It’s International Women’s Day today, the gaming industry is celebrating the wonderful women that make up the community we love so much. From developers to writers — even talking about our favorite protagonists — there are so many incredible voices that help to make games phenomenal experiences. One of those women is Chelsea Blasko, co-CEO of Iron Galaxy Studios.
Not only has Blasko’s leadership been a positive force within Iron Galaxy itself, she also helped navigate the team through 2020, a year that was turned on its head by a global pandemic. While many companies, both in and out of gaming, were forced to downsize due to daily life as we know it shutting down, Blasko and her team helped facilitate yet another year of growth. Not only did the studio expand, it also expanded thoughtfully, with 59 new people hired during COVID-19, 30 percent of which were women.
From her rise to her leadership role to how Iron Galaxy goes above and beyond to protect the well-being of every team member, we sat down with the co-CEO to learn more about her, her career, and ways that she is leading by example to make the gaming industry a better and more inclusive place for all.
When Blasko first began her journey into professional life, gaming wasn’t really the goal. Growing up, she tells us that she didn’t really have too many role models for what she wanted in life, so she instead focused on getting good grades so that she could get a “good job.” That being said, she said back then she wasn’t really sure what a “good job” meant, so part of her journey was learning exactly that.
Her adventure into realizing her dreams started with her joining the work force at the young age of 11. Since then, she tells us that she’s always had a job, and it was that work ethic that eventually took her overseas on a scholarship. In her travels, she learned the various approaches to what a “good job” means while learning what she herself wanted out of life with this pursuit into professional belonging. When her schooling was done, it was then time to figure out what that next step was.
The road to Iron Galaxy and learning to lead
You’ve had an incredible career so far. Can you tell us a little more about your background leading up to where you are now?
Blasko: I took a chance and moved to the suburbs of Chicago. It was a place I didn’t really fit in, but I was kind of used to not fitting in throughout my life. My college was super-conservative and I’m not, so I was pretty used to not fitting in by that point. So moving to this really affluent suburb, I then ran a little ladies boutique for a little over four years, and this is where I really learned about business. This job helped me get over being shy because I was a person that was nervous to even order pizza by myself. And then on the first day of that job, I had to call like 33 vendors and so I just kind of had to suck it up and learn how to talk to people.
Then I went to work at H&M out of a mall, and that’s when one of my colleagues actually said “Hey, there’s this video game company, EA, and they’re opening an office in Chicago. They’re looking for producers!” They said I should go for an interview, and I did because I felt like I had nothing to lose. I never really imagined that there were video games being made in Chicago, like Mortal Kombat, but never put together that there were more. So I went in and interviewed with the GM, who was quite the character, and had a pretty bombastic first interview. Then I went in for a second interview with a panel of folks and took the job. I couldn’t really believe it! I started out as an assistant to the General Manager and I think that was a good choice because I got to see a lot of the different aspects of the business. I did some Q&A, I worked with artists, project management. My first real project was Def Jam Icon, and I started out just by producing the training videos. Then I started working with the art team, and actually, all of the art producers were women at that time and it was this little pod of us. It was really cool, we were a really great team.
I learned so much in the two years I was there, and then I went to Robomodo and I was one of the original crew there. I was even producing, at one point, Tony Hawk. This job helped me learn a lot about working with an external publisher, something I didn’t have to worry about at EA. I learned a lot about marketing and sponsorships, but then I was laid off – like I was at EA when they shut down the Chicago office. At this point, I thought, “Should I even still be in games?” But then Dave Lang, the founder of Iron Galaxy, approached me and I thought, “What the heck?”
What was that move like? You didn’t start out as co-CEO. How was it moving into a new studio after previous uncertainty?
When I first came onboard, honestly, I was a little intimidated. At first I came on to be the studio producer, because I never worked with just exclusively programmers and I was only the second non-programmer to join the team. There were two women hired the same day I was, and though I was a little intimidated, I really embraced what was happening and I just learned a lot and I wasn’t afraid to make decisions.
Dave and my personalities are pretty different, so he was really at the forefront of everything out there and I became this “back of the house,” running the projects. We just had to keep things running. It was a good mix of our talent. We also did a mean “good cop, bad cop” bit when needed, and I always got to be the good cop.
Any time I saw an opportunity to help the studio, I didn’t ask for permission. I just did it. And the best part was that Dave always trusted me. There is one point in particular that I remember in the beginning when people were really used to him being the sole person to make decisions. But then he was gone and there was a project we were working on and we needed to make a decision quickly about a milestone. Some people thought that we needed to wait for Dave and I said, “No, we’re not waiting, we need to move forward. This is the decision. If Dave doesn’t like it, he can fire me when he gets back.” Well, he didn’t fire me, and I am still here. It was here that I made some of the evolutions that were just better changes for my role.
What are some pivotal lessons that you’ve learned that are a cornerstone for your leadership style and philosophy?
Really, the most important thing is that I’ve learned to be a better listener over time. Sometimes it can be hard to be a good listener, and so that was something that I learned. That, and I learned not to give into the temptation to just do everything myself, because sometimes that does feel like the easiest path, right? But if you do that, you’re not giving the people around you the room to grow and flourish and become what they need to be. That, and you’re just going to burn yourself out.
There’s also always more work to be done, more learning to do. Learning that, I feel, made me a more available leader and an even better listener.
For my job, it was a lot of emotional work and because of that, it’s sometimes intangible and it’s hard to give yourself credit for what you’re doing. Because you’re looking at the code going into a project all of the time, there’s not something tangible you can just point to at the end of your day and say, “I did that!” Instead, being a leader is a lot of emotional work, you need to know how to care for others. Just keep learning, all of the time, just keep learning.
Leading by example in terms of diversity and inclusion
What is at the core of your philosophy regarding being more inclusive with your decisions at Iron Galaxy?
At previous studios, I didn’t see a lot of other diverse folks, so I didn’t really expect much. But then when I realized that doesn’t have to be the norm, i realized that I have some responsibility to help and that I could make a difference. That’s when I really embraced it. I do this because I hope that it helps other people see some representation and see that some can do it. And that I helped someone along the way. That’s really the most inspiring part to me, and hopefully I’m helping someone else see a path they didn’t know they could have.
What do you think are some of the biggest roadblocks companies have when wanting to be more diverse and inclusive?
Honestly, it’s really tricky, right? I think that Iron Galaxy has always been really inclusive, and people have reported on that in the past. So for us, it’s about keeping that alive. That being said, we are always looking at ways to be even more diverse. What are we doing to not lose the inclusivity and equal treatment as we become more diverse? I think that companies are in a hard spot of trying to overcome the inequities of a failing education system, and just general societal inequalities overall, and so in that way, we’re fighting a hard battle.
In a lot of ways, I think diverse candidates often haven’t been afforded the same opportunity that a lot of affluent white people have, like myself, even. Because of that, companies are having to think about ways to redefine educational experiences, and ways to create outreach to youth. Because I really think giving feedback and outreach to youth is really where the whole talk of diversity and inclusion begins. Companies need to think bigger than themselves, they have to think about society at large and how to reach into every corner of that society. And we did! Iron Galaxy has created two scholarships, one with UCF and one with DuPaul for more diverse studios this past year. That is just one way that we can have a pipeline of diverse candidates. We’ve become a lot more intentional with our internship program, trying to reach a wider variety of colleges, so we can widen that candidate pool.
I think humility is important too, meaning recognizing that you’re not going to get it all right all of the time and to recognize that we are all learning.
The industry has changed a lot over the years, do you feel like there is still a stigma regarding women in the industry?
I think women are still struggling to be accepted in a few different careers. And we’ve had women now leaving the workforce over the last year due to the pandemic, which will set us back being recognized as equals. Still, we just saw our first woman Vice President, right? So I think we’re still just getting over a lot of long-held perceptions and I think we just need to support other women to make sure that we all can succeed. There’s room for all of us.
What will also help is to try and create more inclusive policies and re-evaluate them to make sure that we’re offering women a good environment to work in. For us, we have recovery and bonding leave; we try to be inclusive with that policy to recognize different people’s circumstances. We also have benefits to include transition therapy for those that are transitioning. We are always evaluating how we are being inclusive and how we can be better.
Speaking of safer working environments for women, we’ve seen an influx of “Me Too” stories through the years, especially last year. Why do you think this keeps happening, what aren’t companies doing “right” to help prevent a culture that maintains this level of abuse?
For us at Iron Galaxy, we foster an environment of respect and communication. We make it very clear that we do not tolerate anything like that. That being said, I feel like we’re at the tip of the iceberg with this because I know for me, as a young woman, I always kind of felt like I was taught to hold my abuser’s shape. If I was called out or yelled at, or touched by some guy on the bus, that I would be perceived to be dirty, that I would somehow be perceived to be the bad person. It was that teaching that made me adopt this super tough punk rock exterior to let the world know not to mess with me. Hopefully if I look scary (for a person that is five foot four), then I’m safe.
But as I’ve gotten older, I feel like I don’t need that armor as much anymore because I have confidence in myself to just elbow that idiot on the bus. I know, now, that it’s not my fault, I’m not going to hold this person’s shame for them.
We just have to have real conversations, we – as women – have to realize that it’s not our fault, but we have to also try to be wiling to come forward and speak about it, even if it’s uncomfortable. How we stop it is by bringing more awareness and fostering respect for all and intolerance of these behaviors.
Shifting gears a little bit, but with so much mindfulness about the team, I’m curious about when you noticed everything changed with the pandemic and how Iron Galaxy prioritized mental health?
March 11. That’s my pandemic anniversary. I remember that because I’m pretty sure it was a Wednesday and that was the first time the government and the media really acknowledged that this was real. Before that, I feel like it was still being played down quite a bit and we’ve never really experienced anything like this before. But yeah, March 11. That was when I was like, “Okay, this is real.” Dave and Adam [Boyes, co-CEO] were doing their last business trip, but by then I had already sensed that things were about to get a lot more serious. So instead of going with them, I stayed back at Iron Galaxy and it was on the 11th where I knew we needed to have plan and get everyone back home right now. I knew we needed to move quickly, so the very next morning, I gathered all of the department heads and IT and told them my goal: We have eight days to get everyone working from home. From there, it became a “how do we do this?” problem, one that we did really well, I think. We didn’t even need the full eight days, we had everyone home in four.
Since we have so many partners with game development, communication was key. Security concerns were there; we hold a lot of people’s secrets, a lot of people’s digital babies, we couldn’t just mess around with those. Then, it became logistical: How do we ship computers and other tech equipment? A lot of locals don’t have cars because of Chicago’s transportation, how do we get people what they need safely? By end-of-day on the 15th, almost every single person was working from home. At the end of the 16th, I was one of the only ones still left at the office, and one of the last to leave. That made me really proud. Proud of production, proud of our leadership, and proud of our team for taking it seriously. After that, we took an entire day off company-wide. No meetings, no stress, just breathe and set your home up the way that feels most comfortable.
Blasko tells us that the team has been in constant contact with each other throughout the year. They’ve had virtual meetups for “catching up” dates, even a program in place for those vaccinated where a small group of people can go into the office for those truly lonely during a year-long isolation period. Childcare options, understanding leadership, communication about needs needing to be met; all of this and more helped to make Iron Galaxy one of many safe havens during a tumultuous year. It sounds like the entire leadership team there has been incredible, but my conversation with Blasko made it easy to see what her team sees in her. She is easy to talk to – receptive to other people in a way that makes you feel welcome. She’s not afraid to be right, but she’s just as unafraid to be wrong.