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Activism & Action

Entrepreneurs by Choice; Activists By Necessity


Writer Natalie Clifford Barney once called entrepreneurship “the last refuge of the troublemaking individual.” Surprising words, considering charm and tact are considered essential tools for anyone starting a business. And kicking down doors isn’t exactly charming behaviour.

But for many women, particularly those working within oppressive environments, the very act of starting a business can be frighteningly disruptive to the social order. When entrepreneurship also entails rising out of prejudice or poverty, activism becomes a necessary part of the toolkit. As history shows, it can be an incredibly valuable tool.

Many female business pioneers consistently spoke truth to power while simultaneously building what we would now call their brands. Take, for example, cosmetics magnate Elizabeth Arden. Born Florence Graham in 1884 in Woodbridge, Ont., Arden popularized makeup for women at a time when it was worn primarily by actors and prostitutes. Since that time, of course, women’s relationships to cosmetics can best be described as uneasy; in fact, some might criticize Arden for fostering a culture that not only allows, but mandates cosmetic “improvement.”

But in the early 20th century, wearing makeup was a sign of a woman’s determination to please herself. On a spring day in 1912, Arden did her own unique part to advance the suffrage movement by getting marchers in a New York City parade to sport her signature lipstick. It was bright red of course, the colour of daring and defiance.

Arden’s contemporary, Mary Pickford, is best known as a Hollywood film actor who became “America’s sweetheart.” But she was also a highly successful business executive who also happened to hail from Canada. Pickford (born Gladys Smith) began producing her own features shortly after her acting career began and later co-founded the United Artists studio to secure financial and artistic freedom for filmmakers.

Pickford constantly used her power and profits to help others in the screen trade. Her projects included building a specialized hospital for ailing industry workers, as well as establishing the Motion Picture Relief Fund to provide assistance to impoverished actors. She was also a major fundraiser for the American army’s efforts during the First World War.

Georgina Binnie-Clark wasn’t nearly as famous as Arden or Pickford, but deserves equal celebration. Binnie-Clark was an aristocratic Englishwoman who found herself in a precarious economic position in the early 1900s. At the time, there were almost a million more young women than men in England after many of the latter had been lost to immigration and war. Marital uncertainty became a problem for upper-class women, whose identity was solely defined by their husband and children (working-class women routinely held jobs outside the home).

Binnie-Clark immigrated to Saskatchewan where she did the most shocking thing for an upper-class woman: she became a successful farmer. Throughout her life on the prairies, she fought numerous obstacles. Because she was a single woman, the government deemed her ineligible to own a homestead, despite a petition signed by 11,000 men to get the law reversed. Undaunted, Binnie-Clark devised a plan to bring single British women to Canada and train them in the art of farming. Unfortunately, the program was cancelled due to the outbreak of the First World War. She also wrote two books in which she advocated not only for female farmers, but for all western farmers afflicted by unfair financing practices.

Binnie-Clark, Pickford and Arden were entrepreneurs by choice and activists by necessity. With improved conditions for women in business, is activism a thing of the past?

Not by any means, but there are different reasons for this. Some entrepreneurial activists are so massively successful (think Oprah Winfrey or Jane Fonda) that they can afford to be as troublesome as they wish. Others may start off with less, but find their desire to upset the social apple cart is shared by many other willing partners. An example is Kathryn Finney, creator of digitalundivided (DID), which supports the success of tech start-ups led by African-American and Latina women.

Across the world, others are still fighting for basic gains; like their forebears, they can’t afford not to be activists. Sarah Abu Alia, a concert promoter in Jordan, embraces the role heartily. Of the work climate in her home country she says: “As a woman, you have to fight for everything here, which is a great preparation for being an entrepreneur.” The women of yesterday would no doubt agree.


Publisher’s Note: Micah White, author of The End of Protest, writes, “The lack of protest is perilous for society.” And he might be right. In a time where even innovative protest efforts like Occupy failed to create change, and in a year where presidential hopefuls like Donald Trump can take sexism and racism to a whole new level and still garner a massive following, it may, just may, be a sign to women* everywhere that we too need to examine our toolkit and ask ourselves if our current atomistic, individual “role modeling” and “don’t rock the boat” efforts to advance equality and inclusion are also no longer effective. Perhaps we need new, bolder tools to drive social change. And as entrepreneurs, perhaps we need to start seeing ourselves as social activists and drivers of social change, not just drivers of our economy.

*Defined in gender-expansive terms.


Activism & Action Our Voices Systems

The Wages of Tenacity

By Joan Prowse, as told to Cynthia Macdonald:

Sitting in an airport some 25 years ago, it suddenly became real to me that I’d finally arrived as a filmmaker. With the partners in my fledgling business, CineFocus Canada, I was preparing to embark on a cross-country journey to interview subjects for one of our very first productions. In many ways, it’s a journey that has continued to this day.

Like many women in the film industry, I started out in the background, studying journalism and working as a researcher and production secretary. At first I thought I’d be a TV reporter, but I ended up making documentary films and television shows, as well as running my own cross-platform content creation company.

In the course of my career, I’ve showcased important social issues such as feminism, the environment, free trade, and health care. I’ve also had the good fortune to profile scores of trailblazing Canadians, including women such as Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jann Arden, and Doris McCarthy.

Unfortunately, the exciting path I’ve managed to forge in the film industry remains closed to too many women. I often wonder, with the strides we have made in business, government, science, and the arts, why do some of us still struggle to establish meaningful film careers? More than half of all filmgoers are women, yet 80 per cent of films today are directed by men. Women are under-represented in all facets of filmmaking, such as directing, producing, writing, editing, and cinematography. This is especially true in Hollywood, which is plagued by what feminist industry analyst Martha Lauzen calls “gender inertia.”

Clearly, women need more support if they are to succeed in large numbers. During my professional life, I’ve been lucky to have had great mentors, role models, incentives, and support systems. If real change is going to happen, more assistance of this type is needed. Especially role models. In the mid-1980s, while researching sex-role stereotyping in the television industry for a media company, I witnessed a power struggle between my male and female bosses. It was inspirational to me when my female boss (and first mentor) struck out to start her own production company.

In fact, despite the obstacles, Canada boasts a strong tradition of female role models in film. Filmmakers such as Alanis Obomsawin, Shelley Saywell, and Jennifer Baichwal have been able to crack open issues and bring them to a wider audience. And, until it was shut down by budget cutbacks in 1996, the National Film Board of Canada’s Studio D netted several Oscars, producing landmark films such as I’ll Find a Way and If You Love This Planet. I’ve personally been inspired by Anne Wheeler, who started out making documentaries before turning to features and dramatic television.

In 1987 when I was a brand new filmmaker, I remember seeing director Patricia Rozema give a speech at the Canadian Film Institute. She had been enjoying international acclaim for her breakthrough film, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. “Don’t look at me and think, ‘Oh that’s her. I can never be like her,'” she said. “You have it in you too.” Those words made a real impact on me.

I’m also proud to have given a voice to feminist role models in other fields. My series, Green Heroes, profiled ecological innovators such as Leilani Munter (a professional race-car driver who’s revolutionized her profession by only accepting green sponsors) and Laura Reinsborough (whose non-profit company salvages unsold farm fruit).

Not all of my role models or mentors have been female. Sometimes, the formation of male-female alliances can be the best solution to overcoming bias. One of my early jobs was production secretary on the book show Imprint at TVOntario. My boss, Daniel Richler, showed me that highly original programming could be made locally and inexpensively. During that position, I co-founded CineFocus with three male partners, all of whom were significant collaborators.

Women need to find supportive outlets for their projects. For me in the mid-1990s, it was the Women’s Television Network, now known as W. Geared specifically to programming by and for women, W provided a home for a passion project of mine called Beauty and the Beach. This film explored the women’s movement through the changing swimsuit styles of the 20th century and was ultimately sold to 12 countries on four continents.

I believe that incentive programs are also critical to women’s success. In just two and a half years, the Swedish film industry has managed to achieve gender equality by directing 50 per cent of its funding towards female filmmakers. In Canada, BravoFACT—which funds documentaries and short films—recently instituted a similar rule. But that is one channel, not an entire industry. We need to see more organizations come on board in the same way.

Support groups are great resources; more of them, and more awareness of them, could really change things. One that really enriched my skills as an entrepreneur was the Toronto chapter of Women in Film and Television (WIFT). Their panels and workshops have given me a lot of ideas over the years. I remember one story in particular. A female filmmaker found out the top executive she’d been trying to meet for months was flying to Europe the next day. She bought a first-class ticket to his destination, sat beside him and secured the sponsorship she needed before the plane’s wheels hit the ground. WIFT has definitely shown me that creativity and tenacity can take you a long way.

A newer support group is Film Fatales, run by Toronto filmmaker Chloe Sosa-Sims. This women’s collective meets on the same day each month to discuss concerns they face working in a male-dominated industry. I first encountered Sosa-Sims while participating with her on a panel at the Reel Indie Film Festival in October of 2015. This was one of three panels I’m aware of that convened in the latter half of the year to explore the challenges faced by women in film. It’s a sign that this topic is getting a lot of overdue attention.

Probably the biggest obstacle in my career, and that of many other women, is funding. Whether in documentaries or feature films, the budgets for women-run films are often lower than those on films made by men. And because documentary budgets tend to be lower than features, it’s perhaps no surprise that far more women are found in that field.

A recent joint study by the Sundance Institute and the Los Angeles chapter of WIFT found that “when money and risk get higher, opportunity [for women] gets lower.” This is true in Canada as well. Among the films that receive investments of less than $1 million by Telefilm Canada, 21 per cent of directors are women. When the investment is higher, that percentage drops to 4 per cent.

So while I and other female filmmakers have enjoyed solid opportunities in a field we love, there is clearly more work to be done before we achieve parity with male filmmakers. With a concerted effort from private industry, government funding agencies, and individuals, we could change the number of women making films to truly reflect our population. I hope that time will come soon.

Editor’s Footnote:  Joan’s company participated in the Imagination Catalyst (OCAD U’s incubator). Joan’s latest project, GreenHereos TV, produced by her company CineFocus Canada in association with TVO, offers 12 x 30 minute videos which tells remarkable stories of people who acted on their ideas and heroically “ventured forth” to protect our planet. From the celebrity to the everyday person, each story details the different paths and interests the GreenHeroes have taken in their quests to help save the world. Watch it now. Watch it here: