Not only has the Pandemic connected some communities but it has exposed and triggered a number of huge barriers that remain for many people and businesses from ‘diverse’ backgrounds.
There are so many inequalities that exist for northern entrepreneurs, especially women in business as it is women who have been financially and mentally hitting the hardest in recent times.
But there is hope with the ‘right support.’ Here’s how one northern female entrepreneur used Lockdown’s setbacks to spark a new business and magazine.
A self-proclaimed ‘diversity tick box, a young mixed-race woman from the rough suburbs of Sheffield, eventually discovered that her initial barriers were eventually her ‘way in’ to a largely inaccessible media world.
Determined for her underrepresented community to be heard in the media, Sophie Mei Lan set up htps://VeritaMagazine.com an online magazine with a team of community reporters who were ‘experts by lived experience.’
She said: “I was inspired by the stories around me and from all the people I had met on my own journey, much greater than I. Yet they too remained unheard so whilst I was at university studying Italian and Social Sciences with Philosophy, I reached out to those from my home city of Sheffield and in Manchester where I lived.
“To my surprise, assisting them with writing and reporting we created a multi-platform magazine with the help of O2 and UnLtd, which went ‘viral.’ Eventually this alongside all my years of work experience was my way into the mainstream media industry who finally took note.”
But once Sophie had forced her unpolished shoe through the backdoor of mainstream media thanks to the magazine’s team, diversity schemes, and her unique talent to tell stories from communities most of the staff struggled to engage, no sooner did she realise that she would need to conform to thrive. Whilst policies had changed and research showed the power of a diverse workforce, very few organisations managed to address the issue of culture and hierarchy within such bubbles.
That’s when I, Sophie Mei Lan began feeling just like a tick box exercise, which is why I referred to myself in the third person. For many years, I wasn’t accepted for being me, albeit perfectly imperfect. My diversity was appreciated by many when it came to telling untold stories but it wasn’t sustainable for me to conform and not thrive.
At times diversity quotas had helped me to battle my way through barriers but I quickly discovered that without that, most of the recruitment was for ‘lower level’ jobs.
When actually we need to create ways to place talented individuals from diverse backgrounds in leadership positions. Then we are not just ‘modelling’ diversity and imitating a range of values but these values naturally filter through.
Whilst this was a great lesson in hindsight, at the time I just felt grateful for the opportunities.
I was on a number of diversity boards and panels and often was the only one there in an unpaid capacity as a ‘diverse voice,’ so I couldn’t afford to continue.
I was so passionate yet my poverty mindset and lack of confidence held me back in asking for expenses.
That said, I was constantly reinvigorated and inspired by the support from a range of organisations addressing this imbalance such as the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) Journalism Diversity Fund who helped me avoid a plateau in my career when I became a ‘young mum.’ By this point, I had already freelanced for some huge broadcasters thanks to winning an Amnesty Human Rights Media Award for the initial magazine I had set up championing some incredible community writers. But I wanted to have the qualifications in journalism to work for print, online, and broadcast which NCTJ funded.
In between studying, freelancing for national newspapers, and raising a baby, I set up an all-female video production company EvokeMediaGroup.co.uk and my own parenting and mental health blogs and vlogs.
Through Evoke my business partner Daria Nitsche and I managed to secure commissions with ITV, Channel 4 News, and a range of brands. As two dual heritage northern women in film and tech, we were on a mission to make films that came from the heart of communities that evoked emotions.
Again, we did not do this alone and got incredible support from AD: Venture, Leeds Beckett University, and Wakefield First as well as a range of business support across South and West Yorkshire where we are both based.
My own personal blogs and vlogs took off too as I was extremely authentic and candid about my life and mental health.
Yet when Lockdown hit, our bread and butter documentaries subsided and so did a lot of my freelancing commissions as a multi-platform journalist.
But as they say, when one door closes, another opens, and again we received support from Leeds Enterprise Partnership, AD: Venture, and businesses locally which inspired me to start a new business magazine (sparkleupnorth.com, soon to be sparklemagazine.co.uk) and eventually Sparkle Communications, a social business combining my passions to train and empower community journalists and social entrepreneurs to ‘make it in the media’ and as leaders in their own right.
Sparkle Communications is a dynamic, digital story-telling agency that creates multimedia content with meaning. From its own in-house publications, content creators studio including professional podcasting booth and its media training programmes for brands. Not only does Sparkle produce professional content for online and traditional media but it proactively trains community journalists budding digital entrepreneurs and it creates long-lasting connections between people and the media.
We have even secured our first content creators studio and co-working space thanks to The Ridings Shopping Centre which will be our launchpad for our media work, training schemes, and also a wellbeing hub as we will use surplus profits to provide accessible wellbeing workshops for marginalised communities.
I am thankful for my background and even the barriers I have faced, to help me discover what is needed and where I can add value in the world by championing others to become powerful leaders to ‘do good’ and my hope is that they will be recognised and appreciated for their talent. And paid and promoted for it too!
By Sophie Mei Lan