Filmmaker Ondi Timoner was sitting on an all-female panel at Sundance last winter when inspiration struck. The #MeToo movement had been swirling in the media for months, and so many of those stories centered around women positioning themselves as victims. A longtime advocate for women’s issues, Ondi saw an opportunity to push these conversations a step further.
“I thought, how can I build on this momentum and transform the conversation from #MeToo to #WeDo?” she told me. “We have got to demonstrate that women are not just victims, but equally driving forces in all aspects of our culture.” And in that instant, a traveling talk show was born.
For the past few months, Ondi and her team have been crisscrossing the nation, bringing together divergent groups of women to chat about everything from cryptocurrency to sex trafficking to Barbie’s waist size. Her guests are forging radical change across the artistic, technological, governmental and social justice arenas. With the support of Dell, her show, WeTalk, has reached tens of thousands. And Ondi, herself a formidable force, shows no signs of slowing down.
I recently chatted with Ondi about women in the media, the conversations she’s sparked onstage and her ambitions to create a global movement. Our discussion, condensed and edited for clarity, is below. As a bonus, she gave me early access to WeTalk’s brand-new episode, “Image Matters: Women in the Media,” which you can watch in full below.
So why WeTalk? Women are shaping our culture every day. They’re calling the shots. But often they’re not people we know of. I wanted to create an event where these women could come together in a room and unpack some of the issues that are affecting all of us. We can use these conversations to shape our culture while having a damn good time.
Tell me about some of these women. We’ve had America’s first female CTO. The inventor of the first industrial-sized 3D printer. The woman who runs the cryptocurrency lab at MIT. My sister, a rabbi who has led massive social justice protests. The photo director for HuffPost. During our series of panels at the Tribeca film festival, each one was anchored by a woman who directed one of the films. In creating these unique combinations, magic happens.
What are some of the issues you’ve touched on? On the “Ethics of Protest” episode, we talked about anger and whether it’s important to be angry. Whether protests ever need to be violent, whether force needs to be used. We’ve talked about youth using tech and finding things that are missing in our society. On that same panel was Bea Arthur, who created a way to use artificial intelligence to help people access therapy. And then we had Melanie Elturk, who created the biggest and best online outlet for hijabs — for Muslim Americans to have what they call “modest fashion.”
It sounds like you’ve covered everything! The panels just pack this punch. It’s like being at the spa. It’s completely uplifting and inspiring.
Are you releasing any new episodes soon? We have a show coming out called “Women on the Edge” where we talk about a court in Queens that attempts to decriminalize prostitution. It follows the journey of a group of women and an advocate who’s trying to help them. To augment the panel, I had Heather Hunter join, she’s America’s first African American porn star and now a photographer. She talked about the addiction to that money and the cycle and attraction to that lifestyle. Having frank conversations like that doesn’t happen very much. It creates empathy. And it’s fascinating.
You talk a lot about moving from #MeToo to #WeDo. What do you mean by that? There’s a lot of rhetoric around men hiring people who look like them. That women aren’t paid enough. Then there are these high-profile entertainment cases, and it’s astounding. Looking at these women that we’re featuring celebrates the work that they are doing, without it being about victimization.
WeTalk could be a force for change. I hope we evolve into this thing where we break for lunch and start actually tackling some issues together, coming up with action plans. We’re hoping to turn this into an active community that gets bigger and bigger. I want to see us say, okay, we’ve learned these things, now what are we actually going to do about it?
Has that happened yet? On one panel, we were talking about the blockchain and cryptocurrency, then the conversation turned to the woman who invented the first industrial-sized 3D printer. It can take plastic bottles and turn them into school supplies. So we started talking about how to get this tool into every school in America. How do we organize around that? Maybe we create a crypto token to start raising that money. After the panel, everyone rushed the stage. It was buzzing with electricity. I mean, imagine if you could drop your plastics off at a school and turn them into supplies.
Why does this moment in time matter, specifically? There’s a window right now where instead of competition, we’re seeing collaboration. People are listening more to women. We need to rise together. There’s quite a lot of wisdom we have to share. Our show allows women to feel supported and make connections with one another, whether via hitting play on one of the videos or being there in the room. It’s not a closed-off thing, it’s an inclusive, collaborative event that’s meant to empower women.
There are many shows and publications out there that focus on women. How is WeTalk different? We have women from all walks of life, brought together in these unique combinations. Let’s say you go to South By Southwest and hear a panel on the future of 3D printing. You don’t normally see Samantha Snabes with the former chief technology officer under Obama and a cryptocurrency expert. And the fact that it’s live makes it very magical. There’s a lot of chemistry, and whatever happens, happens.
Who is your favorite female personality and why? All women I’ve come to spend time with on the show! Arlan Hamilton spent time couchsurfing and sleeping in her car while raising money for her company, Backstage Capital. It’s now thriving and has backed 80 founders who are either women or people of color. She’s a tough woman on the outside who has a heart of gold. And one woman Arlan backed is Bea Arthur, whose company The Difference uses AI as a resource for online therapy, and she uses humor every minute to get people loose and laughing Last but not least is Megan Smith, who seems to have boundless enthusiasm for the power of technology. She was America’s first female CTO, under President Obama, and was instrumental in helping the administration understand how technology could be used for effective policy.
What’s next? We’re heading out on an eight city tour. In September, during the LA Film Festival, we’ll talk to actors, writers and directors, lawyers and #TimesUp leaders in Los Angeles. Then in October, our show will land in Washington, D.C., to delve into the political scene, NASA and the government bodies that affect us everyday. By December, we will be at Art Basel in MIami to create some episodes focusing on fine artists, fashion, immigration activists and climate change experts. The new year will bring us to Sundance and on from there! Our themes are derived from the cities we’re visiting; we want to take on the persona of the city itself and meet some of the women who are giving it its shape.
Photos by Jolene Siana.