Categories
Our Voices

A Founder’s Story: The Making of LiisBeth

An illustration of birthday cake, liisbeth.com logo and Liisbeth women
Liisbeth.com celebrates it's fifth Year anniversary

I still remember the day we began, five years ago.

LiisBeth Media was conceived, like a lot of womxn-led enterprises, in a small meeting room with flip charts, markers, oodles of red wine and, in my case, two dear friends and enterprise midwives, Valerie Hussey and Abigail Slater. Each of us had started, operated and exited $2 million to $30 million+ enterprises, but I was the only one eager to plunge in and do it all over again.

Nursing a deep, still-fresh founder-exit wound that ignited an unabiding, to be honest, rage, I needed to do something about its root cause – patriarchy.

That was 2014. And Canada’s testosterone-drenched economic policy and entrepreneurship ecosystem did not give a hoot about womxn entrepreneurs — especially those working to create stable, livable, care-centered enterprises.

In my experience, those boys’ club policies often promoted entrepreneurship to women as an escape from careers full of barriers, which, in effect, lured thousands of women out of salaried jobs with benefits and deeper into precarity, poverty and trauma without  support. 

Yes, I was lit. And fortunately not alone in my concerns. 

I asked myself and others: What can we do to change things? Why was feminism absent in discussions about women’s entrepreneurship? How could we better support those working to dismantle and re-build the system anew-so it could work for everyone?  What could mobilizing look like? What stories do we need to tell to change the narrative?

I attended numerous women’s entrepreneurship events that year to float a few radical ideas, but it seemed that attendees were there, mainly, to toke on empowerment energy. Few wanted to talk about how systems of oppression held us back. Collective action to change those systems was never on the agenda. When brave folks did stand up to at the mic to share stories of trauma, racism, sexism, or other injustices experienced as entrepreneurs, speakers — usually financially successful, privileged white women — would smile and tsk “If I can do it, so can you!”

I left these events provoked.

If so many of us were struggling, surely it wasn’t because women were “not as good as men” but because the systems were designed by men and for men to succeed — not us. I believed a way to make these systems visible was to find what was growing, unnoticed, between the cracks and hold those things up for all to see: nonconforming enterprises founded by solutionaries producing wildly imaginative, generative ideas.   

Ureka.

In May 2015, LiisBeth Media signed with Merian Media led by Meredith Brooks, to build the LiisBeth site.

A picture of merian media's first website proposal for LiisBeth.com in 2014
Merian Media Branding Proposal for LiisBeth.com, 2014.

We published our first article on the site in Sept 2015. As the founder, I wrote it. Because we didn’t have the money to pay someone else to do it- yet.

We launched officially in February with writer and editor Margaret Webb serving (we joke) as the curmudgeonly “Lou Grant” to my overly optimistic “Mary Tyler Moore”. Webb also wrote the first feature, Diversity Rules, about Rajkumari Neogy, a Silicon Valley diversity consultant.

A picture of Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore talking about a story
LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 16: THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW episode: 'The Good-Time News'. Initial broadcast: September 16, 1972. (From left): Ed Asner (as Lou Grant) and Mary Tyler Moore (as Mary Richards). (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
colourful illustration of six feminist women gathering to talk and work

What have we learned?

You can read about some of what we learned in How to Be in Right Relationship With Your EnterpriseSlow Growth, and Gaslighting. But here’s another thing or two we picked up along the way. 

1

Businesses are essentially communities. You can’t do anything without community. And communities are relationships—not just easy ones but hard and painful ones. Without these relationships, there is no business, no resilience and certainly no fun. 

2

Most of the value an enterprise creates can’t be accounted for on a balance sheet. We have yet to figure out how to value connections, care of people, strengthened ecosystems. Society continually undervalues –even forgets the feminist economy and activist work.

3

A micro-business (defined by Stats Canada as one that employees 1-4 people) is not only a real business, it’s a challenging, complex Starship Enterprise. The average micro-entrepreneur leverages a tech stack of 20 to 30 apps, programs, and platforms, without an IT department. If you are in business right now, you are a freakin’ genius. So many womxn entrepreneurs are told scale is king—when really complexity deserves the crown. 

4

Making money is fair game—but capitalism serves straight, white patriarchy and actively undermines the rest of us. Still many founders and business womxn of all backgrounds vote for Trump-like policies — minimum wage cuts,tax breaks, environmental deregulation, policies that enable exploitation of others – because they believe it’s good for business. It’s not. It’s good for the 10 percent. For the other 90 per cent to thrive, we must work every day to re-invent entrepreneurship and government to serve a coming post-capitalist, post-patriarchal world in which we can all flourish. 

5

Society and governments need healthy enterprises. Enterprises need healthy societies and healthy governments. Capitalism would have you believe government is the enemy. A lot of business leaders talk anti-government shit. Their neoliberal, winner-deserves-all rant is self-serving. We have witnessed supportive and impactful collaborations between government and womxn entrepreneur organizations at all levels. It’s all about a new social contract.

Valerie Hussey gave our early editorial heft with a series of columns about feminist business values and practices, starting with “How to Embed Feminist Values in Your Company.”

Then, came November 8th, 2016. I was at an election party along with 30 or so others, at the home of SheEO founder Vicky Saunders. We drank champagne around a life-size cardboard figure of Hillary Clinton, excited to see the first woman elected US president. By eleven o’clock, we realized the unthinkable – the US would elect, instead, a serial harasser of woman, a racist, and neofascist.

What I loved about the U.S, having lived and worked in New York for three years, was its relentless thirst for firsts. That night, I went home early and cried.

Yet, almost immediately, the smoldering feminist movement caught fire across North America. The next morning, many of the 300-plus women entrepreneurs attending the first-ever national women’s entrepreneurship conference in Toronto showed up wearing black. We were in mourning, and we compelled the mistress of ceremonies to interrupt the proceedings and acknowledge the catastrophic psychic blow we had just suffered. In January, more than one million marched on Washington to denounce Trump; 60,000 came out to the women’s march in Toronto; similar protests erupted around the world. Feminist blogs, newsletters, and TV shows sprang up.

If there was a positive to Trump’s election, he dragged into the open what we had struggled to see. He embodied what we needed to fight against: systemic sexism, racism, colonialism, exploitive capitalism – and on and on.

LiisBeth was born into this tumultuous year — the timing could not have been better on some levels. Yet, surviving as a reader-supported feminist media venture has been far from easy.

Growing Between the Cracks

For two years, the magazine was the result of kitchen table efforts by mostly myself, Margaret, and a handful of contributors – Priya Ramanujam, Mai Nguyen, and others we recruited. We survived on part-time hours, volunteer time, a DYI ethos, and $3-per-month subscriptions.

The magazine grew-slowly like a spindly pine tree seedling determined to survive on a patriarchal and capitalism scorched earth.

In 2018, we invited writer and video producer Lana Pesch to our team as newsletter editor and contributor – she’s now host of the The Fine Print in our new online community, the Feminist Enterprise Commons.

It’s 2021—Where are we now?

The conversation about women’s entrepreneurship in Canada has made meteoric gains in the last five years. LiisBeth worked towards sustainability hand in hand with these organizations: SheEO (2015), the Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy (2019), the Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (2019), the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (2019), and countless grassroots women’s entrepreneurship support groups, networks and programs (some serving as consciousness raising groups), plus new women-led venture funds.

We jumped into action, writing about these new players and spaces – helping make them visible, amplifying their more radical voices. And together, we sharpened critical thought; forged allies; deepened intersectional thinking; shone a spotlight on bold changemakers; tackled social injustice; celebrated triumphs; collaborated and shared research; pushed each other to be better through debate and healthy conflict. We flexed muscle to show what women could bring to the table; raised a bit of rage; and found comfort in good old-fashioned grassroots sistering.  

This was feminist-led and feminist informed work.

Today, Canada’s diverse pluralistic one-million-plus women entrepreneurs have far more choices regarding funded, diverse programs and supports to help design, grow and sustain their ventures — on their own terms.

But the work is far from done. As American civil rights lawyer Florynce Kennedy said: “Freedom is like taking a bath. You got to keep doing it every day.”

The pandemic has made that clear, with women getting slammed.  Womxn entrepreneurs, a constituency growing at double digit rates, will have to rally and fight for new initiatives and policies to ensure the progress made over the past five years continues.

Back to LiisBeth

Today, LiisBeth Media has 30,000 unique annual readers (20 per cent ahead of last year), 2,800 newsletter subscribers, and about 10,000 followers on our various social channels. We have published more than 300 features and 70 newsletters since we started. More than 35 per cent of our articles feature Black, Indigenous or women of colour entrepreneurs (BIWOC); 40% of our articles are written by BIWOC journalists and writers. We pay our contributors above average rates in our sector and pay fast – in days, not months.

We have been top three finalists — twice — in the Canadian Digital Publishing Awards competition in the General Excellence category for small publications. We launched the Feminist Enterprise Forum (FEC), a new online community in 2020, and just invested in migrating to a new platform.  We achieved break even (on a five-figure budget) in 2020.

(Video: The way we were ….before COVID-19)

The fact that we are still here after five years puts us in a rare category for both startups and media: survivor. Now we are working towards the next stage: thriving.

We believe we can get there by adjusting our business model and deepening relationships with our allies, creators and diverse enterprise founders. We aim to be the go-to, womxn-led/owned media outlet for radical womxn entrepreneurs engaged in deep systems-change work.

Reflect, Recharge, Repeat

The world that lit the spark of LiisBeth is not the same world that LiisBeth Media now lives in.

As the founder, I am more certain than ever that we need to create fight for more support for safe, brave spaces for diverse womxn entrepreneurs, enterprise leaders, feminists, activists and critical thought leaders to tackle challenges ahead.

We must build a healthier, more just economy. This change won’t come from multi-national corporations designed to produce profits for shareholders, at the expense of everything else.

The change we seek will be driven by a plethora of diverse, connected communities supported by local livable, care-centered thriving small enterprises.

And we will be here to tell this revolutionary story.

Time to get back to work.

colourful illustration of six feminist women gathering to talk and work

What have we learned?

You can read about some of that in How to Be in Right Relationship With Your EnterpriseSlow Growth, and Gaslighting. But here’s another thing or two we picked up along the way. 

1

Businesses are essentially communities. You can’t do anything without community. And communities are relationships—not just easy ones but hard and painful ones. Without these relationships, there is no business, no resilience and certainly no fun. 

2

Most of the value an enterprise creates can’t be accounted for on a balance sheet. We have yet to figure out how to value connections, care of people, strengthened ecosystems. Society continually undervalues –even forgets the feminist economy and activist work.

3

A micro-business (defined by Stats Canada as one that employees 1-4 people) is not only a real business, it’s a challenging, complex Starship Enterprise. The average micro-entrepreneur leverages a tech stack of 20 to 30 apps, programs, and platforms, without an IT department. If you are in business right now, you are a freakin’ genius. So many womxn entrepreneurs are told scale is king—when really complexity deserves the crown. 

4

Making money is fair game—but capitalism serves straight, white patriarchy and actively undermines the rest of us. Still many founders and business womxn of all backgrounds vote for Trump-like policies — minimum wage cuts,tax breaks, environmental deregulation, policies that enable exploitation of others – because they believe it’s good for business. It’s not. It’s good for the 10 percent. For the other 90 per cent to thrive, we must work every day to re-invent entrepreneurship and government to serve a coming post-capitalist, post-patriarchal world in which we can all flourish. 

5

Society and governments need healthy enterprises. Enterprises need healthy societies and healthy governments. Capitalism would have you believe government is the enemy. A lot of business leaders talk anti-government shit. Their neoliberal, winner-deserves-all rant is self-serving. We have witnessed supportive and impactful collaborations between government and womxn entrepreneur organizations at all levels. It’s all about a new social contract.

Related Reading

When a Catalyst Becomes an Inhibitor

Catalyst Canada defends its choice to appoint another male bank CEO to be its board chair, saying leaving women’s advancement up to men who have a lot of people working for them is a good strategy. But is it? More importantly, has it worked?

Read More »
Categories
Activism & Action

By Refugee Women, with Love

The Sitti Soap team at the Women’s Centre in Al Jerash Refugee Camp, Gaza.
(Photo provided by Sitti Soap)

Noora Sharrab and Jacqueline Sophia are co-founders of Sitti Soap, a social enterprise that educates, employs and empowers women from the Jerash “Gaza” refugee camp in Jordan, by bringing lifestyle products such as hand-pressed olive oil soaps created by refugee artisans to North America. LiisBeth recently spoke to the cofounders about their venture.

LiisBeth: How did you both come to work with the refugee community in the Jerash camp?

Jacqueline Sophia: I’d come to Jordan in 2011 as a Fulbright fellow. Initially, I was there to take on a very academic approach to my time, looking at the third-party response to gender-based violence in the capital. That quickly changed. I had experienced a lot of pushback and cultural barriers to those conversations. It was and still is a very taboo topic. But in the meantime, a friend of mine put me in touch with someone who was working with the refugee community in Jerash camp. They had known I had a background working with the refugee community resettled in Baltimore City during my time at university. They said, why don’t you go to this community? They’re looking for a volunteer yoga instructor. And so, I contacted them and I said I’d be happy to volunteer.

Noora Sharrab: My parents were born in Gaza. I was born in Dubai, and I grew up here in Canada. When I decided to do my master’s program, I actually went and did my primary research in Jordan. And that’s where I dived right in with the refugee community. I did a specialization in refugee and forced migrations. I was really interested in learning more about Palestinian refugees. And as a Palestinian myself and as someone who didn’t grow up in a refugee camp, I was really interested in what it was like to identify being Palestinian but living out of a camp compared to someone who was a Palestinian but happened to live in a diaspora. 

LiisBeth: What inspired you to create Sitti?

Jacqueline Sophia: We had yoga classes [at the camp] and I got to really know the community that way. Over time, the women and I would begin to work on different enterprise ideas. They really wanted to earn more steady income for their families. And I think they saw me as a link to the market that existed for them outside of the camp—I was always coming back and forth from the capital Amman, and so we started working on different enterprise ideas.

We explored the idea of Palestinian embroidery, and selling that in the form of different clothing items. But it was very labour intensive—it took a lot of time and it was hard to control the quality. We were also looking at food production for a while, but that didn’t work out so well. Then one day, one of the women in the camp said she wanted to show me something. She opened the door, and there was this amazing smell of lavender. It was some 300 bars of olive oil soap.

Essentially what happened was the Italian embassy came in and did a soap making workshop with these women. But the embassy taught this workshop and then left, and so the women had all this soap and didn’t know how to market or sell it. In the meantime, I was introduced to Noora and she was doing the exact same thing with another group of women in the same camp. So we were like, let’s just work together.

Noora Sharrab:  It’s very common among development agencies and international agencies—they will come into these refugee communities, they’ll do this big workshop, this big training, and then they’ll leave. So you have these women who ended up being skilled, and it’s really hard for them to take it on from there. We know 8 out of 10 businesses that start end up failing within the first two years because they don’t have the right support, the mentorship and the capital. The resources available are very limited, let alone for a refugee trying to do this.

Sitti soap gift set

LiisBeth: What was the process of building Sitti?

Noora Sharrab: Shortly after we partnered up, we launched a women’s centre slash soap workshop because these women were making soap out of their homes. We wanted to be able to control the environment and control production and the manufacturing process, so we had to build a separate, dedicated area. We ended up creating a centre out of an existing home in the camp because we also wanted to make sure we remained in the camp—if we were to leave it would make it difficult for the women to access because commuting back and forth would be an added cost for them. We didn’t want to have them worry about that.

Shortly after we launched the women’s centre, I relocated back to Canada because I was having my second child and I wanted to be closer to family. At the same, Jackie also ended up moving out of Jordan. But both of us were like, we can’t stop this project because we both left. So we brought it [the business] with us. When I came to Canada, I ended up registering the company as an LLC.

Jacqueline Sophia: As for our team, there’s two employees on the ground in Jordan—Sophia is our regional manager and she oversees quality control. Amina is the facilities manager. And then we have our nine female artists and soap makers. They are a mix of regular employees, and then we have several part-time staff. The regular employees receive a regular salary every single month, and the part-time employees work on a project by project basis.

LiisBeth: What have been some of the challenges of working within a refugee camp?

Noora Sharrab: I don’t want to generalize all families and all communities because they’re not all the same, but there continues to be cultural sensitivities—to not have the woman out after dark or to limit them from travelling to the city. Some of them still need permission to be able to work and to be able to go to school to be able to go out. So, you still have that dynamic where having that male counterpart is important. When we first started the workshop, and we had recruited some artisans, it was very important for us to get family approval for these women. Not in a sense like they need permission, but we wanted their families to feel comfortable and to feel like their daughters, their mothers, their wives were coming into a safe space.

For us—Jacqueline and I—we were seen as these foreigners who came in and opened the centre. And even though I am Palestinian, and I am originally from Gaza, and from an identity perspective, I could relate—I’m still that foreigner that lived abroad, that spoke differently, that wasn’t part of the community from that sense. So building the trust and building that credibility and transparency in the community was fundamental.

LiisBeth: Why did you choose to work with women refugees?

Noora Sharrab: When Jackie and I came together, we realized that this was not about the soap. This was about the resiliency of these women who—for some of them—it was the first time they ever got a job. Some were the sole breadwinners of their family, supporting eight to 10 people. It was like this one woman deciding, I’m not going to sit here in poverty. I want to do something about it. So, for us, we didn’t see the soap as the soap itself, we saw it as more than that.

Sitti continues to be about a mission that is about education, employment and empowerment. It’s about creating self-reliance for these women who for their entire lives have had to depend on aid and charity. How could we change that dynamic? How could we empower them?

LiisBeth: How has the pandemic impacted Sitti?

Jacqueline Sophia: I think this transition may have been easier for us than for some. We already had those communication pathways established as a remote team, so it wasn’t difficult to act quickly. We weren’t in a position where we had to say, how are we going to talk to each other on a weekly basis? So that was not difficult.

The difficulty [has been] that with a social enterprise, you don’t tend to have a lot of runway in place, and so when you experience a sudden socioeconomic downturn like we’ve experienced with a pandemic, you have to triage. Our concern, first and foremost, was our staff in Jordan, specifically in the camp. Priority number one was to ensure that they had enough income, enough wages to help support themselves and their families because as soon as the pandemic happened and the socioeconomic collapse happened, those women were the only breadwinners, they were the only wage earners in their families. So we worked with our online network of consumers and different partner organizations. We worked with another women-owned business in Canada, and we created a crowdfunding campaign to bring in enough funds to provide relief kits essentially to over 170 families in the camp who are most in need.

LiisBeth: What’s next for Sitti?

Jacqueline Sophia: We have a whole lifestyle product line that includes 10 or more products at any given moment, so soap is not the only thing we sell. That being said, it is what we do best. And so, at a time like this, it’s important for not just the refugee community, but for the global community to be very aware of the public-health concerns that include washing your hands every day. These are things that we’re certainly elevating in our messaging, and we’re working with other corporate partners and corporate clients too—to help them spread that message.

Most people in refugee communities are not earning a steady salary. They’re certainly not earning benefits. And there are structural barriers in place to prevent that from happening. As a company there are only so many things we can provide to our employees because of their refugee status. So, what we’re trying to do is encourage people who are willing to purchase our goods right now by saying, if you’re in a position where you can financially support us as a customer, maybe you can also support us from a charitable perspective. So, at checkout, for instance, can you offer an extra dollar towards a support fund for our employees?

We’re also working to release a crowdfunding campaign [later] this year that will serve several purposes. First of all, it will serve the immediate needs—as in the next 12 months or so. It’s meant to bring in the capital that we’ll need in order to kind of cushion the blow of the economic downturn, and provide wage support for all of our employees to help them continue to help the business continue to run at a reduced capacity.

Jacqueline Sophie: [The campaign will] support additional operational costs for us to pivot the business and create new products to bring to market that will be awesome. It will set us up for success when things do eventually bounce back.

LiisBeth: That’s awesome. Good luck with your venture and your campaign!


Did you enjoy and find value in this article?  Please consider helping us publish more of them!  LiisBeth is an indie, womxn-led/owned media outlet.  We depend 100% on reader donations.  Please consider a contribution today!

[direct-stripe value=”ds1577108717283″]


Related articles

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/08/15/risky-business-maybe-not/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2018/07/04/why-youtoo-should-buy-from-women-led-enterprises/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2020/03/25/when-great-granny-inspires-great-work/

Categories
Our Voices

What’s Up Minister Ng?

Join PK Mutch, publisher of LIisBeth Media in short (10 minutes) pop up interview with Canadian Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion where Minister Ng talks informally about her goals for women entrepreneurs in Canada and what’s next for the Canadian federal government’s  Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy.

 

For more information on The Fifth Wave, Canada’s first feminist business accelerator, click here. Fifth Wave is an initiative of the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) and supports womxn founders in digital media.

 

 


Related Articles

 

 

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/08/09/federal-government-announces-3-6-million-investment-in-women-led-social-enterprises-in-ontario/


 

Categories
Our Voices

How to Be in the Right (Authentic) Relationship With Entrepreneurship

Image Source: Unicorn Booty (Image updated June 30, 2020)

Yesterday, I found myself evaluating progress for my enterprise like one might size up a beautiful, complicated lover—four years on. In the cold month of love (February), I decided it was time to reflect and ask myself—with naked honesty—if I was in the right relationship with my enterprise.

As with interpersonal relationships, these feelings are difficult to judge, especially when we are constantly bombarded with Hallmark messaging about what a good relationship is supposed to look like. Compared to prevailing cultural narratives of what is “normal” or “promising,” my enterprise might suddenly look like shit—when it might actually be pretty okay!

So it’s wise, before jumping to conclusions, to reflect on how mainstream cultural discourses shape our expectations. What fictions about the crucible of entrepreneurship do we cling to when assessing the progress of our enterprises and our own work as entrepreneurs? What stories would better serve?

When I asked myself this, these are the 12 narratives I came up with (you might want to buckle up for this ride, it’s going to be rough before it gets better).

Check your delusions: Entrepreneurship is often marketed to womxn as the ultimate path to finding real purpose, happiness, and freedom from patriarchy! It’s a way to have a career and reduce your stress as (still) the family’s primary giver. It’s an opportunity to live the laptop life on a beach, score a better income, and say “fuck you” to the glass ceiling and rancid workplace environment. That Company of One simplicity, control over your time and wealth, is the ultimate entrepreneurial fantasy but only if you aim to scale up to the moon.

No wonder 85 percent of Canadian womxn surveyed (the majority who work for wages at present) indicate they are interested in starting a business. Some believe this is something to celebrate. I see it as a cry for help, the result of continued gender-based oppression.

While prevailing narratives sell entrepreneurship as liberation, the reality is this: as an entrepreneur, you have chosen to join the growing precariously employed segment of the labour force. Other “precariats” include the Foodora delivery rider (who makes $4.50 per order plus $1 per kilometre) as well as that new freelance consultant next door fighting for the next short-term contract. The lack of income predictability, the exploitation (like clients who take 90 to 120 days to pay), the lack of benefits, and reduced access to credit (even a car loan requires proof of stable income) is what binds this growing segment of the labour market.  Next time you take a Lyft ride, consider sharing a fist bump with the driver—because you are now sisters in arms.

How do you strategize for life as a precariat? Plan to live like you are broke every day. Launch your business with a DYI ethic. If you are selling a product, be prepared to love attending pop-up markets. If you are banking on shelf space at Shopper’s Drug Mart, get ready to forego owning your own home—or heating it. In other words, if you choose to enter the precarious workforce, be prepared for the precarity.

Know that narratives about progress fly ahead of reality: Manage your expectations accordingly. Remember that back in the ’60s, womxn looking for independence by securing a job were given a lot of advice on how to succeed. Well-meaning male “supporters” told us what to wear, where to smoke, how to fit in, when to talk, and when to shut up. Oh, and douche before going to the office. Also, smile! Back then, getting pregnant was still a fireable offence!

Have times changed? Based on the way people talk about diversity, inclusion, and gender parity, you might believe so. Yet the entrepreneurs I talk to daily say otherwise. Advisers still tell womxn entrepreneurs how to dress to win, talk, and pitch ourselves in a system that still sees us as fundamentally inadequate. And it’s still on us to figure out how to succeed as a primary caregiver and run a business. The majority of incubators and accelerator environments remain male-dominated and ineffective at dealing with gender oppression in their programming or cultures. It seems the startup world wants us to be seen at conferences and events (we need womxn in our photos!), but not heard (don’t be difficult!). You can’t get fired for being pregnant anymore but try raising a round of investment while pregnant. Try taking maternity leave or getting maternity benefits as an entrepreneur. Those costs have been completely downloaded on womxn entrepreneurs and their families.

It’s not exactly a Mad Men world anymore. Yet, we are still waging the same old battle with patriarchy. Fair access to capital is still far from our reach. While the wage gap for womxn earners has narrowed to 13.3 percent below men, womxn entrepreneurs earn a whopping 58 percent less than their male counterparts.

This maddening fact remains: the rules of entrepreneurship are still largely designed to enable privileged men—and a handful of equally privileged womxn who are held up as proof that all womxn have been invited to play. Things have to change. Because only then will womxn entrepreneurs, especially those who lean towards doing business differently, truly flourish. So, if you are struggling, keep in mind that being in business with patriarchal rules stacked against you deserves a checkmark.

Entrepreneurship is not a form of motherhood: If you think of your business as your baby, stop. Starting an enterprise is more like entering a serious adult polyamorous relationship. You read that right. You are bringing a new relationship into your life, creating a “three-way” if you already have a significant other. If your partner also has an enterprise, consider it a “four-way.” And beware. A startup can feel like a new lover—exciting, fresh and, well, newbut it will make your relationship with an existing mate significantly more complex. Simple rules don’t work. Work-life balance advice? Not applicable (as if it ever was). Successful polyamorous relationships require a lot of communication, negotiation, and understanding. They need to serve all participants, though not all needs can be served at the same time. Polyamorous—like monogamous relationships—have a high failure rate. Be prepared. Learn from experts. Think ahead. If things have changed and you need to let go of your business, think of it as a relationship that no longer serves you and has to end—versus the loss of a “child” that you created.

Remember, entrepreneurship can be a powerful revolutionary force: To be in business is not just to be a spoke in the nation’s economic wheel but to engage politically in ways a regular job rarely requires of us. As entrepreneurs, we can and must use our voices. This is one of the best and most undersold benefits of entrepreneurship—and critical, with social and climate justice in peril. We don’t have to invent a new biodegradable plastic to drive change. How we do business creates change. We can use our privilege, power, policies, and practices as entrepreneurs to help restore the environment, advance inclusivity, and reduce inequality. And push for policies that address issues related to precarious employment. And, we don’t have to drive for deep change in isolation. We can form groups and collectives or join existing organizations like the new feisty new Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce who make it their business to advocate for collective change. For those who say business and politics don’t mix, all businesses are political. Chick-fil-A sells chicken and homophobia. Patagonia sells outdoor gear and environmental justice. What kind of history is your business making? As protest novelist, activist, and this month’s Feminist in Residence Rivera Sun points out, “Even the choice to be apolitical is really just a vote for the status quo.”

Be open to transformation and outcomes you can’t control: No need to go to an ashram for three months. Your enterprise will make it very clear who you are and what’s important in life. Being a founder has consequences we can’t anticipate. Our personal transformation may, in fact, be the only real reward of the journey. Value it. It won’t buy the groceries. But it can provide the fertile ground for the next journey.

Self-care is important—but community care is vital too: If you have a venture, like it or not, you are in a community with others. It’s important to understand and get to know that community. Map out your enterprise’s ecosystem of support, which includes your neighbours, complimentary enterprises, suppliers, workers, bloggers in your field, policymakers, academic institutions, etc. No one builds or runs a business alone. Practice community care in ways that strengthens and builds resilience in your enterprise’s ecosystem. The odds of sustainability, resilience, and success will increase. Consider creating a Community Care Code of Practice.

Invest in intellectual development. Stretch your thinking: Develop an interdisciplinary personal development practice directed towards creating a future horizon of radical possibility. Prioritize events that offer well-facilitated consciousness-raising conversations or learnaries that provide the opportunity to learn deeply. Design and run operational experiments. Or support experiments created by others that you believe in.

Set emotional boundaries: Your enterprise is not your life’s work. Becoming who you want to be is. Check in with yourself. If your enterprise is helping you to become the person you want to be, terrific. If not, time for a rethink.

Measure what truly matters: Our GDP metrics mindset leads us to undervalue much of what we accomplish. Our businesses are more than profit/loss statements. Every business is a community that did not exist before. You created that! Create your own mini “impact report” each year to help you truly assess the quality and impact of that work. CV Harquail, author of Feminism: A New Idea for Business, suggests asking yourself, “Who benefits, who is harmed, and who is left out?”

See marketplace feminism for what it is: For example, those flashy ads by pro “woman entrepreneur” banks who suggest getting a loan is easy as asking for a glass of city water? It’s not. So don’t be hard on yourself if the answer is no. Look to alternatives like crowdfunding or womxn-led/operated venture fund pools.

You are human, not an algorithm: You cannot create the vast reservoir of will and energy that is purported to succeed as an entrepreneur simply by eating better, meditating more, exercising more, and being more. You are enough. And you are doing enough.

Don’t blame or shame the victim: As womxn, we endure a lot of debilitating gaslighting and demeaning, sexist behaviour in incubator/accelerator spaces. We need to shout out these stories if we want to drive change. Support womxn who call out unacceptable bias in the ecosystem. Don’t slam or isolate victims or truth-tellers as “difficult” or “losers.” Because, then, we all lose. Add your voice to calls for change. The time for an entrepreneurial version of #MeToo has come. How about #entrepreneurialAF?

And, so, am I still in love with my enterprise?  If these narratives sum up the real reality, are we doing OK?

After all that reflection, I took another look at where we are at with LiisBeth Media.

My enterprise has the power to hurt me deeply, on many levels. And, lord knows, I have been catastrophically hurt before. What person in a serious relationship hasn’t?

But, at least for now, based on a having crafted a more realistic outlook, I feel more gratitude than concern. Yes, we’ve endured harsh realities but the journey has yielded unexpected gifts. We are doing okay.

By aligning my thinking with reality versus Hallmark card or vested interest messaging about what it means to be an entrepreneur, I feel that I am now closer to being in right relationship (authentic and real) with entrepreneurship—eyes wide open—struggling with the right questions, with the right enterprise.

What more could a gal ask for?


Related Readings

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/06/25/gaslighting-the-silent-killer-of-womens-startups/

Categories
Our Voices

Decolonizing Our Hearts

Decolonize Your Mind Exhibit. Photo: Krui.fm Radio 2016

When you hear the word “decolonization,” what comes to mind? Land acknowledgements, the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, or the Medicine Wheel? Learning Indigenous traditions and the history of colonization? The act of offering the lands that were taken from Indigenous people back to their rightful owners? (See further reading by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang below.)

Diem Marchand-Lafortune, who created an intensive two-day workshop called “Decolonizing the Heart,” describes decolonization as “a process” that guides us to look, with a critical eye, at the history of North America and its power structures, including economies and governments, which “have been formative in developing one’s own and one’s ancestors’ worldview.” It requires “working to dismantle and transform one’s way of seeing and being in the world,” and that means unlearning principles that we may take for granted. For instance, this could include analyzing our business practices and offering up products and services as gifts to people in need rather than expecting money for them.

Marchand-Lafortune, a Cree-Métis and Jewish woman who was adopted and raised by an Acadian/Mi’kmaq father and Scottish mother, says she synthesized and “indigenized” 40 years of knowledge, life experience, philosophy, psychoanalysis and practice in negotiations and law school within the two-days of teachings. The program is not a 101 on Indigenous issues. It includes complex ideas. Marchand-Lafortune warns that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who feel invested in exploring decolonization in more depth should be prepared for “hard work and self-examination.”

One goal of the workshop is “to understand oneself better so that one can interact with other people in a more healthy way,” she says. “I’ve put all these disparate things together that allow people to learn we can’t reconcile with other people till we reconcile with ourselves.”

I began to learn about decolonization when I was doing my Masters of Social Work at the University of Toronto through academic readings, experiential re-enactments of colonization, and cultural competency training. However, I felt my education on Indigenous issues was insufficient, especially following a poorly facilitated class discussion on the findings of “cultural genocide” from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (see further reading below). Students were upset and complained to the administration. Seeing the harm social workers have caused and continue to cause Indigenous people prompted me to take a class on building Jewish-Indigenous relationships at the Lishma Jewish Learning Project.

I heard about the Decolonizing the Heart workshop from a fellow student in my master’s program. Monica Henriques is a social worker of Dutch and Jamaican ancestry who took the workshop and became Marchand-Lafortune’s executive assistant.

The workshop was a lot for me to take in. I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the ideas floating around in my head while simultaneously trying to remember how to put the tools into action. Undoing nearly 35 years of colonial education, changing deep-rooted emotional reactions, and relating to others in new ways may take me more time and practice. However, the experience left me with a great deal to think about.

Decolonizing the Heart Workshop participants–photo by Carmelle Wolfson

About a dozen people attended day one of the workshop at the Toronto United Mennonite Church in Toronto’s east end, including educators, non-profit professionals, writers, social workers, and religious professionals. The workshop integrated seemingly disparate topics throughout, including traditional Indigenous teachings, anti-oppression practices, conflict resolution strategies, and object relations theory approach to human development. It involved lectures, group discussions, experiential activities, visual mapping of individual ancestry, personal reflective writing, role-playing exercises, and video re-enactments. A second day was added to allow more time to cover the expansive material and practice role-play exercises.

On the second day, we simulated a variety of scenarios in which we responded to racist remarks. In one role play that took place at a liquor store, a customer suggests to the cashier that she shouldn’t serve Indigenous people and uses an offensive racial slur. The workshop teaches tools to guide us in identifying what may have happened in our past to trigger our emotional reactions to the situation, and for bystanders to take a few moments before acknowledging the harmful comment so that we can “call in” with compassion for the person causing the harm, trying to empathize and understand that person’s motivation, rather than “call out” the harmful comment through shaming and blaming. As the type of person who tends to freeze up in conflict situations, I have a hard time finding the right words to speak up. In one role play, the bystander asks, “What did you mean by that?” The customer says that Indigenous people are prone to alcoholism and wants to protect them. The bystander then provides information found on their phone’s web browser on alcohol rates among Indigenous populations in Canada. When the discussion wraps up, the Indigenous customers jokingly suggest the customer making the racist comment might pick up the tab at a nearby cafe–in exchange for conversation and a reading list to deepen the learning.

The workshop led me to reflect on standard practices in health and mental health care that I learned during my master’s. For instance, the Medicine Wheel includes four sections that represent the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical realms of each person. Well-being is feeling balanced in these four areas. Within health care and mental health institutions, the spiritual component of healing is usually missing. Though it may sound simple, finding that sweet spot where mind, body, heart, and soul are aligned is anything but simple. In this way, traditional Indigenous teachings hold the knowledge that Western society is lacking.

The workshop also reminded me of how important relationships are to our continued survival. This includes our relationship to other people, the natural environment, and ourselves. Indigenous societies lived on the land, co-existing with plants, animals, and their natural environments long before Europeans colonized and settled North America. Living in Toronto, I rarely have the chance to connect with nature, and I do not need to think about how the food I buy in the store is cultivated. I was also raised to compete with others for limited resources and taught to be independent and self-sufficient, ideals upheld by capitalism. However, Marchand-Lafortune explains the importance of collaboration with others and building strong ongoing relationships with the people around us.

This is the fundamental question that arose for me after attending this two-day workshop: Do you want to participate in colonization and colonial practices or do you want true change? When decolonizing the heart, you may never feel like you’re getting it right, but if you are not grappling with difficult questions, then you’re probably getting it wrong.

Marchand-Lafortune offers this analogy: “It’s really hard to be a feminist if you start acting like entrepreneurs that are in the capitalist paradigm—competition, aggression, all that stuff.” Put yet another way: though people may crave sugar, we don’t need it so why not consider what is driving that craving for sugar? She suggests focusing on meeting needs rather than creating businesses that are feeding “false needs.”

The Heart in Practice

The workshop provoked months of contemplation on decolonizing the heart. What does this look like in practice? For me, that process looked something like this while writing this article:

1. Acknowledging my power and privilege as the writer crafting this story and asking critical questions. Why am I, as a white settler journalist, believed to be an expert on decolonization after attending one workshop? Whose voices are heard and whose are not? Who is given credit for this knowledge, who is benefiting from it and in what ways (financial gain, prestige)? Why are Indigenous writers reporting on Indigenous issues rarely published?

2. Engaging in ongoing conversations with the editor, publisher, and workshop facilitators while trying to understand the motivations and needs of each one. Prioritizing relationships, by allowing time for these conversations, rather than being rigid and guided by speed and productivity.

3. Identifying my emotions when they arise (anxiety, anger, frustration, sadness) and asking which unmet need each feeling is connected to. Taking the time I need to do something to dampen these emotions before re-engaging in discussions.

4. Showing up to retake the workshop a second time even though I felt exhausted and overwhelmed by the start and end of the day. Offering to help make coffee after arriving and staying after it ended to clean up.

5. Asking for advice from friends and doing additional reading on the topic. Then giving credit to those involved in my creative process at the end of this article.

6. Connecting with the spiritual traditions of my ancestors in a way that is meaningful to me.

7. Rewriting this entire article while incorporating what I learned in steps one through five.

With files from Diem Marchand-Lafortune, Monica Henriques, freygl gertsovski, and Emily Green.


Further Reading and Resources

KAIROS Blanket Exercise

Decolonization is not a metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012)

Canada grapples with a charge of ‘genocide.’ For indigenous people, there’s no debate by Alicia Elliott, Washington Post (June 2019)

Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (1961)

Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different World is Possible, Edited by Genevieve Vaughan (2007)

The Maternal Roots of the Gift Economy, Edited by Genevieve Vaughan (2018)


This article was made possible thanks to the generosity of Startuphere Toronto!

Related Reading

Categories
Feminist Practices

Feminist Enterprise Commons Launches! Looking for Members and Feminists in Residence

LiisBeth team launches a new feminist learning space. From bottom left: Margaret Webb, Champagne Thompson, Lana Pesch, PK Mutch, Geraldine Cahill, Francesca D’Ambrosio, Abigail Slater, Valerie Fox, and Anita Li. Missing but with us in spirit, Jack Jackson.

The $1 billion+ fragmented feminist economy comprised of feminist enterprises operating in all sectors to advance equity and equality for women, girls, trans, and queer folk is about to come together.

On January 5, LiisBeth Media, Canada’s only feminist business media enterprise with 2,500 subscribers and more than 19,000 online readers, is launching a new service, the Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC), an online community built with Mighty Networks technology. It will enable the currently far-flung and splintered feminist enterprise community to come together in a safe, supportive, authentic, radical, change-led, and feminist-values-led space.

As part of the community, members will be able to connect, share valuable insights, ask important questions without outside surveillance, contribute tools, find relevant and new feminist research, and glean new insights to advance their own feminist practice, enterprise, and drive for systems change. They also have the opportunity to work collectively to further strengthen the feminist economy by resourcing, and sourcing from each other.

LiisBeth founder, PK Mutch, says, “We decided to build a new online community because we are increasingly unhappy with policies, bias, and breaches of trust by social network companies like Facebook and Google. Recently, Facebook randomly prevented LiisBeth from posting because they said our group site was too political. Apparently you can’t boost or promote a post about feminism’s point of view on current events without giving them your personal SIN number or driver’s licence. We challenged them on it, and the restriction was lifted—briefly. Still, that was the last straw for me. Once our new network gets going, we will be essentially using our LiisBeth Facebook channel to redirect people to a safer, online space.”

Mutch also adds, “We also aim to keep the community small and engaged. We are not aiming for thousands of phantom users.”

What is a feminist enterprise?

Feminist enterprises are typically founded by visionary feminist entrepreneurs, innovators, creators, investors, researchers, and social justice activists who leverage their entrepreneurial, leadership, innovation capacity, and creative skills expressly to not only create enterprises or projects that advance gender, economic, social, political, and environmental justice, but also to experiment with new ideas that can help us begin to conceive an alternative world beyond neo-liberal capitalism and patriarchy where all people and the planet can flourish.

At present there are no other feminist economy or enterprise-oriented networks in existence. Although, there are an increasing number of feminist business coaches popping up in the US.

PK Mutch explains, “Entrepreneurship is a tough path for all who pursue it to surviving or thriving economically in an increasingly unequal, precarious economy. Heavily promoted corporate responsibility efforts to address broken systems give the illusion that we are making sustainable progress, but the truth is lasting change won’t happen without the engagement of the rest of the economy—entrepreneurs and small enterprise leaders—in a conversation about what an economy beyond modern capitalism and patriarchy might look like.

Feminist entrepreneurs have all that to contend with plus the fact their ideas are marginalized because they challenge deeply held beliefs, and because, often, they move at the speed of humanity—versus the speed of technology.

Mutch adds “The feminist economy has been around for over 100 years (think bookstores and women-led credit unions in the 1970s), yet its work and leaders are systemically and frustratingly overlooked or appropriated without attribution. Most enterprises are grassroots in scale and strapped for time and resources, so finding each other and connecting has been difficult. We saw an opportunity to change that. Ultimately, we believe a stronger, more visible and better supported feminist economy leads to more well-supported experiments with alternative economic models and systems concepts. These tens of thousands of small but bright bonfires for real change will lead to the kind of radical social and economic changes we need to see if we are to ever leapfrog past our currently repressed ideas about the kind of world we have the power to make.”

Canada has a feminist government, feminist budget, and feminist foreign policy—and the Ministry for Women and Gender Equality (WAGE) in 2019 announced the historic $400 million Equality Fund, which combines international feminist grant-making with an innovative investment arm, delivering new momentum for women’s movements and supporting the advancement of gender equality globally. It makes sense that Canada should also be home to the world’s first visionary feminist enterprise community.

Mutch and her team envision that the FEC is intended to become a global community over time.

The Feminist Enterprise Commons

Built on the Mighty Network platform (founded and led by Gina Bianchini), FEC is a space where founders, project leaders, and aspirants can freely ask questions and, with the help of others, refine their ideas about how to flourish differently without fear. A core feature of the community will be the “Feminists in Residence” program. The program will bring in feminist thought leaders who are experts at specific topics and tools like “feminist marketing” or “feminist business model canvas” to share their expertise and will offer exclusive member-only workshops.

Investors, funders, and individuals or organizations with resources to share are also encouraged to sign up and support inspiring founders and transformative ideas that they believe in.

“So many corporations and impact investors are working to support gender equity these days but end up creating their own initiatives to do so instead of finding and investing in feminist enterprises or organizations that are already out there doing this work. The Feminist Enterprise Commons would create an opportunity for them to go to one place to find existing, experienced investees or partners instead of spending time reinventing the wheel,” says Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO.

Elize Shirdel, a feminist tech entrepreneur, says, “When one decides to create a feminist enterprise, it’s easy to feel alone out in the world. Feminist enterprise communities are cross sectoral, grassroots in scale, fragmented, and widely dispersed. Access to aligned startup and growth funding for promising but radical ideas is extraordinarily difficult. This keeps our voices small and weakens our ability to thrive while doing countervailing work.”

Valerie Fox, founder of the Pivotal Point and a LiisBeth advisory board member, says, “I believe in the power of well-connected innovation ecosystems to change the world. So I am excited about this idea. We need feminist enterprises to lead the way if what we want is the ability to imagine what else is possible socially, politically, and economically. It’s especially important to flow investment towards these sometimes ‘hard to love’ enterprises because they work hard to deeply challenge our assumptions about a system that, frankly, works well for some people, but not all.”

Nancy Wilson, founder of the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce, says, “The Feminist Enterprise Commons is a great idea. It seeks to connect unique types of enterprises and leaders with a feminist point of view. Not all women are feminists and not all feminists are women. If they are successful, they will not only be able to strengthen themselves, but also increase their ability to attract resources and influence policy.”

Mutch adds, “This is not a women’s empowerment or women’s booster network. It is an intersectional, queer and trans-inclusive, pro-reproductive rights, and social equity-oriented feminist space where existing systems are critiqued, dismantled, and new status-quo-busting novel concepts and ideas are worked out.”

The Commons is operated by LiisBeth Media, a division of Eve-volution Inc., a for-profit social enterprise and certified B Corporation. However, LiisBeth Media will be spun off into an independent cooperative by June 2020.

Commons host PK Mutch says, “It goes without saying that the leadership, ownership, governance structure, and community conduct agreements will be ultra transparent, developed participatively, accessible, responsive, caring, inclusive, in other words, feminist in every way. We are very clear that we are not going to build another ‘ghost town’ community network enterprise where frankly, the members in the end, are the product, versus the other way around.”

Mutch adds, “We won’t be perfect, but we will be human. We will work through any stumbling blocks along the way together.”


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.

Support LiisBeth

Subscribe!

You will have access to Payments processed through PayPal.





Funding

You can also contribute to our “Sustainability Fund” or an open donation in any amount.