Entrepreneur Jules Porter brings quite a few unique experiences to the company she leads. From degrees in aeronautics and theology to four years spent in the Marine Corps to a legal degree to a passion for video games, Porter approaches her efforts with purpose and passion.
The Minnesota native recently left her job as a clerk for a state job to work full time on Seraph 7 Studios, the video game company she’s building here in town. Porter spoke with Starting Up North about her legal experience, her passion for video games and how she’s combining them both in her new business.
You just became a Finn Fellow at Finnovation Lab. What does that mean, and what does it change for you?
It means everything. I was doing law and trying to work on my business, and I found that meant I didn’t sleep as much as I actually needed to sleep, and I wasn’t making the progress that I needed to make because my law job consumed most of everything. I worked as a staff attorney for a judge, so my job consisted of sitting in on hearings, sitting in on meetings with lawyers, reading briefs and legal filings.
Being a Finn Fellow allowed me to leave my law job, even though I’m still a lawyer. I’m still doing all kinds of lawyer stuff I need to do to keep my license active, but I’m able to now focus full time on my company.
They give us office space here in the Finn Lab. We do get programming, so it comes down to about three solid days of curriculum a month. For me, I just love that they gave us mentors, and all the leadership development we can take. I think it’s amazing and awesome.
After four years in the Marine Corps, Porter headed to Houston and eventually ended up in Atlanta. You were in the Marines; how did you end up getting your law degree in Minnesota?
It was really the death of Trayvon Martin  that got me to say, ‘Hey, yeah, I’m this corporate security manager. This is cool, but what am I really doing with my life?’ Then around when Trayvon Martin was killed, my grandmother passed away. She had always wanted me to be a lawyer. She kept saying, ‘You would make a phenomenal lawyer. What are you doing? You should be a lawyer.’
Those two events really got me thinking about my purpose, and what it actually is, and what gets that fire going inside of me. I decided to come to St. Thomas here for law school, and that’s when I felt, ‘I found my calling. This is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, and when I’m supposed to be doing it,’ because that’s when we had our social justice crisis, the beginning of it.
What was it about the law that you thought, “Okay, I want to make change. Here’s how I do it”?
I saw how important the law actually is. Coming to law school, I remember, it hit me. It was the March for Jamar Clark from North Minneapolis to Minneapolis City Hall. In that march, I felt very passionate, full of emotion, but I also felt like, ‘This isn’t the only thing that you should be doing. You have skills that go beyond sitting here and doing these same chants that black people have been doing since the beginning of time, it feels like. You need to do something in a different way, maybe on a different level.’
That’s what got me into the St. Thomas’ Community Justice Project. It’s a legal services clinic, where we go out in the community, we help assert people’s civil rights, and we learn what’s the role of a lawyer in a social justice crisis, and that’s when I really hit my stride. I took a constitutional litigation practicum as well. Those two classes really made me say, ‘Boom, I’m exactly where I need to be. I’m getting this; I’m understanding this; I’m understanding how to be that support to actually get some things moving.’
Dr. Artika Tyner from St. Thomas said my favorite quote of all time, which is, “The law is the language of power.” And it really is.
Even on a smaller level, let’s say if we’re not even looking at violations of constitutional rights, there can sometimes be just small legal issues that people can’t afford to take care of, and because they can’t afford to take care of it, it becomes bigger and bigger, and bigger, and now it’s this thing that’s just weighing them down, and they just see no way out of it.
One thing with my video game company that I want is that when it takes off and becomes successful, I want to dedicate a day a week of my time just helping low bono people, which are families who can’t afford attorneys, but who don’t qualify for pro bono services.
While you were getting your legal degree at St. Thomas, why did you decide to get your MBA, and how did that lead to a video game company?
I like to be a balanced person. For my undergrad, I have an aeronautics degree. Then I went to seminary, so I have a theology degree. I like to think about things in different ways. I felt like my thinking is so law centric, I need to balance it off with some business interest and more understanding more of economic empowerment and how I can be of full help. In Minnesota, we have horrible economic disparities here, in addition to our social justice crisis.
While I was in school, in my MBA program, they had the Fowler Business Concept Challenge. Some of my classmates said, ‘Jules, you know so much about the video game industry, you keep saying you want to be a lawyer in that industry. Have you ever just thought about starting your own company?’
I thought it through, I looked through all the things that they asked us for the challenge, and it asked, “What’s the social problem?” Then when I started writing it down, I realized that there are a lot of social problems that video games can actually help out with. It was really cool. And I actually won the challenge.
Then they had a Business Plan Challenge, so I kept fleshing it out even more the next semester. I won that and thought, ‘Okay, maybe I have something here that’s worth pursuing.’
Okay, so let’s take a step back then. Video games. Did you play a lot of video games when you were young? How did you get into it?
I was a gamer since Mario Brothers, Super Mario Brothers, and especially Mario Brothers 2 because that had Princess Toadstool. You could finally play as a female character, and she was fully clothed. But she could also jump and float; she could do some cool stuff.
I also played Tecmo Bowl. I was always a big football fan growing up. Tecmo Bowl taught me a lot about understanding the game’s mechanics, and the game’s restrictions. In the game, if you got the ball, you could just run all the way back to your end zone, and then throw the ball, and every time the person would catch it, you could just go for a touchdown because everyone follows you except for the one receiver who’s running down the field. So then when you throw the ball, they catch it, you get automatic touchdowns. I realized, “That’s a software restriction and limitation.”
That just reminds me, in every game that I play, ‘Okay, there’s going to be some kind of limitation or something that I could use to my advantage here.’ Not technically cheating, I’m using the game mechanics.
So you play a lot, but when did you start realizing you could make video games?
When I was younger in elementary school, we had our first computer class, and those were the old school computers that played Oregon Trail. I would just want to be able to do stuff. So I learned a little bit of DOS, and then later I learned a little bit of HTML because I wanted to have the coolest profile on Black Planet and MySpace.
Then from there, I wanted to learn C++ because I’m a big privacy advocate as well. I wanted to learn how to root things, and I wanted to learn how to partition things off on my computer. So, I just started learning C++ because of my own curiosity.
I’m all self-taught. When it comes to console video games, I want to make them for PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo. There are only two free-to-use engines that port to all three of these plus computers, and those are Unity and Unreal. I chose Unreal.
There are some courses there that Epic will actually approve What’s cool about that is if you’re self-taught like me, you can take this course by Udemy that’s actually approved by Epic for use in their engine, so it’ll kind of say C++ for the Unreal Engine, and then you see if it’s approved by Epic. It prints off a certificate at the end of completion that you can pop on your resume to show people, ‘Yeah, I’m self-taught, but I did take these specific courses for this specific engine.’ And it works well. For me, I want to learn Python next because I want to get into machine learning.
What do you play these days?
God of War is one of my favorite series. Another series that I really like is the Far Cry series, the Assassin’s Creed series.
When you think about them, what aspects do you want to bring into your own games, and what aspects do you want to change?
I definitely want more authentic stories from, I guess, maybe the unlikely hero, which are people of color, because we are heroes, but apparently not in these types of universes. So I want to show, ‘Hey, we’re regular people too. We love to play video games, and we’re not a monolith, we all have very different and unique stories to tell. And guess what? Not all of us are criminals.’ Outside of sports games, 3% of the characters are people of color. But in that 3%, it’s very difficult to find a character who is a pure, good character. All the characters have some level of moral deficiency. They were either a gangster, or they were a reformed mobster, or something like that.
ut no. How about we slay some dragons, and save some villagers, and just be a purely good person? Because there’s lots of us who are, we would say, purely good people. And let’s also give kids something to aspire to. You can be a little white kid, and you can play as a hobbit if that’s what you want to do, well, why can’t we have some black hobbits in Middle Earth? So kind of bringing some more fantasy, and some more just purely good heroes and good people, and so good family games that connect people and kind of tell more of the story of who we are.
You have 2.5 billion people across the globe playing video games, and guess what? Maybe this story about this really positive Black hero, maybe some kid in rural Kansas will play this game, and maybe this will be kind of their only experience of a positive black person because they don’t have any in their community. So now they have something that combats some of the common media, and they have a different perspective because they’ve now played through the shoes of a person with a different perspective.
It seems like in pop culture, there are discussions about how do we get more representation in film? How do we get more representation on TV? Is that a conversation within video game communities?
It’s part of what my company’s trying to do, and what I’m hoping we will see. Because right now, not only are 3% of characters people of color, 3% of the programmers are Black or Hispanic or Native. Something like 5% of the programmers are women. The way you see women portrayed in gaming is not very positive. As we expand those numbers, I think we’ll start to get more positive representation. We need more programmers, and we need more people in leadership in these companies who are women, who are people of color.
Part of what my company is doing is building an applied advanced STEAM course for local high school students. The Wilder Foundation in 2014 did this huge study and saw that students of all races in Minnesota are really interested in STEAM equally. The problem is, students of color are going to schools where they fewer resources, and they have fewer course offerings that would be advanced or applied. To help them solve that problem, perhaps I can provide, this applied advanced STEAM course, where they can come in, they can do art, history, storyboarding to start. Then as you get into coding, you’re learning about software, engineering, you’re learning C++, some architecture, design and animation. There are all these skills that you can learn just by helping make a video game.
An entry level video game programmer makes $80,000 a year for consoles. And guess what? Here in Minnesota, I think for a family of four, the average income is $33,000 a year. So, in one year, you’ve helped this kid without a college degree make in one year what their family has been struggling to make for three years. That’s real change. When I can offer jobs, then I can keep these kids, who I’ve just trained, and give them a really good paying job, keep them in the community, and now they’re mentors, and now they’re helping me with the STEAM programs, and building up even more. It’s an army of change, I would say.
Has a social aspect been part of building Seraph 7 Studios since the beginning?
The social aspect is in all parts of the company. The mission of my company is empowering compelling change both in life and in dreams. Then my company vision is togetherness through beauty, gaming, and wonder. I want that throughout all my games. I want all my games to empower some change, and I want them all to have a focus on how do we bring people together.
So, my first game is Ultimate Elder Battle Royale, so that game is old people with superpowers. It’s a fighting game. It’s going to be intentionally corny and I’m going to have local voice actors from across the Twin Cities, like local nursing homes. I want the game to be over the top. There will be no swearing. It’ll be fun for families.
In my games, I want there to be Hawaiians represented, I want there to be people from Paraguay, just a whole plethora of people from different places, different backgrounds, different histories, and I want that to be represented in the game.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are in situations like you before the Finn Fellowship, where they have an idea, but they’re still doing a full-time job, and then they’re going home and working on their dream?
I would say still take the time. For me, taking the time to put my applications into different places, to develop the business plan, and to tweak it, and then to submit it for judges or just mentors or anybody to critique was super helpful. Because one of the things is asking is this viable? Even though this is a great idea, I just wanted to understand what do I need to fix? Is this something that you think can be a thing? And even though people didn’t really understand the video game industry, they did understand that there was something there, and so then I got a lot of support and a lot of help and encouragement. I think that pushed me in an even better direction. So, I would say, don’t give up on it.
You have talked about dream, and vision. Let’s imagine everything goes great. What does Seraph 7 Studios look like in five years?
In five years, we would have had at least two games out and be working on launching the third game. They will be on three different consoles—Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo. I want people just to be proud of the games that I put out. By that time, we would have had a few groups of students who graduated through my social programs. Hopefully, some of them will be working with me, and if they’re not working with me, hopefully, they found a great job somewhere they’ve been inspired, they stay in touch, and they’re doing other things to give back. That’s the goal. They succeed in their STEAM courses from then on out. And I’ll still be doing the low bono work one day a week. That’s something I want to be very consistent with because there are so many people who need help.