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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.si

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.

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Categories
Feminist Practices

Can a Professional Matchmaker be a Feminist?

Photo by Jana Sabeth, Unsplash

Fourteen years ago, I got a job as a matchmaker at a high-end dating agency in downtown Toronto. It was awful. Once I learned how the company operated, my dreams of putting perfect matches together were shattered. Our members had paid ridiculous amounts of money to join our closed network; they could only be matched with other people who had also paid to join. And as far as I could tell, most of these members wanted nothing to do with each other. Salespeople charged outrageous and whimsically fluctuating prices, and the company embraced dishonesty as a policy. No wonder our clients were always angry.

As a “dating consultant” in the Matching department, my job was to try and convince these disillusioned people to say “yes” to each other. I heard “no” a lot and spent far too much time making notes on people’s disappointment with our company, and more hauntingly, their loneliness. It was frustrating being unable to help my clients, and I was disgusted by the sexist sales structure. Women routinely paid three times as much as male clients—often well over $10,000 for four to six “introductions,” which our company (and most traditional matchmakers) defined as the exchange of contact details. I learned that this is the norm for “traditional” matchmaking and dating agencies.

Still, I enjoyed putting people together—especially the clients who hadn’t heard from us in years—and I managed to make some good matches in that wasteland. I also learned some valuable things about human nature: People really cling to stereotypes when it comes to dating, even if they seem enlightened about everything else; most people would rather hear the truth than a comforting lie; plus, everyone—and I mean everyone—self-identifies as youthful, with a good sense of humour.

But most of the time, I was ashamed of the way the company forced me to lie and stall people. I quickly tired of fielding justifiably angry phone calls. I actually began advising my favourite members that they would be better off spending their time and energy on a dating site.

That company folded—a victim of the 2008 economic crisis—while I was on maternity leave. I hadn’t imagined that I would ever go back there, but I was surprised and disappointed that I never had the chance to say goodbye to my members. Fortunately, a handful of them had given me their email addresses. In 2012, when I launched my own business, Junia Matchmaking Services, they became some of my very first clients.

Ann Marshall, founder of Junia Matchmaking Services

I operate almost exclusively online, using existing dating sites. I consider myself a matchmaker, but also a dating coach and online dating surrogate/concierge. Essentially, I am e-Cyrano. I’m often better at writing about you than you would be yourself. I write dating profiles. I also curate and edit my clients’ pictures. Sometimes I even take the photos myself. I then set clients up on dating websites like POF (formerly PlentyOfFish) and Match, where I run their profile(s) entirely. I’m the online version of them.

I get the irony in what one of my clients said about my service: “You don’t realize you aren’t being yourself until you are finally allowed to be.” Bonnie, 55, is living with the man I found for her on POF a little less than a year ago. “I was looking in all the wrong places,” she laughs, admitting that she was stuck on “eye candy.”

My services are particularly valuable to women, although I serve clients of all genders, including non-binary people. Most people outside of my industry aren’t aware that men consistently outnumber women on dating sites and apps. This gap persists because so many women are hesitant to “put themselves out there.” Many women hire me because they’ve heard of or had a “gross” experience online. I’ve been using dating sites professionally for eight years, and I know a lot about the privacy settings, which keeps intrusive messages to a minimum. I immediately delete offensive or sexual remarks and block users who display any impatience. I’m always amazed by how many people think 24 hours is too long to wait for a response to a question about the last book you read.

I also pay very little attention to the unsolicited messages my clients receive; rather, I spend my time searching the websites for prospects who meet my client’s criteria, running those candidates by my clients, and then sending friendly messages to any matches a client approves—signed with my client’s name. If the conversation goes well, and the client is willing to meet the person I’ve been talking to, I will set them up on a first date.

My clients don’t wait to hear from the people they might want to meet, because I am starting that conversation for them.

My mission is to make my services accessible and affordable to anyone who wants to use them. I have virtually no overhead, working from an office in the basement of my Guelph, Ont., home. Many—but not all—of my clients would have difficulty finding representation with a traditional matchmaker, including singles disadvantaged by intersecting forms of oppression. I often work on behalf of older women, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and people of colour. My regular clients pay a monthly fee of $475 (including HST), but I offer services on a sliding scale for seniors, students, artists, and anyone else on a limited income or facing financial hardship. I never turn away anyone I think I can help.

I work with clients month by month until we’ve found someone they want to keep seeing—or until they’ve gained the confidence to work their profile for themselves. I don’t always get to hear the follow-up story. My definition of “success” is pretty fluid. Marriage isn’t always the goal. People come to me for different reasons. Some haven’t dated in 40 years and they just want to learn the “ropes.” Some want to find a lifetime love but never live together. Some just want to have sex again, with or without love.

They also come to me at all stages of life; my youngest client was 24, and my oldest was 77. That client, Georgina, is getting married to a 73-year-old in June. A lot of former clients keep in touch. I get invited to at least one or two weddings a year—the ones where one spouse has told the other of my role. I can also take credit for about a dozen babies so far.

Right now, things have definitely slowed down as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Almost all of my clients have chosen to put things on hold for the moment. It’s hard for people to imagine paying hundreds of dollars to “meet” someone they might not actually meet face to face for a year. But it’s also an excellent time to be online dating, for that exact reason. You can be as picky as you like right now! And, well, the only safe way to search for love now is online.

But nudging matchmaking into 21st century reality isn’t only about being online. While the industry remains heavily burdened by patriarchal convention, there is a growing number of matchmakers willing to stand up and be counted as feminist. Many are members of a large Facebook group, “Professional Love Connectors”. Tammy Shaklee, an Austin, Texas–based matchmaker who runs the company, H4M, is a “straight ally” who exclusively serves the LGBTQ+ community, providing one-to-one introductions for clients all over the United States. She’s also committed to making social justice a pillar of her work, and H4M donates thousands to LGBTQ+ charities every year, while encouraging its mainly affluent clientele to do the same.

Another group member, Amy Van Doran, says “feminist” is the word that started her career. She is the founder of New York City’s Modern Love Club, and defines a feminist matchmaker as one who “enables women to have as much agency in the dating process as their male counterparts.” She runs her “hyper-curated” old-fashioned matchmaking business out of an East Village gallery space in Lower Manhattan. She fills her company’s Rolodex by interviewing 54 people a week during “office hours,” and hosting regular art openings and events in the evening that draw an eclectic mix of artists, professionals, and other NYC singles. There’s a dedicated “free dating spot” right outside the storefront in warm weather months, for visitors who want to get to know each other on the premises. From that potential pool, she agrees to arrange matches for only “16 remarkable clients a year.”

Fees are hefty, starting in the $20,000 range, and Van Doran only takes on those she really feels she can help—and who can obviously pay. But that doesn’t mean the standard cis-het, white professionals only—she’s more interested in what’s going on inside a person’s head. Van Doran prefers to match “really interesting people, with a lot going on intellectually.” In her experience, the more unique, original, and engaging a person is, the harder it is for them to find love in the wild. That’s where she comes in; not just putting two people together, but convincing them to take a leap of faith or see potential in someone they are inclined to dismiss.

She cites the recent match of her yoga instructor in New York City with a man she met at Burning Man who lived on a commune in Oregon. “I was like, ‘Listen. Hear me out. This guy is your guy.’ It was so weird, but it was just obvious.” Her client listened. He left the commune. They now live in upstate New York, and they’re getting married.

Van Doran says she helps her clients free themselves from “thinking that you have to date a certain kind of person.” She believes criteria such as matching incomes, racial preferences, and even height parameters are obstructing the most important part of the matchmaking process. “We need to get away from all that and just ask, ‘Does this person make me happy?’ Everything else is going to change.”

One challenge of matching extraordinary people—and women in particular—is that they often expect a partner to bring exactly what they offer to a match, in terms of ambition, education, or material success. Van Doran challenges her clients to stop thinking that they have to date someone with a very similar lifestyle and career. “You don’t need two people who are running at top speed all the time.”

In my own matchmaking work, I have discovered that while complementary lifestyles can be extremely important, opposites who don’t tick all of each other’s boxes often make good matches. Van Doran and I both agree that the most important thing in finding a good match is paying attention to how a person makes you feel. Do you feel heard when you are talking to them? Do they make you laugh? Do you smile when you think of them? Are you excited to see their name come up on the phone? Would your best friend, your grandma, or your dog get along with them? Now that’s a match!


If you enjoyed this article and appreciate LiisBeth, the world’s first feminist magazine dedicated to supporting feminist entrepreneurs, please consider supporting us so we can do more. We are a reader supported indie magazine. Every bit helps! [direct-stripe value=”ds1554685140411″]


Related Readings

https://www.liisbeth.com/2016/04/19/bridge-over-tricky-waters-love-business-and-good-governance/

 

https://www.liisbeth.com/2020/01/22/dont-mock-these-cocktails/

Categories
Activism & Action

How Do We Remake The World?

 

SheEO founder and CEO Vicki Saunders opens the SheEO Global Summit. Photo: Dhalia Katz

A flurry of COVID-19 related conference cancellations this week didn’t stop more than 600 women entrepreneurs and 93 speakers from attending the first SheEO Global Summit held in Toronto on Monday, March 9.

It was just too important to miss.

SheEO is an innovative, feminist-forward, Canadian-based initiative designed to propel women and women-identified entrepreneurs and their enterprises to the next level. Vicki Saunders founded the organization out of frustration with both the “women are just mini-men” approach of existing male-dominated startup programs, as well as her lived experiences as an entrepreneur and mentor. She decided enough was enough.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the SheEO Global Summit for women entrepreneurs in listening mode. Photo: Dhalia Katz

“Everything is broken. What a great time to be alive.” –Vicki Saunders

The first SheEO event, just over seven years ago, consisted of just 10 entrepreneurs plus a handful of women mentors sitting on pillows in a circle in a small university meeting room. The plan was to meet once a week. During that time, participants shared their experiences, hopes and dreams in a space that acknowledged their experiences and authentic selves. They strategized, shared skills, collaborated. As a result, they made surprising, unparalleled progress in a short time. The experience was transformational for all who participated, including Saunders.

The next step? How to scale this experiment so that many more women leading businesses could access a support network that truly worked.

Today, SheEO operates in five countries with 70 more in the pipeline. It has funded 53 ventures (the average loan being $100,000 per venture) and, globally, it has more than 4,000 activators or mentors who also donate to the fund. Its work has been featured in mainstream press around the world.

What started as one woman’s conviction—that if systemically oppressed women entrepreneurs were unleashed from systems that were never built by them or for them, they could have significant impact on the growth, strength, and character of our economy (an estimated $150 billion in Canada alone) within five years—has turned into a global movement.

And that has led to serious government attention.

The opening day of the SheEO Global Summit attracted politicians and diplomats such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion; Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario; and Isabelle Berro-Amadeï, Ambassador of France and Monaco.

 

From left to right, front row: Wendy Cukier, Ryerson Diversity and Inclusion Institute; Julie Merk, BMO; Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario; Ambassador Isabelle Hudon; Michelle Savoy, SheEO Activator; and Beth Horowitz, SheEO Board Member.

In 2018, the Canadian government committed to investing more than $2 billion in research, policy development, and support (The Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy) for Canada’s estimated 1.3 million women sole proprietors, small business owners, and startup founders. In making the announcement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “It’s not just about the fact that we need the full participation of women in today’s economy. It’s also about the fact that women entrepreneurs bring forward fundamentally different solutions than male entrepreneurs.”

Join PK Mutch outside of the Liberty Grand for an interview with Minister Mary Ng about what’s next for the Women’s Entrepreneurship Fund (WES) and her thoughts on challenges facing women entrepreneurs in Canada. 

SheEO’s summit agenda delivered practical advice to women entrepreneurs on topics such as growing globally and building a productive relationship with your bank as well as action workshops where participants and SheEO founders collaborated on developing strategies to overcome current business challenges in real-time.

It also offered provocative sessions on feminist business practice, decolonizing systems, and emergent economies. The summit provided on-site child care as well as a quiet room to decompress, reflect, and decide what you need to leave behind so that it can no longer hold you back.

Dr. Dori Tunstall, Dean of Design of OCAD University: “Asking diverse peoples to dance to a white European, male, CIS, hetero, middle-class, able-body and -mind, Christian status quo (i.e. the power structure) is genocide to our spirits.”
A quote from CV Harquail, presenter of “The Feminist Economy” at the SheEO Global Summit, 2020.
Joy Anderson, founder of Criterion Institute: “We’ve privileged the finance world over the knowledge of the world. We need to get into a point where a diverse set of knowledge is included in our understanding of risk—and truly valued.”

The summit drove this home:

There are lots of traditional business conferences and neo-liberal incubator and accelerators led by patriarchal, privileged dudes (and a few like-minded women) who still believe their recipe for success is relevant, which is to focus on disruption at all costs and finding the next billion-dollar unicorn enterprise at the expense of all else.

But to collectively flourish, we need women and all women-identified entrepreneurs of all genders to flourish. We need women-identified leaders creating the next-gen powerhouses that are truly inclusive and capable of generating fair returns, fair wages, and strengthening community and planet. And we need organizations like SheEO Global Summit to challenge and blow up norms, narratives, and systems that might hold women back.

 


Related Reading

For the list of new 2020 Canadian SheEO ventures, click here.

https://www.liisbeth.com/2020/01/22/feminist-enterprise-commons-launches-looking-for-members-and-feminists-in-residence/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/10/29/how-can-we-collectively-build-a-better-future-for-all/

Categories
Body, Mind & Pleasure

Don’t Mock These Cocktails

Temperance Cocktails bottles (Image by Jennifer Crawford (they/them))

There’s a reason people kindle romance in bars: they hope alcohol will soothe their first-date jitters. For Haritha Gnanaratna and Audra Williams, booze wasn’t an option. Gnanaratna was a professional bartender, but Williams, a writer and media personality, had never had a drink in her life.

“People get really defensive when I say I don’t drink,” says Williams. “They think it’s about them, like I’m judging them just by being sober.” But Gnanaratna saw her choice not as a hurdle to overcome but a new bar to reach. Says Williams: “He made me the most delicious non-alcoholic cocktail on our first date.”

That zesty drink—smoked black tea swirled with celery cordial, cardamom, agave, and lemon—was the beginning of their romance, and a new business venture, Temperance Cocktails, launched in September 2018. They split tasks, with Gnanaratna focusing on product design and testing, and Williams on communications and marketing. They both liked coming up with drink names, playing off tarot cards (The Fool, The Hierophant).

Williams, a former speech writer for NDP leader Jack Layton and self-described “left-wing fixer,” now works as a content and engagement specialist at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) in Toronto. The CSI industrial kitchen provided them with an early production facility to make and bottle a line of original drinks, which are available for sale online. They also mix drinks fresh at special events, offering an alternative to people who choose not to drink, prefer to drink less, or simply want the sublime taste of a good cocktail without the booze.

The Sober Nightlife

Their market may be a drop in the bucket of the alcohol-dominated beverage industry, but it’s an expanding niche. Gen Z may be the first generation in centuries to drink less than their forebears. In Canada, interest in non-alcoholic and low-alcoholic drinks has increased, with sales rising by 10 percent in 2018. Interestingly, less alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean less partying; according to one study, young Americans were drinking 15 percent less on a weekly basis, yet continued to frequent establishments where alcohol is served, a trend the research group called “sober nightlife.” This trend might be attributed to an increased interest in health and wellness, financial concerns, or even the legalization of marijuana in Canada and many states in the US.

The Temperance co-founders note that even industry insiders are cutting back. “People are realizing that the lifestyle is untenable,” says Gnanaratna. “And, I hate the word, but they’re going on ‘detox weeks’ or whatever. It’s kind of a cool litmus test for how things are going to be translated. If people in the industry are moving towards that direction, I can only guess at how much larger the demand is on the public side.”

As a bartender, Gnanaratna has seen the worst of how alcohol can influence behaviour—from bar fights to sexual aggression to outright exploitation. On more than one occasion, he has been fired for cutting off regular patrons he thought had too much to drink. Williams chose sobriety for personal reasons. “My mom drank a lot,” she says, “and it just seems to make every situation worse.”

The First Feminist Movement?

Their business name is a nod to the temperance movement that some historians, such as Ruth Bordin, consider the first major women’s rights movement—and a radical one at that. In the 18th and 19th century, public drinking was rampant but a woman married to an alcoholic had very little recourse but to suffer his unemployment, poverty, and the domestic abuse that often came with it. In the US, female temperance leaders advocated not only for reduced alcohol consumption and outright prohibition but also women’s right to vote. The movement gained traction when religious leaders took up the cause (backed by industrialists wanting a sober workforce). Notably, the 18th and 19th amendments to the US constitution—prohibiting alcohol and enfranchising women—were passed in the same year, 1920.

Williams and Gnanaratna self-identify as feminists and are trying to instil their business with feminist values. But he’s the sole proprietor. A feminist thing to do? She says she didn’t want her middle-class, white privilege to be the face of the company when applying for funding, and she still works a full-time career at CSI. In marketing, they avoid gendering drinks (no “girl drinks” here), refuse to shame or stigmatize drinkers, and avoid the language of alcohol recovery because as Williams says, “That’s important, but it’s not my community, so I can’t speak for it.”

Rather than demonizing alcohol, they want to provide people with choice and shift how we perceive alcohol as “the default” drink in social spaces such as bars, nightclubs, networking wine and cheeses, wedding receptions, sporting events, and so on. Gnanaratna admits that, while he designed non-alcoholic drinks in his previous bartending career, he sold very few. “What I realized,” he says, “is that those people were kind of self-selecting out of those spaces.” Says Williams, “For us, it’s really about accessibility. Anytime a person is making a choice that’s not the status quo, you’re pushing back against something.” Their goal is to make it easier to make that choice.

Temperance Cocktails also enables non-drinkers to feel more comfortable in those social spaces by offering fun and celebratory options with all the trappings of alcoholic cocktails (fancy glasses, exotic garnishes, bright colours) that also don’t signal you’re abstaining. As Williams knows well, being an obvious non-drinker in a room full of tipsy people can invite all kinds of defensive reactions and intrusive questions. With a Temperance cocktail in hand, folks can relax into regular social conversation rather than fielding uncomfortable queries about addictions or whether they’re pregnant.

The Secret Ingredient: Choice

As for running a business together—which can strain any romantic partnership—the co-founders enjoy working together. Williams loves being the go-to product tester and watching Gnanaratna employ “mad scientist” things in the kitchen, such as an antique meat slicer for making extra-thin fruit garnishes. Gnanaratna is thrilled to have found a career that draws on his experience as a high-end bartender, without having to count out tip coins into the wee hours each night.

Williams andGnanaratna at a cafe on the Toronto Islands. (Photo by Yulia Tsoy)

But it has been hard work scaling up the business. Last year, the two launched a Kickstarter campaign to create 22 original recipes, produce a recipe book featuring those cocktails (designed with tarot-themed visuals), and pay eight people to work on the product. They targeted their month-long campaign to their personal network and turned to cultural figures they knew to be non-drinkers for help promoting it. They raised $40,256 from 553 backers, surpassing their $36,800 goal. When it was almost over, Williams tweeted that she “wasn’t sure” how tired she was, until someone pointed out to her, “You are literally summoning nearly $40,000 from thin air. That is some amazing magic.” Then they went to work filling holiday drink orders and developing a 2020 action plan.

One hundred years after prohibition banned the sale of alcohol in the US (giving rise to illegal speakeasies, bootlegging, and perhaps the Jazz Age), the Temperance duo is jazzed to create new products for a new age fuelled by choice. Says Gnanaratna: “Maybe [our customers] just want to drink less, or not that day, or they’re finished drinking for the night. Or, [like] at one of our recent events, people were kind of staggering back and forth between us and the wine bar because they wanted to pace themselves.”

Williams says they want to make drinks that stand out for their own qualities. “We don’t want to talk about alcohol or not-alcohol all the time. It’s kind of like the men’s rights movement,” she jokes, “where they say they want to help men but, somehow, they’re always talking about women. I don’t want the focus to be on what’s not in the drinks, but on them being their own lovely thing.”


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Related Articles

https://www.liisbeth.com/2016/04/19/bridge-over-tricky-waters-love-business-and-good-governance/

Categories
Transformative Ideas

Co-ops are the past and the next best thing. So why don’t we join the movement?

Photo: Sergey Galyonkin. Creative Commons BY-SA (cropped)

Imagine this: an eco-just world that enables all genders to flourish, with their basic needs met for healthy food, water, shelter, safety, agency, belonging, human touch, respect, and personal growth.

I know many others, not just activists, think such a world is possible. Increasingly, tech gurus, CEOs, startup founders, mainstream politicians, and investors have joined the choir. I am a person whose hope requires continuous feeding so I eagerly read and highlight their thought leadership articles and better-future “unity now” books. I was floored yesterday to read this article, “Unless It Changes, Capitalism Will Starve Humanity By 2050,” in Forbes Magazine, the voice of big business in the United States.

Could it be that the tide is turning this time for real, with more people on the side of tackling the dysfunctions of patriarchy and capitalism? One thing I have noticed as a measure of hard evidence is that social entrepreneurs (who operate at the intersection of philanthropy and business) are getting a warmer welcome in business incubator and accelerator programs. In the past, they were often given a pat on the head (myself included) for cuteness and a one-way ticket to the back of the local community centre, and a desk beside the toy box.

I have spent time by the toy box (and in the toy box) as a social entrepreneur for more than 15 years now, so I am encouraged by this discourse shift, which is crucial to right a world marred by climate change and war-driven human migration, mass extinctions, gross income inequalities, an unhelpful global political shift to the right—need I go on?

But the stark reality is, despite all the studies, the rise of B Corp certifications, warm welcomes, and government-sponsored social finance funds, a quick look at the facts and figures tells us that we still really have no idea how to help social entrepreneurs grow impactful, solutionary enterprises while also sustaining themselves, their families, employees, and the communities they live in. As a result, social enterprises (in Canada at least) often remain small (fewer than three people) and rely heavily on life support dribbling in from donations, odd-ball grants, and micro-finance scale investments. It’s not unusual to see celebrated social entrepreneurs holding down a traditional day job while trying to grow their company just to pay fair salaries, and themselves, for years.

Social enterprises that provide services or education versus a product have an even tougher time. It’s easier (though slightly) to find financing when you involve the purchase of hard assets like a building (Centre for Social Innovation) or pre-sell a physical product (Lucky Iron Fish). In many mainstream, mixed incubator and accelerator environments, social entrepreneurs are still not taken seriously, and routinely feel like outliers that need to go elsewhere for relevant support.

We need social entrepreneurs to succeed more than ever. So where are we going wrong?

Time to Embrace the Old—And Make It New Again

Systemic blind spots are part of the problem. Social enterprises don’t fit neatly into the for-profit or non-profit box. As a result, the majority of today’s accelerators and incubator leaders and progamming folk do not have the skills or experience required to help social entrepreneurs consider their full range of options when it comes to structuring, designing and growing their new enterprise.

One of the most glaring omissions? Our startup ecosystem’s ability to support the creation and development of co-operatives, which is one of the most successful, evidence-based ways to create a large, profitable social enterprise that serves people and the planet. Typically, programs promote just two binary options: set up as a non-profit or for-profit. Sometimes, advisors actually recommend both so you can raise money and qualify for foundation grants. For a new entrepreneur, figuring out one legal form and paying for tax filings is already daunting enough, let alone administrating two legal forms, paying for two tax filings, plus recruiting and serving two boards to boot.

Few point out that there are other ways to structure and finance a social enterprise, like, for example, creating a for-profit co-operative.

Co-operatives have been around since 1862 (corporations have been around since the 1780s). Part of the problem is that our thinking about co-operatives, the world’s original and oldest social enterprise legal form, lags far behind the times. When we hear the term we imagine small quaint farms and food co-ops, newcomer credit unions, or city housing. Yet, co-operatives all around the world—and in Canada—are thriving, growing, and solving social and environmental issues, all while not exploiting people or the planet to do so.

Today, there are more than 9,000 co-operatives in Canada and 750,000 worldwide. According to the International Co-operative Alliance, the top 300 co-operatives globally report US$2.1 trillion in revenues. In Canada, co-operatives generate $54 billion in GDP (compared to the $9.1 billion created by the Canadian tech sector) and paid $12 billion in taxes and created jobs at nearly five times the rate of the overall economy. Research shows that co-operatives are twice as likely to survive than traditional businesses, often because the governance structure provides a strong pipeline for enterprise succession. Research also shows that 76 percent of consumers are more likely to buy from co-operatives.

Interestingly, there’s a strong feminist principle embedded in the very structure of co-operatives, which requires a wide variety of stakeholders be represented at the board table.

Modern, new co-operatives are springing up in an array of surprising sectors: green energy, breweries, co-working spacesretailnetworks, wine, arts facilities, and media. Stocksy, a platform-based co-operative, and a favourite of ours (we buy a lot of photos from them) puts the power back in the hands of its 1,000-plus shareholder artists, ensuring a fair distribution of profits, encouraging collaboration, and ethical business practices.

Oh, and sex! Come As You Are claims to be the world’s only worker-owned sex shop. The online co-operative offers “sex-positive” products, advice, and workshops as well as education and outreach to the community.

The principle related to sharing the wealth may well be what inspires people working in co-operatives to do well, for co-ops can and do make large profits, such as Ocean Spray, a global enterprise that generates $2 billion a year to support its 700 farmer members, processing facilities, and 2,000 employees. Arizmendi Bakery has spawned some five sister co-ops in California.

Why Ignore Successful Models?

If co-operatives are so great at growing, creating jobs, long-term financial stability, plus wealth creation and fair wealth distribution, why don’t innovation policymakers, startup incubators, and accelerator programs encourage their creation and development?

Well, it’s simple. Co-operatives do not serve traditional investor interests, and traditional investor interests overwhelmingly dominate and drive entrepreneurship incubator and accelerator programming.

Why don’t traditional investors like co-operatives?

Co-operatives are bound to reinvest or distribute profits to workers and/or member-owners versus prioritizing a small preferred share-class group of outside, privileged investors. Co-operatives are also nearly impossible to sell or flip for a quick investor return—or take over management if investors are suddenly dissatisfied with the social purpose’s impact on the rate of growth. Co-operatives are virtually mission-drift-proof, meaning the social mission today won’t fly out the window tomorrow because the mission is legislatively backed. In addition, members—each with one vote, regardless of the size of the stake in the co-operative—control that mission.

Essentially, co-operatives combine the best of the for-profit and non-profit world. And they might just be what we need more of today. They are built to reverse wealth inequality—not exacerbate it. Their seven principles require members to support the health of the planet and the well-being of their communities and all people.

There is now one accelerator in the US that’s focused on helping founders start co-operatives, the Boston-based Start.Coop, a partner in the Fledge Accelerator network that includes Tech Stars, Bainbridge Institute, and Seattle’s Impact Hub. But sadly, there is no such equivalent in Canada. We know. Because we looked. And we had good reason to do so.

The Journey to Becoming Canada’s First Womxn-Led Feminist Media Co-op

At our last advisory board meeting, the LiisBeth Media team and I decided to structure LiisBeth as a multi-stakeholder co-operative to support our mission. We believe this structure will enable us to create impact, achieve financial sustainability, and enable the enterprise to flourish for a very long time—or at least as long as it takes to achieve gender equality globally. With no local government-funded incubator or accelerator program around, we are left with having to navigate the journey on our own.

To learn more about co-operatives, we joined The Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet). It offers a wealth of information on co-operatives and referred us to several experts.

For implementation expertise, we went online to find a law firm that had experience in the co-operatives space to help us do this right. Luckily, we came across Iler Campbell LLP, a “law firm for those who want to make the world better” (it also offers affordable rates).

To help us with important details, we have enlisted several co-op experts who have experience with discerning and understanding implications of membership categories, plus how to market co-op shares, lead and govern in a transparent, inclusive way.  Leading a cooperative requires sophisticated feminist forward leadership and management skills.

These are complex challenges that won’t be easy to solve but we’re excited to tackle them. In the coming months, we’ll share stories about what we learned and let you know who to go to if you, too, are interested in exploring a co-operative legal form for your social enterprise.

These resources and knowledge exist, most likely, outside of your local startup ecosystem. It’s there. You just have to find it.


Creating researched and inspirational content to support and advocate for feminist changemaking takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find value and nourishment here, please consider becoming a donor subscriber or patron at a level of your choosing. Priced between a cup of coffee or one take out salad per month.

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https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/09/24/a-better-way-to-be-better/

Categories
Activism & Action Feminist Practices

Homelessness: There’s An App For That

CG Chen, founder of Ample Labs (Photo: David Dines)

Working as a user experience designer at a tech company, CG Chen had done co-design workshops before, but this one was different. Around a dozen young people crowded into a small room at Sherbourne Health Centre in downtown Toronto, to share their experiences with homelessness. They appeared to be  between 16 and 30, identified as LGBTQ2IA, and participated in the health centre’s Supporting Our Youth (SOY) program that promotes wellness for at-risk youth. That day, they didn’t come seeking support, but to lend a hand—and to share their experiences so that Chen’s non-profit startup, Ample Labs, could improve an app to access services for the homeless.

Creating a trusting atmosphere for the youth living on the street took conscious effort. Chen met with SOY staff multiple times in advance to ensure the workshop was a safe space, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive. Then Chen got creative, handing out writing and craft supplies to those gathered around a large table, so they could express themselves authentically and on their terms.

They came from different backgrounds—some had lived in Canada for years, others had recently arrived as refugees—but they all shared a key concern when looking for a place to spend the night: safety. The participants told horror stories of ending up in shelters that weren’t LGBTQ2A friendly—and experiencing violence and trauma as a result.

During this co-design session and many others, Chen and her team of volunteers at Amble Labs also discovered that many initially facing homelessness turned to Google for help as they were often too ashamed to seek out in-person resources. But the Google results that came up were not very helpful. That was one of the main frustrations people in the sessions expressed—service agencies don’t actually involve or listen to the concerns of individuals experiencing homelessness.

Says Chen of Ample Labs’ venture to change that: “We bring the people that we build this product for into our process as much as possible so they’re part of building the solution with us.”

The result? Chen and her team learned that Toronto’s homeless population has high concentrations of people identifying as refugees, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour), and/or LGBTQI2A (particularly youth). So Ample Labs decided to focus on creating solutions for individuals between the ages of 16 and 35 who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness and come from diverse identities and situations. One of their first creations was ChalmersBot, a free web-based chat-bot that provides location-based information. You enter what you need—a warm meal, clothing, shelter—and ChalmersBot suggests a nearby resource. After what they learned at the SOY workshop, Chen and her team added a filter to ChalmersBot to identify resources that are LGBTQI2A friendly.

Chen describes working intentionally and directly in a co-design fashion with the homeless community as a feminist approach. The goal is to understand what the homeless need and empower them to contribute to solutions, so services created are actually used by the community. “It’s easy to identify as a feminist organization because with the app and in everything we do, we are trying to promote equality in this community that often times struggles with inequality.”

Could a Sandwich Start a Revolution?

Chen, now 27, can trace the start of her journey to a sandwich. While studying graphic design at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), she had to pass by people living on the streets of downtown Toronto—and eventually found she could no longer look away. So Chen gathered some friends and started distributing food to the homeless.

A sandwich often led to conversation—and a new perspective. “I think a lot of us really wanted to understand how people ended up there, what they are like. Who I thought the homeless were was turned upside down because I met previous entrepreneurs and really wealthy people who, through a series of unfortunate events, ended up on the streets.” For instance, a highly educated doctor who wound up homeless after going through a rough divorce.

Chen started seeing homelessness in a new light—a difficult situation that can happen to people of all backgrounds. That realization hit home in 2019 when Chen’s own mother experienced homelessness after a surgery made it difficult for her to find work. “If it was your family, how would you look at things? How would you treat that person you see on the street if she was your mom?” Chen asked in a blog post.

For her undergrad thesis, Chen explored how to use design and technology to help the homeless, redesigning a list of City of Toronto resources into a user-friendly website. She took a tech job after graduation, but a trip to Los Angeles reignited her passion for helping people struggling with homelessness. During a visit to LA’s notorious Skid Row, an area of downtown with a high concentration of homeless individuals, she met a woman teaching computer skills, such as how to craft a resume, to people on the street. What struck Chen? While residents of Skid Row lacked a permanent home, they often had cellphones or access to technology. (In a survey of 421 homeless individuals, 94 percent of respondents said they owned a phone and used it as an essential tool for communication.)

That trip helped Chen envision an opportunity to combine her skills in tech and her passion for helping the homeless. As she had done with her sandwich runs, Chen gathered a group of friends to reach out to the homeless community in Toronto and learn more about their needs.

Simon Bunyi was part of the Ample Labs team when he found himself in the same situation as people they were trying to help. He was laid off from a Fortune 500 company and later evicted from his apartment; this is statistically the most common reason individuals end up homeless in Toronto. Those were his “darkest days,” he says, looking back. “It made me think more about how I interact with people.”

Bunyi had been living in an area of Toronto with a high concentration of people living on the street. He came to realize that the only thing separating himself from them was a regular paycheque. When that disappeared, Bunyi reached out to Chen and Ample Labs to help him navigate the complex network of websites and resources for help. They thought it would be simpler if there were an app for this. And that was the beginning of ChalmersBot. (Watch the full story below.)

So, More Apps for That?

Chen never intended Ample Labs to be more than a side project, but after the beta launch in November 2018, the team of 20 to 30 volunteers realized the service had tremendous potential to help the estimated 235,000 Canadians who will experience homelessness. In the past, that population largely comprised of older, single men, but according to the study, Canada has seen a rise of women and youth ending up on the street. With its ability to tailor resources to specific demographics, ChalmersBot generated attention. Ample Labs raised money from a crowdfunding campaign, grants and corporate sponsors (including TD, Google, and Twitter) and found a home in Ryerson University’s Social Venture Zone. The goal is to generate additional, sustaining revenue selling ChalmersBot services to cities. Barrie, Ont., was the first to buy in. Numerous other cities in Canada and the US have shown interest.

Ample Labs now has 8,000 unique users in Toronto and multiple contractors, prompting Chen to quit her job as a UX designer and become Ample Labs’ first full-time employee. She’s recently hired a second employee and plans to continue expanding the team in 2020. Though the non-profit is experiencing exciting and rapid growth, the culture and core values of Ample Labs remain the same.

“Internally, we’ve built a culture of always learning from each other and making sure it’s diverse voices that are teaching the rest of us,” says Chen. “We want to build something with people, not for people.”


Creating researched and inspirational content to support and advocate for feminist changemaking takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find value and nourishment here, please consider becoming a donor subscriber or patron at a level of your choosing. Priced between a cup of coffee or one take out salad per month.

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You will have access to Payments processed through PayPal.

 




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

 


 

 

 

 

This article was made possible thanks to the generosity of Startup Toronto.


Related Reading

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/03/09/move-over-girlboss-its-the-feministboss-era/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/04/26/where-are-the-women-in-canadas-women-in-tech-venture-fund/