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Saratoga woman serves as champion of region's creatives

Outlook

Saratoga woman serves as champion of region's creatives

Maureen Sager was part of small group to start Upstate Alliance for the Creative Economy
Saratoga woman serves as champion of region's creatives
Executive Director of Alliance for the Creation Economy, ACE, Maureen Sager at her home in Saratoga Springs, December 6, 2018.
Photographer: Erica Miller/Gazette Photographer

Creative industries put 47,000 individuals to work and generate $1.4 billion in earnings each year in the Capital Region, according to the Upstate Alliance for the Creative Economy. Over 16,000 of those individuals freelance – that’s a higher percentage of freelancers in the creative industries here in the Capital Region than in New York City or Boston, according to ACE. 

As it is understood today, the creative economy is comprised of the visual arts, museums and preservation, performing arts, artisanal restaurants, design, media and culinary agriculture and food production. All this combined makes up the fourth-largest employment sector in the Capital Region – neck and neck with manufacturing and outranking higher education in an area with 24 colleges. Local business leaders like Maureen Sager have taken note of the creative economy’s strength in the region and are keen to support the independent small business owners and freelancers who decided to root their businesses here.

Two years ago Sager and a cohort of local business leaders dreamt up the Upstate Alliance for the Creative Economy, a nonprofit designed to support small business owners and freelancers in the Capital Region, after the potential of the Capital Region’s creative industries became clear. The nonprofit has attracted 30 investors in the two years since its formation.

“You can feel the density of creative energy when you walk through a town," Sager said. "You can feel it in Troy. It’s having a tangible effect in this place."

“The rust belt cities are doing super well in attracting the self-employed," Sager said. "Towns like Catskill and Troy have the underpinnings of what Brooklyn looked like in the 80s. Only an old person would know this,” she chuckled. “The enthusiasm is unmistakable. You can’t find that in Brooklyn anymore. It is what we have here.”

Creative industry jobs now make up 12.5 percent of jobs in Columbia County, placing it in the top 1 percent of all U.S. counties when it comes to the concentration of creative jobs. Washington County follows closely behind with a concentration of 10.4 percent of jobs in the creative economy.

Raised by an IBM employee and a teacher, Sager said she felt like a “martian” in her family for being so drawn to the arts. She graduated from Rutgers with degrees in English, film and economics before earning a master's in screenwriting from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and finally studying business at Fordham University.

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Though she’s spent most of her life working in creative fields, she said she has always seen the world through a business lens. Her resume includes publishing giant Scholastic, and the internet divisions of TV networks that lit up living rooms in the majority of American homes throughout the 1990s and early 00s – MTV network, Nickelodeon and TV Land. Oh, and her first job – a receptionist for the rock band KISS.

“My son is killing me because he wants to be a musician,” she said with a smile. “This is probably the same feeling my parents had when I wanted to go into film,” laughed Sager. Her daughter is in the throes of college decisions and her top pick – an art school.

National trends project up to half the population will be self-employed as freelancers in the next 10 years, according to Sager. Despite the growing numbers, Sager says, freelancing isn’t for everyone. “You have to be extremely risk-tolerant,” she said, adding “the degree of autonomy and freedom are very appealing to a broad swath of people.”

Millennials have shown that they’re willing to trade a degree of job security for the autonomy and freedom that comes with self-employment, making up just under a quarter of freelancers, according to a 2016 report by the McKinsey Global Institute. A slight majority of independent workers freelance as supplemental income to more traditional 9 to 5 jobs. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, “40 to 55 percent of low-income households engage in independent work.”

Freelancing can be risky, stressful and uncertain. One major hurdle freelancers face is the lack of benefits more traditional jobs offer. ACE is working on that, too. Portable benefits for freelancers is something that’s never been done in the U.S. before according to Sager. ACE is advocating for more accessible benefits like 401ks for self-employed individuals in New York state. When asked whether she thought portable benefits for freelancers could be reality in the next five to 10 years, Sager responded: “Oh, god – I hope so!” She added, “It’s not out of reach.”

Some states, such as Vermont and Oklahoma, now offer incentives to remote workers. "It’s the people who welcome [freelancers] who are going to win,” said Sager.

“Data shows a lot of people are going to be freelancers whether they like it or not. It’s not an easy route but the autonomy, the freedom and the ability to fulfill your mission does matter to people. Is it easy? No. It’s not for everybody,” she said. 

The creative economy, however, is applicable to most other sectors. “The most valuable companies are extremely design-informed,” said Sager. “Apple, Google… No business can launch now without a brand and a logo. Design is how modern companies interact with customers,” she added. 

Sager recalled the day in 1993 when she sat in on a demonstration of a brand-new development – the internet. “It was the world’s slowest thing,” she laughed.

Only two other people came for the demo – a website for the George Clooney "Batman" movie. Having worked as a freelancer before and after the rise of the internet, Sager has mixed feelings about how helpful it has been in the world of self-employment. “It’s great to find work but the internet has a potential for downward pressure on wages. Jobs are bid out by the pound,” she said with a sigh. 

Sager believes, however, that with the help of organizations like ACE, freelancers can protect themselves from wage deflation. “We can be distinct in the United States when it comes to the value we place on the work of freelancers,” she said. 

The data on the region’s strong creative economy may come as a surprise to some of those who have lived in the region for decades. Freelancers tend to fly under the radar after all. Sager, who worked as a freelancer for years, is working to change that with ACE.

ACE launched a job hub on its website designed to support the local freelancing community in January and will be rolling it out throughout 2019. The hub will include job listings and connect local freelancers with fair-paying gigs. “What we’re trying to do with the job hub is to make sure we’re committed to hiring local talent and putting the correct value on people’s work,” said Sager. “The more informed people are they will be willing to commit to using local designers [and other freelancers] and paying for their work,” she added. 

ACE is also focused on bringing self-employed individuals together through monthly networking events held on the first Wednesday of every month. The location shifts between counties in the Capital Region each month. “It’s hard to imagine doing this without a network,” said Sager citing the perspective that comes with sharing “hard-won knowledge.” 

“Each of us is a pioneer in this,” said Sager.

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