Ally McLean has become known in the gaming industry for being the type of powerhouse voice that not only advocates for change, but is instrumental in creating pathways to achieve it. Her career has seen her doing everything from community management and professional cosplay through to becoming a Gamerunner for the AGDA-winning Rumu, about a robot vacuum with feelings.

Now, Ally’s passion and dedication for advocacy in games has seen her not only become Product Director at 3RD Sense and introduce the diversity-focused NEXT Exhibit at PAX Australia this year, but also found her own company entirely dedicated to helping entry-level women find a place in the gaming industry. It’s called The Working Lunch.

The program unites incredibly talented and respected female mentors in various aspects of the gaming industry with entry-level mentees; fostering their talents, teaching valuable industry skills, creating friendships and above all, reassuring them that there is a space in the industry for them – even when they struggle to see it.

We had a chat with Ally about what starting the Working Lunch meant for her and what she’d learned in the process.

Founding The Working Lunch taught me that… we’re not alone! When you’re part of an underrepresented group in your industry, you get very familiar with isolation. Being in the room when a Working Lunch cohort comes together taught me that isolation doesn’t have to follow us everywhere, and there’s a future where longer, healthier and happier careers are possible for everyone.

I realised I had the power to make change when… I acknowledged the doors that were opened for me that weren’t opened for others. While I’ve faced many challenges as a woman in games, I have a huge amount of privilege as a white, cis woman in an industry that has built heavily fortified cultural and systemic walls to keep others out. When you have privilege, you have a responsibility to use it to help and amplify those who don’t.

I knew it worth the risk when… There was a moment when I looked around the room in one of our first workshops, after the official proceedings had ended, and all of the mentees were paired off with their mentors, excitedly discussing their goals and achievements since their last check in. The connection between the mentors and their mentees, and the genuine emotions on their faces – whether it was pride, concern, excitement – these are bonds that will last a lifetime. That’s worth running a company and working a full time job at the same time, any day of the week!

My biggest goal when starting The Working Lunch was… to create a space where underrepresented people entering the industry could feel safe, supported and be given the room and resources to grow into their potential.

I’m reaching it by… expanding our award winning mentorship program internationally in 2019, and constantly refining our approach.

I first felt like the venture was a success when… we had our first graduation. Sitting in a room with all of the mentees from our first cohort, and reflecting on each of their journeys, their personal and professional growth, and the bonds they had formed with their mentors and amongst each other. I’m so proud of every single one of our mentees, and they give me so much hope for the future.

The biggest takeaway I have from the inaugural year is… We’ve developed a program that works. It was hard to know at the beginning if the topics we wanted to cover in the program would resonate and make real change in our mentees lives. The overwhelming feedback is that our program of group workshops, seminars, exercises and one-on-one mentoring has great results not only for our mentees, but our mentors too! Now that we know we have a program that works, it’s a matter of bringing it to more people in need, and constantly refining and honing it to become the best mentorship program in the world.

I celebrated my early wins by… The Working Lunch couldn’t exist without my partner in the project Raelene, and all of our mentors who give their time and expertise to help our mentees in their journeys. I celebrated our early wins with those people, excitedly planning the next step.

My biggest learning from introducing the NEXT Exhibit was… there’s a whole world out there beyond our bubble! That seems obvious, but it wasn’t until I was in video calls with the finalist developers from all over the world, discussing their games and their goals, that I really developed an appreciation for how the exhibit ties so closely into The Working Lunch values, and how we could harness the resources and learnings from our mentorship workshops to help connect and highlight developers in need all over the world.

My biggest motivation is… our mentees, and their visions for future of games.

I’m at my most focused when… I’m facilitating workshops. These are really the beating heart of the enterprise! I especially love it when we get to hold them giant boardrooms of massive corporations – looking around a boardroom table and seeing the future play out before your eyes is such a good reminder of why we’re doing this.

Some early challenges in my career were… being taken seriously as a young woman with big ideas, and not relegated to positions based on my appearance or traditional gender roles.

A financial habit I had to change was… It seems counter intuitive, but I had to learn to spend money. It’s not sustainable business practice to do everything myself, or keep costs as low as possible. I’ve had to learn to know where an investment in the right talent or resource is vital for our success.

I managed to save / budget by… On the flip side of the previous comment, I’ve kept costs down by being multi-skilled, and not being afraid to learn a new skill to get things done when budget or time isn’t there. YouTube tutorials!

My long-term goals are… to bring our program to as many people in need as we can. To move the needle when it comes to representation in our workforce. To see our mentees take over the world!

The best bit of advice I received was… take your vision seriously, and let everyone else catch up.

If I had to give a budding entrepreneur one tip, it would be… Invest early in the grown up stuff. Go get an accountant, a lawyer, talk to people who know what they’re talking about! Every creative vision needs a business case to be viable.

My theory for what makes a worthwhile project is… A worthwhile project to me is one that energises you. No matter what it is, how much good you’re doing, how much money you make, there will always be the late night or the long day where the project needs you to give 100% – if the heart of it is something that energises and inspires you, this is easy.

I maintain a work/life balance by… Practice! I’ve burned out many times in the past, and it’s not fun. Overworking yourself does more harm than good to you and the business. Getting the balance right is different for everyone, and you’ve got to hone that sense within yourself.

Keep an eye on the Working Lunch Twitter to find out when applications open for 2019.

Image: Ally McLean