A woman at the forefront of emerging creative technology

For our Founder Focus feature this issue, we chat with Tanya Laird, Founder of Digital Jam, and the host of the Digital Jam Sessions; an inspirational woman who, despite currently battling cancer, still continues to facilitate collaboration and innovation in the gaming and augmented reality (AR/VR) sector.

Tanya has been at the forefront of emerging creative technology spanning games, film, TV, comics, music, immersive theatre, transmedia, virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence.

She founded Digital Jam in 2013, a platform that brings together experts, thought leaders and influencers across entertainment and emerging technology to postulate, collaborate and innovate. “The whole point of Digital Jam is to bring together different industries to collaborate in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise,” said Tanya.

As well as CEO and Founder, Tanya also sits as the Vice Chair of BAME in Games, Co-Chair of the Immerse UK group and is a Board Advisor to the British Games Institute. She is the creator of the VR Writers Room and the co-organiser for the VR & AR focused meetup group ‘Augmenting Reality’.

Tanya is no stranger to the startup environment. Before starting her own company, Tanya worked for a non-profit called Habitat for Humanity. She quickly found her way into the games industry via a marketing director job at a game studio called Jagex where she was charged with putting together a marketing launch strategy for a new game. From there, she went on to work for a number of different studios, including Mind Candy – the creators of Moshi Monsters.

Eventually, Tanya decided to strike out on her own and started a consultancy company that was originally meant for the mobile games industry. “When I left Mind Candy, it became a natural evolution for me to want to start my own business because I had been in the startup environment. Back in the day, Mind Candy was responsible for the emergence of Silicon Roundabout and Tech City and even that whole movement in London – the kind of Silicon Valley type attitude but in London. It was very much the beating heart of it all.”

Bringing ideas to life

Tanya has spent enough time in the games industry that she is now an inductee to the Women in Games Hall of Fame and the first Immersive Technology Ambassador for ESL UK.

“What I love about the games industry is bringing people’s dreams to life,” Tanya said. Digital Jam has what it calls ‘naïve experts’ – a group of people who are all experts in their respective fields and who are all brought together in one room to discuss a topic that none of them are experts in.

This really creates a fusion of new ideas and opportunities, Tanya notes.

She told me about one particular example whereby the fashion and the motor industry were brought together: a new type of yarn-level technology allowed for the chemical compounds of the yarns themselves to display certain types of heat or pressure and what the ‘naïve experts’ did was create a skin of material to place around a Formula One car to display the aerodynamics of the vehicle.

“It’s really about collaborating and having these random conversations so people understand the value of having a ‘naïve expert’ in the room,” Tanya comments.

This is very similar to what the Digital Jam Sessions are about, bringing together experts and putting them on a podcast together. As the host, Tanya said: “We talk for an hour about a topic completely different and new to these people. It means that people at very high levels, across various companies, are willing to come into these conversations because they understand the value they’re getting out of it.”

The only female Asian in the room

“I have been incredibly lucky in that everything I wanted to do, I got to do,” said Tanya. But nine times out of 10 she was usually the only female Asian in the room. “Every game studio I’ve ever worked with, I’ve always been the only Asian female in the senior management team and that’s always something that you’re butting your head against – always having to be the first.”

Tanya told me that it was frustrating at times, especially when she was in conferences or on stage trying to be taken seriously. “It can be very difficult at times, sitting there with a group of men looking at you as if you’re some child that has wandered into the wrong enclosure.”

Over the years, Tanya has managed to form acquaintances and create friendships with people to overcome these barriers to such an extent that it hasn’t become something that is a constant negativity. Instead, it has become something that has helped shape her and has made her more determined!

“Maybe in some people’s eyes it’s made me more aggressive, but that means I’m more assertive and there’s nothing wrong with being assertive. If I wasn’t assertive, I wouldn’t be able to stand in the room where the conversation is happening. And if you’re not even in the room, you can’t be there to represent.”

Representation is very important to Tanya, and that’s why she joined BAME in Games – a grass-roots, advocacy group dedicated to improving ethnic diversity and encouraging minorities to work within the games industry – as well as conducted various other endeavours, to be able to show people that there are women and women of colour in these industries.

A personally challenging time

Back in Spring 2018, Tanya was diagnosed with cancer, and it was really inspiring for me to hear about her courage and strength during what is a very personally challenging time.

“To be totally honest, I have not been focused on work at all. But the reality is that I’m still present. I still do podcasts and interviews, I’ll appear on stage, and I’m still what people would call a facilitator.”

Tanya told me that when she was diagnosed, a group of people who she’s worked with for decades came together to support her. “They’ve turned out to be the village that look after me and essentially, I’m passing on the baton to them.

“Although they are there for me as friends, I also know that they will continue the approach of ‘naïve experts’ and bring industries and thought leaders together.”

When asked if she would go back and do it all again, Tanya replied: “Absolutely, I wouldn’t change a thing! I got to do everything that I loved.”

She added: “I’m also really glad that I was able to give back as much as I was to the community – in the mentoring that I did and the boards that I was a part of. It’s incredibly important because it’s not fun to just have all that knowledge to yourself and not share it with other people.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe.