Female Founders: Serena Ryen and Hayley Hogan of Schmeh Films On Why We Need More Women Founders, and The Five Things You Need To Thrive as A Founder

Authority Magazine
May 4 · 15 min read

HH: Why shouldn’t they? I don’t believe gender dictates management style, but I do think having a role model who you can see yourself in makes all the difference. I’ve been lucky to work with and for exceptional women — who are also the hardest working people I’ve known — so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine myself as a founder. Women are tough, intuitive, compassionate, determined; all important leadership qualities. Look at Whitney Wolfe, who founded Bumble and just became the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. There’s no reason to question whether women are capable. That being said, there are so many industries that are still heavily male-dominated, so we need to keep breaking down barriers. The same is true of LGBTQIA+ founders and founders of color. The more diverse our leadership is, the more vibrant the output.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Serena Ryen and Hayley Hogan, sisters and co-founders of Schmeh Films.

Their stories aim to ignite empathy and galvanize positive action, while they do their part behind the scenes to change the too-often unsustainable working culture of the film world. Their award-winning movie “CASHED” is now streaming on Amazon Prime after winning awards for Audience Choice, Best Dramatic Short, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, and a Best Short Comedy nomination. Their new film “High Score,” which sheds light on the threat of white supremacy in America in the digital age, premiered at the Chelsea Film Festival (one of USA Today’s Top 10 Best Film Fests) and has won awards for Best Short, Best Actor, and Best Thriller.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

SR: Of course, it’s our pleasure. I trained as a performer at the American Musical & Dramatic Academy and the Stella Adler Studio in New York City. I started working consistently as an actor and have had the privilege of performing all around the world, opposite stars like Ron Rifkin and on stages like the Tony Award-winning Cincinnati Playhouse and Carnegie Hall. I knew I wanted to work in film and TV as well, and I simultaneously found myself jotting down story ideas that popped into my head but didn’t really know what I’d do with. At some point, my partner Ethan Itzkow (a successful working actor and writer in his own right as well as our eventual Schmeh Films co-founder) was like “Let’s make a movie!” So we pulled up all those story notes I had been collecting without knowing why and we started writing. I don’t think I ever sat down and said “I’d like to be a filmmaker, I’m going to do that.” It just snowballed in a really organic, exciting way. Since then, we’ve produced multiple films, played at many festivals, won close to 10 awards, screened alongside some of the most incredible movies for change that I’ve ever seen like Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” and “Kiss the Ground,” secured distribution on multiple different platforms like Amazon Prime Video and the Oscar-qualifying HollyShorts Film Festival’s BitPix TV, and we have several new projects in development right now as well.

HH: As for me — I earned my BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts, and worked as a freelance photographer and assistant in New York City. In college, I worked my way onto some pretty killer sets, like an Editorial shoot with Beyoncé and an ESPN cover with Blake Griffin. I always loved being on set among the creators and the crew. After that, I was an Account Manager for various design agencies over the years, which led me to the most talented artists I’ve ever met and the chance to build my experience developing packaging designs, animations, and even murals for brands like Baileys, Reese’s, EA Sports, and so many others. That’s how I honed my project management skills and eye for design. Serena and I are sisters, so we were always tuned into each other’s career paths, but it wasn’t until after she and Ethan finished “CASHED” that I realized I could apply my skills to the film industry. Producing is like 20% filmmaking and 80% marketing, so my background added up to be quite useful.

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

SR: This was more than interesting: Ethan and I were in Mexico City when we were finishing up the final draft and starting the pre-production process for “High Score.” After a heavy work session, we went out for a walk and ended up in the vicinity of the Tuvie Maizel Holocaust Museum. As we passed by, we noticed a local bookseller with a prominent display of a bunch of antisemitic classics, including an actual copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion which essentially purports that Jewish people are on an evil mission to take over the world. We stopped to ask if they realized what they were selling — we thought maybe they were just college students with part-time jobs who were unaware of what these books were. But we were wrong. They were vocal about their support for these books’ hateful ideas. They were proud to admit it. It got somewhat heated — Ethan (who is Jewish) and the bookseller arguing, me trying to intervene — before we realized the futility of fighting with a stranger in the street and walked away. But we also realized that we had just experienced, in real life, an encounter nearly identical to a scene we’d written for the film earlier. It was jarring to suddenly be speaking with someone who championed these frightening conspiracy theories we’d been researching and writing about, but we were like “At the very least, we know we’re on the right track.”

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?

SR: When our co-founder Ethan Itzkow, and I started planning the shooting schedule for our first film “CASHED,” (which he directed), we had this concept of using nearly all-natural light and scheduling the shoot according to the sun. We spent an ungodly amount of time tracking the sunlight through the shooting space and planning the shots based on its changing positions throughout the day. We thought we were so clever. But of course, the first day of shooting arrived and it was overcast and rainy outside. No sun to be seen — it was hilarious. We were like “Uhhh…what the f*** do we do now?” But with some quick thinking and the help of our genius Director of Photography Jorge Arzac, we were able to rethink our entire lighting concept and keep going. What we ended up discovering organically turned out even more beautiful and evocative than what we’d envisioned in our heads. Plus, we learned never to rely on the weather and to always have a backup plan.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

SR: I’m thinking of two of my wonderful teachers at Stella Adler, Peter Flynn and Michael Grenham. Peter taught me a game-changing three-word phrase that I’ve taken with me through my career: “Specific and Authentic.” That’s it. It’s simple and yet so powerful. When I’m feeling lost or overwhelmed, I can remind myself to take a breath, get specific, and be authentic. It’s become a guiding principle that I strive to implement in both my career and my relationships.

Mike’s lesson is a little harder to articulate. I remember my first mid-year evaluation with him in: he pointed out that, when he would ask me “How are you?” I always responded with some variation of “I’m great!” “All good!” “Can’t complain!” That’s something I had learned from a previous teacher who had said one day during dance class: “Everyone, take a look at Kelly. I love Kelly because I can never tell what kind of day she’s had before she got here.” I never forgot that and I internalized the idea that, in order to be professional, you have to be impenetrable, impervious to life. Back in the evaluation, Mike said: “When I ask you, ‘How are you?’, it’s because I want to know the truth. And, as an audience, we want to know your truth too” He taught me that being an artist is valuing vulnerability and all facets of humanity, not just the strong, seemingly unbreakable ones. That doesn’t mean bringing every personal challenge into work. But what it meant for me was embracing my humanity and learning to drop that old fear of authenticity. Hah, there it is again: specific and authentic!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

HH: Well, I won’t speak for all women, but what I’ve observed is an inherent respect for male leaders, whereas female leaders are often expected to “prove themselves” before being taken seriously. When movies and TV consistently drill home that the boss is a man, the boss is a man, it becomes baked into our core beliefs. As women, we’re aware of this, so maybe we shrink our goals because we don’t think we’ll be accepted. It’s the same bias that has, until now, prevented a woman from ascending to the White House — we’ve been told time and again that we’re too emotional or whatever other crazy theory from another era. There’s a lot of work to do to shift those perspectives.

SR: Also, the EY report mentions that “In 2019, $26.7 billion was invested into companies with at least one female co-founder; just over $6 billion in female only; and $20.6 billion in female/male co-founded companies.” It also says “Female founders raise less than their male counterparts. And female-only founders raise less of a proportion of funding than male/female co-founded teams.” Why is there still such an enormous discrepancy between funding for female/male teams compared with all female-led teams? Why does there have to be a male presence in the equation to receive that level of funding? And listen, I adore my male co-founders (like Ethan!) and male co-workers, but like Hayley said, there’s still implicit bias in our social and economic structures that we can all challenge on a personal level. Another way to counteract this lack of financial support for female entrepreneurs is for women who have the capital to invest in female-led startups like Sysan Lyne and BBG Ventures are doing.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

HH: We’re seeing big changes already — representation is evolving and there’s a strong movement of women supporting women. But we have a long way to go. The media plays a central role in perpetuating stereotypes, so journalists and entertainment professionals like filmmakers can lead the way in reframing the way we talk about female founders. When we refer to strong women as “shrill” we’re implying they’re unhinged. When we refer to empathetic women as “soft” we’re saying they’re weak. It’s an engineered lose-lose. AOC is the perfect example. She has inspired so much in the last few years, yet she’s constantly discredited and treated like she’s undeserving of her platform. It’s critical that we change the language around successful women. Ultimately, it comes down to us as individuals shedding those prejudices and simply allowing great people to be great.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

HH: Why shouldn’t they? I don’t believe gender dictates management style, but I do think having a role model who you can see yourself in makes all the difference. I’ve been lucky to work with and for exceptional women — who are also the hardest working people I’ve known — so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine myself as a founder. Women are tough, intuitive, compassionate, determined; all important leadership qualities. Look at Whitney Wolfe, who founded Bumble and just became the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. There’s no reason to question whether women are capable. That being said, there are so many industries that are still heavily male-dominated, so we need to keep breaking down barriers. The same is true of LGBTQIA+ founders and founders of color. The more diverse our leadership is, the more vibrant the output.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?

SR: I think one great myth about being a female founder, in particular, is that we have to embody what’s stereotypically considered “masculine” behavior in order to be “taken seriously.” But when people say that, they’re actually talking about toxic masculinity and what often amounts to bullying, harassment, or abusive behavior simply to establish who’s in charge. I’m not talking about how “likable” the female leader in question comes across, whether she smiles a lot or anything like that. I’m referring to behavior like Olivia Wilde talks about here. She describes being advised by a male colleague to pick multiple, visible fights a day with her coworkers to solidify her authority on set (advice she of course didn’t heed). That type of persona does nothing but foster an environment of anxiety and fear-based ego-tripping that’s poison to the collaborative process. Instead, our preferred ethos is one in which setting an example of mutual respect starts at the top.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

SR: I think a person should ultimately listen to their gut instincts when it comes to major decisions like starting a company. But to generalize, I’d say that, if you operate best with a straightforward weekly schedule, ample free time before 9 am and after 5 pm, and weekends fully open, then a more traditional job may be a happier path for you. But for someone who has that hunger, that needs in the pit of their stomach and the extra energy to burn — who’s comfortable making some serious sacrifices in pursuit of that thing that keeps them up at night, and who wants to effect systemic change in their industry, then perhaps building something from the ground up is for you.

HH: I agree with Serena; being a founder isn’t for everyone. I think Renaissance People — which I co-opted from Emilie Wapnick’s Ted Talk, “Why some of us don’t have one true calling” — are particularly well-suited to the challenge. What I mean by that is people with varied skill-sets. I used to call myself a ‘dabbler,’ which comes with the same connotation as ‘Jack of all trades.’ But I love Emilie’s take on that trait because being curious about and capable of many things doesn’t make you less competent, it’s actually the opposite! For example, I use my skills in producing, retouching, graphic design, marketing, and writing on a daily basis. That’s not to say I’m an expert in every area, collaboration is still crucial, but it means I can play an active role in many areas of our business. Serena is the same way, but with a whole host of other talents.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

SR: At Schmeh Films, we use our collective voice to bring attention to under-discussed realities of life today, like the online proliferation of the racist Great Replacement conspiracy theory and what it’s like to live as a low-income Millennial struggling in a megacity like New York. Our goal is to make our world a more equitable, more empathetic place through the power of entertainment and storytelling, which we’ve been lucky to do in collaboration with such effective organizations as the ADL and the JCC Manhattan.

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

HH: That’s a tall order! Personally, I’d love for us — and I mean all of us humans — to start a movement dedicated to wasting less. And what I like about that is that it can be interpreted in many ways. For me, it means only buying the food I can eat, and not letting anything go bad in the fridge. On a grander scale, it could mean industries, such as farming and consumer packaged goods, playing an active role in waste reduction by donating the ‘ugly’ produce (why is good produce ever thrown away when there are food shortages all over?) or championing refillable packaging. I really believe that wasting less is better for the environment, our bank accounts, and our mental health.

SR: Oh yeah, I totally agree. I’d also add that fighting for the equality of women in the workforce is an ongoing movement in itself. Also, I would implore everyone to get informed and involved with the Black Lives Matter movement however they can. George Floyd. Brionna Taylor. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Daniel Prude. Elijah McClain. Daunte Wright. Ma’Khia Bryant. Emmett Till. We’ll never know all of the names of the lives lost to racist power in America. We have so far to go in the fight for racial equity and, while that has to include deep policy change, it starts with the individual.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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.

SR: Oh boy, I’d love to sit down with Daniel Levy and pick his brain about simultaneously show running, writing, producing, and starring in “Schitt’s Creek.” I know our whole team is continually inspired by what he and his collaborators have created with that show.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Authority Magazine

Written by

Good stories should feel beautiful to the mind, heart, and eyes

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Authority Magazine

Written by

Good stories should feel beautiful to the mind, heart, and eyes

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store