You are visiting Liisbeth’s archives! 

Peruse this site for a history of profiles and insightful analysis on feminist entrepreneurship. 

And, be sure to sign up for’s newsletter where Liisbeth shares the latest news in feminist spaces.

Body, Mind & Pleasure

Having A Baby in Pandemic Times

Photo by Unuk Studio, Stocksy.

Oh, baby, this is the trauma of bringing a new life into this world during a pandemic:

  • People are having babies virtually alone, with hospitals severely restricting support to one person or none.
  • Babies needing testing or treatment are being whisked away to Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU), with contact to the mother limited (some to just 15 minutes a day, making it nearly impossible to breastfeed and bond).
  • People are being sent home as little as two hours after the birth, putting enormous stress on parents.
  • One hospital tried to mandate epidurals until people protested the ethics of forcing narcotics on all birthers.
  • People are being stripped of the right to a home birth in jurisdictions that regulate them, citing a lack of PPE for midwives.
  • Birthing policies are changing by the week and differ between regions in a country and even between hospitals in the same city.

During such a scary and chaotic time, birthers need doulas (personal birth support workers) more than ever to provide psychological, emotional support, education on the changing process, evidence-based information on COVID-19 impacts, and advocacy and understanding of their rights to informed consent—and their right to say no.

“No is a complete sentence,” says Natasha Marchand.

So is, “Fuck, no,” if you need it, offers Bianca Sprague.

Co-Founder, Bianca Spragge

The two co-founded Bebo Mia Inc. 13 years ago with a mission to connect women* with their “intrinsic value and power” and change the way we give birth. They do so by providing international online training and certification for personal birth and fertility support workers. Their reach and global impact is impressive, having trained 2,700 people in 31 countries, with 500 taking courses with them each year.

It’s not the least bit surprising to them that doulas—at this moment of critical need—are being excluded from hospitals “pretty universally” around the world, with the medical establishment using the pandemic to double down on their control over the birthing space. North America has largely dismissed the World Health Organization’s call for doulas to be considered essential workers.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” says Sprague. “This was happening before [COVID-19] . . . telling people not to hire doulas. The reason? We give people back their voice in the birth space.”

Go Online or Stay Home

Luckily, the company had the foresight to move online in 2014, which has enabled them to empower their international graduates in moving their practices online. Doulas are now texting and video conferencing through every stage, from prenatal education to appointments through birth and post-natal support. “So things have changed,” says Marchand, “but we are still here to support people and it’s always important, but so much more important at this time.”

Natasha Marchand, Co-founder

Ironically, the company faced incredible flack for being the first doula education company to move online seven years ago. Nearly everyone told them they couldn’t teach the emotional skills or build community or provide proper support. Says Marchand: “We became really creative in how we would move online and still give people the personal touch that’s so important.” The entire team is available to take calls nearly 24/7 and checks in constantly through texts and video, which helps replace one-on-one talks over coffee. “Our community is huge and beautiful and everyone loves each other, and everyone told us we couldn’t do it, well, until now, when everyone’s trying to move online.”

Sprague contends that “people underestimate how powerful community can be in the virtual space.” In fact, the founders were “overjoyed” to find they could build a stronger community online than a bricks-and-mortar office, which confined their training to their physical location in Toronto. Doulas now “have easier access to each other” around the world, and Bebo Mia has clients taking their courses not just in North America but in Japan, New Zealand, and unlikely places such as Jamaica, Egypt, and Bahrain. Their reach on social and email reaches beyond 35,000 around the world.

Now the company is being recognized as thought leaders during this massive shift online. Next month, the founders will share their insights as Feminists in Residence in LiisBeth’s Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC).

They offer this advice: Look at your business and think about how it goes online. You can’t just translate the whole thing into the digital space. Pivot one part online and do it really well, with a very clear niche and a very clear problem you are trying to solve. Make sure you’re very clearly calling out to the people who you want to be clicking on your business.

“Pick one thing and then slay at it,” says Sprague.

Speak Feminist, Loud and Clear

Moving online has also enabled Bebo Mia to amplify what they proudly describe as their inherently and radically feminist voices and business practices.

When they started out, the co-founders (Sprague is 39, Marchand is 41) said that business coaches’ advice on how to be successful never felt right. “There was always a ‘yuck’ factor,” says Marchand, “until we started listening to ourselves and started noticing forums like the FEC, and we realized there are new ways [of doing business].”

By implementing conscious feminist practices, they removed the hierarchical structure of their company. Their six full-time staff and four contract workers have an equal vote on policy and direction. They believe “money is energy” and keep it in flow by paying fair salaries, generous bonuses, professional development, and ensuring that everything they touch and spend money on is with vendors who share their feminist values.

They introduced “radical” HR policies, with support for individuals, their mental health, and their families equally weighted with keeping the corporation alive. Diversity is top of mind when hiring as is drawing from their pool of graduates. They have granted $50,000 in scholarships over the past three years for students who identify with marginalized communities, and a corporate sponsor, Olivia Scobie, has given seven scholarship positions. They also exclusively hire women*—with the asterisk intentional.

The company’s webpage loudly and proudly embraces a broad definition of women* to include women-identified, femme-presenting, two-spirited, gender queer, trans-inclusive, gender nonconforming, androgynous, agender, intersex, bigender, gender questioning, gender fluid, butch, non-binary, queer positive or any person that would like to be included in this definition. They got flack for that exhaustive list too, most especially from those who wanted to protect the word “women” in reproductive health, fearing that it meant letting go “of this power goddess, women-bring-forth-life thing,” says Sprague. They’re also getting pushback from those who feel that a broad term of women* is not actually inclusive of trans and gender-nonconforming folk.

Photo by AllGo

The company is not only at ease with these challenges, but they also invite it. They check in constantly with the community, says Alana Nugent, the company’s marketing director and Sprague’s spouse. “It’s interesting as we get more language and access to it, there are more folks who say how it doesn’t work for them. It’s a moving target and it comes down to consistently checking in and understanding where people are at and how we can collectively come together under a term that people feel good about,” says Nugent.

Rather than squabbling over language that keeps us divided, they work to reduce exclusionary gendered language and introduce new inclusive terms to the reproductive health space. “Mother” doesn’t quite cut it for gay parents or someone giving up a baby at birth. So, they use an array of terms: birther, pregnant person, gestational parent, surrogate, mapa, papa. “If we are speaking to a mother who wants to be called a mother, we will do so,” says Marchand. “But all genders are represented in this space and many wouldn’t think of themselves as a ‘mother.’”

Change a Business Plan, Change a Life

In addition to offering certification courses for birth, fertility, and postpartum support workers, they also teach skills to run a successful business—and that too is with a feminist lens. They say that everything they do at Bebo Mia is with the intention to smash the kyriarchy and level power structures. All bodies are kept safe. All bodies are represented. Communities speak for themselves—so they ensure speakers on their teaching roster come from diverse communities.

“It all sounds so big,” says Marchand, “which I love. When we started this, it was so individual. It was Bianca and I struggling in this system.” They clawed their way through extreme poverty at startup (zero funding or loans), suffered through nightmare relationships (Marchand with an ex-husband, and Sprague and Nugent with the sperm donor for their daughter), and battled oppression from the medical system, all while raising children. “We did what we needed to do to get out of it. Then we wanted to do that for each individual person,” says Marchand.

Building their company “to do seven figures this year” is clearly satisfying, but they delight in seeing their clients around the world rising and thriving, from putting their passions last to setting up businesses and achieving financial independence. “There’s a ripple effect,” Sprague says about their business this flourishing. “It’s really magical to see the healing and what’s possible.” People help others. They flee abusive relationships. They secure homes and support for their family. Their children see them happy.

Bebo Mia at play. From left to right:  Natasha Marchand, Bianca Sprague, and  Alana Nugent

Says Marchand: “We know that we are birthing in a broken system that is broken on purpose, to keep us broken. So, we are actively hoping that by letting our voices be loud, people will know they have choices, they can make their own decisions, and they can say ‘no’ within the birth space and have the birth that they want. That will have a better outcome health-wise. They will basically have a better start to their life and start as a whole person with autonomy and personal choice and feeling strong. If this parent is strong, then this baby is strong. We’re trying to fix things from the very beginning of life.”

Did you enjoy this article? LiisBeth is reader supported indie magazine.  Please help us publish more about feminist enterprises if you have the means to do so. [direct-stripe value=”ds1562331144158″]

Related Reading

Feminist Practices

Welcome to the Commons: Meet the First Feminist in Residence

Photo by Alvaro de la Rica on Unsplash

What the heck is FEC, you ask? And what can a Feminist in Residence offer you?

Exciting opportunities, friends, in challenging times.

First, the Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC), invites feminist changemaking champions (that’s you!) to connect with other visionaries, entrepreneurs, innovators, creators, investors, researchers and social justice activists in what we believe is the world’s first feminist enterprise-oriented network. Powered by LiisBeth Media and hosted on Mighty Networks (founded by a woman), the Commons will bring together the far-flung, splintered international feminist enterprise community to extra-strengthen the feminist economy and advance feminist practices – by learning and sharing strategies, deepening knowledge, creating support systems, and resourcing and sourcing from each other.

Second, though another first in an online network, the Commons will be animated by a rotating series of Feminists in Residence, international thought leaders who will guide members in learning, exploring and advancing various aspects of feminism – business entrepreneurial feminism, ecofeminism, cyber feminism, Indigenous feminism and on and on!

LiisBeth is pleased to introduce CV Harquail as the first Feminist in Residence. The author of Feminism: A Key Idea for Business and Society describes herself as a former business-school professor turned “putting-theory-into-practice toolmaker.” For the month of January, she will engage in the Commons, sparking conversation, answering your questions and sharing research and insights on feminist business practices and values.

During her years as a business school professor, Harquail says she was often the only one using the word “feminism” in business and drawing on the rich body of knowledge that feminism has created over the past 200 years. “One of the beautiful things about LiisBeth and this new Commons is that it’s a space where all of us working on these things can come together. It emboldens me, knowing I’m not alone, that there are others working on this and may have answers to questions I didn’t even know to raise. That’s a unique thing, creating this space to make things happen for each other.”

As well as “hanging out” in the Commons space, Harquail will also lead a four-week integrative course (webmeeting combined with online questions and conversation) on feminist business practice and values – and how integrating them can help you, your enterprise and the world flourish. Week one will be an introduction to feminism for business; week two will look at defining a feminist business; week three will explore feminist business values; and the final week will compare feminist and conventional business perspectives.

Harquail intends the course to provide a foundation for further exploration with future Feminists in Residents, and support members who want to make a deliberate effort to learn new ideas. “What excites me is the opportunity to be a catalyst, to trigger and facilitate conversations that people want to have. We wouldn’t try to teach ourselves calculus with just a textbook. The Commons provides a lot of ways to learn about feminist practices – through formal instruction, experimenting, experience, discussion, disagreement, peer-to-peer sharing. This is a way for people to connect with people who are subject-matter experts, to accelerate their own learning.”

Harquail says her area of expertise – business – has long had an adversarial relationship with feminism but she soon realized at business school just how much business needs feminism – and vice versa. “We think democracy and government structure our lives but it’s business and corporations and the marketplace that really have the power. Business is what runs our world and if we want to change the world then we need to be involved in business and in changing business.”

And Harquail believes that feminism is key to helping business solve its most dire problems. “Business has been flailing around for years, trying to solve some pretty chronic problems. Failure to innovate. Lack of employee engagement. Externalizing environmental costs. Work-life imbalance. All this can be traced back to a common notion that it’s okay for some to have disproportionate power over others. But we can provide in ways that don’t depend on that dynamic. Feminism explores ways to do that.”

Helping animate the Feminist Enterprise Commons will be LiisBeth founder and publisher PK Mutch, a leading thinker and practitioner of entrepreneurial feminism. Her vision is to bring the power and resources of entrepreneurial feminism together in one constructive space – optimistic, forward thinking, fun, creative – and empower a robust network of changemakers to help each other create stronger enterprises and a better world. As many entrepreneurs know, you are only as strong as your network. Mutch intends this network to be feminist in every way – participative, caring, inclusive, understanding, responsive, inspiring, and surveillance free!

Drop into the Feminist Enterprise Commons (click here) and check it out. The first three months are free. If you have ideas for building the Commons and making it responsive to your needs, post your thoughts on the message board.

Get to know the first Feminist in Residence by reading this complimentary excerpt, “Challenging Business’s Magic Circle”  from CV Harquail’s book, Feminism: A Key Idea for Business and Society. 

You can enroll in CV Harquail’s course on feminist business practises and values here.

Creating researched and inspirational content to support and advocate for feminist changemaking takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find value and nourishment here, please consider becoming a donor subscriber or patron at a level of your choosing. Priced between a cup of coffee or one take out salad per month.

Support LiisBeth


You will have access to Payments processed through PayPal.


You can also contribute to our “Sustainability Fund” or an open donation in any amount.

Related Reading

Activism & Action

This Woman Rocks

Sabrina Dias on location in Nevada–after pushing the blast button for the first time.

Sabrina Dias was 13 years old when she saw the Challenger space shuttle explode into flames on TV, killing seven astronauts on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. After Dias learned the disaster was caused by a design flaw, she decided that she would learn how to fix it. That led her to earning a degree in ceramic engineering at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

A personal tragedy—the loss of her mother to cancer, which put her in charge of caring for a younger sister—caused Dias to take a job closer to home and sidestep into mining. Now at 46, Dias is a sustainability specialist in that sector where she remains keener than ever on fixing things to prevent massive blowups. Dip into a newspaper on just about any given day and you’ll discover that the mining sector has an awful lot to fix.

Mining is a leading cause of deforestation, habitat loss, and contamination of soil, water, and air. Workers and surrounding communities often suffer from the health and safety consequences. Then there’s the Wild West mentality of some companies that barge into a region with little consultation and extract maximum profit while returning minimum benefit to local communities that bear the brunt of the environmental degradation. A study by Shin Imai, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, lists a litany of abuse connected with Canadian-owned mines in Latin America alone: local women being raped by security forces and mine workers; and protesters being beaten, arrested, kidnapped, and killed in violent clashes with mining security forces.

“A shit show,” is how Dias described one mining site in Africa. She was called in to conduct a risk assessment on the site while working for a major gold company, which was plowing ahead with the construction of a mine without meaningful community consultation. The site faced daily violent protests. “I was on site when it was attacked,” says Dias. “I was as scared as I have ever been. People were throwing rocks and pipes over the fence. Workers were being attacked in town. The anger on peoples’ faces was beyond rational, but that is what happens when people feel they aren’t heard.”

Dias recommended the company stop construction and restart community engagement. Executives didn’t care to take her advice. Nor did they heed her recommendations at another site where newspapers were reporting that women in local communities were being raped by contractors working for the mine. Her report, she says, “was wiped out” as it went to senior management. Her job was to help the company improve community relations, but she was being handcuffed from doing so. “It was a really toxic workplace,” Dias recalls. “I would go into the office in the morning feeling sick. I thought, ‘I’m not going to let them win.’ But they ultimately won and packaged me out.”

It took her two months to recover from what she calls serious workplace bullying to shut her work down. She gave serious thought to leaving the mining sector, as many women do. “That book, Lean In, is bullshit,” Dias laughs now. “I couldn’t lean in anymore. I thought, mining is totally unethical. It was soul killing. I thought I could move the sustainability needle from the inside and sometimes you just can’t do it.”

Sabrina Dias on location in British Columbia

Then a former colleague asked her to write a sustainability plan for another mining company, and Dias figured maybe there was another way she could help mining companies become better corporate citizens. That’s when she used her severance package to start her own boutique consulting firm providing sustainability strategy and reports.”I thought I could move the sustainability needle from the inside and sometimes you just can’t do it.” –Sabrina Dias

As Dias points out, mining can never be completely sustainable; it involves altering an environment and extracting resources after all. Yet, we all have mining’s dirt on our hands when we consume its products in our vehicles, houses, infrastructure, tools, appliances, and even our computers and cell phones. According to one industry report, each American will consume some 27,400 pounds of iron ore over a lifetime. So, for Dias, the question is how do we reduce the impact of mining and make this valuable sector as sustainable as possible?

A core part of her business is producing sustainability reports (a performance report of a company’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) perfromance) that are increasingly used by investors, governments, and communities to judge a company’s performance on social, environmental, and economic sustainability as well as governance. She favours a tagline: “You measure what you value and you value what you measure.” Millennials, she says, are looking to invest in companies that not only pay well, but do good. And traditional investors are getting savvy to the fact that companies that score well on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and the Global Reporting Initiative often outperform sustainability laggards in earnings.

Dias says her work, ultimately, is about reducing risks for everyone—companies, investors, and local communities. “One shitty engagement with a community and protesters hook up to social media and the mine is shut down and stock prices plummet,” says Dias. “A company has everything to gain by integrating sustainability into its operation. It has proven to be good for the bottom line.”

Dias’s company, founded under her name in 2014, is now relaunching and incorporating as SOOP Strategies. It’s a lean operation with five associates based in various countries who are able to work around the globe, along with three senior advisors she calls her “gray hairs.” She turns to them for expertise, mentorship and, on occasion, to help open doors when, as she says, the “optics of a petite brown woman” prove a barrier.

One of those gray hairs, Jacques Gérin, a former vice president of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and deputy minister of Northern Development for Canada, calls Dias “very much a pioneer” in the field of mining sustainability. He likes to tell this story: When Dias went back to school to add a Masters in Environmental Studies (MES) to her engineering degree, she did a survey of mining’s impact on local communities in Madagascar for her thesis. But she didn’t just ask questions, Gérin says. She lived in the affected communities for weeks at a time over that year. “It took a lot of guts to do that,” he says. “It’s a very poor area and there were language difficulties. It impressed me. A man wouldn’t think that way, but a woman goes in and actually lives with people who she studies.”

In fact, Dias’s thesis advisor warned her against doing exactly that. Getting so close to her subjects is called “going tribal,” says Dias. “They worry about you getting too attached to people and their stories. But how could I not?” She calls that year life changing. What she learned then still informs her work today. “I learned about people’s fears and concerns. There’s a mining company (in your community) and they’ve hired some of you but not all.” So how can the mining company help improve the local economy and infrastructure for everyone? “Doing the right thing,” she says, “is about building trust and mutual benefits. People want running water, a school for their children.”

Her company website features a picture of Dias visiting with villagers in Madagascar, accompanied by a question: “Can you tell which one’s me?” Dias jokes that she has one of those complexions that allows her to fit in near anywhere. Her parents are from South India, of Portuguese descent. The point, she says of the photo, is that, “Everyone’s the same, whether you live in Toronto or a bush in Madagascar. Bottom line, we all want a better life for our children.”

But Doing Right Doesn’t Come Easy

Dias says she wants her company to become the Canadian mining consultant on sustainability reporting. Yet, in the next breath, she says she doesn’t want to grow too fast or large, lest that compromise the values she can bring to the sector—and the unique corporate culture she has built up. “Everyone (on the team) feels a higher purpose to what we’re doing,” says Dias.

In contrast to larger consulting firms, her teams don’t sell strategies and assign the actual work to a junior. They want to be the ones on the ground doing the work, with the client benefitting from their experience and values. Says Gérin, “What stands out in her whole career is her sense of values. She doesn’t shy away from them. People who hire her will get the full Sabrina [Dias] and things she believes in.”

Of course, there are other obstacles to growth that Dias wouldn’t mind overcoming. The first is mining’s notoriously fickle commitment to “doing the right thing.” When times are good, it’s easier to spend money on what’s often considered the “soft values.” When belts tighten, things like sustainability reports are often the first to get cut, which can make client retention difficult.

Such thinking is shortsighted according to Carole Burnham, another senior consultant to Dias. “In this century, people recognize they won’t get to do what they want [i.e. a permit to open a mine] unless they behave more responsibly,” she says. “You can’t have unrestrained capitalism in anything [with profits flowing almost completely to owners and shareholders]. You have to have proper governance and regulation and enforcement to make sure what people are committing to, they follow up on.” Burnham says mining is transforming, but too gradually.

And Being a Woman Doesn’t Make It Easier

Another challenge Dias faces is being a woman in an industry heavily dominated by men. According to Women Who Rock, an association dedicated to advancing women in mining, the sector has a problem both attracting and retaining female talent. Currently, women represent only about 17 percent of those working in the Canadian mining industry, which has barely increased from 11 percent in 1996.

Burnham, who has a PhD in chemical engineering and more than 30 years of industry experience, says the mining sector presents unique challenges for women. The work is often done in remote, isolated camps and in countries that are often politically unstable and dangerous, which makes it difficult for women caring for children. Dias, herself, spent years overseas, working on site for eight weeks and flying home for two. It’s hard on a relationship, she says, and when it came time to start a family, she wanted to work closer to home.

As well, such sites often lack proper facilities for female workers, such as safe quarters, bathrooms, and daycare. Even the clothing—like overalls designed for men—can be cumbersome and inconvenient. Frustrated, one Canadian woman left mining to start a clothing line for women in trades called Covergalls.

At the corporate level, Burnham says executives are so used to dealing with other men that they overlook women, even when they’re in the room. “It’s almost as if you’re not there. I find that if you’re in a meeting and there are a lot of people around the table, if same advice comes out of a male’s voice, people tend to hear it more than if a female is speaking,” she says. “It’s not necessarily deliberate. It’s almost unconscious.’

Ian Pearce, the former CEO of Xstrata Nickel, since bought by Glencore, has been an outspoken advocate for gender balance in mining. He says his wife, a professional engineer, quit the sector after facing sexism in the workplace “daily, hourly.” He believes the industry is going backwards rather than forwards. “We are laggards as a sector,” he says. “At times I am severely embarrassed by my male colleagues when you listen to some conversations they have. The world is being created for men and is still for men and it needs to be rebuilt.”

When Pearce pushes gender diversity, fellow executives often push back, asking why he’s not promoting diversity in general. “Diversity is good for mining,” he says, “and it helps in any form, by discipline, culture, by gender, and in diversity of thought. [But] I think once you get gender diversity in, the rest will come faster. It’s through gender we can break the ceiling on diversity.”

He admires Dias for not only sticking in the industry, but sticking to her values and setting up her own shop to promote them. “It’s courageous of someone like her,” he says. “It takes leadership and vision to take that chance.”

When Reaching Out for Help Helps

For her part, Dias says she draws on all the support she can get. She recently enrolled in BDC Capital’s The Artemis Project, geared to helping women entrepreneurs in mining and metals grow their businesses. According to BDC’s statistics, less than two percent of women entrepreneurs reach $1 million in annual revenue in Canada and fewer than one present of supply chains procure from women entrepreneurs. These stats have not budged in 15 years.

Dias also recently attended the Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum, co-produced by LiisBeth founder Petra Kassun-Mutch and three other leading feminist entrepreneurs. It was a relief, she says, to spend a day surrounded by others like herself, people who get her values.

But her company may get its biggest assist from tightening regulations in both developing countries and Canada, which will force mining to make a greater commitment to sustainability. As recently reported in The Globe and Mail, countries such as Guatemala and Chile are doing more to protect their land and Indigenous communities from the negative impacts of mining, suspending operations and bringing companies to court that don’t adequately consult with local communities.

Canada recently appointed an ombudsman to hear and resolve complaints against Canadian mining companies. And Indigenous peoples in developing countries are beginning to sue Canadian mining companies through Canadian courts, rather than weaker local justice systems. That means Canadian operations in developing countries can be held to the same human rights standard as Canadians have at home. That could put Canadian mining companies at a competitive disadvantage—or it could earn Canada a reputation for sustainable mining around the world, making Canadian companies a preferred supplier with progressive manufacturers and investors.

Says Dias: “It is a clean indicator that much more is expected of the Canadian mining industry. And rightly so. Sustainable development can no longer be transactional. It is still often treated as a ‘nice to have’ by way of philanthropy. Terms like CSR [corporate social responsibility] or SLO [social licence to operate] reflect and imply that social sustainability should remain on the periphery of operations, or one-offs without continued effort and management. Sustainability needs to be integrated into the core of a business strategy, concrete planning, which is the approach we bring to clients and on which I have always believed. The exciting part for me is that we are ready to convert that awareness into real action.”

Subscribe today!

Body, Mind & Pleasure Our Voices

How to Be a Bold Betty

Niki K Bold Betties 3


In 2012, Niki Koubourlis had achieved pretty much everything she had set out to get and that made her father, a Greek immigrant to the United States, proud. By the age of 32, she had acquired an MBA, a husband, and a dream job working in commercial real estate for Sheikh Mohammed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. With the American real estate market still flatlined after the 2008 global financial meltdown, Koubourlis was racking up work experience in the Middle East and “earning tons of money” developing racetracks, theme parks, and even man-made islands.

She was also growing more miserable by the day. “I just wasn’t that passionate about this career and I was spending 80-plus hours a week doing it.” Still, she soldiered on, unhappy, piling on weight, wanting out of her marriage but too afraid to take the plunge, until she finally got the nudge she needed to change. Unfortunately, that came in the form of devastating news: the suicide of a close university friend.

While grieving, Koubourlis read the The Top Five Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware and realized she could own up to a few of those, namely working too hard and not doing what she loved. She soon quit her job and left her marriage, determined to create the life she truly wanted even though she didn’t really know what that was. She took a job running a tech company in Chile, but soon fell back into her old workaholic ways. On a business trip to Denver, Colorado, Koubourlis fell in love with the landscape and balanced lifestyle. She left her job, moved to Denver without knowing anyone, and lived on her savings while she took a mini-retirement from her career to find out what she really wanted out of life.

Though she had almost no experience in the outdoors, Koubourlis realized adventure had a great deal to teach her. Up to that point, she had made all her life decisions based on security, getting it and keeping it. So instead, she threw herself into a slew of adventures during what she calls “the summer of Niki” in 2013. She climbed mountains, went hiking, took multi-day camping trips, usually alone and often terrified. “You put yourself out there and do it, that’s an opportunity to stretch yourself, push your limits, learn something about yourself,” she says. “Succeed or fail, you always come out the other end a better person. That’s where the growth happens.”

Trip by trip, she was discovering more of what she wanted out of life and what she wanted to do in her next career. In speaking with other women she encountered on various hikes, Koubourlis realized that women faced significant barriers to enjoying outdoor adventures: lack of skills and experience; the high cost of equipment that is often designed for men and “shrunk” for women so it’s usually ill-fitting; jam-packed schedules as women are often juggling careers, kids, and the bulk of family caregiving. All of this leaves little time and energy to plan and organize excursions that occur off the beaten path.

Then there is the intimidation factor stoked by an outdoor adventure industry that glorifies hard-core, macho thrill-seekers and doesn’t seem much interested in appealing to regular women. Koubourlis noticed something else while on a hiking adventure to Machu Picchu: the women who had outdoor experience and were travelling with other gal pals were having a blast. Women who were travelling with male partners—and relying on his experience—were often miserable. She believes that if the women were better prepared, they would feel more confident and in control rather than a tagalong, and can take the lead in decision-making. Also, she saw that men and women tended to experience outdoor adventure differently. For men, it was more about testing themselves, taking risks, and competing to go higher, faster, harder. Women looked to outdoor activities as a break from stressful lives and thrived more in supportive and non-judgmental settings where they could learn new skills while connecting with other women and making friends.

At the end of her seven-month time out from her career, Koubourlis knew it was time to get back to work but she could not muster the enthusiasm for a return to the corporate world, and she could not let go of this business idea: How could she make it easier for women to have confidence-building outdoor experiences that had proved so life-transforming for her?

The Bold Idea

To test whether her idea had legs, Koubourlis started a meetup group for women interested in getting together for outdoor activities such as rock climbing, kayaking, hiking, and rafting. She called it Bold Betties. “I wanted to see if enough women were experiencing the same problem of being intimidated by the outdoors and wanted to try out a variety of activities in a very inclusive, non-intimidating, and non-competitive environment. The group just blew up. The reality is, most people are moving [to Colorado] to experience the outdoors and they say, ‘I see it but then there’s a list of barriers to experiencing it.'”

That was 2014. Just two years later, Bold Betties had 18,000 members and there were meetup groups or chapters in nearly a dozen American cities. Members in Bold Betties were finding their tribe, women like Koubourlis who “do epic shit” to get unstuck, to embolden their transition out of stale relationships or careers, and grow in ways they could not imagine. The blog on the Bold Betties website is full of such stories.

Koubourlis had not only created the life she craved but launched her female outdoor adventure enterprise and enticed two founding partners to help her build it into a lifestyle brand with the goal of being as recognizable and profitable as CrossFit or SoulCycle.

Members in Bold Betties were finding their tribe, women like Koubourlis who “do epic shit” to get unstuck, to embolden their transition out of stale relationships or careers, and grow in ways they could not imagine.

A Meeting of Bold Betties Minds

Sommer Rains, who joined as chief operating officer, calls herself a serial entrepreneur, having started a human resources company catering to the health care field in her 20s, then helping launch her husband’s successful business in the Boulder area seven years ago. While searching around for what to do next, she says about five people in her networking group told her she had to meet Koubourlis. “I finally emailed her and said, ‘Hey, I think the universe wants us to meet up.'”

Arezou Zarafshan joined as chief marketing officer in a similar fashion. Born and raised in Tehran, she came to the United States at 17 to study electrical engineering. After working her way into senior positions at several large tech firms, she realized that male-dominated corporate environments and data-driven analytics no longer fuelled her creativity. While taking a pause in her career to develop consumer and creative marketing skills, she connected with Koubourlis via Twitter.

The founders came to the conclusion that there were multiple ways to grow a business. Their challenge was to chart a unique path that protects and enhances Bold Betties’ core values: to make outdoor adventures accessible to all kinds of women by creating a supportive and inclusive community and providing a variety of affordable adventures.

How to Big the Betties?

The founders admit they are still very much in the early stages of building their for-profit company and still feeling out their path for growth.

They never really considered the franchise model, of making one Bold Betties chapter financially sustainable and then replicating it. Indeed, rather than figuring out ways to monetize their business, they have made growing their community of adventuring women the priority. Their goal is to reach 100,000 members within the next year and open new Bold Betties chapters in cities across North America.

In tandem, the founders are exploring and developing ways to engage their growing community of members through their website and e-newsletter, free and inexpensive local adventures, international trips, online and tech-based tools that help women plan, book, and pack for outdoor adventures and, of course, meeting up with other Bold Betties to enjoy those adventures.

At present, the company generates commissions on international trips and professionally guided adventures such as rock climbing and rafting as well as equipment and clothing sold on their website. But that’s hardly paying the bills let alone the founders’ who are still not drawing a salary and mostly work from home.

But they are not in a hurry to monetize their business. Rather, their strategy is to follow the long-term vision of social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, who built a community of users then figured out how to monetize that traffic. That may include a low membership fee once they develop a suite of benefits members want to buy into. It could include developing a line of Bold Betties equipment and clothing and partnering with an outdoors retailer to sell it. It most definitely will include more online tools and communication vehicles to make outdoor adventures more accessible to women.

Says Koubourlis: “There will always be a free way to engage with us because that’s our mission, to get women to try these things. If we start creating barriers and costs then we’re not solving the problem we set out to solve. We’ll become part of that problem, so we’ll always have a free entry point.”

They’re even feeling their way on how best to grow their membership and local chapters. At present, they choose local volunteers—Alpha Betties—to organize and lead local events and reward them with “Betty Bucks” that can be used to buy trips and equipment. Koubourlis says they are investigating how best to retain and remunerate Alpha Betties as the business starts to generate income while keeping Alpha Betties focused on the core values of making adventure travel accessible to women and creating a supportive, non-competitive community of female adventurers.

The Next Bold Step

Focusing on building community rather than generating revenue presents a significant challenge for attracting investors who can help them grow.

Rains says a lack of female investors who may be more willing to support female entrepreneurs is a definite obstacle. “It’s a huge problem. A lot of women decide to bootstrap for that reason. I see myself in the future hoping to solve this problem and want to help encourage more women investors into the pool,” she says.

Rains says they are reaching out to build relationships with venture capital investors, but they’re too early in the game to attract that kind of growth money. “Our first goal is to build and engage our community before monetizing,” says Rains. “Some don’t get that, but others will say, ‘Hell yes, that’s great.’ But they also want to know five years from now how we are going to monetize [our business] and we don’t entirely know that yet so we’re a bit early for VCs.”

Their immediate goal now is to attract an angel investor who wants to support the ideals of the company. And that is? “We’re not so naive as to say we’re empowering women,” says Koubourlis. “We’re offering outdoor adventure as a tool women can use to empower themselves. We’re about offering enabling experiences that will help women live their best and boldest lives, and we want them to go after a life of adventure whether that’s in the mountains, on the river, in the home, in the office. We want to help them to develop the courage to go after the things they want.”

Koubourlis says reaching out to potential investors requires a lot of relationship building, which is time-consuming, especially when the three founders are running the business on scant resources. “I’m not going to lie about it. It’s going well, but it’s a slow process,” says Koubourlis. “Your average entrepreneur is not a patient person, and that’s certainly true of the three of us.”

What does not worry them is competing for venture capital among other startups in the tech hubs of Denver and Boulder. Tech giants are located in the area because compensation alone can’t lure talent. Employees want the outdoor, laid-back lifestyle that initially attracted Koubourlis. She compares the potential of Bold Betties to lifestyle giants such as CrossFit and SoulCycle and says there are plenty of VC firms with an appetite for investing beyond tech and in “brands with enthusiastic communities who are passionate about the ethos, activities, and lifestyle of what that company does and what that brand stands for.”

As for her own life-changing move, Koubourlis is not looking back. “There’s a ton of stories of women who came out on a Bold Betties adventure and went on to make a transformative life change. What’s interesting about outdoor adventure is you learn these lessons that make you a little more adventurous and willing to take on risk and try new things. I get to meet a lot of smart, interesting, passionate people and that is so different from my past corporate life where people were smart but maybe not so passionate about what they were doing. Being around people who are passionate and engaged wears off on you and it feels great.”

Related Articles

Field Trip App Puts Historial Women on the Map by Liisbeth Curator

Our Voices

The Fearless Denise Donlon


Thinking about a stocking stuffer for your favourite feminist? You can’t go wrong with Denise Donlon’s music industry insider memoir, As Fearless As Possible (Under the Circumstances), which recounts an enterprising career that saw her start a company promoting rock and roll bands, help invent the VJ position at MuchMusic, become the first female president of Sony Music and head up CBC English Radio.

In this LiisBeth Q&A, Donlon shares her thoughts on how to succeed in male-dominated business worlds, why being insecure can be a good thing (under some circumstances) and how looking back is helping her contemplate her next career move.

LiisBeth: I am quaking a bit at interviewing a master interviewer so let me start with this, what question would you ask yourself about this book?

Denise Donlon: Hmm, I’d what to know, what have you learned from writing this book?

LiisBeth: Great question. So?

DD: It’s a two part answer — beware of decisions that occur when you lead with your ego because, it started with, hey, you should write a book! And then when you get down to doing it…let’s say, I’ve always respected writers and now I’m in insane awe of them.

The second part is, many women are running as fast they can to balance everything in our lives. So we don’t have an opportunity to stop and reflect. If you’re facing a decision about moving forward, you need that perspective. So writing (this memoir) was understanding my career path…and I realized I was always trying to use power for good. So my next adventure will be how to use the experience I’ve gained and how to use it for the power of good.

LiisBeth: It seems you have had incredible entrepreneurial drive. You had your had own promotion company and MuchMusic was about inventing new shows, which entailed a lot of risk because if it didn’t work out, you would have likely lost your job…

DD: For a lot of us who like to embrace new challenges, you’re fraught with anxiety at the beginning. And once you find yourself on less shaky ground and start to bring value to the organization — and that’s hitting the bottom line — then I do think you get to colour outside the lines a little. Many of us find our meaning when we can say, what can I do to make things better — for people, for viewers or customers, for the institution I am working for? That’s very freeing.

LiisBeth: Do you think feminist entrepreneurs operate differently or have a different approach to things?

DD: I do actually. Many people who deny the word feminist think we already have gender parity, which we don’t. Young women have been told by optimistic parents, you can have it all. It’s well meaning but it’s slightly delusional because we can’t have it all yet. We’re not making as much money as men for doing the same work. It’s still a challenge to control our reproductive destiny. Especially with the recent election in America, we’re going to have to work hard…because hard-fought legislation can be repealed by a change in government.

The upside: There are more tools in terms of media, social media, electronic connectivity devices. There are more tools at hand now to communicate, to engage, to rally, to stand up for what we believe in and to find community. It’s a powerful time for women because we actually have tools at our disposal and we have to ensure we’re not all turning into feminist frogs in pots and saying, it’s okay, someone else will do it and then suddenly it’s over for frog.

There’s lots of opportunities for getting more women into power, in business, on boards. What, women on boards of Fortune 500 companies is just 5 percent? Justin Trudeau’s gender parity in cabinet, that was a huge step forward, because women in politics have hovered around the 20 percent mark for decades. That needle was stuck and it needs a bold move like that in order to unstick it. Without equal representation, men make decisions on behalf of women, from everything from reproductive rights to health care, day care, domestic violence. But we also need our voices at the table to ensure that all Canadians are running things like the economy and the environment and civil rights.

LiisBeth: And yet so many women who are successful in business refuse to call themselves a feminist.

DD: I get that it’s a heated word. We search for other words to replace it. But I think we really need to reclaim the F word. I wrote about this in the book, looking at what we did at MuchMusic in terms of media literacy back in the 90s, jamming on big issues like gender and sexuality. We asked audiences to participate in discussions, to unpack these images of women they were seeing in music videos, often misogynist, and to really try to understand why it was happening, to ask questions. Do we have to do this? Who’s making the decisions? Do women have the choice to be portrayed in the way they want to be? In 2015, many of the same images we were trying to deconstruct back then are still around and it’s depressing for me. It’s not about slut shaming. Wear what you want ladies, absolutely, but just make sure it’s what you want…. Here in North America, we need to stand up for gender equality –one, because we don’t have it, but also we have to be an example to areas of the world where girls and women are not respected and even under attack.

LiisBeth: You’ve negotiated many contracts, as well as your own. I mean, you convinced hockey player Doug Gilmore to demonstrate putting on a condom — using the butt end of a hockey stick — at an AIDS awareness concert. Can you share any strategies for negotiating while female?

DD: It’s that whole Ginger Roger thing. She did everything Fred Astaire did but she did it backwards and in high heels. You do have to work harder. You just do, at this point. So I always go into a negotiation really well prepared…. I am a very emotional person. I really feel a strong sense of justice. You need that to push whatever boulder you are pushing up the hill. But you also need a very well prepared argument. You need a good fact-based argument for the person, for the policy you’re trying to put forward. Leading with emotion first, especially as a woman, will get you unheard pretty quick….

LiisBeth: Looking back over your career, you see that women still seemed to be stalled — in media, in politics and business, in the executive suite. Why?

DD: There’s a lot of debate about numbers, that once we get to 30 percent that’s the tipping point and everything will move forward into gender parity. There are different reasons women are stalled out. In politics, it’s tough for women. Witness what Hillary Clinton just did or tried to do. Women are placed under a burning spotlight, judged for the way they act, what they wear, whether they’re good jugglers…. Women politicians are objectified and eroticized and dehumanized. It’s unbelievable.

When it comes to (gender parity in) the boardroom, I think you have to have goals and measurable metrics against those goals because if you don’t put some muscle [accountability] around the idea that we’re going to bring more women into the boardroom…it never happens. So you have to build targets and you have to measure how you’re doing against them or you’ll never move that needle. There’s plenty of evidence to show that companies with women on boards thrive. It’s just common sense: Shouldn’t you endeavor to fully understand the population of your customer base (and not just half). If women are at the table, the decisions will just be better.

 LiisBeth: Do you think if there had been more diversity at the table of record companies, they would they have anticipated Napster better?

DD: In my book, I go through where things went wrong, the mea culpas, but we’re in a very disruptive time for the communications industries. The record companies were the canary in the coalmine that took the hit first. We’re watching the media industry go through the same convulsions. The more diversity around the table, the better a business might be able to handle whatever disruption comes their way. You can’t go wrong with diversity. It’s good for business. It just is.

LiisBeth: You called your memoir As Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances). At the end of your book, you look forward, in future endeavors, to being as fearless as possible whatever the circumstances. If you could apply that notion retroactively, what would you have done differently?

DD: I was only able to do what I could do given the circumstances and the information I had and the people around me. But I also think there’s benefit to having a sense of humility and insecurity because it makes you consider your moves a little more fully and I think it makes you more empathetic to people. The whole idea of power for power’s sake or celebrity sake, it’s just so hollow to me. I think it’s okay to be a little nervous. It’s why stage fright seems to be good for artists. If you have a sense of humility and a sense of empathy then you will relate to your audience better versus just storming out on stage and being full of arrogance. Fearlessness is a fantastic thing and we have to be fearless to push those balls down the field that we need to, but it’s not unbridled fearlessness because we have to check the reasons why we’re feeling passionate about things in the first place and make sure they’re authentic and they’re true.

LiisBeth: Is there anything else you’re burning to talk? I’m sure there’s a lot!

DD: I occasionally come away from interviews thinking, god, I’ve been so terribly serious and I want people to know the book is funny. There’s some serious and raw issues I try to tackle in the book but. At the end of the day, it’s my story, and you have to enjoy life, you have to have some fun. I certainly did!


Our Voices

A Salon Of Our Own: And Here’s What Happened


LiisBeth, the shit-kicking feminist entrepreneurship zine you’re reading right now, held its first-ever consciousness raising–style salon a few weeks back. It felt like the heady old days of feminism. It felt like the thrilling future of feminism.

The evening gathering took place in the living room of LiisBeth board advisor Abby Slater—businesswoman, impact investor, social-enterprise champion—and featured two leading feminist thinkers and changemakers: Andi Zeisler, author of the brilliant We Were Feminists Once, and Sarah Kaplan, gender capitalism expert and director of the brand new excellently named Institute for Gender + the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Oh, and let’s mention a third: Petra Kassun-Mutch, the instigator of the salon, founder of LiisBeth and spirit incarnate of the zine’s namesake, Stieg Larsson’s Stieg Larsson‘s Lisbeth Salander, a fictional, dragon-tattooed, streetwise avenger, champion of the underserved, unheard, and overlooked. Or in Petra’s world, women entrepreneurs.

Thirty-five members of the LiisBeth community congregated, including executives, writers, artists, activists, non-profit leaders, startup founders, and students. There were deep pockets, shallow pockets, pockets of colour, pockets of queerness, pockets of supermoms who have done it all, women at the start and end of careers, and every gradation in between.

It seemed absolutely right, the very randomness of ourselves gathered for a necessary conversation: assessing the state of feminism in this age of individualism.

Or as Zeisler might put it: How do we rescue feminism from the clutches of capitalist neoliberalism, which would divide our collective action for change and reduce feminism to a brand to sell us stuff?

Or as Kaplan might put it: Rather than stand on the sidelines of capitalism, how do we create true systemic change rather than being co-opted to fit in “nicey nice” with the status quo of inequality?

Kassun-Mutch was pressed with questions: Has feminism stalled out? With so much inequality still—we have not come nearly far enough, baby—how do we get back on track? Given that we have to swim in this system, how do we leverage the tools of business to change the system? While being sensitive to intersections of feminism—and the room was a sampling of that—how do we work together, support each other, be good allies rather than be divided by our differences?

How do we get back to collective action to change a system that so often diminishes women?

The conversation stirred up anger (as it should), plenty of laughter (as a gathering of women usually does), and a strong desire to connect between the generations and intersections and fault lines of business and non-profit. It also reinvigorated a passion and excitement for the hard work of making shit happen. Plenty of ideas flowed from the evening, which we’ll be following up in LiisBeth stories for months to come.

The next evening, LiisBeth gave us another peak into the future of feminism as the media sponsor for Zeisler’s talk at the Rotman School of Management, organized by Kaplan. Astonishingly, while Zeisler has spoken about feminism at campuses across North America, this was her first-ever invitation to speak at a business school. No doubt that has something to do with her attack on corporate capitalism for hijacking and neutering the feminist agenda, to render it into a pinked commodity.

The room was packed with young female MBA students whom Zeisler gave plenty to think about. I spoke to quite a few after the talk. Many identified as feminists, and now they were questioning what they were learning in business school. One wondered aloud, “Am I being trained to merely sell stuff to women? To exploit women, to increase profits, reduce costs, for my own advancement?”

Heading into the lecture, I introduced myself to an older executive who told me she works in finance. Given the subject of the talk, I asked what challenges she’s faced working in such a male-dominated industry. She shrugged, almost dumbfounded by my question. “You know, with sexism,” I nudged.

“None,” she said.

After the lecture, she rushed up to me, mouth agape at her apparent amnesia. “When I started my career, I was forced to share an office with a co-worker who was stalking me. I had a different approach to sales; I took time to get to know my clients rather than closing the deal on the first meeting. I was outselling my male colleagues and they couldn’t stand it. And even though I was making the company tons of money, the male executives kept pressuring me to change my sales strategy.”

And this is what she did: she left and started her own company. Things clearly went swimmingly ever since.

She admitted that she had completely forgotten that the harassment she endured was the very reason she went to work for herself.

The three MBA students I chatted with didn’t see any immediate exit strategy from the trenches. They truly worried about being co-opted by toiling in the muck of those trenches. Would they end up working for corporations that exploit women, systematically pay them less, and block opportunities?

And then their conversation drifted to asking themselves this question:

How could they work in the system while changing the system to make it more equitable?

Between them, they could check the boxes of a multitude of intersections: race, working class, immigrant, refugee, gender queer. Even though women now constitute 30 per cent of students at Rotman business school, they still feel like a maligned minority. They told me that just going to school requires enduring an onslaught of microaggressions: male students ignoring them in study groups and talking over them in class; male profs using gendered case studies (i.e. all men) and sexist language; male executive MBA students heading to strip clubs for bro-bonding after weekend classes. They don’t see that scenario changing once they start their careers, not with men still dominating business leadership and business values.

“Feminism shouldn’t be an optional lecture,” one tells me. “Feminism should be on every course curriculum in business school.”

That’s one solution. And they came to another, as they circled back to why they had chosen to do an MBA in the first place.

One had graduated from gender studies, sharpened her teeth on the critiques of capitalism, and went to work in social services and non-profits to create change. But the more she saw how corporations exploited women through their supply chains, the more she realized how hard it would be to create true change from the sidelines. “We need activism all throughout industries and in different positions in society. I wanted to become someone in business who could make change. We have to have women in business who are feminists and activists. Change won’t happen unless we have people on the inside who care about doing the right thing and can convince others to do the right thing.”

Personally, I came away from the two events chuffed by the future of feminism, and we’ll be tracking it right here in the digital pages of LiisBeth. Stay tuned for that—and for more hell-raising salons too.


Related Readings and Audio Interviews