“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.
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.”
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.”
Judy Kaye drinks coffee at a quiet café a few blocks from Oasis Aqualounge, the upscale sex club she and her husband Richard opened in 2010 as the majority owners with other partners. The 48-year-old mother of three is dressed smartly in black with glasses perched on top of her head. She laughs as she calls the creation of the female-positive, sex-positive club “our mid-life crisis business.”
As successful business people, Judy, who holds an executive MBA from Queen’s University, and her husband came up with the idea for Oasis after frequenting swingers’ clubs themselves. “I think entrepreneurs spend a lot of their time looking at other businesses and saying if they owned this business they would do this, this, and this,” she says. For her, the “this” was a club that would be open during the day, offered more than drinks and dancing, and allowed sex on the premises.
They also envisioned an environment that wasn’t just for swingers but that really catered to women—single or with any orientation of partner(s)—who wanted to safely explore their sexual fantasies without judgment or pressure to undress or have sex. “We felt that there was a lot of shame in our world around expressing sexuality for women,” says Judy. “This was an aspect of people’s lives that so many keep hidden and locked up and don’t nurture.” She meets more men than women who are comfortable with nudity and sexuality, perhaps because men have so many more spaces for exploring their desire. Oasis is trying to change that. “We get a lot of sexually confident women, which is absolutely amazing, but we also help women become sexually confident.”
Oasis proved the perfect name for their club since it could also serve as a mini-escape for busy couples with only a few hours to spare. As a parent, Judy knows how hard it is to get out of mommy mode: “It’s like, ‘Who’s got a cough? Where’s hockey? Who needs a snack?’” She felt there was a market for couples who wanted to find a deeper sense of intimacy in a sex-positive environment. She believes Oasis saves marriages because couples who enhance their sex life can deal with problems better. “If you’re not getting along with someone, then every little irritation seems magnified.”
They imagined opening a small place until they came across a 2,700-square-metre dilapidated heritage mansion (formerly a gay bathhouse) east of Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, on the corner of Carlton and Mutual Streets. “We could see the possibilities,” recalls Judy, who negotiated a long-term lease. The club has many amenities, including a heated outdoor year-round pool, hot tub, steam room, sauna, bar, dance floor, and several adult playrooms such as the Shaggin’ Wagon and Dungeon.
What’s the Big Deal about Sex?
Today, Judy and her husband focus mostly on strategic management and building a great team to support Oasis’ rapid growth while their five other partners, all full-time employees, assume day-to-day management and administration. At startup, the sexpreneurs found that swinging deals presented a major challenge. “There was such a stigma against this type of business,” says Judy. Banks shied away, which forced them to finance Oasis themselves, including $500,000 in renovations. “We used our entire savings, mortgaged our house, maxed our credit cards, and borrowed from family,” says Judy.
They also had to secure a second-tier processor for credit card transactions because major banks wouldn’t issue them. “We knew that if we were going to be the premium brand, we couldn’t be a cash-only business,” she says. Finally, TD came on board, even holding the 2016 Pride Toronto press conference at Oasis to recognize the 35th anniversary of the infamous bathhouse raids by police, one of which took place at the very bathhouse Oasis took over. “That was a huge honour for us,” says Judy.
Getting a municipal bathhouse license also proved difficult as this was a first for women and their partners. Previously, women’s events that were held at men’s bathhouses operated under their own licensing. “Everything [the city] knew was based on men,” says Judy. “The municipal licensing people were not sure what category to put us under.” They even had to jump through hoops to get the liquor license, undergoing criminal checks since they hadn’t run a bar before.
Marketing also presented challenges. The Toronto Board of Tourism denied their application to join even though Oasis’ newsletter had a worldwide circulation of more than 20,000 readers. “They claimed they didn’t have an appropriate category to place us even though they have ‘fun things for couples’ and ‘night entertainment,’” says Judy. “We pay our taxes. We pay employees well. We have a health plan. This is not some cash-only, back-door kind of thing.”
It even proved tough getting customers who were “huge repeat customers” to be ambassadors for the club. “We would say, ‘Tell your friends,’ and they would say, ‘Are you kidding?’”
To spread the word, the club created AquaFlirts, a promotional team that marketing director and events producer Fatima Mechtab describes as her “sex-positive, fun, flirty staff.” The AquaFlirts attend trade shows and community events such as The Everything To Do With Sex Show, Sexapalooza, and Pride. Says Mechtab: “We’ve never shied away from who we are, never. We really embrace sex-positive, body-positive, liberal values. We are so open and willing to talk to people.”
Oasis is winning people over, and more and more visitors are now being referred by friends. In the early months, they were only open Thursday to Saturday and averaging 50 paying customers per week. Today, they are open seven days and averaging 1,000 customers per week. Annual revenues grew by more than 20 per cent last year, reaching nearly $2.5 million.
The sex club’s growing popularity is also helped by popular culture such as the 50 Shades of Grey franchise. “I feel like conversations around swinging, polyamory, and sex clubs have really become more prominent in mainstream media,” says Mechtab.
Events + Education = Diverse Fun
It wasn’t difficult to convince swingers—typically heterosexual couples—to try Oasis. “A new sex club? Let’s go,” was the response. But financial viability demanded a larger market and now six years later, customer surveys show that the majority of customers are not interested in swinging. To survive, Oasis has succeeded in creating a social club where folks can chat without pressure to have all kinds of sex, or any sex, without shame. “It’s not just sort of an anonymous sex club with rooms where you don’t see anybody,” Mechtab says. “The whole experience at Oasis is not just about the sex. It’s about the entire atmosphere and vibe.”
The club hosts diverse events that appeal to a wide range of interests. These often have a sex-education component that also acts as an ice breaker. Oasis After Dark, for example, is for BDSM lovers; Down to F*ck serves women craving sex with multiple men; Spectator Sex caters to couples who want to “perform” in front of an appreciative audience.
And then there is Sapphic Aquatica, exclusive events for women and trans people. “That’s my baby,” says Mechtab, who identifies as gay. “There isn’t a lot for women as far as this type of environment goes, but there is nothing for queer people and trans folk.” Stressing that trans men and non-binary folks are also welcome, Mechtab launched Sapphic Aquatica shortly after joining Oasis in 2012. She throws an anniversary party every January featuring such activities as Sybian rides (a high-powered vibrator operated by a trained staff member that is straddled to achieve orgasm) and fundraising for LGBTQ causes.
Sex educator Luna Matatas says Oasis is the only sex club she knows of that integrates education into its events. While some of what Matatas teaches at Oasis is technique, such as how to use sex toys, the more important lesson for women is building sexual confidence. “We are experiencing oppression and shame on multiple levels about pursuing the kind of pleasure we want,” she says. Sexual fulfillment has important benefits for women’s emancipation. “You expand your range of expression and emotion through doing a lot of sexual creative things,” says Matatas, noting that this serves women well in spaces beyond Oasis.
Compassion and inclusion are important lessons, she adds. “It’s not just about you getting what you want. You need to create a safe environment to invite everyone else to get what they want too,” explains Matatas. Unicorn Night, where a “unicorn” or single woman plays with a couple, is Oasis’ most popular event. Matatas has taught couples how to swing with a unicorn so that they don’t regard her as “some sort of stunt vagina” and facilitates “meet and greets” for unicorns so they can feel comfortable and enjoy special pampering such as complimentary glasses of champagne before their sexual encounter.
Matatas also helps women challenge their own self-limiting beliefs. As a self-described “chubby, curvy, queer, brown woman,” she is a role model for how women can embody their own kind of sexy. She makes a point of dressing up to “present sexy” at Oasis’ workshops; some women have even approached her to ask what dress size she wears. She can confidently convey: “Fat people have sex too and we have good sex.”
Turning on to Safety
Clothing is optional at Oasis so people walk around in various stages of undress. But while one may envision an unruly Animal House, there are strictly enforced rules to guide the play. There are 13 rules printed in several languages and presented via video by a stiletto-clad vixen. They’re even read out loud to new guests to make sure everyone understands.
Rule number one is “No means no.” But can’t “no” mean “yes” in a sexual context? “Even if you are acting out a sadomasochistic scene, staff and managers have to see that conversation is happening,” Mechtab says. “You need an affirmation that your action is okay with that other person.” What about hugging? Mechtab admits she’s a hugger by nature, but even that’s a no-no without expressed consent. “We’re a space where people are naked, intimate and maybe haven’t been to a place like Oasis so you don’t know what could trigger them. In our business, only yes means yes.”
Differential pricing also maintains civility and balance in numbers. “It’s an economics thing,” says Judy. Oasis tried gender-neutral pricing but that disproportionately drew more men, causing both men and women to complain. Single men now pay a premium (and are restricted from the club at certain times) while some days, admission is free for women and trans folk. While some men complain about the preferential treatment of women, Oasis is firm they are doing the right thing. “We believe that having a space that is very safe and comfortable for women, and where women’s needs are paramount, is good for both men and women,” says Judy. After all, when women feel happy, confident, and safe, they are less ashamed of wanting sex and exploring their sexuality, which makes men happy too.
Happy Employees = Happy Customers
Oasis’ engaged workforce of 40 people also works hard to create a good vibe. “We don’t hire based on experience,” says Judy, pointing out that you may get a better Caesar elsewhere but having a bartender with sex-positive values and who supports women matters more. Many of the staff frequented Oasis before joining the payroll.
Staff range from university students (the University of Toronto’s Sexual Education Centre’s 2013 party attracted many that would become regulars) to more mature employees such as Teresa, a trim, ginger-haired grandmother who says Oasis is “like home.” She says other sex clubs she visited were “cliquey.” “If you didn’t look pretty enough, they wouldn’t let you in,” she says. Teresa recalls a “bigger lady” asking her whether she would be allowed into Oasis, and she offered this reassurance: “We do not discriminate. We have people from big to small.”
Teresa, who started as a cleaner, now co-hosts an event with her husband called Cum Give it a Shot, which educates people about squirting (female ejaculation at climax). It’s a team effort. Teresa helps women relax (“I will kiss them and play with their boobs”) and her husband demonstrates the right technique. “He’s got the magic touch,” Teresa says, proudly noting that not every guy can make a woman squirt. “I can go about four feet. Last time I did it, I had a target.”
Oasis encourages staff to share interests and propose ideas for new events, such as a burlesque party that was organized for a birthday. Many of the marketing posters feature staff rather than stock images. “We would do more if we had people willing to do more, but there’s privacy issues,” says Judy.
Oasis also organizes staff road trips to check out other clubs—both for new ideas and bonding—and outings such as naked bowling and nude polar bear dips on New Year’s day. “How many staff like their jobs so much that they want to go there when they’re not working?” asks Judy.
Creating a Sexy Legacy
“Finally, this year we feel like we can say this is a successful business,” Judy smiles, emphasizing that it has been a team effort. This optimism serves the entrepreneur well. “You always have to see the good side of something in order to break through all the pain it takes to get there. It’s kind of like having a baby.”
Sticking it out has been hard at times, but they have already established a legacy in creating a space that champions new attitudes about women’s sexuality. Feedback such as “I’ve never felt so comfortable in my own skin” bring tears to her eyes. “Because that’s the point,” Judy says. “Whatever I am, I am sexy.”
Patti Pokorchak launched SageData Solutions with her romantic partner in 1991. “I got the first sale,” Pokorchak, now 61 years old, recalls. “We were co-founders in every way except legally. I had a romantic ideal that we would be together forever.” Today, the business is thriving, but the romance fizzled, leaving Pokorchak with no financial stake in the enterprise she helped start. “We talked about this being our retirement,” she recalls, sipping chamomile tea in the kitchen of a home overlooking a ravine in Toronto’s west end. The normally bubbly Pokorchak, now a business coach, laments, “The scary part is having given up a major part of my high-earning potential years to put sweat equity into something that did not pay off. I made a lot less than other comparable MBAs. I’ll never get that time back, or the energy to do it again.” Pokorchak sighs and says, “I was naïve.”
Understand the Need for Strong Governance
Pokorchak’s story illustrates a sad truth about start-ups and their founders. Almost half of start-ups don’t make it past five years. While co-founder romantic couples may be guided by trust more than other partnerships, Vanessa Grant, a corporate governance lawyer at Gowling WLG’s Toronto office, says they need to draw up proper contracts, just like everyone else. “This is a business relationship,” she insists. “It’s not about ‘I love you’ or ‘I don’t love you.’ Never confuse business with emotion.”
There is often more at stake when romantic partners become business partners, says Grant. “You need to realize nothing is permanent. Your business will change, your lives will change, and your priorities will change.” The disability of a partner and different visions for the business can upset stable partnerships. Given that close to 50 per cent of marriages fail, divorce may pose the greatest threat to a couple’s business relationship.
While some couples want to leave a legacy for future generations, fewer than 10 per cent of family businesses survive into the third generation. “The moment it goes beyond two people having fun in the basement, you have to think about succession,” says family enterprise advisor Paul Pittman in his chipper British accent. “A great business marriage is typically two sides of a coin. One person is the front like sales; the other is the back, the brakes, the Steady Eddy that says, ‘Hold on, have you thought about…?’ But if one gets distracted or taken out of the business, the risk is the end of the business. You’ve lost one of two fundamental cogs.”
Clearly, creating a sound governance model can help protect both partners and the business. Yet too few work on that planning. Even when couple-led start-ups survive into second-generation family businesses, governance models can be spotty. Says Paul MacDonald, executive director of the Canadian Association of Family Enterprises (CAFE): “Very few family enterprises have formal succession plans, advisory boards, etc.”
Start By Aligning Your Values
Chia Chia Sun and Gardiner Smith, established executives in other companies, had been romantic partners for four years before funding Damiva, a women’s health company that manufactures all-natural products for menopausal health. When I met up with them on a warm spring day in the bright Yorkville office of their investors, Smith explained why so few couples work on establishing proper governance. “The untold part of the story is there isn’t a lot of resources for corporate governance in small- or mid-sized companies,” he says. In the absence of formal governance processes, Smith adds that it is important to be aligned with your partner on a personal set of drivers and values. “Without this, you just have constant conflict.”
Sun and Smith are both financially aggressive and like to compete at the highest level, but Smith says other values shape their business plans. “Money as a game and a goal in and unto itself doesn’t hold much interest for us. It’s got to be driven by some values more fundamental than that,” he says. For example, Sun agonized for months about whether to use taboo-breaking marketing to sell Mae, their female vaginal lubricant. On the one hand, it expressed what she believed was needed to promote women’s health but she worried about the impact the risk-taking campaign might have on the bottom line. Smith finally advised Sun to let her principles guide her. “Let’s just get it out there and what will happen with the money will happen,” he said. It worked. Mae is now stocked by national pharmacy chains. And the cheeky packaging Sun agonized over? It went like this: “Feeling drier than a British comedy? Honey, you are not alone. Pick me up, take me home and get ready to feel like a teenager again, but with better judgement.”
Write Down Governance Practices—NOW!
Even before a couple establishes a formal model, Grant advises them to start documenting procedures from day one. “Write it down and write it down now,” she says. “Even before you get to the shareholders’ agreement, write down what each of you expect in a business relationship, and check to make sure those goals are consistent. Set up clear expectations, decision-making structures, and how the business relationship will terminate. Then once you have established the business relationship, revisit your governance structure, including shareholder agreements, on a regular basis.” She warns against being penny-smart and pound-foolish—it is far more complicated and expensive to untangle separate interests later, particularly if the relationship becomes acrimonious. The formality of documentation is good protection, she insists: “If you have set up the relationship on a business footing and are clear about what happens in various scenarios, then the chances that third-party investors will oust you are lower because you have demonstrated a level of business maturity.”
In 2011, stay-at-home mom Tracy Rossetti launched MyBabbo, a Toronto firm that creates photo books and digital albums—as well as online memorial sites—for bereaved grieving families. What had started as a way to help her family grieve the loss of her father-in-law (“Babbo” is dad in Italian) had grown by 2015 and was big enough for her husband, Mirco, to leave his senior marketing role at Nestle Canada and join the enterprise. As a way of kickstarting their business relationship and developing a shared business vision, the Rossettis wrote out 12 Guiding Principles, which are rooted in their shared Christian faith. For example, principle one is “Know Your Why” while two is “Be Rooted in LOVE.” When there’s no time to consult, the principles help them make decisions that adhere to the company’s vision. For example, after Mirco formed an alliance with a grief counsellor, he decided to buy the counsellor’s books and include them in the MyBabbo package provided to funeral homes—without raising their prices. This was an expense of thousands of dollars and increased inventory costs. Tracy later asked Mirco, “Are you sure? Should we ask funeral homes if they want it?” Mirco told her, “It’s the right thing to do.” Tracy agreed. “You’re right,” she said, “It’s only money,” which reflects MyBabbo’s seventh principle: “Give Back.”
After establishing foundation elements such as their guiding principles and a solid business plan, Tracy and Mirco are now in the process of incorporating MyBabbo. Their plan is to split shares evenly.
While it seems intuitive to go 50/50 in a couple-run start-up, not all businesses do so—nor should they. Rather, couples should consider who made the initial investment of time and money and who shoulders more responsibility. When Damiva incorporated, Sun and Smith did not take equal stakes in the company. Sun is the CEO (cheekily referred to as “the woman on top at Damiva”) and has “substantially more” shares than Smith, who is the president. “Ultimately we are business people, so we looked at the investment of money and time,” says Sun. “I hold a lot of responsibility for vision, financial return, and future opportunity.” A key step in establishing Damiva’s corporate governance was acknowledging who took the lead in the business. Smith adds, “When it’s 50/50, I think there is very little room for compromise; you can’t split the baby. If the relationship ends, one person has to buy the other out, or you shut down the business and distribute the proceeds.” But Smith insists he wouldn’t even accept equal shares. “It’s not right.”
Get Advisors On Board
David Smith, an advisor to family enterprises, says that establishing an advisory team can help couples develop a solid governance model. “High-level best practices in the early days are to put an advisory system in place, whether formal or not,” he says. He cautions against leaning too heavily on advisors who may be dependent on the business, such as lawyers or accountants, because their personal stake may colour their advice. A diversity of inputs in very important “to encourage a wider angle view,” says Smith.
Damiva recently established a formal board of directors. Prior to this, it retained advisors under consulting contracts. Its formal board now includes the CEO (Sun), the president (Smith), and a director who represents their investor group. The board’s mandate is to approve major expenditures, new hires, and executive terminations. Says Sun: “If you are going to bring in savvy, good investors, they are going to want a board of directors to protect their interests. And we didn’t want just any investors.” Smith concurs: “Health care is not a corner store. It is a globally competitive business.”
Even before establishing a formal board, Damiva created an arbitration clause to resolve disagreements about job performance. It was initially put in place to protect Smith as the minority shareholder. But now that Smith could potentially side with the third director to oust Sun, the provision protects her too. The assessment of “performance” can be subjective of course. “I don’t want to say we are disadvantaged as female CEOs, but we are in a unique position so we have to carve out these roles and pioneer in a way that a male CEO doesn’t need to.”
At MyBabbo, there is no formal board of directors as of yet. Instead, they have relied on a group of friends who bring marketing, operations, legal, and related perspectives. “We wanted to ensure a good representation,” says Mirco. The diverse advice validated their decision to adopt a business-to-business model with funeral homes (rather than a business-to-consumer model that might cover every life stage) to take advantage of an untapped market. Their advisory meetings were often casual dinners around their dining room table. Says Tracy: “We paid them with meatballs and good will.” Five years into their business, the Rossettis are now developing a more formal advisory process.
Define Distinct Roles
When a partnership spans both business and personal life, roles can get complicated. As marriages don’t have job descriptions, resentments often arise over how to divvy up housework, parenting, and financial contributions. Clarity takes on heightened importance when partners are negotiating more than whose turn it is to take out the trash.
Andrée Carpentier and Jordan Boesch, high school sweethearts who married in July 2013 after eight years of dating, didn’t wait nearly as long to enter into a business partnership. Four months after marrying, they took a tech accelerator program in Silicon Valley and shortly after launched 7shifts, a company that develops employee-scheduling technology. They started their company with a third co-founder, Johannes Lindenbaum.
Speaking from her office in Saskatoon, Carpentier recalls that mixing romance and business initially appeared risky. “One investor said he hadn’t seen many couples work well as business partners, but the only ones he saw who were successful had distinct responsibilities that didn’t overlap,” she says. The couple followed that advice. “Having clear distinctions in roles and decision-making helps us tremendously.”
Boesch takes responsibility for developing products while Carpentier oversees operations. That helped guide them through an early disagreement about industry specialization. Says Carpentier: “Jordan wanted to focus on the restaurant industry. I had a constant fear that we were missing out on a large market segment because 60 per cent of our clients at the time were not in the restaurant business. Jordan’s assessment was that the market was too saturated with generalist software. As concerned as I was, I respected his decision and agreed to just give it a whirl.”
It was the right call. Today, more than 90 per cent of 7shifts’ clients are restaurants, including major chains such as Boston Pizza, Burger King, and Booster Juice. 7shifts has expanded its roster of clients from 100 establishments in 2013 to more than 1,600 today. Over the past year, revenue has tripled and the company now employs a team of 14.
Delineation of roles is a best practice for the Damiva and MyBabbo couples as well. At MyBabbo, Mirco takes care of strategic planning, finance, and the inventory side of the business. Tracy leads sales, marketing, and their team of 15. Sun and Smith came from different silos in corporate America so they found it easy to divide and conquer, plus neither wanted the other to be constantly looking over their shoulder. “No senior businessperson would want to be micromanaged,” says Smith. “That would be extremely upsetting.”
Govern to Achieve Work-Life Balance
Since launching a start-up can be an all-consuming endeavour, the trickiest governance practice for co-founder couples is how to govern the balance between their work and romantic relationship. No one understands this more than Sun: “We work on extremely sensitive and taboo topics related to peri- and post-menopausal health. As our first suite of products is in the sexual health arena, we also delve deeply into relationship and intimacy topics in our daily conversations. So sometimes it seems that even our pillow talk is about work.”
What is Grant’s lawyerly advice on this topic? “Don’t lose sight of the fact that you still love your business partner. It’s important to maintain a relationship outside of business. Have fun. And you can have more fun after you deal with the governance stuff.”