Categories
Feminist Practices

Projecting the Light

Every night, a vibrant sun rises on the façade of a 200-year-old temple in Queretaro, Mexico, followed by a mountain and dessert flowers springing from the ground, giant guitars and fruit baskets, a toro’s head draped in a garland of flowers. The fiesta of light is the brainchild of Mexican-Canadian entrepreneur Emma López, the Creative Director and Co-Founder of AVA Animation and Visual Arts Inc.

In 2016, she was hired by the local tourism board to do what the Temple of Santa Rosa de Viterbo, with its baroque architecture and artistic masterpieces, could not: Keep tourists in the bustling city centre after dusk. She created a jaw-dropping lightshow that illuminates the front of the temple with animation celebrating the natural heritage and culture of the region.

The installation went viral on social media, and soon tourists and locals who avoided the area after sundown were flocking to see the whimsical display, filling up hotels and restaurants. Street vendors churned out profits selling themed merchandise.

One could say, art saved the day, or rather the city’s nightlife and re-activated the local economy.

López saw the transformative power of public art, to build connections and communities. “Some people might see it as an empty form of entertainment, but I see it as an opportunity for positive socialization and community engagement and something that could trigger important changes in our behaviors and our overall moods.”

But to realize her own dream, the pioneer in the field of light projection mapping had to leave her native Mexico – three times.

Learning on the Global Stage

Born in Villahermosa, Mexico, López studied Graphic Design at Universidad de las Américas, where she met her husband, Pedro Narvaez. After graduating, they moved to Toronto to build their reel as freelance graphic designers, working together on animation projects with such companies as MuchMusic and CBC.

They moved back to Mexico to start their company, AVA Animation, but struggled building a network of clients. The couple looked overseas to bolster their reputation and credentials. A client in Yerevan, Armenia hired them to do a light show for the Armenian Opera House. A 3D mapping house in Beirut flew them in to teach them the pioneering techniques of animation mapping.

Says López: “Ten years ago, there were no examples online, no references, so it was an amazing process of discovery, trial and error, see what works, learning, and trying to translate all of the knowledge of animation and design that we already have into these new mediums.”

They soon landed opportunities at festivals across Europe, winning awards in Amsterdam, Moscow and Japan and realizing the potential of what their work could achieve. Those credits helped them win their first project on their return to Mexico— the initiative in Queretaro, which garnered national attention.

For the next 10 years, AVA Animation thrived, building installations and light shows for companies all over Mexico, but that growth came with its own set of challenges. Many clients did not care to deal with a woman entrepreneur. “It’s annoying,” says López of Mexico’s ‘machismo’ culture. “We had some clients who couldn’t even look me in the eyes, but they do see my husband!”

Narvaez became the public face of the company, dealing with clients who didn’t want to work with a woman. That blatant sexism rankled López who built the company to reflect her core feminist values, for instance, rejecting projects that involved objectifying women. When a sport-marketing client asked AVA to project cheerleaders in a way that was demeaning to women, they turned down the project—against the advice of their business advisors.

“We won’t do anything that we don’t feel comfortable with,” says López. “We don’t work on anything we won’t show our daughters, for example. So, there could be money in football and shows but that’s not the thing that we do.”

López appreciates having a business and life partner who deeply supports her values and believes in what she can do. She has a 51% ownership in the company, mostly to make a statement that AVA is a proud feminist enterprise, but they share the work 50/50. López focuses on the creative and client management, while her husband handles the technical side of projects such as the lens calculations, projector placements and software. She describes it as “a process of building on top of what your partner is building, and then you see the reflective work of a team.”

Building a Feminist Future

Her husband supported her decision to leave Mexico a third time, this time to escape the misogyny in business and the wider culture. She was concerned about safety, for herself and her daughters–government statistics show a sharp increase in femicides, 137 percent over the last five years.

“The way I was raised in Mexico,” says López, “there was always an anxiety of being a woman and having to be aware of everything—and the mental baggage was really hard.” She says people are starting to protest now, citing the March 2020 march that saw tens of thousands of people hit the streets across the country to demand government action on the high rate of violence against women. “It’s something that’s been there for a long time. So, I wanted to spare [my children].”

But the move back to Canada was not easy. A legal mistake in their immigration application meant López had to return to school in order for her and her family to continue living in Canada. For two years, she juggled work and care of two toddlers while attending Seneca College for animation.

“[My husband and I] basically felt like we were hitting rock bottom,” she says. “But we realized that going to school allowed us to start building connections, because teachers at the school realized we were doing things differently, that we were doing things with an intention and we already had so much knowledge.” She went onto pursue a Master’s of Art and Animation at OCAD University and participated in the Canadian Film Centre’s Fifth Wave.

Mark Jones, the Chair of Creative Arts and Animation at Seneca College, helped AVA Animation get their first gig in Toronto — their class graduation ceremony, for which they did a large-scale projection of classmates’ work on stage at the Steam Whistle Brewery. This opened doors for several more projects commissioned by international tourism associations, ad agencies, theme parks, light festivals and private events. Their installations can cost anywhere from $10,000 upwards to a million and their permanent staff of four to six can swell with independent contractors, depending on the scope of a project.

Taking Art to the Streets

Since COVID-19, López has seen an increase in city commissions, as cities look to create safe artistic experiences by animating streets with public art. For BigArtTO, a city-led initiative, AVA worked with local artists to project their work onto the sides of buildings and landmarks across Toronto. Working with other artists was a first. “We learned to make spaces like a canvas for other artists, and help them show their work and transform the city with light and experiences to allow communities to feel connected, but in a safe way.”

The company just signed on to another large-scale project with the film and music video producer Director X and museums across the city of Toronto to share untold stories about historic locations in Toronto. Part of this series features a short film on the first abolitionist meeting at St. Lawrence Market, which AVA Animation will project on the walls of the historic market.

“We transform spaces with light and transport people to places they’ve never seen before,” says López, “It’s the wow factor. When it comes to life, it’s like there’s a new skin on the structure.”

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Our Voices

“How Can We Support You?”

Immigrant Women in Business (IWB) Group. Photo provided.

In 1986, when then Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev allowed citizens to become private entrepreneurs, Svetlana Ratnikova lined up at 4 in the morning to register her first business selling car seat covers. “I was one of the first female entrepreneurs in Moscow in Russia,” says the now-52-year-old who immigrated to Canada in 1994 and shifted gears to become a social-impact entrepreneur.

Svetlana Radnikova, founder, Immigrant Women in Business (IWB). Photo Provided

Flash forward to over three decades later, Ratnikova is now the founder and CEO of Immigrant Women in Business (IWB), a network of female entrepreneurs whose mandate is to support and mentor other up-and-coming female immigrant entrepreneurs.

Founded in 2017, the nonprofit now boasts 75 founding members who pay a sustaining membership of $2,500 [NS1] and hundreds of members paying $29.70 or $49.70 a month (depending on their membership tier)[NS2] . The group is highly diverse, with more than 75 countries around the world represented and members working in a variety of fields, from pharmaceuticals sales to public speaking and coaching. Anywhere from 50 to 80 people routinely attend their events: four networking mixers and four educational seminars every month. Their annual International Women’s Day events draws hundreds of women for a day of celebration and networking.

IWB also provides micro-loans to help immigrant start-ups launch and connects new Canadians with mentors. Typically, these mentors are founding members of IWB, who all have experience in their fields and a vested interest in the success of immigrant women. They guide their mentees in everything and anything needed to thrive as a business owner—from leadership skills, to public speaking, to online marketing.

Maria Carolina Ojeda, who recently became a founding member, describes how her early encounters with IWB helped her relaunch and grow her business.  At a one-on-one meeting to discuss her business strategy, Ratnikova immediately pinpointed a crucial aspect of Ojeda’s cleaning service that wasn’t working out. “[Ratnikova] went over all of my social media, like all of them,” recalls Ojeda. “And then she started telling me, ‘Okay, what you need to do is to get more exposure.’” Ojeda updated her social media profiles with help from Ratnikova and other IWB members, which she credits for her company’s growth—Ratnikova then helped Ojeda access co-op students to hire as administrative assistants to help handle her new clients.

The idea to start IWB came to Ratnikova when she noticed it was hard to find mentors and connections who understood her experiences and goals. She felt she never fit in at networking events, even those for women. They couldn’t relate to her struggles or her successes. “There’s a different type of thinking between people who were born in this country and people who are immigrants,” she says. “When I talk to immigrants, we talk like sisters, because we have similar experiences. They already are risk takers, just like me.”

IWB group photo. Svetlana Radnikova first row on the left. Photo provided.

Jacqueline Dixon, one of IWB’s founding members, agrees. “[The experience of being an immigrant] is what binds us together in such a strong way,” she says. “The fact that we’re able to see each other for who we really are, and identify that women, regardless of their cultural background, face a lot of the same obstacles.”

The women in IWB don’t specifically talk about feminism or use the word “feminist;” their goal is female empowerment, to lift each other up and create a space for immigrant women to thrive. They don’t need (or necessarily want) to put a label on the work they do. Ratnikova [NS3] says a lot of them believe it is a privilege to be an entrepreneur. “People always say, ‘Oh, immigrants that come to this country, poor them.’ No, we are actually very fortunate, because this country gives us the chance to be who we are.”

Events and meetings are raucous and energetic, just like the members themselves. Given the group’s diversity, conflicting opinions and heated discussions can arise but IWB members are committed to looking beyond differences and focusing on what they share. This commitment to bonding over similarities has created a supportive network of women ready to help at every turn, in any way that they can. They all understand, and can sympathize with, what it’s like to be a newcomer.

“You’ll never get it until you’ve made that step yourself and went to this country without money, without friends, without any network, when you don’t speak a word of English and you have to make it,” Ratnikova emphasizes. “That experience makes you a different human being.”

Conversations at events and within the group itself centre around getting to know each other very well. Questions about culture, goals, next steps, barriers to success, and risk-taking dominate discussions at IWB meetings. These “really deep questions,” says Dixon, is what leads to finding commonalities and forging relationships and a support system that’s personalized for a member’s needs.

Ratnikova believes the relationships that these women build with one another are integral to businesses in general but especially important to new Canadians who might otherwise face barriers in making critical connections. Dixon agrees: It’s all about “enabling them to build skill sets and networks that will allow them to survive.” There’s an understanding between members that when you move to a new country, you don’t know anyone, don’t speak the language and just need a little support to get you up and running.

After every new person at the speed networking event I attended introduced themselves, Ratnikova asked the speaker this simple yet moving question: “How can we support you?” And, though I was there to research this article, members at the Zoom event welcomed me with open arms, insisting I send them my previous work to pass along to anyone who might be looking for writers. In just my first encounter with IWB, the support and enthusiasm was overwhelming.

Perhaps the reason the group is so successful is because of the great love and respect these women have for one another—enough to share with anyone new who stumbles into an IWB event. “It’s really a sisterhood of women with way too much energy,” says Dixon. “There’s just this real wonderful love. You cannot leave an IWB meeting not pumped up and ready to conquer whatever obstacles are in front of you.”

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Categories
Activism & Action Feminist Practices

Brewing Up A Revolution

 

Annabel Kalmar, Founder, Tea Rebellion,  Photo by PC Foo

Annabel Kalmar learned first-hand how hard it is for farmers to earn fair prices for their products. As a student of agriculture economics in the late 1990s, she harvested coffee in the fields of the Dominican Republic, interviewing farmers along the way. The experience sparked a passion for changemaking.

“I wanted to help farmers get access to a different way to market,” explains the German-born entrepreneur, who went on to work in microfinance with the World Bank, earn an MBA at the London School of Business, and work in the UK as a business strategist.

Recently, she pivoted to entrepreneurship as a means for changemaking. After moving to Toronto with her husband and three children in 2017, Kalmar launched Tea Rebellion. Her idea—two decades in the steeping—is to disrupt the way tea is traditionally marketed, traded, and consumed. By buying and selling single-source, direct-trade tea, her company creates economic opportunities for several female-led farms in developing countries, takes an active role in community building, and supports organic farming methods.

But Kalmar’s ambitions aren’t just altruistic. She grew up in Germany drinking loose-leaf black tea, but what she tasted of London tea culture failed to impress.

“I was always disappointed with what was in front of me,” says Kalmar, explaining that mass-produced teas are typically blended from multiple sources, then finely ground and packaged in bags. What ends up in the cup, she contends, is undrinkable without sugar and milk.

As a student of agriculture economics, Kalmar had seen how new trade models transformed chocolate, coffee, and wine. Educated consumers came to appreciate—and pay more for—flavours associated with particular regions, ensuring that growers of those premium products are fairly compensated.

“A lot of people learn about wine, but they know nothing about tea,” says Kalmar. “I wanted to bring that knowledge and appreciation of the origins to more tea drinkers.”

With Tea Rebellion, she intends to shake up the status quo. “I’m not just selling tea.”

Instead of participating in the commodity markets in tea-growing countries—many with roots in colonialism—Kalmar initially sought out fair-trade certified suppliers. Since her World Bank days, she knew the certification system could improve working conditions on farms by setting standards for fair pay and ethical treatment of producers. She reached out to Fair Trade Canada and began contacting farmers.

To her surprise, farmers were not saying, “Oh great, let’s do fair trade,” remembers Kalmar. “The farms I talked to said it’s too difficult. It creates additional costs. There is too much bureaucracy.”

Rather, the farmers—even some fair-trade certified producers—pointed to direct trade as a preferred alternative.

Both fair trade and direct trade have their places, according to Kalmar. They may create similar results in some cases, but they start with different goals.

Fair trade aims to improve the lives of farmers by setting ethical and environmental standards and creating transparency. Certification establishes minimum prices to ensure farmers are paid fairly. Incidentally, fair-trade standards may also improve the quality of the end product.

Tracey Mahr, tea lover and fellow traveler to Kanchanjangha, Dunbar Kumari, founding mother of the tea cooperative, and Annabel Kalmar, founder of Tea Rebellion /Photo by Nichsal Banskota

 

The goal of direct trade is to bring premium products to market. This model allows farmers to differentiate their products and charge prices that are typically higher than the minimums set in fair-trade systems. Higher prices will almost certainly improve the lives of farmers.

Kalmar dug into the research and discovered that many consumers are confused by a recent proliferation of certifications, which influenced her decision to change her strategy to direct trade.

Tea Rebellion now buys from six farms around the world: Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, Nepal, Kenya, and Malawi. That allows Tea Rebellion to work with smaller, socially minded farms—not just those that are scaled to afford a fair-trade certification process.

The direct relationship means there is no middleman; Kalmar can visit frequently to influence the end product and the social impact of the farm.

In Nepal, Kalmar helped raise CAD$10,000 to build a primary school for the children of workers living on the tea farm. The school will save some 30 children from walking several hours over rough terrain to attend school, which improves attendance and frees parents to work consistently.

In Malawi, Kalmar chose to buy from a farm that provides health care infrastructure for the community surrounding the farm. In Japan, where chemical farming methods have historically been the norm, Tea Rebellion works with a pioneer of organic farming.

In three of the six farms she buys from, Kalmar has formed close partnerships with women in leadership positions, strengthening their positions in what has been a male-dominated business. She didn’t initially set out to work with female-led farms, but she found that in developing countries where language or gender created barriers, she was able to form better relationships with farms where women led.

For example, in Taiwan, Kalmar works with Ai Fang, one of two daughters involved at Jhentea, a family-owned farming operation. Ai Fang has worked in the family business since the age of 18, learning the art and science of tea growing, processing, packaging, and brewing from her mother.

Kuei Fang and Annabel Kalmar, Yilan Country, Photo by Ai Fang

According to Jhentea’s website, the company was founded by a man in the early 19th century, but a marital split in the mid-20th century left a woman in charge. She was the first female tea master in the region, and ever since the farm has been passed down to female family members. Ai Fang’s daughter, Valencia, who is now learning about tea, represents the next generation.

In Shizuoka, Japan, the Kinezuka family operates NaturaliTea, a cooperative of farmers. Though the farm’s formal leaders are men, Kalmar formed a direct business relationship with one of male founder’s two daughters, including Tamiko Kinezuka, who manages the farm’s tea processing and is responsible for quality control. That relationship has been beneficial to her career.

“In Japan, the tea industry is still overwhelmingly controlled by older men at all levels, from the farms to the markets,” Kinzuka explains. “Some of this is changing as younger generations take over, but the shift is very slow. Working with someone like Annabel allows us to demonstrate the unique contributions that we can make, and prove our commitment to rejuvenating a stagnating industry.”

Kalmar loves to share the stories of growers she works with, shining a spotlight on tea producers through Tea Rebellion’s packaging, website, and social media. When tea drinkers know more about growers, growing methods, and the country of origin, they can learn to appreciate the difference between the chocolatey undertone of a black tea from the high mountains of Nepal, and the bright and floral flavour of a black tea grown in Taiwan. Says Kalmar, “I want to help people develop their palates.”

By telling the tale behind each tea, Tea Rebellion also shares power with farmers. They can then develop recognizable brands, creating a rationale for higher prices, which injects more money and investment into their communities.

Kalmar has a vision that would connect tea growers and tea drinkers, as well as put Tea Rebellion on the tips of tongues everywhere. She would like to rival a global brand like Twinings as the “go-to” for tea drinkers, and source tea in many more tea-growing countries.

For now, Kalmar is bootstrapping her business growth, investing her own funds, working from home, and depending on interns to lend a hand. Her website lists 24 types of tea (you can order direct) and she sells to some 25 retailers, most of them in Toronto. Prices are similar to other premium brands, though competing North American labels such as Tease and David’s Tea don’t promise single-sourced products.

Kalmar’s goals include hiring a team and marketing her brand at tea festivals and conferences around the world. That will require a significant investment, and she’s gearing up to present her idea to investors.

But the ultimate goal is to build prosperous tea farms. “If I can build a sustainable business with Tea Rebellion, I can support these farms for the next 10, 20, 30 years,” she says. “And that’s really what I want.”


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Categories
Activism & Action Our Voices

Risky Business? Maybe Not

 

 

 

Pramilla Ramdahani, CEO and founder, Community Innovation Lab

“You are risk takers, don’t listen to that stuff. You are risk takers because, quite frankly, you raise families, you have children, you move countries, you move cities, you have had enormous risk in your life!”

That message from Women on the Move’s CEO Heather Gamble—to ignore such axioms as “women can’t succeed in business because they don’t take risks”—had particular resonance for this audience of women business founders, some of whom had endured extreme risk, such as immigrating to Canada, heading single households, and surviving intimate partner violence. And the point was particularly impactful coming from an entrepreneur who reached $1 million in revenue just 18 months after launching her first startup.

As a revenue accelerator devoted to helping other women entrepreneurs reach the million-dollar milestone, Gamble is also a faculty mentor of The Refinery, a unique business growth program designed by women for women out of the Community Innovation Lab (iLab), a hub for entrepreneurs based one hour east of Toronto in Oshawa, Ont., where it serves the Durham Region.

Pramilla Ramdahani started the non-profit iLab as a way to tackle community social issues through an innovative lens in an ethnically diverse region with pockets hard-hit by job losses. Ramdahani, who has an MBA in community economic development and studied social entrepreneurship at Stanford University, left her own successful enterprise and bootstrapped iLab for three years before landing any kind of substantial funding. Talk about taking a risk. Eventually, the Ontario Trillium Foundation funded iLab’s most in-demand seminar, which morphed into The Refinery and will support 1,335 women through 2020.

Ramdahani says she started The Refinery after noticing two needs in the region: entrepreneurial training for women and assistance for marginalized women. After seeking feedback from the community through roundtable events, Ramdahani realized that women wanted a founder’s program created and staffed by women, to serve women. Women said they felt safer in smaller rooms with doors rather than one large open hall. They also said they have different and more open conversations when the instructors are female. Plus, they like to support each other. According to Brenna Ireland, director of operations for iLab, the women wanted a program to strengthen “business and personal ties to better the community, not just compete against each other.”

So, no, a traditional male-led accelerator would not do.

Yet, The Refinery is more than an all-female accelerator

At the earliest stages, LiisBeth founder Petra Kassun-Mutch designed a curriculum for women-only programs that helped infuse feminist entrepreneurial values throughout iLab’s work—business counselling and training, building opportunities and networks, mentoring, and widening access to capital. (Researchers Barbara Orser and Catherine Elliott define feminist entrepreneurship as “a mechanism to create economic self-sufficiency and equity-based outcomes for women, girls, and other gender-oppressed communities.”) All entrepreneurs at iLab are coached with the end goal of achieving autonomy, and by extension, strengthening their community with hiring and spin-off economic activity from new ventures.

Refinery Incubator participants in session

The Refinery includes a three-day boot camp, a year of intensive training delivered online and at the iLab centre, optional seminars on such topics as social media marketing, and opportunities to receive year-long mentoring from an established entrepreneur. Women learn how to access capital, build strong teams, scale processes, and generate sales.

The Refinery supports entrepreneurs working in a variety of sectors including business services, media, wellness and coaching, automotive sector, food, gift products, and human resources (note it’s not just tech). Women are guided to discover their own strengths and ideas, rather than the staff deciding which businesses would be best for them. According to Ramdahani, The Refinery is about “integrating empathy, social justice, and user-led techniques.”

The women-centric support and camaraderie is particularly important for abuse survivors, who face additional challenges when starting a business. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in the U.S., survivors may have endured years of economic abuse, including tactics that damage their credit, deplete their resources, and prevent them from completing education and training. They may face ongoing threats of violence even after leaving an abuser, as well as legal issues and long-term mental and physical effects of trauma. Survivors may also have spotty employment records. Child care is often difficult to arrange after years of social isolation. And while all entrepreneurs may struggle with confidence, survivors must overcome low self-esteem brought on by years of abuse. They may also fear publicity or the idea of bringing their business online given that abusers often continue stalking and harassing their victims, in person and online. To top it off, survivors likely live under the poverty line and struggle to pay for food, shelter, utilities, and transportation expenses, leaving little to bootstrap a new business.

But the same policy research group also notes that survivors have strengths and resilience that may serve them well in entrepreneurship. The reality of managing a relationship with an abusive partner may require the same skills exhibited by the most successful CEOs: calculated risk-taking, thoughtful action, tough-mindedness, the ability to read people, problem solving, and determination.

In Oshawa, where iLab is based, domestic violence calls to police increased by 15 percent between 2013 and 2017, but the actual rate is much higher, as 70 percent of spousal violence is not reported to the police, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

One survivor in The Refinery program (she asked to remain anonymous), who started a new business service while caring for elderly relatives, says she still suffers side effects from an earlier abusive relationship and has been grappling with relocation. She received much-needed sales, marketing, and financial training from The Refinery, but it was the all-female setting that was most critical. “It provides a safe spot,” she said. “Because after you’ve been victimized, you’re vulnerable and your confidence is shot. And so, any time a man is in the room, it’s a different dynamic than when you’re surrounded by women.”

She recommends The Refinery to “anybody that is looking to flesh out their business, anybody looking to ramp up their business, and who needs to build up a network of people. It certainly gives you all the supports that you need.”

The Refinery and iLab strive to create a safe space for all by requiring instructors to undergo police checks, as well as privacy and sensitivity training. The board of directors and staff strive to be as diverse as those they serve.

And here’s another appealing aspect for marginalized women: thanks to funding from Trillium, all fees are waived. Even optional seminars can be subsidized for those who need financial assistance. To help fund their startups, iLab partnered with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to widen the eligibility criteria for funding to help women entrepreneurs. Ramdahani also hopes to start a micro-lending circle at iLab to help women who don’t qualify for funding through banks, the BDC partnership, venture capitalists, or angel funding.

A safe space for women nurtures growth for all

Based on the success of The Refinery, iLab looked at other gaps in community services and launched entrepreneurial programming for additional under-represented groups. ILab started incubators for at-risk youth entrepreneurs called NEET (not in education, employment or training), Spice (seniorpreneurs who are 55 and up), and the Social Enterprises Accelerator that helps social entrepreneurs grow to the next level. Said Ramdahani, “If you cannot find employment, why not create your own business? That’s the pathway we see that participants can use to alleviate poverty.”

 

CiLab Women Finance Day

ILab also offers co-working spaces and rooms to rent for events and meetings—at a fraction of typical costs. Staff are quick to answer questions and find extra resources to accommodate attendees’ personal circumstances. And in order to create a community for entrepreneurs to grow and apply what they’ve learned, alumni from all streams are invited to join a Facebook group once they complete a program.

Elsii Faria, of The Hive Centre Bee and Bee, entered iLab’s social entrepreneur program to get much-needed support in a variety of areas. The business she runs with her husband offers overnight accommodation via a retreat centre that hosts nature, creativity, wellness, and spiritual events, as well as marketing and web design, and a platform called 1Community1 focused on community engagement. While building the business, Faria faced a life-threatening illness, took on a new mortgage for the bed and breakfast and office space, as well as cared for her one-year-old child. Faria says connecting with other social entrepreneurs at iLab gave her “really valuable support from other businesses with similar objectives.” It also introduced her to key partners such as Bear Standing Tall, their first Indigenous retreat leader. She had an arts education but needed to build up business skills. ILab helped her improve her sales skills and understand their business model. The business recently landed a grant that allows them to partner with Durham College to continue developing their 1Community1 platform.

Yet, for all of iLab’s success helping others, it has yet to receive solid funding support from any level of government—municipal, provincial or federal. Ramdahani is frustrated that governments favour investing in tech-based entrepreneurs and large urban-based non-profits. She is pleased that the Ontario Inclusive Innovation Action Strategy, released in June 2019, expands the government’s innovation definition to include “processes that are not tech-based.” But she points out that the strategy will only support women entrepreneurs at the high-growth stage only. “There is no funding for women who are marginalized, and who have just started a business, or have been in business for under three years,” Ramdahani said. Early-stage women founders often find doors for traditional loans closed. Without investment and cash flow to conduct business, Ramdahani wonders, How can they grow?

What funding is available for women entrepreneurs?

The federal government’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) has added millions to support women, including new funding for enterprises in the high-growth stage, organizations that help grow women’s businesses, and research hubs. Currently, there is a federally funded women’s business development centre in every province and territory except the Northwest Territories. Provincially, the non-profit Paro Centre for Women’s Enterprise supports women-owned businesses and community economic development in northern, eastern, and central Ontario, excluding the Greater Toronto Area, through federal and Ontario Trillium Foundation funding.

In the U.S., the Small Business Administration (SBA) partners with non-profit organizations to fund and oversee 113 Women’s Business Centres. The centres offer entrepreneurs and small business owners free counselling and free-to-low-cost training. Men can receive services through these centres as well.

American women entrepreneurs are encouraged to register with the SBA for a Women-Owned Small Business or Economically Disadvantaged Women-Owned Small Business Certificate. This qualifies them to bid on contracts with the federal government to supply products and services. During 2017, $20.8 billion in contracts were won by women-owned small businesses. The U.S. federal government strives to award five percent of their supplier contracts to women-owned small businesses.

Like iLab’s innovative programming, these are ideas we can build on. ILab involves participants in curriculum and space design, “rather than building something and inviting them,” said Ramdahani.

Something for funders to chew on.


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Categories
Feminist Practices Our Voices

Fearless Fashion Connects Community and Culture

 

Lorna Mutegyeki, 32-year-old founder of Msichana

In an industry notorious for unfair wages, waste, and horrible working conditions, 32-year-old Edmonton-based fashion designer and business owner, Lorna Mutegyeki stands out. Born in Uganda, she emigrated to Canada at the age of 18. In 2017 Mutegyeki launched Msichana, a sustainable luxury fashion label that is committed to advancing employment opportunities for women in Africa. The social enterprise employs and empowers women through every step of the production and sales process. Msichana ensures that textile makers are paid fairly, have great working conditions, and that each garment is unique and handmade using the highest quality fabrics on the continent.

Msichana cigarette pant, 2019 collection–you can find more images on Instagram.

“Each piece is a handmade, one-of-a-kind work of art with much love and attention put into it,” says Mutegyeki.

The creations are designed in Canada and proudly produced in Africa by weavers, dyers, and embroiderers. The company’s supply chain is completely transparent and ethically made for women, by women. Materials are meticulously sourced. That includes tracing the cotton all the way down to where the seed was grown. Ethical fashion is hard work.

From belts to dresses, jackets to jumpsuits, prices range from $80 to $600+. The enterprise appeals to a largely affluent segment of the North American women’s fashion market comprised of those supportive of environmental and social justice centred, artisanal scale enterprises. Benefits? Zero mass production. Zero waste. Assurance of thrive-level wages plus a progressive company culture for women in Uganda. Leveraging your economic power to advance women and gender equity. 

Msichana is also breaking stereotypes by providing new opportunities in traditionally male sectors for women in Africa. Mutegyeki told us that in Ethiopia, most weaving work is traditionally done my men. Her goal is also to unshackle women and show the impact that financial independence can have on their lives, families, and community.  Winnie Nabukera, one of Msichana’s artisans explains her point of view in a short interview supplied via iPhone video by Msichana, “African women sole-preneurs are not well supported in a male dominated society”. Nabukera adds that Msichana has created new income opportunities that also helps address the gender pay gap, plus provides an opportunity to upgrade skills, which in turn, helps her connect with other new clients of her own.

LiisBeth introduced Msichana in our February newsletter, and then spoke with Mutegyeki on the phone last week to ask more about her personal journey as an entrepreneur.


LiisBeth: What does Msichana mean?

Mutegyeki: It’s actually the Swahili word for young woman. Swahili is a combination of many languages, a coming together, an intersection. I thought it would be a great way to express the values of the brand.

Liisbeth: You invested in an expensive MBA degree, and successfully leveraged this to get a well-paying job in the finance industry. Why take a risk at becoming a fashion entrepreneur–a brutal industry for start ups– after just a few years?

Mutegyeki: I gave up my golden handcuff job because it was, for me, unfulfilling, and I felt I needed to get out before the handcuffs became tighter. I also wanted to have an impact in the world. I grew up in a strong feminist household. My mother was bold, strong, and not afraid to get emotional and assert herself. I noticed once how a respected local female politician, [the Honourable] Miria Matembe, was treated when she spoke out about rape, domestic violence, the need for Ugandan women to have an education, and equality. Because of her views, she was called unladylike. People said she was losing it. And didn’t take her seriously. I noticed how women as a gender were oppressed in my own country and have to say, was surprised to find out that a first world country like Canada still grapples with similar issues—just like Uganda back home. I understand the current conversation about rage. I myself feel rage, carry intergenerational rage, when I see how women are still treated and made to feel like they are never enough. I wanted to help create a world where the feminine, women’s bodies and women are truly valued for what they authentically bring to the table. A world where the ability to be soft is a sign of courage and inner strength.

LiisBeth: How did you fund your startup?

Mutegyeki: I thought I could save up and then jump in. So I’d been saving for [starting my business] for a long time. Five years. Just waiting until I had enough. I just eventually realized I was just never going to have enough money to do it. The up-front costs for what I wanted to do were far beyond what I could save within a few years. I not only had to buy equipment, I also knew I would have to make a big investment in training our women suppliers before we would have a product. I knew it would be a long time before we were ready to have anything to sell.

So saving enough was a no go. As an alternative, I thought I could start the business by working after hours, nights, weekends. That way, I could continue funding my startup through my earnings. But I failed. I completely failed. My job was too demanding and after one year of trying, I learned I could not do both. I had to commit to one or the other.

So finally, I quit. And jumped in. While it is tough not having that income, I don’t think I could have made the progress I made in a relatively short time if I had tried to do my full-time job at the same time.

LiisBeth: The Federal Government of Canada has recently made an historic investment in the advance of women entrepreneurs in this Country. Is it helping you?

Mutegyeki: I have been following the announcements and it is very interesting and exciting. And government here does a lot to help entrepreneurs. But I feel that most of the funding is tailored to help established enterprises. The funding is also project-based. So that means to qualify, you to have start a new project. For example, launch a new product line or service that augments your established business. But what if your entire business is a new project? As a startup, the last thing you need is to finance a new project when what you really need are the resources to grow the project you already started. What early stage ventures need is operational funds. Money for more people to scale what they are already doing—not just money for things the existing business is not ready to handle.

LiisBeth: Have you ever asked yourself the hard question—should I keep going or just quit?

Mutegyeki: That’s a hard question to answer. To be open, when I’ve had crushers, I do ask myself that question. And I’m always assessing all my options. The quit option has been on the list at least twice. Especially when I feel lost sometimes, because, if something’s too close to your heart sometimes you can’t see very clearly. But then, just in time, my mentors, my husband, and even clients many who act like mentors, reach in, pull me back to the centre, and ask me point blank the hands on hip “is that absolutely necessary?” kind of question? The biggest thing mentors do for me is ask the tough questions I work hard to avoid by being too busy to think about them. Their support and helpful ideas keep me going and fire me up to tackle the issue—rather than run from it.

LiisBeth: What’s next for Msichana?

Mutegyeki: Right now, I am doing a slight pivot by introducing accessories which are a lower price point than our garments. I also know I need to invest more in marketing. And that I can’t keep “D-Y-I-ing” everything. It’s starting to show. I need to hire someone. But am not at a level of cash flow where it is possible to do so. And I am nervous about raising outside capital. I don’t want to compromise my triple bottom line values. I would consider a loan—but I already have sleepless nights. A loan is just another thing to stay awake at night about. Ideally, I would find a strategic partner who is interested in achieving the same things.

LiisBeth: What is your word for the year?

Mutegyeki: Authenticity.

LiisBeth: What are you reading these days to keep you on track?

Mutegyeki: Anything by Eckhart Tolle, and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

LiisBeth: Lorna, you are fierce and very brave! It’s been a pleasure.

Mutegyeki: Thank you.


Find out how Msichana fashions are made!


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https://www.liisbeth.com/2016/07/27/queer-to-their-boots/


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Categories
Body, Mind & Pleasure Our Voices

Black Foodie Turns The Table

eden-black-foodie-photo-web

 

It was meant to be a night out of fun dining with the ladies to celebrate Eden Hagos’ 25th birthday. But when she and her friends were ignored and disrespected at a local restaurant, Hagos, a longtime foodie, began to think about how the food industry treats Black people, and how Black-owned restaurants are regarded. And that eventually led her to launch Black Foodie, a blog spotlighting “the best of African, Caribbean and Southern cuisine and foodie experiences” through a Black lens.

On her 26th birthday, Hagos wrote about the incident that inspired Black Foodie’s creation — the blog post went viral. But the degree of online hate it generated shocked her – derogatory comments about her race, gender, looks. “People are telling me, oh Black people don’t tip,  Black people are bad customers, they don’t deserve good service,” recalls Hagos. “They proved exactly why we need this community – living proof that I could screenshot. It’s not even like you could try to say, ‘Oh, this is what you perceived.’ It’s real, and it’s literal, and you can feel that hate.”

For Hagos, the hate not only solidified her belief in the need for Black Foodie but strengthened her resolve to make it successful. In just over a year, she has built up 11,000 followers on Instagram, attracting readers from across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and several countries in Africa. Initially investing her own funds – the low-cost is part of the reason why she started with a website – she has since secured a couple of small business grants, including $1,500 from the School of Social Entrepreneurs Ontario’s Hook It Up program. She expanded from a website featuring recipes and restaurant reviews to a multi-pronged company that sells merchandise, offers brand and social media services to restaurants and hosts foodie meet-ups and events to generate revenue. In the future, once she’s grown her audience, she aims to sell advertising.

Black Foodie’s signature event, Injera and Chill – a play off the popular saying ‘Netflix and Chill’ – celebrates the classic Ethiopian bread injera that Hagos ate growing up. She started it in the fall of 2015 as a pop-up event in Toronto and drew about 50 people, predominantly Millennial Black foodies, to learn about and enjoy a traditional Ethiopian meal and coffee ceremony. Hagos then took the event on the road, organizing meet-ups for fans of Black Foodie in London, England and Atlanta, Georgia. Back in Toronto, she stepped up the summer 2016 event, expanding the celebration of food to a showcase of East African culture with a DJ, entrepreneurs showing their products and filmmaker Messay Getahun premiering the trailer for his movie, An Ethiopian Love. She charged $35 a ticket, and it attracted 150 guests.

Hagos, who was born in Windsor, Ont., credits her love for food to her parents, who immigrated to Canada from Eritrea, then a part of Ethiopia. Her father owned one of the first Ethiopian restaurants in Windsor. When she was growing up, she remembers him often cooking, which is significant, she explains, since in many Ethiopian households men don’t cook. Her parents knew the struggles of entrepreneurship firsthand and, like many immigrant parents stressed the importance of education. She attended both Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and York University in Toronto, graduating with a degree in sociology. She had planned on going to grad school in the U.S. but when she didn’t have the money or see a career path that appealed to her, her desire for “freedom” pulled her toward entrepreneurship.

She applied for and won a spot in Studio Y, an eight-month fellowship program for innovative thinkers run out of one of Toronto’s leading entrepreneurial spaces, MaRS Discovery District. She says her thinking around education and diversity helped get her in the door. What she appreciated most about Studio Y was the opportunity to earn a stipend while developing and testing ideas. Early on, she considered creating a line of Ethiopian spices; by the time she left, she was on the verge of launching Black Foodie.

“I was encouraged by many of the staff and other fellows to dream big – nothing seemed out of grasp to that group and it was very inspiring to be in a community that valued this,” says Hagos. That said, she was often left thinking, “There are so many other people like me, why aren’t we in here?” She yearned to see more people of diverse backgrounds, as well as more conversations around her entrepreneurial mission to target her own demographic, solve problems within her community and be successful at it.

In the summer of 2015, Hagos attended a pitch competition for Black tech entrepreneurs in New Orleans, Louisiana, connected to the Essence music festival. Being in a room full of powerful, Black investors proved inspiring. Though she wasn’t ready to pitch her company then, the event made her see that the start-up world was not just for white men. She also realized that for her company to grow, she had to think beyond the borders of Toronto and even Canada. She sees more opportunities for Black-owned businesses catering to Black people to thrive abroad. Sheer numbers for one:  In the U.S., for example, there are more than 37,000,000 Black people as of 2010 Census stats; Canada has just a fraction of that.

She also sees opportunity in Black Foodie’s appeal to women. Some 70 per cent of her readership – as well as the vast majority of her contributors – are women who identify as belonging to the African diaspora. “It’s crazy to me because we’re the ones cooking. But when you see the ones who are celebrated, it’s usually men. In the Black food world, it’s usually men who are hosting these events.” She also points out that popular images of Black women and food are often associated with racist depictions rooted in an African American context, such as the nanny. “I’m a Black woman, so, of course, I’m drawn to stories of people who I can relate to and I think they’re also drawn to me.”

Indeed, special events coordinator Eden Zeweldi agreed to work with the company, without even knowing how much she’d be paid. She has since planned five events in collaboration with Hagos. “[Eden’s] passion and her excitement for it gave me so much energy,” Zeweldi says. “I could actually be part of a movement that would bring food that my mother makes into the limelight.” Food stylist and photographer If Ogbue also saw the opportunity to work on Black Foodie as “a breath of fresh air.” She sees huge potential in the Black Foodie brand and envisions it evolving into a web series or television show in the future.

That’s exactly where Hagos hopes Black Foodie will be in five years. She would like to develop several Black Foodie branded shows; spearhead a huge Black Foodie festival that brings together chefs, food writers and foodies; and publish a cookbook, perhaps the first of many. Still, Hagos is careful not to get ahead of herself. The key now is that Black Foodie is sparking an important conversation, both outside and within Black communities. “My goal is not just to teach other people that we exist,” she says. “I’m interested in encouraging this conversation to happen amongst each other. Some of the things we talk about in food, you can only understand if you’re a person of colour. It’s kind of like an inside joke, and I don’t always want to be trying to explain that inside joke to other people.”

 

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One of Eden’s favourite things to make around the holidays is sweet potato pie. Here’s her recipe. Give it a try.

sweet-potato-pie-2

 

Sweet Potato Pie 

Filling

  • 1/3 cup of brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup of condensed sweet milk
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 stick butter
  • 2 large spoons cinnamon
  • 1 spoon Vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp of lemon juice
  • 2 large spoonfuls of cinnamon
  • 1/2 spoon ginger
  • 1/2 spoon allspice
  • 1/2 spoon nutmeg
  • 2 large sweet potatoes
  • Brown sugar paste:
  • 8 Spoons brown sugar
  • 4 spoons Butter
  • 2 Unbaked pie shells

Brown Sugar Paste 

  1. Mix brown sugar and butter together to form a thick paste
  2. Spread half of the paste onto unbaked pie shell and bake for ten mins or until it forms a caramelized layer (don’t let the shell get brown)
  3. Let it pie shell cool as the filling is prepared

Filling 

  1. Bake sweet potatoes (or boil) until they become very tender
  2. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into small pieces
  3. In a bowl blend the sweet potatoes, milk and condensed milk
  4. Add all of the remaining ingredients sweet potato mixture and blend until it has a creamy consistency then place the half the filling into pie shell and bake for 40 mins on 350.

This recipe will make two pies. Or you can use the remaining filling to prepare a sweet potato casserole, topping the mix with marshmallows and baking for the same amount of time.

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Related Articles:

https://www.liisbeth.com/2016/11/08/not-incubators-entrepreneur/