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Activism & Action Feminist Practices

This Show Must Go On

Planet Protectors on the Pier

Vanessa LeBourdais’ copper-coloured cat-eye sunglasses and hair match the Prius she drives. In early May, she wheeled in to a seaside park in the suburbs of Vancouver, for our interview.

That LeBourdais has suggested we meet in person during the COVID-19 pandemic is odd, especially given that her theatre company is now performing entirely online. But being out in nature is where she thrives, and we sit a generous two metres apart on a log overlooking the ocean.

LeBourdais, 54, is the executive producer of DreamRider Productions, a charity that puts on musical theatre shows to get elementary school kids excited about conservation and the environment.

In “normal” times, the company delivers about eight live shows at schools per week and also produces an interactive digital program, the Planet Protector Academy, designed for teachers to use in the classroom. DreamRider Productions created the digital platform in 2014 to extend its reach from 42,000 kids a year in the Vancouver area to 72,000 per year in cities across Canada and in India. With schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company, which employs six people, adapted its digital classroom program to reach children in their own homes.

Training Kids to Become Eco Superheroes

DreamRider Productions has come a long way since its unexpected beginning in 1998, when LeBourdais and her partner (they married a year later) responded to a classified ad in a local newspaper. The City of Vancouver was looking for someone to put together environmental theatre programming for kids.

Through the play they wrote, which they continued producing for several years, the pair realized the power of turning kids into environmentalists. Parents kept telling them that their children made them change their behaviours after seeing the show.

LeBourdais, drawing on her values, added feminist environmental superhero characters who invite audience members to imagine themselves as superheroes who can also save the planet.

In 2002, the company registered as a non-profit charity. It relies on grants for about half of its revenue, and generates the other half with sales of its programs to cities and schools. In 2019, its operating budget was $500,000. They sell the online classroom program to more than 150 cities in Canada, the United States and India. Pricing, at $10 to $30 per child, depends on a number of factors, including whether the content needs to be customized. The live theatre events performed at schools in the metro Vancouver area are $750 per show.

Cities buy the program as a way to help meet their environmental goals. They recognize that reducing waste, saving electricity or opting for greener commutes requires a culture shift – and that starts with kids.

Zooming into the Future

After COVID-19 closed schools, LeBourdais and her employees jumped into action, creating a live Zoom show for children to watch at home. From their homes, two actors, dressed in character, talk to the kids about the environment with great gusto and silly banter, making for perhaps the most compelling Zoom meeting hosts on the internet.

“Kids really experience it like going to Jedi school, they are Planet Protectors,” LeBourdais says.

The hosts ask the kids to come up with their own superhero name and draw themselves as a superhero, and then send in their drawings, which they share on the show the next day. They also get the kids moving, and show the kids how to stand tall and strong like a superhero.

LeBourdais directs the daily show, which is interspersed with clips of pre-recorded highly produced videos starring the company’s planet protector superheroes. When adventures get scary – and touch on the very real issue of environmental collapse — the Zoom hosts jump back on the screen and encourage kids watching at home  — addressed as “Planet Protectors” — to take action.

“We send them on missions every day to change their families and themselves,” explains LeBourdais. This can be as simple as instructing the kids to create “Eat Me First” labels to place on food that’s about to go bad in their family’s fridge.

The hosts also teach kids about proper handwashing and the “Superhero Calming Breath,” to help with COVID-related anxiety. Then they send the superhero kids on a mission to teach it to their families.

“It’s pretty cool,” says LeBourdais. “We’ve got parents saying (to us) ‘I needed that more than my kid did.’”

Their survey results show that 71 per cent of children who participate say the Zoom programming made then feel more calm and relaxed, and 82 per cent said it made them feel more cheerful.

The show is a remarkable to watch, and its success can be attributed to her talented performers and her own directing and leadership philosophy. “We’re not perfectionists, we’re just really into excellence,” she says.

The leading superhero, Esmerelda, knowledgeable and pro-active, models feminist behaviour. Her sidekick, Goober, is a likeable male character who is constantly failing, and then learning from his mistakes. He models vulnerability by talking about his feelings, and Esmerelda proves a compassionate and good listener as she gently guides him towards making things right.

Leading the Show, Feminist Style

LeBourdais’ marriage echoes some of the power dynamic between Esmerelda and Goober. LeBourdais and her husband – who plays Goober in the shows – were once equal partners in the production company. But ten years ago, LeBourdais stopped performing so she could focus on leading the business and parenting their now teenage daughter.

She struggled to take the reins. “If the genders had been reversed, it would have been a lot easier to navigate at that time, because it’s really going against (traditional) gender dynamics in relationships, and all that (programming) stuff that’s in you that you don’t even know is there.”

On business development decisions, she remembers telling her husband, “Sorry, you don’t get your way, you just gotta trust me.”

Learning to trust herself has been key to LeBourdais’ success and will continue to be crucial, according to her friend and board member Kate Sutherland. “Intuition guides what she does.”

It’s a process LeBourdais isn’t shy talking about. She “feels out” decisions and spends time in nature, allowing answers to come to her. It’s a process that may sound a bit woo-woo, and at times has conflicted with business collaborators who felt she wasn’t rational or strategic enough.

But true to herself, LeBourdais has persisted.

Getting Kids to Deliver the Future

Her independent streak and determination, evident from an early age, run deep in her blood. Her maternal grandmother was disowned by her family after kicking out an abusive husband, and raised four children on her own. Her paternal grandmother, Isabel LeBourdais, was a prominent writer and prisoner-rights activist.

By age seven, LeBourdais was putting on elaborate musical puppet shows for neighbourhood kids. Her mother, Karlene Gheinke, recalls that she would sing loudly everyday while she walked to school. “She sort of went to the tune of a different drummer from quite early on.”

It’s an apt metaphor for LeBourdais, who continues to drum up opportunities for her venture. The Planet Protector Academy has plans to expand further into India. A recent partnership could catapult their program into 200,000 schools in India (by contrast, there are about 10,000 schools in all of Canada).

A TV show in the works also has LeBourdais hopping. “Last Friday I had this amazing call,” she says. “Kids production companies in India, Spain and Ireland – we had this international call – and they all agreed to make this show, and each of them has 200 shows reaching 140 countries, and it’s a bit mind-blowing, the power of the people that were on that call.”

LeBourdais, who calls herself an “experience designer,” will have her work cut out for her. She doesn’t want kids watching the show “like zombies.” Getting kids around the world to become environmental superheroes will depend on being able to spread an embodied practice, she says.

“Because it’s in their bodies, they don’t forget.”

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Activism & Action

Feminist Entrepreneurship—Changing the Face of Capitalism, One Enterprise at a Time

Vancouver-based Lunapads recently became a 2016 Canada Post E-Commerce Innovation Award-winner in the category of Community Impact. Lunapads opened for business in 1993. The company survived the rollercoaster startup phase and today it is a successful, seven-figure feminist enterprise with thousands of customers worldwide. It also boasts two innovative social impact programs, One4her, which improves access to education for Ugandan girls, and G Day For Girls, a global social movement involving “rite of passage” events that celebrate and empower girls aged 10 to 12 who are transitioning to adolescence. Lunapads is a She-EO venture, and  is on BCorp’s Best for the World list which highlights the top 10% most highly ranked B Corps globally.

LiisBeth had the opportunity to meet with the company’s Co-founder, Creative Director, and feminist entrepreneur, Madeleine Shaw on Sept. 23.

LiisBeth: Tell us about Lunapads.

Shaw: Okay, Lunapads is a for-profit, Vancouver-based social impact business. We’re a founding Canadian B Corp. We specialize in natural menstrual products and also products that meet bladder leakage needs. We are all about helping individuals have healthier, more positive experiences and outlooks about things their bodies do, getting rid of the shame some people feel when it comes to topics like menstruation, postpartum needs and leakiness.

LiisBeth: We want to learn more about you as a feminist entrepreneur, which you so totally are! First, what does feminism mean to you?

Shaw: Feminism, to me, is just about a movement that strives to achieve social equality. For me, I came to feminism at around age 17 or 18 as a way to try and make sense of gender oppression I had experienced personally. Learning about feminism opened my eyes to the fact that inequality is something many people experience and that gender equality does not exist in our culture. Girls, women, trans, non-binary people are particularly oppressed under a patriarchal power dynamic. To me, feminism just addresses all of them. It’s a lens through which one sees the world. It helps you see and understand inequality, the power dynamics behind it, and encourages active participation in changing that.

LiisBeth: How did your feminist outlook affect your career decisions?

Shaw: It actually helped me to opt out of the mainstream business working world. Just to back it up, while at university I started taking women’s studies courses. The reason I became interested in women’s studies is because of what I experienced during frosh week at Queen’s University in the mid-80s. I was pushed down onto a muddy field along with all the other first-year girls and the football team did push-ups on top of us. It was like this fake rape simulation going on. I was 17, I was thousands of kilometres away from home. I was shocked and appalled.

Then, the following week, I went into my first English 100 survey class. I wanted to be an English major because I loved reading. But when I looked at the syllabus, I found there was not one single woman writer on the entire syllabus for the entire year. Not one word written by a woman. Not one in the entire history of English literature. My mom has a Master’s degree in English and has kind of schooled me that this was not perhaps an accurate reflection of who is out there. I just thought, “Oh my God, here’s one of, what is supposed to be, the better higher institutions of learning in Canada, and this is their version of reality? I can’t take it!” I went down the hall to women’s studies and more-or-less never looked back.

Later, I got involved as a student leader doing mostly anti-date rape, anti-sexual violence-type campaigns like Take Back the Night and No Means No, and organizing screenings for documentaries like Killing Us Softly. I wanted to create change.

With respect to business, initially, as a university student, I hated the idea of business. I thought that was the last thing I would ever do. I thought it was an inherently exploitative activity that was sort of hand in hand with patriarchy. Capitalism was how patriarchy funded itself basically, right? That was my belief system in the early days. As a person of privilege, I didn’t understand where money actually came from, that people needed jobs and the economy supported families. Later, I started to consider that maybe capitalism wasn’t an inherently broken system but instead an inherently neutral system that had been kind of politically hijacked by a certain kind of person influenced by patriarchal values. Capitalism as a system wasn’t the problem. The values of those in power who had the opportunity to shape and leverage it is the problem.

So, I got excited about the idea of entrepreneurship. I thought, if I can find and create my own business and make it on my own terms with my own values then number one: I don’t have to go up to the 26th floor of some corporation who makes things or extracts things that I don’t believe in and whose practices don’t align with my values.

As a confident feminist, I also figured l probably wouldn’t survive for even a matter of months within that kind of a power system. I’m just a very independent, creative spirit. Entrepreneurship for me was an expression of leadership and creativity that my kind of rebellion. Fuck that! I don’t need to be that [corporate] kind of person. I don’t need to have the big title and the big… whatever. I get to have what I want on my own terms. So when I was 25, I started my first business. I’m 48 now. The idea that I could start my own business was a revelation to me. I was like, “Whoa! This is so exciting!”

LiisBeth: What was your first business?

Shaw: My first company was called Everywhere Designs. As a child, I always loved sewing and textiles. I guess I at first tried to be a feminist fashion designer by making clothes that were comfortable and that I felt celebrated women and that were sustainable, local and just alternatives to mass-marketed, super-sexy kind of things. I love colour, and I wanted to play with making my customers feel more alive and a little more vibrant. Just a way of expressing yourself in an interesting and creative way. So I purchased the small garment manufacturing business that had been making Lunapads, opened a little boutique and did a lot of customer work. Tons! I’ve made so many wedding dresses. Oh my goodness!

Lunapads grew out of that. I was on my own for about seven years when I met my business partner Suzanne [Siemens] in 1999 at a community leadership course. When we first met, I thought she represented the path of the capitalist dark side that I feared. She was corporate. An accountant. But that path almost killed her. She was looking to apply her talents to something that mattered to her. We have now been partners for 16 years.
LiisBeth: As a women’s studies graduate, where did you go to learn about building a company?

Shaw: The venture program at BCIT, though it’s called something else now… Now there’s entrepreneurial education programs everywhere. Back in the day, not so much. It was one of the few. I just loved it. They were great. I think there were maybe 12 or 15 people in my whole class.

LiisBeth: Were there women in it?

Shaw: There were one or two others.

LiisBeth: How has feminism influenced the way you operate your company?

Shaw: For starters, when we hire someone, we always look for a strong fit with our values before anything else. Feminism is one of our corporate values, so if somebody does not identify that way, then they’re going to have trouble fitting in.

LiisBeth: What’s the gender balance of your staff?

Shaw: If you go by the numbers, it would be 90 percent who are women-identified and 10 per cent genderqueer-identified.

LiisBeth: Have you ever had men apply for jobs in the past?

Shaw: Never. We hire them as contractors. We absolutely have amazing business relationships with them. And our accountants are men and our tech guys are men. We have never had any men apply, so it would be hard to hire them. Let’s start there.

But we’re certainly open to it. It has just happened that way, and I think it’s partly driven by the type of products we make, which is not to say that all women menstruate or all demonstrators are necessarily women. We hire feminists.

LiisBeth: What kinds of policies would we see in a feminist company’s employee handbook?

Shaw: We have explicitly written policies around trans inclusion. We offer both maternity and paternity leave. We have a glossary of different terms so people understand what a gender as a spectrum is or what this gender means or what genderqueer means.

We expect and train people to use gender-inclusive language when dealing with customers. For example, if you’re in our social media marketing group, you don’t say, “Hey ladies! Hey girls!” If you are addressing a group of people who do identify that way exclusively, then that’s fine, but if you’re trying to address the wider community of Lunapads, then we’re very particular about using gender-inclusive language.

LiisBeth: Have you gone as far as changing your pronoun language in your marketing material?

Shaw: Yes. When we are speaking generally of our customers, we don’t use the language of “girls” and “women”; we use the words “community” or “individuals” or “people who menstruate.” We’re also working on our imagery. We just did a photo shoot with some trans people so we can be representative visually, and not just verbally, in the copy.

LiisBeth: Let me ask about another area of decision making in procurement. When you’re sourcing suppliers, do you look for women-owned enterprises to deal with?

Shaw: It’s challenging, especially when you’re dealing with textiles, but it’s true in many things. I would say that we look for sustainability first when it comes to supply chain, because we’re trying to work with environmentally sustainable fabrics. Because we’re B Corp, we look for B Corps, so we know their values match with ours. It may not be a specifically woman-owned or feminist organization, but it’s one that has been evaluated for its overall social and environmental impact.

LiisBeth: What about decision making and operating? How flat? How hierarchical? How has, let’s say, feminism, influenced your management practices?

Shaw: It’s interesting because I remember as a university student doing feminist organizing, I actually experienced a lot of frustration in that environment, where it almost felt too collective and too inclusive sometimes, to the point where things just didn’t get done. I would say that we’ve been through some interesting iterations. They say that a company’s culture is a direct reflection of the issues leaders themselves are working through, which is interesting.

A few years ago, we made the conscious decision for my partner Suzanne to be the point of the arrow, which implies this hierarchy.

Can we still be a feminist company and have somebody who is the boss? My answer to that is: I think yes. We’re still living in patriarchal times. There’s no doubt about it. We’re all, to some extent, still carrying around that baggage, but I also believe in efficiency, and I believe that not every decision needs to be collective. It just doesn’t. If you’re going to scale your business it can’t be.

LiisBeth: Feminism is everywhere today. And historically, feminists have an uneasy relationship with capitalism. Where do you see this all going?

Shaw: Let’s start with feminism. I feel more and more like we’re in the age of feminism, finally! People are recognizing the untapped resource of women, in particular from an economic perspective as taxpayers, as workers, and also at the same time we’ve got the climate collapsing due to values-free business practices that are exploitative.

When it comes to feminism and capitalism, I personally believe that the success of the feminist business revolution will be to change capitalism and, I hope, also work to address climate change because it’s our biggest opportunity.

We know the system of patriarchy needs to change, but within that we’ve got the capitalist system. It’s so essential and yet it’s been seized by a few and used in a twisted way. That’s why I believe things like feminist entrepreneurship can make a difference, where we can really take a kick at creating alternatives within the capitalist system.

The act of doing business can be really positive if you do it right. I think that the combination of feminism and capitalism, powered by creativity, can change the world.

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(Publisher’s Note: Lunapads are available at retail stores across Canada including Whole Foods and London Drugs. In the US, Lunapads Performa Pads have just launched at 200 select Target stores, as well as online at Our complete collection is available at; Liisbeth community members are invited to use promo code lunalove to receive 15% off orders over $35 untilDecember 31, 2016.)

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