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Empowering Diversity and Inclusion in Media-Tech: An Interview with Shahrzad Rafati, Founder, Chairperson, and CEO of BBTV
You’ve achieved incredible success as the Founder, Chairperson, and CEO of BBTV. Can you share the story of how you started the company and what inspired you to enter the media-tech space?
I grew up in Tehran during wartime when access to content was limited. With just a handful of TV channels available, I still recognized the profound impact of content, even on a small scale. At a young age, I had seen enough of the world to realize that I aspired for a different future - one where I could make a global impact.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world” - Gandhi
Growing up in a place filled with so much change and turmoil, experiencing inequality first hand fueled a desire and a passion to be a positive agent for change. I often found inspiration in Gandhi’s famous words, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” It was this motivation that led me to move to Canada in search of more inclusive and equal opportunities.
At the age of 17, I embarked on a journey to Vancouver, armed with only one suitcase, limited computer skills, and a rudimentary grasp of English. My passion for math and tech propelled me to pursue computer science in university. Content again played a big role in my life, helping me learn the language and exposing me to new cultures - and suddenly there was so much more of it. It was around this time I built the business model for BBTV, which came to me when I first attended CES, observing the applications of digital audio which was pioneered by Steve Jobs through the invention of the iPod. This innovation revolutionized how people engaged with music, and I wanted to develop a model that would do the same for content.
My personal background and desire to democratize content fueled my decision to start BBTV. The digital age of content was just in its infancy, and I wanted to expose others to the limitless potential that I saw in the burgeoning industry. My goal was to educate, connect, and empower people around the world. 18 years later, digital video commands more ad spending than traditional media like TV, enabling more than 50 million creators to captivate audiences and generate revenue from the content they create.
When I founded BBTV in 2005, we were one of the pioneers defining and advancing the media tech space. We empowered a new generation of storytellers who were transforming entertainment, and the ways that content was being produced and consumed. From its beginnings as a startup, BBTV has now grown into a leading media tech company, operating in 10 languages around the world, empowering thousands of creators.
To put it simply, our mission is to make meaningful content more valuable. As the largest multi-vertical video platform worldwide with more than 600 million monthly unique viewers, we empower many of the world’s most successful brands, media companies, and creators to define the culture of today and tomorrow.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while building the company, and how did you overcome them?
Day-by-day, BBTV constantly learns and grows as a business, but if I try to share our key challenges, there are two:
The space was not defined and was changing rapidly.
We had to understand the industry and consumption trends as they were changing and evolving constantly.
As an entrepreneur I had to follow my vision and remain clear on what I was ultimately trying to achieve, and not get distracted by all the changes in the space, especially when working in an industry that it’s truly in its infancy.
The customers weren’t educated.
Content creators and IP owners didn’t necessarily know the value of digital rights back in 2005, and we had to educate them to help them understand the value of building, growing and monetizing audiences digitally.
A great example of this is when we launched our Content Management business. The majority of content that was being uploaded to sites like YouTube in the mid 2000s were fan uploaded copies of third party IP (premium content owned by major media companies).
BBTV pioneered the model to help put content owners back in control of their IP, while enabling fans to share and curate the content they were so passionate about. Ultimately, we were the peacemakers betweens fans and content owners.
Diversity and gender equality are clearly important to you, as seen in BBTV’s leadership team and board composition. What strategies have you employed to achieve such impressive diversity and inclusion within your organization?
BBTV has diversity and inclusion at its core and has always thought about success beyond financials. I built BBTV as a quadruple bottom line business committed to measuring success across four pillars spanning financial, people, social, and environmental KPIs. These pillars embody our values and desired impact internally and externally. A core part of our DNA is being an active leader ensuring diversity and inclusion in all forms. We lead by example and have created a number of programs and initiatives designed to achieve a diverse and inclusive organization and environment, including:
Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Hiring & Promotion Practices:
Setting and maintaining equal pay for equal work policies with a goal of 0% pay gap no matter how you slice it.
Hiring practices ensure gender balance at all levels (40%+ company wide);
Equal Opportunity Hiring: At the screening level for candidates of all seniorities, to the extent that it’s possible, BBTV interviews at least two qualified women for every open role.
Inclusive Job Descriptions: Each open role at BBTV goes to market with a job description that includes inclusive ‘Equal Opportunity Employer’ language to welcome people from all backgrounds, regardless of race, family status, sexual preference or any protected class.
Equal Opportunity Promotions: In addition to diversity, inclusion & equity hiring practices, BBTV practices equal opportunity promotions where the most qualified candidate is selected for an open role or promotion regardless of background. It is encouraged to propose a qualified woman for a promotion at the same time a man would be proposed.
Flexible Work Programs and Parental Leave Policies:
Flexible Work: It is important to be flexible with life’s demands, and BBTV builds flexible work arrangements into the culture that supports female employees who may be in the parental stages of life, so as not to disadvantage their professional progress.
Parental Leave Policies: BBTV’s Parental Leave Policy provides an equal opportunity for any new parent, whether natural or adoptive, as long as they are the primary caregiver, to receive the maximum amount of paid time off support. These can include financial topups and bridging.
Learning, Training, and Development programs:
Comprehensive Equality and Unconscious Bias Coaching and Training; These programs are an important step in raising awareness and creating a common language in the workplace and having safe and productive conversations to help build stronger, and more diverse and inclusive teams.
Mentorship: Women leaders at BBTV are encouraged to, and participate in, many forms of mentorship from professional association mentorship programs, to more informal mentorship opportunities.
Promoting a Change in Culture and Removing Systemic Barriers:
BBTV has built a culture that is centered on practices that promote programs and behaviours that remove systemic barriers and advocate for enhancing diverse leadership development.
From setting intentional KPI’s to increase diversity representation in key areas, to forming its Diversity, Inclusion & Equity Committee, to developing all leaders to be more inclusive, to creating programs built on equality principles, BBTV has built a sense of pride in a progressive culture where people are free to show up as their true selves, and are celebrated for it.
BBTV works to advocate and inspire other organizations on a global scale to make equality and inclusion practices a business priority, and believes that having true diversity and inclusion practices isn’t just the right thing to do from a moral standpoint, but it’s the smart thing to do.
In 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed you to represent Canada on the G20 Business Women Leader’s task force and in 2020 as Co-Chair of G20 EMPOWER. What has this experience taught you about driving women’s economic empowerment on a global scale, and what progress have you seen since then?
I take pride in serving as Co-Chair of G20 EMPOWER Alliance, which advocates for the advancement of economic empowerment and representation of women in senior business roles worldwide. Personally, it is important to empower Canadian women to excel in the male-dominated tech industry, and to inspire the next generation of leaders. My passion is rooted in making a positive impact on women and girls, from job creation, to climate action, education, and expanding opportunities. Drawing inspiration from the words of a great friend and fellow leader, Marc Benioff, I believe that business is a platform for change.
However, in the last 10 years in G20 countries, almost no progress has been made with regards to advancing women in leadership. In fact:
The number of women occupying managerial positions in G20 countries has only grown by 3.3%.
The percentage of women sitting on company boards has been increasing slowly in G20 countries, up from 15% in 2016 to 18% in 2019.
For those aged 15 and over, the gender employment gap stood at 26%.
It’s essential we continue to invest in public and private programs aimed at developing the so-called STEM skills, at changing the current narrative, models and culture and at freeing females from gender stereotypes, taking advantage of the impact and influence that schools and businesses can have. Having women in positions of leadership is fundamental for the economic growth of any country.
What advice would you give to young girls and women who aspire to succeed in male-dominated fields like technology and media?
When I look back to when I first started BBTV, I feel as though I had to really prove myself, especially as a woman, when we were looking for early investment. Given the technical nature of our business, many of our initial discussions highlighted the importance of showcasing my knowledge and expertise.
Would I have encountered the same level of scrutiny if I was male? It’s tough to say, but the advice that I give all young entrepreneurs, whether male or female, is to work harder than everyone else and show that you understand your space and the business opportunity inside out. If you show the commitment and the level of intelligence needed to get ahead, people can’t ignore you.
“She’s done it, so I can do it too”"
If I were to ask you to name a female founding executive, a CEO like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, or Larry Page, the list is quite short. We need more examples. I hope to inspire the female leaders of tomorrow by demonstrating that it is possible. I want young women to think that “She’s done it, so I can do it too”, and I encourage everyone in this room to do the same thing.
One of The Female Lead’s themes is “Dare to Be Different”. How has embracing your uniqueness contributed to your success, and what advice do you have for others looking to do the same?
As a female computer scientist leading a media and technology company, it’s hard not to stand out considering the high concentration of men with similar backgrounds. When I was younger and going through university I was quite shy and I really didn’t capitalize on how my uniqueness was actually an advantage. But when I became an entrepreneur, the only way to move forward was to get out of my shell, and get out of my comfort zone - it was then that I realized that being different meant being unexpected. When something about you is unexpected, it’s incredible how powerful that can be to create new opportunities with the strengths that you have. Being unexpected can take down barriers when it comes to networking and it can make your skills and your knowledge even more noticeable in the right situations.
Finding out what’s unexpected about you is a powerful tool when used correctly, and it’s something I think that a lot of women can benefit from when many of us are so often underestimated.
“Find Strength in Setback” is another theme. Can you share a personal or professional setback that you turned into an opportunity for growth and learning?
BBTV was, in fact, the first and largest manufacturer of set top boxes in Canada. I was incredibly passionate about producing and aggregating content but it became clear to me that physical set-top boxes were not the future - content consumption was moving online, so I pivoted the business to digital content, and it’s a pivot that absolutely paid off. Even now, 18 years later, the space has so much room to grow and it’s still evolving very quickly.
Our success in this journey was made possible through heavy innovation, aimed at delivering tools and services that solve real industry issues, and through our core business mantra of ‘quick failures’. Today, I advocate for ‘quick failures’ across the business, emphasizing the importance of failing fast and learning from mistakes.
What are your passions outside of your professional life, and how do they fuel your creativity and leadership?
I am a big advocate for a healthy lifestyle. I train a lot and eat well. To relax and recharge, I run, swim, and do pilates and yoga. Additionally, I find enjoyment in watching entertaining and educational videos! I’m also lucky enough to reside in BC, and the proximity to beautiful parks, mountains, the ocean and to a world of incredible food and sight-seeing makes BC an unparalleled place to live in the world for nature-enthusiasts such as myself.
“Ask for Help” is a theme that underscores the significance of seeking support and guidance. Can you share a pivotal moment when you sought help or mentorship, and how it impacted your journey?
“Always do the right thing - personally and professionally, it may not be easy, but you will never regret it”.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of advice and guidance, however I believe you should be selective about the wisdom you take onboard. One piece of advice that stands out to me is: “Always do the right thing - personally and professionally, it may not be easy, but you will never regret it.” I’ve incorporated this into all aspects of my life, and it’s helped guide many of my decisions over the years.
You’re a highly sought-after speaker for industry events. Can you share a piece of advice from one of your speaking engagements that has most resonated with your audience?
Prioritize empathy in your life and as a leader. With all that has happened in the past few years, there have been realizations as to the importance of leadership. We’ve seen vividly contrasting leadership styles by different world leaders who have demonstrated dramatically different results in terms of how they have managed through the pandemic, comforting the public through loss and upheaval. We’ve become painfully aware of an absence of leadership when it has occurred and we’ve seen strong or unlikely leaders emerge. Empathy is really one thing that the best leaders have in common.
Leaders absolutely need to be empathetic in today’s diverse world, and I believe that empathy is the key to inclusivity. We need to listen, and do our best to understand the variety of perspectives that we represent and impact through our businesses.
Great leadership is at the heart of positive change in the world, from accountability to equality and justice. The solutions to the world’s problems still lie in great leadership, and empathy’s at its core.
About this contributor:
Shahrzad Rafati is the Founder, Chairperson, and CEO of BBTV, a leading company helping creators become more successful. She has driven BBTV to advance the media-tech space and transform entertainment. Shahrzad led BBTV’s historic IPO on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 2020 as the largest IPO with a sole female founder & CEO in the technology sector. She supports several influential Boards and Associations, including G20 EMPOWER as its Co-Chair, and Bjarke Ingels Group, and is recognized for her contributions to the media industry and entrepreneurship. She has built BBTV as a quadruple bottom line business, measuring success beyond financial performance to include people, social, community, and environmental KPIs. BBTV has achieved a 0% pay gap, 50% BIPOC and female representation at the board level, ~40% of its employees identify as female, and ~45% of its managers are female identifying.