Categories
Activism & Action

Q&A: National Day of Conversation with Wanda Deschamps

Photo by Paul Tessier |Stocksy

Wanda Deschamps is a crusader for inclusion:

  • founder of Liberty Co, an organization helping to increase the participation level of the neurodiverse population in the workforce,

  • a champion for the Inclusion Revolution, a worldwide movement launched in 2018 to spearhead broader thinking about disability, especially disability employment,

  • advocate for gender equality through the #women4women collective,

  • co-founder in 2019, with Liz LeClair, of the National Day of Conversation, a digital conversation about the issue of sexual harassment of fundraisers in the charitable and nonprofit sectors.

We spoke with Deschamps about hosting the second National Day of Conversation on Nov. 26  this year.

Wanda Deschamps, co-founder of National Day of Conversation (NDOC), Nov 26 2020.

 

LiisBeth: Why did you start a conversation on this topic?

I’ve been a gender equity advocate my entire life. And I worked in the charitable sector for a generation—25 years. I have noticed questionable behaviour, inappropriate behaviour. I have certainly been aware of the sexism…and the lack of equity at the top. Seventy per cent of our employees are women, yet we participate at about 30 per cent of the leadership level.

But it didn’t all come together until my experience at the University of Waterloo. I was sexually harassed for the three years that I was there. And I complained, and I experienced retaliation.

On Jan. 2, 2019, I was—like so many people—reading the national headlines for the first business day of the new year. It was a cold, dark morning. And I saw the oped in the CBC by Liz LeClair where she shared her own experiences of sexual harassment as a professional fundraiser.

I sat there, stunned. I did not think, given my experiences, given the retaliation, that someone would speak out that way. And so, I was in touch with Liz right away, as were a number of people.

Gradually, our movement was born and we decided on a day of conversation about sexual harassment in the charitable and nonprofit sectors. And that’s how we got to where we are today.

LiisBeth: How has COVID-19 affected equity in the charitable sector, and how does the National Day of Conversation address that?

The pandemic has highlighted inequity and the charitable sector is part of that inequity. But awareness does make a difference; addressing an issue begins with awareness. You can’t address inequity if you don’t think there’s a problem. When I was walking home last year from our in-person session, I thought we are making it increasingly difficult for people to say: ‘I didn’t know. I didn’t know there was a problem. I didn’t know there was an issue. I didn’t know so many people were affected by this. I didn’t know that it was having such an impact.’ And after the online sessions on Nov. 26 this year, I believe that we will feel the same way.

LiisBeth: What do you hope people take away from the National Day of Conversation this year?

On November 26, at 11:59 PM, will our work be over? No.

We need to keep doing what we’re doing; we need to keep the conversation going.

We say that we have a trifecta call to action: promote the day in your social media channels, join the conversation online, and register. And we have hours of virtual dialogue and speakers lined up from across Canada and beyond who are thinkers, leaders, advocates, experts, so we believe there’s something for everyone to learn.

Participate in the National Day of Conversation by posting and sharing content with the hashtags #NationalDayofConversation and #NDOC on your social networks, and start a conversation at your workplace about the sexual harassment and assault of fundraisers – review organizational policies and support systems with leadership.

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Categories
Our Voices

Dare to Dream in Pandemic Times

Sabrina Dias (left) and colleague Boniface Shuuli in Ngara,Tanzania

Outbreak.  Pandemic.  The world halting.  How do I feel? Where do I feel it in my body?  What wants to break out of me?  What I really want to say is, I would like the world to stop spinning. To reverse its rotation. And to go back to December.

No, that’s not true. I don’t want that at all.  Why would I want to go back to 2019?

We needed to stop. We needed the tipping point before now.

We needed to wake up years ago. To see ourselves and to see each other. To connect with ourselves and with each other. Something needed to give.

Immediate satisfaction. Fast fashion. Disposable smartphones. Human trafficking. Child labour. Modern slavery. Climate gambling. Mass refugee migration. Fake news. Cyber attacking. Instant messaging.  Online bullying….

Sabrina Dias, MineAfrica March 2020 during PDAC week in Toronto – Moderator (with microphone), Bertrand Montembault, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP

Social distancing was already happening to us. We stopped caring about each other. We stopped seeing our collective whole; instead, we saw only our individual desires.

My heart feels heavy for the fire we must now walk through together. We must. My hands feel stiff from the tension of searching for others to walk with. Will we have enough of us? Will we build an army of Hope and Decency to create a new world in 2021? And who, and how many, must we lose on this journey?

I desperately miss my grandmother. A feeling that directly contradicts my selfish gratitude that she is no longer here to suffer through this crisis. This catastrophe. This painful transformation of our civilization.

She was an elder. My elder. The elder. Every word she spoke was strength, wisdom, and assurance. We need our elders.

My favourite people are old. Did I ever tell you that? Several years ago, I met a 92-year-old gentleman on the Yonge subway line. He wore a hat and carried a cane. I make it a habit to never talk to anyone on the subway, but we spoke for nine stops. He rode the Yonge subway every day to have his coffee and pastry at a downtown café. Every day. I loved him immediately like he was my own grandpa, and I still regret not ditching my appointment to join him for a coffee and pastry that day, for more time with this gentle elder.

We will lose these wise souls. The ones who relish subway rides and pastries, who read real books while commuting, and sneeze into their handkerchiefs. I love old people. I miss my old people. We need our old people.

Some may feel a virus that targets the old and the vulnerable is a good virus or a ‘not so bad’ virus. They are wrong. A ‘good virus’ is one that takes the assholes, the rapists and the pedophiles, the abusers, the Trumpers and the Koch Brothers, the dictators, the racists, the misogynists, the polluters, the sport hunters, the ocean dumpers, the cruise ship operators, the drug lords, the gang leaders, the road ragers, the fucker who hit my first car and didn’t even leave a note…

Now that would be a ‘good virus.’

The only good that can come from this virus is what we make of this moment. If we can emerge from this social isolation, joining hearts, holding hands, walking towards Hope and Decency.

Rant over (for now).

Love Sabrina Dias

Sabrina Dias is the founder and CEO of Soop Strategies


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Categories
Feminist Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a feminist enterprise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Feminist Enterprise Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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.”


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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/

Categories
Our Voices

How Can We Collectively Build a Better Future for All?

 

Kosisochukwu Nnebe

How do you create inclusive communities through innovation? That question brought together more than 500 leaders from across Canada’s social innovation landscape for the Econous 2019 conference in September. Guided by Indigenous advisors, organizers asked eight members of a Witness Panel to share their personal thoughts (not through the lens of the organizations they work for) on what they had taken away by participating in the event.

Kosisochukwu Nnebe, a Nigerian-Canadian policy analyst and visual artist, had this to say:


My name is Kosisochukwu, which means “as it pleases God” in Igbo. I start with this because every name comes with its own story, and it is my way of grounding what I say next in my positionality as a young Black woman born in Nigeria and raised in Gatineau, Que. It’s taken me many years to love my name and cherish what it says about me and my heritage. It is one element of my bundle—an Indigenous term, as I’ve learned, that refers to sacred items such as feathers and plants, as well as to the collective and personal knowledge that we hold, and the gifts that we come into this world with.

As witnesses [at Econous 2019], we were invited to think about leveraging our own unique bundles to assess and filter what we would be learning throughout the conference. As witnesses, our role was to use our own personal lived experiences as a lens through which to understand and then communicate our learning.

Thinking through the last couple days, two ideas have remained with me constantly: the importance and power of language, and the idea of practice as something that is not linear, but encapsulates past, present, and future. Both concepts are intricately linked and, when harnessed, can help us move towards a more inclusive vision of a social economy that collapses both time and space, in terms of bringing together generations of knowledge that is both rooted in local places but also connected to people and regions across oceans.

I’m quite new to the field of social innovation and social finance, and have often found the terminology heavy on my tongue, filling my mouth with words that seem foreign and abstract, until explained in more accessible terms and applied to more relevant contexts.

How many of you are familiar with the legend of the Tower of Babel? In it, humankind attempts to come together to build a tower to reach the heavens, but is unable to do so because what used to be one universal language becomes mutually incomprehensible dialects. In our context, it is not only language that has the potential to divide us, but also these silos that represent different sectors, different organizational types, and different forms of knowledge production (be it institutional knowledge production within universities or knowledge that is derived from being in community or on the land).

Fundamentally, however, we’re all working towards the same thing, all trying to erect the same tower that will help us generate wealth for all our communities in ways that are socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. This gathering and the conversations that have taken place are a safeguard against a similar fate (of Babel), and a way of ensuring that we can all collectively contribute to building that tower. It is by coming together to share our journeys and the best practices and lessons learned that we can begin to see and understand the interconnected nature of the greater ecosystem that we are all working within. We all come to this work with our unique bundles—be it skill sets, perspectives, resources, responsibilities and capabilities—and we all contribute towards a common vision, even though we may describe it and name it in different ways.

As I heard yesterday, friendship centres and Indigenous folks have been doing the work of social innovation for years, decades, centuries, even before that since time immemorial—all under a different name. As I discussed with a friend during one of the breaks, within African Canadian communities, the practice of social finance can be traced back to the sou-sou savings clubs of West Africa. Women would pool their savings and come together on a regular basis to then distribute that money to a member of the collective to, for example, start a business. These practices are not new. They have been with us for generations, just under different names. When we speak of diversity and inclusion in our fields, we must remember why this is important. It is not only for the sake of representation—which, though important, often leads to tokenization—but because these communities have access to a wealth of knowledge and practices that have contributed to their resiliency throughout years of oppression, both material and psychological. They have something to offer, something that we can all learn from—if only we can put aside differences in language and really listen to each other. Coming into this space, I became so overwhelmed by language around social finance that I forgot that my own mother had benefitted from a sou-sou when facing difficult times. We need to create a space where these lived experiences are valued and brought to the table as models that can inspire.

As I’ve heard many times throughout the conference, innovation isn’t necessarily about doing something new, but rather about doing something differently. It does not always have to be future-oriented but must build upon the past to orient the present in order to guide the future. Time is not a linear thing, nor is practice. My source of inspiration now is my own mother and her mother and her mother’s mother. How can we value their voices in our work as well?

Beyond time, how can we borrow from fields that seem so separate from ours? Much of my mindset and worldview is influenced by concepts rooted in Black feminism, from intersectionality to standpoint theory (personal experience shapes one’s perspective and is multifaceted rather than essentializing). During the session on feminist economies, we were all reminded of the words of Audre Lorde—a brilliant Black feminist thinker—that the master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house. In imagining the future that we want to move toward, are we rethinking our tools? Are we rethinking language and organizational structures that we don’t often question yet contribute to perpetuating the status quo? Are we looking outside of our own systems to systems of the past or systems from other regions or countries? In a feminist economies class, we did a simple exercise—completing a feminist business model canvas—and quickly discovered how a simple change of language in the way the canvas was designed could prompt questions and lead to analyses and solutions that are more inclusive, and rooted in care and the flourishing of all.

What we need to build that tower to the heavens in the legend of Babel is an ability to find common language. Language that allows us to see the similarities and potential synergies in the work that we are doing. Language that allows us to understand it as a practice that’s not constantly looking forward into the future, but harnessing the knowledge and the traditions of those who came before us, in order to create sustainable futures for those who come after us. What is required is language that is inclusive—of different traditions, of different geographies, of different methodologies, of those who are not in rooms like today where decisions around common language are made. We must ensure that the language we use does not become a tool to erase and alienate movements and people who are vital to the success of what we are trying to achieve, but rather increases the richness of the work we are doing. We must question the tools at hand and have the courage to reach out for new ones as well.


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Categories
Our Voices

Who Runs The Show?

A few weeks ago, Leila Sarkarian, a “force-of-nature” entrepreneur and exceptionally talented jewellery designer, came to talk to me about a problem that was keeping her up at night. Why? Because Sarkarian runs a fast-growing, successful enterprise, and the stakes are suddenly changing as she jumps into year five of the company’s growth.

Before launching her own firm in 2011, Sarkarian spent five years in the executive ranks at a well-known and very traditional clothing company. The experience did not make her a fan of top-down hierarchical structures. She believed they choked creativity. So she and two other founders created a workplace culture that promoted “inclusion,” where everyone felt at home, were respected for their opinions, and participated in all management decisions.

Quickly, their company garnered attention in the press, receiving high marks for their designs and also for being a great place to work. In just four years, the company morphed from three to 14 employees. And everyone still had a seat at the management table.

Now, Sarkarian has the opportunity to significantly grow the company and bring in more investors. But that requires setting up an executive team that will focus on driving the expansion. That changes the expectation that everyone in the company will steer the ship together. Sarkarian will have to establish (dare she even say it?) a tiered leadership platform. Uh oh! Now she’s torn. And sleepless. To grow, she needs to accept VC money. But she doesn’t want to quash the culture of inclusion the founders worked so hard to create. So what’s her next move?

Here’s what I told Sarkarian:

Congratulations! You’re about to grow a business you built from the ground up! You also have a chance to be an inspiration to those around you that depend on your business judgment. Here’s a guiding principle on growth: Once a company expands beyond 10 people, it’s no longer pragmatic or strategic to invite everyone to weigh in on major decisions, even if the team is accustomed to that intense participation. How you lead through this transition will matter more now than ever.

Consider the original goal. You chose to launch a business that promotes a culture of inclusion. That’s smart and contemporary. It invites employees to join your entrepreneurial mission and attracts talent tired of old-school structures, tiered-priority, and privilege. People love to feel heard and included in the building process. They’ll invest more time. They’ll show up with passion.

But keep in mind that you hired people with specialized expertise. You did not hire a multitude of CEOs. They’ve helped the company get to its present size and complexity, but they are not founders. They don’t have the same grit and vision you have to launch and lead. You’re the CEO, the entrepreneur whose name is on the door. And in this case, on the jewellery!

I encourage you to take your rightful seat at the head of the table, without trepidation, and define the terms for inclusion as the company evolves. You’re the one who must decide who sits at the executive table. Is it founders only? Does it include a CFO?

You can still continue as a creative, inclusive, and willing-to-break-boundaries entrepreneur. It’s time to create a new decision-making framework. Outline what decisions will be made by the executive team. Establish what you want from your marketing gurus, your design group, your business or product development group. Create a “collective break” time when (and you determine how often) all voices will come together for a report-in and brainstorm session. Set up an advisory board with representation from each department. Your “AB” can feed you. And, in turn, you feed them. Rather than violating the inclusive culture your business was founded on, this new decision-making structure will strengthen it. Everyone will continue to feel valued.

But the change is huge. Manage this so it gets off the ground in a good way. Stay involved during the shift. Set up a system to publicly acknowledge the strength of each person’s ideas. Solicit opinions on how the process is developing. Reward breakthrough thinking. Test-run each new design line so no one feels left out. In a broad sense, having an executive team shouldn’t make other people feel disqualified, but instead encourage the qualified to dig into what they do best. And then during the collective break, cheer each other on!

As founder and CEO, you remain chief collaborator, channelling the talents of your staff to steer the company to new heights.