After yet another teaching assignment in a tough inner-city neighbourhood, I was burned out and took a stress leave. Two weeks in, I joined the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), a co-working space and community launch pad for those who prioritize people and the planet over profits. It was June of 2015. I had just turned 40. And I vowed not to put up with stressful, health-damaging work. I decided it was time to turn my part-time gig at Move-N-Music into the full-time venture I’d always wanted it to be: a social enterprise that uses arts, culture, and creativity to promote mind-body wellness.
When I walked through the doors of CSI in the Annex community of Toronto, the smell of coffee, buzz of energy, and lively conversations hit me so fast I immediately felt at home. Two years prior, I had taken my first real leave of absence to test the waters of entrepreneurship and joined a co-working space designed for artists. The space itself was lovely, peaceful, and beautiful, but the people were rarely there. This didn’t give me what I needed, which was networking and skill development to help me take Move-N-Music to the next level.
At the CSI orientation session, participants ranged in age from 30 to 60, came from diverse backgrounds, and had a wide range of projects, many of which focused on solving ecological problems. One person stood out the most: Emily Rose Antflick. She was tall with long red hair and a down-to-earth demeanour. She talked about a secular girl’s coming-of-age celebration called G-Day, which she helped organize in Vancouver and wanted to bring to Toronto. “Wow,” I told her. “That’s a great idea.” As we chatted more, we discovered we both loved dance and were birthing new—and as yet undefined—enterprises that could be life changing, for ourselves and those we served.
Over the summer I had taken an online course called Feminine Power that helped me build some of the inner structures I needed to create powerful and lasting change in my life and business, such as confidence, faith, resolve, and commitment. But I also needed outer structures like a physical workspace with people who shared similar values and could provide networking, mentoring, and learning opportunities. From that, my hope was to get work and a sense of belonging. Thanks to CSI, I came across exactly what I was looking for: Shecosystem, Antflick’s start-up.
Antflick’s vision for Shecosystem was a bricks-and-mortar co-working, wellness, and mentorship space for women entrepreneurs, essentially a feminist version of CSI. Before investing in a physical building, Antflick decided to start Shecosystem in the form of bi-weekly meetups to grow a supportive community of entrepreneurial women who value work-life integration. Why? Antflick had noticed during business conferences that women were feeling burned out and isolated from working alone. She came to believe that women—and our businesses—flourish when we are part of an inspiring, interconnected, professional ecosystem that nurtures our whole selves. So she set out to design an ecosystem that would speak to women on our terms, that would help us grow, thrive, and redefine the dominant business paradigm. I immediately wanted to join.
On a sunny fall day, I attended an inaugural meetup and joined a full table of businesswomen with diverse expertise, passions, and experience. Some wore suits, others jeans and yoga pants. They ranged from late 20s to 50s and beyond. As each woman shared what she could offer and what she needed to grow her business, it was clear there was a profound desire to connect and help each other.
Antflick had conceived of Shecosystem intuitively, sensing that women entrepreneurs needed something different. But she knew she would not create that perfect thing in a tidy business plan designed to snag venture capital. Rather, she would take things one step at a time, drawing on the concepts of permaculture design to build her enterprise and help other women grow theirs.
Permaculture is a creative design process based on whole-systems thinking that embraces diversity and mimics the patterns and relationships found in nature. It can be applied to all aspects of human habitation, from agriculture to technology, education and even economics. As any good gardener knows, good soil is built from diverse organic matter.
Meanwhile, during my own journey, I was starting to question how entrepreneurial programs, co-working spaces, and incubators were serving women in particular. I never even considered looking for incubators or business supports in the mainstream areas because those ways of doing business never resonated for me. Instead, I gravitated towards what felt natural.
During my women’s studies degree at McGill University, I learned to question assumed categories around gender and sexuality, and find the intersections of oppression such as racism, heterosexism, and classism. I understood the cultural, political, and economic bases for inequality and the possible frameworks to overcome them. I discovered how to identify and validate a different voice, a “woman’s way of knowing” inside of myself. Yet I found all of that slipped away when I entered the “real world” of women’s work.
In contrast, Antflick was creating a framework that encouraged real human interaction and connectivity (eye contact and sometimes even hugs!). It’s an antidote to the social isolation that can come with digital revolution. It emphasizes the human side of doing business, which may seem to be unrelated to business goals but is actually essential to the well-being, and consequently productivity, of the person running the enterprise. These deep human connections are also the best ways to make contacts, find resources, test ideas, and ultimately move forward and thrive.
Each two-hour meetup costs $12 ($8 for women who join the Women in Biz Network, a partner of Shecosystem). Even though there’s a guest speaker, it’s loosely structured with time dedicated to ask questions to the mentor, network, and even get work done on laptops. The sessions end with 20 minutes devoted to a wellness activity such as stretching, dancing, or mindfulness, usually led by a Shecosystem member.
Both Shecosystem and CSI have led me to mentors, business courses, supportive community gatherings, resources, ideas and, most incredibly, paying clients. I have been delighted to discover that when I build a supportive structure for myself, new business results. Taking care of “me” means taking care of my business. Indeed, I am building a paradigm of care that will sustain me over the long haul of running Move-N-Music. Every time I attend Shecosystem meetups, I am forming new relationships. And though I may be doing business with people, I am making friends. Who knows what will emerge from this circle of caring?
What I do know is that Antflick and I are part of a growing number of paradigm-exploding women entrepreneurs and leaders who refuse to accept the same old work-until-you-drop and compete-to-beat-your-competitors paradigm that has threatened our modern world, from climate change and ecological destruction to dangerous social and economic inequities. Instead, we are forging a different path towards the glowing possibility of a world that is not only sustainable, but allows humans to thrive in partnership with each other and the natural world. This enables our businesses (and the resources that support them) to enjoy real long-term sustainability and growth.
Shecosystem is a women-led co-working space and community hub in Toronto that blends start-up support and skill development with wellness and mindfulness programming. Move-n-Music, founded by Marni Levitt, uses the arts to build a culture of mindfulness, healthy living, growth, and integration.