Along with crowdfunding, biometric cash assistance, cryptocurrencies, and mobile wallets, another growing digitally enabled source of capital is women-focused capital funds (WFCFs). These funds target women-owned, women-led enterprises, femme and non-binary entrepreneurs, and aim to level the access-to-capital playing field.
That’s the good news. However, a newly released study in Small Business Economics on WFCFs suggests feminist investors, policymakers, and entrepreneurs need to be asking more questions before resting their feminist boots. Professors Barbara Orser of Telfer School of Management at University of Ottawa, Susan Coleman of Hartford University, and doctoral student Yanhong Li recently examined the market positioning of 27 funds in the US and Canada. “We were curious to learn if women-centric investment pools, such as WFCFs, aim to alter exchange processes to support justice and gender equality. At the end of the day, we found that the majority of funds focus on fixing women. Few seek to address structural or institutional impediments,” said Orser. “The bottom line is that among the funds that we examined, only a minority sought to counter structural barriers associated with women entrepreneurs’ access to capital. Most were positioned to facilitate individual wealth creation.”
The study found that this kind of pinkwashing is most likely when funds are created as add-ons to mainstream programs and services, rather than as a central element of the organization’s mission of supporting women and non-binary femmes. In addition, few of the funds displayed third-party assessment or an audit of the fund. Opaque accountability and an absence of independent evaluations were common. This means we cannot always be sure that the funds set to advance women-owned and led ventures actually get to them.
According to the researchers, most WFCFs fall short of supporting a feminist agenda to address institutional and market barriers. The team concludes that, depending on the investment, some WFCFs challenge while some simply perpetuate bias and reinforce structural constraints that impede women entrepreneurs by not actually changing investment due diligence and approval orthodoxies.
The study offers feminist investors insights to consider before assuming that all funds serve an inclusive economic agenda. This study also alerts LiisBeth readers that there are an increasing number of differentiated WFCFs, so it is wise to shop around—and keep your feminist boots walking.
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CG Chen, founder of Ample Labs (Photo: David Dines)
Working as a user experience designer at a tech company, CG Chen had done co-design workshops before, but this one was different. Around a dozen young people crowded into a small room at Sherbourne Health Centre in downtown Toronto, to share their experiences with homelessness. They appeared to be between 16 and 30, identified as LGBTQ2IA, and participated in the health centre’s Supporting Our Youth (SOY) program that promotes wellness for at-risk youth. That day, they didn’t come seeking support, but to lend a hand—and to share their experiences so that Chen’s non-profit startup, Ample Labs, could improve an app to access services for the homeless.
Creating a trusting atmosphere for the youth living on the street took conscious effort. Chen met with SOY staff multiple times in advance to ensure the workshop was a safe space, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive. Then Chen got creative, handing out writing and craft supplies to those gathered around a large table, so they could express themselves authentically and on their terms.
They came from different backgrounds—some had lived in Canada for years, others had recently arrived as refugees—but they all shared a key concern when looking for a place to spend the night: safety. The participants told horror stories of ending up in shelters that weren’t LGBTQ2A friendly—and experiencing violence and trauma as a result.
During this co-design session and many others, Chen and her team of volunteers at Amble Labs also discovered that many initially facing homelessness turned to Google for help as they were often too ashamed to seek out in-person resources. But the Google results that came up were not very helpful. That was one of the main frustrations people in the sessions expressed—service agencies don’t actually involve or listen to the concerns of individuals experiencing homelessness.
Says Chen of Ample Labs’ venture to change that: “We bring the people that we build this product for into our process as much as possible so they’re part of building the solution with us.”
The result? Chen and her team learned that Toronto’s homeless population has high concentrations of people identifying as refugees, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour), and/or LGBTQI2A (particularly youth). So Ample Labs decided to focus on creating solutions for individuals between the ages of 16 and 35 who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness and come from diverse identities and situations. One of their first creations was ChalmersBot, a free web-based chat-bot that provides location-based information. You enter what you need—a warm meal, clothing, shelter—and ChalmersBot suggests a nearby resource. After what they learned at the SOY workshop, Chen and her team added a filter to ChalmersBot to identify resources that are LGBTQI2A friendly.
Chen describes working intentionally and directly in a co-design fashion with the homeless community as a feminist approach. The goal is to understand what the homeless need and empower them to contribute to solutions, so services created are actually used by the community. “It’s easy to identify as a feminist organization because with the app and in everything we do, we are trying to promote equality in this community that often times struggles with inequality.”
Could a Sandwich Start a Revolution?
Chen, now 27, can trace the start of her journey to a sandwich. While studying graphic design at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), she had to pass by people living on the streets of downtown Toronto—and eventually found she could no longer look away. So Chen gathered some friends and started distributing food to the homeless.
A sandwich often led to conversation—and a new perspective. “I think a lot of us really wanted to understand how people ended up there, what they are like. Who I thought the homeless were was turned upside down because I met previous entrepreneurs and really wealthy people who, through a series of unfortunate events, ended up on the streets.” For instance, a highly educated doctor who wound up homeless after going through a rough divorce.
Chen started seeing homelessness in a new light—a difficult situation that can happen to people of all backgrounds. That realization hit home in 2019 when Chen’s own mother experienced homelessness after a surgery made it difficult for her to find work. “If it was your family, how would you look at things? How would you treat that person you see on the street if she was your mom?” Chen asked in a blog post.
For her undergrad thesis, Chen explored how to use design and technology to help the homeless, redesigning a list of City of Toronto resources into a user-friendly website. She took a tech job after graduation, but a trip to Los Angeles reignited her passion for helping people struggling with homelessness. During a visit to LA’s notorious Skid Row, an area of downtown with a high concentration of homeless individuals, she met a woman teaching computer skills, such as how to craft a resume, to people on the street. What struck Chen? While residents of Skid Row lacked a permanent home, they often had cellphones or access to technology. (In a survey of 421 homeless individuals, 94 percent of respondents said they owned a phone and used it as an essential tool for communication.)
That trip helped Chen envision an opportunity to combine her skills in tech and her passion for helping the homeless. As she had done with her sandwich runs, Chen gathered a group of friends to reach out to the homeless community in Toronto and learn more about their needs.
Simon Bunyi was part of the Ample Labs team when he found himself in the same situation as people they were trying to help. He was laid off from a Fortune 500 company and later evicted from his apartment; this is statistically the most common reason individuals end up homeless in Toronto. Those were his “darkest days,” he says, looking back. “It made me think more about how I interact with people.”
Bunyi had been living in an area of Toronto with a high concentration of people living on the street. He came to realize that the only thing separating himself from them was a regular paycheque. When that disappeared, Bunyi reached out to Chen and Ample Labs to help him navigate the complex network of websites and resources for help. They thought it would be simpler if there were an app for this. And that was the beginning of ChalmersBot. (Watch the full story below.)
So, More Apps for That?
Chen never intended Ample Labs to be more than a side project, but after the beta launch in November 2018, the team of 20 to 30 volunteers realized the service had tremendous potential to help the estimated 235,000 Canadians who will experience homelessness. In the past, that population largely comprised of older, single men, but according to the study, Canada has seen a rise of women and youth ending up on the street. With its ability to tailor resources to specific demographics, ChalmersBot generated attention. Ample Labs raised money from a crowdfunding campaign, grants and corporate sponsors (including TD, Google, and Twitter) and found a home in Ryerson University’s Social Venture Zone. The goal is to generate additional, sustaining revenue selling ChalmersBot services to cities. Barrie, Ont., was the first to buy in. Numerous other cities in Canada and the US have shown interest.
Ample Labs now has 8,000 unique users in Toronto and multiple contractors, prompting Chen to quit her job as a UX designer and become Ample Labs’ first full-time employee. She’s recently hired a second employee and plans to continue expanding the team in 2020. Though the non-profit is experiencing exciting and rapid growth, the culture and core values of Ample Labs remain the same.
“Internally, we’ve built a culture of always learning from each other and making sure it’s diverse voices that are teaching the rest of us,” says Chen. “We want to build something with people, not for people.”
Creating researched and inspirational content to support and advocate for feminist changemaking takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find value and nourishment here, please consider becoming a donor subscriber or patron at a level of your choosing. Priced between a cup of coffee or one take out salad per month.
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Question #2: Who led the fight to get abortion legalized in Canada in the 1980s, while serving as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NACS), the feminist lobby group that represented more than 700 women’s rights groups across Canada and, from 1971 to 2007, successfully pressured the government to take action on daycare, birth control, women’s right to choose, maternity leave, family law, poverty, racism, women’s equality in Canada’s Charter of Rights, and violence against women—to name just a few issues?
Question #3: Who is Canada’s Gloria Steinem? Okay, that’s not an entirely fair question as we like to think Canada has a few. But, on top of authoring seven books, hosting a prime-time TV show, and writing countless articles about the women’s movement and social justice, this woman also co-founded rabble.ca, Canada’s largest independent, alternative news outlet and discussion site, and served as its publisher?
Well, I can tell you that Judy Rebick is a woman who not only shows up when she’s needed—she gets there early. She was already waiting for us at The Pilot tavern, a hangout for writers, musicians, and artists since Toronto’s Yorkville hippie days in the 1970s. Gordon Lightfoot performed with Bob Dylan here. It’s also steps away from the Toronto Reference Library, a place where writers spend a lot of time.
When I arrived, Rebick looked up. Though we had never met, we recognized each other immediately. Her stance, head of thick but now graying curls, and iconic glasses gave her away. Rebick greeted me with a big “in solidarity” hug. LiisBeth’s associate editor Lana Pesch, rushed from her day job, as eager to meet this feminist icon as I was, joined us soon after.
We quickly ordered coffee and lunch so that we could get down to talking without further interruptions. Rebick, now 73, was as keen to know about us as we were her. We shared histories and some great stories, then I shifted the conversation to a topic we came to learn more about: growing a sustainable media outlet in a time of turmoil for media enterprises in general.
Judy Rebick on Idle No More
I asked her what we, as feminist changemakers and publishers, could learn from her experience both as a long-time feminist journalist and as a co-founder/publisher/editor of rabble.ca, an alternative online publication (launched 2001) and now one of the country’s most successful, attracting 800 members, two million page views, and 350,000 unique visitors per month according to Google Analytics.
Specifically, for LiisBeth and our readers, I wanted to know the path to rabble.ca’s success. How did it ever get off the ground and survive this long, without a major foundation footing bills, angel investors or sponsors, or even a paywall?
Rebick told us that she and her co-founders were convinced that Canadians were frustrated by the mainstream press extolling neoliberal narratives. They wanted and deserved an alternative point of view on current issues and events. So Rebick and friends created a plan and hit the road to find funding. In one year, they raised $200,000 in startup funding including $120,000 from the Atkinson Foundation along with funds from some 18 unions—enough to code and launch rabble.ca.
Seventeen years later, Vancouver-based rabble.ca now generates approximately $350,408 in revenues, of which $121,000 (34.8 percent) come from reader donations. Income from sustaining partners (unions) represented another 50 percent while 14 percent comes from grants and various sponsorships. While the site promotes its advertising utility, less than 1 percent of its revenue comes from ads.
Rebick explained that unions backed rabble.ca as the publication offered a way for the left to connect and unions to connect with their constituents about ideas, critiques of policy, and economic analysis that the mainstream media largely ignored.
The idea of an online newspaper and participative forum for readers was totally rad at the time. That was early-stage internet and way before Facebook or Google.
Since its launch, some 90-plus independent news and magazine channels have appeared, and none have readership figures as high as rabble.ca yet. In Canada. But as Rebick filled us in on rabble.ca’s journey—the type of stories they chased and how—we were reminded how critically important alternative media is to any functioning democracy. Such media organizations hold political and business leaders accountable, bring new business models to light and offer an outlet for ideas of alternative world–making.
We were also reminded that financially sustaining an alternative indie media enterprise is a little like figuring out how to keep a fish alive and healthy out of water. After all, how do you challenge the status quo if you’re trying to raise money from people who benefit from systemic inequality?
Rebick certainly got us thinking, because at LiisBeth, we have similar values and face many of the same challenges as rabble.ca. We believe passionately that feminist entrepreneurs can change the world. We have faith in the idea that grassroots storytelling and discussion opportunities matter. And we dig deep to figure out what it takes to create, grow, and leverage a sustainable, social justice–forward digital media enterprise in today’s world.
Rebick believes that technology-enabled movements, aided by aligned alternative media outlets, are transforming power. Social movements—not governments, lobby groups, or corporate social responsibility initiatives—are correcting the course, exploding our ability to imagine new worlds, advance democracy and human rights, and force action on climate change. Rebick explained how different recent tech-enabled protests such as Arab Spring, Idle No More, and Occupy were to the anti-globalization rally in Quebec in the late 1990s. And she should know. She was there. On the ground. Involved in it all.
And suddenly, it was 2 p.m. Rebick was in demand again, at another meeting. She signed my copy of Ten Thousand Roses, the book she wrote on the making of a feminist revolution, and graciously rushed out.
Lana and I lingered, talking about how our conversation with Rebick was like getting drawn into an incredible living book on Canadian feminist action and social progress. The entire meeting was so engrossing that we completely forgot to document the occasion. No group selfie or even a picture of Judy. And we are a social media organization, with an online magazine and newsletter!
How will anyone ever recognize this incredible feminist icon? Chagrined, we took a picture of the chair she sat in.
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Part memoir, part theory, and part geography, Feminist City: A Field Guide is the latest book by Leslie Kern. It delivers a fresh perspective with feminist intersectional ideas to inform urban development. And Kern is not alone. People like Ellie Cosgrave of the UK’s Urban Innovation and Policy Lab, Madrid’s mayor Manuela Carmena Castrillo, and Lucinda Hartley of Australia’s Neighbourlytics have been advocating for urban change for years.
Kern is an associate professor of geography and environment, as well as program director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. As an academic, she writes about gender, gentrification, and feminism, while teaching urban, social, and feminist geography.
Her book, FeministCity, will be published by Between the Lines on October 24, 2019, just in time when Canadians will be venturing out into their own neighbourhoods post election, in need of an inspiring read that will ideally help them think about their streets and parks in a new light.
LiisBeth spoke with Kern on the phone from her home in Sackville. We talked about what she thinks a feminist city could look like, her influences, and the wider impact that a feminist city could have on society.
LiisBeth: Tell us a little bit about how the book came to be. What was the catalyst?
Leslie Kern: In my day job, I get to be a feminist urban geographer, and I really love taking that approach to cities. I love teaching that material, I love writing about that material. So much of it is, for me, really connected to the things that women and other people in cities really experience on a day-to-day basis. It’s not just abstract, theoretical things that only academics are interested in. It’s about what it’s like to try to cross a busy intersection, or to access public transit. The catalyst for me was thinking, How can I bring some of these insights and ideas and provocations from the scholarly field, and bring it to a wider audience in ways that I think will allow people to connect to their own experiences of living in, travelling to, working in cities?
Did you have an “aha” moment? One where you were in a class and thought, “This has got to be bigger?”
I just started writing it in my head, almost as a thought experiment. If I was going to write about this, what would it sound like, what would the stories be, and then thought, Why don’t you actually write it? In a broader sense, I think coincidentally, the Me Too movement really exploded just at the time that I was writing the book. That seemed like an exciting coincidence where so many people, mostly women, but many people were standing up and saying harassment of all sorts is rampant, it affects our lives in dozens and dozens of ways, some visible, some invisible. It has a huge impact on the presence of women and other marginalized people in politics and art, and education, culture, science, and all of these fields. I was thinking, yeah, from a geographer’s perspective, the kind of harassment that women face in public spaces, but also private spaces like workplaces and educational institutions and so on, is all sort of tied together, thinking about what kind of spaces we can access, where we feel that we belong, where we have to kick down doors just to get in, and where we might be pushed out of. It felt like a great moment to bring that geographical perspective to this issue that so many people were talking about.
Those are external influences on your thought process. Were there any writers that influenced you?
There’s been a really productive boom in feminist public writing recently, maybe the last decade or so. People like Rebecca Solnit, who also writes about a lot of urban issues. She writes about the experience of different sorts of cities, inequality in cities, policing and violence, all sorts of things. She’s a big influence.
People like Roxane Gay, Rebecca Traister, Tressie McMillan Cottom are feminist public intellectuals who do such amazing work weaving stories of their personal experience, starting from their realities, their lived realities as women, as Black women, as women living in cities in some cases, and connecting that to really deep, critical, social analysis.
Listen to a 6 min reading by Leslie Kerns from Feminist City:
In your opinion, why hasn’t this [creating feminist cities] happened sooner?
Any society, and any of the built environments that societies create, such as cities, they reflect the power relations that exist in that society, and I think we know who has traditionally or for a very long time held the power. We’re talking about wealthy, propertied, able-bodied, cis, white men. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the urban environments that we have are really set up to support their success, their power, their daily needs.
In order for something like a feminist city, or the principles of a feminist city to evolve, you really have to have a lot of social pressure for that to happen, whether that comes in the form of activism, or legal changes, or other kinds of social movements, or just the wider entry of women into positions of power in cities and government, policymaking, architecture, design, all those sorts of things. It’s sort of a slow moving process.
Do you think a feminist city wasn’t at the forefront, or did the idea exist back in the 1960s and 1970s?
I do talk about this in the book. Feminist ideas for urban design, neighborhood design, and household design have existed for a long time, and they actually go back to the 19th century. Women, particularly coming out of socialist movements and so on, were thinking about the ways in which the built environment was set up, and in many ways it was to isolate them, to keep them busy with unpaid domestic work, to keep them from sharing their domestic labour with other households, to keep them out of the spheres that were properly designated for men, the public sphere, politics, education, science, and so on.
It’s not a brand new thing to be thinking about how cities, neighbourhoods, communities could be set up in ways that support other sorts of social ideals, including feminist ones.
Interestingly, you can actually look back in time and see women coming up with their own ideas for how neighbourhoods could be structured to really reshape the household, and reshape women’s labour, and make more time for women. Over time, some of those things have just been lost, other trends have been more dominant, and of course I think it’s fair to say that the feminist social movements of the 20th century have been really focused on things like legal change and equality in the formal, legal sphere.
Vienna is an interesting example of a city where what they call gender mainstreaming has really been put into practice. The idea behind that is that any kind of city policy, or planning, or new urban design plan, whether that’s a park, or a new neighbourhood, or transit lines, those have to be first looked at through a gendered lens. What that means is asking, How might this affect men and women differently?Will it increase gender equity, or will it maybe decrease gender equity? With the aim of explicitly increasing gender equity in cities, cities like Vienna that have done gender mainstreaming are making sure that all of their redevelopment and new design projects support that vision. That has tended to mean things like more public transit, and better access to things like child care, and other sorts of social services that are better integrated with home environments, and all those sorts of things.
When you say it like that, it just seems so obvious.
Whose behaviour do we need to change, and how do we do that?
We could look at this on a very day-to-day, interpersonal level in terms of the regular relations that people experience in cities, and certainly things like harassment and violence come to mind as major factors where we could think about, okay, there is an actual behaviour there that needs to change.
Of course, we also have to think about the systemic level, where it can be difficult to point to individuals and say, there’s some conspiracy to be sexist, or racist, or homophobic there, but over time we can look at patterns of choices and decisions that are made at city hall, and in planning offices and so on, that either uphold the status quo or challenge the status quo. To change that, then we have to use the power of social movements, of our vote in electoral politics, and education as well would be an important component of that.
How do you convince politicians, planners, and the general population that this is the right thing to do?
Unfortunately, arguments that are in favour of equality and inclusion aren’t always enough to sway people, even though we might think ethically they should be. We can turn to arguments that emphasize the wider array of benefits that can come, so that it’s not fixing things just for women, but what about everybody else?
A lot of feminist urban research is about starting from a gender lens, then the kinds of improvements that you might make to the city can affect people more widely. Like how do women with strollers get around the city? If you want to improve that, then you’re going to be improving access for disabled people, for the elderly, you’re going to be probably creating a more accessible public transit system which is good for the environment. There’s all of these sorts of associated benefits that impact a wider swath of society than just women. Of course women are 50 percent of society, but you can make arguments around sustainability, environmental sustainability, that when you pay attention to gendered concerns which often do have a lot to do with things like access to public transit and so on, that if you want to encourage people to use public transit more, and you want to make it safer, harassment-free, affordable, accessible, then you’re promoting that goal of sustainability at the same time.
If you can show how these feminist, gendered concerns intersect with other issues, then maybe we can make a little more headway with those people in power.
I hope that my book is one of many voices that talk about these issues more generally. I tried to touch on some things that maybe aren’t talked about as much, even within feminist urban research. Talking about friendship, women’s friendship, and cities, and how that sort of relationship and certain kinds of spaces can support that relationship.
What will it take to create these cities in terms of resources and timelines and budgets? Combined with that, what do you think a feminist will look like?
To me, a feminist city has to be one where issues around safety and freedom from fear are prioritized. There are certain kinds of changes to the physical environment that can facilitate that, but it also has to be a wider social commitment to equality and non-violence. A feminist city, I think, has to be one where public space in general is safe and accessible, not just for women, but for people of colour, for homeless people, for queer folks, for trans people, for disabled people. A public space where everybody feels welcome and everybody feels that they are contributing to the city through their presence.
It has to be a kind of city where the heterosexual nuclear family is not presumed to be the default. When we think about the kinds of housing that we build, or that we’ve been left with over decades of suburban building, the kind of homes that we have are designed with that default in mind. That is increasingly not the norm in most people’s lives, or it’s not the norm for their entire lives, given divorce, later-in-life marriage, same sex relationships, polyamory, singlehood, all sorts of blended families, all sorts of different household forms. A feminist city has to be one where different kinds of households can flourish, and not feel that they’re being pushed into a box that wasn’t made for them.
Is there anything that you physically envision?
Green space could be an example, but communal and collective spaces for things like growing food or preparing food. More shared spaces for things like child care, more spaces for people to come together. At the moment, we look around and we think there’s a lot of public space, but a lot of it is privately owned, it’s patrolled by private security forces. It’s not really all that public, and it can be quite difficult to actually engage in different forms of social relations there, for example, cooking for people. We could think about spaces that exist within the built fabric that we have, but that are able to be used for a wider variety of purposes.
A library is one of those places that fulfills so many sorts of social needs in society, and yet we’ve seen it be really under attack by austerity-leaning governments that see those sorts of public spaces as easy funding cuts. We know that they’re about so much more than books.
Do you think the rise in co-working spaces is a precursor to what could happen?
I think those spaces can be good examples of the kind of flexibility that can be helpful for people, especially women, who are trying to juggle multiple roles, both their paid work roles, their community roles, their home roles, their parenting roles, all those sorts of things. Co-working spaces might provide locations where people can easily go to work. They are the sorts of spaces where the people who use them can maybe create their own culture and rules and norms about what goes on there, rather than a corporate-derived culture.
What do we stand to lose as a culture if feminist cities aren’t created?
We stand to lose out. Or maybe we should say continue to lose out, because I think we could argue that we’ve long lost out on so many contributions from women and other marginalized people in terms of public life. Their contributions to politics, education, culture, art, science, business. If we continue to have built environments that are both physically and socially inaccessible or unwelcoming, or that just make people’s everyday lives really fearful or really difficult, then they’re not going to be in those spaces that we need them to be.
Not to end on a doom-and-gloom note, but let’s face it, climate crises are already here, as are crises of inequality. And cities are really going to be on the front lines of having to deal with those crises. Cities are not going to either survive or thrive if we don’t figure out ways to address those problems, and to address the ways that those things intersect together. We know that the future is a little bit fragile right now, and if we keep going forward doing the same things that we’ve always done, it’s not going to make for a very bright future for anybody.
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Join LiisBeth and Jane’s Walk TO on September 29 in Toronto for the city’s FIRST-EVER Feminist City Walk & Talk. Get tickets for the event here.
If you told me I would attend a panel discussion on women’s startups and leave feeling like I had experienced something spiritual, I would have likely rolled my eyes. But not with this event. In May, I attended a How She Hustles event called “Start Up And Slay,” which featured six female entrepreneurs dishing on the ups and downs of starting their own businesses. As a freelance writer, I know first-hand the anxiety and exhilaration of entrepreneur life so I was excited to hear how other women navigated that challenging terrain.
As I walked into the event (held at Spaces, a hidden gem of a venue in downtown Toronto), the evening’s vibe was palpable. The sun shone through humongous windows, spreading across the floor like a welcome mat—and welcomed is exactly how I felt. Along with the clinking of glasses and forks on plates (thanks to delicious catering from Shelley’s Catering), the room filled with the chime of women greeting each other—old friends hugging and kissing cheeks, new acquaintances introducing themselves with warm smiles. It felt like a genuine, supportive space with attendees eager to absorb the lessons the panel was about to share.
Moderated by How She Hustles founder (and new full-time entrepreneur) Emily Mills, the panel featured five dynamic business leaders: Eva Wong, co-founder and chief operating officer of Borrowell; Devon Fiddler, chief changemaker of SheNative; Kiana “rookz” Eastmond, founder and director of Sandbox Studios; Lisa Mattam, founder and president of Sahajan; and Tanya Walker, founder and CEO of Walker Law. Not only was the panel culturally diverse, their entrepreneurial experiences were as well.
On Starting Out
Each woman had a unique entry point into entrepreneurship, and it proved to the audience that being a business owner doesn’t have to look any one particular way.
Mattam had a successful career as a pharmaceutical executive before embarking on her entrepreneurial journey and remarked that her safety net was her old nine to five. Should her startup, Sahajan, a natural skin care line based on Ayurvedic practices, fail, she said, “I could always go back if I wanted to.” Murmurs in the audience suggested many related to having a backup plan, perhaps making it easier to take the leap into starting your own business. Mattam said that she had to reconsider how her ego was impacting her efforts early on, like giving up her company car to travel to meetings by bus. Ultimately, the sacrifice was worth it, she said.
For 30-year-old Eastmond, failure wasn’t an option because she felt she had nothing to fall back on. As a high school dropout, she worked a variety of jobs that weren’t contingent upon her having a high school diploma, but she felt she was destined for more. Her first serious foray into the music industry came via working as a manager for a Toronto-based singer; opening her own recording studio solidified a legacy for Eastmond. As a queer entrepreneur who has managed female artists in a traditionally straight, male industry, she understood the struggle of finding safe spaces to nurture creativity. That’s why she made Sandbox Studios the kind of place she always wanted to be in. It wasn’t easy. Eastmond said she once lost her apartment when she couldn’t afford rent for both spaces, but she always believed that the long-term payoff would be worth the early pain.
On Building Confidence
Confidence was a huge focus of discussion. Some had it. For others, acquiring it has remained a daily challenge.
Walker says her confidence came from her parents, who made sure, from a young age, she always knew there was a place for her in the world. This innate belief in herself came in handy when Walker faced discrimination and a toxic environment at the law firm where she worked. Weighing the choice between remaining at the firm and continuing to face roadblocks as a young, Black, female lawyer versus starting her own firm, Walker gathered her confidence and took the leap. “Own it if you’re wrong, but if you’re right, don’t let anyone walk all over you,” she said of the importance of being not only self-assured but accountable. “Because when I’m right, I will let you know.”
Fiddler is an Indigenous woman who lives on the Waterhen Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan. She admitted that she’s still working on developing her confidence as she grows her company, SheNative, a women’s handbag and apparel line. One of the tools she finds useful is reminding herself that her work has a greater purpose in empowering other Indigenous women and girls. For instance, SheNative purposefully employs 100% Indigenous women and sources community input on their designs. Empowering Indigenous women to own and tell their own stories and encouraging non-Indigenous people to listen is at the core of SheNative’s mission.
On Being a Mompreneur
Wong founded Borrowell, a financial tech startup, even though she had no financial or tech background. Not that she didn’t have experience to draw on having been a pastor and stay-at-home mom of two kids. But it wasn’t the sort of experience that normally commands respect in business. Those previous roles, she said, helped her become an entrepreneur. “No one doubts a male college dropout who starts a business,” she said. “Being a stay-at-home mom preps you to run a business.” The audience laughed, clearly getting it. “You work odd hours, you have needy customers—it preps you!”
Another panelist, Fiddler, had brought her young baby to the event and had to duck out of the room for a quick breastfeeding session. It was another reminder of just how special these spaces are, allowing women to bring their full selves without judgment. Later, Fiddler spoke about developing time management skills to manage business and family needs. Now, she says that her family always comes first—a lesson learned from early days when she prioritized business to the detriment of everything else.
On Looking After Customers—and Ourselves
Eastmond says taking care of her customers, making them feel that they are both at home and in a professional environment, is paramount. She says the consumer experience she offers starts before clients even step into her studio—aspects like her website design and the way staff answer the phone are all part of the value she provides in the fees she charges.
But Wong added that self-care is crucial too—this entrepreneurial journey, after all, is a marathon, not a sprint—which is important to remember so one does not burn out going full out all the time.
Getting the pricing right on the product or services you offer is part of good customer care and self-care. Mattam urged business owners to research all aspects of pricing a product, not just production costs but other fees such as storage, shipping, and distribution.
Walker said that getting and offering mentorship is also key and wanted to see a wider offering of entrepreneurial training programs, as well as government leaders specifically paying attention to the needs of women entrepreneurs.
Host and moderator Mills chipped in with advice from her own foray into full-time entrepreneurship. She believes that it’s important to make intentional choices, as she had in the planning of this event. She decided she wanted to work with as many women as possible, from security staff to graphic designers to photographers. Taking time to thank supporters is also critical, and she gave a shout out to organizations such as Canadian Small Business Women, Venture Out, and SheEO, who attended and shared information about the event on social media. She said another key sponsor, CIBC, actually sought her out to partner on this event, confirming for Mills that big banks see opportunity in backing diverse women entrepreneurs.
Once the panel discussion ended, the vast majority of attendees stayed put, pulling panelists aside for pictures and quiet chats, huddling with other attendees to mull over what they had learned, even running up to the rooftop patio for selfies with Toronto’s downtown skyline as their backdrop. It was an event filled with different kinds of women—queer, racialized, some dressed in power suits and others in jeans and tees. The common denominator was that we all felt we had been part of something special, that inspired us, motivated us, gave us something to think about, and gave us something to work towards.
I did something really nerdy recently. I read the Emancipation Proclamation, that seminal document in US history. One thing struck me immediately. It doesn’t make “the business case” for the abolition of slavery. We know the Confederate South did – free labour kept that economy churning. But the proclamation framed abolishing slavery as a moral issue.
Today there are many forms of modern slavery: human trafficking is a profitable, multi-billion dollar criminal activity and we can add forced labour, child labour, forced marriage as forms of slavery. Do we care whether someone can make a business case for each of these conditions of human exploitation? I don’t.
While we can likely agree that slavery is wrong, women around the world are still arguing their case for gender equality. What gives? Discrimination, like slavery, is wrong. Yet woman – and some men – are twisting themselves into Gumby knots to make the business case for gender equality, to prove women have value, to justify implementing workplace policies and practices that establish benchmarks for equality and equity.
Where is Abe Lincoln, with the clarity of purpose, when you need him?
Michael Kimmel, an American academic, activist and a leading feminist author of many books on males and gender, gave an interview to The Canadian Women’s Foundation. He was asked, “How do you convince men that equality is better for them than patriarchy?” Kimmel said there were three cases to be made. The first was the rightness and fairness of it, and the third was the personal benefit for more balanced, happier relationships. But it was the second case, what he called the business case — on which he put ample focus — that got me thinking.
Kimmel said that, “equality is good for organizations, countries, and companies.” More specifically, he said, “I think the business case enables us to respond to the fear men have that gender equality is a zero-sum game: that if women win, men are going to lose. The business case makes it clear that the pie gets bigger and everybody benefits, not just women.” Kimmel’s TED talk is worth watching.
I’ve heard the “business case” before; I’ve even made it – somewhat uncomfortably.
But why is it necessary to make a business case for equality? And especially one that panders to male insecurity and the status quo. How about focusing on the moral compass that directs us to differentiate right from wrong? Rather than reassuring men that they won’t lose anything if women gain full equality, I’m more interested in exploring how the greater participation of women throughout the economic universe impacts society as a whole.
Do women in positions of authority influence the very purpose of a business, and if so, what is the impact throughout the business and more broadly, societally? HR policies can help level the playing field, which is very important, but when women are a larger share and stronger voice at the table, does the business output look different? I’m not suggesting that women are above corruption, but if men and women worked in partnership and trust, would things truly begin to change? Would there have been the subprime debacle, or multiple Enron-scale malfeasances? Is it possible, as some research suggests, that women’s leadership and their approach to business and social organization would have an overall positive influence on capitalism writ large?
It’s impossible to answer my question because it’s highly theoretical. Thus far women haven’t founded many businesses that have grown into Fortune 500 companies and been subject to broad examination. Given the realities of business today, it’s hard to take one or two examples out of context and draw meaningful conclusions.
So I’m simply going to consider how, in a limited example, women might influence change.
Consider sex. It sells. So does violence. Both are used all the time to sell products, and we see big box office films “sell” stories that are relentlessly violent, and often sexually violent. Who is most likely to say, “Enough! There are other ways to entertain and sell products”? So far it hasn’t been the largely male advertising and studio executives. They’re making too much money for themselves and their clients. Nor will it be the worker bees. Even if they have the imagination to envision something else, they lack power. Creative directors or film directors may have brilliant ideas, but few are independent of the corporate structure, and so they are simply another commodity to be exploited by corporate capitalism. But are women indifferent to the throttle hold that sex and violence have on our society? Sexual exploitation and violence are profitable and their impact and influences on society are very far reaching. Certainly, in the case of advertising, they go farther than the products they promote. What’s the alternative?
Personally, and that makes this a study of one, I more readily recall commercials that make me laugh than I do commercials that make me feel inadequate. I’ll never look like the Calvin Klein model who is seducing the stud with his zipper open, and I will never end up in bed with either of them. I know that and don’t need to be reminded of it, but even at my age, I would like to know who makes undies that don’t ride up and are still a little sassy.
In our world, ravaged by violence, the gratuitous forms only serve to further inure us to horrors. Think the Montreal massacre, the Sandy Hook massacre, Orlando, Columbine, and 9/11. Or beyond North America, the rape of Yazidi women, Rwanda, the Holocaust, and the Inquisition. One could draw the conclusion that humans have an inexhaustible capacity for evil. So then what? I wonder if we brought women into the discussion without the pressure to conform to the status quo, would we experience a shift in approach to business that would reflect different values? I think so, and I bet that a lot of men would be very relieved.
Could that shift be good for business—and society?
I guess it depends on whether you define business only in terms of the profit it makes, rather than its contribution to society that includes, but isn’t exclusive to profit. The degree of violence and sexualization of women from a very, very young age has not always been normalized. Both are now so entrenched that I believe we will liberate our imagination and change only when women are at the table in a role of true authority and partnership, where they’re able to express themselves with free and honest voices, and when men are willing to give up a paradigm that is inherently destructive to women—and also to themselves and society.
Easy to do? No. Men at the top will need to look deeper and realize their privilege. That privilege is about their power over others. Change means not just sharing the desk, worktable, conveyor belt, or boardroom table with women, but hearing their voices, loud and strong, as they express their ideas and vision. It means truly believing that equality is the issue of our age.
Michael Kimmel opens his TED Talk with a revealing statement: “Privilege is invisible to those who have it. … Class, race, and gender are not about other people, they were about me.” This is true for women of privilege, just as it is for men. Our class, race, and gender have an impact on everything and everyone. Ultimately, women will only achieve full equality when we all understand and accept that equality is a moral issue, and when we have the will to recalibrate that moral compass and put it to work.