Dream, Girl premieres at the White House

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Standing in front of the West Wing of the White House–yes, that White House–Komal Minhas beams so brightly, it’s like looking directly at the sun.

Nevermind that the 26-year-old from Ottawa-via-Grande Prairie, Alta., has recently undergone cancer surgery.

And nevermind that the ensuing recovery set back her dreams and left her furiously bedridden in Ottawa for weeks, far from her New York City base, where she runs a startup for her first film, Dream, Girl, a co-production with director and business partner, Erin Bagwell, 29.

Nevermind all that, because on this particular day — this past Thursday, to be precise — Minhas and Bagwell achieved something that not even they, with their Big Hairy Audacious Goals, even once considered possible: They premiered their first film at the White House.

If that sounds like the kind of good luck that Hollywood dreams are made of, don’t believe it. Minhas certainly doesn’t.

 “Dream, Girl is my life’s passion personified and Erin is the other half of my brain. For three years, we’ve been building this feature-length film and a movement that will help girls and women unleash their potential in the global economy,” she says of the project, which began when she contacted Bagwell out of the blue after reading about the Dream, Girl Kickstarter campaign while on holiday in Italy.

Sight unseen, Minhas immediately committed her last $10,000 for the project.

The premise is simple, but inspires an instant, visceral response: If you can name entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who are their female counterparts? They exist — but usually well below the radar. The documentary attempts to find out why, by tracing the efforts of five women, recounting their struggles and victories.

Which is how Minhas and Bagwell came to find themselves at the White House in the first place.

Originally set to be shown as part of a 5,000-delegate White House Summit on the United State of Women — hosted by Michelle Obama through the White House’s Council for Women and Girls and the National Women’s Business Council – the screening initially fell through when the event was moved to June 14.

Disappointed, but determined to refocus on the world premiere of the film on June 9 in New York City, Minhas was then surprised when the White House called back a few weeks later, this time asking for the film to be the centrepiece of a private, 190-person screening for women entrepreneurs, followed by a round table discussion led by Diana Doukas, the director of the White House Business Council.

Framed by the story of their struggle to make the movie, the documentary circles around the thesis that women in business represent a growing economic power, yet face unseen barriers to things like access to capital. Of the $255 billion e-commerce transactions happening worldwide, for example, 65 per cent are women’s transactions. In the U.S., women start 1,200 new businesses daily, a number that has grown exponentially over the past decade.

“There is a lot of feel good around supporting women entrepreneurs,” says Bagwell, “but ultimately, it makes good economic sense.”

That the film was ultimately made through crowd funding, family support and investors like New York-based Gotham Gal Ventures, and then screened at the White House, staggers Minhas. Twitter Global also recently inked a deal to hold 14 screenings of the film worldwide.

She laughs in disbelief.

“Erin and I are first-timers. Our first film aired at the White House! And I have cancer! It’s so crazy!”

In fact, if any part of the Dream, Girl story is straight out of Hollywood, it would be her cancer diagnosis.

Having noticed two fatty lumps on the back on her leg, she checked in at an Ottawa clinic last December. The doctor told her and partner Mitch Pennell not to worry: He could excise the lumps without too much drama. Relieved, Minhas asked if they could film him cutting open the lumps, because we’re such oddballs.

And that’s where things got serious. Slicing into the second lump, the doctor paused and remarked, “Oh, this is unusual. You see this, one in 1,000 … no, one in a million. This is a dermatofibroma.”

Still unconcerned when the tissue was sent to pathology, Minhas again immersed herself in Dream, Girl.

During a doctor’s appointment months later, she inquired about the pathology report, because she’d lost track of a letter sent regarding the results.

“I remember him saying, ‘So no one’s talked about this to you? It’s a sarcoma.’ ͛͟I said, ‘that’s cancer, right?’ He kept talking and I felt so overwhelmed. I couldn’t get anything else out of my mouth.”

She dealt with the diagnosis like she does everything: By hitting it right between the eyes. She told family, did research into the tumour — a rare soft tissue cancer called dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans that spreads like tree roots through the body — and then blogged about it, overnight attracting 4,000 unique visits. (She still faces a possible second surgery to ensure all cancerous cells have been captured.)

“It was exhausting during the treatment not to have her here, because we push each other to dream really big,” says Bagwell, who six months ago, also made the gut-wrenching decision to redo the film and even reshoot elements, with her all-female crew.

“We showed a rough cut to family and I realized I could do better, go deeper and really make these women and their stories shine.”

Back at the White House, after the screening, Minhas poses with her parents in front of the West Wing, while family members mill around, delighting in everything they see. She watches them for a moment. Her father, Yadvinder Singh Minhas, was brought up a Punjabi farm and never dreamed he would move to Canada in 1974, start a logging company and become one of the few Big L Liberal families in Alberta.

“Had I been born in India, my experience would have been starkly different,” she notes. “So, it would be irresponsible of me to think any of this was just me. I grew up with a passion for social change, so to be able to take my parents to the White House to show them what we’ve created is just beyond me. Erin and I seem like an overnight success story — but in truth, we needed everyone’s help.”

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