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Sherren Lee | Taiwan & Canada | Growth!!

At age 6, I immigrated to Montreal from Taiwan with my parents and two sisters. I was that kid in kindergarten who didn't speak French and tried to find that other Taiwanese student in class to be friends with. At 12, my family moved to Toronto and I was again the new girl who didn't speak the language. Although I attended a French high school, I relied on my classmates to learn English. I think being different, or being an outsider as a young age forced me to learn to adapt quickly. I've always been fairly shy and often spend more time observing before engaging. But somehow, I managed to assert myself and pave my own path. In grade eight, I remember being so impressed by the student council, and before I knew it, I became the youngest student council president at my school in grade 10. I tend to start out being in awe of something that seems so beyond my capabilities, and then finding myself being in it. I feel very fortunate to have always been a dreamer. I had this sense that if someone else could do something, I could do it too. Why not? People thought I was naive, and while that pissed me off at times, I was proud of being an idealist. Maybe it's because I'm a middle child, or that my immigrant parents couldn't really help me navigate the world around me, but if I wanted something, I took it upon myself to figure out the steps to make it happen. As a kid, I wanted to be a performer so I mailed my summer camp headshot to all the agents I could find (and got rejected by all of them.) I paid for my own singing lessons at 17. I went to university because that was expected of me, but I kept doing community musical theatre throughout my time at McGill until I directed a play for the first time. I saw a flyer and thought... Huh! Directing! The thought of trying it made me nervous in a really good way, so I went for it. I got the job and I've never acted since. When I graduated, I only looked for film and television work. I didn't give myself a choice. I entered the industry through production because I had a Bachelor of Commerce and I could sell myself that way, and kept creating my own indie work on the side. I never really knew what I was doing and often felt lost as I took random shots in the dark. But I focused on the things that made me excited and put everything into the next thing I was capable of, no matter how small a step it was towards becoming a full time filmmaker. It took over ten years, but I got there eventually.

What ignited the spark in you to start your career or to make significant changes in an existing career?

I don't really know what sparked my interest in this industry. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be an actor. I spent hours acting things out in my room, in front of the mirror, imagining scenes and scenarios. As a kid, it was just make-believe. But I never stopped doing it. I always felt a sense of discovery while acting -- fascinated by the characters I'd be assigned to and dedicated in learning who they were and why they felt the way they did. It was the ultimate learning opportunity, to get to know other people and their worlds. I never knew I wanted to be a director until I directed that play for the first time in university. And after that, I was hooked. It gave me that same opportunity to learn about others' stories on a more complex level. I was lucky to know, for certain, that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your career and how did you overcome them?

I was fortunate that EyeSteelFilms took me on as their intern when I chose to make a short documentary film as an independent study (to get my final 3 credits to graduate.) I will always remember Daniel Cross, co-founder of EyeSteelFilms, telling me that there are hundreds of channels on TV and that each of them have hundreds of shows. There is always a crew working somewhere, he said. So there's no shortage of work. If all these people worked on sets, so could I. From then on, I knew that it would be possible to have a career in film and TV. But to be a creator is a different thing. You have to go out there and make your own stuff. Maybe I was a bit more fearless because I didn’t go to film school. I was making things because I needed to learn, and I built community that way. I wasn't scared about who would see my crappy work (because no one did) -- it was just about trying to figure it all out. And I just kept going. Because I know I will never give up, my motto is: Don't die. You have to take care of yourself, put your health and well being first and keep at it. I figure, it's only a matter of time till I get to the summit... just gotta stay alive for as long as possible.

Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits? How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight?

Choosing to be a filmmaker is undoubtedly a path full of ups and downs, and for me, years of struggle. Mostly, I think contention from the people who love me come from a place of worry. I had been in the industry for years and people would still ask me how much time I would give it before I got a real job. I think it's hard for people to wrap their heads around someone who's choosing a life of struggle, without an end in sight. Being quite practical myself, it was hard to justify being broke for so long. But I also told myself - it's not hard to make a living, to make just enough money to survive. You do what you need to: work at a coffee shop, do temp work, babysit. It's important to maintain a level of financial security, even if it's doing something that isn't in your "field," because that's what enables you to do what you're passionate about. And as long as I was "okay," my family wouldn't worry about me, and they’d see how adamant I was. It was frustrating to have to keep standing my ground to the people I loved most, but in the end, they understood and I know they're rooting for me. You have to tell people who you are for them to see you. Maybe you’ll have to repeat yourself a few times, but don't give up, and don't give them a choice.

What would you say was the single most influential factor in your career success?

I'm still working hard at this, but I think that listening is really important. In any situation, listen. Be aware and take in your surroundings. People are usually telling you what they want and if you're capable of really taking that in, I think that can get you farther than you can dream of. If you can listen intently, you can gauge how to best proceed in any situation, figure out whether something is a good fit for you, really connect with people around you and navigate how or how not to move forward. It's great to get into as many doors as you can, but it's important to choose which rooms you want to stay in. For me, I haven't been capable to play in too many arenas at once -- know what your capacity is and don't spread yourself thin. Only do things that you can pour yourself into 100%.

What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?

Something I recently learned: whenever you're meeting with someone, try to always have an ask. I find that people are generally happy to help you, but they won't know how unless you ask for something. Be as specific and as concrete as possible. Do you need advice on a precise thing? Do you need an introduction? A venue? What are you working on and what are you struggling with? Ask for what you need -- more often than not, you'll get it. If I'd done this from the beginning, I think I would've gained a lot more from my many meetings.

What advice would you give to an upcoming young and old entrepreneur locally and internationally?

Spend as much time as possible getting to know yourself. Know your strength and your weaknesses because they equal your brand and your work. Focus on personal growth and the rest will follow.

Photo Credit: Kristina Ruddick

Living Life!!

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