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Lumikai Pathbreakers Edition 3: Speaking with Salone Sehgal and Joanesca Machado about diversity and representation in gaming

We talked about the mission of Lumikai Pathbreakers, how it is helping the industry, and the representation of women. Let’s check everything we discussed as part of the Edition 3 interview here.

Lumikai, the first and only gaming-focused Venture Capital (VC) fund recently announced the third edition of its “Pathbreakers” initiative. The gaming and interactive media VC fund first started the bi-annual initiative in 2021 to highlight the women doing incredible work in the Indian gaming sector. In the third edition, the fund celebrated and recognized 20 women from the industry for their contributions to the segment. This list of accomplished women comprised names from multiple upcoming as well as established companies including Google, Loco, and Zynga.

We also saw names from Polygon, Paper Boat Apps, Nodwin Gaming, InMobi, Bombay Play, and more on the list. Right around the announcement, we got a chance to speak to Salone Sehgal, the Founding General Partner for Lumikai. In addition, we also spoke with Joanesca Machado, the Director of Marketing and Communications at Loco, one of the twenty women to be highlighted in this edition. We talked about the mission of Lumikai Pathbreakers, how it is helping the industry, and the representation of women.

The conversation also touched on the changes that have happened in the last 10 years in the industry. We also inquired about any wish-list for change, things to be wary about as the industry grows, and an outlook for the next five years. Let’s check everything we discussed as part of the Lumikai Pathbreakers Edition 3 interview here.

Lumikai Pathbreakers' long terms vision, real work changes, and new initiatives

Starting off things, Salone shared her long-term vision of Pathbreakers. She stated that the platform wants to celebrate women in the industry while inspiring the fresh talent that has just entered the space. It is a long journey considering the current state of gender and diversity disparity in India. However, Pathbreakers is “just the beginning” for Lumikai. Talking about what the initiative brings to the table beyond showcasing and highlighting the best, Salone shared her personal experience and belief of “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” The goal of the initiative is to reaffirm the importance of representation while showcasing role models from the industry.

To encourage more women to enter the space, they need to see women in leadership positions that are already part of the industry. Salone when on to state that the industry needs a lot more women entrepreneurs to tap into the “49 percent female gamer market share”. To tap this segment, the industry needs entrepreneurs and market leaders who understand the type of content suitable for this audience. She went on to note how the media and OTT space is already seeing women leaders who are “able to tell unique and distinct stories”. The initiative also pushed companies to focus on “talent diversity” while hiring.

Lumikai Pathbreakers Edition 3

Pathbreakers also make the top female talent prominent in the industry for companies wanting to hire a diverse team. It also offers visibility to the top female talent across the country for more inclusive discussion panels, events, and industry forums.

Real-world change, impact on the industry, and a wish-list of change

Joanesca, one of the 20 women to feature in the third edition of Lumikai Pathbreakers stated how we need multiple editions of the initiative around the year. She elaborated how the initiative inspired her and helped her discover a lot of women from the space. Joanesca revealed that her company, Loco has “seen 2x growth in the number of women” joining the company.

Speaking about gender diversity, Salone acknowledged the poor track record of the Indian industry. She outlined how an overwhelming majority of game developers are focused on creating titles for a stereotypical image of a gamer. In fact, she wants to do away with the term “gamer” as there are no corresponding terms in other segments of the entertainment industry.

The rationale behind the call to remove “gamer” as a term consists of the ubiquitous and inclusive nature of the activity. She also noted that “gender diversity is being very closely tied to financial success”. She went on to elaborate on the reasons for this association further including the increasing number of women on the investor side and a lot of founders building diverse experiences. Some examples of such diversity-focused companies include Glu Mobiles, Robin Games, Trailmix Games, and more.

Salone wants the Indian companies to focus on the good happening across the globe “to catalyze the future”. She believes that things happening at Riot Games and Activision are only part of the clean-up process. Joanesca shared her experience with promoting diversity at Loco. She also outlined how Loco worked on features like the recently launched “chat moderation package” to serve the gamers. Moving to the wish-list part, she wants more esports tournaments with women representation, not women-only tournaments or any Women’s Day tournament.

Gender diversity in upcoming gaming companies, the future of the industry, and more

Talking about the future of the industry, Salone acknowledged the multiple false starts for the gaming industry in the past. She went on to add that every sector needs the right time and right place to grow and “the pandemic was transformational” for the Indian gaming sector. The pandemic has brought a new conversion point for gaming usage, adoption, infrastructure, and monetization. India currently accounts for about 17 percent of the total mobile game downloads across the globe. It is also a $2.2 billion market with In-App Purchases amounting to about 30 percent. Salone exclaimed that “this has never happened before” for the Indian gaming market.

The government, markets, and the private enterprise involved in the Indian gaming industry need to focus on diversity while building teams. She stated that everyone from investment funds to portfolio companies to the entire ecosystem should focus on this advice. Companies should have women in the senior leadership or the board of the companies from the start. These voices can ensure that important conversations around culture, team motivation, and the right work environment happen. Salone also stated that the culture of the company starts from Employee #1, especially for VC-funded companies.

Work-place culture is not something that a VC-funded company or a founder can think about later, after the Series-B round of investments. Salone added that founders and companies who think this way are able to build much more female-friendly workplaces. Joanesca agreed with Salone while outlining how it was important to build educational courses to support the gaming sector.

The potential of gaming and esports in India

India has seen a meteoric rise in the amount of attention, investment, capabilities, and qualities of upcoming companies. For some context, Lumikai has spoken to more than a thousand interactive media gaming founders from just 25 back in 2015. Salone advised the companies to focus on “building ambitious companies from India, for India, and from India for the world.” She highlighted “Loco” and “Bombay Play” as ideal examples following these principles. Though India is a mobile-first market, however, it tends to leapfrog the international market in terms of the trends.

Gamers across India are exposed to the best of the games from the west. Salone said that anyone looking to create a gaming company in India needs “to have very high ambitions, need to be bold and need to aim high.” Joanesca emphasized how Loco focuses on the “Make in India” philosophy while serving the Indian gaming community. The company is taking its time to develop the product from the ground up while “setting the stage up for the future”.

Keeping toxic workplace environment and situations at bay

Salone noted that the issues of toxic work culture and unfriendly work environments are something that keeps “all of us up at night”. She stated that it is quite difficult to fix companies with such a problematic work environment if things are left unaddressed at a nascent stage. She narrated the time when she used to wonder about the lack of brown or female protagonists in a game. Salone used to joke that she will have to make the game herself to add such diversity in characters and stories. This thought lead her to conclude that she may even need to fund the development of such a game.

The conversation circled back to the importance of diversity and culture in the senior leadership and female voices on the boards of the companies. She noted how “a lot of founders” don’t focus on the diversity on the company board. This is particularly important for venture-backed companies in the gaming industry. Salone revealed how “great founders” build with a focus on employee nourishment, retention, and engagement while catering to diverse talent. This is in contrast with companies that focus on growth and think work culture can be fixed later.

The Lumikai co-founder highlighted how the attrition rate of the female workforce in a company “is often a very good indicator” of the health of the workplace. She urged company founders across the industry to “think very hard” to identify the reason behind women leaving their companies “in droves”. These founders should also check the reason behind the companies not being able to attract female talent during hiring.

Loco and the creation of products that offer safe spaces

Joanesca shared her experience at Loco reaffirming the nourishing environment. She agreed with the points Salone underlined while noting that Loco has three women in senior leadership. She went on to note how the company ensured the communication to the audience “is not tone deaf” or “gender skewed”. Loco focuses on creating the product in such a comprehensive manner that it offers a “safe space” to everyone while eliminating toxicity from the platform. Joanesca noted that such product development is only possible in a workplace that allows “equal representation”. She went on to explain how Loco does not try to be popular and relatable just to its core audience. The company takes particular care in the way it represents women gamers on its platform. Joanesca believes that gamers feel that Loco understands and recognizes them. Loco knows how “tightly-knit” the gaming community is across the country.

Next 5 years for the gaming industry and Lumikai Pathbreakers

Salone shared that “the next five years for gaming is going to be monumental”. This is because “gaming is the most consumed medium with Millenials and Gen-Z spending more time... than on TV, Music, (and) OTT combined”. She even added that it is “very safe to say gaming is now mainstream”. Overall, there is a “massive wide space” for all the key stakeholders in the industry. These include the game developers, investors, content makers, and entrepreneurs to make “immersive entertainment interactive experiences” “to tap into this unique audience”. She also pointed to the rise of new subscription-based services, and platforms in the gaming space including the push from the likes of Netflix.

Netflix Games

Joanesca agreed that “gaming is mainstay entertainment” and it has already reached that next level. It taps into the human feeling to “belong to” something, whether it is a cause or a community. Gaming as an activity manages to do this while bringing people together. When compared to other industries, gaming will see equal representation at a much faster and larger scale.

Kurukshetra Ascension

While closing the interaction, we spoke about the games and studios that have already tried to do a good job of showcasing representation and diversity. Salone picked Studio Sirah as one of the studios that is building Kurukshetra: Ascension, a card-collecting game, and Nodding Heads Games, the developer of Raji: An Ancient Epic. On the international front, she noted Glu Mobile with Design Home, Covet Fashion, Robin Games, Trailmix Games with Love & Pies. She also mentioned a Japanese gaming startup called Coly Inc and TRU LUV games from Brie Code. Joanesca highlighted Raji: An Ancient Epic as the one game she checked out to see diversity and representation.