Female Entrepreneurship: How Education Helped Dr Helen Jacey Found a Feminist Production Company | Top Universities

Female Entrepreneurship: How Education Helped Dr Helen Jacey Found a Feminist Production Company

By Chloe Lane

Updated October 13, 2020 Updated October 13, 2020

During her undergraduate degree, Helen Jacey didn’t know she wanted to be a writer. She did, however, know that she was passionate about the arts, literature and film. 

Little did she know that she would go on to become a professional screenwriter, author, lecturer and the founder of Shedunnit Productions: a production company focusing on creating female focused, intersectional stories.

Dr Jacey’s first book, The Woman in the Story, was published in 2010 and has since become an international handbook for screenwriters creating female characters. 

She later wrote her own series of novels. The Elvira Slate Investigations are a feminist-noir take on the traditional 1940s crime thrillers, following the story of a 20-something ex-con female detective.

All of this was made possible by Dr Jacey’s extensive education. Her undergraduate degree in Greek and English Literature at Manchester University fueled her interest in the arts. Years later, her MA in Screenwritingfrom the London Institute and her doctorate from the University of Arts London gave her the skills and drive to start her own business.

Using education to change careers

Using education to change careers

After completing her undergraduate degree, Dr Jacey pursued a short screenwriting course but soon realized that she wanted to try other things first. 

Knowing that she wanted to help people, Dr Jacey spent her twenties working in various NGOs (non-governmental organizations) around the world.  

“I was really motivated to do things to help women,” explained Dr Jacey. “I was developing programs and running aid programs to help a lot of vulnerable parents and children, particularly mothers. I was helping them develop the skills and competence to keep their children.”

Dr Jacey remarked that it was these experiences that really helped shaped her creative identity.

She said: “My twenties filled me with a lot of life experience and a lot of amazing professional experience which later, I think, inspired my calling and provided me with the stories I wanted to tell and reflect on.” 

As much as Dr Jacey enjoyed her career, writing, particularly screenwriting, was something that she knew she wasn’t yet finished with. In her early thirties, Dr Jacey decided to return to university. She attended the London Institute to study a part-time MA in screenwriting.

Dr Jacey described her decision to do an MA as a “no-brainer.”

She said: “My MA in Screenwriting was very formative. It was a really important part of managing a conscious career change.

“I wanted a network, a group of peers, I wanted to have rigorous training in thinking about writing and I wanted to develop my voice. Being in London, my MA had a lot of industry professionals come in and talk to us, which was fantastic.”

Dr Jacey’s course leader then made her aware that the University of the Arts, London was supporting some screenwriting PhDs. She said: “I thought an academic trajectory would probably be really fascinating.” 

Writing her first book
Writing her first book

It was while studying for her MA that Dr Jacey became aware how few textbooks focused on female characterization.

She said: “There was absolutely no mention in the curriculum or in any of the screenwriting books about the situation of women and representation of female characters.

“Having a feminist consciousness, I opened all of the screenwriting books and I didn’t see one in terms of thinking about the choices I was making about my characters and the kind of film I was writing.

“So that's when I had the epiphany moment. I thought, I really should write one myself.”

Dr Jacey approached a publisher, Michael Wiese Productions, who said that they had been wanting to publish a book like that for 10 years. “It was unbelievable,” said Dr Jacey, “and it was incredibly exciting.”

Writing The Woman in the Story opened up many doors for Dr Jacey, who met with story consultants, authors and even ran her own two day masterclass seminar called Writing the Heroine’s Journey. 

“I was able to influence a lot of people's thinking about female characters,” said Dr Jacey.

Starting her company

Starting her company

Shedunnit Productions started as a single idea. Dr Jacey decided that she wanted to write a series of books set in the 1940s and featuring a female protagonist who ‘really walked my talk’.

Being a massive vintage fan, Dr Jacey was a big fan of authors such as Raymond Chandler, a novelist and screenwriter famous for his 1940s detective stories. She was reading Chandler one day thinking that she loved the complicated plot, loved the 40s but “oh my God, the situation of women in the 40s is absolutely diabolical.” 

The first Elvira Slate Investigations novel, Jailbird Detective, took Dr Jacey seven years to write, as she was writing it alongside studying for her PhD.

After deciding that she wanted to be fully in control of her own brand, Dr Jacey decided that she was going to open her own production company, Shedunnit Productions, which she started in 2018.

She said: “The company has a brief to create intersectional, feminist stories for diverse audiences. I’m starting with Elvira Slate Investigations, but I want to extend it over the next few years and work with other writers. 

“I wanted to have a brand and create different vision of the 40s through crime novels, but also I want the company to support women's writing and keep on contributing to raising the profile of feminist storytelling.”

Dr Jacey said her other goals for the future include writing the rest of her 10-book series and possibly converting the books into TV shows. 

Shedunnit Productions currently sponsors the Women Over 50 Film Festival and Dr Jacey wants to continue sponsoring events like these and running master classes for writers. 

The role of feminism

One constant in Dr Jacey’s diverse career is her desire to help women. Throughout her career she has advocated for women’s rights in many different ways and championed the need for women to be properly represented in creative outlets. 

“I think feminism is, at its core, wanting equality for women, and for women to be able to define their lives on their own terms.”

She said: “Diversity is so important, whether it's gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity. It’s important to have women on screen, because they're still remarkably absent.

“I think the trouble is, when women aren't creating narratives, especially in the past, then men are more in charge of the storytelling. Then female characters are filtered through what is known as the male gaze. That's where women will see female characters that don't reflect their experiences.”

But how do you solve this? “It's about creating opportunities for women writers to write their stories, ones that the female audience wants to read,” said Dr Jacey.

Her advice for young screenwriters and authors

Dr Jacey stressed the importance of getting the writing done and seeing it through. When writing, she said: “Get it down, rewrite it and get feedback.” Developing a thick skin is also important, she added.

When starting out, it’s important to know where your strengths are and where your expertise is but also knowing when to get help, advised Dr Jacey. 

She said: “Sometimes you need to say, ‘I don’t know this, and I never will, so I need to find the right people to help me.’ Asking for help is really important.”

If you’re serious about writing, doing a class, whether it’s a short class or a master’s, will teach you so much about writing and will help you develop your voice, said Dr Jacey.

The other advice Dr Jacey offered is to have confidence in your writing. She said: “You have to know that you've got something to say and that you really want to share it with the world.

“I think that goes behind all writing. All writers have something important to say.”

This article was originally published in October 2020 .

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