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FitIn’s Marathon to Investor Funding

An image of a white woman at a gym wearing a tshirt that reads "fit in".
Catherine Chan, founder, FitIn.io. Photo credit: Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real

The hashtags on FitIn founder Catherine Chan’s LinkedIn profile tell the story of the long hard road to investor funding: #breakthebias, #fundingforwomen, #economic inclusion. Her first foray into the school of hard knocks was at an investor boot camp. The male instructor insisted the stepping stone to investor money was raising money through family and friends first. “If your friends and your family aren’t willing to invest in you, investors consider it a red flag,” she said. Unfortunately, Chan didn’t know people with deep pockets like the male MBAs who tapped their old classmates and colleagues for cash. Although she was “fish-wife swearing” to herself about the injustice of it all, she found the experience invaluable. “I knew that my own money was going to have to last me a lot longer than everybody’s else’s.”

Despite the long hours devoted to FitIn and two external leadership-level roles, the 48-year-old founder and single parent looked surprisingly relaxed for a Friday afternoon. Appearing on Zoom in a leopard print top with chunky reading glasses resting casually on top of her head, her calmness spoke to the value proposition of her business. Chan had long suffered from depression and fitness changed her life. As she approached forty, she decided to train for a marathon. “By the end of it all, I was a whole new person,” she said. “The only thing that has ever given me peace is a workout. I wanted that for everybody else in the world.”

How Does FitIn Fit In?

FitIn is a shared economy platform connecting fitness and wellness providers with fitness and wellness enthusiasts who visit FitIn’s ‘marketplace’ where classes and events are aggregated. This one-stop shopping makes fitness and wellness more accessible, i.e., no more scouring the internet! Fit-preneurs (Chan’s name for her providers, typically independent personal trainers, wellness practitioners and smaller fitness studios) use FitIn to market their services and process customer payment at an affordable rate.

Screen shot of the Fitin.io website

Running the Investor Funding Marathon

Chan is reluctant to share negative experiences about what it’s like trying to raise funds as a female in a tech-enabled business without a male technical co-founder. She shared one story as an example. During her pitch to a group of angel investors, an older man told her: “There’s a David somewhere in that marble” and that she was “onto something.” But then asked the sort of question less often posed to male founders: “Aren’t you concerned that someone with more money is going to build the exact same thing as you but a lot faster and better?” She bit her tongue but wanted to say: “You know, you have the power to make that not happen.”

While Chan has not yet acquired venture capital or institutional funding, she did secure two angel investors at an Open People Network pitch event. And, a few friends and family are now investors too. Unfortunately, grants for her type of business are scarce. Chan said funders often think of fitness as just a fun thing people do on weekends. “They don’t get the impact it can have socially, and economically when you have a healthy population,” she said.

It should be just a matter of time before Chan raises the money needed to accelerate the growth of FitIn. After all, she has a unique offering. FitIn combines the best features of business unicorns Mindbody and ClassPass.com into one product. What’s more, FitIn is a social enterprise that supports—rather than exploits—gig economy workers. Chan plans to launch an affiliate shareholder program, which she said is “A virtuous cycle economy within the platform itself.”

Mentorship at the Heart of Success

Chan amassed skills for successful entrepreneurship even before realizing this was her dream. She obtained a graduate degree in classics in 1998 which has proved to be invaluable. Her degree integrated diverse disciplines from philosophy to politics to analyze the chain of events in a bygone era. “It’s that big picture mentality,” she said. This education also honed her presentation skills – key for pitching investors.

After graduation, Chan did reception and admin work before her upward trajectory began in sales and training at well-known corporations. Eventually, she grew weary of office politics and under-representation of woman at the top. After being let go from her last corporate role, she decided to pursue a business idea percolating for some time. She began searching ‘start-ups’ on Facebook.  Networking events at places like Startup TO and Startup Canada began to fill her feed. “I let the algorithm feed me all the information I needed,” she said. She immersed herself in the startup landscape like at that investor boot camp. FitIn was born.

Two years ago, Chan participated in Fifth Wave’s Connect Accelerator Program. Her mentor Val Fox was “absolutely amazing.” One piece of advice Fox offered was for Chan to seek freelance work rather than devote all her time and energy to FitIn. This has allowed Chan to keep a roof over her and her child’s head without the stress of cash flow, and grow FitIn on her own terms rather than accept funding with conditions that might be in opposition to her own feminist values.

Chan is paying the mentorship she received forward. “I don’t think I can ever pay back in my lifetime of helping people, but boy I’ll try,” she said. She was recently appointed as Entrepreneur in Residence at Fifth Wave, and also mentors women at Elizabeth Fry Society Toronto. Mentoring others has helped her grow as an entrepreneur. She recalled a saying about how people barely remember things told to them but remember things forever when they teach it to others.

The Funding Marathon Continues

FitIn is still in its early days. While most of her Fit-preneurs are in the GTA (where Chan lives) she has big plans.  “I would really love to create a virtual fitness tourism type of economy,” she said. This would involve getting fitness and wellness providers in rural communities onto her platform, giving them access to a wider audience.

“So, give me a million dollars and there is no way I am not expanding across Canada in a heartbeat, making sure we are supporting communities and accomplishing our mission of helping Canadians get healthier physically and mentally.”

If you would like to invest in FitIn, Catherine Chan can be contacted at catherine@canwcc.ca


Publishers Note: The FitIn is a part of the Fifth Wave, a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth ally and content sponsor at the Lighthouse level. Applications for Cohort 5 will open this summer.

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Featured Our Voices

The Apprenticeship of a Priestess

A photo of annie matan, a white woman in mauve glasses, wearing red lipstick and wearing short reddish hair.
Kohenet Annie Matan, Jewish Priestess and founder of Matanot Lev (Hebrew for "Gifts of the Heart"). Photo by Trevor Sherwin.

Kohenet Annie Matan appeared on Zoom wearing a red onesie. It was a different look than in a photo on her website. In that photograph, the 42-year-old redhead wore a red hooded robe for the gay interfaith marriage she officiated last Hallowe’en.

But today Matan is sick, so it is a pajama day. Despite being unwell, she insisted on proceeding with the interview for this story. “It’s the Winter Solstice,” she said. “And that feels auspicious.” The Kohenet (Jewish Priestess) had drunk immune boosters, pulled tarot cards and readied her crystals. She was now ready to talk.

Finding the Right Jewish Fit

Matan grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Toronto and felt a strong connection to Judaism early on. “I devoured religious school,” she said. She admired the female rabbis at her synagogue. “They enabled me to see myself as clergy.”

Matan set out to become a rabbi by pursuing Jewish Studies at university and rabbinical school. However, a sense of alienation took root. As a woman she was excluded from participating fully in her religion. She was not permitted, for instance, to sing at her grandmother’s Orthodox funeral service because it was considered inappropriate to hear a woman’s voice in that setting. She found even Reform Jewish services to be patriarchal in their liturgy. Matan once asked a rabbi: “Why are we talking about God as Lord and King and Master?” His answer surprised her: “It’s not written for you,” he said. “You’re a woman.”

Then, Matan found out about the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. “It was like a thunderclap.” She was in the first cohort of ordained Kohenet in 2500 years. Evidence suggests that priestesses existed before the creation of the Hebrew Bible but references to women’s spiritual leadership were mostly eliminated from the text. Matan embraced the reclamation of this “Feminist earth-based embodied experiential Judaism.”  She said: “That community really helped raise me up as a leader”.

Having once aspired to be a woman rabbi like the ‘fiery powerhouses’ she admired who made change from within conventional institutions, Matan realized: “I’m a build it from the outside-in person”.

The Entrepreneur Priestess

 It wasn’t a straight shot to becoming a Priestess entrepreneur. Matan held a variety of jobs from administrative support to customer service in both corporate and Jewish cultural settings. It was while working as a facilitator at the JCC in downtown Toronto, that people encouraged her to start her own high holiday and Shabbat services.

After running these experiences for several years out of her own pocket, in 2018 she launched Matanot Lev (Hebrew for ‘Gifts of the Heart’) and began to charge her clients. Matanot Lev focuses on Jewish and inter-faith religious practices like high holidays, Shabbat, funerals, and weddings through a Jewish lens. Matan prioritizes meaning over rote practice. A common reaction: “I didn’t know Judaism could be like this. I felt so comfortable to be myself here.”

The sole proprietor knows the importance of being comfortable in one’s skin. It has taken years to embrace her whole self: Mama, Queer, psychic superpower, mentor, sacred space and ritual facilitator, and artist. “I’m also poly, which I’ve just started singing out loud more recently,” she said. She loves queer culture because it allows people to be their “Crazy, weird, unique snowflake self.”

The pandemic wasn’t a difficult pivot for Matan’s business. She had already been using Zoom (“A magical portal that defies time and space”) for one-on-one spiritual guidance, mentorship and readings. Many of her clients are busy moms or entrepreneurs who prefer meeting virtually. Matan has noticed increased demand for virtual mentorship during the pandemic as more people awaken to their intuitive gifts and seek support to integrate these gifts into their daily lives. “Because I work with energy, I’m pretty good at invoking the feeling of being in the same room,” Matan said.

Matan’s monthly New Moon Red Tent Circle (An ancient ritual where women gather on the new moon to celebrate the sacredness of women’s space) moved on-line. Matan had been doing these circles for well over a decade under real tents and in person. Now, women close their eyes and imagine being under the tent together, sitting in a circle. “We envision the altar before we bring our offerings,” said Matan.

A new weekly group was launched last year. Living from the Heart is a space where women become courageous and authentic. For example, when a woman says something like, “Ugh, I’m so bad, I did XYZ,” Matan explores where the need to be perfect originated. This group considers how beliefs are shaped by patriarchy, colonialism, and white supremacy. She lights up when a woman shares how they handled a challenging situation by applying what they learned in her group

Matan is still thinking through what her business will look like post-pandemic. While there will be a return to in-person gatherings, she wonders whether a hybrid-model would continue to attract people outside of Toronto as they have for Living from the Heart and the New Moon Red Tent Circles. One thing that won’t change is how people feel transformed by the group experience. They often arrive saying things like “I’m exhausted, I’m feeling anxious, I’m feeling frazzled.” And by the end? Matan said she hears: “I feel clear, I feel calm. I feel confident.”

Women Lifting other Women

Matan has a favourite GIF. In it there is a line of women. The woman at the front turns to lift up the one behind her; that woman then turns to lift the next one in line; and on and on. Matan has been lifted by her spiritual community: the strong women rabbis, her Kohenet teachers and cohort, and Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan who founded a thriving Jewish renewal community in Israel and believed Matan could start her own in Toronto.

Matan’s business mentors have lifted her as high as her spiritual ones. At Shecosystem (a feminist co-working community) Matan became a member of ‘The coven’ (the leadership team) and learned important lessons from its founder, Emily Rose Antflick, like how finding ‘balance’ is less important than ‘integrating’ all aspects of one’s life. “That’s when the full breadth of our vulnerability and our power are fully celebrated in any environment, we’re in,” said Matan. “That’s when we are thriving. And that’s how we transform the world.”R

Small group of people holding candles standing around two men who are cerimoniously being blessed by Annie Matan
Matan blessing grooms Roman and Brandon with herbs. Photo by Studio Kuefner Photography

In 2017, Matan began working with Judith Manriquez, a business and spiritual mentor who convinced Matan to offer one-on-one spiritual guidance. Matan initially balked, questioning whether she was qualified.  Then, she realized how she had always been the go-to person for important decisions. Furthermore, she had been reading cards for over twenty years. “I’ve been using these tools this whole time,” Matan said. “The only difference is now I’m asking to be paid for it.”

Matan is doing her part to lift others behind her up. She is active in the community like speaking to LGBTQ students. “These kids need to see what Jewish clergy can look like, that we can be queer, and we can be feminist, and we can be earth based, Matan said. “And we can be welcoming to the core of our souls, unapologetically.”

She also co-hosts “Tending Lilith’s Fire” on Youtube with Kohenet D’Vorah Grenn, which they started in 2020. They discuss women and spirituality. Recent episodes explored the relationship between patriarchy and trauma, and how women might allow themselves to dream of playful possibilities in their lives.

Lilith is a guiding force for Matan. In Jewish mythology, Lilith was Adam’s first wife. Matan said Lilith asked Adam: “How dare you hover over my light. How dare you try to dominate me?” Matan explained how Lilith sprouted wings and flew away, rather than continue to suffer inside the beautiful Garden of Eden. Lilith wanted to create the world in ways that hadn’t been imagined yet. “And, that’s where I want to go,” she said.

A white woman wearing mauve glasses and bright red dress with patter smiling with hands folded in front of her on the table
Kohenet Annie Matan reading cards at the Darling Mansion. Photo by Studio Kuefner Photography.

 

The Meaning of Success

Business is growing mostly by word-of-mouth but people also find her via her Instagram account and substack and advertisements in places like Wedding Wire. She launched a show in 2019 at the Free Times Café called ‘Raising up the Courageous Voice’ as Floxy Blu, her singer-songwriter, raw poet persona. She invited other singers, storytellers and poets to share the stage. The show moved on-line during the pandemic but the plan is to return to live performances this year. Tickets will be on a sliding scale, like Matan’s other offerings.

It’s still early days for Matan’s business but her vision is to facilitate sacred experiences with larger gatherings. “I want big rooms where people are in circles, where they’re seeing each other, connecting with each other,” she said. “Where people are building relationships as humans in the experience.”

While Matanot Lev (the Jewish and inter-faith services) lend themselves to large group settings, Matan believes it would work for spiritual guidance too. For instance, when she read cards at a women’s business conference, many women asked the same thing: “Should I do the practical thing or the thing I really want to do?” Matan thought this question could have been effectively explored in a group setting. What does Matan think about this question?  “Put your energy into what lights you up, and the rest will follow.”

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Allied Arts & Media Feminist Practices

State of the Art: Making Room and Income for Women in Art

A photo of a black woman artist, Winsom Winsom, in a white short, learning forwrard, painting
Winsom Winsom is a multi-media installation artist whose instinctive works explore themes of freedom, survivance, resilience, renewal, and African spirituality within the context of the Black Atlantic experience.

Women artists have been denied equal access to opportunities in the art market for too long. But there is a new wave of feminist art-preneurs, who are making sure women are smack dab in the middle of the canvas of possibilities. Here are four examples of women in the art market who are adapting to an ever-evolving business environment. Meet: The Techie, The Curator, The Art-preneur and The Collective.


The Techie
“Nobody does what I do,” says Candice Houtekier, 29, from her home in Toronto. She runs Art Collision, the only marketing agency in Canada focused on the fine art market using emerging technologies. After working at various commercial art galleries in Montreal and Toronto while a graduate student in Art History and Video Games at the University of Montreal, Houtekier quickly realized she didn’t excel at sales but had a gift for improving galleries’ presence in the market place through web design and social media. She remembers thinking: “Whoa, maybe I am more tech savvy than average.”

Image of woman looking through black VR glasses
Candice Houtekier, founder of Art Collision. Photo Provided.

Houtekier turned that realization into a business. She launched Art Collision in 2019 to help art dealers, artists and art consultants build more and better connections. “My marketing agency has a real focus on new technologies like virtual reality (VR) experiences but also blockchain solutions,” the feminist entrepreneur said.

From Houtekier’s experience, established gallery owners are stuck in the status quo. They work their strong contact lists, meet collectors face-to-face and make a sale. “These people are really resistant to learn about the importance of having more females in their business, representing an equal number of male and female artists, representing artists of colour,” she said. “And they are very against new technology.”

Houtekier is helping to change the way the art world operates. She works with a new breed of gallerists who are ready to shake things up. “If they represent emerging artists, they’re going to try to have 50 percent women and 50 percent of men; they are going to try to represent more artists of colour,” she said.

Houtekier says Millennials and GenX consume differently than older collectors. “They act fast, they like to see prices, they like to have concurrent info about the artwork,” she said. “When you start to embrace new tools, new technology and you make the inventory more accessible, you start to see interest from this new generation.” To that end, beyond the obvious tools like well-designed websites and social media platforms, Houtekier creates virtual reality hubs where artists and art dealers can curate exhibitions and host live events. She is a co-director in Art Gate that offers these VR solutions.

Houtekier also helps clients navigate the new world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a unique piece of digital art that lives on a blockchain. If you Google ‘NFT and art’ you’ll find the story that made headlines around the world in 2020. Beeple’s compilation of digital images—Everydays: The first 5000 Days—minted as an NFT, fetched over $69 million US at auction-house Christie’s in March, 2021. While some women have had decent paydays for the sale of their NFTs, like Itzal Yard for Dreaming at Dusk (sold for 500 Ethereum, about $1.7 million US), women risk being left behind in this new art space. But Houtekier is helping her clients understand blockchain technology and how to accept crypto payment. While she can’t predict how NFTs will play out fully, Houtekier is convinced “It’s a flourishing business for the future of the art market.”

The Curator

 

The new breed of gallerists includes Toronto’s Miriam Arbus, founder of Sky Fine Foods (SFF) and Ottawa’s Carrie Colton, founder of Studio Sixty-Six. The two curators are making sure women and people of colour are not left behind—but placed smack dab in the middle of the canvas of the art market.

Arbus, 34, launched her virtual gallery at the start of the pandemic. The name ‘Sky Fine Foods’ was the name of a defunct corner store near her home that she thought would make a cool gallery one day. But SFF is 100 percent online where collectors view the art in virtual interactive environments. As reported in The Art Market 2021 there was a stratospheric rise in online art sales in the past year. The majority of buyers lived more than 1000 kilometres away from where they purchased a piece of art and had never stepped foot inside the gallery or met the dealer.

Mirium Arbus. Founder of Sky Fine Foods. Photo Provided.

“Having this really flexible digital virtual presence where I’m not restricted at all because of physicality, I feel I can be really open to artists from all over,” she said. Arbus has attracted digital artists from around the world. Twelve of her fifteen artists are women. “In the digital art sphere that I hang out in, most people are vehemently fighting for equal access and raising up voices that have been put down, I think there’s really a strong generation of artists who want to make space and want to lift each other up.”

Arbus says her values of social justice and feminism are inextricably connected. For instance, twenty per cent of all SFF’s sales support Black Women in Motion and Black Artists’ Network in Dialogue (BAND) Gallery & Cultural Centre. Her values are also reflected in the focus of her artists’ work. Amanda Amour Lynx for instance, is a queer, Two Spirit, mixed Mi’kmaw interdisciplinary artist who combines traditional approaches with new media and digital art to explore important issues such as the environment, land and relationality and gender identity. It is also important for Arbus that her artists are supported and fairly compensated. Unlike traditional galleries where there is typically a 50/50 split, Arbus has more flexible arrangements on a project-by-project basis.

While Studio Sixty-Six’s Carrie Colton, 59, has a more traditional brick-and-mortar set-up, she also represents the new ethos of gallerists. When she opened her gallery in 2013 she seized the opportunity to do things differently. “I wanted cultural diversity right from the beginning,” she said. Colton represents twenty-one artists, half are women and several are people of colour. “I’m not a gallery that is trying to represent as many artists as possible so I can cover as wide a market and make as much money as possible,” she said. “I’m really trying to work with a small number of artists so I can really help those artists with their careers.” And Colton has seen a shift in collectors looking for help to diversify their collections. “The conversations are starting to happen and it’s really wonderful,” she said.


Carrie Colton, founder of Studio Sixty-Six

As an entrepreneur, Colton looks for different income streams but chooses carefully. She only expands in ways that help her artists. During the pandemic she researched NFTs, something she hadn’t given serious thought to until recently. “Playing in that matrix is very interesting to me because it’s a way I can help fund the artist and the gallery,” she said. She is in conversation with her artists about NFTs and plans to include them in next year’s catalogue.


The Art-preneur

Most collectors, according to the Art Market Mid-Year Review 2021, prefer buying art through dealers and gallerists because they value the trustworthiness and reliability of these professionals and have a greater confidence in the quality of the art. For artists there are benefits like those provided by Sky Fine Foods and Studio Sixty-Six: exhibiting their work, promoting their work through their own marketing channels, liaising with collectors and mentorship, to name a few.

But access to these benefits is harder for women. Despite holding about 70 percent of bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts degrees in the United States (as reported in National Museum of Women in the Arts), women are under-represented in commercial galleries (a 2020 survey of eighteen top Toronto galleries found fewer than 40 per cent artists were women; artists of colour fared even worse). And while there is a positive trend of greater representation of women in the primary market, the share of women declines by the level of artist establishment, according to The Art Market 2020. Women’s work sells for less too, the median price in North America is $1700 lower than men based on 2019 internal data from Artsy 

Quinn Rockcliff, artist. Photo Provided.

For Quinn Rockcliff whose minimalist nude sketches began as a way to reclaim her body after experiencing sexual abuse from her partner, it was about taking control of her destiny. Speaking from her new studio in Toronto, she said: “In the way galleries might overlook us, we can kind of bridge that gap ourselves online,” said Rockliff, 26. “I’m sure twenty years ago, I couldn’t just be selling my work.”

In addition to selling her commissioned nudes, Rockliff has a thriving e-commerce business selling totes, t-shirts and other wearable art on her website. 2020 was her busiest year. “There was a very clear push for individuals to support local in response to the pandemic,” she said. Many women artists turn to e-commerce as a source of additional income even if they are associated with galleries. Remember Amanda Amour Lynx from Sky Fine Foods? She too sells one-of-a-kind items like Tepknuset Language Sticker Packs.

While Rockliff is doing well on her own and appreciates not having to hand over a 50 percent commission to a gallery, she is still interested in pursuing representation. “There is a lot to be said for having someone else doing all the labour of getting your work out there and presenting it in a good way,” she said.

Since graduating with an MFA from OCAD in 2019, Rockliff has learned a lot about entrepreneurship, mostly self-taught. “The interesting thing about being an artist is there are so many routes you can take and I feel that makes it trickier to teach in school,” she said. Another part of Rockliff’s value proposition is collaborating with corporate brands, something many successful artists are doing now.

One has to be savvy though. She observes many offers are not thoughtful ones since some companies only engage artists to make their brand look more grassroots. “They’re not in the community helping artists,” she said, “but using them to seem better.” Quinn’s collaborations have gone well, like the validating and positive experience she had with H&M. “It made people take me more seriously and allowed me to go on and do greater projects.” One of her guiding principles is only engaging with a brand if it is a true collaboration and she retains her name on the image. Still, it can be complicated to accomplish this, and contract properly. “I feel I need a lawyer half the time to talk to these people,” she said.


The Collective

It takes a lot of hard work and a strong entrepreneurial spirit like Rockliff’s to make it in the art world.  While there are big paydays for some artists (remember Beeple?) the majority make a pittance. The 2016 median earning in Canada was $20,000 (CAD) according to 2016 statistics published by Hill Strategies. For women, the starving artist cliché is especially true.

If the art world isn’t tough enough on women, women can be tough on themselves. Even someone as accomplished as Winsom Winsom—a 75-year-old Canadian-African-Maroon-Arawak-Romani-Scottish artist—who was the first Black artist with a solo exhibit at YYZ Gallery in Toronto; member of the first group of Black Canadian artists to show at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO); the first Black person to receive an honorary doctorate from the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD)—has a hard time assigning a monetary value to her work. But as her friend and two-time Juno award winning, spoken-word dub poet and Lillian Allen reminded her: “That’s old African ways. Now you have to talk yourself up.”

A photo graph of black woman artist Winsom Winsom working with textiles at a table.
WINSOM-WINSOM. Photo by Marlene-Sulker-Z

The bright spot in this bleak canvas is how women are holding each other up. They are helping each other gain confidence, sustain their practice and secure opportunities. Community is often the backbone of women’s success in any endeavour.

For many artists having access to free platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Tik Tok is a way to develop and engage a community. For Rockliff, it was the outpouring of support of her online community that encouraged her pursue art as a vocation, not just a hobby. “My origin story is I started posting my art online to get my feelings out,” she said. She sparked lots of dialogue with others about art, consent, being a survivor.

Communities of women are working to ensure women get their fair cut of the NFT pie. The world of NFTs is dizzying. And intimidating. But running towards the possibilities of NFTs rather than running away can have a serious upside. Women of Crypto Art offers courses like ‘Setting up a Mobile Tezos Wallet’—perhaps in response to the fact that only 15 percent of cryptocurrency users are women, which obviously poses a barrier to enter the NFT world—and ‘Minting your Artwork on Hicetnunc’. All-women NFT shows like Grafitti Queens organized by Crypto Luna and one on International Women’s Day are gaining attention. Michele Pred, one of the International Women’s Day exhibit organizers, told artnet: “We want to see more diversity in the work being shared in digital marketplaces, and we want to see BIPOC women especially benefitting from this boom.”

Toronto artist Jenn Long, 47, a former assistant professor & associate chair of cross-disciplinary art practice at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) co-founded the Feminist Photography Network (FPN) to promote and sustain women’s art. Long said it is as much of an accomplishment for a woman artist to still be doing art mid-career as it is to be making money from it. “Probably more of an accomplishment,” Long said.

Photo of artist Jennifer Long sitting on a chair looking at her hands.
Jennifer Long founder of the Feminist Photography Network (FPN). Photo by Tobi Asmoucha

Long has consciously developed a diverse community of photographers, which is obvious from FPNs beautifully curated Instagram account. “I developed my eye and sensibilities within a conventional system,” Long said. “I went to university and was taught mainly by white men.” The network provides a safe place where artists can bounce ideas around without judgement.  Their online residency which attracts photographers from Canada and abroad further builds community through mentorship and peer support. “For women it is about knowledge sharing and supporting each other,” Long said. “If one person moves forward, everyone moves forward.”

The other benefit of any network, as men have benefitted from for so long, is that opportunities are often hidden and happen through word-of-mouth. “If someone is looking for an artist for a show to profile, I’m more than happy to wrack my brain,” Long said. “And it tends to be in my community circle.” Long says many communities of women exist in the world of art like:

Black Women in Visual Art, Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art, Mothra Artist-Parents, Artist Residency in Motherhood, 44.4 Mothers/Artist Collective.

A Canvas of Possibilities

There’s still a lot of work to do in the art world to showcase more women and give art lovers access to a fuller range of the human experience. Yet, it feels like a hopeful time for women in the arts.

Women are helping women see a new canvas full of possibilities. And isn’t seeing things in a new light the purpose of art?


Publisher’s Note: This is the first in a series of four articles focused on feminist artpreneurs. Watch for more in 2022!

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Transformative Ideas

When Feminist Coworking Space Shecosystem Shuts Its Doors, “Shecomposting” Fertilizes New Ground

Shecosystem: Coworking and Wellness space, Toronto

“I’ve actually been pulling this card a lot lately,” says Emily Rose Antflick. She shows me the purple Tarot card of Rhiannon the Sorceress, sitting atop her white unicorn under the moonlight. Antflick, a 36-year-old redhead, reads me the caption at the bottom: “You are a magical person who can manifest your clear intentions into reality.” This is a comforting message for Antflick. These winks from the universe re-assure her that she is on the right path.

We are sitting in Antflick’s living room, not far from the old office of Shecosystem at Bloor and Christie in Toronto. Antflick closed the feminist coworking space she founded in 2015 this past August. She describes this as the “shecompost” process. Composting turns decaying matter into nutrients to feed new life. While Shecosystem as a physical space is no more, its seeds are taking root elsewhere.

Shecosystem was a bright, beautiful space where entrepreneurship blossomed under feminist values. Tarot cards were just one part of Shecosystem feminist practices. Each morning, members gathered in a circle of guided meditation and expressed an intent for the day based on the card they pulled. “It was about being able to witness each other, hold space for each other,” Antflick says. But the physical space, with its heavy operational demands, was zapping Antflick’s creativity and joy. “The ‘rational’ voice –quote, unquote—says: well, just suck it up,” says Antflick. “This is entrepreneurship.” She decided to listen to the other voice. The one that told her to trust her feelings, to listen to her body.

Closing Shecosystem was a complex decision

Antflick’s identity was rooted in its soil, which was growing thin. After months of reflection, and sharing her feelings in the morning circles, her decision was made. She thought: “This is something that deserves gravity, to be marked and to be witnessed.” So an ordained Jewish priestess conducted a Havdalah ceremony. Havdalah marks the end of the Sabbath, the break between the holy day and the profane. “There were candles and spices and wine,” Antflick says. These symbols drew people to recall their sweet memories and what had been illuminated for them at Shecosystem. “I just lay on the floor in the studio and cried,” Antflick says. People joined her. “It turned into this big cuddle puddle on the floor and then we left.”

Of course, at this time of transition, people wanted to jump in and offer solutions. Antflick was clear with her community that she was not seeking advice about her decision, or the possibilities for the future. She had learned her lesson before. “When you put out a general call for help, it just ends up being this whirlwind of really uncentered advice,” she says. Nobody ever told her: “Oh, let me hook you up with an investor,” she laughs. What she did need from her community was an understanding of how Shecosystem had an impact on their lives.

Antflick initiated one-on-one conversations to capture and document key moments in Shecosystem’s legacy. With one member, she drew all the connections on a whiteboard, with separate branches for clients, friends, and the collaborations that had formed within the ecosystem. The network was extensive. “One of the fantasies that I’ve had is actually putting together a network map where I can see what all those [connections] were,” Antflick says.

These conversations also helped quiet her inner critic. Many told her that she was what made Shecosystem such a unique and special place. It’s been hard for Antflick to acknowledge just how much good she has done. She is conscious of her privileges—a white, cisgender, hetero woman from an affluent family. She was in a financial position to take the kind of risk that opening Shecosystem required. But, she often felt that this invalidated everything she was doing because she hadn’t hustled hard enough. The feedback from her community helped: “Being able to value myself, the work that I’ve done, and the courage that it took.”

Shecosytem online: the next generation of Shecosisters

Shecosystem remains an active virtual community, with a broader mission of bringing a more feminine balance into the working world. One of the members started a Facebook group called “Shecosisters Seeking A New Home.” Antflick thought a good way to help was to offer to facilitate the morning circles at other coworking spaces. She did this for free, in exchange for her members getting a free day pass. “If I think that it’s something that’s going to have an impact on people, why be proprietary about it?” she says. She wonders whether sometime in the future she will market Shecosystem’s practices to corporations. She understands the value she brings.

For now, Antflick is resisting the temptation to jump to the next thing. “It’s hard to shake traditional expectations,” she says. “Our work becomes so inextricably tied to our identity.” Instead, she is allowing herself to be in the “goo” – the imaginal phase between the chrysalis and the caterpillar. She has decided to escape the noise of the city this winter. She is heading to a quiet place, close to nature. She will listen to her intuition and make space for creativity.

The shecomposting continues.


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Categories
Uncategorized

Get (More) Shit Done: Outsource to Level Up Your Entrepreneurial Game

Katrina McKay is the founder of Uplevel Solutions.

 

During a dark period in Katrina McKay’s life many years ago, she visited a temple in India dedicated to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity. The only visible foreigner, and unfamiliar with local religious customs, she was overwhelmed. When she reached the temple’s altar to offer some crumpled bills, two poor women handed her flowers and treats to leave instead. “I felt so loved and so connected,” McKay recalls.

A thought occurred to McKay: “I want to be a living Lakshmi.” At the time, she didn’t know how she would accomplish this, but she was determined to create some kind of abundance for others.

Today, the serial feminist entrepreneur and founder of Uplevel Solutions, a provider of outsourced business services for startups and emerging companies, is on her way to fulfilling her mission. She has created sustainable employment primarily for women in the Philippines, while helping entrepreneurs in Canada and other developed countries grow their own enterprises.

 

The Path to Entrepreneurship is Rarely Straight

I met with McKay at The Spoke Club, a private club in Toronto, to talk about her entrepreneurial mission. The 35-year-old CEO nestled into a chair beside a sunlit window and looked, well, decidedly anti-corporate: long black hair, a nose ring, and the word “Sisu” (Finnish for “will”) tattooed on the back of her neck. Indeed, she describes her path in business as circuitous.

Her start was rather traditional, however. Grew up in a prosperous family in Mississauga, a city just outside Toronto. Attended Appleby College, a private school. Looking back, she says she was always an entrepreneur at heart. “I know that’s super cliché,” she says, adding that even as a kid, she was always trying to create value in the world, starting an environmental club and organizing charity fundraisers at her school.

Yet, she steered clear of business, pursuing a degree in French literature and philosophy at the University of Toronto, graduating in 2005. At the end of her first year, she took another unexpected detour, falling in love with an Australian who was in Canada on a holiday visa. “I didn’t have little girl princess dreams of being in a white dress,” McKay says. She married at the age of 20 so her boyfriend could stay in Canada. She also thought she could help him overcome his mental health challenges. “I believed I could love him more than he hated himself.”

After graduation, McKay worked in various fast-paced and demanding marketing roles in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). “I was bright and inexpensive,” she says. When her bosses had an idea, she ran with it. Looking back, she says, “I was living entrepreneurship. It just wasn’t my company.”

But as McKay’s husband deteriorated mentally and physically, she decided to join a major Canadian health charity in 2009. It was a conservative, bureaucratic environment for a progressive go-getter like McKay, but it provided her with a steady salary, benefits, and predictable hours. This allowed her to fulfill her “strange role as housewife and also breadwinner.”

Despite her efforts, McKay could not save her husband. He died by suicide a year later. “Super dark,” she says of that time. “There is no playbook for being a widow at 27.”

She also struggled in her job, which had become “soul sucking,” especially since the sole reason she was in it was gone. She thought, “I refuse to be stuck.”

So McKay started to moonlight.

 

Creating Your Own Opportunities is Key

In 2010, McKay launched Ohhh Canada, an online shop for sex toys and apparel. This entrepreneurial venture, she says, was about celebrating life after what had become a sexless marriage. “Sexual empowerment is a big part of healing,” she says.

She also started freelancing as a marketing consultant for SMEs. However, she didn’t quit her day job just yet. “There is this idea among some entrepreneurs that you are only a real entrepreneur if you burn those bridges, cut those ties, and put things on a credit card,” she says. But McKay is pragmatic; she knew the value of a steady paycheque to finance her dreams.

But by 2011, the juggling of a salaried position and her side businesses became too much. McKay fell into a loving, stable romantic relationship (they’re still partners). There was no personal care-taking involved but she regularly worked 100-hour weeks at her various ventures and was exhausted. “My partner would ask, ‘What do you want for dinner?’ and I would burst into tears.”

What little time she had to herself was quickly filled with invitations to lunch from marketing clients and people in her network who noticed the sudden growth of Ohhh Canada. They wanted to pick her brain about how to fix their own company or launch an e-commerce business. She said sure for a while then realized, “Wait a minute. What I’m actually doing is coaching.” So she expanded her marketing consulting business and added business coaching to help entrepreneurs realize their entrepreneurial vision.

But McKay became desperate for any help to lighten her load. She tried hiring locally but found it difficult to attract and retain talent as a small business. “It was expensive for my little fledgling business when I was trying to put money aside to quit my full-time job.” People would quit and she would be back to square one. “It’s a gig economy,” she says. “How much loyalty will they show you when another employer offers more hours or money, and a more enchanting opportunity?”

That’s when the idea of hiring a virtual assistant dawned on her. She had trained virtual teams in India before for a client in the conference marketing industry. She thought, “Why am I not doing this for myself?” She advertised for Ohhh Canada on an outsourcing site. Metchell Jackson, a Filipino woman in her early 30s living in Dumaguete City, answered her call.

Jackson, an IT graduate, was doing outsourcing work in the call centre of a large retailer at the time but says her “brain cells were dying.” She was intrigued by the opportunity to work with a female entrepreneur, especially one working in the sex business. “I’m very open-minded,” she tells me via Skype. “I have a different view than regular Filipinos. They view [sex] as taboo and bad.”

McKay conducted a job interview with Jackson via Skype and the two said they loved each other instantly. “It sounds so cheesy but it’s true,” McKay says.

When McKay asked her to work full-time, Jackson jumped at the chance. “I believed in her mission.” Jackson initially provided customer service for Ohhh Canada then became McKay’s executive assistant for her coaching business, interacting with clients virtually. Soon clients began to ask McKay, “How can I get access to people like Metchell?”

McKay realized her clients faced the same business challenges she had in finding competent, reliable help that they could afford. That’s when yet another entrepreneurial idea hit McKay.

 

Creating Opportunities for Others is Good for Business

In 2013, McKay launched Uplevel Solutions. By then, she was doing well enough to bootstrap the non-profit on her own.

It helped that Jackson was her “boots on the ground” in the Philippines, sourcing talent there. Uplevel currently has more than 30 team members, mostly women in the Philippines. It also employs a handful of people in Toronto, led by McKay, who focus on strategy development and management of the business.

McKay has now brought all of her ventures (outsourced business services, marketing consulting, and business coaching) under the Uplevel Solutions banner. She says Ohhh Canada is currently on “hiatus” as she repositions it. Typical clients of Uplevel bring in revenue ranging from $250,000 to $1.5 million. “This is our sweet spot,” says McKay.

Her clients are mostly headquartered in Canada, the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. They pay US$5 an hour for virtual administrative support, which generates about 70 per cent of Uplevel’s revenue. The other 30 per cent is comprised of more strategic services such as marketing consulting, public relations, and business coaching (at $2,800 per day).

Half of Uplevel’s clients are female entrepreneurs. Shannon Crane, the founder of Brass Vixens in Toronto, turned to McKay for business coaching when she opened the first of her four pole dancing studios in Toronto six years ago. Back then, she says she was doing everything (“I cleaned the bathrooms, I was answering the phones, I was teaching classes”). She had struggled to find good help since she couldn’t offer predictable hours. Some weeks required 20 hours, other weeks only two. “People weren’t banging down my door [for work],” she says. And as a self-described “control freak,” she struggled with the idea of outsourcing, which requires sharing sensitive information such as passwords with people she had never met. But she trusted McKay and decided to give it a shot.

She was initially surprised by the low rates. Before signing on, she sought confirmation that Uplevel’s employees are paid fairly and the company helps women be successful in their communities. “It’s important for me to align myself with other businesses who are not only like-minded but are also very female positive,” she says. Now, Crane relies on Uplevel for administrative support such as webmaster services.

McKay says that many of her clients would not be able to afford help at all while starting their businesses, even at minimum wage rates in Canada. In the Philippines, Uplevel is able to pay well above that country’s minimum wage, which McKay says varies between rural and urban areas. Her company also pays for training during probation, which is less common in the Philippines. Jackson, McKay’s original hire, is now a manager, earning almost five times what she made in her previous call centre job.

It’s not just the ability to afford help that makes outsourcing attractive to Uplevel’s entrepreneur clients. They often don’t have the time or inclination to find the right talent, invest in training, and deal with thorny HR issues such as performance problems. “I love leading and training people,” McKay says. “And in some cases [entrepreneurs] just don’t have the time to do that. It’s a hassle they don’t really want to be adding to their life or their business.”

As McKay says of many Uplevel clients, “They need to pass some of [the work] off so they can go out to do what they do—continue to grow their empires.”

 

Staying True to the Mission Takes Work

McKay acknowledges that a stigma has developed around outsourcing due to the exploitation of foreign labour, poor work quality, and the perception that it takes jobs away from Canadians. She says her company has to work hard to overcome that stigma. To her, she sees outsourcing a little differently; it’s a way to give women a leg up in developing countries.

“There aren’t a lot of opportunities for brilliant and talented women,” she says, pointing out that many Filipino women move to Dubai or Canada to work as nannies and send money home to support their own small children. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Jackson, who does most of the recruiting, has a bias towards hiring women. “Because in the Philippines, it’s like they are stuck to be like a wife, nothing more,” she says. “I want to change that.”

One of Jackson’s recruits is Edna Viola, a neighbour. The 23-year-old single Filipino mother had dropped out of teacher’s college after becoming pregnant. “I imagined myself teaching,” she says. “I so loved children.” Instead, she returned home with dim prospects to her parents, who worked as subsistence farmers.

She was considering taking a job at a call centre but it entailed risky night travel. “There are a lot of robbers and bad guys out there,” she says. She was relieved when Uplevel offered work. Though she has to work similar hours, from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. to coincide with North American business hours, she is able to do so safely from home, which also allows her to be close to her son. She also saves on the cost of travel and work clothes.

Viola, like all new hires, started with non-client-facing work. Her skills and attitude were assessed during an eight-week paid probation period, then she was given a development plan, which involved meeting with McKay or another senior manager to discuss past performance and future aspirations. Viola is now a team leader. When McKay first approached her to take on the role, Viola said, “Oh no, I can’t do that. Can you assign to other people?” McKay was adamant. “No, you can do it; we believe in you.”

For McKay, investing in people is important. While all new hires have to be competent in written and spoken English, Uplevel offers internal coaching to support advancement and external resources such as English teachers to help managers communicate with greater professionalism. Employees can receive paid time off to volunteer in the community as long as it is not for political or religious organizations.

Perhaps what is most unusual for a virtual company is the sense of team McKay strives to create. She makes quarterly video calls with everyone in the company. “The team loves that,” says McKay. She also travels to the Philippines annually to bring people together in face-to-face meetings. “We ask how people are feeling and we actually care. Don’t get me wrong, we get on to business; we talk numbers; we talk progress reports and spell out KPIs but we are a people-based business.”

She encourages employees to talk about their life mission at every meeting. McKay takes pride in how people’s missions have changed since joining Uplevel. At the start, Viola’s was to support her family and afford a birthday party for her son. Supporting her family remains her priority but she has begun to dream bigger, setting a goal to travel to Paris. “Her experience and understanding of abundance has changed dramatically,” McKay says.

Uplevel distinguishes itself from other companies providing offshore talent in a key way, according to David Creelman, a corporate consultant on human capital management and co-author of Lead the Work: Navigating a World Beyond Employment. He says not many companies leveraging technology to build virtual teams invest in people the way Uplevel does. “I would say this is unusual,” he says.

Creelman explains that the more standard practice is for North American employers to treat people as dispensable freelancers—even though investing in creating a stable team and a high-involvement culture is a high-performance model. “It’s an interesting competitive strategy that McKay is adopting because we do know if you can pull off a high-involvement work culture, it’s very productive. There is good research on that.”

But Creelman adds a cautionary note: “The evidence also shows that [a high-involvement culture] is hard to sustain and most companies that try it eventually give it up.” Short-term financial pressures often cause managers to lose sight of longer-term strategic benefits. “They start cutting back on training, take career pathing less seriously, and find ways to cut back on compensation and benefits.”

McKay is determined not to let that happen. She says she is not in this business for a quick win. A key part of her mission since her encounter with the Hindu goddess of prosperity so many years ago has been to create abundance for others, though she admits Uplevel was an unexpected way to go about it. “I did not set out to create a business-support services company,” McKay laughs. “How unsexy is that? Yawn. I go from sex toys and lingerie to business support services?”

But her mission continues to fire up business. Uplevel’s top-line revenue has grown steadily, about 25 per cent annually. In the next twelve months, McKay anticipates doubling that, in part by partnering with other service providers to expand Uplevel’s range of services. She wants to be the “go-to company for entrepreneurs looking to grow their company.”

She also wants to live up to the ideals of another hero, Richard Branson. “He always says he takes care of his employees first and then relies on employees to take care of clients,” McKay says. “I feel the same.”

 


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Categories
Body, Mind & Pleasure

The Clarifying and Emancipating Power of Erotica Enterprise

 

Eden Baylee takes a coffee break in her sunny kitchen one recent morning in Toronto’s Little Italy. The diminutive 52-year-old recalls in a soft voice, “I grew up in a conservative, working-class Chinese home, the daughter of immigrants. The message was, ‘Make money, make money, make money,’ so I chose banking.”

After graduating from the University of Toronto, Baylee worked in the banking industry. Decades later, she became a prolific indie author of erotica, flash fiction, and mystery. Baylee’s revitalized career may not be quite what her parents had in mind as a way of making money, but it combines a life-long passion for erotica (she secretly devoured Story of O at age 11, misreading “orgasm” as “organism”) with an equally strong passion for writing. Plus, she enjoys the creative license to weave tales that portray mature, sexually empowered female protagonists and having agency over business decisions, which is not typical of her working life at a bank.

Baylee’s path from banking to feminist entrepreneur took some twists and turns. First, she had to overcome breast cancer and the fear of leaving a secure career behind.

The Path Back to Writing

In 1999, 10 years into her banking career, Baylee defied parental expectations and moved to New York City to become a writer. But in the following months at the age of 34, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She returned to Canada for treatment and, unable to work, had to borrow heavily from her brother as she underwent chemotherapy. Looking back on her exit strategy, she laughs now. “Gee, I didn’t plan this very well.”

Baylee put her writing career on hold again and returned to her banking job to pay off her debts. She was quickly promoted to lead project teams. In this role, she felt a huge responsibility to see those projects successfully through to completion as one project morphed into the next. She often worked past midnight. “If someone on my team was lax, I added their work to my plate. As the lead, I felt any failure would be mine,” she says. Her intent had been to stay at the bank for only two years while she saved enough to quit, but she found herself in the same position 10 years later. “Banking had invaded my life.”

Baylee’s path back to a writing career was made more complicated due to the fear that she would get sick again if she left banking. “I was afraid that I wouldn’t have any benefits and would be broke,” she says. Her husband, who sensed her growing unhappiness as she came home in tears many nights, insisted they confront her fears objectively. “The bank was chopping jobs right, left, and centre. It wasn’t as secure a job as it used to be.” They didn’t have children or dependents, nor an extravagant lifestyle. “I also realized that maybe security or amassing more chachkas isn’t really what I am after. Having dinner with my husband, and spending time with people we care about is what matters. If I have my health and am comfortable, I am happy.”

Finally, at 45, Baylee left banking in 2010 to pursue her dream. “I laid out a five-year financial plan knowing that writing is precarious,” she says. She prepared for the worst-case scenario such as needing expensive drugs again. “I was brought up to save and had saved a lot before I left the bank.”

Applying Corporate Discipline to a Creative Métier

Having worked as a senior project lead at a bank where she solved new challenges all the time, Baylee approaches her writing career as a business. She instills a corporate discipline to her routine, rising at 7 a.m. to meditate for an hour to “set a calm tone to write.” She writes 2,000 words a day, standing up at her kitchen counter, but considers herself a slow worker. “I have a bad habit of editing as I go rather than doing a clean sweep at the end.” Like her banking days, she often works past midnight.

Baylee’s first “coming out” was a self-published anthology of erotica, Fall into Winter, with tales of daring ménage à trois and seduction in New York, Canada, Thailand, and Austria. Her stories often riff off her own extensive global travels, which began with a trip to Asia after university. Her novella, The Lottery, was influenced by her real-life friendships with Thai sex workers in Bangkok’s Red Light district. This experience challenged her own privileged Western assumption that Asian women were doing demeaning work for the enjoyment of predatory men. Like many of Baylee’s stories,The Lottery shows how sexual submission and sexual power can co-exist even though it’s often a tricky feminist dilemma. In this story, the Western woman gradually realizes the power her demure, young, Thai friend has over men. “She can basically get a man to do what she wants, and yet, never has to be heavy-handed in her demands,” says Baylee.

Prior to self-publishing, Baylee had sent her anthology to several publishers including Harlequin without success. “It may have been too sexy for them because they didn’t have an erotica category at that time,” Baylee says. But in the back of her mind, she always knew that self-publishing was the better route. “I was a control freak so I didn’t want publishers to dictate my writing or give up rights or royalties.”

Baylee’s “slow” but steady approach has now resulted in 16 titles, some sold separately, some as anthologies. Her first 15 stories were novellas, but in 2014 she released Stranger at Sunset, her first of an anticipated trilogy of full-length mystery novels. “Erotica tends to be novella length, only 25,000 words, which makes it hard to weave an intricate story or develop your characters,” she says. Stranger at Sunset was her entrée into a larger, more expansive writing canvas. Even though her writing has evolved to a more mainstream genre, Baylee says, “There will always be erotica elements in my work.”

Perhaps the most successful way Baylee markets herself is by supporting other writers. She has published close to 300 interviews with other indie authors, which she promotes on her blog and other social media. In turn, she has been the subject of several dozen interviews. “It’s not about, ‘I help you, you help me,’” she insists. She has great interest in learning from other writers about their craft. “Writing is solitary so I had to develop a network because you don’t get out there to meet people,” she says.

Many online professional connections have blossomed into real face-to-face friendships. While many female erotica writers network primarily within their genre, Baylee purposefully built connections with both male and female authors of crime, horror, and literary fiction. She also follows many male poets and is very influenced by the poems of Charles Bukowski, the contemporary novelist, poet, and short story writer who Time called “a laureate of American lowlife.” “He is so sensual and lyrical. That’s how I wanted my writing to be.” Her strategy has resulted in a large male following, unusual for the erotica genre that has produced books like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Baylee now has an enviable social media reach: 29,000+ Twitter followers, 32,000+ blog subscribers. But she has stopped putting effort into amassing a larger following. “I was more engaged when I had 5,000 Twitter followers,” she says. She realized that having more followers doesn’t sell more books. “Engagement makes the difference.” She spends a few hours on social media every morning. “I equate these touch points to how I walked by people’s desks in the morning to ask about their projects or their families. You have to show your face so people remember you,” she says.

Baylee gets close to 500 e-mails a day and spends a lot of time writing personal e-mails and direct responses on Facebook. “That is much more important than retweeting tweets. It takes a lot of effort but in the long run it’s a better strategy. People like a personal touch. As a writer, I can’t ignore that,” says Baylee. Naturally, some followers think her works of fiction are autobiographical and she receives more than her fair share of direct messages from “stalker” men wanting a sexual conversation. “If people envision me in the role of a dominatrix, there is not much I can do to control it.”

Baylee distributes her novellas and books on many platforms including Amazon, Smashwords, B&N, Apple iTunes, and Kobo, where she retains over 70% of the revenue (traditional publishing offers only a fraction of this). On a daily basis, she averages 70 to 80 downloads. She uses one of her earlier short stories, “Seeking Sexy Sadie” as a loss leader, which gets up to 150 downloads a day. Baylee also uses ad campaigns, which generates 2,000 downloads during their duration. “This will usually have a halo effect for my other book sales for a few weeks afterward.”

A Non-Apologetic Feminist

While Baylee refers to herself as a feminist, she doesn’t write with a political agenda, even if it’s about the emancipation of women in a post-Hillary political climate. “I write as an entertainer. I don’t have an agenda of any kind other than to write a good story, good fiction,” she says.

The femme fatale character in Stranger at Sunset, a respected New York psychiatrist named Dr. Kate Hampton, is typical of Baylee’s strong, mature, female protagonists, which are sometimes composites of the go-getter women she met at the bank. “Many erotica writers write about 20-something, model-type, beautiful, cut-out people, which is how people think of sex. I couldn’t have written what I write now in my 20s. I didn’t have the experience or sexual maturity,” says Baylee.

Adding to that experience is Baylee’s time as a judge at the annual Feminist Porn Awards (rebranded in 2017 as the Toronto International Porn Festival) for more than five years. As a writer, her involvement in these porn festivals has helped broaden her knowledge of different communities and their sexual expression. Her first exposure to transgender people was through her involvement with the porn festival. Now, she has gotten to know transgender producers and actors personally so she feels she is less likely to resort to unhelpful stereotypes if she writes about a transgender character. “I think it’s important to know somebody first-hand if you are going to get a story right, no matter how small a role they play in your story,” she says.

Baylee acknowledges that some feminists are not comfortable with her characters, seeing them as victims who give away their power. Her novella Act Three has a controversial scene where Stella, a divorcee pushing 40 who desires sexual exploration after ending a traditional, sexually unfulfilling marriage, is forced into sexual submission by two men as a result of an earlier admission to her lover that this was a fantasy of hers. Baylee attended a book club meeting with a dozen young, bright, professional women and was surprised how unanimously they enjoyed Act Three. This led to a conversation about fear, sexual arousal, and how writers push the envelope of what is erotic.

Baylee is unapologetic about writing scenes that may be perceived as politically incorrect. Her work is fiction, after all, and what she finds erotic is out of her control. “I think a lot of people feel that if we have sexual fantasies where we enjoy being submissive that we will be submissive in our day-to-day lives. That’s not true necessarily,” she says.

Baylee doesn’t buy that fantasies have to fit into a socially acceptable box, and admits she has her own fantasies of being dominated by men. “It does not make me weak, passive, or against feminism. My erotic imagination and life should not have to conform to my real life, which is built around a specific set of social and moral values. The two lives never have to meet,” she says.

Baylee is set to release the two remaining full-length books in her mystery trilogy later this year and her mind keeps spinning with new ideas. Unlike some of her former banker colleagues who are counting down the days to retirement, Baylee plans to keep going forever. “Retirement isn’t part of my vocabulary. It seems like a dated concept. Retire from what? Retire from life? You need to subject yourself to new ideas and environments. You have to be constantly interested and interesting. This is what keeps us vibrant and energetic.”

Additional Reading

I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde (2011)

Why Erotica Needs Feminism: A 127 Page Thesis in 3 Pages by Ella Dawson