Annabel Kalmar learned first-hand how hard it is for farmers to earn fair prices for their products. As a student of agriculture economics in the late 1990s, she harvested coffee in the fields of the Dominican Republic, interviewing farmers along the way. The experience sparked a passion for changemaking.
“I wanted to help farmers get access to a different way to market,” explains the German-born entrepreneur, who went on to work in microfinance with the World Bank, earn an MBA at the London School of Business, and work in the UK as a business strategist.
Recently, she pivoted to entrepreneurship as a means for changemaking. After moving to Toronto with her husband and three children in 2017, Kalmar launched Tea Rebellion. Her idea—two decades in the steeping—is to disrupt the way tea is traditionally marketed, traded, and consumed. By buying and selling single-source, direct-trade tea, her company creates economic opportunities for several female-led farms in developing countries, takes an active role in community building, and supports organic farming methods.
But Kalmar’s ambitions aren’t just altruistic. She grew up in Germany drinking loose-leaf black tea, but what she tasted of London tea culture failed to impress.
“I was always disappointed with what was in front of me,” says Kalmar, explaining that mass-produced teas are typically blended from multiple sources, then finely ground and packaged in bags. What ends up in the cup, she contends, is undrinkable without sugar and milk.
As a student of agriculture economics, Kalmar had seen how new trade models transformed chocolate, coffee, and wine. Educated consumers came to appreciate—and pay more for—flavours associated with particular regions, ensuring that growers of those premium products are fairly compensated.
“A lot of people learn about wine, but they know nothing about tea,” says Kalmar. “I wanted to bring that knowledge and appreciation of the origins to more tea drinkers.”
With Tea Rebellion, she intends to shake up the status quo. “I’m not just selling tea.”
Instead of participating in the commodity markets in tea-growing countries—many with roots in colonialism—Kalmar initially sought out fair-trade certified suppliers. Since her World Bank days, she knew the certification system could improve working conditions on farms by setting standards for fair pay and ethical treatment of producers. She reached out to Fair Trade Canada and began contacting farmers.
To her surprise, farmers were not saying, “Oh great, let’s do fair trade,” remembers Kalmar. “The farms I talked to said it’s too difficult. It creates additional costs. There is too much bureaucracy.”
Rather, the farmers—even some fair-trade certified producers—pointed to direct trade as a preferred alternative.
Both fair trade and direct trade have their places, according to Kalmar. They may create similar results in some cases, but they start with different goals.
Fair trade aims to improve the lives of farmers by setting ethical and environmental standards and creating transparency. Certification establishes minimum prices to ensure farmers are paid fairly. Incidentally, fair-trade standards may also improve the quality of the end product.
The goal of direct trade is to bring premium products to market. This model allows farmers to differentiate their products and charge prices that are typically higher than the minimums set in fair-trade systems. Higher prices will almost certainly improve the lives of farmers.
Kalmar dug into the research and discovered that many consumers are confused by a recent proliferation of certifications, which influenced her decision to change her strategy to direct trade.
Tea Rebellion now buys from six farms around the world: Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, Nepal, Kenya, and Malawi. That allows Tea Rebellion to work with smaller, socially minded farms—not just those that are scaled to afford a fair-trade certification process.
The direct relationship means there is no middleman; Kalmar can visit frequently to influence the end product and the social impact of the farm.
In Nepal, Kalmar helped raise CAD$10,000 to build a primary school for the children of workers living on the tea farm. The school will save some 30 children from walking several hours over rough terrain to attend school, which improves attendance and frees parents to work consistently.
In Malawi, Kalmar chose to buy from a farm that provides health care infrastructure for the community surrounding the farm. In Japan, where chemical farming methods have historically been the norm, Tea Rebellion works with a pioneer of organic farming.
In three of the six farms she buys from, Kalmar has formed close partnerships with women in leadership positions, strengthening their positions in what has been a male-dominated business. She didn’t initially set out to work with female-led farms, but she found that in developing countries where language or gender created barriers, she was able to form better relationships with farms where women led.
For example, in Taiwan, Kalmar works with Ai Fang, one of two daughters involved at Jhentea, a family-owned farming operation. Ai Fang has worked in the family business since the age of 18, learning the art and science of tea growing, processing, packaging, and brewing from her mother.
According to Jhentea’s website, the company was founded by a man in the early 19th century, but a marital split in the mid-20th century left a woman in charge. She was the first female tea master in the region, and ever since the farm has been passed down to female family members. Ai Fang’s daughter, Valencia, who is now learning about tea, represents the next generation.
In Shizuoka, Japan, the Kinezuka family operates NaturaliTea, a cooperative of farmers. Though the farm’s formal leaders are men, Kalmar formed a direct business relationship with one of male founder’s two daughters, including Tamiko Kinezuka, who manages the farm’s tea processing and is responsible for quality control. That relationship has been beneficial to her career.
“In Japan, the tea industry is still overwhelmingly controlled by older men at all levels, from the farms to the markets,” Kinzuka explains. “Some of this is changing as younger generations take over, but the shift is very slow. Working with someone like Annabel allows us to demonstrate the unique contributions that we can make, and prove our commitment to rejuvenating a stagnating industry.”
Kalmar loves to share the stories of growers she works with, shining a spotlight on tea producers through Tea Rebellion’s packaging, website, and social media. When tea drinkers know more about growers, growing methods, and the country of origin, they can learn to appreciate the difference between the chocolatey undertone of a black tea from the high mountains of Nepal, and the bright and floral flavour of a black tea grown in Taiwan. Says Kalmar, “I want to help people develop their palates.”
By telling the tale behind each tea, Tea Rebellion also shares power with farmers. They can then develop recognizable brands, creating a rationale for higher prices, which injects more money and investment into their communities.
Kalmar has a vision that would connect tea growers and tea drinkers, as well as put Tea Rebellion on the tips of tongues everywhere. She would like to rival a global brand like Twinings as the “go-to” for tea drinkers, and source tea in many more tea-growing countries.
For now, Kalmar is bootstrapping her business growth, investing her own funds, working from home, and depending on interns to lend a hand. Her website lists 24 types of tea (you can order direct) and she sells to some 25 retailers, most of them in Toronto. Prices are similar to other premium brands, though competing North American labels such as Tease and David’s Tea don’t promise single-sourced products.
Kalmar’s goals include hiring a team and marketing her brand at tea festivals and conferences around the world. That will require a significant investment, and she’s gearing up to present her idea to investors.
But the ultimate goal is to build prosperous tea farms. “If I can build a sustainable business with Tea Rebellion, I can support these farms for the next 10, 20, 30 years,” she says. “And that’s really what I want.”
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Our foray into Oregon’s newly legalized recreational cannabis industry earned us a spot on the cover of the local newspaper for two weeks running – though not in a good way. The headlines described us as facing “complications,” but the content quoted angry locals as saying we were bent on manufacturing and selling drugs across the street from a family-friendly park filled with kids.
This publicity followed on the heels of a town hall meeting to obtain a state-mandated Conditional Use Permit from the local municipality. The permit was the State’s way of ensuring that local governments were informed of any cannabis businesses opening in their jurisdiction and also enabled those municipalities to take a cut of the development money. Our town, like most in Oregon, took a big cut.
Several new facilities had already petitioned for permits, but ours threatened to be the “one too many.” Like many small towns, the public felt overwhelmed by the influx of new people and distrustful of the new recreational cannabis industry as a whole. The meeting drew a packed house with an organized group of protestors testifying against us, shaking their fists and yelling that we would ‘have dope fiends hanging off the fences’ of our property.
My husband and I, the cofounders of Full Circle CO2, kept our cool, agreed to all the City’s stipulations, and left with our approval.
But our buildout also became something of a circus. There were, at times, up to six people parked on lawn chairs across the street watching – and often hurling ugly comments — as we pulled out 400 feet of old, crumbling sidewalk; poured new, handicapped accessible curbs; and installed an eight-foot landscaped greenway on all public-facing sides of the property as well as cedar fencing (mandated by the city to replace the old chain link). There were several incidents of angry locals not just yelling at us but throwing rocks. The worst of the vitriol was directed at me – the female cofounder in our start-up cannabis enterprise. Since I was the one who spoke at the meeting in this conservative logging town, I got nailed. Trolls in online forums, coffeeshop gossip mongers, and people on local radio call in shows dismissed my cofounder and husband, Paul, as “a pretty boy” and went after me as a “domineering b*tch” that didn’t know my place. That a cannabis company had moved into their town was tough enough to swallow; the front person being a woman just ratcheted up the hysteria.
We kept our heads down and focused on putting the fence up.
It was an episode that was emblematic of my experience as a woman in the cannabis industry. Sometimes you have to keep your head down and focus on the task at hand, and sometimes you have to step into the center ring and advocate for yourself. The trick for me has been to remain true to the vision and mission of our business and not allow anyone else to define who I am or what role I should be allowed to play in this male-dominated business.
This is the story of that journey, but, first a bit of background.
CANNABIS GOES CANNABIZ
In 2014, Oregon became the third state in the U.S. to legalize cannabis for recreational use by adults. It would take three years for the industry to transition from the past two decades of loose oversight under the medical program to a functioning recreational market. In that time, thousands of businesses would start and fail, many even before receiving their licenses. Today, only a small percentage of the hundreds of initial applicants are still in business, even fewer with their original owners. Those that did survive have largely done so because of huge amounts of investment money that allowed them to ride out those turbulent early days of legislation, rulemaking, black market leaks, and oversupply. Today, only a handful of the small-scale, Oregonian-owned, self-funded operations that dominated the medical market remain.
My husband and I own one of those companies, Full Circle CO2. We are a two-person, self-made cannabis processing facility that stands out as much for our 50 percent female ownership and unique business model as we do for our hand-crafted products. This year, for the first time, we will see steady revenue, enough to cover both our business and home expenses, though I still supplement our income with writing. It’s been a long road filled with construction, research, networking, policy advocacy, and out-of-the-box business development. But we’re still here, and we’ve learned a lot that can help other small businesses thrive, especially those in highly regulated markets such as cannabis and alcohol, even in the midst of big-money competition.
Our journey — and that of any early-to-the-game cannabis company — can be divided into three phases: pre-legalization/medical, licensing, and early market. I call our current phase “early market” because like most new industries, regulations and consumer preferences change quickly in the early years, preventing the stabilization of industry practices and norms. How long that kind of volatility will take to even out is anyone’s guess; in the cannabis space, we expect the unexpected as long as national and international laws continue to evolve.
FIND THE MARKET NICHE
My husband, a construction contractor and long-time believer in the healing effects of cannabis, entered the industry in the waning years of medical, before we married. He was in his early thirties and started with a small-scale grow operation in an outbuilding on his residential property, with just enough space to provide flower (the bud) to a few patients.
Pretty immediately two things became clear: He wasn’t very good at growing cannabis, but he saw high demand in value-added products such as vape pens, tinctures, topicals, and edibles. As well, nicotine-based vaping products were growing in popularity. That drove him to research the manufacturing of cannabis-based vape oils, a difficult project after nearly a hundred years of research suppression. He persisted though, and, in 2015, he settled on using CO2 for extraction, which is a non-toxic, non-explosive method of extracting the essential oil (which includes the THC, cannabinoids, and terpenes) from the cannabis plant. It’s a method widely used in the production of essential oils from plants such as lavender and roses.
But entry into the cannabis industry via processing appeared cost-prohibitive, especially for lower-middle class Americans, which we were. At that time, a mid-sized, no-frills extractor ran to $250,000 or more and the ancillary equipment commonly used for post-processing and refinement could cost another $100,000 to $300,000 (all figures in US dollars). We scraped together financing for the extractor and bare necessities with small personal loans, savings, and credit cards. And then Paul started down the long road of learning how to make cannabis extract while I learned everything I could about operating a small business.
The first thing that hit me was pretty obvious: Nearly everyone in cannabis was male, and it had been that way as long as anyone could remember. In pre-medical, black-market days, women were customers (often in need of a male escort who could vouch for them) and arm candy relegated to wait on a couch while stoner dudes talked breeds, trichomes, and pricing. Under medical, it wasn’t much better. Since mostly men had been growing, mostly men continued to run cultivation, distribution and management. If women gained entry to the sector at all, it was usually filling roles as low-paid trimmers or clerks in the newly-allowed dispensaries.
REGULATION TAMES THE WILD WEST
Our marriage in 2016 coincided with the dawn of the recreational market and a promise of change. The State of Oregon began issuing administrative rules, making it clear that the recreational market, in stark contrast to the medical days, was going to be highly regimented. The old way of doing things would not cut it. Opportunities opened for people with skills in mainstream agriculture, manufacturing, retail, and distribution. Like myself, a lot of women made the transition, applying their diverse life and work experiences to the cannabis industry.
I brought an advanced degree in geology, five years of experience in environmental consulting and community college instruction, as well as hefty student loans to the sector. Remarkably, that set me up well to sift through the weeds, as it were. While Paul focused on the extraction side, my role touched every aspect of the start-up — reading up on the administrative rules and keeping us in compliance, overseeing the application process, setting the timeline for construction, and managing the budget. Most in the industry paid thousands to attorneys to read and interpret the hundreds of pages of guidance documents and legislation the state was pumping out, while I read and reread every page. When I had any questions, I never hesitated to pick up the phone and call a regulatory agency or policy maker directly. Apparently, this is infrequent in an industry still wary of government officials. For us, this initiative was essential. And it’s something I recommend any business owner make a habit of doing, whether for occupational health and safety, weights and measures, or simple building code compliance. The best information always comes directly from the source, and I found regulators are often are surprisingly eager to help.
One of the state’s first regulations was a restriction on operations in residentially zoned properties. That left most of the industry, including us, without a place to operate, even for research and development. The scramble for agricultural, commercial or industrial space created a land race. Within months, the inventory of cannabis-appropriate properties (the guidelines stipulated distance from schools and lot size) dwindled to almost nothing. Pricing — for purchase or lease — responded to the demand, increasing to twice or three times the asking price of just a year earlier. Worse, even those companies lucky enough to secure a property before prices soared often found themselves back in the search after counties and cities held special elections to opt out of cannabis.
We were lucky. Just eight months into our search, we found a lot to lease in a small town 30 minutes from our house. It had a roof and reasonable rent and that was about it. Then we had to endure the hell fire of obtaining our permit to build. And then there was the tall task of fulfilling the requirements of the permit, which dictated everything from storage (we would need a secure vault) to surveillance (our 25 by 30-foot structure has seven cameras that record 24/7), to the prep counter material (food grade). It was like building a mini casino.
DIY ON THE FLY
Most of the industry solved this particular logistical nightmare by throwing money at it. The average processing facility build-out at that time cost between $500,000 and $2 million. For us, frugality became the mother of invention — and one of the reasons that we survived this roller coaster industry. From the beginning, we drew on our own skill sets and invested our own sweat in the build out. My husband’s contractor license enabled us to handle most of the construction. As a registered geologist and with my experience as a researcher, I was able to write our complex Standard Operating Procedures, safety plans, and training manual myself. When we required outside expertise for landscaping and irrigation, plumbing or website design, we reached out to people in our network, finding friends and contacts willing to work for labor in kind or low fees.
We also hunted out bargains. From my time in research, I knew labs paid a premium for equipment so I sourced kitchen, farm and alternative industry suppliers for devices that could collect, contain, measure, and disperse liquids — and we bought everything we could secondhand. We found office furniture at salvage stores, and we pulled heavy steel storage cages and security gates out of autobody shops to make our vault. One day, we emptied out most of a recently closed restaurant, scoring stainless-steel tables, cleaning products, mop buckets and even a picnic table to give us a place to eat lunch — all for less than $500. After being quoted upwards of $13,000 for a security system for our tiny space, we took the regulations into a big box store and made friends with a clerk willing to read them. We left with $250 of equipment that kept us in compliance until we could upgrade to something more robust. We still use vintage sterilized mason jars we pulled out of a farmhouse canning room to store and transport our bulk product.
Finally, in January 2017, we became one of the first of 40 licensed processors in Oregon. After we paid $5,000 for the license fee, we had maxed out every credit card we had and were left with just $7 to our names. But we had done it! We had built a processing facility, and we were shipping stock.
WOMEN: MIND THE WELCOME MAT PULL BACK
By then, the media had picked up on the uptick of women in the industry, a welcome shift from the b*tches and buds’ mentality that had dominated the cannabis market for so long. While our numbers still lagged far behind men, there were more women in the industry, and those women were holding greater positions of authority. Women-owned dispensaries and wholesale facilities were becoming common, as were woman-dominated farming collectives. There were even Facebook groups for women in the industry, and woman-only cannabis business groups.
But that pink-in-the-green uptick didn’t last long.
In the fall of 2017, Oregon cannabis farmers harvested more than a million pounds of cannabis, far more than enough to supply the state. As regulations still don’t allow for export, the bottom dropped out of the local market. Prices plunged, farms failed and guess what? The good old boy network kicked back in. Competition became cutthroat with men infiltrating women-only spaces — online and in meetings — drowning out our voices and preventing us from networking. Next, they shut women and their products and services out of the game by excluding them from consideration and shelf space. Finally, they targeted our less established and therefore more vulnerable businesses for takeover in an ongoing consolidation process. Now, some dispensary owners estimate that nearly 80 percent of the value-added products on the shelves are held by just three parent companies.
STAY SMALL TO SURVIVE
We survived that first market collapse mostly because we were so small that no one saw us as competition. And our frugal build-out and lack of employees meant we had comparatively little overhead. We only needed a sliver of the pie to stay alive. Competitors tried to undercut our prices, and I faced several instances of blatant condescension and inappropriate sexualized comments, to the point that I started bowing out of “first-contact” business meetings. Instead, Paul began handling initial contacts to vet the value system of potential clients and partners — and shield me from potential negative behaviors and attitudes. It’s a policy we still follow today.
As with the build-out, we took a contrarian approach to other businesses fighting to establish their brands in a crowded market. Instead of promoting our own brand, we built a business model based on servicing the industry. So instead of investing money to launch a Full Circle line of products, we offer business-to-business services, providing custom processing and value-added products for a toll fee. We turned potential competitors into clients, and that helped us maintain a degree of independence and ride out market fluctuations. The strategy also insulated us from high-cost regulatory changes in labeling and testing, shifts that shuttered many start-ups.
But we don’t shy away from taking an active role in advocacy and policy making, both in the state and nationally, partly out of necessity. In the summer of 2018, with no notice or explanation, the state issued a verbal “cease and desist” order for our business. After all our effort to start up, we faced being shut down – and there appeared no means for appeal or reinstatement. I took to the phones, calling everyone from the small-business ombudsman at the Secretary of State’s office to the governor’s cannabis liaison to our federal senator. I often got through as we had taken the time to build relationships with all these people during the previous three years. We showed up for town halls, provided public comments on proposed rules, and lobbied directly. That all helped. As did going out of our way to become a part of the community that initially slammed us, by participating in arts events, spending money at locally owned businesses and being good neighbors.
TURN YOUR ENEMIES INTO FRIENDS
Ironically, it ended up being our good standing in our small town that made the difference. After a two-week shutdown, the local fire marshal went to bat for us. We knew him by first name, and he was already familiar with us, our business and how we operate. He wrote a strongly worded letter, which was backed up by the ombudsman, and we got our permission to operate. The Secretary of State’s office even informed us that we could lodge a formal grievance over the shutdown, but I declined; instead, I requested to be placed on the rules-making committee so I could prevent this from happening to others. They did. I was the only female processor in the room.
Running our business has gotten a little easier since those hurly burly start-up days. We have regular clients and our products, under their brand names, are sold in nearly every dispensary in the state. We still process, pack, and label everything ourselves, but we like the freedom that comes with that. There are still challenges, not the least of which is navigating the gray area that still exists between state legalization and federal prohibition. Because banks are federally insured and our business is not legally recognized federally, we can’t get business loans or a line of credit, which limits our ability to obtain credit and puts our current banking accounts at risk of closure.
And yet, we abide. This summer, we will launch a line of Chong’s Choice. The contract to process products for Tommy Chong (a cannabis activist who made his name in Cheech and Chong comedies) came to us via word of mouth, great references from our clients, and my husband’s determination to stick with his unique brand of craft CO2 oil. It will provide, we hope, the first stable source of income we’ve had in years.
But there is still a long road ahead of us to reach financial stability, and an uphill battle for women in the industry. I’m still almost always the only woman in the room. Most of the women in this industry still seem to work on the retail side, though there are some family and women-led farms that are surviving. And even though women control two-thirds of the purchasing power in the U.S. and so should be a primary target demographic, cannabis marketing still focuses on young men.
I remain hopeful. I look forward to the day that, for a change, women farmers and business owners dominate policy discussions and our products dominate the shelves. My current goal is to build a business that is sustainable over time and generates revenue and creates jobs in the same community that was so against us at the outset. For myself personally, I’d like to see Full Circle provide Paul and I a stable income and a means of taking care of my parents as they age and ourselves into retirement.
And I’d like to pay off my student loans, a goal I almost gave up on but now seems within reach.
When we talk about how to advance inclusivity and diversity, we often default to identifying new ways of including those typically excluded to enter the dominant group’s tent. As colleague Dr. Barb Orser would say, this is known as the “Add X (insert your word here____________ i.e., women, LGBTQIA2S, people of colour, newcomers, etc.) and stir approach to diversity and inclusion.”
Given mounting evidence that decades-plus worth of “Add X and Stir” efforts are yielding disappointing results and, in some spaces, even creating rifts, we need to start thinking differently.
If we really want to see a world that has successfully addressed all 17 of the the United Nation’s 2030 sustainable development goals we are going to have to do a lot more than advance a Nike-esque “Just Do It” empowerment mindsets for women. We have to re-imagine fundamental, meta-level social operating systems–like neoliberal capitalism itself.
This is where the feminist economy and its protagonist–the feminist entrepreneur, or NEW breed of womxn entrepreneur–the #feministboss-comes in. What is the Feminist Economy?
The feminist economy is a kaleidoscope of startup and established organizations and enterprises that live and innovate at the intersection between feminism, social justice, and business.
It’s not all about bookstores or zine publishers anymore, either.
It cuts across sectors and is comprised of fearless startup founders, enterprise owners, non-profit leaders, plus collective, association, activist and cooperative directors of all genders who collaborate and expressly launch gendered products and/or services that challenge norms and advance both gender and social justice. But much more importantly, this community of relatable radicals think about business as a canvas for finding ways to challenge and reshape norms, indicate resistance, and create alternative interpretations of what is possible in our world. Introducing the #Feministboss
For feminist entrepreneurs and innovators, #movethedial style reform efforts and #girlboss empowerment narratives, while helpful in building personal confidence and advancing gender equity to a point, simply don’t go far enough. Nope. This community gets what humanism actually means, and leverage their individual privilege (if they have it), passions and business acumen to fight for deep systems change that brings an end to gender-based oppression.
This #feministboss pluralistic, global community doesn’t just tinker or wear cool feminist t-shirts.
These mavericks show up and take risks politically, mine 200 years of feminist scholarship, conscientiously tackle emerging theories, and study social movements and activist organizations (In addition to feminism, think Idle No More, Slow Food and the Arab Spring) for insights they can leverage in the context of building a model, social justice values-led enterprise.
Because feminist enterprises exist on the fringe, often without venture funding, corporate or establishment ties, they have the latitude to push the boundaries—with both hands.
Sure. They might have also read Lean Startup by Eric Ries. But they are more likely to have found a more values-aligned path by reading Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategyor Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the Worldwhen thinking about startup design, finance, and strategy.
They also routinely draw on feminist community of practice to learn what’s working–and not working when it comes to next gen inclusive operational practice and governance ideas. They engage with feminist media to share insights and findings—because there is no feminist executive program (yet!). Their companies create economic value—but also serve as social justice labs. They work hard and take on additional risk in order to put into practice feminist values, futures, scholarship, and best practices in an economy that continues to reward in outsized ways kyriarchal compliance (patriarchy + intersectionality = kyriarchy).
According to our most recent LiisBeth survey, the majority of feminist founders and business owners connect with the visionary definition of feminism articulated by feminist writer, bell hooks. It’s based on love for all humanity and the planet.
So where am I going with all this? As argued so well by Dr. Dori Tunstall, OCAD University’s Dean of the Faculty of Design (the first Black dean of a design school in North America), during her keynote at the 2018 Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum,diversity and inclusion practices, as we know them today, are not only not enough—her story shows us how many of these efforts are unnecessarily colonial, primitive and fragile.
On this day, International Women’s Day, I invite you to consider the feminist economy, your own relationship with feminism, and how to liberate and put into practice 200 years of theoretical development in business.
We are not getting to where many people of all genders feel we need to be on this issue.
Part of the answer is in being bolder. We need new stocky, radical ideas. We can find them by engaging the leaders and innovators in the feminist economy.
Perhaps it’s finally time to make feminism a “safe word” in the world of business and innovation. Instead of marginalizing its scholars and its practitioners, it might be finally time to name, fame, and embrace the movement’s wisdom.
First, acknowledge that Canada’s one-million-plus female entrepreneurs are not mini-men. Then, make new federal funding available only to women-led incubators and accelerators
In September, Mary Ng, the minister of small business and export promotion, announced a new $85-million fund to support women’s entrepreneurship programming.
That comes a year after a 2017 McKinsey consulting firm study on gender parity in Canada said it will take 180 years before women entrepreneurs and business owners will achieve gender parity in this country. While Canada is viewed as a leading nation in advancing gender equality, support for its one-million-plus female entrepreneurs clearly lags far behind.
As a female serial entrepreneur, I welcomed Ms. Ng’s announcement, but it’s not enough to pinkify startup and innovation funding. Wiping lipstick across current entrepreneurial programs will not reduce the challenges women face. We must first fundamentally change the entrepreneurial ecosystem – how it views women and what we encourage in these programs. In short, we must grasp that women who start businesses are not mini-men and alterations to the one-suit-fits-all approach to gender works to oppress, rather than unleash new economic potential.
Currently, the majority of incubator and accelerator environments that receive government funding to attract women act more like “re-education centres.” The programs aim to change female entrepreneurs so we behave more like men, herding us to leap into flashy tech sectors, embrace masculine approaches to starting and quickly scaling a business, and even abandon the very motivations that inspired us to start a business in the first place.
For many women, starting a business may be less about status, destruction and gaming the system than creating meaning and advancing justice.
Too often pink marketing tactics that attract female founders into accelerator programs fail on the retention side: After a few months of segregation and patronizing coaching, they run screaming out the door. Many segregated programs close down – not because women-only spaces are not needed, but because a segregated approach in a co-ed environment doesn’t work.
While I agree all-women spaces are truly important in many circumstances, due to the silencing and intimidation many women experience while in the presence of men (even those they love), lace-glove ghettoization in otherwise co-ed settings is the last thing women entrepreneurs need. These programs rarely succeed; women perceive these watered-down and otherwise undifferentiated programs as being sideline; they are for those who can’t cut it in the main ring.
For these reasons, I am challenging Ms. Ng to do something bold with this new funding: Use it to change the narrative on female entrepreneurship. Direct these dollars to supporting and validating women’s authentic approach to entrepreneurship rather than trying to make us more like men or steering us away from work we’re passionate about.
For example, the vast majority of female entrepreneurs today are drawn to start businesses in human-centred sectors such as care-giving, culture-making, education, health and wellness, hosting/tourism, food, community building and what we might call human development – belonging, spirituality, capacity-building and meaning-making.
Currently, these areas are perceived as mature, low growth, unremarkable, expensive to scale, and not export friendly. They have poor prospects of generating high wages, fat exit packages or monetary wealth for investors. As a result, investors and innovation policy makers deem these sectors to be an economic still pond. They look away, dazzled by rowdy tech startups with hockey stick growth curves. But if you are only looking for the fireworks, you miss the amazing things that are happening on the ground.
As the next wave of the artificial intelligence tech sector explodes – replacing human labour and creating social upheaval – that so-called still pond will look awfully deep. Human-centred businesses will become more vital than ever, with high-growth prospects and enviable process innovations that garner intellectual property value exportable to nations mired in worsening social decay.
If future value streams lie in funding companies that excel at work only humans can do, now is the time to support and drive entrepreneurship and innovation in these areas which, at present, tend to be women-led.
To unleash women’s potential as entrepreneurs, we also need to support process innovation (not just product innovation) and fund the growing number of alternative, experimental, community-based women-for-women programs and create opportunities to connect them so they might grow from strength to strength plus share points of view and best practices.
Such incubators should be generously sprinkled across the land to ensure local relevance and easy access and sparkle with colours – green, yellow, purple and raspberry, rather than corporate grey.
When it comes to programming, instead of typical engineer dude-developed curriculums, fund applicants who could deliver innovative curriculums based on newer and more relevant ideas developed by under-leveraged female thought leaders such as Adrienne Maree Brown (Emergent Strategy), Saras Sarasvathy (Effectual Entrepreneurship), Barbara Orser and Catherine Elliott (Feminine Capital) and CV Harquail plus Lex Schroeder (co-creators of the Feminist Business Model Canvas).
And, finally, this time let’s make the funds available only to women-led incubators and accelerators with a leadership team and mentor rosters composed of a minimum of 51 per cent women. Rather than trying to change women, they are more likely to work on overhauling inequitable political, economic, social and power structures in order to help women-led enterprises thrive. Systems changes can deliver huge benefits. For instance, working to get more women on boards is important in advancing women in the economy, but what about securing basic maternity leave benefits for women who own more than 49 per cent of their own incorporated businesses?
Female entrepreneurs are not mini-men clamouring for increased access to expensive, personally secured debt and willing to outsource care-giving of their loved ones in order to work 100-plus hours a week. The majority of us pursued entrepreneurship to escape a system that was not built to include us. It should be no surprise when we are not eager to give up hard-won control of our businesses, time and values by getting back into the patriarchal maelstrom, selling equity in order to drive up Canada’s GDP.
What we really want is access to diverse opportunities – to develop the opportunities we see, want to invest in, and pursue in our own way. It’s time we start looking at what we value economically, and how to create equity for and advance female entrepreneurs as they are, not what a system, arguably a broken system, wants them to be.
This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s National Newspaper on October 16th, 2018
In her talk, Klein cited many troubling facts, but the most burdensome of these was that after 50 years of environmental activism and effort, as a society, we still struggle to make meaningful progress.
Even with scientific evidence and now actual lived experience of the impact of growing levels of green house gases on the planet, and even after the signing of the 2016 Paris Agreement, environmental activists like Klein remain skeptical. While 55 countries representing 38 per cent of the world’s emissions agreed to implement plans that will “limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change,” Klein argues that the targets are already at risk. Several countries continue to approve large scale industrial projects that will make this achievement mathematically impossible, she notes. Canada for example, played an important role in convincing leaders of the need for even tougher measures, yet recently approved an emissions increase of 43 per cent for the Alberta Tar Sands’ new fossil-fuel-based pipelines. In practice, this will increase Canada’s emissions well beyond the target set in Paris.
Furthermore, environmental watchdog organizations, like UL Ventures (formerly TerraChoice), an independent global science safety company, continue to call out case after case of greenwashing. The term “greenwashing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 to describe instances in which a company, government or any other group promotes green-based initiatives or images but continues to operate in ways that damage the environment. In fact, according to UL, 95 per cent of green products assessed today are guilty of greenwashing.
While we are patting ourselves on the backs for our day to day efforts, Klein suggests, we as a society are not doing nearly enough. Yes, we can change lightbulbs, buy green products, build LEED-certified buildings, and ride our bikes to work in the snow. But it turns out that in the face of continuued approval of large scale, fossil fuel based industrial projects that serve capitalist, corporate and national interests, these individual efforts represent but a few colourful grains of sand on a 150-mile beach.
The environmental movement has learned it is up against something much bigger than political will. It’s up against the reluctance of us all, and especially of those in power, to give up our 21st century way of life.
Common Ground: From Greenwashing to Gender-Washing
While listening to Klein, it occurred to me that the gender equality movement (known more commonly as feminism) is a lot like the environmental movement.
The literature in both fields indicates similar causal roots (unequal power dynamics, capitalism run amok, neoliberalism), and both are deemed exploitative in nature. They are both wicked problems that require intersectoral solutions. Each domain is full of third-party certification opportunities to help consumers separate the curds from the whey (LEEDS, Green Globes, ISO 14001, WEConnect, and Buyup Index).
Taking this idea further, many similarities can also be seen in the ways that corporations and even governments pay lip service to these two philosophies to turn a profit, or a vote.
In 2009, TerraChoice developed its list of the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing”, which became a widely-used taxonomy to categorize common types of greenwashing activities. The seven sins are: Hidden Trade-off, No Proof, Vagueness, Worshiping False Labels, Irrelevance, Lesser of Two Evils and Fibbing. Categorizing practices like this helped consumers to recognize and understand different types of greenwashing activities so they could make more informed choices.
The seven sins list was indeed useful during my days as a sustainable enterprise entrepreneur. And so, I thought it might be similarly helpful to develop a “Seven Sins of Gender-Washing” list to help us all better identify gender-washing practices. The term “gender-washing” describes organizations that try to sell themselves as progressive on the gender equity front, when in reality, they are not.
The Sin of Re-Skinning – A company that attempts to “look” like its work environment is currently gender progressive by ensuring its company website, annual report, and advertising copy has lots of women in the photos. It uses positive gender speak in its corporate communications, and content marketing output, yet when you check out the gender composition at the top it is 80 per cent, or worse, 100 per cent men.
The Sin of Worshipping False Progress – Where corporations create special “We Love Women Who Work Here” days; buy tickets to women empowerment lunches for female staff; appropriate initiatives like the UN’s “HeforShe” campaign for commercial gain; or give to Oxfam’s “I Am A Feminist” campaign as part of a marketing campaign, yet internal organizational policies and day-to-day gender-biased cultural practices remain fundamentally unchanged.
The Sin of Distraction – A claim suggesting the company is pro-gender equity, but upon digging deeper, you find the claim is based on a narrowly defined initiative without concern for the larger, more important issues. For example, in 2011, Walmart trumpeted its new Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which involved a commitment to source $20B from women-owned businesses. Sounds good, however, this amounts to just 5 per cent of its overall expenditures. And, Walmart was already buying from some women-owned firms. The initiative came on the heels of a class action suit launched against Walmart by its 1.5 million female associates for its allegedly discriminatory practices.
The Sin of Corporate Inconsistency – Where distant head offices write, implement and impose gender equity and inclusion policies, and promote this as progress, but their branch plant or satellite operations in other jurisdictions don’t follow suit and are not help accountable for doing so.
The Sin of Positioning Basic Compliance as Leadership – Companies that tout government-mandated policies—like pay equity or parental leave—as gender-progressive initiatives; or Ontario organizations that send out press releases announcing they “have done away with dress codes” (meanwhile dress codes have already been deemed unacceptable by the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 2016).
The Sin of Irrelevance – A case where a company promotes the fact that 65 per cent of its employees are women, however they are all on the factory floor, are mostly hired as part-time workers with no benefits, and have no representation in senior management let alone on the board.
The Sin of Only Counting Heads – A case where a company trumpets the addition of two new female board members or the promotion of a female manager to VP to change the ratio, not the culture. Sometimes, “non-trouble makers” or like-minded women who won’t challenge the status quo are chosen by design. This does nothing to change the culture or support inclusion. Appointees we hope to see serve as changemakers become mere headstones at the board table, and their ability to create change for all genders in the company is amputated-usually at the voice.
When it comes to the seven sin taxonomy, many may argue that perhaps these initiatives are not really sinful at all, but demonstrations of positive intent. The phrase, “Let’s not make the perfect be the enemy of the good,” comes to mind. As a colleague of mine said, “At least they changed the pictures on the website—it’s a start isn’t it?”
Once again, we can learn from our environmental movement counterparts. Yes, some organizations, keen to be perceived as market leaders in the gender equity space, might put the cart before the horse—a “fake it till you make it” approach—advertising where they want to be, and not where they are today. Sorry, but that still makes it gender-washing-until their policies and results catch up with their claims.
Do Organizations That Gender Wash Eventually Improve Authentically?
Furthermore, evidence from the green space shows that few companies ever actually move (willingly) beyond their greenwash-oriented status. Why? Turns out “the perfect” is not the enemy, it’s the business case decision-making framework.
To help organizations understand what being stuck in the short-term business case loop looks like, the sustainability field developed something called “The Maturity Curve”. Different consulting firms have customized different versions, but the core idea is the same. Becoming a truly environmentally positive enterprise is a journey. Points along the curve articulate the pros and cons from one state to another. It can help decision makers see that some returns take a long time to be realized.
If we apply the maturity curve concept to the gender equity space, it would look something like this:
As the chart illustrates, the reason companies in the environmental space actually never move past the compliance or market opportunity levels is because short-term returns are possible at those levels. Consumers eager to vote green with their dollars buy the products based on the ads, the green coloured package and superficial claims. Both believe they have done their bit.
Organizations that do want to make a substantive difference need to move up the curve. However, as you move up the curve, so do costs, and returns take more time to realize. Maturing takes investment. As we know, not all quarterly-earnings-oriented organizations can stomach a long return horizon. As a result, only a small percentage of organizations make the leap to the next stage of commitment.
This also speaks to the fact that that there is a limit to what we can truly expect from large corporations and institutions when it comes to changing the world. Few will ever, if at all, reach the fourth stage, unless these goals were part of the founding vision in the first place.
From Gender Washing to Gender Equity, to Action
So what does our understanding of green washing and role of companies in helping to drive environmental change tell us about the pace and nature of change we can expect in the gender equity space?
For starters, we can remind ourselves that real, deep social change happens at a glacial pace and is inherently complex. It involves changing institutions, culture, underlying, interlocking systems like capitalism and culture, versus just the products we buy or companies we work for.
We can also learn that individual efforts, such as “buying your way” out of a significant and fundamental social problem, make us feel good, but don’t do nearly enough. We must move from being consumers to becoming citizens again. As citizens, we can and should re-engage at political levels, read, think critically, stand up (on the street if need be, not just while sitting on your couch using Twitter), speak our truths, get uncomfortable, and take the time out of our days to contribute meaningfully to an intentional larger movement.
As Klein said two weeks ago, to really make a difference on these kinds of problems, we need an intersectional collective, activist effort.
In her view, just as the colonialists saw their colonies and their natural resources as their own larder for growing their personal stature and fortunes at home, society has for too long viewed women as an inexpensive resource to exploit. Women have been used as “spare parts to fill in, versus lead[ers in] our economy.”
In short, we need to end our dependence on the extractive economy to save the planet, and similarly end our exploitation of women to advance society. And we need active, engaged and informed citizens, not consumers, to get there.
I did something really nerdy recently. I read the Emancipation Proclamation, that seminal document in US history. One thing struck me immediately. It doesn’t make “the business case” for the abolition of slavery. We know the Confederate South did – free labour kept that economy churning. But the proclamation framed abolishing slavery as a moral issue.
Today there are many forms of modern slavery: human trafficking is a profitable, multi-billion dollar criminal activity and we can add forced labour, child labour, forced marriage as forms of slavery. Do we care whether someone can make a business case for each of these conditions of human exploitation? I don’t.
While we can likely agree that slavery is wrong, women around the world are still arguing their case for gender equality. What gives? Discrimination, like slavery, is wrong. Yet woman – and some men – are twisting themselves into Gumby knots to make the business case for gender equality, to prove women have value, to justify implementing workplace policies and practices that establish benchmarks for equality and equity.
Where is Abe Lincoln, with the clarity of purpose, when you need him?
Michael Kimmel, an American academic, activist and a leading feminist author of many books on males and gender, gave an interview to The Canadian Women’s Foundation. He was asked, “How do you convince men that equality is better for them than patriarchy?” Kimmel said there were three cases to be made. The first was the rightness and fairness of it, and the third was the personal benefit for more balanced, happier relationships. But it was the second case, what he called the business case — on which he put ample focus — that got me thinking.
Kimmel said that, “equality is good for organizations, countries, and companies.” More specifically, he said, “I think the business case enables us to respond to the fear men have that gender equality is a zero-sum game: that if women win, men are going to lose. The business case makes it clear that the pie gets bigger and everybody benefits, not just women.” Kimmel’s TED talk is worth watching.
I’ve heard the “business case” before; I’ve even made it – somewhat uncomfortably.
But why is it necessary to make a business case for equality? And especially one that panders to male insecurity and the status quo. How about focusing on the moral compass that directs us to differentiate right from wrong? Rather than reassuring men that they won’t lose anything if women gain full equality, I’m more interested in exploring how the greater participation of women throughout the economic universe impacts society as a whole.
Do women in positions of authority influence the very purpose of a business, and if so, what is the impact throughout the business and more broadly, societally? HR policies can help level the playing field, which is very important, but when women are a larger share and stronger voice at the table, does the business output look different? I’m not suggesting that women are above corruption, but if men and women worked in partnership and trust, would things truly begin to change? Would there have been the subprime debacle, or multiple Enron-scale malfeasances? Is it possible, as some research suggests, that women’s leadership and their approach to business and social organization would have an overall positive influence on capitalism writ large?
It’s impossible to answer my question because it’s highly theoretical. Thus far women haven’t founded many businesses that have grown into Fortune 500 companies and been subject to broad examination. Given the realities of business today, it’s hard to take one or two examples out of context and draw meaningful conclusions.
So I’m simply going to consider how, in a limited example, women might influence change.
Consider sex. It sells. So does violence. Both are used all the time to sell products, and we see big box office films “sell” stories that are relentlessly violent, and often sexually violent. Who is most likely to say, “Enough! There are other ways to entertain and sell products”? So far it hasn’t been the largely male advertising and studio executives. They’re making too much money for themselves and their clients. Nor will it be the worker bees. Even if they have the imagination to envision something else, they lack power. Creative directors or film directors may have brilliant ideas, but few are independent of the corporate structure, and so they are simply another commodity to be exploited by corporate capitalism. But are women indifferent to the throttle hold that sex and violence have on our society? Sexual exploitation and violence are profitable and their impact and influences on society are very far reaching. Certainly, in the case of advertising, they go farther than the products they promote. What’s the alternative?
Personally, and that makes this a study of one, I more readily recall commercials that make me laugh than I do commercials that make me feel inadequate. I’ll never look like the Calvin Klein model who is seducing the stud with his zipper open, and I will never end up in bed with either of them. I know that and don’t need to be reminded of it, but even at my age, I would like to know who makes undies that don’t ride up and are still a little sassy.
In our world, ravaged by violence, the gratuitous forms only serve to further inure us to horrors. Think the Montreal massacre, the Sandy Hook massacre, Orlando, Columbine, and 9/11. Or beyond North America, the rape of Yazidi women, Rwanda, the Holocaust, and the Inquisition. One could draw the conclusion that humans have an inexhaustible capacity for evil. So then what? I wonder if we brought women into the discussion without the pressure to conform to the status quo, would we experience a shift in approach to business that would reflect different values? I think so, and I bet that a lot of men would be very relieved.
Could that shift be good for business—and society?
I guess it depends on whether you define business only in terms of the profit it makes, rather than its contribution to society that includes, but isn’t exclusive to profit. The degree of violence and sexualization of women from a very, very young age has not always been normalized. Both are now so entrenched that I believe we will liberate our imagination and change only when women are at the table in a role of true authority and partnership, where they’re able to express themselves with free and honest voices, and when men are willing to give up a paradigm that is inherently destructive to women—and also to themselves and society.
Easy to do? No. Men at the top will need to look deeper and realize their privilege. That privilege is about their power over others. Change means not just sharing the desk, worktable, conveyor belt, or boardroom table with women, but hearing their voices, loud and strong, as they express their ideas and vision. It means truly believing that equality is the issue of our age.
Michael Kimmel opens his TED Talk with a revealing statement: “Privilege is invisible to those who have it. … Class, race, and gender are not about other people, they were about me.” This is true for women of privilege, just as it is for men. Our class, race, and gender have an impact on everything and everyone. Ultimately, women will only achieve full equality when we all understand and accept that equality is a moral issue, and when we have the will to recalibrate that moral compass and put it to work.