You are visiting Liisbeth’s archives! 

Peruse this site for a history of profiles and insightful analysis on feminist entrepreneurship. 

And, be sure to sign up for’s newsletter where Liisbeth shares the latest news in feminist spaces.

Feminist Practices

Soul Traits of Social Entrepreneurs

A mature white woman with purple glasses and middle bangs sits in front of a tree, looking upward
Madeleine Shaw, author, The Greater Good and co-founder of Aisle. Photo by Felicia Chang Photography

At the outset of the writing process for her first book, feminist entrepreneur Madeleine Shaw created a survey to better understand the motivations of her peers. In the 100+ responses that she received, she discerned a set of recurring patterns that she named ‘soul traits’. 

Liisbeth is pleased to share this exclusive full text chapter from The Greater Good: Social Entrepreneurship for Everyday People Who Want to Change the World.  Dig in!

I knew that I wanted this book to be about more than just my experience right from the get-go. I wanted to learn more about the other social entrepreneurs out there, to illustrate the fact that we can look and act in so many different ways, each with our own stories, gifts, and wisdom. My thinking was also that even if my story did not resonate with you, perhaps someone else’s might. Plus, these entrepreneurs and their journeys are just so inspiring. 

So, I wrote a simple survey and sent it out to my colleagues to gather more stories. I received close to one hundred responses and was stunned by the diversity of personal backgrounds, ventures, and depth of passion that they reflected. I was rewarded with some of the most poignant, thought-provoking, and deeply personal stories that I could imagine. There were stories from artists, parents, fitness professionals, sexual health educators, journalists, musicians, scientists, designers, accountants, academics, and more. I should add that they were almost all women, mostly from Canada and the United States, though I did get some wonderful responses from participants in France, the Netherlands, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Respondents ranged from college age to retirees. Although I did not ask about gender or sexual orientation (I did ask for pronouns), several mentioned that they were non-binary and/or queer, and I had many responses from people who made it clear that they were Black, Brown, Asian, or Indigenous.

Their ventures and projects ranged from creative fundraising initiatives to innovative lactation support products, from inclusive technology ventures to adaptive vehicles. If anything, it made me think that social entrepreneurship was a natural place for marginalized people. It stood to reason, I thought, that if you were looking to make the world a better place, folks who have been oppressed or excluded by traditional power systems would have fresh ideas for something different, better, and more humane.

One aspect that stood out for me was that the respondents did not start their careers as entrepreneurs. They became entrepreneurs, often reluctantly. This transformation was one of the most exquisite and fascinating parts of writing this book: learning how these everyday people had become motivated, accepted a challenge, acted on it, persevered, asked for help, failed, flourished, despaired, and celebrated. This is why I wanted them to be part of the book; I wanted readers to see that if these people could do what they did, so can any of us.

As someone who was raised on the “bigger is better” notion of scale when it comes to business or project aspirations (Go Big or Go Home! ), where the object is basically to get more of everything, the survey responses made me start to muse on the notion of lateral scale, or what I have come to call “radiance.” This is a multi-dimensional, proliferative concept of growth and impact, which I will share in greater depth later in the book. 

What I mean by this is, instead of looking at an individual business and wondering how to make it as big as possible, what if you looked at a demographic and wondered how to create as many ventures out of their ideas as possible? In other words, creating more enterprises of diverse sizes instead of fewer, bigger ones. How would these two strategies compare in the long run if our metrics of success were not just top-line growth, but also things like reduced greenhouse gas emissions and commuting hours, increased personal happiness, family well-being, job satisfaction and social innovation, among other, more humane metrics? This became my new obsession; what would the result be if these people and their ideas were actualized and supported? What if, alongside all the good things that these ventures would surely create, an entirely new way of thinking about the purpose of commerce and nature of growth also emerged?

In creating the survey, I had hoped to understand not only what had inspired people’s ideas but, vitally, what had motivated them to act on them. In reading people’s answers to the questions and in follow-up interviews, several recurring themes emerged, which I have come to think of as the key “soul traits” of social entrepreneurs and which I’d like to briefly highlight here. Many of these stories will appear at greater length later in the book—this is just a taste.

Perhaps you will recognize aspects of yourself in this list.


Social entrepreneurs are so creative! Because their premise in starting a project usually comes from a non-traditional place and they themselves often fall outside the traditional profile of a businessperson or entrepreneur, it’s not surprising that they generate such unique, innovative ideas and organizational models. Some respondents with traditional business education and experience said that they had needed to unlearn their previous ways of thinking, while others who did not have this experience said that they felt unencumbered by limiting beliefs and expectations, which allowed them to try new things and be less afraid of failure. 

Social entrepreneurs are by definition “redefiners,” in that they inherently question the accepted purpose of business-as-usual capitalism by putting the “social” part first. These folks go even further, though, coming up with their own definitions of goals, scale, profits, success, and more. What am I talking about? Have you ever heard the expression

“Together Everyone Achieves More” (TEAM)? The Five Ps of Marketing? The VUCA worldview? The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? There are endless examples of these buzzy business acronyms. But are they inherently true, or did someone, once upon a time, effectively make them up?

Let’s take as an example VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), a post-Cold War US Army term that was coined to describe the worldview of the day and has regained popularity in common business vernacular in recent years. My question about VUCA is not whether or not it’s true; it’s about whether or not the concept is helpful, motivating, or inspirational. Personally, it just makes me scared, and scared is not a great place for anyone to create from. Fear is often dismissed (“Choose love over fear!”), but it can, of course, be a sensible and highly valuable reaction in critical situations. Yet fear triggers the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism in the brain, which is not helpful for getting creative or making decisions.

In early 2015, Suzanne and I were asked to give a presentation to an audience of women entrepreneur clients of a major Canadian bank in Calgary, titled “Entrepreneurial Ingenuity in the Age of Constant Disruptive Change.” The Alberta economy was hard-hit at the time and the organizers were looking for practical, yet inspiring content. I had read up on VUCA while attending the THNK School of Creative Leadership, and although I got the concept, something about it left me feeling hopeless, depleted, and frazzled. How were we going to do what was being asked of us while staying true to ourselves? I decided that we needed to reframe VUCA in a more positive and constructive light. Here is what we came up with: CODE.

  • C = Colorful
  • O = Opportunity-rich
  • D = Diverse
  • E = Evolving

We often forget, in our never-ending quest to keep up with the latest lingo and concepts, that we have the ability to see what’s true for ourselves and express it in our own ways. Our audience loved CODE. Yes, we were saying, these are scary times. But what actually serves us when we think about that in terms of our personal worlds and businesses? CODE feels exciting while still acknowledging that the world is an unsettled place. 

Similarly, in response to the classic business concept coined by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras with the acronym BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal), I prefer to use “beautiful, healthy, achievable, generative” as my personal success metric.

I also came up with a cheeky reframing of the classic tech industry imperative “move fast and break things,” to “move purposefully and nurture things.”

True Grit

Social entrepreneurs with true grit have the patience, tenacity, and determination to persist, often in the face of immense challenges. Persistence, though unglamorous and underrated, is a common-sense ally for anyone trying to accomplish something that matters to them. I love the word grit; it has a raw, honest quality that related terms like persistence, commitment, and perseverance lack. Grit implies edge, messiness, and overcoming adversity—being “bloodied but unbowed,” to reference WE Henley’s 1888 poem “Invictus.” 

Note: Video below is approx. two minutes. 

In hindsight, when I think of every business book that I have read, precious few have offered even a shred of self-reflection about the idea that we do not all start from the same place in terms of access to resources and opportunities.

Grit acknowledges that there is a cost to our struggles, and that entrepreneurial success is not as simple as getting a challenge figured out and then reaping the rewards. Grit also reminds me of dirt, which is deeply resonant to me as a devoted gardener. You can’t grow plants in a garden without getting dirty, and you need to be unafraid of stretching yourself outside of your comfort zone in order to bring about something glorious. Patrice Mousseau is an Anishinaabe woman and journalist from the Fort William First Nation in Ontario. When we initially met, she was in the earliest stages of growing her line of homegrown organic skincare products from a side hustle to a fully commercial business, and in the years since I have been humbled to witness the challenges she has overcome as a businessperson, racialized woman, and single mother. She shared with me how often people suggest that her success is due to the fact that she is Indigenous and, as such, supposedly enjoys considerations not available to her white counterparts. This form of judgment serves to undermine the very real, sustained efforts she had to make to build her business in the face of multiple layers of oppression. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to repeatedly confront systemic bias as you build your venture, only to be told that you effectively don’t deserve the success that you achieve in spite of it.

In hindsight, when I think of every business book that I have read, precious few have offered even a shred of self-reflection about the idea that we do not all start from the same place in terms of access to resources and opportunities. I can’t recall an example of one that explores the notion that for some of us, just getting out of bed in the morning (or even having a bed, for that matter) is not necessarily a given. Building our projects will not be an easy, flower-lined road of yeses and large cheques. The grit required by people who are used to being underestimated in regular life will likely be doubly so as they undertake to bring their visions to life. Such people are the ones we collectively have the most to learn from.

Making Lemonade

“If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” I am borrowing this classic adage that points to using personal trauma or adversity as creative fuel. This was one of the most common themes expressed by the entrepreneurs I interviewed, and also the most moving. Some of these people literally brought me to tears with their stories of courage and resilience in the face of unimaginable hardship.

Mary Letson is a perfect example. Following her recovery after a harrowing journey with breast cancer, she wanted to give back to others by raising funds for supplemental treatment and supports not covered by health insurance (including massage, physiotherapy, wig fitting, acupuncture, supplements, and meal delivery), which she credits with making a huge difference to her recovery. In addition to wanting to give others in her community undergoing cancer treatment the “extras” she’d had the privilege of being able to access, she also wanted to transform her relationship to the disease that had taken so much from her and redefine the notion of being a survivor to something, in her eyes, more empowered. 

A lifelong sports enthusiast, she hit on the idea of creating an annual fundraising swim event on the island where she lives in British Columbia, not only as a way to raise the funds but to assert herself in this new, post-survivor role. To date, she and her SwimBowen Society team have raised over $50,000 and reshaped a grueling journey for herself while benefiting dozens of others confronting their versions of it.

Gifts from the Margins

Part of this ability means using the unique perspectives brought about by being outside the dominant culture to inspire new ideas and insights. Lemonade makers’ ideas are unique and valuable because they are outsiders, not in spite of it.

The phrase “gifts from the margins” relates to a story that Suzanne and I often tell as part of the Lunapads/Aisle story. As much as the brand has been praised for its prescient embrace of transgender and non-binary individuals as part of its intersectional feminist values, the understanding and commitment did not come immediately for us on a personal level. 

Initially, despite the persistent championing of the issue by a key team member (who later came out to us as non-binary), we hesitated about making significant changes to our language and product designs to be more explicitly inclusive of this “fringe” group. This was on the grounds that we had limited resources and needed to allocate them to our larger group of cisgender (people who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth) customers. The team member patiently persisted. Coming to see the sense in their perspective as we became more educated, we gradually let go of our old fears and committed to removing gendered language from the website and developing a gender-inclusive product in the form of a boxer brief-style period undergarment. 

Until that point, all of our styles had been traditionally feminine, with color choices leaning that way as well. It took us almost two years to develop the boxer brief, yet when we finally launched the product in early 2016, it was far and away our most successful product launch in the company’s history. In case you’re thinking, as I did, “Wow, there are a lot more gender non-conforming folks out there than I thought,” give your head a shake.

What the launch numbers showed us wasn’t just that trans customers were buying the boxer brief; it was that everyone was. So much for thinking that the dominant majority is who you want to cater to—it turned out that the needs of marginalized people were actually pointing the way to the future

Lots of marginalized and underrepresented people showed up to share their stories in the survey: people who felt like they didn’t fit in as traditional customers, consumers, or citizens; immigrants, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and Indigenous people; those with uncommon skill sets, ways of thinking and interests, who see that just because something is missing in the market, it doesn’t mean that the world doesn’t need it. It’s more like an indicator of who has been in charge up to that point, who has decided what normal is, and whose voices and values are included . . . or not.

Stronger Together

This trait involves not assuming or embracing an ego-driven, individualistic entrepreneurial persona. Instead, it means asking for help, working collaboratively, and building community. My respondents had great ideas to make their own lives better but also wanted to make life better for others, and often created new structures to embrace or celebrate these people. They defy the traditional “lone wolf ” entrepreneurial stereotype. 

Given that the point of their enterprises is some form of shared social impact or equity, it makes sense that they would instinctively include others while building generosity and diversity into their leadership styles and the DNA of their ventures.

The largest-scale version of this that I can speak to personally is SheEO founder Vicki Saunders. Most entrepreneurs—even social entrepreneurs—build their ventures in order to serve a specific need or market gap, not to change something systemic. SheEO is a response to the fact that women are so drastically underserved and underrepresented in the business and entrepreneurial worlds. It exists to offer a new solution, one based on our needs and values. 

SheEO companies 2016 including Lunapads, Abeego, Skipper Otto, Magnus Mode, Twenty One Toys.

As I’ve watched her leadership over the years, Vicki  (at the far left in the image above) has ceaselessly sought to elevate and make space for racialized and transgender women and those marginalized in other ways, both within her team and in the broader community. Beyond this, she embraces a distributed, non-hierarchical leadership model, all while exhibiting remarkable humility.

Impact is the New Black

This one may seem obvious given that the book is about social entrepreneurship, but it’s worth noting that impact is not just a nice-to-have for these folks; it’s their entire rationale and, as such, is an immense source of inspiration, energy, creativity, and drive.

My longtime colleague Amy Robinson typifies this soul trait. A lifelong environmentalist, she saw an opportunity to elevate the cause of supporting grassroots economic sustainability through education, awareness, and advocacy. She created LOCO BC, a vast network of sustainable small businesses located in the Greater Vancouver area that hosts events and encourages consumers to shop locally whenever possible. LOCO’s research has been used to advocate for small businesses by groups across BC and in the rest of Canada and has resulted in more support from local city councils, as well as increased awareness from consumers.

Impact Is Also the New Currency

Given the current vogue for scalable businesses, it was surprising that financial scale as a motivation took a firm back seat to impact for my interviewees. What motivates them is the particular change they can make and taking it as far as they can, rather than just being big for bigness’ sake. Further to that, scale of any variety beyond basic success (as defined by being effective and sustainable, as opposed to scalable) did not seem to be a hugely motivating factor. The biggest incentive for many was simply wanting to give it a try, with impact as the driver for taking the plunge.

Willingness to Transform

This trait means being willing to change key self-perceptions in order to realize your vision. It goes beyond just getting outside your comfort zone; for many respondents, taking on their projects entailed significant personal transformation.

At Groundswell, Vancouver’s alternative business school, they often talk about “nurturing entrepreneurs from the inside out,” meaning that in order to start a venture, you first need to build a new sense of self. Many of the respondents to my survey needed to do some major mental and emotional shapeshifting to get their heads around starting a venture and did so with great success.

Margaret Magdesian, a Brazilian-born, Quebec-based biotech entrepreneur with a PhD in biochemistry, started Ananda Devices to maximize the impact of the research she was doing around increasing the speed and safety of animal-free drug testing through nanotechnology. Initially daunted by the idea of starting and running a company instead of being a successful laboratory scientist, she nevertheless persisted, fueled by the realization that if she did not take this step, the opportunity that the technology represented might never be fully realized.

Among the survey respondents, I heard stories from singers, videographers, marine biologists, fitness trainers, scientists, journalists and more, all of whom courageously made the leap from their chosen career path and identity into the world of social entrepreneurship. It was not always easy or comfortable, yet they let their desire to change the world override their fears and self-limiting beliefs to move their ideas forward.

Honouring Your Calling

This phrase kept popping into my head so persistently that even though few of the respondents actually used this language, I knew that I had to include it. Other words for “calling” include vision, intuition, emergence, or whatever way you choose to express non-linear forms of knowing that someone was somehow meant to do a certain thing. I have heard it characterized as a small inner voice, “just knowing,” or as a series of signs, coincidences, or events that consistently and irresistibly pointed to a particular idea.

Sabrina Rubli, founder of Femme International, a non-governmental organization that uses menstrual and reproductive health education to empower women and girls in East Africa, shared the following with me as an example:

“I have always been passionate about women’s rights and women’s health. For me, using my skills and ability to empower women was not a question—I feel like it is my responsibility. Once I had the idea for Femme in my head, it was all I could think about, and I dove in headfirst.”

Dancing With the Demons

Demons that can arise as you begin a new venture include imposter syndrome, fear of failure, and profound self-doubt. I call it dancing rather than slaying, because many respondents found ways to be with their demons instead of trying to vanquish them. This key insight is more about making peace with yourself than trying to crush a part of you that may not actually need to be crushed for you to move forward.

Personally speaking, this is one of my biggest challenges. No matter how much experience and “success” I have under my belt, believing in myself is still hard to do consistently. Self-doubt is one of the more persistent and pervasive issues that came up for the entrepreneurs that I surveyed, especially for marginalized people. What is clear to me about these people is that although their demons came at them full force, they grappled/danced with them and carried on. They did not let the demons win, which would have meant these brave souls never trying to realize their dreams in the first place.

Their other piece of courage was having the humility and vulnerability to admit that they struggled at all. I can think of very few examples of a white, male business leader speaking openly about self-doubt or fear of failure. I wonder whether they actually do experience this and just don’t talk about it, or whether they are, in fact, so sure of themselves that it never occurs to them to question their abilities.

For Elizabeth Sheehan—the creator of ClimateSmart, a climate impact assessment tool for businesses—fear showed up as self-doubt, my personal Fear CEO. Internal voices would persistently question her ability to lead. “I had this crazy pattern where if things were

challenging, the voice said that I was responsible and wasn’t smart enough or doing whatever task at hand right,” she shared with me.

“I had to train myself (a work in progress) to curate a more welcoming and spacious attitude toward the inevitable ups and downs of a social venture.” Whatever fear may look like for you, know that you’re far from alone and that it’s a natural internal response to th fact that you’re considering taking on something you have likely never done before. We’ll get much deeper into this topic later in the book and explore creative and compassionate tools for dealing with it constructively.

Before moving on, take a moment to consider how these soul traits land for you. Do you identify with any of them? Did they inspire more traits to add to this list? Perhaps you can already sense which of your innate qualities may be emerging as you consider taking next steps to express your vision for a better world.

The Greater Good: Social Entrepreneurship for Everyday People Who Want to Change the World can be purchased here.  

Additional Resources:  Check out this video recording of the Oct. 14 2021 event on the current state of social enterprise in Canada. The event was organized and  sponsored by Ryerson University’s  Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH). It includes a powerful keynote talk by Dr. Tina Dacin, a presentation by Tori Williamson on Buy Social Canada followed by a stellar panel including Natasha Freidus, Needslist, Hermine Mbondo, B4Brand, Ann Jameison, Social Enterprise Council of Canada and of course, Madeleine Shaw, Aisle. The panel was moderated by pk mutch, founder of LiisBeth Media. 

Related Reading

Activism & Action

By Refugee Women, with Love

The Sitti Soap team at the Women’s Centre in Al Jerash Refugee Camp, Gaza.
(Photo provided by Sitti Soap)

Noora Sharrab and Jacqueline Sophia are co-founders of Sitti Soap, a social enterprise that educates, employs and empowers women from the Jerash “Gaza” refugee camp in Jordan, by bringing lifestyle products such as hand-pressed olive oil soaps created by refugee artisans to North America. LiisBeth recently spoke to the cofounders about their venture.

LiisBeth: How did you both come to work with the refugee community in the Jerash camp?

Jacqueline Sophia: I’d come to Jordan in 2011 as a Fulbright fellow. Initially, I was there to take on a very academic approach to my time, looking at the third-party response to gender-based violence in the capital. That quickly changed. I had experienced a lot of pushback and cultural barriers to those conversations. It was and still is a very taboo topic. But in the meantime, a friend of mine put me in touch with someone who was working with the refugee community in Jerash camp. They had known I had a background working with the refugee community resettled in Baltimore City during my time at university. They said, why don’t you go to this community? They’re looking for a volunteer yoga instructor. And so, I contacted them and I said I’d be happy to volunteer.

Noora Sharrab: My parents were born in Gaza. I was born in Dubai, and I grew up here in Canada. When I decided to do my master’s program, I actually went and did my primary research in Jordan. And that’s where I dived right in with the refugee community. I did a specialization in refugee and forced migrations. I was really interested in learning more about Palestinian refugees. And as a Palestinian myself and as someone who didn’t grow up in a refugee camp, I was really interested in what it was like to identify being Palestinian but living out of a camp compared to someone who was a Palestinian but happened to live in a diaspora. 

LiisBeth: What inspired you to create Sitti?

Jacqueline Sophia: We had yoga classes [at the camp] and I got to really know the community that way. Over time, the women and I would begin to work on different enterprise ideas. They really wanted to earn more steady income for their families. And I think they saw me as a link to the market that existed for them outside of the camp—I was always coming back and forth from the capital Amman, and so we started working on different enterprise ideas.

We explored the idea of Palestinian embroidery, and selling that in the form of different clothing items. But it was very labour intensive—it took a lot of time and it was hard to control the quality. We were also looking at food production for a while, but that didn’t work out so well. Then one day, one of the women in the camp said she wanted to show me something. She opened the door, and there was this amazing smell of lavender. It was some 300 bars of olive oil soap.

Essentially what happened was the Italian embassy came in and did a soap making workshop with these women. But the embassy taught this workshop and then left, and so the women had all this soap and didn’t know how to market or sell it. In the meantime, I was introduced to Noora and she was doing the exact same thing with another group of women in the same camp. So we were like, let’s just work together.

Noora Sharrab:  It’s very common among development agencies and international agencies—they will come into these refugee communities, they’ll do this big workshop, this big training, and then they’ll leave. So you have these women who ended up being skilled, and it’s really hard for them to take it on from there. We know 8 out of 10 businesses that start end up failing within the first two years because they don’t have the right support, the mentorship and the capital. The resources available are very limited, let alone for a refugee trying to do this.

Sitti soap gift set

LiisBeth: What was the process of building Sitti?

Noora Sharrab: Shortly after we partnered up, we launched a women’s centre slash soap workshop because these women were making soap out of their homes. We wanted to be able to control the environment and control production and the manufacturing process, so we had to build a separate, dedicated area. We ended up creating a centre out of an existing home in the camp because we also wanted to make sure we remained in the camp—if we were to leave it would make it difficult for the women to access because commuting back and forth would be an added cost for them. We didn’t want to have them worry about that.

Shortly after we launched the women’s centre, I relocated back to Canada because I was having my second child and I wanted to be closer to family. At the same, Jackie also ended up moving out of Jordan. But both of us were like, we can’t stop this project because we both left. So we brought it [the business] with us. When I came to Canada, I ended up registering the company as an LLC.

Jacqueline Sophia: As for our team, there’s two employees on the ground in Jordan—Sophia is our regional manager and she oversees quality control. Amina is the facilities manager. And then we have our nine female artists and soap makers. They are a mix of regular employees, and then we have several part-time staff. The regular employees receive a regular salary every single month, and the part-time employees work on a project by project basis.

LiisBeth: What have been some of the challenges of working within a refugee camp?

Noora Sharrab: I don’t want to generalize all families and all communities because they’re not all the same, but there continues to be cultural sensitivities—to not have the woman out after dark or to limit them from travelling to the city. Some of them still need permission to be able to work and to be able to go to school to be able to go out. So, you still have that dynamic where having that male counterpart is important. When we first started the workshop, and we had recruited some artisans, it was very important for us to get family approval for these women. Not in a sense like they need permission, but we wanted their families to feel comfortable and to feel like their daughters, their mothers, their wives were coming into a safe space.

For us—Jacqueline and I—we were seen as these foreigners who came in and opened the centre. And even though I am Palestinian, and I am originally from Gaza, and from an identity perspective, I could relate—I’m still that foreigner that lived abroad, that spoke differently, that wasn’t part of the community from that sense. So building the trust and building that credibility and transparency in the community was fundamental.

LiisBeth: Why did you choose to work with women refugees?

Noora Sharrab: When Jackie and I came together, we realized that this was not about the soap. This was about the resiliency of these women who—for some of them—it was the first time they ever got a job. Some were the sole breadwinners of their family, supporting eight to 10 people. It was like this one woman deciding, I’m not going to sit here in poverty. I want to do something about it. So, for us, we didn’t see the soap as the soap itself, we saw it as more than that.

Sitti continues to be about a mission that is about education, employment and empowerment. It’s about creating self-reliance for these women who for their entire lives have had to depend on aid and charity. How could we change that dynamic? How could we empower them?

LiisBeth: How has the pandemic impacted Sitti?

Jacqueline Sophia: I think this transition may have been easier for us than for some. We already had those communication pathways established as a remote team, so it wasn’t difficult to act quickly. We weren’t in a position where we had to say, how are we going to talk to each other on a weekly basis? So that was not difficult.

The difficulty [has been] that with a social enterprise, you don’t tend to have a lot of runway in place, and so when you experience a sudden socioeconomic downturn like we’ve experienced with a pandemic, you have to triage. Our concern, first and foremost, was our staff in Jordan, specifically in the camp. Priority number one was to ensure that they had enough income, enough wages to help support themselves and their families because as soon as the pandemic happened and the socioeconomic collapse happened, those women were the only breadwinners, they were the only wage earners in their families. So we worked with our online network of consumers and different partner organizations. We worked with another women-owned business in Canada, and we created a crowdfunding campaign to bring in enough funds to provide relief kits essentially to over 170 families in the camp who are most in need.

LiisBeth: What’s next for Sitti?

Jacqueline Sophia: We have a whole lifestyle product line that includes 10 or more products at any given moment, so soap is not the only thing we sell. That being said, it is what we do best. And so, at a time like this, it’s important for not just the refugee community, but for the global community to be very aware of the public-health concerns that include washing your hands every day. These are things that we’re certainly elevating in our messaging, and we’re working with other corporate partners and corporate clients too—to help them spread that message.

Most people in refugee communities are not earning a steady salary. They’re certainly not earning benefits. And there are structural barriers in place to prevent that from happening. As a company there are only so many things we can provide to our employees because of their refugee status. So, what we’re trying to do is encourage people who are willing to purchase our goods right now by saying, if you’re in a position where you can financially support us as a customer, maybe you can also support us from a charitable perspective. So, at checkout, for instance, can you offer an extra dollar towards a support fund for our employees?

We’re also working to release a crowdfunding campaign [later] this year that will serve several purposes. First of all, it will serve the immediate needs—as in the next 12 months or so. It’s meant to bring in the capital that we’ll need in order to kind of cushion the blow of the economic downturn, and provide wage support for all of our employees to help them continue to help the business continue to run at a reduced capacity.

Jacqueline Sophie: [The campaign will] support additional operational costs for us to pivot the business and create new products to bring to market that will be awesome. It will set us up for success when things do eventually bounce back.

LiisBeth: That’s awesome. Good luck with your venture and your campaign!

Did you enjoy and find value in this article?  Please consider helping us publish more of them!  LiisBeth is an indie, womxn-led/owned media outlet.  We depend 100% on reader donations.  Please consider a contribution today!

[direct-stripe value=”ds1577108717283″]

Related articles

Transformative Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to Embrace the Old—And Make It New Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Ignore Successful Models?

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

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

Why don’t traditional investors like co-operatives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support LiisBeth


You will have access to Payments processed through PayPal.


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

Related Reading

Activism & Action Feminist Practices

Brewing Up A Revolution


Annabel Kalmar, Founder, Tea Rebellion,  Photo by PC Foo

Annabel Kalmar learned first-hand how hard it is for farmers to earn fair prices for their products. As a student of agriculture economics in the late 1990s, she harvested coffee in the fields of the Dominican Republic, interviewing farmers along the way. The experience sparked a passion for changemaking.

“I wanted to help farmers get access to a different way to market,” explains the German-born entrepreneur, who went on to work in microfinance with the World Bank, earn an MBA at the London School of Business, and work in the UK as a business strategist.

Recently, she pivoted to entrepreneurship as a means for changemaking. After moving to Toronto with her husband and three children in 2017, Kalmar launched Tea Rebellion. Her idea—two decades in the steeping—is to disrupt the way tea is traditionally marketed, traded, and consumed. By buying and selling single-source, direct-trade tea, her company creates economic opportunities for several female-led farms in developing countries, takes an active role in community building, and supports organic farming methods.

But Kalmar’s ambitions aren’t just altruistic. She grew up in Germany drinking loose-leaf black tea, but what she tasted of London tea culture failed to impress.

“I was always disappointed with what was in front of me,” says Kalmar, explaining that mass-produced teas are typically blended from multiple sources, then finely ground and packaged in bags. What ends up in the cup, she contends, is undrinkable without sugar and milk.

As a student of agriculture economics, Kalmar had seen how new trade models transformed chocolate, coffee, and wine. Educated consumers came to appreciate—and pay more for—flavours associated with particular regions, ensuring that growers of those premium products are fairly compensated.

“A lot of people learn about wine, but they know nothing about tea,” says Kalmar. “I wanted to bring that knowledge and appreciation of the origins to more tea drinkers.”

With Tea Rebellion, she intends to shake up the status quo. “I’m not just selling tea.”

Instead of participating in the commodity markets in tea-growing countries—many with roots in colonialism—Kalmar initially sought out fair-trade certified suppliers. Since her World Bank days, she knew the certification system could improve working conditions on farms by setting standards for fair pay and ethical treatment of producers. She reached out to Fair Trade Canada and began contacting farmers.

To her surprise, farmers were not saying, “Oh great, let’s do fair trade,” remembers Kalmar. “The farms I talked to said it’s too difficult. It creates additional costs. There is too much bureaucracy.”

Rather, the farmers—even some fair-trade certified producers—pointed to direct trade as a preferred alternative.

Both fair trade and direct trade have their places, according to Kalmar. They may create similar results in some cases, but they start with different goals.

Fair trade aims to improve the lives of farmers by setting ethical and environmental standards and creating transparency. Certification establishes minimum prices to ensure farmers are paid fairly. Incidentally, fair-trade standards may also improve the quality of the end product.

Tracey Mahr, tea lover and fellow traveler to Kanchanjangha, Dunbar Kumari, founding mother of the tea cooperative, and Annabel Kalmar, founder of Tea Rebellion /Photo by Nichsal Banskota


The goal of direct trade is to bring premium products to market. This model allows farmers to differentiate their products and charge prices that are typically higher than the minimums set in fair-trade systems. Higher prices will almost certainly improve the lives of farmers.

Kalmar dug into the research and discovered that many consumers are confused by a recent proliferation of certifications, which influenced her decision to change her strategy to direct trade.

Tea Rebellion now buys from six farms around the world: Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, Nepal, Kenya, and Malawi. That allows Tea Rebellion to work with smaller, socially minded farms—not just those that are scaled to afford a fair-trade certification process.

The direct relationship means there is no middleman; Kalmar can visit frequently to influence the end product and the social impact of the farm.

In Nepal, Kalmar helped raise CAD$10,000 to build a primary school for the children of workers living on the tea farm. The school will save some 30 children from walking several hours over rough terrain to attend school, which improves attendance and frees parents to work consistently.

In Malawi, Kalmar chose to buy from a farm that provides health care infrastructure for the community surrounding the farm. In Japan, where chemical farming methods have historically been the norm, Tea Rebellion works with a pioneer of organic farming.

In three of the six farms she buys from, Kalmar has formed close partnerships with women in leadership positions, strengthening their positions in what has been a male-dominated business. She didn’t initially set out to work with female-led farms, but she found that in developing countries where language or gender created barriers, she was able to form better relationships with farms where women led.

For example, in Taiwan, Kalmar works with Ai Fang, one of two daughters involved at Jhentea, a family-owned farming operation. Ai Fang has worked in the family business since the age of 18, learning the art and science of tea growing, processing, packaging, and brewing from her mother.

Kuei Fang and Annabel Kalmar, Yilan Country, Photo by Ai Fang

According to Jhentea’s website, the company was founded by a man in the early 19th century, but a marital split in the mid-20th century left a woman in charge. She was the first female tea master in the region, and ever since the farm has been passed down to female family members. Ai Fang’s daughter, Valencia, who is now learning about tea, represents the next generation.

In Shizuoka, Japan, the Kinezuka family operates NaturaliTea, a cooperative of farmers. Though the farm’s formal leaders are men, Kalmar formed a direct business relationship with one of male founder’s two daughters, including Tamiko Kinezuka, who manages the farm’s tea processing and is responsible for quality control. That relationship has been beneficial to her career.

“In Japan, the tea industry is still overwhelmingly controlled by older men at all levels, from the farms to the markets,” Kinzuka explains. “Some of this is changing as younger generations take over, but the shift is very slow. Working with someone like Annabel allows us to demonstrate the unique contributions that we can make, and prove our commitment to rejuvenating a stagnating industry.”

Kalmar loves to share the stories of growers she works with, shining a spotlight on tea producers through Tea Rebellion’s packaging, website, and social media. When tea drinkers know more about growers, growing methods, and the country of origin, they can learn to appreciate the difference between the chocolatey undertone of a black tea from the high mountains of Nepal, and the bright and floral flavour of a black tea grown in Taiwan. Says Kalmar, “I want to help people develop their palates.”

By telling the tale behind each tea, Tea Rebellion also shares power with farmers. They can then develop recognizable brands, creating a rationale for higher prices, which injects more money and investment into their communities.

Kalmar has a vision that would connect tea growers and tea drinkers, as well as put Tea Rebellion on the tips of tongues everywhere. She would like to rival a global brand like Twinings as the “go-to” for tea drinkers, and source tea in many more tea-growing countries.

For now, Kalmar is bootstrapping her business growth, investing her own funds, working from home, and depending on interns to lend a hand. Her website lists 24 types of tea (you can order direct) and she sells to some 25 retailers, most of them in Toronto. Prices are similar to other premium brands, though competing North American labels such as Tease and David’s Tea don’t promise single-sourced products.

Kalmar’s goals include hiring a team and marketing her brand at tea festivals and conferences around the world. That will require a significant investment, and she’s gearing up to present her idea to investors.

But the ultimate goal is to build prosperous tea farms. “If I can build a sustainable business with Tea Rebellion, I can support these farms for the next 10, 20, 30 years,” she says. “And that’s really what I want.”

LiisBeth is women-owned/led. We support womxn founders, advocate for diversity, inclusion and economic inclusion, plus encourage emerging writers. Was this article of value to you? Consider helping us publisher more! [direct-stripe value=”ds1554685140411″]



This article was sponsored by Startup Here Toronto.

Related Reading

Activism & Action

Does Your Enterprise Meet The Feminist Business Standard?

Connected Living-Stocksy Photo


Stocksy, the Vancouver-based stock photography seller, has an unusual approach to growth. It limits the number of artists it represents on its website. The reason: the company wants to make sure there’s enough business for every artist to make a living.

And that’s not the only way Stocksy has embraced a different way of doing business. It also distributes ownership shares to managers, founders, employees and artists, and all members of the company participate in decision-making.

This business represents a new category of activist entrepreneurs who deploy the full scope of their enterprise to drive social change, in Stocksy’s case, through revenue distribution, ownership and decision-making. The company embodies a feminist approach to business, and other social enterprises, interested in achieving their goals, have much to learn from this particular model.

True, social enterprises and feminist businesses have much in common. They both use the tools of commerce — especially products and revenues — to pursue social good. They both seek to address problems – reducing pollution caused by manufacturing, for example, or increasing access to capital in low-cash economies — by innovating and doing business differently.  And, both tend to be led by people who want to put their values into practice.

But feminist businesses, like Stocksy, pursue their goals of equity both inside and outside their organizations. They practice the changes they seek day-to-day through their purchasing, product development, marketing, and even accounting; and they pursue social justice at every step so that their companies help transform on every level the social, political and economic systems in which they operate.

Unfortunately, many social enterprises focus only on external change. They imagine that their greatest effectiveness comes from generating revenue to support services, selling products people deeply need, creating opportunities for underserved groups, and so on. While social enterprises seek to help others become self-sufficient, healthier, or more sustainable, they overlook opportunities within their direct control to help their organizations innovate for themselves. That’s how we get enterprises that teach aid recipients to be empowered but don’t allow employees to design their own workflows. Or enterprises that give product away for free but pressure their suppliers for rock-bottom prices that leave suppliers struggling to meet payroll.

Too many social enterprises also pursue change in a gender-blind, race-blind way. They assume that economic empowerment can be achieved without addressing racism, or that sustainability can be implemented without addressing the gender dynamics that determine, for example, who would take on the extra work of recycling. What’s worse is that when social enterprises pursue specific positive social changes without seeking broader, systemic social justice, they actually undermine their own efforts. With one hand they are earnestly trying to fix some problem caused by economic or social structures, while the rest of their processes permit these structures to continue causing damage.

Another Vancouver-based company, Lunapads has built inclusive gender practices into its DNA. The company, which sells natural products to manage menstrual flow and bladder leakage, offers an explicitly trans-inclusive work culture and provides both maternity and paternity leave.

At the same time that Lunapads pursues the specific goal of transforming people’s experiences of their periods through the use of Lunapads’ products, the company pursues a larger social justice mission: to help all people have healthier relationships with their bodies. Lunapads not only addresses gender injustice, by reinforcing trans-inclusion in its marketing copy, but also uses its products and marketing messages to promote body confidence, candor and positivity. All of this is directed towards a social justice goal of ending gendered social shame around menstruation, postpartum needs, and incontinence.

Feminist businesses know that any company that isn’t consciously pursuing social justice is reinforcing a damaging system. There is no neutral. Even the most well-meaning social enterprises may fail to pursue social justice even as they try to promote specific social good. For example, we see companies provide warm coats to the homeless but fail to pay a living wage to the women who clean the company’s conference rooms. Or social enterprises that reduce waste by recycling plastic, but waste talent by not promoting women, and men of colour, into their top management teams. Or online marketplaces that help indigenous craftspeople find customers but hoard for their shareholders the additional revenue generated by advertisers on the site.

Social entrepreneurs can follow the example of feminist businesses and make social justice part of their overarching purpose.  Working with tools like the Feminist Business Model Canvas (FBMC), social entrepreneurs can systematically ask themselves whether and how each element of their business might be redesigned to improve the relationships between different social groups participating in their networks.  And instead of focusing only on their output — their products and services — as opportunities to drive change, they can harness the enormous power for change potentially available inside their very organizations.

If 2016’s political events (Trump, Brexit) taught us anything, it is that despite all the efforts to advance social justice and the incredible investments in social enterprises, social entrepreneurship, social innovation, and corporate social responsibility programming world-wide, since the introduction of then radical ‘hybrid” enterprise legal form (Community Interest Company in the UK in 2005), growth of the Skoll Forum for social enterprise, plus countless books, social enterprise incubators, and media showers, the needle did not move nearly far or fast enough for most.

We need new tools in the tool kit. And from where we sit, the next radical move for those who wish to use the power of business to catalyze social change is to embrace feminism, feminist business practice and feminist leadership principles.

CV Harquail, PhD, co-founder of FeministsAtWork, teaches entrepreneurship at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.  She is a facilitator at the April 28 workshop, “Beyond Social Enterprise: Feminist Business Model Design Jam.” Read more from CV Harquail here


Publisher’s Note: The Centre for Social Innovation, in partnership with feminist business publisher Liisbeth, is sponsoring a full-day workshop April 28 in Toronto that will demonstrate how all enterprises with social goals can benefit from the feminist business model and by using tools such as the Feminist Business Model Canvas (FBMC). You’re invited to experiment with these strategies, and learn how to build social change into every business node and every relationship in your value networks — including and especially inside your own organization. The sessions take place, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Center for Social Innovation Annex, 720 Bathurst St., Toronto, ON. To register, go to (put in link). Tickets: $95 Early  Bird. $150, General. You can register or learn more here. Questions, email .

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!