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Artists in the GTA: Reel Asian's Sonia Sakamoto-Jog brings business savvy to the nonprofit world

Effective and business-savvy. Prepared and professional. A numbers whiz with a Rotman MBA and an undergrad in computer science.
These are qualifications most Torontonians expect in Bay Street financiers, not Spadina Avenue arts administrators. But Sonia Sakamoto-Jog, executive director of the Reel Asian Film Festival is happily breaking the mold—not just for herself, but for all those who still think that the arts and business must forever remain at odds.
"I think it's easy in the arts to start to see yourself within a silo, and maybe not appreciate how complex industry as a whole can be," Sakamoto-Jog tells me when I visit her at Reel Asian's sunny 401 Richmond offices. A long to-do list sits in the middle of her desk, while a sponsorships flowchart, dotted with colourful Post-Its, hangs on the wall behind her. When she talks, it's with confidence and no small amount of energy.
"There's a lot of common goals within [the arts and business]," she says. "But I think that we in the arts can feel like we're on opposite sides of the equation, like 'We need this from you. How can we sell it to you?' rather than 'What are you trying to do that we we're trying to do, and that we can do together?'"
Sakamoto-Jog's affiliative (rather than adversarial) approach has certainly been a success for her and the festival. Over her three-year tenure at Reel Asian, new corporate partners including National Bank, Rogers Communication and CTV have come on board, while the number of community partners (a group ranging from foundations to media sponsors to in-kind donors) has grown to 70 from 50.
"Everyone in business is human, and has their own passions," she says. "They're not just purses, they're people too. When you talk to them in a language that they really care about, then they'll have their own ideas about how to make things happen for you."
An aptitude for business (and its people) might be in the genes. Sonia's father, Vijay Jog, is an award-winning Carleton University business professor specializing in corporate performance. Her younger sister also earned an MBA and works in finance.
Sakamoto-Jog herself thought she was on the way to a career in management consulting when she enrolled in the Rotman MBA program in 2007. But her own passion steered her away from Bay Street.
Growing up in Ottawa, Sakamoto-Jog spent a lot of time stage-managing theatrical productions at her high school, an extracurricular activity she continued at McGill University during computer-science studies. In 2005, after a couple of years working for a marketing firm in Japan, she and her husband moved to Toronto so he could attend law school. To meet people, she started volunteering at Reel Asian, eventually becoming chair of its special events committee. She also got a day job in sales and acquisitions at Maximum Films, Oscar-nominated producer Robert Lantos' distribution outlet. Though Maximum was short-lived (created in 2005, it was bought out by Entertainment One in 2008), the job allowed her to attend fests in Cannes and Berlin. Just as Sakamoto-Jog was finishing her master's in spring 2009, Reel Asian's executive director job came up, and she got it.
"I've always been in these roles where you're kind of an administrator but you still get to hang out with all the fun people," she laughs. "I realized early on that I'm not that talented as a creative artist, but that I appreciate film and theatre. I like event planning too, and film festivals are just the epitome of the big huge event planning. So it kind of just worked out."
While Sakamoto-Jog's MBA training has served her well on the organizational front, strengthening her finance and HR skills, there was a big element she had to learn on the fly.
"One thing I didn't realize when I took this job was how much time I'd spend brokering partnerships that are not financial," she says. "The difference I feel between for-profit and non-profit is there are all these transactions that have nothing to do with money."
Instead, she says, nonprofit transactions are often about time, contacts or information.
This brokering is key, she notes, in an organization where "98 per cent" of the workforce is voluntary, "from a volunteer who comes in and does one shift during the festival to a volunteer who comes in once a week to do our bookkeeping." (Reel Asian has four year-round full-time staff, eight festival-related short-term staff and approximately 200 volunteers.)
"It takes far more work than I ever imagined to fit [volunteers] into the roles that they succeed in best and that work best for us as an organization. But when it works, it's kind of magical."
In the coming months, Sakamoto-Jog will be experiencing a whole other kind of magic: motherhood. She's due to have her first child any day now. Even as she goes on maternity leave this month, she will still be a bridge-builder to watch.
"I think Sonia's a rising star in the executive director community here in Toronto," says Lucie Brouillette, director of marketing at the National Bank of Canada. "She comes prepared, she knows the objectives of our organization, she knows operations and she knows how to get things accomplished. I don't always see that with other organizations that would like to partner with us."
For her part, Sakamoto-Jog is pleased that she has helped grow Canada's longest-running Asian film festival—including an expansion to Richmond Hill, screenings during Asian Heritage Month in May, and summer fest appearances at Asian night markets—at a time when public arts funding, especially in Toronto, is ever more in question.
"[Public funding] always uncertain," she says when asked about the recent threat of cuts to municipally funded cultural organizations. "I think the actions in the arts community in Toronto [against that threat] was dead on: to confidently assert our value to decision makers and use hard facts to back up how we contribute to the city's economy."
"What we are trying to do as an organization is become less dependent on any one stream of funding. Public is still very important to us," she says, "but we must find other ways to sustain ourselves."

Leah Sandals is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Leslieville neighbourhood of Toronto. She has been writing for Yonge Street since January 2011.

Photo two: Sonia Sakamoto-Jog (middle) with attendees of the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival opening night, Nov, 18, 2011. Photo by Joyce Wong. Photo three: Sakamoto-Jog, participating in Real Asian's Meet Abd Greet event this past February. Photo by Mike Tjioe.

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