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Activism & Action

$5.5 Billion Investment Required To Prevent Collapse of Emerging Women’s Entrepreneurship Sector

woman standing against a wrecking ball
Photo by Federico Caputo / Alamy Stock Photo

Monday, April 12: The Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (CanWCC) released an emergency task force report calling for $5.5 billion to support women entrepreneurs — a sector disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

“Let’s get real about this: women-owned and -led businesses are integral to Canada’s economic recovery,” says Nancy Wilson, CanWCC’s founder and CEO. “Forget leaning in — we need support to lean on as we start and scale our businesses.”

The independent task force calls for $5.5 billion in renewed funding in the 2021 federal budget for the Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy; $500 million in recovery funding targeting Black, Indigenous, racialized and mature (over 40) women entrepreneurs; and the expansion of the Canada Recovery Benefit program for self-employed and startup founders left without basic income because of the pandemic.

The task force also recommends creating an inter-ministerial committee to better address the needs of all women in the economy and break down silos that currently exist between the Ministry for Women and The Gender Economy (WAGE); Industry Canada/Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED); Ministry of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade; and the Ministry of Finance.

The report, supported by leaders in the women’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, was developed as a response to lack of inclusion in the “Task for on Women in the Economy” and the cross-ministry feminist pandemic recovery budget process, as well as deepening concerns that the federal government “still doesn’t get” women entrepreneurs.

Who are Women Entrepreneurs?

The newly released State of Women’s Entrepreneurship in Canada (March 21) report by Ryerson’s Diversity Institute paints a clear picture of the women’s entrepreneurship ecosystem and the lives of its precarious income-based participants.   

In a nutshell, the sector’s enterprises are like a million atoms that are intricately networked. In some provinces, long established women’s enterprise institutions act as supportive lenders, skills educators and data gatherers for policy makers. Some find affinity in publicly funded incubators and accelerators. But the majority of women entrepreneurs are left to resource themselves. They have created more than 180+ unfunded, regional, grassroots, mutual-aid support networks.  

Women entrepreneurs tend to build businesses in care-economy sectors and operate them in relational, innovative, inclusive, generative ways that aim to lift up their communities — not just themselves. Their enterprises may be micro when measured in dollars, but powerhouses when full and indirect impact is considered.

On average, a woman entrepreneur, once established, earns $68,000 gross per year. Their male counterparts earn 58 per cent more — a truly cringe-worthy pay gap.

Only 15.6 per cent (114,000) of all small to medium incorporated enterprises in Canada are majority owned by women; more than 92 per cent of these enterprises are defined as “micro-firms” with less than 20 employees. Another 37.4 per cent (1 million+) of women entrepreneurs are self-employed.  

Though small, this sector can have financial clout. According to a 2017 McKinsey study, an investment in women entrepreneurs could result in up to $150 billion (or about 31 times what the task force calls for) in economic growth for the Canadian economy. The report noted that “This projected increase was 6 per cent higher than business-as-usual GDP growth forecasts over the next decade. Put another way, this figure is equivalent to adding a new financial services sector to the economy.”

Eager to boost this potential, the government invested $5 billion in a Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) program in 2019. According to task force participants, this investment has had tremendous impact. However, those gains are in danger of being completely lost — not just set back — due to the pandemic’s disproportionate, multi-layered impact on all women.

Since COVID-19, more than a quarter of all women-owned firms laid off 80 per cent or more of their contractors, freelancers, employees.

Paulina Cameron, serial entrepreneur and now CEO of The Forum, a women’s enterprise support charity in Vancouver, says she is frustrated. 

“Government supports are still built around our understanding of the way men built companies in the 1990’s. The hard line between for profit, public and nonprofit policy no longer makes sense. Women entrepreneurs increasingly design enterprises that ignore these boundaries. We learned this past year that women entrepreneurs play a significant yet unseen role building social well-being and economic resilience — we are going to need a whole lot more of that in the coming decade.” 

Janice Bartley, Founder of Foodpreneur Lab

Why Were Women Entrepreneurs Left Out of Covid Relief?

Most small to medium enterprises (SME) COVID-19 relief programs focused on larger firms, which excluded the vast majority of women entrepreneurs.  Like women wage earners, women entrepreneurs were also crushed by shouldering the majority of unpaid care and home-schooling work during the pandemic.

According to a recent study on Black and Indigenous women entrepreneurs, 78 per cent face barriers to accessing financing in addition to racialized oppression by institutions including banks, incubator and accelerator programs.

Janice Bartley, a Black woman, serial entrepreneur and founder of Foodpreneur Lab,  took on side gigs to pay bills for the past two years, even though her enterprise was on the verge of providing her with an income. 

Then COVID-19 hit.

“We were in the process of negotiating some significant contracts including a college — which would have really helped us launch — but because of COVID-19, they fell through.”

Like many, Bartley’s enterprise was not big enough to benefit from small business COVID-19 support initiatives. Most of the loan programs are beyond reach for founders who don’t have net worth (say in home ownership) to fulfil the personal guarantee requirements.

“I think any founder knows that there’s going to be financial risk involved in starting and growing a business,” says Bartley. “And I think there’s a willingness for us to do that, as long as there’s some supports to help survive things like a pandemic.” 

two quotes, two women, purple background

Women Entrepreneurs Are a Good Bet — So Why So Little Money on the Table?

Preliminary research shows incredible returns on investments, says Wendy Cukier, Director of Ryerson’s Diversity Institute, “even in loan programs targeting women, whether measuring job creation or social impact.” She notes that the “WES initiative has strengthened the women’s entrepreneurship ecosystem and we are starting to see the results. However, if we allow these initiatives to wither and new seedling businesses to die, we should not be surprised to see negative economic and social consequences.”

So why are women entrepreneurs often overlooked by mainstream programs and financing? Cukier says it’s often because of how “innovation and entrepreneurship are framed.”

The CanWCC independent task force has put forward compelling evidence that a $5.5 billion investment in women’s entrepreneurship would go a long way to ensuring momentum gained in the past few years is not forever lost. 


Publishers Note: pk mutch, contributor and LiisBeth publisher is a board member at the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (CanWCC) and transparently supports their vision, mission and mandate. Mutch was also a task force member. 

Resources/Sources:

Download the full CanWCC report here

Access the State of Women’s Entrepreneurship 2020 report here. 

Read the Feminist Recovery Plan for Canada here. 

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Activism & Action Featured

Shut Out and Shut Up: Canada’s Feminist Recovery Plan Excludes Voices of Women Entrepreneurs

A photo of diverse women holding up a sign that says womxn entrepreneurs
Womxn in an inclusive term that includes all women-identified people. Photo by Jacob Lund

The Canadian government used International Women’s Day 2021 to announce a new “Task Force on Women in the Economy” to advise the government on creating a “robust and inclusive” and “necessarily feminist” pandemic recovery plan.

The roster of diverse women-identified experts named to the task force is impressive but hardly inclusive. It leaves out participation of a group not only hard hit by the pandemic but key to building back a better, more gender-just economy: womxn entrepreneurs.

Womxn’s entrepreneurship is a means of creating social change, especially redressing systematic gender barriers, argues Dr. Barbara Orser, co-author of bestseller Feminine Capital: Unlocking the Power of Women Entrepreneurs (Stanford University Press, 2015) and professor at Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa.  It’s also the means by which 1.5 million womxn earn their living and create freelance income opportunities or waged employment for an estimated 3 million others. Approximately 80 per cent of those entrepreneurs operate micro enterprises of one to four people or work as unincorporated solopreneurs, gig workers and freelancers, the majority not eligible for government pandemic support programs.

So why were womxn entrepreneurs shut out of the task force? And what will the government miss in not hearing their critical voices?

The composition of the task force was shaped by a letter penned by the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) representing more than 60 women’s and equity seeking groups and sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. FAFIA implored the government to centre women’s rights and gender equality organizations in its economic recovery plan. It recommended a task force that did not focus, as usual, on “business, boards, entrepreneurship, and STEM” as a pathway to women’s economic empowerment. Rather, it should address “the immediate needs of women workers marginalized by the pandemic” and acknowledge “the centrality of care to the well-being of society and the economy.”

The government heeded their call and created a task force that includes expertise in healthcare, not-for-profit, childcare, labour, academia, advocacy and also business.

But “business” is not the same as “entrepreneurship.” Indeed, the two are often poles apart.

Too often government privileges tip-of-the-iceberg “big business” in its consultations — private sector self-made millionaires, C-suite representatives of multi-nationals and finance sectors, in this case, corporate womxn, often white. It ignores the unique voice of ordinary womxn entrepreneurs that make up the base of that iceberg — solo and micro entrepreneurs, often invisible and, in this pandemic, drowning in debt.

We cannot lump “womxn entrepreneurs” in with “business.” Doing so will lead to short-sighted policy and missed opportunities.

Meet Womxn Entrepreneurs

Womxn entrepreneurs are diverse, intersectional and multifaceted in their pursuits. They are nomads rather than settlers, moving like water between systemic barriers and institutional blocks. They erode classic distinctions between civil and private sector, with how they do business, the nature of services and products they offer and the people and communities they support.

In fact, most womxn entrepreneurs have far more in common with civil society workers and wage-earning sisters than with traditional private-sector business leaders so often preoccupied with tax cuts, reducing regulation or putting women on boards as way of advancing diversity.

Prior to the pandemic, one-quarter of womxn pursued entrepreneurship out of “economic necessity.” They take on entrepreneurship because standard employment is not an option. They may be criminalized womxn, womxn with disabilities, womxn with mental-health challenges, trans or nonbinary womxn, non-status immigrant womxn, women over 55 made invisible, single womxn raising kids. They carry an oversized knapsack full of intersectional barriers and responsibilities. More than 80 per cent of single parents raising children are womxn, and entrepreneurship may be the only option to generate income while providing childcare in the home.

The precarity of womxn entrepreneurs demands consideration in any feminist recovery plan.

Despite media glamorization of entrepreneurship, most womxn entrepreneurs earn an average income that is closer to the wages of healthcare and social-assistance workers, about $68,000 after expenses or $34 per hour compared to $29.17. Yet, they shoulder additional risks, business debt and unpredictable incomes. Many womxn entrepreneurs barely achieve thrive rate incomes, often unable pay to be eligible for employment insurance, making them extremely vulnerable to personal economic collapse.

Yet, the majority of womxn entrepreneurs are critical to the cohesion and functioning of our communities. They create products and services in retail, hospitality, food, government, health, education, and social services. In other words, they do “women’s work” and are deeply essential to the “care economy,” which was disproportionately affected by the pandemic. FAFIA implored the government to recognize the care economy as a priority sector. The output and resilience of this sector depends, in large part, on the personal investment, work and health of womxn entrepreneurs.

A sampling of statistics show how hard the pandemic hit womxn entrepreneurs:

Why Does Representation Matter?

Without the input of womxn entrepreneurs, The Feminist Economic Recovery Task Force will most certainly overlook opportunities for stimulus and key issues to redress.

For example, we know from the 2008 economic crash, that personal bankruptcy impacted womxn entrepreneurs disproportionately to men. In 2020, personal insolvencies in Canada increased by 8.9 per cent.  

Most womxn entrepreneurs face resource barriers and, out of necessity, finance their startups with credit cards and personal savings, leaving them vulnerable to crushing debt costs and personal bankruptcy. This pandemic has the potential to wipe out thousands of womxn entrepreneurs and keep them sidelined for up to seven years. Incorporation does not protect entrepreneurs from having to repay all debt.

Women entrepreneurs march with other sisters on IWD2020-with thumbs up from NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh

“I want to see the immediate revision of the scope of the task force and the addition of individuals to represent women entrepreneurs”

Nancy Wilson, Founder and CEO, Canadian Women's Chamber of Commerce Tweet

It’s important and refreshing to have feminist civil and labour organizations lead and inform a feminist pandemic economic policy. Certainly, it will address key concerns: the catastrophic drop in womxn’s participation in the labour force, the lowest in 30 years; the need for universal high-quality childcare.

But we also need womxn entrepreneurs at the table, someone who represents ordinary, front-line solopreneurs and micro-enterprise founders who are precious and precarious workers too.

I know one thing from my 30+ years as a serial entrepreneur, corporate employee, and gig worker: we need entrepreneurship to be part of a feminist recovery plan. Because at some point in our lives, nearly all womxn will undertake entrepreneurship as a result of finding ourselves unemployed, unemployable or traumatized by workplaces shaped by abusive systems — patriarchal, colonial, racist, extractive macho capitalism that privileges power and profits over people and the environment.  

Womxn need economic independence to be free and flourish. Employed and self-employed, we need to join hands and seize this opportunity to create a gender-just and care-centred economy. To be holistic, intersectional and feminist, the recovery plan must include the voices of womxn entrepreneurs.

Publisher’s Note: In this article, we use the term “womxn” to indicate that when we say women, we are including all women-identified people.  However, when a quote or text uses the term “women” we do not alter it. 

Call to Action: If you would like to see a representative from the women’s entrepreneurship space added to this task force, write to Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance here: Chrystia.Freeland@parl.gc.ca.  Or consider signing this petition.

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Our Voices

A Founder’s Story: The Making of LiisBeth

An illustration of birthday cake, liisbeth.com logo and Liisbeth women
Liisbeth.com celebrates it's fifth Year anniversary

I still remember the day we began, five years ago.

LiisBeth Media was conceived, like a lot of womxn-led enterprises, in a small meeting room with flip charts, markers, oodles of red wine and, in my case, two dear friends and enterprise midwives, Valerie Hussey and Abigail Slater. Each of us had started, operated and exited $2 million to $30 million+ enterprises, but I was the only one eager to plunge in and do it all over again.

Nursing a deep, still-fresh founder-exit wound that ignited an unabiding, to be honest, rage, I needed to do something about its root cause – patriarchy.

That was 2014. And Canada’s testosterone-drenched economic policy and entrepreneurship ecosystem did not give a hoot about womxn entrepreneurs — especially those working to create stable, livable, care-centered enterprises.

In my experience, those boys’ club policies often promoted entrepreneurship to women as an escape from careers full of barriers, which, in effect, lured thousands of women out of salaried jobs with benefits and deeper into precarity, poverty and trauma without  support. 

Yes, I was lit. And fortunately not alone in my concerns. 

I asked myself and others: What can we do to change things? Why was feminism absent in discussions about women’s entrepreneurship? How could we better support those working to dismantle and re-build the system anew-so it could work for everyone?  What could mobilizing look like? What stories do we need to tell to change the narrative?

I attended numerous women’s entrepreneurship events that year to float a few radical ideas, but it seemed that attendees were there, mainly, to toke on empowerment energy. Few wanted to talk about how systems of oppression held us back. Collective action to change those systems was never on the agenda. When brave folks did stand up to at the mic to share stories of trauma, racism, sexism, or other injustices experienced as entrepreneurs, speakers — usually financially successful, privileged white women — would smile and tsk “If I can do it, so can you!”

I left these events provoked.

If so many of us were struggling, surely it wasn’t because women were “not as good as men” but because the systems were designed by men and for men to succeed — not us. I believed a way to make these systems visible was to find what was growing, unnoticed, between the cracks and hold those things up for all to see: nonconforming enterprises founded by solutionaries producing wildly imaginative, generative ideas.   

Ureka.

In May 2015, LiisBeth Media signed with Merian Media led by Meredith Brooks, to build the LiisBeth site.

A picture of merian media's first website proposal for LiisBeth.com in 2014
Merian Media Branding Proposal for LiisBeth.com, 2014.

We published our first article on the site in Sept 2015. As the founder, I wrote it. Because we didn’t have the money to pay someone else to do it- yet.

We launched officially in February with writer and editor Margaret Webb serving (we joke) as the curmudgeonly “Lou Grant” to my overly optimistic “Mary Tyler Moore”. Webb also wrote the first feature, Diversity Rules, about Rajkumari Neogy, a Silicon Valley diversity consultant.

A picture of Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore talking about a story
LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 16: THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW episode: 'The Good-Time News'. Initial broadcast: September 16, 1972. (From left): Ed Asner (as Lou Grant) and Mary Tyler Moore (as Mary Richards). (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
colourful illustration of six feminist women gathering to talk and work

What have we learned?

You can read about some of what we learned in How to Be in Right Relationship With Your EnterpriseSlow Growth, and Gaslighting. But here’s another thing or two we picked up along the way. 

1

Businesses are essentially communities. You can’t do anything without community. And communities are relationships—not just easy ones but hard and painful ones. Without these relationships, there is no business, no resilience and certainly no fun. 

2

Most of the value an enterprise creates can’t be accounted for on a balance sheet. We have yet to figure out how to value connections, care of people, strengthened ecosystems. Society continually undervalues –even forgets the feminist economy and activist work.

3

A micro-business (defined by Stats Canada as one that employees 1-4 people) is not only a real business, it’s a challenging, complex Starship Enterprise. The average micro-entrepreneur leverages a tech stack of 20 to 30 apps, programs, and platforms, without an IT department. If you are in business right now, you are a freakin’ genius. So many womxn entrepreneurs are told scale is king—when really complexity deserves the crown. 

4

Making money is fair game—but capitalism serves straight, white patriarchy and actively undermines the rest of us. Still many founders and business womxn of all backgrounds vote for Trump-like policies — minimum wage cuts,tax breaks, environmental deregulation, policies that enable exploitation of others – because they believe it’s good for business. It’s not. It’s good for the 10 percent. For the other 90 per cent to thrive, we must work every day to re-invent entrepreneurship and government to serve a coming post-capitalist, post-patriarchal world in which we can all flourish. 

5

Society and governments need healthy enterprises. Enterprises need healthy societies and healthy governments. Capitalism would have you believe government is the enemy. A lot of business leaders talk anti-government shit. Their neoliberal, winner-deserves-all rant is self-serving. We have witnessed supportive and impactful collaborations between government and womxn entrepreneur organizations at all levels. It’s all about a new social contract.

In my experience, those boys’ club policies often promoted entrepreneurship to women as an escape from careers full of barriers, which, in effect, lured thousands of women out of salaried jobs with benefits and deeper into precarity, poverty and trauma without  support. 

Yes, I was lit. And fortunately not alone in my concerns. 

I asked myself and others: What can we do to change things? Why was feminism absent in discussions about women’s entrepreneurship? How could we better support those working to dismantle and re-build the system anew-so it could work for everyone?  What could mobilizing look like? What stories do we need to tell to change the narrative?

I attended numerous women’s entrepreneurship events that year to float a few radical ideas, but it seemed that attendees were there, mainly, to toke on empowerment energy. Few wanted to talk about how systems of oppression held us back. Collective action to change those systems was never on the agenda. When brave folks did stand up to at the mic to share stories of trauma, racism, sexism, or other injustices experienced as entrepreneurs, speakers — usually financially successful, privileged white women — would smile and tsk “If I can do it, so can you!”

I left these events provoked.

If so many of us were struggling, surely it wasn’t because women were “not as good as men” but because the systems were designed by men and for men to succeed — not us. I believed a way to make these systems visible was to find what was growing, unnoticed, between the cracks and hold those things up for all to see: nonconforming enterprises founded by solutionaries producing wildly imaginative, generative ideas.   

Ureka.

In May 2015, LiisBeth Media signed with Merian Media led by Meredith Brooks, to build the LiisBeth site.

A picture of merian media's first website proposal for LiisBeth.com in 2014
Merian Media Branding Proposal for LiisBeth.com, 2014.

We published our first article on the site in Sept 2015. As the founder, I wrote it. Because we didn’t have the money to pay someone else to do it- yet.

We launched officially in February with writer and editor Margaret Webb serving (we joke) as the curmudgeonly “Lou Grant” to my overly optimistic “Mary Tyler Moore”. Webb also wrote the first feature, Diversity Rules, about Rajkumari Neogy, a Silicon Valley diversity consultant.

A picture of Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore talking about a story
LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 16: THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW episode: 'The Good-Time News'. Initial broadcast: September 16, 1972. (From left): Ed Asner (as Lou Grant) and Mary Tyler Moore (as Mary Richards). (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Valerie Hussey gave our early editorial heft with a series of columns about feminist business values and practices, starting with “How to Embed Feminist Values in Your Company.”

Then, came November 8th, 2016. I was at an election party along with 30 or so others, at the home of SheEO founder Vicky Saunders. We drank champagne around a life-size cardboard figure of Hillary Clinton, excited to see the first woman elected US president. By eleven o’clock, we realized the unthinkable – the US would elect, instead, a serial harasser of woman, a racist, and neofascist.

What I loved about the U.S, having lived and worked in New York for three years, was its relentless thirst for firsts. That night, I went home early and cried.

Yet, almost immediately, the smoldering feminist movement caught fire across North America. The next morning, many of the 300-plus women entrepreneurs attending the first-ever national women’s entrepreneurship conference in Toronto showed up wearing black. We were in mourning, and we compelled the mistress of ceremonies to interrupt the proceedings and acknowledge the catastrophic psychic blow we had just suffered. In January, more than one million marched on Washington to denounce Trump; 60,000 came out to the women’s march in Toronto; similar protests erupted around the world. Feminist blogs, newsletters, and TV shows sprang up.

If there was a positive to Trump’s election, he dragged into the open what we had struggled to see. He embodied what we needed to fight against: systemic sexism, racism, colonialism, exploitive capitalism – and on and on.

LiisBeth was born into this tumultuous year — the timing could not have been better on some levels. Yet, surviving as a reader-supported feminist media venture has been far from easy.

Growing Between the Cracks

For two years, the magazine was the result of kitchen table efforts by mostly myself, Margaret, and a handful of contributors – Priya Ramanujam, Mai Nguyen, and others we recruited. We survived on part-time hours, volunteer time, a DYI ethos, and $3-per-month subscriptions.

The magazine grew-slowly like a spindly pine tree seedling determined to survive on a patriarchal and capitalism scorched earth.

In 2018, we invited writer and video producer Lana Pesch to our team as newsletter editor and contributor – she’s now host of the The Fine Print in our new online community, the Feminist Enterprise Commons.

It’s 2021—Where are we now?

The conversation about women’s entrepreneurship in Canada has made meteoric gains in the last five years. LiisBeth worked towards sustainability hand in hand with these organizations: SheEO (2015), the Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy (2019), the Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (2019), the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (2019), and countless grassroots women’s entrepreneurship support groups, networks and programs (some serving as consciousness raising groups), plus new women-led venture funds.

We jumped into action, writing about these new players and spaces – helping make them visible, amplifying their more radical voices. And together, we sharpened critical thought; forged allies; deepened intersectional thinking; shone a spotlight on bold changemakers; tackled social injustice; celebrated triumphs; collaborated and shared research; pushed each other to be better through debate and healthy conflict. We flexed muscle to show what women could bring to the table; raised a bit of rage; and found comfort in good old-fashioned grassroots sistering.  

This was feminist-led and feminist informed work.

Today, Canada’s diverse pluralistic one-million-plus women entrepreneurs have far more choices regarding funded, diverse programs and supports to help design, grow and sustain their ventures — on their own terms.

But the work is far from done. As American civil rights lawyer Florynce Kennedy said: “Freedom is like taking a bath. You got to keep doing it every day.”

The pandemic has made that clear, with women getting slammed.  Womxn entrepreneurs, a constituency growing at double digit rates, will have to rally and fight for new initiatives and policies to ensure the progress made over the past five years continues.

Back to LiisBeth

Today, LiisBeth Media has 30,000 unique annual readers (20 per cent ahead of last year), 2,800 newsletter subscribers, and about 10,000 followers on our various social channels. We have published more than 300 features and 70 newsletters since we started. More than 35 per cent of our articles feature Black, Indigenous or women of colour entrepreneurs (BIWOC); 40% of our articles are written by BIWOC journalists and writers. We pay our contributors above average rates in our sector and pay fast – in days, not months.

We have been top three finalists — twice — in the Canadian Digital Publishing Awards competition in the General Excellence category for small publications. We launched the Feminist Enterprise Forum (FEC), a new online community in 2020, and just invested in migrating to a new platform.  We achieved break even (on a five-figure budget) in 2020.

(Video: The way we were ….before COVID-19)

The fact that we are still here after five years puts us in a rare category for both startups and media: survivor. Now we are working towards the next stage: thriving.

We believe we can get there by adjusting our business model and deepening relationships with our allies, creators and diverse enterprise founders. We aim to be the go-to, womxn-led/owned media outlet for radical womxn entrepreneurs engaged in deep systems-change work.

Reflect, Recharge, Repeat

The world that lit the spark of LiisBeth is not the same world that LiisBeth Media now lives in.

As the founder, I am more certain than ever that we need to create fight for more support for safe, brave spaces for diverse womxn entrepreneurs, enterprise leaders, feminists, activists and critical thought leaders to tackle challenges ahead.

We must build a healthier, more just economy. This change won’t come from multi-national corporations designed to produce profits for shareholders, at the expense of everything else.

The change we seek will be driven by a plethora of diverse, connected communities supported by local livable, care-centered thriving small enterprises.

And we will be here to tell this revolutionary story.

Time to get back to work.

colourful illustration of six feminist women gathering to talk and work

What have we learned?

You can read about some of that in How to Be in Right Relationship With Your EnterpriseSlow Growth, and Gaslighting. But here’s another thing or two we picked up along the way. 

1

Businesses are essentially communities. You can’t do anything without community. And communities are relationships—not just easy ones but hard and painful ones. Without these relationships, there is no business, no resilience and certainly no fun. 

2

Most of the value an enterprise creates can’t be accounted for on a balance sheet. We have yet to figure out how to value connections, care of people, strengthened ecosystems. Society continually undervalues –even forgets the feminist economy and activist work.

3

A micro-business (defined by Stats Canada as one that employees 1-4 people) is not only a real business, it’s a challenging, complex Starship Enterprise. The average micro-entrepreneur leverages a tech stack of 20 to 30 apps, programs, and platforms, without an IT department. If you are in business right now, you are a freakin’ genius. So many womxn entrepreneurs are told scale is king—when really complexity deserves the crown. 

4

Making money is fair game—but capitalism serves straight, white patriarchy and actively undermines the rest of us. Still many founders and business womxn of all backgrounds vote for Trump-like policies — minimum wage cuts,tax breaks, environmental deregulation, policies that enable exploitation of others – because they believe it’s good for business. It’s not. It’s good for the 10 percent. For the other 90 per cent to thrive, we must work every day to re-invent entrepreneurship and government to serve a coming post-capitalist, post-patriarchal world in which we can all flourish. 

5

Society and governments need healthy enterprises. Enterprises need healthy societies and healthy governments. Capitalism would have you believe government is the enemy. A lot of business leaders talk anti-government shit. Their neoliberal, winner-deserves-all rant is self-serving. We have witnessed supportive and impactful collaborations between government and womxn entrepreneur organizations at all levels. It’s all about a new social contract.

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Our Voices

The Nuffers Are Coming!


I have a fantasy that a small group of ordinary women entrepreneurs started a revolution to end capitalism as we know it and as a direct consequence, help make ghosts of all forms of oppression.

Women entrepreneurs are indeed unlikely revolutionaries (bad for business, busy, mostly broke). But the conditions were beyond ripe.

In my dystopian scenario, the pandemic receded, but the climate crisis violently took up the slack. Trump was gone but neoliberal capitalism was still a force. The people and planet were hurting in new, unprecedented ways. Yet most corporations, entrepreneurs and business owners, large and small, acted as though it was still business as usual, lobbying for handouts, tax cuts, less regulation, more subsidies, less social or environmental accountability and lately, even a reduction in minimum wages. The she-recovery? Universal income? Never happened. Too expensive. Meanwhile, homes became offices and office towers became shelters. Food prices increased. Incomes declined. Billionaires continued to rake it in.  

It didn’t have to turn out this way. But people’s imaginations were stuck reconstructing “new normal” that was not really new. 

The revolution’s slogan was “Enough Already.” 

The left-wing media dubbed them Nuffers; the right-wing ignored them, at their peril.  They organized, created a platform, tens of thousands marched in the streets. They wore distinctive, embroidered hats

But who were the “Nuffers”? Where did they come from? What did they want?

The OG Nuffers group met, first online, and then in a local park at the height of the 2020 pandemic. They had arranged to get out of the workhouse (which used to be called home) to walk for an hour or two to clear their heads. They, socially distanced, with take-out coffees in hand, masks on, started talking, sharing stories and well, the rest is now history.

The OG (original group) Nuffers—with names like Dori, Nura, Oba, Frida, Orenda, Edna, Rodayna, and Jane—were not “Dragon’s Den” hopefuls. None had written a “see me-be me” book or made the “top whatever” list.  They didn’t qualify for loans, or ongoing COVID-19 business relief programs. Their enterprises were considered ‘micro’ due to the fact they employed less than four people.  However, their ‘smallness’ was their power. It allowed them to think and innovate in ways investor grade ‘bigness’ did not. They believed there was a better way to do enterprise building work than what they were told by entrepreneurship’s governing gentry class. Daily resistance and feminism had opened their minds and unleashed imaginative solutions and ideas about what a post-capitalist world might look like—and how to get there.  

They wanted a post-capitalist world.  Because when you really think about it, modern capitalism is what holds white supremacy, patriarchy and colonialism in place. Pull out that lynchpin, and much of what hurts people and the planet falls away. 

As Nura, owner of one so called ‘microenterprise’ and elected spokesperson explained the movement’s meteoric rise during a live stream interview from her home: 

“Business leaders called us ‘socialists, feminist’—or worse—dismissed us as tinkers or  lifestyle entrepreneurs. The Left ignored us a petty-bourgeoisie. Turns out, our radical tiny enterprises, that now number in the tens of thousands, have quietly operated like water that flows between the cracks for years.  We noticed and responded to the tiny whispers that reflected emerging community values and needs that traditional capitalist ears could not hear. We learned to collaborate, value and resource our work in clever, generative ways. Turns out, the footpaths we forged are the very ones we need to find our way out of the colossal mess we made!” 

Nuffers were considered cool by Gen Z, but that didn’t mean they had it easy. They were not considered seriously by those in power. Critics scoffed, “If entrepreneurship is a child of capitalism, can entrepreneurs really be post-capitalists?” They did not fit neatly into boxes either. They did not identify as social enterprise founders. They wanted to create enterprises that dismantled systems—versus bandage them. 

In the fullness of time, the Nuffer movement resulted in the creation of commercial scale peer-lending programs, women-entrepreneur focused credit unions, and the globally networked Centre for Nuffer Enterprises whose research units and startup incubator and accelerator programs were housed in leading business schools around the globe. 

As post-capitalist ways of doing became the norm, racism and other systems of oppression became feeble. People began to relate to each other differently.

The movement inadvertently bolstered ranks of the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (now 100 000 members strong) because, well the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and other traditional, politically conservative associations were losing their women members in droves. 

New Society Entrepreneurs, a new federation of diverse, grassroots post-capitalist enterprise groups was established. They would be called upon to collaborate with government and pro care-economy activist organizations to help design and implement post-capitalist entrepreneurship programs and ultimately, a post capitalist economy.

Frida, the New Society Entrepreneurs co-chair, wrote: “Turning the corner actually was more possible than anyone thought.  All we had to do was summon the will. Then work to heal, centre care, love, peace, joy, belonging, and realize that small enterprises, under the guidance and imagination of progressive founders, can be a powerful force for change.”

I get a text from my daughter. 

She is now a Nuffer entrepreneur in her own right, has learned how to build a thriving new society enterprise—well anchored, over time, in community, from the inside out, one that cares for her and everyone involved, and one that is well supported by branches connecting her enterprise to a healthy earth and grounded, flourishing society.  And yes, she makes money. 

My fantasy ends. 

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Our Voices

A Feminist Entrepreneur’s To Do List

Photo by Jetta Productions via Stocksy

 

With the new year and a vaccine on the horizon, many entrepreneurs are crawling from the wreckage known as 2020, dusting off, and thinking, what next?

In the past, mainstream entrepreneurship has focused on opportunity and extraction: find a market gap or problem, figure out how to exploit it, and then work to extract as much wealth and power for yourself and investors as possible. Meanwhile, social entrepreneurs sought to find the harm caused by Big C Capitalist pursuits; figure out how to fix the mess; then set to work abiding by capitalist light rules.

Neither one of these models make sense for the ground that has shifted beneath our feet this past year and for what’s coming next. The very purpose of entrepreneurship, attendant policies, and the way we do business must undergo a profound revolution.

So, in addition to all the things we normally think about—launching,  pivoting, downsizing, upsizing, going digital, managing growth (some enterprises are thriving!), getting through the next lockdown, making payroll—there is this to consider: how to build a truly accountable enterprise that models an inclusive, restorative, and generative future versus perpetuating the rapacious systems, standing behind decorative diversity mission statements and operating with the fear-based mindset of the now.

Of course, no one knows the answer to that big question, but here are some things to kickstart the process of getting there:

  1. Stop perpetuating systemic oppression: Take a hard look at your culture, policies, pay scales, processes and practices. Centre the word ‘care,’ and start rooting out anything that enables oppression—whether racism, anti-black racism, white supremacy, colonialism. Let’s turn the page on the way we lead, communicate, operate, and design products and services.
  2. Advance critical consciousness: Do action work. Participate in and encourage difficult, uncomfortable conversations that lead to personal growth, political awareness, and systems thinking mindsets for staff, customers and suppliers. Everyone, not just the founder, must evolve and reckon with internalized oppression as well as external. We learn best in community with others. Seek out expertise and communities that facilitate growth and help sustain them in return.
  3. Take stock of whose work and ideas you amplify: What stories do you tell on your company blog? Whose ideas do you advance on social media? What art do you hang on your workspace walls? Looking at who and what you focus on can also tell you who and what you’re not supporting—and should.
  4. Re-write your procurement policy: Make a commitment to sign up to WEP and direct 30 per cent or more of your procurement spend to enterprises owned by women, BIPOC, trans or gender-expansive folk. These directories can help you find the services or products you need:  Black, Women’s or LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, The Native Women’s Association, Immigrant Women in Business, Feminist Founders, WEKH Ask and Give app, WeConnect and Femmbought—to name just a few. Follow our stories about services offered by feminist founders on www.liisbeth.com and in our newsletter. We have profiled over 183 feminist identified, progressive enterprises that are all looking for customers and a shot at new generative collaborations.
  5. Get Political and connect with other aligned social movements: Social change is collective work—not hero work. And the best and freshest thinking today is generated by BIPOC, women-led, grassroots, activist groups, not large, corporatized institutions. Engage with BLMCda, BLM USA, the LEAP, DIEM25, Pace e Bene, Salmon Nation, and other generative movements that embrace social justice, feminism, and environmentalism. Sign up for their newsletters. Donate. Invite their speakers to talk to your stakeholder group. Invite an activist to sit on your advisory or fiduciary board.  Answer their calls to action. It has to be a give and take.
  6. Diversify your media spend and attention: Spend at least 50 per cent of your annual media budget on indie outlets to diversify your listening power. Consider indie outlets such as rabble.ca, APTN (Indigenous) Yes Magazine, Herizons, Peeps Magazine and, of course, LiisBeth.com
  7. Ask who’s in the room? Who’s not? And consider why? Over 54 per cent of all businesses in Canada have one to four employees (considered micro companies by StatsCan) often including the founder and co-founder.  This presents an obvious challenge when it comes to advancing inclusion: your company may just be a close-knit founding team of three cis-het white women with no plan or money to hire. And that’s OK. But there are countless ways micro companies like this can engage with the 30 per cent of the Canadian population that is BIPOC identified. Make that engagement a priority as it will inform and strengthen your work. Need advice? Join the Feminist Enterprise Commons community (FEC).
  8. Trailblaze like a trailblazer: Like Bloom + Brilliance, a women-owned website and branding company, be transparent about your intersectional feminist values on your business website. Integrate the use of pronouns in your staff directory and website. Radically change your bylaws to strengthen accountability. Consider implementing a barter pay system in addition to trading in cash (because a lot of folks will have a lot less of it next year).

As brutal as the year was, 2020 delivered a gift: it has unveiled what needs fixing in ways that not even mainstream folks can continue to ignore.  We cannot turn away from it or all the suffering will have been for nothing, all the pain and carnage will continue. I suggest we heed the words of Audre Lorde: It is time for us all to be “deliberate and afraid of nothing.”

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Categories
Feminist Practices

How to Govern Like a Feminist

Photo by frankieleon | CC BY 2.0

Just over a year ago, Shaanaz Gokool, a woman of colour and CEO at Dying with Dignity, wrote a letter to her board of directors of the Canadian nonprofit. She presented a list of grievances, including pay equity (her predecessor had been paid more despite a narrower range of responsibilities) and ongoing experiences of systemic discrimination that undermined her ability to do her job. The pay equity issue was eventually resolved—but the systemic discrimination issues, which Gokool found to exceed federal and provincial human rights code thresholds — remained. Gokool requested a third-party mediation so that she, and the enterprise, could resolve the issues and move on in a positive way.

Soon after, the head of the Board’s human resources committee requested a meeting – Gokool thought to kick off the long-awaited mediation process. Instead, three board members showed up at her office and said, “You’re fired.” They slid an envelope across the table containing the paperwork, handed her a box for her things and coarsely ushered her out the door which made Gokool feel like she was a military grade threat. When she stopped to comfort a close colleague who, after hearing the news, was sobbing in her office, one of the board members attempted to block Gokool’s path.

“I really believed the organization was going to fulfill its commitment to mediating. I was surprised…it was abrupt…it was very shocking.”–Shaanaz Gokool

A few months later, a new CEO, a white woman, was hired as Gokool’s replacement.

To this day, the board denies any wrongdoing. So much for dignity. Hello trauma for all. 

A year later, Gokool has not been able to find employment in her field.  She believes it’s because she now has reputation as whistle blower, a troublemaker, an untouchable.

The nonprofit, the board clearly failed to treat their living employees with dignity. As for governing with care via a social justice lens or in accordance with their own stated “person-centered code of conduct,” The Dying with Dignity board, even if on safe legal grounds, gets a total fail.

Unfortunately, Gokool’s experience is far from unique. 

Set Up to Fail

There is a profound lesson here for founders. Most startups and their advisors ignore what is now one of the most important steps in the creation of a new enterprise — crafting meaningful and enforceable organizational bylaws.

But guess what? Times are a changing. Social justice is now a global concern. Forget shareholder activism. Today’s stakeholder activism demands your bylaws protect human rights and fight systemic racism — with increasingly loud voices. Failing to listen could sink the reputation of your enterprise along with access to funding, talent, government contracts and customers. And you could well be slapped with a human rights lawsuit.

Need more convincing?

Consider the impact on the Green Party of Canada when they recently hired an Executive Director who had a history of sexual harassment related allegations against him. During his several years on the leadership team of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) (#aidtoo), Prateek Awasthi also participated in IWB executive team efforts to discredit and orchestrate retaliation against whistle blowers. Former EWB employee Chelsey Rhodes broke her nondisclosure agreement in 2019 and created an online space for other victims to connect and come forward. About 90 people expressed support and 35 additional incidents were reported. Aakhil Lakhani, another former EWB employee who was sexually harassed and silenced, also broke their nondisclosure agreement in early 2019 to call out Awasthi’s conduct. Still the Green Party, while under the leadership of Elizabeth May, hired Awashi in May 2020. Several Green Party leaders and staffers protested his hire. Two staffers quit.  Party members threatened to leave.

The Green Party’s Federal Council’s (board) response to the outcry: maintain their position that he had learned from his past mistakes and, well, all that was in the past. 

Those harmed disagree, vehemently. His misconduct still impacted their lives. Many had not yet healed. Chelsey Rhodes, who filed her grievance seven years ago, organized a recent GoFundMe campaign to help Lakhani with their legal costs associated with breaking their silence, an example of feminist solidarity.

All this raises an important question. Who gets to decide when it’s ok to exonerate past behavior? The perp? Or the victims? And how much did anyone learn given the uproar from past victims and the Green Party’s stubborn defence of their hire?

The Green Party’s constitution and bylaws outlines a clear fiduciary duty to advance social justice, but its Federal Council  gets a fail on follow through and implementation. It’s not enough to market progressive intentions, the governing body has to act in alignment with those values and be clear about interpreting them — who will the board protect, the organization or the people the organization serves?

Another social justice organization, Equal Voice, faced similar fallout after firing three women of colour –initially hired to increase diversity then fired for speaking up about oppressive practices. The national nonprofit, which promotes women in politics, later struggled to keep funders, four directors resigned, and even supporters called into question the rationale of organization’s entire mission. Equal Voice bylaws make zero reference to social justice responsibilities although the goal of the nonprofit is to advance equality.

In August, LiisBeth called out the government funded nonprofit incubator Futurepreneur for its bungled response to a complaint of racism levelled against one of its volunteer mentors. Did their conduct follow rules in their bylaws when it comes to social justice issues? Hard to say. Unlike our other examples cited here, their bylaws are not available online via a Google search.   

Underlying all these cases is a problem of governance, namely, out of touch and/or ignored bylaws. And that leaves enterprises purporting to advance social justice doing the exact opposite – casting out whistle blowers as troublemakers instead of embracing them as solutionaries to advance their cause.

Why Entrepreneurs Need To Get Their Bylaws Together

I work with hundreds of entrepreneurs and founders. Few understand or appreciate the importance and role of bylaws.

Bylaws are essentially your house rules — backed by the rule of law. They are the heart of your organization. They tell investors, stakeholders, customers and employees how you really show up in the world. They lay out what you see as your duty of care and the quality of fiduciary conduct you expect from directors.

They are more powerful than any website mission or diversity and inclusion statement. And they work to align staff conduct policies (which are often more progressive) with director conduct expectations.

But too often, bylaws are bare bones, written in haste and deliberately kept short. Lawyers routinely advise founders to do so because bylaws are harder to change later due to the consensus building required. Deferring the development of contemplative bylaws saves a startup time and money. And many will argue that badass bylaws, ones that demand accountability beyond minimum legal requirements, will make it harder to entice directors to join your board.

But template bylaws and laisse-faire attitudes towards them reflect classic patriarchal standpoints.They protect directors, not enterprise stakeholders.They focus fiduciary duty on money, power and efficiency. In recent years, more progressive organizations have amended their bylaws to follow the ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) standards, which gives a nod to the environment (do no harm) and corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is primarily about giving back to a community, not doing what is just in your organization.

And it doesn’t go nearly far enough in throwing off the shackles of systemic oppression.

Why Bylaws Need a Feminist Frame

It’s time to move past governing like a patriarch to governing like a feminist. And this means reconsidering how power is distributed, centering the concept of care, and articulating a commitment to social justice.

Yes, this applies also to enterprises with a founder/director of one. Un-incorporated sole proprietors would also do well to consider these issues.

The first step? Acknowledge that we live in a white supremacist, patriarchal, colonial and neo-liberal capitalist society, hence, so are the bylaws such a society spawns. Accept that it’s no longer acceptable to perpetuate these and other oppressions fueling inequality. And move, embracing guidelines for better conduct.

The next step is to boldly commit to change and consider the following:

  1. Centre care and healing as a key fiduciary responsibility: Add an expectation of care and dignified treatment of all stakeholders, especially survivors of oppressive treatment as a result of your enterprise’s actions. Duties should also include working to help those unintentionally harmed by hosting a healing circle, funding trauma counselling and sponsoring meaningful anti-oppression training.
  2. Make clear your committment to advance social justice: Incorporate a commitment to meet or exceed  Employment Standards, pay equity and the Human Rights Act. Most bylaws say something general about following the laws of the jurisdiction.  But making compliance explicit sends a clear message.
  3. Offer the Right to Be Heard: Update language regarding the right to file grievances, request independent third-party mediation, and survivor support — especially when the grievance relates to a harassment or human rights issue. Consider appointing an independent ombudsperson.
  4. Clarify and restrict the use of nondisclosure agreements: Sometimes these are appropriate and serve all parties. But when it comes to rights violations, silencing someone from talking about trauma experienced under your watch is akin to cutting out their tongue. It also forestalls healing for all. There is no plainer way to say this: Stop this practice. Work to offer healing to all parties involved, even after a formal relationship is severed.
  5. Reconsider the distribution of power: Boards are beginning to ensure diverse representation, but should also consider diversity of roles. Too often boards operate like aloof Kings and Queens in the Game of Thrones. Sure, they source input from staff who have lived experience running the day to day, but afford them little formal power to see their concerns addressed or ideas adopted. Establish voting seats for key staff, beneficiaries and/or customers. Diversity of roles incorporating lived experience along with distributed power will strengthen your organization’s ability to make wise decisions on tricky issues.
  6. Make your bylaws accessible and transparent:  Post them on your company’s website. Make it clear what your company expects of its directors. Articulate them in clear accessible language. Invite stakeholders to review bylaws and comment before ratifying. By the same token, stakeholders — clients, partners, allies, beneficiaries and staffers — need to know board bylaws and play a part in holding directors accountable. Never seen them? Ask for them.
  7. Own your good, bad and ugly: If you as the founder or board makes a mistake, don’t hide. Come clean. Tell people.  Explain how you are working to fix it. And share what you learned. Futurepreneur gets points on this one.
  8. Adopt zero tolerance: Make it clear: Your enterprise will not accept any board candidate with a confirmed history of sexism, racism or human rights violations. Period. Do your homework. Many bylaws openly “cancel out” directors with bankruptcy declaration histories (an indicator of being a poor money manager). Enterprises who work with vulnerable populations require police checks. A socially progressive startup should not tolerate a record of misconduct on human rights issues.
  9. Extend duty of care to include next generations: Consider including the Indigenous “Seventh Generation Principle” in board decision making to acknowledge that what we do today impacts future generations. This principle is often thought of in context of our relationship to mother earth. But it also applies to the relationship between the sexes and entire peoples – Indigenous, BIPOC, and migrant communities — for the benefit of future generations. Include a “reach out” principle, making it a fiduciary duty to forge meaningful connections with those harmed by our collective past. Chamber of Commerce member?. Sign up and support the Women’s/Black/LGBTQIA Chamber of Commerce as well, and articulate board support for aligned activism (such as Black Lives Matter or TheLEAP).

Still need more convincing?

At the recent Social Values conference, Stephen Nairne, Chief Investment Officer of Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, an Indigenous-led and owned financial intermediary, told the audience this: “Your enterprise will be called to account. We have to learn how to heal it when breached and potentially even reorganize to maintain their core purpose under radically changed circumstances.”

Or put another way, if you are not taking stakeholder activism seriously, rethinking your bylaws, or taking care in crafting new ones, you are screwing your investors, stakeholders, and community. Not to mention the future.

Be the change?  Fuck that. Get out there and lead the change.


Contributor’s Bio: pk mutch (she/her) is a white, cis top end Gen X serial entrepreneur, feminist, street journalist, consultant and educator who lives in Toronto and enjoys getting from place to place by bike. pk mutch is also the founder and publisher of LiisBeth Media and Eve-Volution Inc. 


 

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