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4 Women-Owned Businesses You Need To Know
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From the US to the EU and South Africa, meet female founders across the globe breaking boundaries and carving paths for women in advertising

Clockwise from top left: Mary Nittolo, Lorraine Smit, Melina McDonald, Bernadette Rivero, Sylvaine Mella

To mark women’s month, LBB’s Sunna Coleman dives into the topics of equality, progression, and the obstacles facing women in advertising, speaking with the STUDIO NYC founder and CD, Mary Nittolo; FortLee founder and MD, Sylvaine Mella; Darling Films co founders and EPs, Lorraine Smit and Melina McDonald; and Cortez Brothers president and EP Bernadette Rivero.

LBB> First of all, we would love to hear what drives you as an entrepreneur?

Mary Nittolo, the STUDIO NYC> There is a Picasso quote, ”Everything you can imagine is real.” We work in an industry where we get to test this every day. We get to work with
our imaginations, and produce work that bears the stamp of our identity. We get to make connections, finding commonality between subjects and aesthetics often having no very apparent connection. We get to engage in creative culture and see finished work - artefacts that bear our influence. How wonderful. And each project is different so there is little chance of getting bored.

Sylvaine Mella, FortLee> My entrepreneurial spirit came after many years of driving companies towards success on behalf, or together with, other people, and I felt it was time to start anew.

Lorraine Smit, Darling Films> For me, it’s the passion and love for what we do and the industry; seeing people grow when you create opportunities is so rewarding that it drives us to do more.

Melina McDonald, Darling Films> We love a challenge and finding new ways of doing things. Our approach has always been open and solutions driven. We love developing new talent. As an entrepreneur we have the choice to follow what we have done before - or take a fresh approach and look at things differently when required. We like to do both. And we have fun doing it!

Bernadette Rivero, Cortez Brothers> And I love fighting for the chance to let filmmakers who have a unique way of looking at the world turn their lens on it with the firepower and support of a production company, an ad agency, a brand - an entire circle of people who believe in them as much as I do.

LBB> As a female leader in the advertising world, do you think that the industry is encouraging for women?

Melina, Darling Films> I think as a woman you have to work harder and be stronger to be noticed or respected in the industry - and often the challenge is from other women. A woman is often underestimated and certainly this is one of the triggers that started Darling. It is always interesting that, for example, women directors seem to fall in a generic category - which we have challenged by having 50% of our director base be women. The skills and strengths of each are completely different. It was a real highlight when we were told we were a girls club - we didn’t know such a thing existed.

Mary, the STUDIO NYC> I’m not sure any industry is really that encouraging still. A recent UN Women report states: "The Covid-19 pandemic underscores society's reliance on women while simultaneously exposing structural inequalities across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection.” 

The study states that prior to March 2020, "women did nearly three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men." Post-March 2020, the gap widened further.  And while it might sound like I’m getting political, I approach design as an inherently political act - aesthetics are political. They can define the identity of a person or an institution in a community, communicate values,  express lifestyle and philosophy. You can’t divorce the socio-political context.

Sylvaine, FortLee> In recent years, French film people have actively encouraged parity with the signature of the chart 5050x2020. Also the 10% extra financial funds provided by CNC to features where parity is achieved in film crews has helped producers to realise the lack thereof and to act accordingly. There is still a lot to do but the lines are definitely moving. 

In the advertising world, I was surprised by the lack of reaction despite some nasty cases. The creation of Les Lionnes has definitely helped. 

Bernadette, Cortez Brothers> I came out of the 24/7, breaking international news, journalism world, and left it because I didn’t see any examples of healthy families (or any intact families, really), the advertising world - where I got my start even before I went into news - seemed more encouraging for women in comparison. I was looking to have both a home life AND a work life.

The numbers were radically different, too. I remember standing at ground level of an earthquake after a natural disaster I was covering, looking around, and realising that there were a few hundred journalists and I was one of only maybe ten women - period. Plus, one of only two women with a camera in my hands… So as much as progress still needs to be made to see more women at the table in advertising, I’ve experienced it as a much more balanced place than some other professions. 

Doing the Most with Phoebe Robinson - The STUDIO NYC

LBB> What similarities and differences have you seen towards gender equality across different markets?

Bernadette, Cortez Brothers> There are reams of strong Latina agency producers who cut their chops working in the US Hispanic market, and I was lucky enough to see and be inspired by them through the years, in numbers that seem massively different than the gender balance of what what I see in the broader general market. When I couldn’t see fellow Latinas anywhere in the “mainstream” agency world, I could see them blazing trails in multicultural waters.  

Mary, the STUDIO NYC> I see Bernadette’s point. There is also a fundamental misogyny and undercurrent of racism in American culture and we see that in representation. The founders of this country - those philosophers we are always extolling - considered Black people as 3/5 of a person and women unworthy to vote. This exclusion has profound subliminal influence on the consciousness of our country. Look at the debates and the statutes being proposed at the moment about regulating voting rights and women’s bodies. The patriarchy isn’t ready to relinquish… and the US in general and the mainstream agency world are not really  models for equality. 

Melina, Darling Films> As with everywhere, the industry is working towards gender equality and there has been a conscious effort to be more inclusive which is super encouraging - but South Africa also has a long way to go too.

I look forward to the time where women are celebrated for their skills - certainly as a production house that represents a number of women directors with different strengths - it would be great for each to be assessed for their incredible work. Women in top creative positions are also thin on the ground in SA - especially women of colour. Which is crazy if you think of the country’s demographics.

Sylvaine, FortLee> It all depends on who your "partners" are I think. I find now that I am older, it helps eradicate some old misogynistic ideas that people may have regarding my gender.

SA Tourism - Live Again - Darling Films

LBB> You are all founders of leading women-owned businesses. We’d love to hear what drove you to set up your own company and what industry issues you were looking to solve.

Bernadette, Cortez Brothers> It always got under my skin that there was a double standard in content creation, where “multicultural” directors were limited to only working in the smaller multicultural and ethnic markets, and were never invited to do wider “general market” work. But “general market” directors had (and still have) carte blanche to do any work they wanted in both markets. 

The Cortez Brothers, Inc. was founded as a solution to that - a total culture production company that specifically set out to bring our cultural insight to the table and erase those divisions by stepping right over them.

Sylvaine, FortLee> FortLee was named after Alice Guy - one of the first women directors. She emigrated to the US and funded Solax studios in 1910 in... FortLee, New Jersey! Quite bold and adventurous, she invented the comedy genre and also directed the first film ever made with an African-American cast. Parity and sustainability are two very important factors that I always try to promote.

Mary, the STUDIO NYC> I founded the STUDIO in 1988 and named it because of my deep belief in the power of artistic collaboration. The name situates the company in the tradition
of artists’ studios in the mediaeval and Renaissance model. The model posits that even if a project begins with a singular vision, it is ultimately changed through engagement with other artists - creative problem solvers as it were. Projects, touched by many hands adding to the craft and artistry of the piece in innumerable ways, each artist with enormous respect for their colleagues creating something with a heart beating as one.

I set up my business because I wanted to support my kids, have some independence and create a place where I wanted to work,  with creative people whom I wanted to work with; I’m happy to say I’ve achieved that.

Melina, Darling Films> We decided to start a company with relatively new talent - with a group of people whose best part of their careers were ahead of them - to grow with Darling and an ever-changing industry. And they all had to be nice people - no prima donnas and no arseholes.

Lorraine, Darling Films> We also wanted something of our own. We have both spent years building companies and directors’ careers without even owning it. This was to be OUR Darling. The one we love and only want the best for.

LBB> What have been some of the most challenging times in your career and how did you overcome them? 

Lorraine, Darling Films> Balancing motherhood and career in the 90s was tough; never to use an excuse of a sick child in case it will affect how you are seen in the company.  Family is everything, and one has to find the balance to be truly happy and to be the best you can be at both career and parenthood.

Sylvaine, FortLee> It has not always been a walk in the park but I have been lucky to work with some of the best and the most inspiring people in the industry. Production is a constant challenge, juggling to make the impossible happen is a fun challenge and I love challenges. They have taught me to listen to my instincts even more than I do and that I am far more resilient than I thought.

Mary, the STUDIO NYC> I have an expression - ‘in 35 years I’ve started 35 businesses’. You have to understand that I started my career before computers were being used. I worked with conventional tools. There was the switch to computerisation, the dwindling size of screens, new platforms emerging,  the rise of procurement departments, democratisation of tools, recessions, Covid-19… I could go on. 

Melina, Darling Films> We all woke up to a world where everything was taken from us - and as a producer, all the control was removed - no business no income no travel and in SA no wine! 

Lorraine and I buttoned down the hatches and made sure that all our staff were taken care of. And then we pushed through. We started working on the protocols that would allow us to get the film industry open as soon as possible - because the difference in SA was that the crew had no unemployment provided by the government. For the first time in my life I understood that one can do everything right but things can be completely out of our control. Empty cities? Who would have thought. 

Bernadette, Cortez Brothers> The first few weeks of the pandemic lockdown were definitely hard. It made us question, “How do we produce anything when production is, by definition, a collaborative art - and we can no longer gather?” I had a lot of existential sleepless nights imagining a future with nothing but user generated content and self-filmed videos stitched together in editing. But collaboration finds a way… 

We had ad agencies and brands that trusted us in the early days to use untested technology, and no-contact production workflow, and remote video. I remember shooting a campaign one morning where I was at a table in my house on my laptop in Los Angeles, my kids were on the computer in the kitchen attending school, my directors where in Argentina, the cinematographer was in the California desert, the producer was in New Jersey, the AD was somewhere in upstate New York, the art director was in Miami, and the talent was inside their own living room all alone pushing the “record” button on command, and we were all connected by Zoom. I felt so grateful that we could simply COLLABORATE again, even if none of us were physically together.  

Mary, the STUDIO NYC> You have to embrace change. A company doesn’t last 35 years by standing still. Careful thinking and commitment to your team can get you through most things. Staying relevant takes an iterative process that’s kind of similar to everything we do as designers and artists, so I learned to trust the process, accept uncertainty and be open and willing to adapt to new demands, challenges and needs when they arise. The platforms, the tools, the conditions will change based on the time, but what’s important is that one has the headspace, the tactics, the approach to think through problems in a bigger context.

Philadephia - Bagel That - Cortez Brothers

LBB> And, what are you most proud of in your career so far?

Sylvaine, FortLee> What I love above all is to develop talents, whatever their gender is. And to help them explore genres and cross borders: from art direction to directing, from photography to live action, from beauty to comedy...

Bernadette, Cortez Brothers> Exactly - the best days are when a start-of-their-career director finally quits their day job, and is able to transition over to being a full-time director, because The Cortez Brothers, Inc. was able to get them that one job that tipped their reel into a new world of directing opportunities. 

Mary, the STUDIO NYC> It’s the same for me - the thing I am most proud of is job creation. I founded a company where I get to experience not only individual artists’ growth, but I get to see the value their careers have in their lives. Plenty of talented kids graduate with degrees in design and art and never get a chance to make a living doing what they love. I’m also proud of the relationships I’ve made and the people who have trusted me to bring their visions to life. I’ve gotten to work with some of the most extraordinary people.

Lorraine, Darling Films> Nothing can beat that. It makes us so proud when we see our young directors and producers grow into their own and the knowledge that we have helped build a career and future. 

And on a personal level, probably being inducted into the Hall of Fame in Oct 2021. To be put in the same group as some of the people I have had the most respect for in the SA industry, was very special. It also felt like recognition for everything we have done for individuals and the industry over the years.

LBB> How do you see your role in helping other women and the next generation of women in the industry?

Mary, the STUDIO NYC> I teach at NYU and I am on the board of a high school in Brooklyn, so mentoring younger women in that context has come naturally. In my business life, I’ve come across a number of female entrepreneurs whose passion and visions I’ve admired and have worked with them in various capacities - on their business plans, donating design services, just being a cheerleader. These relationships are very rewarding.

Melina, Darling Films> I often feel really incredibly honoured when another woman calls us role models because that is ultimately the best compliment. Lorraine and I take this very seriously - we love to see other women succeed. We love to mentor and are very generous with our help and time - the door is always open.

Lorraine, Darling Films> It’s a full time job, and our absolute mission. Leading by example, creating opportunities, training and supporting women.

Bernadette, Cortez Brothers> I never saw anyone who looked like me in the media growing up, unless you count Maria on Sesame Street. If you don’t see yourself in front of or behind the camera, you have to kind of plough your way through regardless… So hopefully I’ve cleared something of a path behind me, and let the next generation of women know there’s a clearing up ahead, and you can make a living off of production and making ideas come to life. 

Sylvaine, FortLee> Promoting women crews in my own projects is so important and I now also mentor and teach in film schools to promote women, their visions and ideas.

LBB> What advice do you have for women just starting their career journeys?

Bernadette, Cortez Brothers> Leaning in only works if you’ve been invited to the table in the first place; everyone else, get ready to creatively pivot and sway.

Mary, the STUDIO NYC> Listen to colleagues, teams, partners and to those inside and outside the industry especially if they are calling for change. Listen to yourself and be bold enough to pivot. If you aren’t prepared to pivot you risk being left behind. Be flexible and try not to model things on old hierarchical systems. And remember you will make mistakes - they are a fact of life. It is the response to the mistake that counts.

Lorraine, Darling Films> And don't be afraid to ask if you don't know something. Earn respect by how you are seen treating other people. Work hard.

Melina, Darling Films> Working hard is the entry level for sure. And don’t forget to support one another - other women are not your competition, they often can be your allies. We can honestly say that has been true for us. So don’t get caught up - demand respect.

Sylvaine, FortLee> Just believe in yourself. If you are where you are, there is a damn good reason for it.

Nuxe Bio - FortLee

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