Be Fearless — Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As a young nonprofit, fundraising is a huge part of our organization. Without the support of our board, patrons, and donors we would never come close to achieving our mission. I believe in the work, the mission, and our goals and had to realize early on that I wasn’t just asking for money. Rather, I was asking for individuals and organizations to join us and make it possible to achieve these wonderful goals as a team.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Morgan McEwen. New York City native Morgan began her professional ballet career at age 17 and has since danced with the Richmond Ballet, BalletMet, and the Metropolitan Opera. McEwen founded a contemporary ballet company, MorDance, in January 2013 and maintains her role as director and resident choreographer. She has been sighted by The New York Times as having “an eye for shaping the arc of a dance as carefully as the transitions and details within it.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
As the daughter of a military family, we moved when I was 4 years old so my mom enrolled me in a ballet class to meet other children. Little did she know that this would be the start of my lifelong passion for the artform. I graduated from high school early to begin my career with the Richmond Ballet. I then moved on to dance with BalletMet where I danced for three seasons before returning home to the east coast to dance for the Metropolitan Opera where I spent ten years. In addition to dancing for these companies, I’ve had the opportunity to dance as a guest artist across the country with my partner and friend Brian Gephart. In 2013, I began the process of launching my own ballet company, MorDance. At the time, less than one third of US ballet companies were being led by females and I wanted to effect change within the industry I loved. It was important to me to create opportunities for other female collaborating artists and break the traditional patriarchal, hierarchical, and racially homogeneous ways of the classical ballet world. In addition to this, I wanted to establish a company where my voice as a choreographer was free to develop and flourish while generating a community of dancers that felt nurtured and supported. MorDance was created to influence a new normal for the ballet world and set itself apart from the historically toxic ballet company work environment.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Since starting the company, there have been instances where myself and my collaborators were presumed to be young or inexperienced. With few females in a leadership role in the dance industry compounded by an always youthful look (thank you, ballet!), it has been an important lesson to never personally judge a book by its cover.
I remember a particular load out from one of our New York City performance seasons, and my lighting designer and I were approached by the theater’s manager. He wanted to share with us that his resident lighting designer was blown away by our work, framing his qualifications by having been reviewed by The New York Times. Becky and I were at a loss for words as the manager continued to speak and seemed to deem us amateurs in our fields. At this point one of our supporters had joined the conversation and had to stop him to point out the fact that Becky and I both had 15+ years of professional experience in our fields and we had each been reviewed by the Times. I believe because Becky and I are both on the younger side it was assumed that we were novice in our work. I have had other moments since founding MorDance that I think it is presumed I am inexperienced because of my age or appearance. It is important to take these moments in stride but keep working to push boundaries and open doors so that other young driven females feel empowered to lead.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started MorDance I was terrible at public speaking. I had performed for audiences of 3,000 but when standing in front of a few hundred people to speak, my mouth would instantly run dry and I’d start talking at warp speed. I started recording my speeches at our events which was immensely helpful. As a dancer, we constantly watch performance videos to self-critique and aid in perfecting our craft, so this was a familiar practice for me. I recently listened to myself speaking in 2014 and it gave me a good laugh.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My parents have been my biggest supporters for the entirety of my career. Neither of them are dancers or artists, but throughout every success and misstep of my career they have been there cheering me on. I owe my success to their encouragement and love. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention my brother who has shown me great support over the years and my husband who has been there for me in so many ways since we started dating in 2013 (interestingly, the year I started MorDance). Now, my 11-month-old daughter provides me with a great source of inspiration for my work artistically. I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful support system from my family and friends. It truly takes a village.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
At a first glance, my experiences seem niche having spent my whole career in a ballet studio, but I really think they translate to other industries. In a ballet company female artists traditionally have full days of rehearsals because they are expected to participate in both corps and soloist roles. Male artists, on the other hand, traditionally have less rehearsal time as they are typically only dancing soloist roles. Unfortunately, this usually means that the women have less time to cultivate other voices or interests within the artform (such as learning how to become a choreographer, director or founder) than their male counterparts. Additionally, as a young female in a ballet company whose day was filled with corps de ballet rehearsals, it was ingrained in me to blend in and look, move, and be exactly like the women who I was dancing with. While this is what makes exquisite corps de ballets work, this constant quest to be exactly like the woman next to me didn’t help me begin a journey to stand out and discover my own voice as an artist or woman. I actually have vivid memories of a director early on in my career telling me I wasn’t becoming the woman he hoped I would become. This attitude in the ballet community, much like other industries, doesn’t help catapult women to be leaders in their specialty.
Additionally, as women it’s incredibly challenging to overcome the gender pay gap and create opportunities as founders of companies. When I started MorDance, I was juggling being a first-time business owner, dancing for the Metropolitan Opera, and teaching for 20 hours each week just to make ends meet. I couldn’t afford to cut back on my work to focus solely on MorDance which I imagine is something many female business owners grapple with when they’re starting out.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Speaking from personal experience in the ballet community, I think it’s important that we work to break down the patriarchal hierarchy and offer more young women and girls the opportunity to develop their individual voices as artists. It’s also important that we work towards equal pay for equal work within the ballet industry as well as in society as a whole.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Our innate ability to nurture and multitask makes us incredibly suited to being founders and leaders in all arenas. We have had to work hard to overcome gender challenges and that honed sense of perseverance really makes us strong candidates to be founders.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?
A large myth is that you lose all sense of work-life balance as a founder. Although I have some late work nights and put in some hours on weekends, I feel I’ve struck a balance that works with my lifestyle and goals. I’m a dedicated mom, wife, daughter, friend, sister, and aunt, I am able to enjoy a glass of wine, a hike, time in my gardens, and refinishing antique furniture, and I’m still able to run an incredibly successful organization. Although admittedly, I would enjoy some more time at the beach.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
To be a successful founder you must be self-motivated, willing to learn, a leader, a multitasker, adaptable, and fearless.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Persistence — No never really means no when it’s for the betterment or growth of your company. As a leader, you have to be determined to find a way around obstacles for the prosperity of your organization. I remember when I created the ballet On the Waterfront, I wanted to build a ballet in a white box and the production team kept telling me it wasn’t possible to create that look and set it and strike it within the allotted 15-minute intermission. The first twenty or so times I asked everyone kept saying no, but I pushed because I knew there had to be a way. Ultimately, our lighting designer (and fellow female businesswoman) Becky Heisler devised a plan that was flawless and easily fit within our 15-minute parameter.
2. Be Fearless — Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As a young nonprofit, fundraising is a huge part of our organization. Without the support of our board, patrons, and donors we would never come close to achieving our mission. I believe in the work, the mission, and our goals and had to realize early on that I wasn’t just asking for money. Rather, I was asking for individuals and organizations to join us and make it possible to achieve these wonderful goals as a team.
3. Be Resilient — You’re going to have days that you are discouraged and feel as if you’re swimming upstream. I remember one season in particular sitting in the lighting booth with our lighting designer Becky, watching our incredible dancers leave their hearts on the stage with a season of work that to this day I well up thinking about. I was so discouraged by what I felt were disappointing ticket sales and low press coverage. However, the following season we sold out almost every show and had some pretty stellar reviews. The hard times make the great ones that much sweeter.
4. Find balance and delegate — Burnout is real even when you love what you do. As an artist who’s also running a business, this really resonates with me. If I’m completely burned out and running myself thin with fundraising and managing the administrative work for the organization, I’m not going to be inspired to create art. I’m so fortunate to have an amazing board, team of artists, business team, and volunteers who are able to take on some of the onus and free me up to focus on whatever really needs my attention that day. I’ve always said an organization is only as strong as the team you have assembled and you have to delegate to your incredible team and trust their expertise. I sometimes still forget to ask for help, but I’m lucky to have a board and artists that come to me often asking, “What can we do?”
5. Embrace Change — The organization you start with isn’t the organization you’ll have in five, ten, fifteen years and that’s a good thing. It means you’re growing!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My first goal when founding MorDance was to be a ballet company that doesn’t perpetuate the toxic work environment that is rampant in our industry but rather foster a work culture that is positive, healthy, and looks to nurture the voices of dancers which we’ve definitely accomplished and continue to be mindful of every single day. Additionally, MorDance has been working diligently to expand our robust outreach component with at-risk youth in NYC. This September and October we have more than doubled our outreach events at underserved NYC schools.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would hope to inspire two movements. The first would be to make the ballet world a more inclusive, equitable, diverse, and healthy place to work. The second movement I would like to inspire is one that helps to make ballet more accessible to a greater audience. Ballet is often expensive and can be a hard-to-reach artform in a myriad of ways. I hope to break down these barriers and foster a great love for the artform from a more diverse audience.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’d love to have lunch with Meryl Streep. She’s a mom, an artist, and a philanthropist. These are all things I too work to balance and strive to achieve success with every day. I am of course in awe of her work as an actress, but I am also immensely inspired by her efforts to effect change within her industry by being a champion for gender equality. Her support of organizations like Girl Up and The Writer’s Lab as well as her own foundation, Silver Mountain Foundation, are truly commendable. And to top that all of she’s a mom!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.