Women of Impact: expression and acceptance with Jess Oberlin
A long-time ambassador for women and the LGBTQIA+ community, Jess speaks on creative entrepreneurism, self-expression and surviving cancer.
This month, we’re shining a spotlight on exceptional women making a difference. Our #WomenOfImpact series, created in honour of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, showcases intimate interviews with progressive women from our community committed to equality, representation and change.
Based in Eindhoven and known for her personal view of fashion, infectious enthusiasm and vibrant stage presence, today’s chat is with Jess Oberlin, an anti-disciplinary experience designer. Over the course of a colourful career, Jess has made a real impact. As an empowering ambassador for marginalized, female-identifying, non-binary & LGBTQIA+BIPOC communities, Jess is dedicated to facilitating space for people to share empowering moments through collaboration.
Meet Jess Oberlin
A self-taught clothing designer, event producer and DJ, Jess is best known as the founder of PLASMA, an inclusive event platform celebrating diversity through shared experiences in music and art. Founded to give queer and international women’s communities a safe space to connect in person, PLASMA fights for equal treatment in terms of gender, age and origin.
Jess is also a beloved ambassador at The Social Hub Eindhoven and has recently been exploring her political potential. As an international non-dutchie, she was able to join the local branch of the Groen Links (Green Left) party as a representative. Sitting down with Jess in the early morning, we catch her just after her family breakfast as she prepares for another action-packed day.
Where did your passion for championing marginalized groups come from?
“I always tell the story about being eight or nine and wanting to join the school chess team. I was bullied by all the boys and told I was just a ‘dumb girl.’ I was good at chess but left the team because I hated the bullying, this was probably one of my earliest fire-in-the-belly moments. I got bullied badly at school because we didn’t have a lot of money, I wore second-hand clothes and had big, puffy 90s hair.”
“I had a rough few years and had to switch schools. I even changed my whole identity to try to be one of the ‘cool’ kids, then discovered they were bullies too. I didn’t want to be part of that and eventually found these three ‘weird’ girls that became my best friends. I think being bullied is a big motivator for the work I do now because, in my own way, I know how it feels to not fit in and to not be accepted or respected as you are.”
Is that why it’s important for you to create a safe space for people to express themselves?
“Definitely. I couldn’t be my crazy self for a long time, and I tried to keep it all on the inside. Once I got a bit older, into my 30s, I remember throwing my first karaoke party. It was a real moment of just totally being myself – and I wanted to offer that space to other people, too.”
This off-the-cuff party would mark the inception of one of Jess’ most unexpectedly and empowering passion projects, Karajoke. With a pop-up concept, Karajøke invites people to express themselves and put their quirky characteristics on full display during supportive, non-judgemental karaoke nights. With lots of crowd interaction, encouragement and fun, these evenings are all about empowerment and success.
“This is also the reason I started the PLASMA,” continues Jess. “Originally I launched JØ, a fashion brand, making body positive bodysuits, then I wondered how I could give it a political voice. I saw other brands around me celebrating Queer Week or Queer Month, but nobody was doing it year-round. I wanted to be an everyday advocate, to take all that protest energy and turn it into something beautiful and enjoyable. That’s how PLASMA events began.”
PLASMA events are known to be incredibly unique in their content and delivery, how did the concept evolve?
“I’ve always loved the idea of open discussion, crowd interaction and vulnerability when debating societal issues, but as someone with ADHD it’s hard for me to focus on a symposium where someone just talks at you for an hour. So, I designed these events to be much more fluid and exciting.”
Jess breaks down a typical PLASMA event, telling us that speakers talk for a maximum of five minutes, before opening the discussion to the group for a short stint. Then there’s a five- or ten-minute pop-up performance, often led by femme/LGBTQIA+BIPOC artists. It’s designed to be fast-paced and thought-provoking.
“At the end, everybody is always like, ‘what did we just experience?’ It’s such a colourful, stimulating way to introduce people to different cultures and subcultures, showcasing original art, music and ideas. We always feature upcoming talent as well as worldwide stars, everybody gets to fly their own freak flag.”
Leading something so bold, and being the face of it, do you ever fear being judged?
“Yes, always, always, always!” exclaims Jess. “I wrote an essay for my podcast series Dancing with Darkness about a moment that I felt fear. I programmed and presented an event at the Dutch Design Week. I was wearing this green suit and looking in the backstage mirror when I started overthinking 'Mother of two. Fiancée. Divorcee. Designer. ADHD. Spontaneous. Pizza lover. Artistic director. Karaoke star...' I knew I was prepared but I also knew that I wouldn’t be perfect. Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate my own imperfections as I do with others. A few minutes later I was on stage, my heart was beating out of my chest and I was just hoping no one notices.”
“Nowadays I spend time backstage before every event focusing on acceptance. Accepting the fear, accepting that I feel like an imposter and accepting that I’m scared everyone will see it. But you can’t show these vulnerabilities when you’re hosting a show or leading an event, you can only accept your feelings and move forward in the moment.”
For Jess, the concept of acceptance is key. Understanding that everybody suffers from imposter syndrome, pretending to be fearless and presenting a perfect version of themselves to the world, is an opportunity to discuss our darker duality: the worries and fears that make us who we truly are.
If we consider everything you’ve learned through your career, how would you define success?
“I’m a perfectionist, so for a long time it was easy for me to look at success as this big, huge unattainable thing. Now I try to look at it with gratitude. I got out of bed this morning, that’s great! A lot of people can’t do that, so I’m successful. I run meaningful events and I help people, that all feels like success.”
“Just seeing other people happy and enjoying whatever I’m doing makes me feel good, and I’m accepting that as success now rather than it being this enormous thing related to money or reach. If you even touch 10 people with your work, that’s also a beautiful success. Even accepting a compliment is a success.”
Discussing the relationship between success and impact, Jess tells us that she never does anything that doesn’t feel urgent or necessary. She works from a personal philosophy she calls ‘future vintage’, which means only taking on projects that she’ll look back on in 10 years and feel proud of. In this sense, she sees success and impact as being one and the same.
Speaking of making an impact, you’ve recently entered politics. How did this come about?
“Well, I was asked by the local party if I wanted to run, and I knew literally nothing about politics. I still don’t know enough, but it’s something that just felt right. Everything I do is kind of political anyway, but in a positive activist kind of way. I was curious how my ideas could help shape the city through politics alongside my creative business.”
“I’m really excited about trying to make a change from inside the system. I mean, it’s already essential that we see more women represented in these positions, but I think we especially need more women of colour. It’s scandalous how little representation there is of the actual Dutch demographic in politics – and elsewhere.”
On the topic of fair representation, Jess explains that whenever she applies for jobs she always includes a disclaimer highlighting her privilege as a white woman. It states that if there’s a woman of colour that’s a suitable candidate, they should always be considered first.
“You need to make decisions you can stand behind. I was recently asked to be part of a talent development program of 25 people and when I found out it was an almost white group, I decided to decline, and suggested they examine the past five years from a diversity perspective. It just wasn’t representative of all the other self-taught designers from different backgrounds I know are out there.”
What’s been your biggest recent challenge as an entrepreneur, ambassador and mother?
“Well, last year, while doing all of my work as an entrepreneur and balancing personal commitments, I was also going through cancer treatment,” Jess reflects. “I didn’t tell anybody then, but I’m currently running a campaign to raise awareness and funds. Thankfully, I’m better now.”
“It was late stage when they found it, and very scary. I had to confront whether I would live or not, and I really wasn’t ready to be that vulnerable with everybody. I mean, everything I’m known for is super bright, shiny, neon and happy vibes. How do you put a positive spin on cancer?”
That must have been a difficult experience. How has surviving cancer altered your outlook?
“I think the biggest lesson through this journey has been accepting the darkness to see the light. I’m working hard to embrace this part of myself. It’s something I talk about more in depth on the Dancing with Darkness podcast."
“After my experience, I want to get the word out about how vulnerable the under-40 age group is. There’s no advertising for this demographic and you can only reach them by doing the kind of things I do – podcasts, parties, cool photoshoots, and engaging design. So maybe I can put my face out there."
Jess explains that she underwent her final surgery just five weeks ago in an intense and hard experience that still feels fresh. Unfortunately, her first introduction to cancer was six years earlier, when she opted for a mastectomy due to an elevated risk of the BRCA2 gene mutation.
“If I can save one person, if they discover a symptom and go to the doctor because of something I’ve created or advocated for, then it’s all worth it.”
What advice would you give to people, especially young women, who want to make an impact?
“To be successful in anything, you need to start with yourself. Then you can care for others. When you can make a difference, make a difference. If somebody asks for your help and you have the energy and means, do it. You don’t always have to climb huge mountains – small things can make a big impact.”
Listen to Jess’s empowering playlists
To celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month in roof-raising style, DJ Jess has curated three pro playlists for The Social Hub on Spotify, each with its own unique, zesty flavour.
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