“The best way to resist a monolithic institution or corporation is not with a monolithic movement but with multiplicity itself.” –Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
Holding a wooden dowel in my hands with both arms stretched out in front of me, I listened as reembodiment coach and trauma specialist Jane Clapp spoke about how important it is to reclaim physical space as a way of restoring dignity. I squeezed the dowel at both ends and felt the muscles of my arms flex. “What does dignity feel like in your body?” Jane asked the group of 20 “entrepreneurial feminists.” To me, dignity felt like taking up a fair amount of space, holding firm, and noticing the people around me. This moment, I thought, was extremely valuable work that I was proud to help uplift.
I’ve been steeped in conversations about “creating value” for a long time, and they always spur questions like, “What do we mean by value?” and “Who gets to decide?” Not having the chance to ask these questions in business can be frustrating to say the least. But “entrepreneurial feminism,” a term coined by Dr. Barbara Orser from the University of Ottawa, creates space for these questions and more.
In November 2017, I had the opportunity to co-found and organize the first Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum (EFF) in Toronto at the Ontario College of Art & Design University (OCAD U). We launched the event only three months before it took place. Timelines were tight, but we also knew it was the right time.
With no precedents to follow, we were able to ask, “What can feminism and participatory leadership methods teach us about crafting a truly unique, kick-ass, and valuable learning experience that nurtures the growing entrepreneurial feminist business practice community in Toronto and beyond?” and “How can we work with what we have now and create opportunities for more people to contribute?”
Excited about the possibilities, I, along with my colleagues Petra Kassun-Mutch, CV Harquail, and Patrick Robinson, dug in. It was one heck of an emergent, self-organizing (and organized!) team effort.
As my Feminists at Work partner CV Harquail said, “Teams organizing to change the world face a task that conventional teams get to avoid; they have to find ways to practice what they preach, and put these (new) values directly into how they do their work.” With the EFF, we faced this challenge: how to put feminist values and principles into practice.
In the end, over 100 entrepreneurial feminists of all genders came to learn about feminist business practice from 13 speakers/workshop facilitators. In the post-event survey, 68% of respondents rated the event as “amazing” and 26% said it was “overall good.” Not bad for a shiny, brand new thing!
But what did we do exactly? And what did we learn?
FIVE FEMINIST EVENT PRACTICES THAT WORK
Here are five things we did that, in our minds, made the EFF feminist in practice:
1. Use Circle and Other Consistent Meeting Practices
When Petra discovered the opportunity to partner with OCAD U, she leaped. CV and I were tasked with designing the agenda, including foundational talks and presenters. And since all members of the EFF team had other jobs and clients, we only had one hour per week to pull this thing together. So we agreed to do a team “check in” and “check out” each call, holding ourselves to a mini-circle practice. What makes “circle” feminist? To me, it’s about making sure that every voice in the room is heard without insisting that people be in agreement about anything. Circle roots folks in a shared purpose and helps everyone consciously work to build the trust that is necessary to deliver on that shared purpose. Good circle facilitators demonstrate deep respect for differences and create space for many possibilities.
2. Co-Create Event Agreements
Our intention for the EFF was to hold ourselves accountable for creating a “safer, braver” space along the lines of what the team at the Feminist Art Conference does with its events, a space where shared learning and listening could happen. Simple? Yes. Easy? No! At first, we debated whether or not we needed event agreements. In the end, we decided to collectively write event agreements, finessing the language many times over. Then we worked hard to stick to our agreements every step of the way. It made us stronger, even when it created more complexity at times. Read the full agreements here.
Making agreements explicit forced us to return to them again and again, challenging ourselves to live by them and be entrepreneurial feminists in our daily work. Then we brought this courage into the event. No event is perfect, but we are happy to report that 100% of EFF survey respondents said these agreements made a positive difference. What makes co-creating event agreements feminist? Nothing. But the agreements themselves reflected feminist values.
3. Practice Equity and Generosity in Cost Structure
Practicing fairness with event pricing was critical. We wanted to make sure presenters (most of whom identified as women) got paid. And we wanted to ensure that the EFF was financially viable and accessible. We wanted attendees to have to support each other in ways that we might not have considered. So we constructed several ticket price options, trusted that we’d cover our costs, and invited generosity. It worked. When we asked folks to show up for each other, the community took care of itself. We are thrilled to report that six attendees covered the registration fee for six additional attendees. This was great learning and confirmation for us. Practicing care while thinking beyond a transactional pricing model—totally feminist! (The F word is starting to feel good now, isn’t it?! It’s just another totally not scary word like “teal” or “mimosa.”)
4. Fold Learning Back Into the Whole
We aimed to provide presenters and attendees with methods, openings, and platforms to share their knowledge and contributions, and help “harvest” (to borrow a term from the Art of Hosting community) the contributions of others. This made way for continuous and effective learning as the group created new knowledge about entrepreneurial feminism together. Talking about the fact that this one of our goals made the event as much about finding collaborators and building upon each other’s work as it was about “presenting work.” We honoured individual contributions, but competition (and proprietary aims among presenters) wasn’t where we put our energy. In this way, we sought to move from hyper-individualist, capitalist behaviour to an effort that might benefit girls, women, and everybody.
Having a host committee was essential to this process in terms of the “what” and the “how” of the day. (Thank you Emily Antflick, Rusul Alrubail, Christina Evans, Annie Matan, and Marla Raymundo!) All host committee members scribed during sessions and reported what we learned to the full group. Host committee members also told us what they knew Toronto needed and what it didn’t need in terms of content. They stepped in to co-host the day, flew in last minute to help, and/or challenged us on our agenda. Everyone offered unexpected gifts of insight.
Prior to the EFF, presenters also challenged us to think even more expansively about the content of the day and offered brilliant talk we could never have expected. (See Dr. Dori Tunstall’s “A Feminist/Womanist Mandala of Cultures-Based Innovation” and Rania Younes’ “How the Settlement Factor is Failing Newcomer Women: Where do we go from here and how can entrepreneurs play a role?” View the entire agenda here.)
5. Incorporate Different Modalities of Learning
Lastly, we practiced what CV Harquail refers to as “whole humanness,” designing the EFF to ensure cognitive, emotional, and embodied learning. We started the day with movement and kept moving throughout the day. We talked about how oppression and power live in our bodies and the fact that all bodies feel the effects of oppressive business cultures.
Emily Antflick of Shecosystem, for example, got us grounded and breathing at the start of the day. As co-host, I was worried about starting on time. But we made our start, and I’m grateful to Emily for insisting on presence. This made me even more present for Jane Clapp’s workshop about using anger (a real live emotion!) to build better creative projects and businesses and taking care of ourselves while we do it.
So these were our reflections on the forum as the core production team. Personally, the most meaningful part about the forum was how participants (producers, attendees, and volunteers) demonstrated care for one another. Care and valuing care will always be my entry points to the emerging conversation about entrepreneurial feminism, and I realize that for other people, it’s something else entirely.
I’m passionate about making visible just how many entry points there are to the conversation about entrepreneurial feminism because I have witnessed this multiplicity. I believe we absolutely need multiplicity (and space for it!) to keep entrepreneurial feminism moving forward in a way that honours difference.
I’m delighted to say we are planning the next Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum for November 2018! Sign up here to join the EFF facebook group to stay up to date with event planning progress, calls for proposals etc.
Read the full EFF report by Petra Kassun-Mutch here.