Stocksy, the Vancouver-based stock photography seller, has an unusual approach to growth. It limits the number of artists it represents on its website. The reason: the company wants to make sure there’s enough business for every artist to make a living.
And that’s not the only way Stocksy has embraced a different way of doing business. It also distributes ownership shares to managers, founders, employees and artists, and all members of the company participate in decision-making.
This business represents a new category of activist entrepreneurs who deploy the full scope of their enterprise to drive social change, in Stocksy’s case, through revenue distribution, ownership and decision-making. The company embodies a feminist approach to business, and other social enterprises, interested in achieving their goals, have much to learn from this particular model.
True, social enterprises and feminist businesses have much in common. They both use the tools of commerce — especially products and revenues — to pursue social good. They both seek to address problems – reducing pollution caused by manufacturing, for example, or increasing access to capital in low-cash economies — by innovating and doing business differently. And, both tend to be led by people who want to put their values into practice.
But feminist businesses, like Stocksy, pursue their goals of equity both inside and outside their organizations. They practice the changes they seek day-to-day through their purchasing, product development, marketing, and even accounting; and they pursue social justice at every step so that their companies help transform on every level the social, political and economic systems in which they operate.
Unfortunately, many social enterprises focus only on external change. They imagine that their greatest effectiveness comes from generating revenue to support services, selling products people deeply need, creating opportunities for underserved groups, and so on. While social enterprises seek to help others become self-sufficient, healthier, or more sustainable, they overlook opportunities within their direct control to help their organizations innovate for themselves. That’s how we get enterprises that teach aid recipients to be empowered but don’t allow employees to design their own workflows. Or enterprises that give product away for free but pressure their suppliers for rock-bottom prices that leave suppliers struggling to meet payroll.
Too many social enterprises also pursue change in a gender-blind, race-blind way. They assume that economic empowerment can be achieved without addressing racism, or that sustainability can be implemented without addressing the gender dynamics that determine, for example, who would take on the extra work of recycling. What’s worse is that when social enterprises pursue specific positive social changes without seeking broader, systemic social justice, they actually undermine their own efforts. With one hand they are earnestly trying to fix some problem caused by economic or social structures, while the rest of their processes permit these structures to continue causing damage.
Another Vancouver-based company, Lunapads has built inclusive gender practices into its DNA. The company, which sells natural products to manage menstrual flow and bladder leakage, offers an explicitly trans-inclusive work culture and provides both maternity and paternity leave.
At the same time that Lunapads pursues the specific goal of transforming people’s experiences of their periods through the use of Lunapads’ products, the company pursues a larger social justice mission: to help all people have healthier relationships with their bodies. Lunapads not only addresses gender injustice, by reinforcing trans-inclusion in its marketing copy, but also uses its products and marketing messages to promote body confidence, candor and positivity. All of this is directed towards a social justice goal of ending gendered social shame around menstruation, postpartum needs, and incontinence.
Feminist businesses know that any company that isn’t consciously pursuing social justice is reinforcing a damaging system. There is no neutral. Even the most well-meaning social enterprises may fail to pursue social justice even as they try to promote specific social good. For example, we see companies provide warm coats to the homeless but fail to pay a living wage to the women who clean the company’s conference rooms. Or social enterprises that reduce waste by recycling plastic, but waste talent by not promoting women, and men of colour, into their top management teams. Or online marketplaces that help indigenous craftspeople find customers but hoard for their shareholders the additional revenue generated by advertisers on the site.
Social entrepreneurs can follow the example of feminist businesses and make social justice part of their overarching purpose. Working with tools like the Feminist Business Model Canvas (FBMC), social entrepreneurs can systematically ask themselves whether and how each element of their business might be redesigned to improve the relationships between different social groups participating in their networks. And instead of focusing only on their output — their products and services — as opportunities to drive change, they can harness the enormous power for change potentially available inside their very organizations.
If 2016’s political events (Trump, Brexit) taught us anything, it is that despite all the efforts to advance social justice and the incredible investments in social enterprises, social entrepreneurship, social innovation, and corporate social responsibility programming world-wide, since the introduction of then radical ‘hybrid” enterprise legal form (Community Interest Company in the UK in 2005), growth of the Skoll Forum for social enterprise, plus countless books, social enterprise incubators, and media showers, the needle did not move nearly far or fast enough for most.
We need new tools in the tool kit. And from where we sit, the next radical move for those who wish to use the power of business to catalyze social change is to embrace feminism, feminist business practice and feminist leadership principles.
CV Harquail, PhD, co-founder of FeministsAtWork, teaches entrepreneurship at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. She is a facilitator at the April 28 workshop, “Beyond Social Enterprise: Feminist Business Model Design Jam.” Read more from CV Harquail here.
Publisher’s Note: The Centre for Social Innovation, in partnership with feminist business publisher Liisbeth, is sponsoring a full-day workshop April 28 in Toronto that will demonstrate how all enterprises with social goals can benefit from the feminist business model and by using tools such as the Feminist Business Model Canvas (FBMC). You’re invited to experiment with these strategies, and learn how to build social change into every business node and every relationship in your value networks — including and especially inside your own organization. The sessions take place, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Center for Social Innovation Annex, 720 Bathurst St., Toronto, ON. To register, go to Eventbrite.com (put in link). Tickets: $95 Early Bird. $150, General. You can register or learn more here. Questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org .