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“Be an advocate for inclusive collaboration” With Penny Bauder & Lauralee Sheehan

Be an advocate for inclusive collaboration and innovation through design thinking. Design thinking utilizes elements like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions and iterate quickly and responsively so that solutions speak to real problems in a meaningful way. Diverse perspectives and voices help push innovation further and I think that is particularly important […]

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Be an advocate for inclusive collaboration and innovation through design thinking. Design thinking utilizes elements like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions and iterate quickly and responsively so that solutions speak to real problems in a meaningful way. Diverse perspectives and voices help push innovation further and I think that is particularly important to foster and support as a leader.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lauralee Sheehan, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Digital 55.

Lauralee is a former rocker chick-turned agency owner of Digital 55, a collective of award-winning designers, developers, researchers, and content producers working together to create innovative interactive digital media and learning experiences.

Digital 55 works with not-for-profits, government agencies and companies on research, user experience, design, development, content architecture, learning experience design and strategy and complex storytelling. They recognize the power of design to shape and transform the world — and it is their goal to purposefully harness that power to design for good.

They are committed to producing human-centred, value-based digital media products that encourage critical thinking on topics and issues that matter including and not limited to:

– Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

– Social Justice

– Human Rights & Intersectional Issues

– Arts & Culture

– Leadership Skills


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Interms of my tech career, everything leads back to my band days. I was in the Lovely Killbots for 10 years and we also started our own indie record label. The industry was changing rapidly and it wasn’t just about creating music, it was about building a brand, and building all sorts of digital assets in terms of putting your music up on different platforms (MySpace, iTunes, Facebook), making your own videos, and so on. We would design these live sets with video that would change when my bandmate played the kick drum and stuff like that. At the time I thought, “Oh we just want to be rockstars.” But what we were really doing was interactive media and experience design. I started developing courses and longer-form digital modular experiences and noticed a need for more creativity and innovation within the digital learning space. And thus, began my digital career.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

There have been so many great things that have happened, so it’s hard to choose only one but recently we’ve moved into original content production and that’s been really exciting. It opens up doors to work and collaborate in film and media more immersively and stacks the formats we can use to produce complex stories, which helps us build critical knowledge in an accessible and modular way. We were accepted to CFC as a resident in their fifth wave initiative and also got accepted into a super exciting accelerator through Banff Spark women entrepreneurs in media. Although the conference part of the program had to go virtual this year, being integrated into these organizations as a female tech entrepreneur is amazing and a big honour. And getting to rub elbows with Netflix, Facebook, and other content platforms is a great bonus to the whole experience!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I once pocket-dialed a client and left a pocket voicemail. We all had a good laugh about it as it was funny but it made me think, “huh, it IS a bit risky when your tech has to cover all parts of your life.” Our phones and mobile devices usually integrate both business and personal stuff so sometimes those lines get crossed and you end up looking at an email during off time when you shouldn’t (or pocket dial a work contact by accident). It was a good reminder to set boundaries between your personal and professional life as much as you can, knowing that we all live on devices 24/7 and it can be a challenge to step away and take time for yourself. I’ve forced myself to have what I call “tech time-outs.”

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think our interdisciplinary background in design, film, music and learning really helps us be innovative and intersectional as experience designers and content creators. We really care about content and subject matter that connects the human experience, while building knowledge and sparking conversation and change. We call ourselves rebels with a cause because we focus our attention on purposeful content that dives into complex topics like equity, diversity and inclusion, empathy and vulnerability in leadership, human rights and intersectional issues. We’ve accelerated our thinking beyond human-centered design, through diving into humanity-centered design in terms of looking at systems and knowledge dissemination on a whole new level.

Also, because I used to be in a band, that gives us this “super cool” cachet with our clients and collaborators! People know we will take chances and dive deeper into things because we have fun breaking down barriers and forging new pathways.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! We are so excited about some of our upcoming original content projects and a recent free digital learning release that was created for PowerED by Athabasca University. It provides leaders with frameworks and tools to navigate the global pandemic and we talk a lot about empathy, vulnerability and resilience in order to build frameworks leaders can use to support these practices and regard them as critical in today’s workplaces. The goal is to foster inclusive and safe spaces for people to work. Through our interactions and activities, we wanted to encourage leaders to focus on the things they can control or influence and uncover the unexpected opportunities that will help sustain their organizations, teams, and communities into the future so we’re very proud of this project! You can check it out here.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I think STEM is getting better in terms of female representation and opportunity but there is still lots of room for growth in terms of what that diversification should look like. We definitely need to increase the amount of women studying and working in STEM fields and I do think it starts with early years education and fostering this learning for girls. There is still the notion that women often gravitate towards care-based roles and STEM doesn’t usually fit into the “care” space so a lot of women might not even know what careers are available to them from an early age or how their interests translate into STEM-based careers. Thinking that women are better at caring for people and men are better at building things is hugely problematic in my mind and it further compounds the gender disparities we see in STEM.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I think women in STEM are often not acknowledged for their technical skillset, especially if you also use creativity in your STEM role. People will applaud the creativity but diminish the technical competency and prowess. For females, you have to shout from the rooftops about all your technical accomplishments and achievements for that to be heard and acknowledged. I think this issue is compounded by the way in which people are often evaluated in these roles. Like, let’s break that apart and rebuild. How people are performing should be looked at from more dynamic axis points so that it is known what people are bringing to the table and they should be compensated appropriately for the skillset and the thinking, not just what gets translated on paper during a review. Knowledge is a non-finite resource and can be shared without losing it. The knowledge economy is exploding and STEM is a very important part of that future.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

One myth I would like to dispel is that STEM is not creative. People think STEM is dry and logical and therefore not fun or “sexy” and that being a woman in STEM is boring. Being able to build things and solve problems that sustain our world and create a better society is super dope and DEFINITELY not boring. There is so much creativity and thought that goes into working in STEM based-fields and I wish that was highlighted better. I think more women should be featured to discuss all aspects of working in STEM so that the spectrum of experience could be better understood.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

There have been so many learnings from my experience as a woman in tech but I think it really comes down to cultivating the following leadership skills:

Empathy — Empathy is increasingly the one interaction skill that outshines all other skills and involves being aware of the needs of others. And not from your perspective but from theirs. This was an important skill to have during the ongoing global health crisis as people on your team might not be performing or operating in the same way. It is important to understand how the team is feeling and provide support as needed.

Resiliency — Resilience is defined as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. As a leader in tech, there are going to be a lot of stressful moments. For me, it’s everything from running a business to rapid supersonic deadlines to constantly changing information and sourcing content. It’s important to come from a place of gratitude and look at these challenges as something to overcome or create from, rather than an excuse to self-destruct. But if you need to self-destruct for a while, that is sometimes part of the process.

Advocacy — It’s important to speak out against inappropriate things, whether that’s behaviours or compensation, how do you ensure your talented team is being seen, validated, and respected for their expertise? This is still a work in progress for me; learning how to become the type of advocate my team needs while keeping an eye to business objectives and project milestones is a daily consideration. I’ve learned it’s not just about supporting your team to withstand these pressures but taking the lead to call out inappropriate behaviours and practices and refusing to normalize them as “business as usual”.

Lifelong Learning — As a leader you have to keep learning and growing. That never ends and especially in tech, it’s important that you stay on top of the constant iterations in thinking and technique. There are so many options for learning these days, it’s really easy to integrate into your routine. Whether it’s taking a course or even reading an article, information is literally at our fingertips.

Purpose — Think from a humanist perspective and step out of your own personal scenario. How can you support your community? How can you create value both in the present and for the future? I think purpose in leadership (and especially in tech) is so critical. There are a lot of problems to solve and a lot of issues in the world that need innovative and thoughtful solutions. We always loop back to our purpose when choosing clients and collaborators to work with or when activating our own content projects and that continuous touch base creates meaning in our work.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be an advocate for inclusive collaboration and innovation through design thinking. Design thinking utilizes elements like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions and iterate quickly and responsively so that solutions speak to real problems in a meaningful way. Diverse perspectives and voices help push innovation further and I think that is particularly important to foster and support as a leader.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Equity and education are huge areas that can create major change. We spend a lot of time working on equity issues and building learning experiences. With capacity building on the knowledge side, there is the opportunity to help a lot of people navigate the world around them, and grow their skills to include the 21st century competencies that will help provide equitable access to opportunity. 21st century skills are defined as skills, abilities, and learning dispositions that are required for success in 21st century society (critical thinking, collaboration, information literacy, technology literacy, media literacy, communication, flexibility). Many of these skills are also associated with deeper learning, so making sure that education is prioritized, properly funded and continuous in deployment is key. When everyone can participate in building our future, that gives us a chance to create that future equitably and sustainably.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I always quote this as I find it to be so true: “You are always one decision away from a different life.” The reason I like this is because sometimes I think we can get into the mindset of life happening to us with legacy or personal history dictating what our future will look like. This quote seems really empowering in terms of having and making choices to build the life you want by design rather than by default. An example of this for me was the decision to move my company into full time operations after I lost my job. In terms of career trajectory, losing your job can seem dire and dramatic but it truly was such an amazing moment and a moment where I didn’t just react, I decided. It was empowering to make the decision to strike out on my own and I haven’t looked back since.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I have been leaning into comedians during this unprecedented time and watching a lot of content from them on the current state of the world and especially regarding the disparities and inequalities that have been amplified. The reason being is I find that through the discipline of comedy, the realest conversations happen about human experience. There is a total “disrupt” feeling about the way they are approaching current events, social inequalities and cultural thinking. Andrew Schulz is one of these comedians that has been making things more digestible and accessible on very complex topics so I would love to have a conversation with him about how comedy can and has been able to disrupt cultural thinking.

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