Meet straight-talking gal-dem founder Liv Little

Not one to mince her words, the founder of gal-dem is clear in her creative and commercial vision for the magazine and the part it has to play in carving out a space for women of colour and non-binary people of colour, giving them a voice as strong as her own.

There’s no bullshit with Liv Little. Despite hosting Campaign in a networking club used by young female entrepreneurs to refine their pitch, when she doesn’t know the answer, she says it like it is. The honesty is even more refreshing coming – as it does – in her south London accent. When asked what she actually means when she calls herself a curator, she says: "Yeah, I don’t know. All these words are like, whatever."

That’s not to say that the founder of gal-dem, a title by and for women of colour and non-binary people of colour, is out of her depth. Far from it. She goes on to explain that the word curator can perhaps describe "the multitude of things I’m trying to do".

The 25-year-old is a new breed of creative who is sticking two fingers up at the status quo. After feeling like an outsider while studying at the University of Bristol – "it is very white, it’s mad" – she wanted to connect with more women of colour. "I was just really down and would cry every day, ‘no-one understands me’."

Little’s inspiration for gal-dem came from a talk she attended in 2015 by Cecile Emeke at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, called "Decolonising Filmmaking". Emeke, a self-taught filmmaker, screened some of her web series, Ackee & Saltfish, and it resonated with Little.

"It was a comical show between these two friends," she says. "I was just like, ‘oh my gosh this is so refreshing that there’s these two black girls on screen that are just existing in a way that doesn’t feel contrived’. There was nothing like that on TV at the time. [Channel 4’s comedy series] Chewing Gum didn’t exist then.

"There wasn’t much to see on TV other than your stereotypical portrayals and I think that got me thinking about what I could do to improve my life state and to connect with other people, because I knew that I had another year left at university and nothing was going to change from going home crying every day."

So Little came up with the idea of setting up a magazine called gal-dem – slang for a group of girls. She floated the idea on Bristol social-media groups and among the "few people [of colour] I did know that existed". The idea started to gain traction and it allowed her to meet more like-minded people. "There was something quite powerful in us to physically see each other, to touch each other, to be present," she says raising her voice.

Over the university’s summer break, Little and Antonia Odunlami, another Bristol student who became gal-dem’s music editor but no longer works on the title, spent most of their time in London’s Brick Lane "flyering for this thing that didn’t really exist". They built social-media profiles across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with another member of the team, Leyla Reynolds, head of art, working on the visuals.

The magazine launched in Bristol in September 2015 with a party for which the magazine’s inaugural team (numbering about five) created handmade decorations. Little also borrowed money from family and friends for the party, and used a cash grant of £200, which was spent mainly on rum.

"Everyone was making these shijitos (a spicy mojito), which kind of became the gal-dem cocktail, and we all just looked pretty drunk in that first picture," recalls Little.

After graduating with first-class honours in politics and sociology, Little had two options – a Channel 4 production trainee scheme or a scholarship to study gender and law at Soas. She says she was still weighing up which one to go for two days before starting, but noticing how much traction gal-dem was receiving she had to "do the media thing" and plumped for Channel 4.

Today the magazine is becoming a business for Little. From March – when she moves into a new office in Bethnal Green – she plans to work on it full time and hopes to take a salary.

The title has come a long way from the early days, when Little’s mum would help her package the magazine to deliver it to places where she had secured distribution, such as the Tate and Waterstones. Now, Little works with MMS London (a magazine services provider), which has helped take gal-dem print editions further afield, not only outside London but also outside the UK to Holland, Sweden and Taiwan. The print-run, Little says, has grown 50% year on year, although she won’t provide figures. 

Gal-dem’s social-media following has also grown; it has 55,000 followers on Instagram, 40,000 on Twitter and 41,000 on Facebook. The latest annual issue, which has had a cover price of £10 since inception, was the first to secure a main advertiser – Glossier. The beauty brand ran an advertorial in the magazine, sponsored a gal-dem event and had sponsored content on the title’s social channels. Before this, there were some smaller ads for products specifically for women of colour.

Little is the sole owner of the company, and will have eight full-time and two part-time paid staff by March. There have also been hundreds of contributors along the way and she hopes to be able to pay freelancers from April on, which she says has always been the goal.

Little is halfway through her first round of angel funding, having presented at AllBright’s pitch day in November. The last accounts filed at Companies House show that gal-dem’s net current assets rose to £7,677 in 2017, up from £2,473 in 2016. It does not have to provide revenue figures due to its size and it’s something that Little is keeping quiet about.

Over the past year Little has expanded the ways in which gal-dem works with brands, from simply promoting product launches in the title to creating campaigns, working like a full-service ad agency. For Penguin Random House, for example, the team created a one-week gal-dem pop-up bookshop to support the launch of Michelle Obama’s book Becoming. All of the books available to buy were written by women and non-binary people of colour. There were also workshops for schoolchildren throughout the day and talks for adults in the evenings.

Little has also signed a deal with Walker Books to release a gal-dem collection of essays for teenagers this summer. She and the writers and editors for gal-dem will respond to diary entries they wrote when they were young teenagers.

The most recent addition to the commercial side of the business is around insights and strategy. The team wants to educate brands about the gal-dem audience. Mariel Richards, head of strategy at gal-dem, a former global account director at Mindshare, explains: "It’s really important that the audience that we serve is fully understood. That could be through running focus groups, so the women and non-binary people who read our magazine actually have their voices heard by the brands that are trying to reach them. Brands are making decisions about our audience based on stereotypes or on old research that would have changed massively."

So far, in addition to Glossier and Penguin, the team has also worked with online prescription-glasses retailer Ace & Tate.

Little and Richards’ view of advertising is on a similar level. "I mean it’s not great for women and brown people, is it?" Little says. "I don’t know what else to say other than representation hasn’t moved forward much yet. There are one-off campaigns that people rave about but things haven’t changed that much and that’s because of the people that are behind the content. If advertising is a super-male-dominated place, then it’s no wonder."

However, research by Channel 4 conducted in July last year found that when it comes to young people, they are interested in brands. More than half of the respondents thought that brands should be a force for good, and 60% of 16- to 24-year-olds said they noticed ads if they were about important issues.

Little is no stranger to working with brands, having modelled for Nikao Jewels (she knows the owner Lisa-Marie Carter) and featured in an ad for ceramics brand Royal Doulton. She’s quick to say that jobs such as these have been her "bread and butter" while she’s built gal-dem and she uses the ads or related interviews to promote the magazine.

The lack of diversity in ads is well reported, and when black people have appeared, it’s not always done in the right way. Last year H&M had to apologise for using a black child in an ad for a hoodie which carried the slogan "coolest monkey in the jungle". Research by Lloyds Banking Group published last year found that although the representation of BAME groups in ads is rising (up 13 percentage points from 2015), only 7% feature a BAME person as the sole or main protagonist.

It’s a massive audience that adland, brands and the media have been failing. Women of colour between the ages of 18 and 34 account for 3% of the UK population, according to YouGov, and the UK multicultural population has a disposable income of more than £300bn, according to the IPA.

If Little’s story doesn’t resonate with the white, middle-class men who often grace the pages of this magazine, they’re on the right path to disengaging with audiences, fast. When Campaign contacted a range of senior people in media and ad agencies, none had heard of gal-dem.

So what can publishers learn from Little? "It’s about avoiding tokenism, isn’t it?" she says. "It’s about freedom and flexibility and what we don’t do is pigeonhole our writers, our audience, our consumers, our customers by assuming they only like one thing or the other, or they only want to speak about that part of their experience versus this part of their experience.

"I mean as a white woman it’s not like you’re only ever expected to write about your white womanhood. We’re saying as women of colour and non-binary people of colour, we’ve got opinions on lots of different things so allow us the space and flexibility to do that.

"And I know for journalists who are of colour in newsrooms and those environments, they’re always expected to be the voice, or giving quotes, or sitting on this diversity panel. That’s not the way forward; it’s exhausting and it doesn’t really push the conversation forward."

Despite the doom-and-gloom headlines about print being in decline – the last ABC results in August 2018 showed that the women’s magazine market continues to tumble, with Hearst’s Cosmopolitan falling 28% in circulation and Marie Claire down 32% year on year – Little believes specialist titles like hers will continue to thrive. "I think people are looking for alternatives to the traditional nodes of publishing that they know," she says.

Little is entering a difficult market. Similar titles – in that they are also covering social issues or minority groups – have been struggling over the past few months.

The Pool, the online women’s title founded by Lauren Laverne and Sam Baker, has gone into administration. BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Vice have recently announced significant cuts, with the axe often falling on writers targeting smaller audience groups.

But Sue Todd, chief executive at magazine media marketing agency Magnetic, says that gal-dem is "a perfect example of how to build a modern magazine brand". She adds: "Magazines have always provided an unrivalled connection between brands and audience, and in the case of gal-dem, we can clearly see how strong this connection can be. The genuine passion and authenticity of its editors and contributors permeates through every page, and this passion perfectly capitalises on the ability of magazine media to build communities with audiences that are hard to establish elsewhere."

Michelle Sarpong, a director at the7stars, praises Little’s ability to find a gap in a challenging market. She adds: "Gal-dem has emerged at a time where there has been a fundamental shift in society where people are not afraid to call out injustice and actively do something about it."

It’s clear that the one thing that Little cares most about is gal-dem, but, as a true creative, she won’t be restricted to a single format. After quitting a full-time job at Lime Television, which she joined after the Channel 4 production scheme, she has done a lot of work in TV, which she loves.

Most recently, she’s been working in commissioning at the BBC’s factual department. "I’m interested in how different platforms can serve different purposes and how you can create different forms of content for each," she says. "There’s no one way of doing things whether that’s producing an exhibition or writing an article."

Little’s work ethic comes from the influence her family had on her as she grew up. Instead of spending the summer holidays boozing with her teenage friends, Little opted for three-month internships at women’s refugee or homeless organisations, because these were the areas in which she thought she would be looking for a job come the end of student life.

In addition, her mother put her in situations as a child where she was not in the majority ("I’d be around people who were incredibly privileged"), because she wanted Little to understand "the legitimacy of my voice". Both have given her the entrepreneurial streak and creative flair that have helped her get to where she is today.

"One of the most important things in terms of the progression of marginalised voices is economic empowerment," Little adds. "If you look at who’s making the decisions in terms of what content goes where, it’s shocking. And, yes, you have the option to work your way up. But there aren’t as many positions that are going to become available where you’re able to influence change. Or you can create something and build something on your own.

"I want to be able to do what I want to be able to do and part of that is, yeah, building something which is financially viable." 

Sources of inspiration

Sharmadean Reid, founder, WAH and Beautystack

The entrepreneur set up WAH as a hip-hop magazine for girls, while at university in 2009. In 2012, she added a side project by opening a nail salon. In 2015 she was awarded an MBE for her services to beauty. Two years later she set up Beautystack, an app that allows people to book treatments, share images of their nails or hair and read the latest on the beauty sector.

Lisa-Marie Carter, founder, Nikao

The self-taught jewellery designer aims to create pieces that are "bold, unapologetic, innovative, playful and daring". The Bristol-based entrepreneur also set up Zone Se7en in 2013 to bring together virtual events for an audience interested in tech. "She was the first person who really empowered me in understanding what you were able to do with limited resources and limited budgets," Little says.

Dr Edson Burton, writer, historian, programme curator and performer

Burton was among the first people that Little took inspiration from when in Bristol. Burton’s works include poetry collection Seasoned and radio dramas Armour of Immanuel and The Chosen One. He also curated the Afrofuturist season for the BFI.

Nikesh Shukla, writer

"We call him the gal-dem godfather because he mentored everyone in some shape or form," Little says. She highlights his work The Good Immigrant, which is a collection of essays about race and immigration in the UK by British writers of colour.

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Roxane Gay: 'If I was waiting for confidence to write, I'd still be waiting'

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The very black body

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