Thunderbird CEO Jennifer Twiner McCarron uses film and TV to champion diversity onscreen and off
Jennifer Twiner McCarron had no illusions about becoming an artist when she began her film and television career in 1999, as an office production assistant at a local animation house. “But I loved to be around creative people,” recalls the CEO of content production studio Thunderbird Entertainment. “I quickly found that my passion was trying to create an environment where people could feel safe and honoured, no one felt like a number, everyone was treated equally, and they could do their best work. So that’s what’s been driving me for over 20 years.”
Twiner McCarron, who took charge of the Vancouver-based Thunderbird group in 2018, also strives to use storytelling as a force for good. As part of that mission, the company ensures that people from diverse backgrounds watching its work see themselves reflected onscreen. Shown on PBS Kids, Season 1 of Molly of Denali was the first animated series broadcast throughout the U.S. with a Native American lead; it also featured some 60 Indigenous actors, writers, producers and other contributors. CBC hit Kim’s Convenience was the first Canadian sitcom led by actors of Asian heritage. Queen of the Oil Patch follows the life of two-spirited Massey Whiteknife, a Cree businessman who moonlights as female singer Iceis Rain.
Offscreen, Thunderbird has created opportunities for marginalized groups, including BIPOC andLGBTQ2S. Besides introducing a company-wide anti-racism policy, it helped launch a paid internship program on the set of Kim’s Convenience for Black people aged 18-26. With the District of North Vancouver and Capilano University, Thunderbird created On the Rise, an independent digital filmmaking program aimed at Indigenous youth.
The company is also tackling underrepresentation of women and gender-nonconforming (GNC) people in the film and TV industry’s ranks. In Hollywood, women comprise just 15 percent of directors, about 17 percent of writers and 18 percent of studio heads, according to a recent UCLA report.
As well as striving for equity in its productions, Thunderbird has given women key leadership roles. McCarron’s fellow female executives include CFO Barb Harwood and Wendy McKernan, COO of the Great Pacific Media arm. The group, which plans to achieve gender parity by 2025, has reached 40-percent female and 10-percent GNC representation in its kids and family division, which accounts for more than 800 of its 1,000 staff across North America.
As pandemic lockdowns created more demand for its content, Thunderbird has set up all of those employees to work remotely. “The bigger and more exciting challenge is in fully realizing the push to make sure everything we do is authentic and the stories we tell are diverse and inclusive,” says Twiner McCarron, adding that the company’s partners are on board. “Netflix, Disney, you name it—everyone’s really taken on this mission. I’m so excited to see what the next couple of years of change bring.”
(From left) Mimik Technology founder and CEO Fay Arjomandi; AndHumanity co-founder Tammy Tsang
For better or worse, few people have more influence on public opinion than marketers. Tammy Tsang took that to heart when she launched Vancouver-based AndHumanity with her brother, Matthew Tsang, last year. The inclusive marketing and communications agency helps a wide variety of brands build customer loyalty and drive positive social change, by elevating and authentically connecting with underrepresented groups.
“We’ve been very lucky to work with some great clients who truly believe they want to make a change in the way they communicate,” says Tsang, who is also founder of sister agency My Loud Speaker Marketing.
To its knowledge, AndHumanity is the only such firm to ask equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) experts to help create a measurement framework and process for its efforts. The Tsangs hold weekly staff training on EDI, led by an in-house specialist. For 2021, they’ve asked other experts to join them.
AndHumanity’s team of 10 also works with advocacy groups from underrepresented communities. In exchange for, say, participating in focus groups or surveys, those nonprofits might receive funding or gain access to a brand’s platform. “Advocacy for underrepresented groups cannot happen unless the privileged are helping them along,” Tsang says.
Then there’s the company’s allied work. AndHumanity is building a network of copywriters, designers and fellow creatives from the BIPOC and other marginalized communities–and making them available to clients. As Tsang explains, it’s about “recruiting people from lived experience to work on the project so that we’re not speaking on their behalf.”
Having escaped persecution in her native Iran at age 17–“Argo-style, but not as dramatic,” she says–Fay Arjomandi lived in dozens of countries before moving to Canada. Life as a refugee changed her, explains the founder, president and CEO of software maker Mimik. “The experience humbles you, and the struggles build you up so that you can face any challenges,” Arjomandi says. “It turns you into a solution-oriented person.”
An electrical engineer, Arjomandi launched what is now called Mimik in 2009, after co-founding two other tech startups. Her Vancouver company’s core product turns any computing device into a cloud server for use by app developers. Last year, Mimik signed Amazon Web Services and International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) as channel partners.
Of Mimik’s 25 staff and five consultants, 90 percent are people of colour, as are four of its five board members, one of whom is a former refugee. Including the founder, three of five senior executives are women of colour, two of them ex-refugees. “It was natural for me to look for equal opportunity among men and women,” explains Arjomandi, who compares her leadership style to that of a mother taking care of the household. “It’s very family-oriented, but at the same time, we’re mission-driven,” she says of the Mimik team. “We have zero tolerance for politics.”
Arjomandi wants to see gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other individual traits become irrelevant in work and business. “It’s about a common culture, being motivated, being honest, having potential to grow.”