Media Entrepreneurs: Ashima Thomas’ journey from broadcast news to building better stories through VR

Ashima is a broadcast journalist turned entrepreneur. After 10 years of work at BBC, Al Jazeera and CNBC, she founded Warrior9 — a team of content creators who are exploring new ways of telling stories. She’s now creating the first animated VR sci-fi series The PhoenIX. You can reach her at ContactUs@Warrior9.com.


How would you describe what you’re creating?

We are creating the first animated science fiction series in virtual reality. And it is the first foray that I, personally, am making into innovative storytelling.

My whole career has revolved around “story” and I feel like I’m finally doing something truly cutting edge by creating stories in a new medium.

What is the trend that you see that convinced you that this is inevitable and needs to be done?

It wasn’t so much a trend as an experience. I had a VR experience that — as far as first experiences go — was pretty mind-blowing. It revolved around walking in an animated jungle where I heard animal calls that prompted me to look around. I also had to contend with falling trees and other hazards that made my heart jump.

Knowing what I now know about the potential of VR, that first experience was a bit gimmicky. But it felt like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was a feeling of wonder. True, unadulterated wonder. I don’t think I’ve felt that since I was a kid.

I wanted everyone to feel what I had felt, and that’s when I knew it needed to be done, and I could do it.

We’re not just creating stories in VR, we’re creating the language of storytelling… There are no best practices, no benchmarks and nothing comparable.

In terms of timing, why now and not say, 2 years from now?

VR is happening now. And it found me (not the other way around). I was presented this rare opportunity to jump on a train that’s JUST pulling out of the station. Like the beginning of the internet, or the first mobile phones (let’s face it, the VR headsets of today are as clunky and cumbersome as those brick phones of the 90s), we’re at the beginning and the world of VR is an open book.

We’re not just creating stories in VR, we’re creating the language of storytelling. There are ideas that have yet to be imagined and potential that has yet to be tapped. There are no best practices, no benchmarks and nothing comparable. It’s as exciting as it is daunting as it is dizzy-making. If you have the opportunity to be on that train why wouldn’t you?!

In two years VR audiences will be savvy and harder to please, the language and best practices will be more established and consumer choices will be endless. Standing out from the crowd will require a kind of magic that’s hard to come by.

We want to be the pioneers who are helping to build and shape the ecosystem — not slot into it at some point in the future.

And even if (by some chance which is super slim) VR turns out to be one of the most hyped tech failures of modern times, I will have been part of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to innovate one of the oldest ways of communicating… through story!

If you were to write your future press release about Warrior9’s contribution to the world of VR, what would the first paragraph sound like?

Warrior9 — a company whose offerings have consistently pushed the boundaries of virtual reality stories since the release of The PhoenIX in 2017, has just announced its most daring project to date. It’s a narrative experience that will not only deliver the exhilaration that audiences have come to expect from a Warrior9 series, but it adds a new immersive twist that ups the intensity of the experience to a level that many studios have tried to accomplish but with little success.

What is the biggest thing you know today that you didn’t know a year ago?

Transitioning from working in a team to leading a team is complicated. If you want to be good at it, you have to be willing to embark on a journey of introspection and personal growth that’s both painful and gratifying.

I’ve also learned to accept that it’s a journey that never ends, is often lonely, and it can pull you down into dark places, and — by equal measure — lift you up to new heights.

You have to learn to be ok with all of that, most of the time.

I’ve studied this transition a lot, by learning the theory, reading and hearing personal stories, getting advice etc. The amount of information out there is endless. But, nothing can really prepare you for actually living it.

I believe in being open to the signs around you and letting them guide you towards hidden possibilities, and away from exhausted opportunities.

When you look back at the years in which you were a journalist, do you think to yourself, damn, I should have left earlier.

No. I feel like I left at exactly the right time. I had exhausted all the opportunities that I felt were within my reach. I was in TV and after leaving and having the ability to look from the outside in, I also realized that, sadly, TV news is dying. It’s competing against too many other ways of getting news that are faster, more convenient, more informative, and more aligned with widening tastes.

There were, of course, things that I wish I had done (such as become a full-on field producer) and there were also things that told me that wasn’t the job I was meant to be in.

I believe in being open to the signs around you and letting them guide you towards hidden possibilities, and away from exhausted opportunities.

You’ve had more than 10 years at some pretty big media networks like BBC, Al Jazeera and CNBC, where we first met. How did those jobs prepare you to run your own startup?

I’m glad I had a structured start to my career and got to learn how “big companies” work. It taught me to strive for quality and accuracy, deliver on time, work in a team and I learned why its important to be good at what you do.

It also taught me how freeing it can be to work for yourself. When I think back on it, I see how working for an established company has a big effect on how people conduct themselves. They’re forced to slot into a culture that has been created by other people’s conduct (usually their higher ups). That is extremely limiting for both the company and the employee.

At Warrior9 I try to be mindful about culture and creating an environment in which everyone feels free, loyal, accountable and responsible, and that they share in a mission that wouldn’t be achieved without their contribution.

I think that’s one of the most fundamental things that’s missing in a lot of workplaces.

I never knew this about you, but you got your bachelor’s degree in physiology and pharmacology. What drove you into journalism?

So, I ended up doing Physiology and Pharmacology because it was the next best thing after medicine. Sadly, my high school grades were not good enough to get into the uber competitive handful of medical school seats that were open to foreign students in the UK in those times. My parents really wanted me to go to college there, and so I had to “choose something!”

It was hard to get over that “failure” (as I saw it then) and it overshadowed my whole time at college. When I graduated I thought I might try for medical school in the U.S. and went there to prepare. It was not what I expected, and I realized that I wouldn’t be happy. I quit. It was one of the hardest decisions of my young life.

I was thinking about how I could use all this science knowledge if I wasn’t going to work in the industry. That’s when journalism seemed to fill the gap. I could write about science, I thought. So I joined a Master’s program in journalism that was designed for “career changers” and started down a path I had never envisioned and yet, led me to a profession I love.

Students would need to learn the business of being a journalist. In this day and age you don’t need a big media company behind you to get your voice heard and earn a living.

If you had to run a journalism school today, how would you design the program?

First and foremost, it would be mandatory for students to try all kinds of journalism that include different types of writing, audio, visual, virtual reality (!) and everything in between. I only found my passion for TV news because I chanced up on a TV news course at school.

Students would have to discover what role a journalist is actually playing, i.e. where do they fit into the story. The definition has expanded since the days of being an “unbiased observer.” I’ve never found this to be a realistic description to begin with. Nowadays people demand more from their media. They want opinion, they want you to be able to curate what other people are saying, and they want to go on a journey of discovery “with” you (Think Serial podcast, Vice news features, Before the Flood documentary etc.). They don’t want to be told a filtered version of the truth.

Job experience mid-course would be mandatory. The theory that I learned in school was a good foundation. But so much of it didn’t hold its weight when I actually went into the workforce — especially when it came to ethics, standards, professionalism, fact checking, sourcing etc. My principled idea of how news worked turned out to be naive. But that didn’t mean it was wrong. I just wish I’d been better equipped to adapt to commercial realities. Students would be sent out into professional jobs with the foundation, and then get a chance to come back digest the reality, and design a way to make the two align.

Finally, students would need to learn the business of being a journalist. In this day and age you don’t need a big media company behind you to get your voice heard and earn a living. They would learn how to do it on their own and do it right.

What lessons do you wish you learned earlier in the process of being an entrepreneur?

  1. You may start a business so you can do something you love, but you’ll probably spend less of your time doing that, than actually running the business.
  2. People will have all kinds of opinions about what you are doing and how you should do it and you should listen to them with gratitude. Don’t let them pull you away from what you know to be true.
  3. There is informational overload about entrepreneurship, starting a business etc. Don’t let it bog you down.
  4. Basic accounting.

Do you still see yourself as a journalist?

The skills never leave you. They change you and can help you in almost every part of your life. So, yes.


This interview is part of a series of stories around the journey of entrepreneurial journalism and the different ideas that could help build sustainable models.

We want to showcase both the ideas and the courage that goes behind breaking new ground on the business of media. If you know of someone who should be interviewed here (or yourself), please drop me an email — alansoon@thesplicenewsroom.com

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