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Transformative Ideas

Progress or pinkwashing: Who benefits from digital women-focused capital funds?

(Photo by Vanessa Lee / Unsplash)

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.

To download the study (for free), click here.

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Activism & Action

How to Kill Feminism




Photo by Vinopa Sivakumar

Well the good news is, you can’t kill feminism.

Many have tried and still are trying. From Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970s, to the likes of Jordan Peterson, Suzanne Venker, and Penny Nance who have also discovered that, unlike advocating for feminism, working to crush feminism has become a fast way to get an audience and make serious cash. But they will ultimately fail.

Here is why.

Because feminism lives in our hearts—not our pocketbooks.

It’s always a surprise to me to learn how few people realize feminism is both a gender equality movement and a set of values which serves to unleash undervalued human potential; its origins are rooted in compassion and love. From Maya Angelou to Louise Arbour to Zunera Ishaq, its history sparkles with stunning stories about overcoming man-made odds and finding the courage to speak truth to power despite searing personal risk. Though the mountain that feminists must negotiate to drive change is steep, rubbled, and treacherous, not to mention career and income limiting, its ethos is learning-centred, innovation-led and entrepreneurial– punctuated by brilliant bursts of Schumer-esque killer insight and humour along the way.

Feminism realizes that what humanity has today is not even close to having it all. Its passion for realizing the benefits of fresh alternatives to current systems is what fuels its persistence to ascend again and again—like Tomoyuki Tanaka’s gender non-confirming Godzilla, also a mother, who rises from the sea with a vengeance to defeat man-made monsters designed to do nothing but destroy and empower its masters.

If It Ain’t Working, Why Is It Still Here?

Against a backdrop of disruptive technological and political change in the past 100 years, women’s place in society has evolved little by comparison. We have cryptocurrency and driverless cars, but gender equality somehow still eludes us. There remains little appreciation for cultivating the power of the feminine in all of us. Bro culture operates like The Nothing in the movie The Neverending Story and is now even darkening the shores of the emerging cannabis industry—an industry built largely not by stoner-hippie, man-boy, Cheech & Chong types but professional and health-sector based entrepreneurial women inspired by its healing and wellness properties.

The winning political slogan these days is “Make (insert a regressive idea here) great again.” Its adherents dismiss the concerns of feminism. And, while some women (mostly the culturally or economically privileged ones) have enjoyed more opportunity in recent decades, the vast majority of them, as well as gender non-conformists, continue to struggle against entrenched cultural bias that systemically devalues them and strips away their potential to contribute to improving our world.

Setbacks, in any fight for deep change, are commonplace.

Fortunately, the feminism movement is robust, resilient and, look out, tech-enabled. The movement’s integrative thinkers learn at the speed of the latest AI bot. Its tiny but mighty organizations competently leverage full-stack development concepts to amplify its impact. Effective feminism at the same time wisely uses 18th-century change-making chisels such as encouraging face-to-face dialogue and promoting evidence-based critical thought and constructive discourse. The movement charges into the 21st century thoroughly intersectional, inclusive, and multicultural, which in these challenging times empowers feminism to spread and build community like commensal lichens. Today, feminism is an all-gender movement. It is an open-source, multi-node, and networked operating system that makes the loins of Linux enthusiasts actually quiver.

Feminism isn’t a goal post. It’s a set of values, a way of thinking, a nurturing community, and a way of living. That’s how it endures even when obstacles continue to crop up and progress seems slow.

Levelling Up: Introducing the Feminist City

What might a whole feminist city achieve if current grassroots feminist communities, media, enterprise, and art collectives successfully helped its members thrive and flourish in ways that are impossible within the dominant system? What if we all worked to advance feminist values?

Back in the 1990s, academic Richard Florida made a name for himself by introducing the idea that dying cities can turn themselves around by attracting creative class workers to drive economic growth. His theory? Cities or regions that embraced differences, supported innovation, and enabled human development and wellness would attract the creative class who in turn would attract new investment to the city thereby unleashing new economic growth. While scholars debated the specific index’s metrics, the theory, when put into practice in dying rust belt cities like Buffalo and Detroit, apparently worked.

Can we make the same argument for feminist cities? Can we replace Florida’s three Ts (talent, technology, and tolerance) with the three Es: equity, equality, and eclectic? If cultural capital drives wellness and growth, could feminist capital do the same?

If we think about these three Es and the underlying metrics, one could argue that Toronto might well be on its way to becoming a leading global feminist city. First off, Toronto is in Canada, which already ranks high on global gender equality indexes. This gives us a decided advantage even over the U.S.’s “best” feminist cities.

But there’s more. Toronto is home to long-established feminist organizations as well as new initiatives such as Ilene Sova’s Feminist Art Collective (2013); T.O.FemCo Toronto Feminist Collective (2015); Sarah Kaplan’s Institute for Gender and the Economy at the Rotman School of Management (2016); the first Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (2017); Gender Equality Network (2017); Aerin Fogel’s Venus Fest (2017); Canada’s first self-identified feminist hotel, Gladstone; and the world’s first and now annual Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum (2017).

Toronto is also home to the now global SheEO initiative (2015), The Big Push (2016), a women-led investment fund, and a long list of other initiatives that seek to rebalance access to startup incubators and venture capital for women entrepreneurs. We also have new feminist media including Nasty Women’s Press (2017), GUTS magazine (2015) and, of course, LiisBeth (2016), which, in two years, has profiled more than 40 feminist entrepreneurs who rock this city.

Does feminist capital matter? To draw a direct link would take funded research (hint, hint). But we do know that Toronto is one of the top-performing cities in the world on several measures. Coincidence? We think not.

If feminist capital can be linked to social wellness and economic prosperity, killing or even diminishing feminism should a crime.

Has a Feminist Epoch Finally Arrived?

Against atrocities like the internment of children in the U.S., scary displays of bro-culture fist bumps between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, the recently tallied declining numbers of women CEOs in 2018, and rollbacks on environmental and equity-oriented policy in Ontario, the fact is feminism looks better than ever. It may well be the defining movement of this century. Yes, we have Trumpification spreading around the globe plus mini-me Ford Nation. But fellow feminists everywhere, take heart. Hobbes’s Leviathan may be in the house. But Godzilla has been called out of the sea. And ze is a feminist.

If we persist, there will be no slithering back.

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Our Voices Systems


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.

Related Articles

A Conversation with Gender Capitalism Expert, Sarah Kaplan“, by Margaret Webb

A Q and A with Michael Kimmel” by Jessica Howard, The Canadian Women’s Foundation

Body, Mind & Pleasure Our Voices

Why Shecosystem is My System

Marni Levitt

After yet another teaching assignment in a tough inner-city neighbourhood, I was burned out and took a stress leave. Two weeks in, I joined the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), a co-working space and community launch pad for those who prioritize people and the planet over profits. It was June of 2015. I had just turned 40. And I vowed not to put up with stressful, health-damaging work. I decided it was time to turn my part-time gig at Move-N-Music into the full-time venture I’d always wanted it to be: a social enterprise that uses arts, culture, and creativity to promote mind-body wellness.

When I walked through the doors of CSI in the Annex community of Toronto, the smell of coffee, buzz of energy, and lively conversations hit me so fast I immediately felt at home. Two years prior, I had taken my first real leave of absence to test the waters of entrepreneurship and joined a co-working space designed for artists. The space itself was lovely, peaceful, and beautiful, but the people were rarely there. This didn’t give me what I needed, which was networking and skill development to help me take Move-N-Music to the next level.

At the CSI orientation session, participants ranged in age from 30 to 60, came from diverse backgrounds, and had a wide range of projects, many of which focused on solving ecological problems. One person stood out the most: Emily Rose Antflick. She was tall with long red hair and a down-to-earth demeanour. She talked about a secular girl’s coming-of-age celebration called G-Day, which she helped organize in Vancouver and wanted to bring to Toronto. “Wow,” I told her. “That’s a great idea.” As we chatted more, we discovered we both loved dance and were birthing new—and as yet undefined—enterprises that could be life changing, for ourselves and those we served.

Over the summer I had taken an online course called Feminine Power that helped me build some of the inner structures I needed to create powerful and lasting change in my life and business, such as confidence, faith, resolve, and commitment. But I also needed outer structures like a physical workspace with people who shared similar values and could provide networking, mentoring, and learning opportunities. From that, my hope was to get work and a sense of belonging. Thanks to CSI, I came across exactly what I was looking for: Shecosystem, Antflick’s start-up.

Antflick’s vision for Shecosystem was a bricks-and-mortar co-working, wellness, and mentorship space for women entrepreneurs, essentially a feminist version of CSI. Before investing in a physical building, Antflick decided to start Shecosystem in the form of bi-weekly meetups to grow a supportive community of entrepreneurial women who value work-life integration. Why? Antflick had noticed during business conferences that women were feeling burned out and isolated from working alone. She came to believe that women—and our businesses—flourish when we are part of an inspiring, interconnected, professional ecosystem that nurtures our whole selves. So she set out to design an ecosystem that would speak to women on our terms, that would help us grow, thrive, and redefine the dominant business paradigm. I immediately wanted to join.

On a sunny fall day, I attended an inaugural meetup and joined a full table of businesswomen with diverse expertise, passions, and experience. Some wore suits, others jeans and yoga pants. They ranged from late 20s to 50s and beyond. As each woman shared what she could offer and what she needed to grow her business, it was clear there was a profound desire to connect and help each other.

Antflick had conceived of Shecosystem intuitively, sensing that women entrepreneurs needed something different. But she knew she would not create that perfect thing in a tidy business plan designed to snag venture capital. Rather, she would take things one step at a time, drawing on the concepts of permaculture design to build her enterprise and help other women grow theirs.

Permaculture is a creative design process based on whole-systems thinking that embraces diversity and mimics the patterns and relationships found in nature. It can be applied to all aspects of human habitation, from agriculture to technology, education and even economics. As any good gardener knows, good soil is built from diverse organic matter.

Meanwhile, during my own journey, I was starting to question how entrepreneurial programs, co-working spaces, and incubators were serving women in particular. I never even considered looking for incubators or business supports in the mainstream areas because those ways of doing business never resonated for me. Instead, I gravitated towards what felt natural.

During my women’s studies degree at McGill University, I learned to question assumed categories around gender and sexuality, and find the intersections of oppression such as racism, heterosexism, and classism. I understood the cultural, political, and economic bases for inequality and the possible frameworks to overcome them. I discovered how to identify and validate a different voice, a “woman’s way of knowing” inside of myself. Yet I found all of that slipped away when I entered the “real world” of women’s work.

In contrast, Antflick was creating a framework that encouraged real human interaction and connectivity (eye contact and sometimes even hugs!). It’s an antidote to the social isolation that can come with digital revolution. It emphasizes the human side of doing business, which may seem to be unrelated to business goals but is actually essential to the well-being, and consequently productivity, of the person running the enterprise. These deep human connections are also the best ways to make contacts, find resources, test ideas, and ultimately move forward and thrive.

Each two-hour meetup costs $12 ($8 for women who join the Women in Biz Network, a partner of Shecosystem). Even though there’s a guest speaker, it’s loosely structured with time dedicated to ask questions to the mentor, network, and even get work done on laptops. The sessions end with 20 minutes devoted to a wellness activity such as stretching, dancing, or mindfulness, usually led by a Shecosystem member.

Both Shecosystem and CSI have led me to mentors, business courses, supportive community gatherings, resources, ideas and, most incredibly, paying clients. I have been delighted to discover that when I build a supportive structure for myself, new business results. Taking care of “me” means taking care of my business. Indeed, I am building a paradigm of care that will sustain me over the long haul of running Move-N-Music. Every time I attend Shecosystem meetups, I am forming new relationships. And though I may be doing business with people, I am making friends. Who knows what will emerge from this circle of caring?

What I do know is that Antflick and I are part of a growing number of paradigm-exploding women entrepreneurs and leaders who refuse to accept the same old work-until-you-drop and compete-to-beat-your-competitors paradigm that has threatened our modern world, from climate change and ecological destruction to dangerous social and economic inequities. Instead, we are forging a different path towards the glowing possibility of a world that is not only sustainable, but allows humans to thrive in partnership with each other and the natural world. This enables our businesses (and the resources that support them) to enjoy real long-term sustainability and growth.

Shecosystem is a women-led co-working space and community hub in Toronto that blends start-up support and skill development with wellness and mindfulness programming. Move-n-Music, founded by Marni Levitt, uses the arts to build a culture of mindfulness, healthy living, growth, and integration.