Establishing a framework for decision-making isn’t meant to put you in a straightjacket; it’s intended to help you stay focused on the purpose that you’ve set for yourself — to create a successful business. Most of the time, there are alternative solutions to problems; the challenge of choosing the right one will force you to dig deep into your goals, motivations and values.
A decision-making framework guides your response to problems and solutions. It’s how you live the values that you determine are important to you, your business and even your product; and it ensures that those you do business with adhere to these same values. You will need to constantly test decisions against the values you want expressed by your business. It may sound like a lot of work, but we do some of this naturally all the time. Our values guide us instinctively.
What if your only goal is to maximize profits?
All businesses need to make money, but having that as your singular purpose would guide your decision-making framework. You would pay the lowest wages possible and rent the least expensive space you could find, regardless of its comfort for employees. You would escalate pricing and source the least expensive materials available, regardless of their impact on the environment. You would locate your business in the least expensive jurisdiction available. Indeed, you would make all your decisions to ensure one thing only: the best profit margin. Your employees and the quality of your product would be secondary to making money. You would not think about your clients and suppliers as partners, nor consider how your business impacted their business or your community. For most of us, this is an extreme example.
What does a sustainable business decision-making framework look like?
LiisBeth founder Petra Kassun-Mutch launched the first Platinum Leed certified dairy in Canada in 2008, to produce award-winning, cave-aged cheese. Petra decided her company — Fifth Town Artisan Cheese in Ontario’s Prince Edward County — would not only make excellent cheese but also be a sustainable business, applying a sustainability lens to every aspect. She aligned her personal values with her business goals in her framework for decision-making, and those guided her every step of the way.
Petra partnered with all of her suppliers, learning enough about the business of supplying goat or sheep milk to understand what she could and could not ask of her suppliers. She understood the seasonality of milk production, how farmers built up supply and what it meant if their milk wasn’t purchased. She didn’t ask farmers to do things that would hurt their business for the benefit of her own.
She not only made the manufacturing process sustainable, she also sourced sustainable, organic, raw product, and extended that to elements not obvious to clients and consumers such as the cotton in staff uniforms (organic and sourced through fair trade suppliers); and the packaging, wrapping paper and containers (organic inks and labels adhered with environmentally safe glue). For every aspect of the business, Petra considered and found the environmentally sustainable solution.
What was the impact of her approach? Fifth Town became the number one destination for tourists in Prince Edward County. In its first full year of business, sales hit $1.2 million. People loved the cheese, but they also travelled to experience the entire operation and environmental commitment that Petra had made.
There was a time when sustainability in business was a fringe concept, dismissed as unnecessary or unaffordable. That’s no longer the case, but Petra was ahead of the curve, and she had to keep herself on track, as there was no established path to follow. Creating a decision-making framework ensured everyone who worked with her knew the direction they were going and that taking shortcuts was not acceptable.
Can Feminism be a decision-making framework?
If we recognize that there is now greater comfort in embracing sustainable business practices, what can we extrapolate about embracing equity in the workplace as a decision-making framework? Is it just a matter of time until businesses realize the need for it? Would avoiding the misunderstood and maligned term “feminism” help more businesses adopt the framework for decision-making that could help them achieve more equitable workplaces?
There is no question that feminism is a more difficult decision-making framework to develop and apply, as it’s not simply a matter of sourcing different glue for labels. In fact, it is the glue. It will advance cohesion in the workplace and ensure the greatest contribution by everyone to your business and the economy. Why that isn’t the primary goal of all business, especially those that want to maximize profits, is confusing. Happy employees are the best employees. Happiness comes from having some autonomy in your work, being respected, treated equitably and seeing that the people around you are respected and doing work that is meaningful.
So why is there resistance to even talking about feminism? Perhaps it’s because people think of feminism as an ideology. But wasn’t environmentalism once considered an ideology? Today it’s understood as a practice. Would it really be that difficult for principles of equity to become universal practice? Perhaps there are other barriers to change that we’re not willing to call out. For example, feminism politicizes the process of gender analysis, and politics has yet to become a comfortable and inclusive domain for women.
Plus, applying an expressly feminist lens to your thinking makes you think harder about everything. Next time you make a decision, ask yourself if that decision impacts women differently than men? Is the price of the haircut in your salon higher for women than for men, for a similar cut? Is the cost of a massage the same? Is the cost of tailoring the same for a woman’s jacket as for a man’s? In fact, are alterations included in the price of a suit, as they typically are for a man’s and rarely for a woman’s? Are dry cleaning costs the same?
These are obvious consumer-based examples, but considering them will lead you to more difficult issues, such as pay equity, access to advancement, and mentoring, to name some of the most obvious that we need to discuss openly. Is the government supporting economic development practices that ensure women and men have equal access to capital, for example? Are government programs designed to advance the types of business that attract a higher percentage of men? If so, why? And what can be done to provide equitable support to the business initiatives of women? What’s driving the decisions that lead to inequity?
Learn to question assumptions. In this era of hi-tech, certain kinds of businesses are privileged as being more scalable and global and therefore more valuable. In that environment, how would a disposable diaper be viewed today or maybe a new girdle for women? Spanx, anyone?
Once you’ve put a framework for decision making into place, you’ll discover yourself using it for all sorts of things beyond business. I warn you, though, that will open your eyes to social, economic and political patterns that you probably won’t like. But as a citizen, you’ll then want to push others — government, organizations, and families — to develop an equity decision-making framework too.
Core values influence everything you do in life if they’re truly core to who you are. You don’t need to embed them when you live them. Still, there are lots of outside influences that may challenge those values, and developing the radar to question what may parade as a feminist value—but isn’t—is an important skill.
Recently, Gregory Cowles, who writes for the New York Times, had this to say about The Rainbow Comes and Goes, a book by the celebrity mother and son pair, Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper: “Vanderbilt is frank and sometimes salty, as when she confides that she faked all her orgasms until she met Howard Hughes.”
You may be thinking, what is the connection between faking orgasms and embedding feminist values in the operation of your company? It’s about speaking the truth. I was struck by the idea of “faking an orgasm.” What does it mean when a woman fakes an orgasm rather than telling her partner what she needs to achieve orgasm? There are layers of possibility: She doesn’t want her partner to feel inadequate; she doesn’t yet know how she can orgasm; she doesn’t enjoy sex with her partner; she’s uncomfortable with her own sexuality. Why can’t she speak the truth and tell her partner that she hasn’t or doesn’t orgasm but would like to, so can they work on it together?
Until we are able to speak up, speak out, and speak our truth, we will be barred from full equality. Women are frequently characterized as worrying more about being liked or coming across as too aggressive. We are not encouraged to claim credit for our own ideas, or claim the space to speak and be listened to. These behaviours are influenced by socialization. Temperament plays a part, but men and women with similar temperaments are socialized differently, with different encouragement and outcomes. When Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in, she was encouraging us to claim our space and use our voice. Desiring satisfying sex and knowing how to achieve it may have similarities to building a successful business.
Developing a feminist understanding of what is going on around you means observing, listening, and constantly questioning. That is how you build the confidence to speak up and find the voice that expresses your truth. Ask yourself who is speaking, whether they have a bias, and what it might be. Examine it and ask yourself why. Don’t assume that the person who speaks most is the most expert, that the person with the strongest opinion is the smartest, or that the most experienced person has the best connections. Questioning leads to uncovering the truth. It takes time and experience to develop the skills and the courage to question effectively.
I don’t think it’s possible to effectively embed values you don’t live by into your work. If you believe in equality, then you’ll be uncomfortable in a situation that is unequal. You’ll know because you’ll feel it. The felt sense is not just what’s in your head, but what’s in the pit of your stomach, which is a telling indicator. How do I know something is out of kilter? My breathing changes. I used to ignore it, thinking only what I think is important. Then along came EQ, or emotional intelligence, and the recognition that the most effective leaders have both intellectual and emotional intelligence. What used to be dismissed as women’s intuition is now recognized and validated as an essential component of being effective. Now I pay as much attention to what my body tells me. It’s the felt sense that often triggers the most critical analysis of what is going on around me.
Embedding feminist values into your life, and therefore your business, will involve challenging the status quo.
There are lots of things going on around us that are highly discriminatory, but sometimes you have to scratch the surface to discover them. Have you ever worked in a business environment where there is a cone of silence around salaries? Have you wondered why? The inference is that someone else isn’t getting the same salary as you, so don’t blow your advantage. But whose interest is it in to encourage people not to share their salaries? Not yours if you’re the one being discriminated against. Employees who accept being silenced are buying into inequity.
When information is open and shared, and everyone knows what it takes to get to a particular position or level, then there is no need to be secret. Silence reinforces secrecy, and secrecy encourages people to see themselves as winners or insiders. If you’re an insider, it means someone else is an outsider. And at any moment the tables can turn. Sometimes women covet the insider position, having long been denied it, but by being silent they actually advance inequality while believing they have broken through it.
Not every decision you make for your business will be overtly feminist. You may select a supplier because they have the best reputation. But if you accept that at face value, the business landscape will never change. Bringing feminism to your business may be as simple as checking your assumptions and questioning the common wisdom. When is the last time you intentionally checked to see if there were any women in your sector who could be a supplier? Perhaps there’s a supplier who has newer businesses just like yours and has not yet built up a long-standing reputation, but they know their stuff. You could help each other break through some of the “old club” barriers. The pie will only get bigger if you’re willing to roll the dough out farther. Just as your openness might benefit another woman’s business, the same could hold true for yours.
If you are a woman running a trucking company, I can guarantee that you will face barriers just because you’re a woman—and not because you can’t do the job. Take the time to check and see if you’re making, or accepting, any assumptions that men are better at the job because they’ve been doing it longer. Challenge yourself to think independently. Being passive in your decision-making is about as satisfying as a faked orgasm.
The only lesson I repeat again and again is to remember that we have all had a helping hand at some point along the way in life and business. For some, that help is big and obvious. For others, it’s so small that the person may not have realized it at the time. But no one does “life” alone. It’s important to remember that for yourself and for others. And if you do, then you’ll have embedded an important feminist value in your practice and beliefs.
Curling up with the Sunday New York Times is a ritual that goes back to my teen years. A couple of weeks ago on February 21st, I pulled my favourite sections—the magazine, Book Review, and Sunday Review—and headed to a coffee shop to pass a few hours.
In that one issue of the New York Times, I read four pieces that show how far women still have to go to achieve equality. When people say that the feminist struggle was yesterday’s battle, I want to know how they’ve drawn that conclusion. Who told them that? What advantage does that person have in perpetuating this lie?
I feel strongly about feminism. Even the word is important to me. It has been manipulated and hijacked, as women’s issues often are in the mainstream. But we would do well to remember the simple dictionary definition of feminism: “social, political, and economic equality for women.” There’s hardly anything radical or threatening in that definition so I don’t understand why most people wouldn’t be comfortable being a feminist under that banner. But the term is used in so many ways that have little to do with addressing inequality and a great deal to do with undermining the principles of equality by distracting, labeling, and demeaning women (and men) who call themselves feminists.
I have tried to understand younger women who say they need to define feminism for themselves, to claim it and make it their own. But I don’t really understand. I agree that younger women—or any individual, really—should be able to define for herself how she wants to live her life, and the great thing about democracy is that we can each do that to a large extent. But what would the new definition of feminism be that would suit younger women, if not social, political, and economic equality? Those fundamentals capture virtually anything that someone might want to claim as their definition of feminism, no less fairness.
And for women who say they’re humanists but not feminists (they’re not mutually exclusive), it’s not an adequate response because humanism doesn’t address political and economic equality.
The idea that “power can be taken, but not given,” a quote attributed to Gloria Steinem, concludes with, “The process of the taking is empowerment in itself.” The operative element in this is action. If women are coerced into believing that it’s unattractive to be a feminist, they are relinquishing their own power. Hillary Clinton’s attempt to become the first female president of the United States is complex and complicated by the men around her, starting with Bill. Whether you like her or not, this woman is undoubtedly the most qualified candidate running for the office, but look how her campaign is being dissected and deconstructed in ways that a man’s would not.
Consider the piece “Why Sexism at the Office Makes Women Love Hillary Clinton” by journalist and lawyer Jill Filipovic. She shines a clear light on some of that complexity as it is playing out with younger women who are supporting Bernie Sanders. The irony is that Sanders advocates for all sorts of things that he could not deliver on, but the sheer fact of expressing himself garners support. Clinton contains herself to what a president could accomplish, with an eye to addressing the systemic barriers that women still face. Yet she’s criticized for being status quo. What Clinton understands are the systemic structures that need to be disassembled, and she knows that women need to take action to disassemble them. Men may do it with us, but not for us.
If Clinton doesn’t make it to the White House, I don’t expect that I will see a female president in my lifetime. There are many countries that have elected female leaders, and they espouse as wide a range of political views as men. But amid the hypocrisy of the US—land of the free, built on the Horatio Alger myth of success—ultimate success appears to be reserved for Horatio not Hermione. Women are not part of the national mythology. Isn’t that reason enough to be a feminist?
It’s important not to confuse feminine with feminism. One doesn’t cancel the other. You can be a feminist and be as feminine as you like. But if you want to understand what it means to have a paternalistic hand define your femaleness, then read the piece in The New York Times Magazine titled “Over Bearing” by Emily Bazelon. This fascinating—and frightening—piece is an excellent example of inequality being paraded as protection for women. Why is a women’s right to choose and have control over her own body being challenged and distorted in Texas and many other US states? This is not about protecting women; it’s about controlling women. It’s an attempt to remove a fundamental right from women under a guise that is not applied to other medical procedures because those don’t involve control of self. Abortion, more than anything, is about control.
Another piece, “It’s Not Cute To Be Scared” by Caroline Paul, focuses on girls and had me nodding in recognition and agreement. My father wouldn’t buy me a bicycle in 1958 because he couldn’t afford insurance (he probably couldn’t afford the bicycle either) and was afraid that if I fell off and hurt myself, he’d be unable to “protect” me. That was the same reason I couldn’t ride a horse or swim in the ocean. He projected all his fears onto me, his little girl. He had a pony when he was a little boy and he survived a broken arm when he fell off. He had a near-drowning incident, which forced him to become a good swimmer. And when he finally brought home a rusty old bike, he rode it down the street, sitting backwards on the handlebars. Who knows what provoked that prank? But he survived living, which most of us do, even when he took risks.
I doubt he would have been so afraid for me if I had been a son. When my own son was born, I promised myself—for him—that I would not let my fears hold him back. I explored the natural world without fear and encouraged him to explore it too so he would not assume girls were perpetually scared. I ran and played ball with him. We built a fort and a tree house together. I was the best Lego-assembler mom around. I’m still not a strong swimmer, but I took him for lessons when he was a baby.
The last New York Times headline that caught my eye, “The Female Pilots We Betrayed” by Sarah Byrne Rickman, is required reading to understand why feminism is important. It will break your heart while inflaming you with rage. Sometimes injustice is so raw that its reasons are hard to comprehend, and this is one of those cases. If any of the men with whom these women served could speak from their grave, would they deny their female comrades the dignity of recognizing their accomplishments? I somehow doubt it because their reasons would be ruled by meaningful experiences, not by ideology, policy, and prejudice. Read the article and then answer the question: are you a feminist? Do you believe in social, political, and economic equality for women? If you say no, then you will be indifferent to the women who served as pilots alongside men in World War II and the fact that the US Army prevents them from having their ashes laid to rest alongside their fellow veterans. If you can withstand the blatant unfair sexism and not feel enraged by the treatment of these heroes, then you really aren’t a feminist. And how sad for you.
(Publishers Footnote: Over the past week, LiisBeth attended several women’s events in downtown Toronto, with audiences of 500+. During question period, I asked the speakers, all women in executive roles, and many who attended, if they identified as feminists. One said yes, and the rest said categorically said no. I was genuinely surprised followed by deeply disappointed. If Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can call himself a feminist, why do so many Canadian women, especially those in positions of significant corporate power and influence find it difficult to do so? Some of the explanations, including “because I have two boys at home” or “its an outdated idea” reads uninformed at best. Perhaps Margaret Wente in March 8th’s Globe and Mail has the answer? We think its time women entrepreneurs and their corporate sisters unlearn, re-learn, and re-connect with feminism. It remains the worlds only large scale, international, yet multi-faceted movement that ultimately works for equality and inclusion. Can you be supportive of equality and inclusion and not call yourself a feminist? Sure. But what’s the point. When you say feminist, you are really saying you are part of something bigger than yourself. When you say feminist, you also say you are actively engaged in making a difference on these issues).
Here are three true stories about my early business experiences.
It was 1981. The Ontario Government had been offering a loan guarantee program to publishers since 1973. It was an attempt to address the financial crisis that the nascent Canadian-owned publishing industry was facing. I met with the bureaucrat who ran the program to talk about applying. Our sales revenue and cultural grants had a 2:1 ratio, for a total of $65,000. I didn’t have a penny to put into the business myself, so selling books was the only way we could grow, a reasonable proposition. But we had to produce the books before we could sell them, and that required money.
The bureaucrat, who I’ll call Brutto (it happens to be Italian for nasty), was arrogant and dismissive. Not only was he discouraging, he basically told me not to waste his time. He completed his put-down by saying, in effect, “Don’t you know that even the smallest mom-and-pop corner store has revenues in excess of $100,000?” What he didn’t say but inferred was, “You’re a joke.”
The second story took place a few years later. By now, the company’s annual sales revenues alone exceeded $500,000, which for Canadian publishing was not bad. I was asked to speak to a group of women entrepreneurs alongside a female executive from one of the big banks. She was clearly on the rise. What she shared with us had tremendous resonance for me. She told us that women tend to run businesses for five to 10 years before applying for their first line of credit. They show the bank how they’ve made money year over year. They usually don’t pay themselves much and instead, plow all their profits back into the business. They grow, they build up staff, and they want to get to the next level but can’t on the current cash flow. That’s when they think about getting a $25,000 line of credit. The amount they ask for is usually small, often too small. When they get approved, they look surprised and may even act as if the bank is doing them a favour.
By comparison, the bank executive said, men come in and present a business plan for an idea. They talk about it, share their enthusiasm and conviction that the idea will work, and ask for $75,000 to finance it. With the money that the bank gives them, they put $30,000 into the business and $45,000 toward a BMW. They’ve just told the world they’re a success. But their rate of business success is actually less than the rate of women.
The third story took place in 1993. At this point the business was bringing in several million dollars in sales revenue and had $1 million dollars in retained earnings. I went to the bank we had been dealing with from the beginning and asked for a loan to finance the purchase of a building. The building would cost just more than $1 million. The bank told me to bring my husband in to guarantee the loan. My husband had nothing to do with the business. I wrote a very nasty letter to the banker and everyone up the chain, then found a new banker who said that whatever happened, she would not insult me and she would do the best she could to help. In the end, she could not give us the amount we asked for. Because we had effectively been acting as our own banker with the retained capital and were in a very good position, she explained why she thought the amount she was offering was enough. She said ultimately we had to be comfortable with the decision we made. In the end we accepted her loan offer and she was right—it was enough. Our growth was so rapid that we easily handled the mortgage expense and loan. Within 18 months, our cash flow was sufficient to rebuild retained earnings.
What lessons am I trying to share with these stories? While my experiences date back 35 years, statistics still show that women entrepreneurs start smaller and grow more slowly, they don’t get as big, they underestimate themselves and/or their business along the way, and will avoid risk to the point of underfinancing. Any entrepreneur can grow too slowly and be risk-averse, but it happens more with women in part because banks have historically not been keen to support women’s initiatives, take them seriously, and help them learn. Not being taken seriously diminishes the potential of any business. While growing slowly might mean you probably sleep better at night, which is not a bad thing, it’s not possible to be an entrepreneur and avoid risks altogether. It’s possible to run at a different pace of growth and still progress, but it’s essential that you are controlling the pace of growth. If you’re not, growing too slow can be a sign of challenges ahead.
Finding advisors you trust and who understand both you and your business is key. I moved all our business to a banker who didn’t patronize me. She helped me understand her analysis and that it wasn’t in her interest to set me up to fail. She also respected me and my decision-making process, which increased my confidence in her and also myself. She loaned me enough money—and not more—so that the business could continue to succeed. I learned to be less fiscally conservative and to crow about our successes more. She became a friend and remains one to this day. What she taught me beyond the mechanics of the analysis was to trust my knowledge and my instinct. She brought a layer of analytics to the review that I didn’t have. She never suggested that her analysis was more important than my knowledge about the business and the marketplace. By listening closely to me and learning about the history of the company, she recognized I had what it took to continue building on the success we had achieved to that point.
So what’s the take-away? Trust yourself. There is a lot of noise out there; everyone has an opinion and loves to give advice. Don’t be intimidated or bullied into questioning your judgment, but that doesn’t mean ignoring the value of what people have to say. There are nuggets of wisdom everywhere. Remain curious. A Dragons’ Den mentality is not required to succeed, and don’t let anyone try to convince you that it is.
Why do I get to write for a series called Wisdom Corner? What claim do I have to wisdom that anyone else writing for LiisBeth couldn’t share? Quite simply, I may have more of the attributes of wisdom – experience, knowledge and good judgment – because I’m older, have lived longer, and simply have had more experiences. So I’ve claimed it.
When I graduated from university, I expected to get a job. I never thought about not finding work; my greatest concern was not to be pigeonholed into some traditional role that would require typing. I could type but I hadn’t gone to university so that I could get a job using the skill. This was well before computers, and today, everyone types – but not as well as I do. I can really type.
I walked into my first job – literally. I got off the elevator in a building the address for which I had taken out of the Yellow Pages – that’s right, the old fashioned phone book. And I started to tell the receptionist, a young woman, that I was looking for a job when someone walked by and stopped. When I had finished, he said, “Come with me,” and told me to repeat what I had said to someone else. I was told that a team of writers was being hired to write curriculum; leave a resume and they’d call me in two weeks. They did and they offered me a job.
Even recounting that story, I can’t believe it happened. That’s how easy it was to find work in 1972 if you were white, educated, relatively articulate and lived in a big city. All my jobs came that easily, and not because I was doing anything extraordinary. But in 1978 I moved cities and country, and was bored with what I had been doing, which was plucking seemingly interesting jobs like low hanging fruit from trees. And that is when things changed. This time I didn’t walk into a job, but I fell into a career.
Only in hindsight do I know that the fall broke open an untapped ability. I became an entrepreneur. No one talked about entrepreneurship in those days, least of all me. Business was what men did, and it involved money, of which I had none. I had what was affectionately known as sweat equity, and a supportive partner. The sweat equity is another way of saying that you don’t pay yourself enough to live but you’re working up a sweat doing it. Until I got on my feet, my partner kept food on the table and a roof over our heads. It took a couple of years for me to land.
So where’s the wisdom in this good luck story? Life is comprised of the unexpected, the unplanned, a bit of luck and a lot of hard work. Sometimes luck is simply being in the right place at the right time, and seeing that there’s a golden ring to grab. Sometimes it’s an epiphany when you recognize an opportunity that no one else has noticed. Sometimes it’s brilliance. It’s almost always about timing. And it’s always about hard work. Becoming an entrepreneur is also about taking control of a very big aspect of your life, and it’s not for the faint of heart. But as I will explore from my perch, there are many reasons for looking to work that is more than a job. Some of the benefits may surprise you. Did you know, the more control people have over their work lives, the happier they tend to be? Think about that times thirty or forty years. That’s a lot of additional happiness. And it’s not just that you are in charge, because you may be sharing the top spot with others, with whom you share responsibility. But it’s about more than just the work; it’s about the way in which you work, the values you bring to the work, the honesty with which you make your decisions.
Being an entrepreneur is first about being a businesswoman. As we share this space over time, you’ll discover how and why I think moving from a job to building a business was one of the best and most surprising things that ever happened to me.