations and ensuring that we’re in the room even if we can’t get a seat at the table. It helps us to dissect what’s happening in order to know where to intersect to affect that change. I also think that social dialogue is great and having a platform where people can have open discussions while raising awareness is a great start.” 


HNMAG “You’d like to see the public get behind the industry and show support by voicing the importance of change in film and TV?”

LAURALEE “Yes, and we’re seeing change because of it, in the forms of more envelop funding available to BIPOC creators, as well as more funds and funding envelopes available for female content producers. It’s just the start of it but we are seeing those opportunities filter into media funds, which are sometimes driven by tax dollars. With people more involved in where that money is going, is a great thing.”


HNMAG “Considering change is happening, where do you feel they are still dropping the ball?”

LAURALEE “It’s a continuous problem and as an Indy media company, we produce media for clients as well as original content, which keeps us quite busy. Trying to navigate some of the funding to determine what you’re eligible for and what you’re not can be quite laborious, but I’ve learned that they are in the process of making the funding more accessible and lighter, requiring less paperwork. Content moves fast and media needs to move faster than these funding outlets allow us to do so. Taking a fresh look at them and being more responsive and agile to what the industry needs is a huge lift for people and I hope it continues. It’s becoming more accessible and you don’t have to reformat/reshape your project to meet the funding requirements. There are less limits and checkboxes required to get funding which helps to support content producers and media creators.”


HNMAG “Have you ever approached any of those funding platforms to ask if they’d get behind an all-women funding grant/initiative to help balance out some of the current content?”

LAURALEE “It would be great to see that and I know they’ve provided some funding envelopes to BIPOC creators. We do advocate for diversifying their funding envelopes in general and we’ve had success with Telefilm and Canadian Media Fund (CMF). We show up to those meetings, events and conferences to be a voice in the room to talk about the changes needed in the industry, especially from the perspective of a female filmmaker – we’re always looking for those opportunities.”    


HNMAG “If you were the CEO of Telus, what is the first thing you would advocate change for?”

LAURALEE “I believe being responsive to diverse talent is really important and having more diversified funding envelopes is really key because it’s not currently happening. Lighter application requirements are also key because it doesn’t reflect the demands of media producing. Digital 55 is a company where we work across a couple different industries, with media being one of them but we also work in ed-tech. I found if you don’t fit perfectly into the media space, I feel that you can get written out of eligibility at times. Media producing looks different now, so being responsive to what people are bringing to the table and getting more innovative in terms of what media producing looks like and where it might come from, has changed.”      


HNMAG “You’re passionate about instigating societal change towards diversity and inclusion, anti-discrimination, and advocating for women in STEM and digital media. Can you explain what STEM stands for?”

LAURALEE “It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. These are the disciplinaries that females weren’t really participating in and the numbers still remain quite low. I also had a hard time identifying myself as working in tech. I was always calling it creative, but technology is a huge part of how we operate. We still see low numbers of women in those industries in comparison to men and I’ve taken a lot of time to advocate for change, in terms of altering the numbers and talking about it.”



HNMAG “Do you see hope that film and TV will continue to transition and evolve to reflect a more gender balanced industry within the next 5 years or do you think it will take longer?” 

LAURALEE “I’m an optimist at heart and I think it’s going to be an iterative thing and we might not see the sweeping changes we were hoping to see; it might take longer for it to impact the industry. I do believe the changes/things that are happening are good. We’ve been working with some key incubators – Banff, SPARK, the incubator for Women in Media and The Canadian Film Centre. I feel positive because of those incubators and because those conversations are being broken apart more and more. People understand what’s happening and it’s just change that needs to happen now. I am optimistic that these issues are now visible and people are making the effort. The funding envelopes are changing, the conversations are happening. We all want to see things move faster but it’s happening (laughing).”   


HNMAG “Why do you think it’s taken so long for women’s voices to be heard in the film industry?”

LAURALEE “I think there’s a lot of legacy systems and I know that happens across the board. Those legacy systems were more based on super traditional media models and they weren’t keeping up with the quickness in which people can produce content, whether that’s light and lean (smaller production) or content producers that don’t fit into the traditional system.”     


HNMAG “There’ve been some incredible female directors, such as Penny Marshall, Kathryn Bigelo, Greta Gerwig, Anne Wheeler to name a few. Do you know if they’ve helped to evoke change in the industry and have been advocates for more gender parity?”

LAURALEE “Their success definitely provides visibility and pushes more opportunities toward women. You have to be so proud of their success and I always give a fist pump whenever I hear another success story. In terms of their advocacy, I don’t know how much time they spend on it, but as a woman creator it’s part of the deal. I’m going to assume that they spend a lot of time being part of those discussions to help push for more opportunities but I don’t have any first-hand stories of what that might look like.”


HNMAG “I read that your production company is all female run?”  

LAURALEE “Yes, our executive team is all female, our content producers and exec. producers are also all female. It wasn’t by design but it happened organically and it’s become a mandate for the work that we output as well. It’s been interesting how it’s affected the composition of the company and the work that we do.”


 HNMAG “Do you have any feature films in the works?”

LAURALEE “No feature films but we do have a couple of original content series we’re working on developing; for us, we’re looking more toward cross-platform deployment, where we might have longer program segments and shorter segments. We’re really playing around with the content freeway and that’s been our focus in terms of our nichè. We’re more series based and more on the factual entertainment side, a little knowledge focused with complex storytelling but no feature yet. We’re really focused on the series and the multi-cross-platform deployment.”    


HNMAG “Do you have an interest in social psychology?”

LAURALEE “We have a lot of people on the content and research team that have an ethnographic and cultural anthropology background, which seems to be infused in our storytelling. It’s the interest in looking at human behavior, societal issues and deconstructing them – it’s become a bit of a nichè for us. Cultural anthropology has certainly been the focus of the company.”


HNMAG “I’m familiar with anthropology but not cultural anthropology. Could you explain the meaning of the term?”

LAURALEE “Essentially it’s human behaviour and observing how humans are interacting with each other and the world around them. We’re interested in the human relationship between media, the human relationship between tech, so basically the study of human culture, essentially. It’s studying human behavior in reference to the environment around us. These days it’s digital – how is that changing human behavior? With cultural anthropology storytelling, you’re not pulling stories out of people, you’re really observing more for periods of time before you’re identifying what those stories are. You’re always trying to tell the story from the perspective of the subject or your subject matter.”


HNMAG “When you research cultural anthropology, are you then able to identify trends happening far in advance?”

LAURALEE “You’re spot on in terms of trend casting, it does give you valuable information that can make people more aware of what’s coming next. Of course, there’s always those variables and the chaos theory, so you’re never really going to know what might happen. I think you can get ahead of the curve by a couple of years, in terms of those coming trends and how behavior and interactions will change, based on what’s happening in the world.”           


HNMAG “If you could learn any magic trick, what would it be?”

LAURALEE “That’s a good one. I used to be pretty good at poker but at an amateur level, and I loved all the card tricks where you can shuffle and everything blends, I find it so sexy. If I could do some flippy card tricks, it would be great (laughing).”


HNMAG “What’s the most extreme activity/sport you’ve tried?”

LAURALEE “I’m gonna say, being in a band. I was performing on stage in an Indie band, lugging gear up stairs. I played keyboard, synthesizer and sang. It was quite exhilarating with the potential to be dangerous. I think you need to have some edge in you to do that.”


HNMAG “Are you still in a band?”

LAURALEE “My old band broke up but I did start recording new music with a collaborator. We’re writing music and singles, then making videos for each track. It’s a digital/audio project and we don’t plan to play live. You can find us at www.jo_ryder.io.


HNMAG “What’s your favourite holiday destination?”

LAURALEE “There’s so many… I was a big world traveller and enjoyed meeting different cultures. I believe that putting yourself outside your comfort zone is important to storytelling. The last big trip I went on was in South Africa and I really loved it there. I also loved Paris, New York, Columbia… I’m a big world fan, I love a lot of places. There hasn’t been one favourite but there’ve been some standout adventures recently, so I think I’d put South Africa as one that was quite wild and exciting. We got to do some pretty stellar wine tasting. The wine region is just unbelievable and stunningly beautiful and there’s these little trains that take you everywhere. We didn’t get to do the safari’s but we did the wine region (laughing).”   


Lauralee Sheehan was such a delight and one of those people that you can take comfort in knowing, are committed to good causes. Thank you to Lauralee and Digital 55 for acknowledging and identifying issues that we need to address and send off. 


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