With the new year and a vaccine on the horizon, many entrepreneurs are crawling from the wreckage known as 2020, dusting off, and thinking, what next?
In the past, mainstream entrepreneurship has focused on opportunity and extraction: find a market gap or problem, figure out how to exploit it, and then work to extract as much wealth and power for yourself and investors as possible. Meanwhile, social entrepreneurs sought to find the harm caused by Big C Capitalist pursuits; figure out how to fix the mess; then set to work abiding by capitalist light rules.
Neither one of these models make sense for the ground that has shifted beneath our feet this past year and for what’s coming next. The very purpose of entrepreneurship, attendant policies, and the way we do business must undergo a profound revolution.
So, in addition to all the things we normally think about—launching, pivoting, downsizing, upsizing, going digital, managing growth (some enterprises are thriving!), getting through the next lockdown, making payroll—there is this to consider: how to build a truly accountable enterprise that models an inclusive, restorative, and generative future versus perpetuating the rapacious systems, standing behind decorative diversity mission statements and operating with the fear-based mindset of the now.
Of course, no one knows the answer to that big question, but here are some things to kickstart the process of getting there:
Stop perpetuating systemic oppression: Take a hard look at your culture, policies, pay scales, processes and practices. Centre the word ‘care,’ and start rooting out anything that enables oppression—whether racism, anti-black racism, white supremacy, colonialism. Let’s turn the page on the way we lead, communicate, operate, and design products and services.
Advance critical consciousness: Do action work. Participate in and encourage difficult, uncomfortable conversations that lead to personal growth, political awareness, and systems thinking mindsets for staff, customers and suppliers. Everyone, not just the founder, must evolve and reckon with internalized oppression as well as external. We learn best in community with others. Seek out expertise and communities that facilitate growth and help sustain them in return.
Take stock of whose work and ideas you amplify: What stories do you tell on your company blog? Whose ideas do you advance on social media? What art do you hang on your workspace walls? Looking at who and what you focus on can also tell you who and what you’re not supporting—and should.
Get Political and connect with other aligned social movements: Social change is collective work—not hero work. And the best and freshest thinking today is generated by BIPOC, women-led, grassroots, activist groups, not large, corporatized institutions. Engage with BLMCda, BLM USA, the LEAP, DIEM25, Pace e Bene, Salmon Nation, and other generative movements that embrace social justice, feminism, and environmentalism. Sign up for their newsletters. Donate. Invite their speakers to talk to your stakeholder group. Invite an activist to sit on your advisory or fiduciary board. Answer their calls to action. It has to be a give and take.
Ask who’s in the room? Who’s not? And consider why? Over 54 per cent of all businesses in Canada have one to four employees (considered micro companies by StatsCan) often including the founder and co-founder. This presents an obvious challenge when it comes to advancing inclusion: your company may just be a close-knit founding team of three cis-het white women with no plan or money to hire. And that’s OK. But there are countless ways micro companies like this can engage with the 30 per cent of the Canadian population that is BIPOC identified. Make that engagement a priority as it will inform and strengthen your work. Need advice? Join the Feminist Enterprise Commons community (FEC).
As brutal as the year was, 2020 delivered a gift: it has unveiled what needs fixing in ways that not even mainstream folks can continue to ignore. We cannot turn away from it or all the suffering will have been for nothing, all the pain and carnage will continue. I suggest we heed the words of Audre Lorde: It is time for us all to be “deliberate and afraid of nothing.”
There’s something special about exploring a city on foot. Whether you’ve lived in the same place for twenty years or are visiting someplace new, going for a wander—headphones in, music on, people watching, popping into shops, turning down a side street and discovering a hidden gem—is a consummate pleasure.
What if, though, you could engage more intimately with the cityscape by accessing information about it—events, history, restaurants, music—as you move through it? That’s the idea behind Driftscape. Co-founder and CEO Chloe Doesburg calls the app a “cultural discovery platform,” which allows the user “seamless connection” to the physical spaces they occupy.
Driftscape offers a selection of topics—from architecture to history to arts and literature. As users approach things that might interest them, the app on their cellphones will send a notification. This could be a piece of trivia, a festival nearby, or what Doesburg calls the most “sophisticated” option: an immersive experience such as a Jane’s Walk, free urban tours inspired by Jane Jacobs, who penned the classic, The Life and Death of American Cities, and advocated for mixed-used, walkable streets; or First Stories, which documents the rich Indigenous history of Toronto; or Queerstory, which will leads to sites in Toronto’s vibrant LGTBQ2S+ culture.
Driftscape, which now employs six, officially incorporated in 2017 but had been “in the works” for at least a year before that and involved a lot of “serendipity,” says Doesburg. She was inspired by a “location-specific project” called Murmur, which existed before smartphones: You could dial in and hear a story about a specific place. She was also working with a musician friend who was recording an album of location-specific songs set in Toronto; they created Track Toronto, which allows users to listen to music associated with places in the city as they pass through them, now used by Driftscape.
“People were super enthusiastic” about the experience, says Doesburg. While working on that concept, she met programmers working on a similar project, and together they dreamed up Driftscape.
The project has evolved significantly since its inception, adding more layers of information by becoming a subscription platform. For a fee—Driftscape partners—which range from not-for-profits to private content producers to businesses and municipalities—provide content for the app, such as visitor’s guides, self-guided tours , and digital walks. There’s a sliding scale for partners, ranging from $1,000 to $4,000 a year. More content draws more eyes to the app, which draws more users to the app and, in turn, more partners subscribing, creating a positive feedback loop.
Says Doesburg: “We’re working with municipalities who are layering these things with tourism information so that we can become (their) digital visitor’s guide, which is even more relevant now, in the time of COVID-19. People want to do more digitally. People are looking for self-guided tours, for ways they can be their own guide, and also just looking to rediscover their own city and places nearby, the way the way you would as a tourist.”
“We’re working with municipalities who are layering these things with tourism information so that we can become (their) digital visitor’s guide, which is even more relevant now, in the time of COVID-19″.
That style of subscription service, however, is not without issues. Open the Driftscape app and you’ll be presented with a map of Canada, with Driftscape’s points of interest and services— loaded by its subscribers. The first thing you’ll notice is that most of the content is based in Southern Ontario, and the vast majority of that in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), making the app, at present, tremendously urban-centric. In Northern and rural areas, programming options include things like Historica Canada and its Heritage Minutes, providing a perspective that can skew to colonial, cis-heteronormative Settler norms. That’s a very different experience than users can access in the GTA, where Driftscape offers more of a mosaic.
This discrepancy is due to growing pains, Doesburg says. Driftscape can’t offer a wider variety of content in more remote areas until they bring on a wider variety of partners. “That’s certainly something we’ve spent a lot of time talking and thinking about and we’re trying to layer in other perspectives wherever we can. We are especially working to grow the Indigenous voices on the app.”
“We would certainly welcome organizations anywhere in Canada and in North America to host their content on the platform,” she adds.
In April, Doesburg participated in Fifth Wave Labs, a four-month feminist incubator geared towards supporting women-identified digital media entrepreneurs in Southern Ontario. She says the program provided mentorship and networking in a time when, due to COVID-19, everyone was feeling very distanced from each other. It also altered the way she thought about her business practices.
Although Doesburg doesn’t necessarily consider Driftscape a specifically feminist enterprise— “We haven’t really been using that word”—she thinks of it as being in keeping with those values.
“Before doing the Fifth Wave labs program, I didn’t really think about feminist business practices,” says Doesburg, “but certainly while we were part of that program I was like, ‘Oh, this is what we already do.’”
Doesburg says she thinks of Driftscape as a social enterprise. That “seems very, very similar, although not identical (to feminism) but certainly in terms of just looking at business as something that has profit as one of its goals, and not its only goal.”
The company’s social values, she says, include “a commitment to supporting the cultural community and being part of that ecosystem” as well as “how we run our business, that we’re committed to making the best place to work for employees. “We’re committed to having a really transparent company where we involve everyone at all levels of decision making. We’re really open about what we’re doing and what our values are, what our challenges are.”
In contrast to multinational social media giants serving up information, Driftscape features diverse local experts. Says Doesburg: “We boost the voices of local organizations who are creating fantastic content, and we create a place where users can access a wide-range of otherwise hard-to-find local information on an ad-free platform at no cost to the user.”
Driftscape is Doesburg’s first entrepreneur venture. Until 2015, the University of Waterloo graduate worked as an architect, a profession that obviously gives her a special appreciation for cities and the nature of place. “Being an entrepreneur certainly offers more freedom and flexibility,” she says of the change. “Buildings take years to complete so, compared to architecture, working on software is refreshing because it’s possible to iterate quickly, see what works, and make changes easily.”
With Driftscape growing, adapting and adding new directions, Doesburg is content knowing what entrepreneurial path she is on. “I don’t have any next steps in mind. For now, I’m focused on growing Driftscape.”
Contributor’s Bio: Lori Fox is a queer, non-binary journalist based in Whitehorse, YT. Their work focuses primarily on issues of class, gender, sexuality and environment, and has appeared previously with Vice, The Guardian, CBC, and The Globe and Mail. You can find them on twitter @fox.e.lori.
Publishers Note: Driftscapeis a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Apply here.
Just over a year ago, Shaanaz Gokool, a woman of colour and CEO at Dying with Dignity, wrote a letter to her board of directors of the Canadian nonprofit. She presented a list of grievances, including pay equity (her predecessor had been paid more despite a narrower range of responsibilities) and ongoing experiences of systemic discrimination that undermined her ability to do her job. The pay equity issue was eventually resolved—but the systemic discrimination issues, which Gokool found to exceed federal and provincial human rights code thresholds — remained. Gokool requested a third-party mediation so that she, and the enterprise, could resolve the issues and move on in a positive way.
Soon after, the head of the Board’s human resources committee requested a meeting – Gokool thought to kick off the long-awaited mediation process. Instead, three board members showed up at her office and said, “You’re fired.” They slid an envelope across the table containing the paperwork, handed her a box for her things and coarsely ushered her out the door which made Gokool feel like she was a military grade threat. When she stopped to comfort a close colleague who, after hearing the news, was sobbing in her office, one of the board members attempted to block Gokool’s path.
“I really believed the organization was going to fulfill its commitment to mediating. I was surprised…it was abrupt…it was very shocking.”–Shaanaz Gokool
To this day, the board denies any wrongdoing. So much for dignity. Hello trauma for all.
A year later, Gokool has not been able to find employment in her field. She believes it’s because she now has reputation as whistle blower, a troublemaker, an untouchable.
The nonprofit, the board clearly failed to treat their living employees with dignity. As for governing with care via a social justice lens or in accordance with their own stated “person-centered code of conduct,” The Dying with Dignity board, even if on safe legal grounds, gets a total fail.
Unfortunately, Gokool’s experience is far from unique.
Set Up to Fail
There is a profound lesson here for founders. Most startups and their advisors ignore what is now one of the most important steps in the creation of a new enterprise — crafting meaningful and enforceable organizational bylaws.
But guess what? Times are a changing. Social justice is now a global concern. Forget shareholder activism. Today’s stakeholder activism demands your bylaws protect human rights and fight systemic racism — with increasingly loud voices. Failing to listen could sink the reputation of your enterprise along with access to funding, talent, government contracts and customers. And you could well be slapped with a human rights lawsuit.
The Green Party’s Federal Council’s (board) response to the outcry: maintain their position that he had learned from his past mistakes and, well, all that was in the past.
Those harmed disagree, vehemently. His misconduct still impacted their lives. Many had not yet healed. Chelsey Rhodes, who filed her grievance seven years ago, organized a recent GoFundMe campaign to help Lakhani with their legal costs associated with breaking their silence, an example of feminist solidarity.
All this raises an important question. Who gets to decide when it’s ok to exonerate past behavior? The perp? Or the victims? And how much did anyone learn given the uproar from past victims and the Green Party’s stubborn defence of their hire?
The Green Party’s constitution and bylaws outlines a clear fiduciary duty to advance social justice, but its Federal Council gets a fail on follow through and implementation. It’s not enough to market progressive intentions, the governing body has to act in alignment with those values and be clear about interpreting them — who will the board protect, the organization or the people the organization serves?
Underlying all these cases is a problem of governance, namely, out of touch and/or ignored bylaws. And that leaves enterprises purporting to advance social justice doing the exact opposite – casting out whistle blowers as troublemakers instead of embracing them as solutionaries to advance their cause.
Why Entrepreneurs Need To Get Their Bylaws Together
I work with hundreds of entrepreneurs and founders. Few understand or appreciate the importance and role of bylaws.
Bylaws are essentially your house rules — backed by the rule of law. They are the heart of your organization. They tell investors, stakeholders, customers and employees how you really show up in the world. They lay out what you see as your duty of care and the quality of fiduciary conduct you expect from directors.
They are more powerful than any website mission or diversity and inclusion statement. And they work to align staff conduct policies (which are often more progressive) with director conduct expectations.
But too often, bylaws are bare bones, written in haste and deliberately kept short. Lawyers routinely advise founders to do so because bylaws are harder to change later due to the consensus building required. Deferring the development of contemplative bylaws saves a startup time and money. And many will argue that badass bylaws, ones that demand accountability beyond minimum legal requirements, will make it harder to entice directors to join your board.
But template bylaws and laisse-faire attitudes towards them reflect classic patriarchal standpoints.They protect directors, not enterprise stakeholders.They focus fiduciary duty on money, power and efficiency. In recent years, more progressive organizations have amended their bylaws to follow the ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) standards, which gives a nod to the environment (do no harm) and corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is primarily about giving back to a community, not doing what is just in your organization.
And it doesn’t go nearly far enough in throwing off the shackles of systemic oppression.
Why Bylaws Need a Feminist Frame
It’s time to move past governing like a patriarch to governing like a feminist. And this means reconsidering how power is distributed, centering the concept of care, and articulating a commitment to social justice.
Yes, this applies also to enterprises with a founder/director of one. Un-incorporated sole proprietors would also do well to consider these issues.
The first step? Acknowledge that we live in a white supremacist, patriarchal, colonial and neo-liberal capitalist society, hence, so are the bylaws such a society spawns. Accept that it’s no longer acceptable to perpetuate these and other oppressions fueling inequality. And move, embracing guidelines for better conduct.
The next step is to boldly commit to change and consider the following:
Centre care and healing as a key fiduciary responsibility: Add an expectation of care and dignified treatment of all stakeholders, especially survivors of oppressive treatment as a result of your enterprise’s actions. Duties should also include working to help those unintentionally harmed by hosting a healing circle, funding trauma counselling and sponsoring meaningful anti-oppression training.
Make clear your committment to advance social justice: Incorporate a commitment to meet or exceed Employment Standards, pay equity and the Human Rights Act. Most bylaws say something general about following the laws of the jurisdiction. But making compliance explicit sends a clear message.
Offer the Right to Be Heard: Update language regarding the right to file grievances, request independent third-party mediation, and survivor support — especially when the grievance relates to a harassment or human rights issue. Consider appointing an independent ombudsperson.
Clarify and restrict the use of nondisclosure agreements: Sometimes these are appropriate and serve all parties. But when it comes to rights violations, silencing someone from talking about trauma experienced under your watch is akin to cutting out their tongue. It also forestalls healing for all. There is no plainer way to say this: Stop this practice. Work to offer healing to all parties involved, even after a formal relationship is severed.
Reconsider the distribution of power: Boards are beginning to ensure diverse representation, but should also consider diversity of roles. Too often boards operate like aloof Kings and Queens in the Game of Thrones. Sure, they source input from staff who have lived experience running the day to day, but afford them little formal power to see their concerns addressed or ideas adopted. Establish voting seats for key staff, beneficiaries and/or customers. Diversity of roles incorporating lived experience along with distributed power will strengthen your organization’s ability to make wise decisions on tricky issues.
Make your bylaws accessible and transparent: Post them on your company’s website. Make it clear what your company expects of its directors. Articulate them in clear accessible language. Invite stakeholders to review bylaws and comment before ratifying. By the same token, stakeholders — clients, partners, allies, beneficiaries and staffers — need to know board bylaws and play a part in holding directors accountable. Never seen them? Ask for them.
Own your good, bad and ugly: If you as the founder or board makes a mistake, don’t hide. Come clean. Tell people. Explain how you are working to fix it. And share what you learned. Futurepreneur gets points on this one.
Adopt zero tolerance: Make it clear: Your enterprise will not accept any board candidate with a confirmed history of sexism, racism or human rights violations. Period. Do your homework. Many bylaws openly “cancel out” directors with bankruptcy declaration histories (an indicator of being a poor money manager). Enterprises who work with vulnerable populations require police checks. A socially progressive startup should not tolerate a record of misconduct on human rights issues.
Extend duty of care to include next generations: Consider including the Indigenous “Seventh Generation Principle” in board decision making to acknowledge that what we do today impacts future generations. This principle is often thought of in context of our relationship to mother earth. But it also applies to the relationship between the sexes and entire peoples – Indigenous, BIPOC, and migrant communities — for the benefit of future generations. Include a “reach out” principle, making it a fiduciary duty to forge meaningful connections with those harmed by our collective past. Chamber of Commerce member?. Sign up and support the Women’s/Black/LGBTQIA Chamber of Commerce as well, and articulate board support for aligned activism (such as Black Lives Matter or TheLEAP).
Still need more convincing?
At the recent Social Values conference, Stephen Nairne, Chief Investment Officer of Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, an Indigenous-led and owned financial intermediary, told the audience this: “Your enterprise will be called to account. We have to learn how to heal it when breached and potentially even reorganize to maintain their core purpose under radically changed circumstances.”
Or put another way, if you are not taking stakeholder activism seriously, rethinking your bylaws, or taking care in crafting new ones, you are screwing your investors, stakeholders, and community. Not to mention the future.
Be the change? Fuck that. Get out there and lead the change.
Contributor’s Bio: pk mutch (she/her) is a white, cis top end Gen X serial entrepreneur, feminist, street journalist, consultant and educator who lives in Toronto and enjoys getting from place to place by bike. pk mutch is also the founder and publisher of LiisBeth Media and Eve-Volution Inc.
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