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Feminist Practices Transformative Ideas

When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Lemon Aid

Rachel Kelly, founder of Make Lemonade, 2019. Photo provided.

Like the many enterprises that relied on in-person interaction, Make Lemonade, a Toronto-based, women-centric co-working space for entrepreneurs was suddenly squeezed dry by the pandemic and closed its doors in August 2020. It was the third closure in three years of a well-loved physical co-working space focusing on women — the others were Shecosystem and Women on the Move. LiisBeth talked to Rachel Kelly, the 30-year-old founder and sole owner of Make Lemonade to learn about the journey and where they are now–given the pandemic. 

LiisBeth: Let’s rewind to get the full story. Why did you start Make Lemonade?

RK: It was 2015 and I had been freelancing for a couple years, bouncing from coffee shop to coffee shop and working from home — way before it was cool. One day while travelling on a streetcar to yet another café, I realized I couldn’t keep lying to myself. I was trying to convince myself that this way of working, like a nomad, alone, was great and that the indie freelancing life was sustainable for me. It occurred to me in that moment the key thing lacking in my work life was a day-to-day community of colleagues.

Around this time, I signed a salaried contract with a company I was freelancing for and let go of all my freelance gigs. And even bought a couch! But shortly thereafter, they called to say the contract was cancelled. They never told me why but I suspect it had to do with their budget.

I reminded myself, I am only 26 years old. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.

The old dream I had of starting a co-working space for independent freelancers like me resurfaced. And I have to thank my parents for inspiration. They were also entrepreneurs and taught me to dream big and worry about the details later. Which is exactly what I did.

I started by creating an Instagram account called Make Lemonade to gauge interest about the idea and guess what … it generated traction! In fact some people already thought the space existed and actually emailed me saying “you might like this space” not realizing I was the one posting about it. Ha! With this validation, I got to work. I put together a business plan. Landlords required me to submit the plan along with an offer to lease the space because we were a startup. I looked for places that offered bright, natural light and a canvas that made shared work possible. Finding a space with a good landlord was also important. The commercial rental market was hot at the time. I found a beautiful 3,000 square foot space at 326 Adelaide Street West in the heart of downtown Toronto and quickly signed a five-year lease.

LiisBeth:  Tell us about the Make Lemonade Community? Who showed up?

RK: At first, I thought the space would attract mostly 25 to 35-year-olds but we ended up with members from of all ages — all the way into their sixties. Members paid $500/month for a three-month plan with a fixed desk; $300/month for Monday to Friday access; $30/month for community membership. Make Lemonade offered a communal kitchen, phone booths, printing and mailboxes. About 80 per cent of the members — or our “lemons” as we affectionally referred to each other — were full-time self-employed creative types, writing or producing professionals and other artists. Other members included graduate students working on their thesis, a few salaried folks looking for an inspiring focus zone and people with full time jobs who needed space to work on their side-hustles.  

One of our members, Breeyn McCarney, is wedding dressmaker who designed non-traditional wedding gowns. She lived in Hamilton but most of her clients were in Toronto so she regularly booked our meeting rooms for client fittings. When her customers came for their final fitting, she would host a champagne celebration in our “virtual” patio room, an indoor room that was decked out to look like an outdoor patio.

Breeyn hosted beading workshops for aspiring artists — they worked with their hoops and beads and used Make Lemonade as a production space. At its peak, we had over 200 members.

Many of our members have seriously grown their enterprises since joining the Make Lemonade community. For example, when newcomer to Canada Katy Prince joined, she could only afford to come on Mondays (half price days) at first she didn’t have many friends or a network. Katy significantly expanded her network while at Make Lemonade. Today, Katy works for herself as a full-time coach and has a handful of staff members. Katy’s experience is testament to the benefits that co-working spaces have to offer and we are proud to have helped play a role in their success.      

LiisBeth:  Did you ever participate in startup program or receive any startup or government grants to help finance or start your business?

RK: No. Truth be told I never applied! I didn’t really know what was available.

Liisbeth: What happened when the pandemic hit?

RK: In early March 2020, we started to hear all about the coronavirus I remember going to sleep one Sunday night knowing the next day I would have to close our doors. At first, we thought it would only be for a short time, but it soon became clear the closure would last for a while. When we made our announcement (a year and a half after our temporary closure) in August 2020 that the doors were closing, we received close to 300 comments on just one Instagram post. I still haven’t read through them all because it’s emotionally overwhelming. What’s important to note — and also bittersweet — is that our busiest time were the months leading up to the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rachel Kelly’s announcement on the closing of Make Lemonade’s physical coworking space in Toronto. Screenshot via Instagram.
 

When the pandemic hit, we were not sure what to do but quitting was not an option. Our mantra was (and still is): when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. We had to try something new.

My staff member, Ashley Fulton, Director of Good Vibes, and I began brainstorming about how we could bring and keep the community together online. We started with free virtual co-working meet ups. Then added free daily support calls. Next, we added a short newsletter called “Your Daily Dose of Sunshine”. We later added online co-working sessions and work sprints and didn’t charge for any of it.

Once we were confident we had something worthwhile to offer, we invited people to start paying us for the services. And a good number of them did.

Over time, we added more features such as accountability calls and introduced The 4-Week Challenge that involved working on goals for four weeks in community. People loved it and paid to participate! We noticed multiple repeat participants for the program and eventually turned it into a new service called the Get Sh*t Done Club. 

As time went on, we learned that while the physical space with tables and internet access was great, our real strength was supporting entrepreneurs through all the highs and the lows of business ownership. Lemonade became more like lemon aid.

Today, the Get Sh*t Done Club is still running strong as a 12-month online business foundations community that supports entrepreneurs to hustle less, grow more and have more fun. We do virtual kick-off brunches, offer workshops on goal setting, host work sprints, brainstorms and facilitate small  groups within the program. We have an event called the Lemon Mixer—an open conversation where members ask for what they need and are able to give back by offering services or expertise. Members also get full access to our Business 101 online course. And of course, we have fun! We celebrate successes with an honour roll and give shoutouts and cheers when progress happens for someone.

LiisBeth: As a player in the women’s entrepreneurship ecosystem space, what would you like to see change or happen in the coming years to further strengthen the women’s enterprise space?

RK: It almost seems ridiculous with the kind of company that I created that I didn’t get a “Hey, welcome to the women’s entrepreneurship support world.” Or a “Did you know, these are the resources that are available?”

We build community for others, but where is OUR community support?

LiisBeth: What’s Next for Make Lemonade? You?

RK: Looking to the future, we have some new ideas percolating, including meeting up with our “lemons” in real life again.

Things have been tough, but the pandemic was the catalyst for creating something bigger than the physical space. It led us to creating an online community and a new way of providing members with the support they need. The pandemic was also a wake up call. Which means it’s time to start making lemonade again … whatever that looks like. Funny how things are kind of coming full circle.

Also, when I think about what’s next, I’m reminded of how my parents started out and where they are now. They founded an automotive manufacturing company. But like so many businesses, that’s not how the enterprise started. Believe it or not, their original business was selling fruitcakes. So whenever I worry about not knowing what the future holds, I remind myself, I’m still in my fruitcake, or perhaps lemon cake, phase. I’m experimenting with different ingredients, making up recipes to see what works best.

LiisBeth:  Thank you for sharing your incredible and inspiring story

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Selling Up, Moving Up

While numerous organizations for women entrepreneurs exist in Toronto, Women on the Move is the only one that incorporates co-working space, business training, venture capitalist funding and a community network.

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Categories
Activism & Action

A Recipe for Justice

Paul Taylor, Executive Director of FoodShare at WE.Gordon Neighbourhood House Director Paul Taylor in one of their gardens, Salad maker ?? speaking with passersby, Exterior shot of the the building.
Paul Taylor, Executive Director of FoodShare at WE.Gordon Neighbourhood House. Photo by Dan Toulgoet

Last month, I set out to find examples of advanced feminist enterprises that were doing truly radical work, showing us what a socially just, post-capitalist enterprise and economy might look like.

FoodShare, a large and innovative Toronto-based food justice charity, emerged as a provocative example.

FoodShare was founded in the 1980s in response to an alarming increase in hunger and food insecurity due to the recession, with Indigenous and Black households experiencing the highest rates of food insecurity. It was meant to be a temporary organization dealing with a short-term issue, but as the number of food bank dependent and food insecure people in Toronto grew, so did FoodShare. Today, it is the largest food security charity in North America, entering another rapid growth period due to the pandemic.

FoodShare has more than a dozen income-generating and grant-supported programs including community garden facilitation, kitchen incubator, school lunch programs and a good food box delivered to subscriber doors. The organization employs 120 people of whom 54.8 per cent are women, 1.6 per cent transgender and 2.3 per cent gender nonconforming.  While most Canadian organizations are just beginning to embrace the government supported  50-30 challenge (which calls for corporations to increase representation of women to 50 per cent and BIPOC representation to 30 per cent on boards), FoodShare’s board of directors is already 62 per cent female and 85 per cent BIPOC.

Debbie Fields founded and led FoodShare for more than 25 years. Paul Taylor, took over as Executive Director (ED) in 2017.

Here’s what he has to say about FoodShare’s latest progressive initiatives. 

LiisBeth: Do you identify as a feminist?

Paul: Of course! I was raised by a bad-ass Black woman and come from a long line of bad-ass community minded, Black women. I was taught to listen and learn from women, and in particular Black women in leadership. I saw, through my mother’s eyes and experiences, how the patriarchy drives the kind of capitalism and neo-liberalism that’s wreaking havoc across the country. The pandemic has further exposed how much we still undervalue women in society. I think it’s horrific that we are just now starting implement a national childcare policy. If this was something that men depended on, we would have had a national childcare program decades ago.

LiisBeth: What do you think is the most radical change you have initiated since you joined the organization in 2017?

Paul: I would have to say our focus on implementing a standard-of-living wages, equal wages and wage-range compression policy.

Over the last few years, we have increased the lowest paid colleague salaries by 25 per cent. And we are not stopping there: we’ve got another increase that we’re working on that will be pretty significant and really important.

We’ve also tied the compensation for the lowest wage worker to the highest wage worker. For example, the Foodshare Executive director can make no more than three times what our lowest paid worker makes. From now on, we’re all going to be moving forward together — if we’re moving at all.

Given that CEOs and Executive Directors in the nonprofit sector often make many — sometimes 100 times — what the lowest paid employee makes, I think that is pretty radical.

We are also really committed to really thinking about how we challenge low wages for any kind of work, not just within our organization, but within the entire sector and within the food system. One of the directors on our board is a food delivery carrier.  He has been helping us think about the range of opportunities that exist to support low wage workers in the food system.

LiisBeth: Was the increase and wage compression policy a tough sell internally?

Paul: No, it wasn’t because it’s all about how we do board recruitment and who is on our board.

Traditionally boards look for directors who have certain professional designations like finance, legal, HR, or look for those with a C-suite title as a proxy for credibility, capability and intelligence. When we recruit on these terms, all we are doing is recreating the barriers that exist in society, for example, access to education.

So instead we flipped the norm on its head. Instead, we say, we’re going to prioritize recruiting board members that get the philosophical underpinnings of the organization, who have a commitment to equity, food justice, have lived experience with these issues to wisely design and implement new approaches, and who are willing to roll up their sleeves and dedicate resources to challenging those inequities.

If directors lack experience or education in certain areas, say in interpreting financial statements, board governance or investments, then we say, how can we provide support? We invest dollars in building our board’s capacity instead of expecting folks to have gone through all of the hoops that society presents to qualify, hoops that we all can’t reach.

LiisBeth: When you changed your ideas about who qualifies as a board director, did that change the make up of your board?

Paul: Completely. Today, our board is headed by an Indigenous activist, Crystal Sinclair. Our board is now predominantly made up of BIWOC folks. It’s unlike any board for an organization our size that I’ve ever seen. It’s composition really affects the key decisions that we make and how we show up in these decisions. For example, when we’re having a conversation about things like defunding the police, we’re not talking as (white) allies, we’re saying stop killing our communities because we are part of those communities. It changes how we show up on these issues, where we locate ourselves in these issues, and how we advocate.

LiisBeth: What do you think prevents other organizations from doing what you’ve done?

Paul: A willingness to reframe what it means to do the work that we do and how we do it. I think if we don’t acknowledge that patriarchy, colonialism, white supremacy, anti-Black racism are actually deeply rooted organizing principles and profoundly embedded in the way we work, well, then we will never come up with the strategies, the policies and the ideas for dismantling those systems within our own enterprises.

People need to be thinking outside of the box.

They need to be committing organizational resources to tackling these things. Tackling these things is not a black post or a black square on Instagram. Working to liberate your organization from these harm perpetuating systems requires resources, time, and a leadership team willing to be vulnerable.

LiisBeth: What advice would you give to small enterprises who are looking to dismantle patriarchy, colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism in their own operating practices?

Paul: If you want to prioritize that work, which I encourage everybody to do, and if you don’t have that capacity within, then reach out and secure a consultant that is focused in that area and has the lived experience to draw upon. And compensate them accordingly.

The second thing I would say (and this may be brutal for folks to hear) is that businesses that leverage inequality to exist are not sustainable. People have only been able to make them sustainable on the backs of low-wage workers, on the backs of precarious work arrangements. That’s the hard truth. The conversation we need to have.

I think we have to say no to building enterprises on the backs of under-paid, under-cared-for workers. If we’re not paying living wages, we are unsustainable.

Food Insecurity By Household Identity in Canada

The prevalence of household food insecurity differs markedly by Indigenous status and racial/cultural group. The highest rates of food insecurity are found among households where the respondent identified as Indigenous or Black.1 (Data Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), 2017-18). Higher rates of food insecurity in non-married households in Canada are largely attributable to women's socio-economic disadvantage

LiisBeth: Is FoodShare a postcapitalist business enterprise?

Paul: Good question. You know, we recognize, capitalism is why charities exist. It’s a system that ensures that society’s resources are disproportionately distributed, and we need to be calling attention to the way that capitalism and neo-liberalism have created the conditions that cause some people in this country to constantly worry about where their next meal is going to come from while others are dreaming up new schemes to avoid paying taxes.

The existence of billionaires to us is as much a policy failure as the fact that close to a five and a half million people are food insecure in Canada.

So, unless we’re talking about how we collectively dismantle capitalism, and acknowledge and compensate for the harm that it’s caused to communities, we are just feeding a system that’s been designed to keep us so busy we don’t have time to examine the root cause of so much of the inequities that we are now all forced to navigate.

I think all nonprofit and for-profit leaders need to be holding our government to account to make sure that equity is centred in legislation and public policy

FoodShare Staff and Volunteers Group Photo
FoodShare Staff and Volunteers Group -Photo by Sandro Pehar

LiisBeth: Who is informing, inspiring your work right now?

Paul: I am inspired by folks connected to the ongoing Idle No More movement, folks at 1492 Land Back Lane, Climate Justice Toronto. For me, these are the groups that recognize that the voices of Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island and even across the world need to be heard. I would say I am inspired by the movement around abolition that has been led again primarily by Black women is one that dares us to dream of a world that isn’t preoccupied with punishment.  Other movements that I’ve gravitated towards for inspiration, for hope, are those that are centered on justice. They’re intersectional, and they prioritize those who have had the most stolen from them as a result of settler, colonialism, capitalism, and the proliferation of neo-liberalism.

LiisBeth: Thank you so much Paul, for this interview and more importantly, for your incredible work as a badass feminist enterprise leader.

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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

Photo of six women holding a Women Entrepreneurs sign to illustrate the article
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: women entrepreneurs.

Women’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 women 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 women 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 women, often white. It ignores the unique voice of ordinary women 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 “women entrepreneurs” in with “business.” Doing so will lead to short-sighted policy and missed opportunities.

Meet Women Entrepreneurs

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

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

Despite media glamorization of entrepreneurship, most women 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 women 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 women 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 women entrepreneurs.

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

Why Does Representation Matter?

Without the input of women 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 women entrepreneurs disproportionately to men. In 2020, personal insolvencies in Canada increased by 8.9 per cent.  

Most women 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 women 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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