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Allied Arts & Media Featured

The Feminist Recovery Strategy

Dee Brooks, founder of Accelerate by Design and Pandemic Study participant
Dee Brooks , founder of Accelerated by Design, says "It is all one complex, interconnected mess.”

As Dee Brooks (she/her) prepared to launch a consulting business, she was understandably excited. She had worked more than a year to develop a market strategy for her company, Accelerated By Design. Aimed at corporate and not-for-profit clients, her firm would commercialize years of academic research into collaborative future-making through dialogue.

By February, 2020, Brooks had assembled a team of four, including herself, and expected to hire more staff. She had rented a space in Toronto’s downtown core, designing it as an immersive digital media experience for clients. She had sold tickets to a launch event. Revenue was trickling in. Future-making looked bright.

Then, the pandemic ruined everything.

“It was an utter catastrophe,” said Brooks. “We were in the middle of going to market with a new offering, something we thought was super innovative. That strategy was destroyed, the market changed, and we lost access to child care for six months.”

Brooks let her team go and refunded the ticket buyers. As she watched her big dream drip away, she grieved. “It was indescribably difficult. For me, this was my baby. It was the culmination of years of effort.

“Not all that work was lost, but a large portion of it was,” she said in a recent Zoom interview from her home office.

Brooks planned to offer a blended in-person and digital collaboration experience for her clients. But now, she has switched gears to go fully digital — which she had anticipated doing — but the pandemic fast-forwarded everything.

Digital-only delivery is a different ball game. Accelerated By Design will no longer be differentiated by its in-person experience. But the switch also means the   can serve a global audience, rather than a regional one.

Brook’s story is emblematic. A recent study — The Pandemic Effect: Exploring COVID-19’s Impact on Women/Womxn-led Digital Media Businesses in Ontario — chronicles the challenges Brooks and her contemporaries face through disruption and recovery.

The Pandemic Effect

The research collective,  Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab (CFC Media Lab), OCAD University and Nordicity, funded by Ontario Creates Business Improvement Program, surveyed 28 women/womxn-led digital businesses in Ontario over five months in 2020. They gathered quantitative data through a survey and qualitative insights through a series of interactive workshops. The study report was released today.

The Pandemic Effect drew participants primarily (though not exclusively) from existing networks established by the CFC Media Lab’s Fifth Wave Initiative, Canada’s first and only feminist accelerator program. These businesses value purpose as much as they do profit, according to Nataly De Monte (she/her), managing director of Fifth Wave.

“Women in this space had a feminist perspective at the start,” said De Monte. “They’re already thinking about business in a regenerative sense, rather than an extractive one. And we wanted to know how feminist business practices could be applied to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.” 

Below is a ranking of the top impacts from the time of the survey data and the respondent’s 3-year future projections if COVID-19 was to continue. Impacts coming down in priority might be a sign of others taking priority - or - may indicate that the companies expect to have already dealt sufficiently with it within the 3-year window.
Above is a ranking of the top impacts from the time of the survey data and the respondent’s three year future projections if COVID-19 was to continue. Impacts coming down in priority might be a sign of others taking priority - or - may indicate that the companies expect to have already dealt sufficiently with it within the three year window.

“That larger adaptation is the growing pain,” for digital media, De Monte explained. “It is not that they have to learn technology and become tech savvy. These businesses are already there. It is about how they adapt to the new and changing ways of the current context.”

The Hits and the Misses

One might assume digital media companies would be well positioned to respond to an increasingly tech-focused economy. In fact, the survey showed that only 21 per cent had seen sales or personnel grow during the first six months of pandemic. About 50 per cent reported being fine for now. Another 18 per cent said they would survive but may have to lay off people, and 11 percent indicated they were in dire straits and may go bankrupt.

The pandemic also affected productivity—about 21 per cent reported they were more productive than usual during shutdowns, 61 per cent were operating at a slower pace and seven per cent had stopped working entirely.

The survey and workshops used a strategic foresight model to examine the trends and drivers behind deep social change, asking respondents to evaluate the issues affecting them both now as well as three years into the future.

Increased stress and focus on mental health was the top concern among respondents, both now and in the future.

 
The purpose is to show the 22 drivers and trends the participants came up with
Pandemic Effect Study, Page 19. This is a snapshot of the trend/driver board created in Miro from the first workshop. These are the top 22 trends/drivers noted from the survey, as well as 8 new trends created by the workshop participants.

That is no surprise to Brooks, who said her mental-health challenges are far from over. As a new business, Accelerated By Design is not eligible for most government support programs, which are based on past revenue. She is still hoping to be eligible for rent subsidies.

Having her younger child back in daycare since September has freed up some hours for Brooks, who is working from home alongside her partner. But now she is a team of one at her company, strategizing her business recovery in isolation. Having paying clients is still in the future.

Little wonder that burnout emerged as a key theme in workshops. Suzanne Stein (she/her), director of OCAD’s Super Ordinary Lab, which helped execute the online events, said that participants “moved into an ideological realm” when discussing stress.

“We were starting to see participants questioning how the economy works. They were starting to say: ‘Wait. Why are we working in an industrial revolution model, which is distractive and harmful?’”

The Feminist Future

That feminist questioning can prove tactical. The study report describes specific strategies that digital media companies expect to use in the coming years. Among the ideas:

  • valuing emotional labour
  • developing healthy remote work cultures
  • using virtual reality to host events
  • being more flexible about where and when to work
  • encouraging local economies
  • baking intrapreneurship into business practices
  • creating more and different partnership models

The conversation among digital entrepreneurs kept coming back to partnerships, community and collaboration, said Stein. Companies that act like they are part of an ecosystem will survive the coming years. Entities that were once competitors  see themselves as potential partners.

Fifth Wave workshop for women in digital media on the feminist business model canvas, March, 2020.

Stein pointed out that it is hard for individual companies “to mobilize that kind of impact on their own. The next wave of innovation is not going to be about any individual or company, it is going to be about collaboration.”

Heeding that advice will help companies cope with future disruptions, Brooks suggested. “Maybe the pandemic is the first of a series of shocks… One thing that concerns me is that people are thinking: What are we going to do about the next pandemic? But climate change will present the next problem.”

The Pandemic Effect survey is repeatable, said Julie Whelan (she/her), associate director of Nordicity, a consultancy that designed and analyzed the survey. It could be used to gather information about other disruptions in other sectors and regions. It also includes a set of take-home worksheets participants can use as a thinking tool for planning for future disruptions.

“At the start of the pandemic, we were thinking the shocks or impacts of COVID would be intense but temporary,” said Whelan. “But, of course, what we have seen is that the experience is ongoing. So, there’s a chance to rethink how we operate and how we support businesses, maybe using some of the strategies identified (in the report) to build resilience for future shocks, which are undoubtedly around the corner.”

Despite that uncertainty, Brooks said she is optimistic about the future. While diversity and inclusion have always been a foundational concern for her and her team, she is finding that potential clients are now more interested in that conversation.

“We have this tendency to think that we can separate things out. But you have got to talk about it all at once. As horrible as it is, it is unclear that George Floyd would have been the catalyst that he was if it were not for the pandemic. And it pressured the pandemic. So, I am not so sure we can treat them separately. It is all one complex, interconnected mess.”

An intersectional feminist approach takes into account cultural complexity, which makes it a useful framework for pandemic recovery planning in any sector. But operational changes cannot be stopgap measures, Stein emphasized.

“In some ways with the survey, we were left with a bit of a cliffhanger. The implications of the pandemic are still running forward. What is important now is to keep moving,” she said. “We have to keep the momentum of some of the thinking. We have to keep the dedication to working together.”

To download the study, click here. 

Publishers Note: Fifth Wave Labs is Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media. It is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and social justice into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Interested? Apply here.

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Allied Arts & Media Feminist Practices

The Art of Change

Feminist Art Conference 2014, OCAD University, Toronto

The process for art-making can boil down to something like this: Make art, get feedback, make art better. Sounds easy, right? It wasn’t for Ilene Sova. In 2012, the Toronto artist-activist was painting portraits of women who had disappeared in Ontario for her Missing Women Project. She wanted to talk about the hard issues she was tackling in her art—patriarchy, misogyny, systemic racism, violence against women—but there wasn’t a group of fellow feminist artists to turn to, at least not a formally organized one.

Sova put out a call for submissions and volunteers and got a rush of responses, including from people in Kenya and Colombia. On International Women’s Day in March 2013, she launched the first Feminist Art Conference (FAC), a multidisciplinary event that brought together artists, activists, and academics of different gender identities, ages, nationalities, and feminisms so they could show their work and use it to spark discussions around important feminist issues.

The conference sold out in two days, attracting 120 participating artists and 150 attendees. “Clearly what I had been missing in my own social practice was something that others in our creative communities were also yearning for,” says Sova. FAC’s subsequent annual conferences have been equally as successful, especially the 2017 event that happened the day of the Women’s March.

‘Ashaba’; No human can look at her directly by Karen White explores unseen oppression. By covering her face while staring straight at the viewer, the artist makes us feel both complicit and engaged in the exploration of colonialism and imperialism.

 Art That Moves

Feminists have been long fed up with the fact that women’s art continues to be undervalued, underrepresented, and often completely ignored. The feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls have been calling out the gender and racial inequality in the arts since 1985 when they picketed the Museum of Modern Art in New York for featuring only 13 women out of 169 artists.

That inequality persists today. Female visual artists earn just 65 percent of the annual income of their male peers, according to a 2018 report by the Ontario Arts Council. Since 2013, women have only accounted for 36 percent of solo exhibitions at Canadian galleries; it’s dramatically less for non-white women. Gender disparity also exists in the performing arts space, which FAC attempts to redress in their events.

FAC has heard all the reasons why feminist work is often shut out of commercial spaces and public institutions. It’s not mainstream or universal (i.e., not male). It’s too angry and personal (i.e., too female) to be good. No one (i.e., men) will buy it. FAC’s response? Carve out spaces to showcase intersectional work that might be deemed taboo elsewhere, for instance, on topics such as rape culture, transphobia, racism, ableism, domestic violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, media representation, cultural appropriation, environmental degradation, and Islamophobia. Nothing is off limits. FAC featured a graphic novel about trauma and abuse, Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee, which contains such difficult subject matter that FAC added its first-ever content warning.

Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee explores themes of trauma and abuse by drawing the viewer into the narrative.

According to Sova, people attending FAC events say they are really touched because the art reflects current social issues that affect them. “This creates a very impactful experience for those viewing art or experiencing a performance,” says Sova.

After hosting four conferences, FAC changed its name to the Feminist Art Collective to reflect its expanding mission. It now hosts artist residencies on the Toronto Islands. And its next event—the Feminist Art Festival, March 5 to 7, 2020, at OCAD University—will include a reception, conference, performances, film screening, makers’ market, and a two-week exhibition featuring the work of visual artists.

The Art of the Action

Since day one, FAC has operated as a grassroots organization run entirely by volunteers. Currently, the core team consists of 30 people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Carissa Ainslie, who took on the coordinator role after Ilene Sova became the Ada Slaight Chair of Contemporary Painting and Drawing at OCAD University, describes their current organizational structure as non-hierarchical. “We try to be intersectional in terms of who we’re including in the conversations that we’re having,” says Ainslie. “Ensuring that everyone has a voice at the table is really important regardless of what their experiences have been.”

FAC’s biggest challenge is finding the time and money to put on events, particularly without a physical office or paid staff. It didn’t help that the Ontario government slashed arts sector funding from $18.5 million to $6.5 million earlier this year but, before that, FAC did not have much success getting grants as their conferences are so unique they don’t “tick all the eligibility boxes.” Instead, they’re exploring other options such as sponsorships with companies that align with their values.

For now, FAC relies on in-kind donations for printing services, food and beverages for receptions, and space rentals (OCAD University is a signature partner and hosts the festivals as well as committee meetings). Ticket sales (with pay-what-you-can options) and their annual Made by Feminists market at the Gladstone Hotel also brings in funds.

Despite budget constraints, FAC continues to grow. Submissions for the 2020 festival were up to 187 from 130 in 2017, coming in from Australia, South America, Europe, United States, and Canada. Ainslie says the political landscape has changed since their last conference in 2017 with the #MeToo movement encouraging people to talk openly about sexual harassment and gender inequality.

A voting committee of 11 people (artists, curators, activists, community members and academics) will select the final artists to participate at the festival, through a selection process that considers social justice issues, intersectionality, the collective’s mission and, of course, the strength of the art itself rather than the artist’s professional record.

Not Missing, Not Murdered by Amanda Amour-Lynx features the shirt the artist wore the night she was sexually assaulted. Photo: Black Umbrella Photography, Rebecca Tisdelle-Macias

With FAC serving as a spring board, past participants have gone on to show or perform their work in other venues and countries, collaborated with artists they met at FAC events, and even started conferences (see Black Futures Now and M.I.X.E.D) as well as a literary magazine (Living Hyphen).

Says Ainslie: “The world is a bit ridiculous and I hope people can come together and have some good conversations. We try our best to support the artists the way we can. We can’t always do that with funds but we can by creating a space where artists can build their CV and present work that may not be welcome anywhere else. We just want the best for all the artists involved.”

The Feminist Art Festival runs from March 5 to 7, 2020 in Toronto. Get your tickets here


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


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Our Voices

Meet Mithula Naik: Feminist Designer, Latent Entrepreneur

Mithula Naik

Mithula Naik was studying industrial design in Chennai, India, a city of eight million, when she observed that women roaring around town on motorcycles and scooters were wearing bulky, ill-fitting helmets. As the daughter of entrepreneurs, she immediately saw an opportunity to capitalize on her interest in gender and design. “I didn’t just want to take a pink-and-shrink approach to designing a new helmet line for women,” says the now 26-year-old. “I wanted to see how I could enable a better riding experience by designing a better fit. So I researched the particulars of how a woman’s head shape and size is different from a man’s and came up with a better helmet that is ergonomically suited.”

Convincing manufacturers to buy into her idea was not easy. “I had to go to several manufacturers. At first they didn’t think a different helmet for women was necessary, let alone sell,” she says. Eventually, India’s Vega Helmets decided to give the idea—and Naik—a try. And the product took off, launching in 2014.

Naik identifies as a feminist and a feminist designer. LiisBeth recently interviewed her to chat about growing up in India, feminism and how we can redefine entrepreneurship:

LiisBeth: What did your father and mother do for a living?

Naik: Both my parents are entrepreneurs. Both of them work in business. My mother runs a primary school and day care centre. It is based on a Montessori model of education, and goes from preschool/day care through to the fourth grade. Her school is now 35 years in operation. It’s not a large school; it has about 100 students. She prioritizes maintaining quality instead of franchising and expanding the school. My father runs a business for flooring and interiors, so he does granite, marble and interior-related work.

LiisBeth: As a person who’s growing up in an entrepreneurial family, what’s your perception of how entrepreneurship is viewed in India in general?

Naik: Entrepreneurship is understood in two very different ways in India. Firstly, there’s micro and small businesses, the mom-and-pop-shop kind. This kind isn’t considered so special and is often taken for granted because it’s what everyone does. It’s mainstream. A lot of people are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial because they have to be. It’s needs based and a well-known way of life.

The second kind is medium to large businesses. More recently, with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promoting “Make in India,” there came a new kind of entrepreneur. FlipKart’s largest ecommerce chain competes with Amazon. Ola Cabs, India’s very own online cab aggregator, competes with Uber. These are the newer more aggressive and high-growth-oriented entrepreneurship ventures.

But back to the small business world, the influence of family expectations plays a big role in how young people consider entrepreneurship as a career. Your grandfather had a shop. Your father expanded it to two shops, and now as the next in line, you’re taking it to the next level, either developing a third shop or looking to expand internationally with a higher growth mindset. This is the mindset maintained by many of my friends from India. Many go abroad, get international business degrees and then come back to manage and grow their family businesses.

Growing up I believed it was, in fact, harder to get a corporate job than start a business. The entrepreneurial family and the life that goes with it were familiar enough to me that I didn’t really think of it as a desirable career option. There was a certain amount of predictability to it. Also, there is a profound sense of responsibility of a different kind, in that you have to carry the foundations of what your parents have persevered for. I feel extremely fortunate because my parents never placed any expectations on my brother and me to take their businesses forward. They wanted us to dream our own dreams.

LiisBeth: I want to explore this idea a little bit more because I find it intriguing. You grew up in an entrepreneurial family, in an entrepreneurial culture, yet you thought a job would be a great idea.

Naik: Yes.

LiisBeth: [Stunned] Why is that?

Because entrepreneurship, as any career would, comes with its constraints. Just because you are the CEO doesn’t necessarily mean you will be making as much money as you could be working for someone else. A lot of Indians return to India after spending time in the west earning more working at a job than their families ever did owning a small business in India. But this is common as well, immigrating to the west for a higher socio-economic standard. Entrepreneurship is also a deep commitment and responsibility like I mentioned. Personally, I couldn’t see myself putting all my energy in my early 20s in building one business, in the same city I grew up in and having to stay on to build it for the rest of my life. And although that is an equally joyful and challenging journey I personally wanted to travel and experience what was out there, and I was very fortunate to be able to. The world is a smaller place these days.

My core skill is design, and I need to grow as a designer. I thought I could best accomplish this by working with a large company where I would have the opportunity to collaborate with talented people from multidisciplinary fields. Working in an organization and in teams to solve problems seemed to me to be a more attractive idea than jumping on one “big idea” I might have as an entrepreneur.

LiisBeth: Are women entrepreneurs respected in India?        

Naik: I’d say the idea of women entrepreneurs who are in business for themselves in India is not as common as it is in North America. A lot of Indian women pursue business training (MBA) but then are weighed down by family expectations to work in their family’s business or join the corporate workforce. The idea of an Indian woman having her own business where she has 100 per cent autonomy is something rather recent. However, the stereotype of Indian women entrepreneurs being married women who work alongside their husbands, or daughters working with their fathers, is slowly changing.

The changing scenario can be seen by looking at the many young Indian women today using the internet and social media platforms to start their own autonomous businesses. Facebook for Business, particularly for small and medium enterprises, I believe is thriving in India. Start-ups from women entrepreneurs seem to be currently concentrated in traditionally women-led industries such as cosmetics, accessories, fashion and confectionery, but I definitely see that women in India are waking up to starting their own enterprises in other areas.

LiisBeth: Are you a feminist?

Naik: I would surely consider myself a feminist.

LiisBeth: What does that mean to you?

Naik: I guess it’s just the radical idea that women and men are equal! [Laughs.] But seriously, if you have a belief in fundamental human rights, you need to be a feminist. I really loved this new idea I read about, where we should stop asking people if they are feminists. We should ask instead if they’re sexist because really, you’re sexist if you’re not a feminist. Unfortunately, people, including many women, don’t understand the true meaning of feminism. There are too many negative connotations people associate with it, which takes away the basic meaning of feminism.

LiisBeth: Tell us about your final master’s major research project.

Naik: My project is titled “Beyond the Economic: The Influence of Women Entrepreneurs in Canada.” In an exploration of women’s entrepreneurship in Canada, my project seeks to re-examine the stereotype of the male as the prime entrepreneurial role model. It does this by uncovering the distinct experiences of women entrepreneurs for the expansion of both economic growth and social impact.

LiisBeth: What did you find out?

Naik: My research shows that Canadian women entrepreneurs have a lot of experience negotiating between the two complex entrepreneurial systems of for-profit entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship to reveal a middle ground. As a result, they are quicker to adopt a vision of Canadian society wherein businesses do not act in conflict with the good of the people, but rather alongside it. Think, hybrid enterprises. However, my study calls for more research in the subject, as there’s still a lack of available data on women’s entrepreneurship when compared to men.

LiisBeth: Why study women entrepreneurs in Canada?

Naik: Initially, I wanted to learn about how women entrepreneurs work in a first world country like Canada compared to a developing country like India. I thought I might come away with a sense of the ideal Canadian woman entrepreneur archetype that might be useful, motivating and instructional when comparing them to other women entrepreneurs in other countries. Instead, I came away with a much more interesting finding. It turns out Canadian women entrepreneurs have had a long history of fusing social benefit with business—a little known fact from what I could see. That experience and knowledge seems to be highly undervalued here. They could serve as a role model to so many others around the world.

LiisBeth: Can you discuss one of your project’s recommendations?

Naik: My first recommendation is that we begin to understand “impact” in more ways than merely financial and fully value the contributions made by women-led ventures. Many of their ventures not only contribute to the economy in the form of jobs created and supplies purchased, they also lead the way in running enterprises that measurably improve society and the environment. More progressive enterprise valuation formulas based on a broader definition of economic contribution could lead to new funding mechanisms and unleash a horde of financially oppressed but growth-minded women entrepreneurs.

LiisBeth: Any ideas on how to measure the value of social and environmental contributions?

Naik: Sure. We can start by carrying over new and now generally accepted “social impact metrics” and put a dollar value to social benefit outcomes. The social finance space is pioneering new ways of measuring social value. And the non-profit sector has also developed many new methods for assessing social impact and converting them into monetary terms. All we have to do is carry this concept over into the for-profit, commercial-lending and investment spaces so that a blended value enterprise can gain access to higher levels of funding since their balance sheet would include these other assets. I think government banks like BDC (Business Development Bank of Canada) could play a lead role in this.

LiisBeth: Being new to Toronto, and Canada, what strikes you as the one thing that sets us apart from other countries?

Naik: Inclusivity. I know diversity is emphasized in many places, but you can be in a highly diverse space that is largely segregated and less inclusive. From what I have experienced, Canada as a country emphasizes inclusivity to a great extent. It allows people from all over the world to come together to produce great things regardless of their differences. This has surprised me on many occasions. In my experience so far, Canada looks at people’s inherent capacities, what they bring to the table and not the colour of their skin or where they come from.

LiisBeth: What’s next for Mithula?

Naik: I have been working with the Central Innovation Hub at the Privy Council Office and definitely looking forward to working on many more exciting projects. I’m using the tools of design thinking and social innovation to solve policy and service delivery challenges in the public sector. Can’t wait!