Michelle Emson is an Elite+ Mompreneur Member based out of Bracebridge, Ontario. She has been a member with our community since 2013, and most recently was named as a Finalist for The 2017 Mompreneurs “Momentum” Award. Michelle is the owner of Sanctuary Studios, a multi-faceted company with a commercial focus as a digital marketing agency, as well as a social enterprise where Michelle and her team serve as international human rights activists and documentary filmmakers. We are thrilled to be sharing Michelle’s Success Story!
About Sanctuary Studios
Digital Marketing is the core of the commercial side of the business. We offer an extensive portfolio of digital marketing services, primarily to female entrepreneurs. Personally, I have extensive experience in architecting advanced technology solutions for large corporate entities and have now distilled those skills down to a suite of services that we can offer to entrepreneurs at a reasonable cost. Today, we specialize in creating beautiful WordPress websites that are in complete alignment with our client’s branding, image, and business goals. More importantly, we provide a truly worry-free hosting service that takes care of all the technical aspects of maintaining a secure, highly available, web presence. We also offer a full suite of services, including:
- Secure, high performance, and worry-free WordPress website hosting & maintenance
- eCommerce for online sales, membership, and education
- Google G-Suite and Microsoft Office365
- Business Process Automation
- Search Engine Optimization & Search Engine Marketing
- Graphics Design & Branding
- Email Marketing Campaigns
- Video Production, Photography, and Podcast Production
However, Sanctuary Studios is so much more than just our commercial work. The pursuit of human rights, as defined by the United Nations Charter for Universal Human Rights, is at the very core of our mission. As a social enterprise, we have integrated our advocacy and activism work into the primary business model. As such, we sit on a number of national and international human rights bodies, including the Dignity Network; we are sponsors for KyivPride Canada and Women’s March Muskoka; we present keynote talks and host workshops on diversity, inclusivity, LGBTQI rights, Women’s Rights, and Mental Health.
We also seek to employ talented individuals who otherwise cannot secure meaningful employment whilst being their true, authentic, selves. All of our talented team identify somewhere in the LGBTQI2S spectrum. In many cases, they simply cannot be their true selves, in their community, out of fear for their safety, security, and well-being. Our mission is to provide these individuals with a sfe space to both be their true selves and to exercise their skills and talents.
Sanctuary Studios was a finalist in the 2017 Mompreneur™ Momentum Awards; awarded Best Film for “Transgender Life in Slovenia” at the 2016 Ljubljana International LGBTQ Film Festival; and Michelle was recipient of the 2017 YWCA Women of Distinction Award for Arts, Culture, and Creative Energy.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
My current journey in entrepreneurship came about more out of necessity than desire. In 2012, my tenure as a Director of IT came to an end following a restructuring, and ultimately dissolution, of the company I was working for. After several fruitless years trying to secure employment, I discovered the prevalence of discrimination and prejudice levelled at women, and LGBTQI2S identified people, in the workplace. I also discovered that my resumés were not passing the “Google Test”. This is the phase in the recruitment process where HR generalists will check an applicant’s digital footprint by researching Google and social media channels. At this time, I was an openly-out transgender woman and LGBTQI2S rights advocate; these qualities and attributes were not, at that time, attractive to potential employers. Thus, I created Sanctuary Studios as a means to earn a living.
Though I incorporated the company in 2010, I finally landed on Sanctuary Studios as a digital marketing agency early in 2016 following several iterations. Working with the incredible Laurie Goodman on her Life Messages™ web presence, it became clear to me that this was where I could deliver the most value to our Mompreneur™ community, and have the most fun.
It was during Laurie’s “Life Messages Book of Enterprising Hearts” book launch, in May of 2016, that I realized what a gift our community of passionate female entrepreneurs is to society as a whole. Women helping women to succeed. Whilst I had been in corporate IT, and specifically web application development (on a large scale) for many years, I realized that serving the Mompreneur™ community would be my ideal niche. I am so inspired by my peers in this community that having the opportunity to help them succeed was the “purpose” I had been looking for.
What is your “WHY” behind your business/being an entrepreneur?
I have two “whys”; one commercial and one social.
My skills, experience, drive, and business acumen all contribute to a successful commercial business ‘why’. The pleasure I receive from assisting fellow female entrepreneurs grow and market their business is palpable. The balance of feminine energy and complementary skills and resources permits me to not only be passionate about my work, but to also be effortlessly successful. When it’s easy, when it feels right, when it fulfils your purpose – that’s when it stops being ‘work’.
Our social responsibility, however, is my primary “why” and is simple; the pursuit of universal human rights, regadless of any variability of the human condition. This variability might include gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, geographic location, or religious beliefs. Every single one of us deserves the respect and acceptance of us all.
“When we come to love and respect our own uniqueness then, just maybe, we can come to respect and accept the uniqueness of others.”
Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, has made it clear that he will not invest in any company that does not have a clearly defined, and visibly active, social and corporate responsibility. Having a great product and service is merely the entry fee to business; it is the cover charge; it is a given, and is no longer the primary differentiator. More than ever, good business is about giving back to your community which, interestingly, brings us full circle. Laurie Goodman’s “Life Messages Book of Enterprising Hearts”, the catalyst project for the re-launch of Sanctuary Studios in 2016, was packed full of small business owners, for whom their social responsibility is at the very core of their company.
What’s the best part about owning your own business?
Each day I am grateful for the incredible clients on our roster. Each and every one of them are passionate about what they do and are totally committed to their own success. They are not dependent on anyone else for their success and they are not seeking ‘empowerment’; they are stepping into their power and leveraging it for the benefit of their business and their community. This energy feeds me in a way that money simply does not. Furthermore, being a part of this energy, passion, and commitment, means that I rarely, if ever, actually “work”. I am so passionate about what I do that it never feels like “work”.
Each project we engage in is an opportunity for me to give something of value to another entrepreneur. I love working closely with each client to truly understand their needs and to create a strategy that will support their success. This alone is incredibly rewarding.
Finally, the flexibility and variety are also key contributors to the benefit of running my own business. I have the opportunity to engage in community work at a level that would be unavailable to me as an employee. This flexibility to “give-back” is key to my satisfaction and happiness and is a core part of our mission.
Can you describe a typical day?
I am not a morning girl! My mornings are sacred and yet no less productive. I like the time in the morning to enjoy the waking process and to ease into the day. I rarely schedule meetings before 11am, which gives me time to savour my morning coffee, catch-up on my email and social media channels, and check in on all of our hosted sites and services for performance and availability. Typically, I have a clear inbox by the time 11am rolls around and I have the day’s tasks and actions allocated to me and the team; this means that I can truly focus on project work for the rest of the day. My days are typically long – it is not unusual for me to be working through to around midnight. That said, I also have a vibrant social life which invariably involves some kind of community related activity whether it be networking, community projects, music, or theatre.
Who do you count on for help?
My partner, Olena. She is my rock, my life partner, and my business partner. We are also kindred spirits in terms of our human rights work and activism. I also have a large network of incredible people both local, regional, national, and international. Whatever challenge I may be facing, I know at least five inspirational and accomplished people from whom I can seek advice or assistance. The Mompreneur™ community is a great source of inspiration, motivation, and support. We are all swimming against the tide and understand, on an intimate level, what each of us are experiencing as we grow and develop our businesses. This sense of community, and women selflessly helping other women, is unlike anything I have ever experienced.
Have you ever had to sacrifice something at home for work? Or vice versa?
I sacrificed my dining room, which is now my office! But seriously, I choose not to differentiate life, home, and work. To me, every breathing moment, of every day, is an opportunity to do something constructive or a learning opportunity. Life is a gift and we get to choose how we wish to experience it. As such, I don’t “go to work”. What I do, both commercially and as an activist, is rarely, if ever, construed as ‘work’. This approach means that I rarely have conflict between what most people perceive as ‘home-life’ and ‘work-life’. To me, it is all just life! Arguably, I am in the privileged position that my children are grown and independent. For many, this life-work-balance becomes significantly more challenging whilst raising a family.
What do you do on a day off? Do you even know what a day off is?
I am blessed in so many ways, not least of which is my diversity and broad range of interests and skills. I am often asked, “Is there anything you can’t do?”. To which I might reply, “If there is, tell me what it is, and I will give it a try!” Aside from my work, my passions include music, theatre, nature, community, and great company. Living in beautiful Muskoka has many, many benefits including the stunning landscape, and nature, but also the incredible people and community. As a musician (guitar, bass, drums, and occasional keys), there is nothing I enjoy more than the opportunity to play, and perform, with the many talented musicians in my circle.
I tend not to take vacations, preferring instead to combine my thirst for travel with a cause or social justice action. Meeting new people, in new places, whilst pursuing a cause or purpose – whether it be a week-long schedule of Pride events or a human rights conference – is how I prefer to spend my ‘vacations’.
What does the future look like for you and your business?
Bright! Very bright! In 2016, I relaunched the company; 2017 was a foundational year, where we finessed our positioning and our offerings; 2018 is our growth year. We have acquired some incredible new clients to add to our existing roster of inspirational entrepreneurs. Plus, we have engaged some very talented team members in design and development. This is the year that we are scaling the business in capacity, diversity, and projects. This strategy has gotten off to a great start and the whole team is truly excited for the future.
In addition, I was recently appointed the Digital Director for Women’s March Global, the international arm of the Women’s March movement. One again, this position gives me the opportunity to leverage my skills and experience, in conjunction with my passion for human rights, to benefit a burgeoning global movement of change-makers. One of my talks is titled, “When Passion Meets Purpose”; when we, either individually, or as part of a group or community, can apply our passions, skills, and resources to a clear purpose, then amazing things can happen.
I have never felt more aligned with my passion and my purpose than I do right now.
Any tips for other women thinking of starting a business?
My primary tip, for any budding entrepreneur, is to ensure that your business plan, vision, and mission, is truly aligned with your passion and your purpose. When all of these are in alignment, then running your business becomes a natural part of everyday life. It flows, naturally, and easily. This, is the secret to not having to ‘work’ at your business.
My second tip would be not to try to do it all yourself. Identify and list all of you core skills; for everything else, outsource the work. The most obvious, and probably first, outsourcing opportunity is your bookkeeping and tax management, whilst the second might be your digital marketing and website. Engage with reputable service providers that are aligned with you, your values, and your business. In start-up mode we often believe that we can’t afford to do this; however, when you realize that you will spend two to three times as long doing the same work and, with this time you could be applying your core skills and talents to your business, then you will realize that you can secure more revenue, and profit, by outsourcing. One of our clients believed that she could not afford to have us upload new content to her website on a regular basis. However, she quickly came to realize that, if we did this work for her she could spend an additional 20 hours making sales calls (something I hate and would outsource to her in a heartbeat), and could generate sufficient revenue to cover the costs several times over.
My final tip would be to surround yourself with a talented, passionate, highly skilled, and motivated, tribe. Your tribe is your support system. For me, my tribe has been the Mompreneur™ movement. The Elite+ mastermind series is an incredible way to connect with like-minded entrepreneurs for mutual support, peer-to-peer skill sharing, and a journey of continuous education. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely lifestyle but, it doesn’t have to be. Reach out to mentors, peers, accountability partners, and potential service providers. Your tribe will support you, inspire you, and motivate you.