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Feminist Practices Our Voices

Family First: Meet the FEC’s Feminist in Residence for March 2020

SEEMA PABARI, Entrepreneur, Feminist in Residence, Feminist Enterprise Commons, March 2020

 

We are very pleased to announce that Seema Pabari will be joining the Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC) as Feminist in Residence (FiR) during the month of March.

Pabari is an SEO copywriter, storyteller and digital marketing strategist who speaks five languages and runs her own consulting enterprise. She left the corporate world in 2008 to raise her child. She is a South Asian feminist entrepreneur with her own consulting enterprise and the founder of Tiffinday.com, an independent Canadian food business that specializes in delicious and healthy vegan South Asian stews. Tiffinday is a certified B-Corporation and conducts its business with respect to people and the environment. Check out how they measure their impact from an environmental standpoint.

Liisbeth recently had a chat with Pabari to get her thoughts on the importance of shaping the next generation of feminists, why we need to outlaw the word ‘mompreneur’ and how her unique business perspectives will add to the growing resources in the FEC.

LiisBeth: Why does feminism matter today? 

Women play greater roles in childcare and caregiving. Our choices, whether they are professional, personal, financial or social, remain framed by this fact. It leads to a perspective that is drastically different from men, and feminism lends voice to this difference.

LiisBeth: How has feminism influenced your choices in starting Tiffinday and your SEO enterprise?  

I left the corporate world to raise my seven-year-old child as a single parent; my employers were not open to flexible hours or remote working arrangements. International travel obligations would have required a live-in nanny to raise my son, and none of that was palatable to me, so I delved into entrepreneurship for flexible hours. I wasn’t working full-time in the beginning and I needed to supplement my income so I started a second business, a social enterprise called Tiffinday. It used to be a lunch delivery business, where I only worked from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., which allowed me to be home when my son came home from school.

Feminism directly influenced these choices because I remained determined to make the work fit into motherhood and not the other way around. Looking back 12 years, I am glad I did this. I never missed school concerts, sports meetings and parent-teacher nights. My son has grown into a well-adjusted, healthy, respectful, politically-engaged teenager and is now attending university to study biology. I take solace and full credit for this being my biggest and most successful life endeavour.

Seema Pubari promoting Tiffenday products
Seema Pabari promoting Tiffenday products

LiisBeth: What is the biggest lesson you learned when you transitioned from working in the corporate world to being an entrepreneur?

Working women tend to forget–or we try to justify or be apologetic—about our roles as mothers or caregivers. I’m not the mother of a young child anymore but I have an elderly mother who needs looking after. I’m 56 years old and when I look back, I see how much I tried to justify to my employers and the world that I need extra attention because I was woman. At this stage in my life it’s like…enough. I couldn’t care less. I’m a mother. I’m a caregiver. This is my life and everything needs to fit around my priorties.

I’ve just now learned how to not apologize for any of that. I want the younger women out there to appreciate what this means. Looking back, I was lucky that I made the decision to make my son a priority. We should take pride in our feminism and our roles as custodians of the social order of the world. I don’t think we should apologize for that. We should work with that.

LiisBeth: How did your decision to spend more quality time with your child influence him?

He is a feminist man. And there was no way he would have grown into that if I wasn’t an influence in his life. The next generation of men need to be raised with these values in mind. If you leave it up to men, they won’t do it. Women have to shape that.

He saw a single mom working really hard and he understood the injustices that happened in my life; how I had to work twice as hard as anybody else. He saw all of that and now he is a feminist man and I’m so proud of that.

LiisBeth: Are there any specific examples of feminist business practices about your work you can share?

I started Tiffinday as a social enterprise specifically to be a company for women like me who had children and limited time for work. The business is no longer what it used to be but it’s still a social enterprise. I have two sales reps and the first thing I said when they came on board was: I’m never going to ask you how many hours you work or when you work. This is the job; make your own hours and let’s see how it goes.

It’s something I would have loved to have heard from my boss when I was in the corporate space.

My concern is not about hours. My concern is if we are getting the sales, what are the barriers to success, how can I help.

LiisBeth: What were some of the challenges you faced as an entrepreneur? What systems or policies need to change to enable entrepreneurs in the future?

Through entrepreneurship as a woman and a mother, I encountered the detestable term “Mompreneur.” I no longer remain silent when I hear this term because it is offensive, and something male entrepreneurs do not encounter. These business ventures represent my main sources of income. Motherhood forced me to use my time productively, and both businesses make six-figure revenues each, today. They may not be million-dollar ventures, but they are profitable, and adding jobs and a tax base to Ontario’s economy.

I can give no thanks to the bankers and investors who labelled me a candidate of lower stature, perceiving me as someone who was pursuing a “hobby” or “side-gig” simply because I opted to work around the needs of my child. I want to see women stop using the term Mompreneur. I want financiers to understand that entrepreneurs do not grow successful enterprises from the hours they put in. I grew mine by working extremely smartly during the hours I had to invest in my business.

LiisBeth: Did you sacrifice anything when you made the change from working in the corporate world to entrepreneurship?

I sacrificed financial security at first, however we too often only look at the values we gain as financial. What I gained was the valuable time with my son. I’m glad I didn’t give up the love of being a mother for the love of being an entrepreneur. As much as I sacrificed something I gained something and I think women should look at that, and not ignore that. Balance the two and don’t apologize for it.

LiisBeth: What expertise and wisdom will you be sharing in the Feminist Enterprise Commons?  

Search engines have been around since 1997. Google’s search engines started gaining traction in 2004, and I entered this field of marketing in 2006. Google changes its algorithm more than 600 times a year. It means nobody is a true SEO expert; continuous learning is the norm. Men dominate my field of marketing. Even though I know they are in learning mode, just like me, men tend to sell themselves differently from women.  I can talk about some of this.

I pitch my SEO consulting services to new clients several times each month. 50 percent of the time, I lose to other (male) competitors. However, I normally see 75 percent of those clients return between 6 and 12 months later for a second opinion. Why? Because the person or agency they hired over-promised and under-delivered.


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Related Articles

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/12/17/welcome-to-the-commons-meet-the-first-feminist-in-residence/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/09/24/brewing-up-a-revolution/

Categories
Our Voices

How to Be in the Right (Authentic) Relationship With Entrepreneurship

Image Source: Unicorn Booty (Image updated June 30, 2020)

Yesterday, I found myself evaluating progress for my enterprise like one might size up a beautiful, complicated lover—four years on. In the cold month of love (February), I decided it was time to reflect and ask myself—with naked honesty—if I was in the right relationship with my enterprise.

As with interpersonal relationships, these feelings are difficult to judge, especially when we are constantly bombarded with Hallmark messaging about what a good relationship is supposed to look like. Compared to prevailing cultural narratives of what is “normal” or “promising,” my enterprise might suddenly look like shit—when it might actually be pretty okay!

So it’s wise, before jumping to conclusions, to reflect on how mainstream cultural discourses shape our expectations. What fictions about the crucible of entrepreneurship do we cling to when assessing the progress of our enterprises and our own work as entrepreneurs? What stories would better serve?

When I asked myself this, these are the 12 narratives I came up with (you might want to buckle up for this ride, it’s going to be rough before it gets better).

Check your delusions: Entrepreneurship is often marketed to womxn as the ultimate path to finding real purpose, happiness, and freedom from patriarchy! It’s a way to have a career and reduce your stress as (still) the family’s primary giver. It’s an opportunity to live the laptop life on a beach, score a better income, and say “fuck you” to the glass ceiling and rancid workplace environment. That Company of One simplicity, control over your time and wealth, is the ultimate entrepreneurial fantasy but only if you aim to scale up to the moon.

No wonder 85 percent of Canadian womxn surveyed (the majority who work for wages at present) indicate they are interested in starting a business. Some believe this is something to celebrate. I see it as a cry for help, the result of continued gender-based oppression.

While prevailing narratives sell entrepreneurship as liberation, the reality is this: as an entrepreneur, you have chosen to join the growing precariously employed segment of the labour force. Other “precariats” include the Foodora delivery rider (who makes $4.50 per order plus $1 per kilometre) as well as that new freelance consultant next door fighting for the next short-term contract. The lack of income predictability, the exploitation (like clients who take 90 to 120 days to pay), the lack of benefits, and reduced access to credit (even a car loan requires proof of stable income) is what binds this growing segment of the labour market.  Next time you take a Lyft ride, consider sharing a fist bump with the driver—because you are now sisters in arms.

How do you strategize for life as a precariat? Plan to live like you are broke every day. Launch your business with a DYI ethic. If you are selling a product, be prepared to love attending pop-up markets. If you are banking on shelf space at Shopper’s Drug Mart, get ready to forego owning your own home—or heating it. In other words, if you choose to enter the precarious workforce, be prepared for the precarity.

Know that narratives about progress fly ahead of reality: Manage your expectations accordingly. Remember that back in the ’60s, womxn looking for independence by securing a job were given a lot of advice on how to succeed. Well-meaning male “supporters” told us what to wear, where to smoke, how to fit in, when to talk, and when to shut up. Oh, and douche before going to the office. Also, smile! Back then, getting pregnant was still a fireable offence!

Have times changed? Based on the way people talk about diversity, inclusion, and gender parity, you might believe so. Yet the entrepreneurs I talk to daily say otherwise. Advisers still tell womxn entrepreneurs how to dress to win, talk, and pitch ourselves in a system that still sees us as fundamentally inadequate. And it’s still on us to figure out how to succeed as a primary caregiver and run a business. The majority of incubators and accelerator environments remain male-dominated and ineffective at dealing with gender oppression in their programming or cultures. It seems the startup world wants us to be seen at conferences and events (we need womxn in our photos!), but not heard (don’t be difficult!). You can’t get fired for being pregnant anymore but try raising a round of investment while pregnant. Try taking maternity leave or getting maternity benefits as an entrepreneur. Those costs have been completely downloaded on womxn entrepreneurs and their families.

It’s not exactly a Mad Men world anymore. Yet, we are still waging the same old battle with patriarchy. Fair access to capital is still far from our reach. While the wage gap for womxn earners has narrowed to 13.3 percent below men, womxn entrepreneurs earn a whopping 58 percent less than their male counterparts.

This maddening fact remains: the rules of entrepreneurship are still largely designed to enable privileged men—and a handful of equally privileged womxn who are held up as proof that all womxn have been invited to play. Things have to change. Because only then will womxn entrepreneurs, especially those who lean towards doing business differently, truly flourish. So, if you are struggling, keep in mind that being in business with patriarchal rules stacked against you deserves a checkmark.

Entrepreneurship is not a form of motherhood: If you think of your business as your baby, stop. Starting an enterprise is more like entering a serious adult polyamorous relationship. You read that right. You are bringing a new relationship into your life, creating a “three-way” if you already have a significant other. If your partner also has an enterprise, consider it a “four-way.” And beware. A startup can feel like a new lover—exciting, fresh and, well, newbut it will make your relationship with an existing mate significantly more complex. Simple rules don’t work. Work-life balance advice? Not applicable (as if it ever was). Successful polyamorous relationships require a lot of communication, negotiation, and understanding. They need to serve all participants, though not all needs can be served at the same time. Polyamorous—like monogamous relationships—have a high failure rate. Be prepared. Learn from experts. Think ahead. If things have changed and you need to let go of your business, think of it as a relationship that no longer serves you and has to end—versus the loss of a “child” that you created.

Remember, entrepreneurship can be a powerful revolutionary force: To be in business is not just to be a spoke in the nation’s economic wheel but to engage politically in ways a regular job rarely requires of us. As entrepreneurs, we can and must use our voices. This is one of the best and most undersold benefits of entrepreneurship—and critical, with social and climate justice in peril. We don’t have to invent a new biodegradable plastic to drive change. How we do business creates change. We can use our privilege, power, policies, and practices as entrepreneurs to help restore the environment, advance inclusivity, and reduce inequality. And push for policies that address issues related to precarious employment. And, we don’t have to drive for deep change in isolation. We can form groups and collectives or join existing organizations like the new feisty new Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce who make it their business to advocate for collective change. For those who say business and politics don’t mix, all businesses are political. Chick-fil-A sells chicken and homophobia. Patagonia sells outdoor gear and environmental justice. What kind of history is your business making? As protest novelist, activist, and this month’s Feminist in Residence Rivera Sun points out, “Even the choice to be apolitical is really just a vote for the status quo.”

Be open to transformation and outcomes you can’t control: No need to go to an ashram for three months. Your enterprise will make it very clear who you are and what’s important in life. Being a founder has consequences we can’t anticipate. Our personal transformation may, in fact, be the only real reward of the journey. Value it. It won’t buy the groceries. But it can provide the fertile ground for the next journey.

Self-care is important—but community care is vital too: If you have a venture, like it or not, you are in a community with others. It’s important to understand and get to know that community. Map out your enterprise’s ecosystem of support, which includes your neighbours, complimentary enterprises, suppliers, workers, bloggers in your field, policymakers, academic institutions, etc. No one builds or runs a business alone. Practice community care in ways that strengthens and builds resilience in your enterprise’s ecosystem. The odds of sustainability, resilience, and success will increase. Consider creating a Community Care Code of Practice.

Invest in intellectual development. Stretch your thinking: Develop an interdisciplinary personal development practice directed towards creating a future horizon of radical possibility. Prioritize events that offer well-facilitated consciousness-raising conversations or learnaries that provide the opportunity to learn deeply. Design and run operational experiments. Or support experiments created by others that you believe in.

Set emotional boundaries: Your enterprise is not your life’s work. Becoming who you want to be is. Check in with yourself. If your enterprise is helping you to become the person you want to be, terrific. If not, time for a rethink.

Measure what truly matters: Our GDP metrics mindset leads us to undervalue much of what we accomplish. Our businesses are more than profit/loss statements. Every business is a community that did not exist before. You created that! Create your own mini “impact report” each year to help you truly assess the quality and impact of that work. CV Harquail, author of Feminism: A New Idea for Business, suggests asking yourself, “Who benefits, who is harmed, and who is left out?”

See marketplace feminism for what it is: For example, those flashy ads by pro “woman entrepreneur” banks who suggest getting a loan is easy as asking for a glass of city water? It’s not. So don’t be hard on yourself if the answer is no. Look to alternatives like crowdfunding or womxn-led/operated venture fund pools.

You are human, not an algorithm: You cannot create the vast reservoir of will and energy that is purported to succeed as an entrepreneur simply by eating better, meditating more, exercising more, and being more. You are enough. And you are doing enough.

Don’t blame or shame the victim: As womxn, we endure a lot of debilitating gaslighting and demeaning, sexist behaviour in incubator/accelerator spaces. We need to shout out these stories if we want to drive change. Support womxn who call out unacceptable bias in the ecosystem. Don’t slam or isolate victims or truth-tellers as “difficult” or “losers.” Because, then, we all lose. Add your voice to calls for change. The time for an entrepreneurial version of #MeToo has come. How about #entrepreneurialAF?

And, so, am I still in love with my enterprise?  If these narratives sum up the real reality, are we doing OK?

After all that reflection, I took another look at where we are at with LiisBeth Media.

My enterprise has the power to hurt me deeply, on many levels. And, lord knows, I have been catastrophically hurt before. What person in a serious relationship hasn’t?

But, at least for now, based on a having crafted a more realistic outlook, I feel more gratitude than concern. Yes, we’ve endured harsh realities but the journey has yielded unexpected gifts. We are doing okay.

By aligning my thinking with reality versus Hallmark card or vested interest messaging about what it means to be an entrepreneur, I feel that I am now closer to being in right relationship (authentic and real) with entrepreneurship—eyes wide open—struggling with the right questions, with the right enterprise.

What more could a gal ask for?


Related Readings

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/06/25/gaslighting-the-silent-killer-of-womens-startups/

Categories
Activism & Action Our Voices Systems

The Seven Sins of Gender Washing

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

In her talk, Klein cited many troubling facts, but the most burdensome of these was that after 50 years of environmental activism and effort, as a society, we still struggle to make meaningful progress.

Even with scientific evidence and now actual lived experience of the impact of growing levels of green house gases on the planet, and even after the signing of the 2016 Paris Agreement, environmental activists like Klein remain skeptical. While 55 countries representing 38 per cent of the world’s emissions agreed to implement plans that will “limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change,” Klein argues that the targets are already at risk. Several countries continue to approve large scale industrial projects that will make this achievement mathematically impossible, she notes. Canada for example, played an important role in convincing leaders of the need for even tougher measures, yet recently approved an emissions increase of 43 per cent for the Alberta Tar Sands’ new fossil-fuel-based pipelines. In practice, this will increase Canada’s emissions well beyond the target set in Paris.

Furthermore, environmental watchdog organizations, like UL Ventures (formerly TerraChoice), an independent global science safety company, continue to call out case after case of greenwashing. The term “greenwashing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 to describe instances in which a company, government or any other group promotes green-based initiatives or images but continues to operate in ways that damage the environment. In fact, according to UL, 95 per cent of green products assessed today are guilty of greenwashing.

While we are patting ourselves on the backs for our day to day efforts, Klein suggests, we as a society are not doing nearly enough. Yes, we can change lightbulbs, buy green products, build LEED-certified buildings, and ride our bikes to work in the snow. But it turns out that in the face of continuued approval of large scale, fossil fuel based industrial projects that serve capitalist, corporate and national interests, these individual efforts represent but a few colourful grains of sand on a 150-mile beach.

The environmental movement has learned it is up against something much bigger than political will. It’s up against the reluctance of us all, and especially of those in power, to give up our 21st century way of life.

Common Ground: From Greenwashing to Gender-Washing

While listening to Klein, it occurred to me that the gender equality movement (known more commonly as feminism) is a lot like the environmental movement.

The literature in both fields indicates similar causal roots (unequal power dynamics, capitalism run amok, neoliberalism), and both are deemed exploitative in nature. They are both wicked problems that require intersectoral solutions. Each domain is full of third-party certification opportunities to help consumers separate the curds from the whey (LEEDS, Green Globes, ISO 14001, WEConnect, and Buyup Index).

Taking this idea further, many similarities can also be seen in the ways that corporations and even governments pay lip service to these two philosophies to turn a profit, or a vote.

In 2009, TerraChoice developed its list of the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing”, which became a widely-used taxonomy to categorize common types of greenwashing activities. The seven sins are: Hidden Trade-off, No Proof, Vagueness, Worshiping False Labels, Irrelevance, Lesser of Two Evils and Fibbing. Categorizing practices like this helped consumers to recognize and understand different types of greenwashing activities so they could make more informed choices.

The seven sins list was indeed useful during my days as a sustainable enterprise entrepreneur. And so, I thought it might be similarly helpful to develop a “Seven Sins of Gender-Washing” list to help us all better identify gender-washing practices. The term “gender-washing” describes organizations that try to sell themselves as progressive on the gender equity front, when in reality, they are not.

Here goes.

  1. The Sin of Re-Skinning – A company that attempts to “look” like its work environment is currently gender progressive by ensuring its company website, annual report, and advertising copy has lots of women in the photos. It uses positive gender speak in its corporate communications, and content marketing output, yet when you check out the gender composition at the top it is 80 per cent, or worse, 100 per cent men.
  2. The Sin of Worshipping False Progress – Where corporations create special “We Love Women Who Work Here” days; buy tickets to women empowerment lunches for female staff; appropriate initiatives like the UN’s “HeforShe” campaign for commercial gain; or give to Oxfam’s “I Am A Feminist” campaign as part of a marketing campaign, yet internal organizational policies and day-to-day gender-biased cultural practices remain fundamentally unchanged.
  3. The Sin of Distraction – A claim suggesting the company is pro-gender equity, but upon digging deeper, you find the claim is based on a narrowly defined initiative without concern for the larger, more important issues. For example, in 2011, Walmart trumpeted its new Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which involved a commitment to source $20B from women-owned businesses. Sounds good, however, this amounts to just 5 per cent of its overall expenditures. And, Walmart was already buying from some women-owned firms. The initiative came on the heels of a class action suit launched against Walmart by its 1.5 million female associates for its allegedly discriminatory practices.
  4. The Sin of Corporate Inconsistency – Where distant head offices write, implement and impose gender equity and inclusion policies, and promote this as progress, but their branch plant or satellite operations in other jurisdictions don’t follow suit and are not help accountable for doing so.
  5. The Sin of Positioning Basic Compliance as Leadership – Companies that tout government-mandated policies—like pay equity or parental leave—as gender-progressive initiatives; or Ontario organizations that send out press releases announcing they “have done away with dress codes” (meanwhile dress codes have already been deemed unacceptable by the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 2016).
  6. The Sin of Irrelevance – A case where a company promotes the fact that 65 per cent of its employees are women, however they are all on the factory floor, are mostly hired as part-time workers with no benefits, and have no representation in senior management let alone on the board.
  7. The Sin of Only Counting Heads – A case where a company trumpets the addition of two new female board members or the promotion of a female manager to VP to change the ratio, not the culture. Sometimes, “non-trouble makers” or like-minded women who won’t challenge the status quo are chosen by design. This does nothing to change the culture or support inclusion. Appointees we hope to see serve as changemakers become mere headstones at the board table, and their ability to create change for all genders in the company is amputated-usually at the voice.

When it comes to the seven sin taxonomy, many may argue that perhaps these initiatives are not really sinful at all, but demonstrations of positive intent. The phrase, “Let’s not make the perfect be the enemy of the good,” comes to mind. As a colleague of mine said, “At least they changed the pictures on the website—it’s a start isn’t it?”

Once again, we can learn from our environmental movement counterparts. Yes, some organizations, keen to be perceived as market leaders in the gender equity space, might put the cart before the horse—a “fake it till you make it” approach—advertising where they want to be, and not where they are today. Sorry, but that still makes it gender-washing-until their policies and results catch up with their claims.

Do Organizations That Gender Wash Eventually Improve Authentically?

Furthermore, evidence from the green space shows that few companies ever actually move (willingly) beyond their greenwash-oriented status. Why? Turns out “the perfect” is not the enemy, it’s the business case decision-making framework.

To help organizations understand what being stuck in the short-term business case loop looks like, the sustainability field developed something called “The Maturity Curve”. Different consulting firms have customized different versions, but the core idea is the same. Becoming a truly environmentally positive enterprise is a journey. Points along the curve articulate the pros and cons from one state to another. It can help decision makers see that some returns take a long time to be realized.

If we apply the maturity curve concept to the gender equity space, it would look something like this:

slide1

 

As the chart illustrates, the reason companies in the environmental space actually never move past the compliance or market opportunity levels is because short-term returns are possible at those levels. Consumers eager to vote green with their dollars buy the products based on the ads, the green coloured package and superficial claims. Both believe they have done their bit.

Organizations that do want to make a substantive difference need to move up the curve. However, as you move up the curve, so do costs, and returns take more time to realize. Maturing takes investment. As we know, not all quarterly-earnings-oriented organizations can stomach a long return horizon. As a result, only a small percentage of organizations make the leap to the next stage of commitment.

This also speaks to the fact that that there is a limit to what we can truly expect from large corporations and institutions when it comes to changing the world. Few will ever, if at all, reach the fourth stage, unless these goals were part of the founding vision in the first place.

From Gender Washing to Gender Equity, to Action

So what does our understanding of green washing and role of companies in helping to drive environmental change tell us about the pace and nature of change we can expect in the gender equity space?

For starters, we can remind ourselves that real, deep social change happens at a glacial pace and is inherently complex. It involves changing institutions, culture, underlying, interlocking systems like capitalism and culture, versus just the products we buy or companies we work for.

We can also learn that individual efforts, such as “buying your way” out of a significant and fundamental social problem, make us feel good, but don’t do nearly enough. We must move from being consumers to becoming citizens again. As citizens, we can and should re-engage at political levels, read, think critically, stand up (on the street if need be, not just while sitting on your couch using Twitter), speak our truths, get uncomfortable, and take the time out of our days to contribute meaningfully to an intentional larger movement.

As Klein said two weeks ago, to really make a difference on these kinds of problems, we need an  intersectional collective, activist effort.

In her view, just as the colonialists saw their colonies and their natural resources as their own larder for growing their personal stature and fortunes at home, society has for too long viewed women as an inexpensive resource to exploit. Women have been used as “spare parts to fill in, versus lead[ers in] our economy.”

In short, we need to end our dependence on the extractive economy to save the planet, and similarly end our exploitation of women to advance society. And we need active, engaged and informed citizens, not consumers, to get there.

Now that would truly change everything.

 

Related Readings and Articles:

Entrepreneurs by Choice; Activists by Necessity” by Cynthia MacDonald

 

 

 

Categories
Activism & Action Systems

Confronting Gender Inequity And Inclusion in The Innovation Space

Many people seem to believe that innovation capacity is any economy’s secret sauce. The more of it, the better. According to many experts, achieving top tier results in the innovation race is as simple as focusing on getting more business owners and entrepreneurs innovating. In other words, it’s a numbers game.

If this is truly the case, then surely solving Canada’s innovation under-performance is a cinch. Just offer relevant support for ambitious, talented women in the innovation space and the number of entrepreneurs and businesses innovating could increase by 30 per cent overnight. The economic impact would be seismic.

Yet the $200-million-per-year innovation strategy now being touted on the conference circuit by Minister Navdeep Bains, which highlights many ways to drive more innovation output, says nothing about gender parity, let alone mentioning it as a big opportunity. Additionally, the documents circulating online about the initiative also gives no indication that it is even a priority.

Improving on Canada’s glacial innovation advancement record is an important pursuit but so far, this new plan isn’t hot enough to unleash its benefits, especially if it continues to leave female innovators chilly, and potentially out in the cold.

Are Today’s Incubators and Accelerators the Solution?

The Bains mandate states “expanding effective support for incubators [and] accelerators” as a key solution. But how well do today’s incubators and accelerators serve women?

Let’s take a look at an example up close.

One of the most prestigious, well-resourced, young talent–seeking incubators in the country, The Next 36, proudly announced on June 15 a new venture capital fund led by BDC Capital in participation with Globalive Capital and private investors. While this may sound like good news for innovation, one must ask why more money is being spent to support a program run by a 92 per cent male leadership structure?

A closer look at the organization’s leadership (as advertised on its website) finds that men make up six out of seven of its founders, 13 of its 14 board members, 13 of its 14 faculty members, and 19 of its 22 mentors. And the number of female innovators selected annually to participate in this elite program ranges from five to 11 out of a total of 36 per session over the past four years. Go a level deeper and look at seven of the companies that the current board members of The Next 36 work for as their “day job” collectively. The boards and senior management of these companies have just five women in a total of 48 positions (that’s just 11 per cent).

It doesn’t seem to get any better when it comes to the leadership of the principal partners involved in this newly announced fund. Government-owned BDC Capital lists eight men and just one woman on its executive team. Globalive Capital and Alignvest, both self-described “world-class” investment management firms, are made up of 100 per cent men in their partner ranks.

Gender inequality at work in this incubator is more than skin deep. Sadly, The Next 36, an idea with exceptional potential, is starting to look more like The Past 36 at a time when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a self-declared feminist, managed to achieve gender parity in cabinet in one fell swoop.

Moreover, The Next 36 example is not an isolated one. Here in Ontario alone, many regional innovation centres themselves acknowledge and report sub-optimal performance in the gender equality department with participation level ranging from a low of four per cent to a high of 25 per cent.

The innovation eco-system has a long way to go to meet Kathleen Wynne’s and Justin Trudeau’s standards of gender parity.

Back to Canada’s Innovation Strategy

If we truly believe gender diversity has a business case when it comes to realizing enhanced performance, then we must also believe that gender diversity matters in innovation policy.

Solutions

LiisBeth has four ideas to offer:

  • First, government-funded incubators should be asked to pledge to achieve gender parity within management and mentor ranks by the end of 2017 and be given one year to get there.
  • Innovation policy should encourage and support the creation of autonomous, women-led, female founder–focused incubators and innovation programs. It’s nice to think a gender-blind approach is a pinnacle of form, but if we are honest we know it typically means a male-led and male-centred approach to a masculine culture environment that—by the way—also welcomes women. The research is clear. This works for some, but not many.
  • Unleash innovation at the margins by developing a complimentary demographic-based incubator strategy. Innovating something new and forgoing income to do it is scary enough, let alone trying to succeed in a space that doesn’t make you feel like you belong. Many talented innovators simply do not feel comfortable or motivated by being a part of a culturally or socially alien space, including Indigenous, trans, new Canadian, or age 50-plus entrepreneurs. It might be interesting to note that other nations seem to have figured this out. For example, Israel now has an ultra-orthodox tech incubator. If we want more business owners and entrepreneurs innovating in Canada, we cannot arrogantly insist that they all participate in an environment “we” think is best for them. A little support for demographically specific incubators would go a long way.
  • Finally, we should also require all private venture capital firms seeking government-matching funds to disclose their gender equity and diversity state, and submit plans for improving them within 18 months if they are below the water line. We all know this: equal access to capital is absolutely critical if we are to truly leverage our talented female and other marginalized innovators.

Optimism?

There is room for optimism. For example, the Bains Ministry’s recently published backgrounder states: “Only by mobilizing every sector of society to do its part will all Canadians have the opportunity to participate fully in an innovation economy.”

In addition, Bains’ mandate letter from the prime minister says expressly that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development is expected to “help ensure gender parity.” As his mandate marching orders—and common sense—dictates, Bains must work to correct a no longer acceptable gender gap in the innovation space.

How much he has taken to heart in this arena is unclear. Bains’ recent eight-minute speech at Canada 2020 covered the usual: the importance of tech; being kinder to failure; his father’s $5 self-made entrepreneurial journey; the value of universities; and how to become a global innovation leader. But there was nothing said on the issue of gender parity in the innovation space.

If Minister Bains wants to succeed where others have failed, and if indeed, winning at innovation is a numbers game, then fostering gender equality and broader inclusion overall are two significant opportunities that should not be overlooked.


Want to write to Minister Navdeep Bains to voice your opinion on his innovation strategy? He is looking for input. Details on how to contribute to the discussion have not yet been announced, but in the meantime, you can email him at Navdeep.Bains@parl.gc.ca


Categories
Body, Mind & Pleasure Our Voices

Why Shecosystem is My System

Marni Levitt

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.

 

Categories
Our Voices

Slow Growth, or How to sleep at night when you’re building your business

liisbeth-Slow-Growth-building-your-business-valerie-hussey

Here are three true stories about my early business experiences.

It was 1981. The Ontario Government had been offering a loan guarantee program to publishers since 1973. It was an attempt to address the financial crisis that the nascent Canadian-owned publishing industry was facing. I met with the bureaucrat who ran the program to talk about applying. Our sales revenue and cultural grants had a 2:1 ratio, for a total of $65,000. I didn’t have a penny to put into the business myself, so selling books was the only way we could grow, a reasonable proposition. But we had to produce the books before we could sell them, and that required money.

The bureaucrat, who I’ll call Brutto (it happens to be Italian for nasty), was arrogant and dismissive. Not only was he discouraging, he basically told me not to waste his time. He completed his put-down by saying, in effect, “Don’t you know that even the smallest mom-and-pop corner store has revenues in excess of $100,000?” What he didn’t say but inferred was, “You’re a joke.”

The second story took place a few years later. By now, the company’s annual sales revenues alone exceeded $500,000, which for Canadian publishing was not bad. I was asked to speak to a group of women entrepreneurs alongside a female executive from one of the big banks. She was clearly on the rise. What she shared with us had tremendous resonance for me. She told us that women tend to run businesses for five to 10 years before applying for their first line of credit. They show the bank how they’ve made money year over year. They usually don’t pay themselves much and instead, plow all their profits back into the business. They grow, they build up staff, and they want to get to the next level but can’t on the current cash flow. That’s when they think about getting a $25,000 line of credit. The amount they ask for is usually small, often too small. When they get approved, they look surprised and may even act as if the bank is doing them a favour.

By comparison, the bank executive said, men come in and present a business plan for an idea. They talk about it, share their enthusiasm and conviction that the idea will work, and ask for $75,000 to finance it. With the money that the bank gives them, they put $30,000 into the business and $45,000 toward a BMW. They’ve just told the world they’re a success. But their rate of business success is actually less than the rate of women.

The third story took place in 1993. At this point the business was bringing in several million dollars in sales revenue and had $1 million dollars in retained earnings. I went to the bank we had been dealing with from the beginning and asked for a loan to finance the purchase of a building. The building would cost just more than $1 million. The bank told me to bring my husband in to guarantee the loan. My husband had nothing to do with the business. I wrote a very nasty letter to the banker and everyone up the chain, then found a new banker who said that whatever happened, she would not insult me and she would do the best she could to help. In the end, she could not give us the amount we asked for. Because we had effectively been acting as our own banker with the retained capital and were in a very good position, she explained why she thought the amount she was offering was enough. She said ultimately we had to be comfortable with the decision we made. In the end we accepted her loan offer and she was right—it was enough. Our growth was so rapid that we easily handled the mortgage expense and loan. Within 18 months, our cash flow was sufficient to rebuild retained earnings.

What lessons am I trying to share with these stories? While my experiences date back 35 years, statistics still show that women entrepreneurs start smaller and grow more slowly, they don’t get as big, they underestimate themselves and/or their business along the way, and will avoid risk to the point of underfinancing. Any entrepreneur can grow too slowly and be risk-averse, but it happens more with women in part because banks have historically not been keen to support women’s initiatives, take them seriously, and help them learn. Not being taken seriously diminishes the potential of any business. While growing slowly might mean you probably sleep better at night, which is not a bad thing, it’s not possible to be an entrepreneur and avoid risks altogether. It’s possible to run at a different pace of growth and still progress, but it’s essential that you are controlling the pace of growth. If you’re not, growing too slow can be a sign of challenges ahead.

Finding advisors you trust and who understand both you and your business is key. I moved all our business to a banker who didn’t patronize me. She helped me understand her analysis and that it wasn’t in her interest to set me up to fail. She also respected me and my decision-making process, which increased my confidence in her and also myself. She loaned me enough money—and not more—so that the business could continue to succeed. I learned to be less fiscally conservative and to crow about our successes more. She became a friend and remains one to this day. What she taught me beyond the mechanics of the analysis was to trust my knowledge and my instinct. She brought a layer of analytics to the review that I didn’t have. She never suggested that her analysis was more important than my knowledge about the business and the marketplace. By listening closely to me and learning about the history of the company, she recognized I had what it took to continue building on the success we had achieved to that point.

So what’s the take-away? Trust yourself. There is a lot of noise out there; everyone has an opinion and loves to give advice. Don’t be intimidated or bullied into questioning your judgment, but that doesn’t mean ignoring the value of what people have to say. There are nuggets of wisdom everywhere. Remain curious. A Dragons’ Den mentality is not required to succeed, and don’t let anyone try to convince you that it is.