Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Samantha Kingston is the award winning client director at Virtual Umbrella based in Southampton, UK. Virtual Umbrella is a marketing and PR specialising in virtual reality. Working with a range of brands, developers, and VR game companies. Samantha fell into the VR industry by accident but has spent her time in the industry building up her own company and working with the VR industry in the UK, Europe and US. Samantha is an advocate for Women in tech and VR and she is often found moderating panels on equality in the workplace. In 2016 she won the regional and national ‘New Business’ award at Venus Awards, highlighted as one of MCV 30 under 30 and one of the rising stars of BIMA100 2016.
What does your current job role entail?
I am the co-founder and client director of Virtual Umbrella. Virtual Umbrella is an award-winning marketing specialist working solely in the VR industry. I live & breath Virtual Umbrella… it is my life…Haha. We have been running for two years, now jumping into the terrible two’s stage and really looking forward to see where we go this year. Our team is growing, we grew out of an incubation space and opened our first office last year. We are lucky to work in a variety of sectors including gaming, engineering, health care and charities.
What is VRGirlsUK how did you come up with it? Did you set it up on your own or with other women?
A little while ago I was doing an interview series called ‘Kickass woman in VR’ and through this I met the wonderful Sarah Jones. We both felt it was important to pull together a network where we could give all the amazing women in the industry somewhere to share their stories and be able to give them the support they needed. We had a great event at Somerset House at Bjork Digital and it was great to bring all these incredible women together. We want everyone to be able to jump into and work in this incredible industry, Sarah and I just wanted to be that support unit and of course meet amazing people.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
I love sharing my story of how I got into VR. There have been many challenges but I truly feel that fell into the VR industry without even realising it. I have always worked, been working since I was 14 so I have had a variety of jobs. When I left university, it was 2012 and it was the time when there was NO jobs available for graduates, I think I only know one or two people from my year that got jobs they wanted, but it took them four years to get there. (They only got those dream jobs last year).
I had three jobs when I left university, all managing retail stores, I would run from one job to another all to pay the rent and try and find something I was passionate about. I then joined a theatre and become a duty manager and there I got to run and manage events and even destroy my soul at Christmas by running pantomimes. It was on a random shift that I got a call from a recruitment company asking about a potential role in a gaming company. At first I thought it was a mistake…but this led me to enter the VR world. Joining the gaming company who had just changed direction to creating VR content I was exposed to everything. The tech, designers, developers and I got the bug for it. I went to every event that I could and tried to meet as many people in the industry… then the idea of Virtual Umbrella was born. My business partner and I wanted to be a part of this industry and make a difference. Letting developers be developers and letting us take care of the traditional marketing stress. From this we have worked with companies such as Nokia, TechCrunch, Leo Burnett, Uber, BBC and many, many more. We are only two years old, we have much more to give.
I found my journey into the sector really eye opening, the only challenges that I faced was being a founder. I had never run a company before. Being young faced, short and women was not always a positive, I found that people would talk over my head and ask if I had been dragged along to this event by my boyfriend – honest mistaken judgement by others which made me speak louder and wear my personality on my sleeves. It has made me stronger and more confident as a business woman.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
It has taken about three years to get where I am today! I have worked incredibly hard, but it is down to being passionate. When you run your own company, there is no one telling you to work every day. If you are happy to get up on a Monday morning and work then you know that you are doing what you love.
As said above one of my main obstacles was not being experiences as a founder – I am very critical of myself and it took me a long time to have confidence in myself to realise, yes I do know what I am talking about. I found it heard speaking out and sharing my opinions with others if I did not agree but I was scared of not being accepted. I think that is very natural. Eventually I realised that my voice is valuable to the industry, I have had the opportunity to speak on stage at many different events about this and it makes me happy to see that I am encouraging others to be confident in themselves. I still have a long way to go!
What are your projects you are currently working on within your company?
We are very lucky to be working on a variety of projects, one of my favourite especially now is working with Hampshire Libraries in the UK. I always want to be able to give something back and provide a platform or opportunities for others. Being able to work with Hampshire libraries we are offering a chance to change the way people see and use local libraries. We want to get people back in them. They bring together communities, students working and parents. By bringing VR to the libraries we are looking at ways of sharing stories and exploring innovative technology in local communities. I have loved every second.
What does the #WomenInVR movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur and woman in VR industry?
I feel very honoured to be able to represent #WomeninVR and one of the most powerful things I have seen in this movement especially in the UK is seeing businesses make sure that they involved. I get very nervous speaking about diversity at events as I might not have the same views as others but for me, if you can offer a platform for other women to stand and share her knowledge, that for me, has what I have wanted to be able to do.
I think there are still a lot of stigmas around being a woman in tech and VR and of course the gaming industry. I have not witnessed too many challenges myself, but I am aware of it. I have had to really stand up for myself which can sometimes be hard for others. I have often been invited to talks and panels where people have openly told me that I am the ‘token women’ which breaks my heart and led to me not attending them.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
There have been some incredible moments in the industry that have made me very proud to be apart of it. One of the biggest achievements I feel was winning the Venus Awards for Southampton. I won the New Business award and then also won the nationals for new business. Being able to share it with the industry and my team was incredibly motivating. Also, being able to be able to share my story with other people and encourage them to do what they want. I remember after speaking at an event called She Who dares wins run by Matt Desmier in Bournemouth – I had several people email telling me that the day after they saw me they quit their jobs and started their own thing, they just needed the right kind of motivation. I was in shock.
What will be the key trends in the VR industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading? Do you think it’s going to get more popular and what industries it will affect most?
I have been very lucky to see VR venture into a variety of industries and see real-solutions for virtual reality. I believe that education and healthcare are going to make incredible impacts. We have already seen how VR in schools can change the way we teach the next generation and how we tell stories, something I wish I had had when I was at school.
We really are only at the beginning of adoption and experimenting in VR. I think over the next 5 years we will see the industry being fully embedded into day to day tasks. VR content, solutions and environments that will really make long term benefits.
Can you name any prominent women in the industry that you admire?
Not a direct link to VR, but more tech - Holly Brockwell has been the one woman I have always looked too for inspiration and share common thoughts on being an entrepreneur. Holly is the first woman that made me realise my opinion mattered and that I can be confident in what I know. If it was not for her, I would still be sitting in the corner at events.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs in VR out there?
If you have passion, nothing can stop you. Don’t let being a woman in tech/ VR put you off, its an opportunity. Take that opportunity to do great.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in VR?
There are so many inspirational women that I wish I could have tea with every day and just listen into their stories…but I would never get any work done. The three ladies that I really admire in the industry have become inspirations and great friends of mine now; Sarah Jones, my wonderful co-founder of VRGirlsUK works every waking minute to make a difference in this industry, if you ever get to meet her make sure you say hi and give her a hug. Marisol Grandon I met at a Gadgette Meetup and instantly hit it off, she has recently set up Unfold Stories, I am so proud of her. Finally Liz Mercuri who jumped on me at an industry event after we had been chatting for too long on Twitter. She is just about to join Unity as an educational evangelist which makes me leap for joy. Go follow all these amazing women – they keep me going every day.