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Body, Mind & Pleasure Our Voices

She Scores!

Kristi Herold . Founder and CEO, Toronto Sport & Social Club

During a recent Sunday evening at a school gym in Toronto, the Ninja Monkeys, a co-ed floor hockey team comprised of five women and seven men who have played together for nearly a decade, nailed their competition to the wall. Then they headed to a nearby bar to celebrate their 13–9 win with a round of drinks.

Team captain Tammy Symes, a 39-year-old recreational athlete, loves to play sports so much she signs up for two softball teams and two floor hockey teams each year, sometimes adding in ultimate frisbee or soccer for an extra dose of fun. “I’ve made so many friends, it’s unbelievable,” said Symes. She also gets to flex her leadership skills, serving as captain for most of the teams she plays on.

Supporting all that healthy fun and personal growth is a unique business model. Kristi Herold founded the Toronto Sport & Social Club in 1996. She had competed on rowing and ski teams at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., but when she graduated and moved to Toronto, she fell into an accessibility gap in recreational sports—especially for women.

“I thought maybe I could play soccer. But at the time, the only soccer I could find for women was highly competitive,” said Herold during a recent interview at the company’s Toronto office. “I couldn’t play at that level.” Yet she also couldn’t imagine her post-university life without sports. “If you go and play after work, you’re going home happier, you get a little sweaty, you’ve had some laughs on the field. You’re going to be less stressed, and your health is going to be better.”

Herold, who ran two small businesses while completing her commerce degree, seized on the gap in recreational sport for adults as an opportunity to launch her own company. “I realized I had to go out and do something on my own,” said Herold, who sports an athletic build, wild curls, and a ready smile. “I’d heard about these clubs in the US and I thought, well, I’ll give it a try.”

That was back in the analogue days, so Herold called up friends and friends of friends to see if they might be interested in playing on a co-ed sports team in a downtown location. She explained her idea as “intramurals for people who aren’t in university anymore.” By targeting recent graduates who faced the same lack of sporting options she encountered, Herold managed to sign up 52 co-ed teams that first season to play soccer, ultimate frisbee, flag football, basketball, and beach volleyball.

She charged $350 per team for the season, signed Spalding and Wilson as equipment sponsors, and launched a sporting enterprise that, 23 years later, has 130,000 annual participants playing about 30 sports. It employs some 50 full-time and 250 part-time staff, has expanded to eight Canadian cities, and can boast of being one of the largest sports and social clubs in North America.

Even in her first year running the future sports empire, Herold knew she was on to a good thing. “I was out at games every night…and showing up at sponsor bars afterward to make sure everyone had a good time.”

The concept is relatively simple. Players pay to play for a season that runs about 12 weeks. They can join either as an individual or a group can sign up as a team. Sport & Social Club handles all the organizing: matching individuals with a team, providing equipment, setting rules, creating a schedule, renting venues, tracking standings, and arranging social gatherings.

There are single-sex, co-ed and open leagues. The goal is to make it welcoming to anyone, regardless of skill or experience, with an emphasis on fun and making friends. On co-ed teams, there must be a minimum number of both men and women in play at all times. As Symes said, “If you join, you get played, and you have a good time.”

Said Herold: “I wanted to show it was possible to start something that everyone can play.”

When her business proved to have legs that first year, she formed a 50/50 partnership with her boyfriend, Rolston Miller. He had recently retired as a semi-pro cyclist and was looking for flexible work. As the company had no money for stamps, his first task was to deliver printed flyers that promoted seasonal registration. He did that, of course, by bike.

The two married later that year. Miller focused on building a digital platform for the company that would eventually become the foundation for internal and external communications. Herold led the business as CEO. “We were really hustling,” said Herold. “We grew by word of mouth, didn’t spend much on marketing.”

One of the club’s earliest hires was Rob Davies, an operations whiz. In 2007, Herold and Miller invited Davies to buy into the company, which is now run by the three partners, with Herold as CEO, Davies as president, and Miller as director of marketing.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Herold and Miller were struggling to manage a growing family with three young children. They found ways to distribute the workload at home according to practicality, rather than gender expectations. Still, Herold often felt overwhelmed. She’d grown up in Sudbury; her father was an entrepreneur and her mother stayed at home. “I grew up wanting to be both of them, which was challenging,” said Herold. “I felt I was failing, both as an entrepreneur and a parent.”

That crisis led Herold to take bold action. In 2005, she decided to step away from the business for 16 weeks of the year. She did that for several years. It wasn’t easy, but it seemed possible, Herold said, because of her innate leadership style, which she described as “bottom up.”

“I like to think of me as the base of a tree. I’m here to support. I say, tell me what I can do so you can go and do your work. It’s not me, standing on top, talking down.”

She and Miller divorced in 2012 but they’ve maintained their business relationship.

Now, after a decade of focusing on family while Herold placed the business in a slow-growth mode, she’s back in her CEO chair full-time. And she has a new goal of getting one million people off the couch, which means leading the company into an era of ambitious expansion.

Over the past two years, Sport & Social Group has expanded into new markets by buying up clubs that were already operating in Ontario and Michigan. Leaning on the parent company’s infrastructure and its custom digital platform, the newly acquired clubs can sign up and retain more members than they had previously. More acquisitions are in the works.

In the #MeToo era, ambitious growth in the sport industry comes with a responsibility to create a safe place for women. Herold aims to create gender balance—in the workplace and at play. Currently, about 40 percent of the club’s staff is female. And about 45 percent of its membership is female. Herold celebrates those stats in the male-dominated sporting industry.

So far, the company has not faced harassment issues, but Herold wanted to be ahead of the issue and hired an old friend from Queen’s University, Bay Ryley, to deliver online training for employees, teaching them how to identify and report harassment.

Sport & Social Group’s also developed gender policies that are trans-inclusive. Such measures are particularly important in co-ed sport, with teams required to have a minimum number of both genders in play at all times. For example, on the soccer field, two of six players must be women and two must be men. The other two can be any gender.

To register in single-sex or co-ed leagues, players can self-identify as either male or female at registration. Those who don’t identify a gender when they register are welcome to play, though their teams may not count them as either men or women to meet gender requirements. In open leagues, there are no gender requirements.

Within Herold’s expansion plans is a mission to improve access to sport for children. The company has started a foundation called Keep Playing Kids and aims to connect adult mentors—including Sport & Social members—with kids who need sport support. “We know that if you play when you’re younger, you develop a love for it, and you’re more likely to play as an adult,” says Herold. “We want everyone to keep playing.”

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Related Article

Activism & Action Our Voices Systems

The Seven Sins of Gender Washing

As someone who wholly embraced and participated the environmental and sustainability movement in the early 2000s (to the point of founding the World’s only Platinum LEED-certified dairy), the opportunity to hear Naomi Klein speak on the state of the environment and environmental debate in Canada on Oct. 17 at the University of Toronto was something I just couldn’t miss.

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.

Here goes.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Now that would truly change everything.


Related Readings and Articles:

Entrepreneurs by Choice; Activists by Necessity” by Cynthia MacDonald




Activism & Action Our Voices

Diversity Rules


High-tech companies in Silicon Valley know diversity spurs innovation and creativity. They’re making serious efforts to get more diversity—especially women—into “the pipeline.” Yet, the retention and promotion rate of women remains appalling, says Rajkumari Neogy, founder of iRestart, a start-up diversity coaching company based in San Francisco.

Neogy herself enjoyed a meteoric rise in the tech industry. She started as a training specialist with a start-up and rose to a leadership and development lead with Adobe and Facebook before confronting her own painful experience of workplace exclusion. She witnessed sexism (“All the typical shit you read about does happen”) and she felt “othered” during her role as a consultant. “I was making six figures and helping the company grow,” says Neogy. “Due to being labeled as a contractor, I was denied access to company events, information, and resources.” That othering was rampant, she says, and many consultants were quitting. “After a while it begins to wear on you. You realize you only belong in this conditional way and that began to hurt more and more,” says Neogy.

But why did it hurt so much? Neogy took some time out from her career, spent two months on a beach in Asia thinking about it, and began researching and writing about pain and exclusion. She realized her workplace pain had been compounded by the “intense” childhood abuse she suffered in her family, her own internalized homophobia, and the trauma of being gay-bashed as a young adult. After excavating the sources and connections of her pain, she started applying the leadership training and communication strategies she had developed over her career and put herself back together.

She returned home to write her book, The WIT Factor: Shifting the Workplace Paradigm by Becoming Your Optimal Self. She also developed a new strategy to increase and retain diversity in the workplace—and created a new company to deliver it. And so iRestart was born.

To start her company, Neogy lived on her savings for a year while drumming up business and taking the free online lecture series “How to Start a Startup” offered at Stanford University. She learned best when she sought advice one-on-one from experts. With her financial advisor, she set up an S corporation so she could build stocks and dividends and, ultimately, equity.

Through iRestart, Neogy delivers her unique Disruptive Diversity coaching program, either to teams or individuals over a six-week period of engagement. She describes the leadership and mentoring sessions as a “rupture and repair” strategy that pinpoints root causes of exclusion and communication pain points (rupture) then creates profound inclusion by utilizing a range of tools (repair). The program builds a radical sense of self-worth in individuals, develops empathetic communication strategies, and increases emotional intelligence. The end goal is to create a “whole-person culture” that values diversity, which builds team effectiveness and performance.

During initial consultations, she admits she gets resistance, particularly from men. “They think, ‘What is this bullshit? Is this therapy?’ But men have just as much wounding as women. Men have been raised to be excluded. ‘Don’t feel feelings, don’t cry, don’t show up, don’t be effeminate.’ They are taught unconsciously to exclude most of themselves. So men feel unsafe with feelings and they are often posturing, aggressive,” says Neogy. “Workplaces haven’t allowed individuals to be truly authentic, to express personal feelings. That’s why we have so much workplace violence. I’ve watched men burst into tears [in training sessions] and flourish into authenticity. To enable authenticity, we need a level of connection, of vulnerability.”

Neogy admits women initially criticize her approach as “blaming the victim,” since she emphasizes changing the self as well as the culture. “It’s important to realize that humans have trauma and you go [to work] with your baggage,” she says. “Someone criticizes you [at work] and says, ‘You didn’t do this right.’ I could take this personally. Maybe I had a parent who told me how stupid I was. Here I am, 44, and I immediately turn five years old and feel shame.”

How does that play out in the workplace? Consider a typical meeting in a high-tech company, Neogy says. A woman joins a team comprised mostly of men. She may be the only woman. “The guys” are already bonded. They want to connect with their new team member. They’re trying to figure it out, but don’t quite know how. They want to appear confident, so they make themselves bigger, louder, more aggressive. They’re fearful that being too nice might come across as flirting. They feel vulnerable, too, unsure what to talk about other than work. If they’re engineers, they zero in on problems and without realizing it, their brains are associating this new person, this alien other, with “issues” like conflict and work problems.

The female team member begins to feel criticized every time she’s approached. Given that our identities are so closely associated with work, women begin to take the criticism personally, and may connect it with past trauma. That’s when the pain begins to layer and her sense of self-worth diminishes.

“The system is completely focused on excluding her without knowing it’s doing that,” says Neogy. “The workplace for women becomes an environment of microaggression. The woman is made to feel like shit. So either a company owns that out loud and doesn’t hire women or you attempt to redesign your system in a way that invites difference and values and enmeshes it.”

Going through disruptive diversity training, says Neogy, helps men admit their feelings and helps women separate the personal from the workplace. “You can’t ignore [trauma] so if it comes out through my coaching, you have not resolved it,” she says.

One female executive came to Neogy for coaching after being promised a vice president position for 13 months. After a frustrating wait, she started distrusting her boss and considered leaving the company. Within three sessions, she got the promotion. Another woman wanted a three-year plan to head up her engineering division; she was promoted within four weeks. Neogy says coaching helped both women build a solid foundation of self-worth, which enabled them to rise above the “blame” and not take problems personally. They learned how to talk to people they felt challenged by, while gaining greater respect from their team.

“When my client has a greater sense of self-worth, they get the promotion, they get the money,” says Neogy. “It happens over and over. Disruptive diversity is about raising the global economic status by raising the global self-worth status.”

In this work, Neogy says her own “otherness” as a biracial, bilingual specialist, and especially as a gender-fluid queer, in tech and communications has been a huge advantage, enabling her to act as a bridge between cultures, businesses, languages, and genders. She presents as butch and says wearing men’s clothing in the queer-positive tech and entrepreneurial world of San Francisco hardly turns heads. Rather, men feel comfortable being vulnerable around her. “I think they perceive me as a woman but not a woman,” she laughs. “They’re always hugging me!”

Women also feel safe confiding in Neogy because she’s not a man, yet she’s not in competition with them either. “I go in as everyone’s best friend,” she says. “Ultimately, I believe we all want to belong while retaining our uniqueness. It is by contributing our uniqueness that we feel valued, that we matter, that we belong. That uniqueness is diversity. But the contribution has to be received, which is the inclusion element.”

As the demand for her Disruptive Diversity coaching has grown, she’s developing a certification process to train other coaches to deliver her programs. She’s also partnering with a mentoring software company to build online diversity coaching content. And she’s seeking partnerships with micro-fund and venture capital firms from Silicon Valley to Shanghai, exchanging a percentage of her coaching fees for equity in their enterprises. She’s found this alternate payment structure can be attractive for entrepreneurs following a lean start-up model. Plus, an enterprise that starts with a diverse and inclusive culture bodes well for success. Her long-term goal is to build enough equity to invest in other start-ups while acting as a hub for VC firms and micro-firms, “a connecting tapestry” as she calls it.

Being in the business of healing businesses has also enabled Neogy to continue her own healing journey. “I have tried desperately to grow a family that is safe for me,” she says. “It took me 44 years to figure out how to do that. When we grow up in a family that exploits us, we run that pattern until we don’t. Entrepreneurship is a way of saying, ‘See me. I matter. I’m special.'”

Our Voices

All Jacked Up on Bow Ties


Few could say they found their identity as an entrepreneur more than Jack Jackson. Jackson, who was transitioning to a gender identity that embraces both masculine and feminine, grew frustrated trying to find clothes to match that sense of self. “I tended to shop in the men’s section but ended up having to get them altered to fit my body,” says the 42 year old. “It was really expensive.”

Jackson had also recently moved to Toronto from Guernsey in the Channel Islands, was awaiting a visa to work in Canada and searching for a way to earn a living. Returning to a former career in finance administration was off the table. “I did not want to go back to a corporate job wearing a suit that felt stupid or being treated as female.”

Our Voices

The Renascent Entrepreneur: Second Acts


As an entrepreneur who recently exited my last venture (not with millions in my pocket, more like barely surviving), I found myself in that messy middle stage of figuring out if I should start another — and also at yet another high-energy, motivational entrepreneurship conference. On this evening, 300 aspiring career transitioners — the outplaced, retirees who hadn’t saved enough, and many Zuckerberg-inspired millennials — sat with notebooks in hand, waiting for the first speaker. The event promised inspiration plus how-to tips to help the tired, hungry and eager masses develop the courage and skills to become an entrepreneur.

The first speaker (a man as is so often the case) swaggered across the stage while Katy Perry’s song “Roar” powered through the sound system. Once at center stage, he stopped, deliberately silent. His eyes scanned the audience for a few seconds. He then raised his right arm, wagged his pointing finger and proclaimed, “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you figure out why!”

Great line, I thought, for a talk about finding your entrepreneurial “why.” But unlike most in the room, I knew my “why,” and I wasn’t there to find the courage to start a business. I was there to consider whether I should do it all again.

But thinking about my “why” sent my mind spiraling back to a vivid moment, one of the most pivotal days of my life.

It was a sunny, mid-summer Friday, time for our weekly staff lunch. I had noticed the lunchroom was a getting a bit tight. No wonder. Since opening our doors a few years before, we had grown from five to more than 18 staff. But, somehow, we still managed to arrange thrift-shop chairs around the breathtaking harvest table that was designed and built by one of my first hires, John, a celebrated Toronto sculptor before joining the company.

To outsiders, we were in the business of making artisan cheese. But to me, the founder and CEO, the cheese was our medium but not the message.

This is what the enterprise had come to mean to me: Proving that a small but highly innovative, sustainably-designed business set in an economically-bifurcated rural area could succeed while focusing on returning benefits to the community — sourcing locally, offering fair farm contracts and providing good jobs. And while operating in a notoriously over-regulated industry. I wanted to change the world and be financially sustainable.

My staff also believed in the power of a for-profit social enterprise. Doing well and generating social benefit was built into our company’s DNA.  We had high standards for making cheese and high hopes that we could create real and lasting change in our community.  And, you know, we almost made it.

Then an untimely divorce unraveled the dream.

Back to that Friday lunch.

The lunchroom (which tripled as the boardroom and meeting room) was bustling. We made a point of eating together on Fridays, sharing bread and stories about the week. It was generally a potluck affair, supplemented by tomatoes and other pickings from our staff garden outside.

On the wall was a bulletin board pinned with pictures of staff and families, a Myers Briggs team grid (yes, I made them do it), thank you letters from the community, newspaper clippings, the make-cheese schedule, and a recent article about us in Fortune magazine. In those halcyon days, three staff had to stay behind in the retail store during those lunches as more than 5,000 visitors streamed into our store each week. We had been open just 18 months. Though we were not yet profitable, sales had skyrocketed from $5,000 in the first month to more than $120,000 per month by end of year one. We were on the right path, according to both the accounts and awards our cheeses had won.

As lunch was wrapping up, I rose to my feet and went to the front of the room. Normally, this is when I would share sales stats, bring attention to challenges for the following week, and call out birthdays and achievements. But today would be different.

I thought I could just say it, but emotion came fast and furious. Instead, I pulled out the folded press release from my back pocket and started to read. “On August 11th, 2012, Petra Kassun-Mutch, Founder and CEO, is stepping down to make way for a new management team that will take the company to the next level….” Blah. Blah. Blah.

There was stunned silence. I said I was sorry, as my eyes welled with tears. I hurried from the room, placed my keys on my desk and walked out, just like the divorce lawyers told me to do, in case anything I said after might be construed to have had a negative effect on staff retention or brand value. Not a time for unintended consequences, they advised.

I had unwittingly ceded control of my company to my partner years ago for reasons that made sense at the time. The divorce lawyers and lenders rendered the company just another line item on the family balance sheet. Many told I was too emotional about the company to be objective. Perhaps I was as I eroded my personal finances on legal fees in an effort to hold on to it. I could not afford to buy it out myself. I struggled for a year to find an investor to buy my parnter’s half. I succeeded in finding a serious suitor with big hopes and dreams for building the company with me, but the deal had to be acceptable not only to myself, but my ex and, of course, the investor as well.  A deal was never consummated.

During the 18-month battle, it became clear that the drawn-out, hellish divorce proceedings were taking a toll on the company. My attention as CEO was divided – at a crucial time in our company’s growth. Bruised, scared and exhausted, I finally realized it was time to step aside if the company had any chance of reaching its potential. After many consultations with friends and advisors who were concerned about my health and post-divorce reality, that Friday, I let it go.

My mind snapped back to the present, the conference, where the speaker was summing up key points in a booming voice: “Entrepreneur is just French for has ideas, does them…. Find your passion, and the money will follow…. If you can dream it, you can do it!”

But the carnival call is one thing, reality another.

Starting a capital-intensive company you plan to lead and grow is hard. It takes years of sweat and stress equity to launch and a lot more than passion to operate it well. Even if you get everything right, you can still, in the end, fail.

Leaving the company I built, letting go daily interaction with the community of staff and customers, saying good-bye to the sweet smell of curds in the vat and losing my identity as business owner, hurt. A lot.

While a lot of things went right, many things went wrong. We grew too fast. All the business planning in the world could not have anticipated the 2008 financial collapse — or a partner who wanted out. As the battle lines for control of the dairy were drawn, I was told I suffered from “founder’s disease,” as occurs when identity and passion for the company become too intense and inseparable, clouding vision. Perhaps they were right. Creating and running a business is still a very human and, therefore, a flawed affair.

It took me some time to collect myself, re-glue the shards and regain my confidence.  I worked hard to “integrate” what had happened to become a new, wiser self. Some days I still grieve, though less intensely now. And I think about what I can teach my daughter, who was very much a part of the journey, about that period of our lives.

Following the sale of the company, I needed time to heal and decided I just wanted to be safe for a while. So, I did what most entrepreneurs do after a rough exit: I set my sights on finding a job with a steady pay cheque. That opportunity came at a wonderful organization I had collaborated with in the past. I was returning to a corporate life, which I had previously enjoyed.  But I soon learned you can’t go backwards. I chafed at working in middle management in a large organization where the pace of decision making is slow, and politics and administrative processes stifle timely implementation of new ideas. As Oprah would say, I could not be my best self. My entrepreneurial experience had profoundly changed me, forever.

Which brought me to yet another entrepreneurship conference, along with hundreds of hopeful others.

In addition to being in the messy middle stage, the one between ventures, I was also, by another term, a renascent entrepreneur, exploring, deep diving and milling around to find that next moment where heart, mind, body, resources and purpose align once again.

Not long after that conference, I found that moment once again.  Or perhaps I had always known it, that my heart and soul had become invested in learning and living the craft of entrepreneurship — and not only for myself but the community of entrepreneurial dreamers I found myself drawn to while attending conferences, hosting start-up pitching sessions and in my consulting work, which increasingly became about guiding, challenging and championing new entrepreneurs. And this is how the LiisBeth project was born.

In this latest venture, the medium and message are one — to create a community and publishing venture where we can share what we are learning and experiencing about entrepreneurship — to strengthen our business, ourselves and the world. I feel that familiar excitement coursing through me as I move on from renascent entrepreneur to full on serial entrepreneur!  Sure, I’ve learned a few things. The first, you can bet I will be far more vigilant about who I involve. The other? Whether I was born to be an entrepreneur or came to it through living the life, I realize it has made me who I am: strong, driven and hopeful enough to start all over again.

Activism & Action Our Voices

Women’s Entrepreneurship Day: A Closer Look at “Awareness”

Photo from CBC’s Dragon Den

We’ve all been there. Sitting politely in a crowded banquet hall full of people watching someone at a podium go on and on and on. Another speaker comes and repeats the exact same thing – in different words. The cycle continues and after 8 hours of checking the clock, it finally ends and everyone pats themselves on the back for a job well done. All of the tens of thousands of dollars that went into those 8 hours is justified by accomplishing the goal of “raising awareness.”

One would hope that if tens of thousands of dollars were invested in raising awareness, that there would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in ROI, however this is not necessarily the case. It is true that awareness raising is especially important for causes that people do not know exist. Human trafficking, for example, was not a term the general public understood just 5 years ago. Thanks to awareness raising and media attention, the public is slowly gaining an understanding of what it means. There needs to be an awareness of the problem before action can be taken. But what of the topics people are already aware of and are still having awareness conferences for? Can spending tens of thousands of dollars on raising awareness for the sake of raising awareness be justified?

On November 19, 2015, the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day initiative aims to bring awareness to women’s entrepreneurship through holding an event to “empower, celebrate and support women entrepreneurs worldwide”. It might not come as a surprise that the event has 50 speakers all vying for podium time to achieve this goal. However, the connection between raising awareness of women’s entrepreneurship and supporting women remains unclear.

Last year was the inaugural event where New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared November 19, 2015 to be known as Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. When asked why women entrepreneurs need a proclaimed day, Founder Wendy Diamond responded, “You’ve got Turtle Day, you’ve got Bubble Bath Day. These are real days in the world. So I thought, let’s do Women’s Entrepreneurship Day.”

The Women’s Entrepreneurship Day initiative, however, is not just a one day wonder. The initiative goes beyond the actual day to “bring awareness to the fact that we need to empower, celebrate and support women (entrepreneurs).” There’s that catch-all word again: awareness. So how exactly does the initiative suggest we empower, celebrate and support women? The action plan involves instituting an international certification program that can catalogue women entrepreneurs. The goal being that businesses can display their armband, excuse me, sticker on their storefront so that consumers can easily recognize which businesses are women led. This idea, however, is based on the assumption that the majority of consumers are sexist to favour women over men in business. Taking into consideration the gender gap and the whole impetus for bringing awareness to women entrepreneurs in the first place, smart money says this idea could actually be detrimental to women entrepreneurs if implemented.

Assuming most people know that women entrepreneurs exist, before a solution can be found, the problem needs to be clearly defined. The first part of the problem everyone can readily agree on: there aren’t nearly enough women entrepreneurs compared to men entrepreneurs. The second part is where it all falls apart: why?

The Canadian Women’s Foundation believes that familial obligations, unaffordable childcare, lack of transportation options, and unaffordable senior care are major responsibilities that typically fall to women and make entrepreneurship even less of an economically viable option. They focus on providing programming support in these areas so that women have more employment options (entrepreneurial or otherwise). This explanation focuses on the women themselves and asks why they have not made the choice to be an entrepreneur and comes to the conclusion that it must be their relative poverty to men. The assumption is that when in poverty, it is more difficult to take an economic risk as an entrepreneur.

Women of Influence says that 7% of investment dollars are being invested in female-led start-ups and less than 5% of the decision makers are female. Although not every start up seeks seed money, it is clear that the people with the money and making the decisions are choosing male entrepreneurs 93% of the time and 95% of these investors are male. Women of Influence believes the business environment has been dominated by men and is designed for men to succeed. Sexism by men with money is the cause of low numbers of women entrepreneurs. However, even Women of Influence concedes that this problem is something to work on as a long-term goal. In the meantime, they focus on women’s mentorship programs to help women survive in a male-dominated business world.

The commonality in both of these explanations is sexism. Sexism in familial roles keeps women in poverty. Sexism as favoritism puts women at a disadvantage over their male competitors.

A perfect example of this is Lisa von Sturmer’s famous pitch on the popular TV show, Dragon’s Den. Her company, Growing City, provides composting services for offices in Vancouver where provincial regulations make composting mandatory. Through shrewd business practices she quickly grew her business from $100,000 to $200,000 over 2 years. Watch her whole pitch and pay close attention to Kevin’s comments at 3:11.

“Why don’t (national cleaning companies) just say, ‘here’s our organic service charge at 20 more bucks a month. We’re already cleaning (your office) every night. Don’t need the pretty girl in the blue dress. We’ll take care of it for you.’”

And just like that, all of Lisa’s accomplishments and shrewd business skills were trivialized while simultaneously reducing her to an attractiveness rating. Although it may seem like a harmless comment (and to some, it may even be seen as a compliment) it is this thinking that holds women back from success. If women are viewed as only bodies and their accomplishments tied up with their appearance, it is no wonder that more men are not eager to invest in female entrepreneurial ventures. Their attractiveness has a short shelf life and is not a good long term investment. Instead of seeing the enduring qualities of talent, skill, intellect and tenacity that are needed to succeed in business, they see a ranking from 1 to 10.

As Kevin is rich and in a clear position of power, he felt safe being able to voice his sexist opinions without fear of reprisal, but for every Kevin, there are many others that keep these opinions silent. Arlene (notably the only female Dragon in the Den) even attempted to show her disgust with his degrading remark, but ultimately had to capitulate due to her own precarious position (only female in the Den). Lisa, not being in a position of power at all, ignored the comment and focused on the topic at hand displaying her professionalism and attempting to show through form, what she was not allowed to address in content.

With the women’s entrepreneurship problem defined as sexism, it becomes clear that any program that focuses on supporting women is doomed to fail as it does not address the problem. To solve the problem the focus cannot be on the people being disadvantaged and needs to shift towards the people creating the inequality. Perhaps sexism education in schools, or creative incentive programs focused on the 95% of male investors would go further to balance the scales. So as Women’s Entrepreneurship Day approaches, perhaps it would be more effective to do a little less “awareness raising” and a little more incentivizing equality.