PEOPLE & PLACES
Q&A with VR Planet
Story by Jennifer O’Meara | Photos by Ryan Pfeiffer/Torstar
At VR Planet families can use virtual reality to time travel, fight space pirates, or travel the world. EAST sits down with Chedwick Crieghtney, president of VR Planet, the cutting-edge virtual reality arcade in Ajax.
Where in Durham do you live and who lives in your home?
I grew up in Scarborough and got married shortly after college. My wife and I have 2 sons and we moved to Pickering about 19 years ago and still reside there to this day. My sons still live with me and my mom has since moved in with us.
Tell me a little about your employment history before starting your own business.
I’ve worked in the corporate arena for the past 30 years in several capacities most recently as a business coach for a franchise company.
What inspired you to start your business?
I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit and tried several smaller ventures over the years. When the company I was working for decided to lay me off I took the opportunity to start my own company. I met with both of my sons who are extremely willing and creative.
When did you launch it?
We decided to align our passions and open VR Planet Aug. 25, 2018 as a beautifully designed 2500 square foot venue at 325 Westney Rd. S. in Ajax.
What makes the business unique?
VR Planet is a creative space that people can come in have a great experience in virtual reality (VR) or have us create something for them that is special. Visitors can use VR to time travel through dimensions, fight off angry space pirates, be a professional boxer, or travel the world. Our business is unique in that we are the only company that we know of that does what we do. While most arcades focus on simply gaming, we provide experiences that cater to all audiences; from thrill seekers to those looking to relax and explore.
How has the business grown or evolved since it was launched?
Because VR is still relatively new, at first it was difficult at first to get people to try it but now business is steady as families are booking birthday parties (kids must be at least 8 years old or 48 inches tall) and businesses are hiring us for company team building events.
How do you see it expanding or changing in the future?
VR has so many aspects to it that we are looking to evolve into creating content for the educational training space.
She Rises with KATIE ZEPPIERI
Story by Erin Elliott | Photos by Kirsten McGoey
To watch her now, it’s hard to imagine that Katie Zeppieri wasn’t the coolest kid in her high school. This June, the 29-year-old Whitby native addressed 1,200 beaming teens and pre-teens at the seventh annual Girl Talk Empowerment Day in Toronto. The crowd was pumped up by her positive message of girls supporting girls and decked out in her signature pink. Afterward, attendees lined up to meet her in person, handing her presents they had made themselves: a decorated pair of shoes, a book of poetry, a card. They took selfies to tag on her Instagram community. The event itself was covered by CTV, which airs parts of Zeppieri’s moving dance performance and reading from her new poetry book She Rises. By all accounts, Zeppieri is a girl power star on the rise, but in her teenage life, it didn’t always feel that way.
Truly, this current scene of pink positivity is the happy ending to a longer story. Zeppieri speaks openly, even on national media, about the culture of gossip, exclusion and bullying that poisons many girls’ high school experiences, including her own. She reveals glimpses of her early struggles in 2012 TED Talent Search Talk “Dear High School Me,” in which she gives a rousing pep talk to her younger self. Her talk includes the line “you may feel like the only bird in the jungle with a thousand colours on your feathers.” The jungle, in this case, was Whitby’s Anderson CVI in the mid-2000s.
“I felt that to be ambitious and to be goal-minded were not things that were encouraged or celebrated in my school. And it was a shame. It’s hard to dream big when you feel like your peers want you to think small, and don’t want to see you do well. That sort of mentality is what I’ve committed my life to fighting against.”
And her fight is strong. She is CEO of her own social enterprise, Make Your Mark, the organization behind Girl Talk Empowerment Day, and she has given inspiring talks to teen girls across North America. A graduate of the radio and television arts program at Ryerson University, she has appeared on national media outlets and is the youngest weekly on-air radio panelist on Toronto’s NEWSTALK 1010 AM. Naturally, she brings her positive message live on her own social media channels to her enthusiastic fan base. “I’m feeling so good,” she says of this year’s event. “I like seeing girls get excited for the right reasons.”
Another way she is fighting to support girls is through her newly released second book: She Rises: Uplifting Words for Anxious Girls. Available to purchase at www.girltalkempowerment.com, She Rises is a beautiful, self-published book of poetry, with rich illustrations by LA-based artist Mary Purdie. The works progress through three phases: “She Falls”, “She Rises” and “She Perseveres.” This triumph over inner adversity is a reflection of Zeppieri’s own experience, and covers topics like anxiety, depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem. For every copy sold, Zeppereli will donate $1 to CAMH, to help provide resources for individuals struggling with mental health and addiction.
Despite her sense of social isolation in her teen years, Zeppieri’s current success and long list of accolades tells the story of a thriving young woman: She was president of the student council at Anderson Collegiate; a former Top 20 Under 20 Finalist; winner of the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award, which cited her work on human rights; and winner of both the YMCA Peace Medallion and the YWCA Young Woman of Distinction Award. She won the TD Canada Trust $75,000 scholarship for Community Leadership. She won Miss Italia. She won Miss Fiesta and she even placed in the Top 5 of the 2013 Miss World Canada pageant. She earned it all.
So, how can someone who went through so much social torment have gone on to flourish? She credits her resilience to the mentors in her life. “My parents are amazing,” she says. “Even when I had no friends, I could always talk to them.” Her parents reminded her it was okay to be alone if it meant standing up for what she believed was right. Outside of the home, teachers, principals and coaches gave her encouragement. “It’s great to have potential,” she says. “But if nobody is there to open a door for you, you miss out on opportunity.” Mentors sent her to leadership camps, allowed her to run conferences and helped her get involved in issues she cared about. “I didn’t know it at the time, but all of those experiences prepared me for the mission I’m on now.”
In the greater community, she credits support by The Oshawa Italian Club and Folk Arts Council for giving her opportunities to get involved. When she went to launch the first Girl Talk Empowerment Day in 2013, the Pickering Rotary Club stepped up to be a sponsor, and The Embassy Church in Oshawa provided the venue.
Clearly, Zeppieri’s work is driven by her desire to give back the kind of mentorship that propelled her through that rough patch of life. The Girl Talk Event is a one-day celebration, but as a true agent of change, she has found a way to sustain her impact all year long: There are now 50 active Girl Talk School Chapters, mostly hailing from Ontario, but with one in Uganda and one in Egypt. The chapters are self-organized school clubs that use training and resources from Make Your Mark to help give girls leadership opportunities, build confidence and create a support network of the like-minded. Zeppieri is working on turning the organization into a registered charity and eventually hopes to see Girl Talk Day expand to major cities right across North America. She also says she has more books to write, and might even be getting started on her next project this summer. “I’m of the belief that we all have our gifts and we all have our talents,” she says. “We’re going to live a happier, better, more fulfilled life if we all are encouraged to bring those gifts and talents forward.”
To learn more about Katie Zeppieri and Girl Talk, visit the website.
Katie Zeppieri and Girl Talk