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

Growing Through a Pandemic


From left to right: Lisa Giroday, Sam Philips and Maxim Winther of Victory Gardens (Photo by Britt Gill)

During the First and Second World War, allied governments encouraged citizens to plant backyard “victory gardens” as a way to alleviate pressure on a food system redeployed to feed troops on the front lines. Almost a century later, a Vancouver-based urban gardening company named after the initiative is helping fight another kind of war: the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus is exposing dangerous vulnerabilities in our overly concentrated, industrialized food system. Outbreaks in massive food-processing plants across North America have caused shutdowns, forcing farmers to kill stockpiled livestock, throw away produce and dump dairy products. As well, restaurant closings and disrupted global supply chains have led to shortages in supermarkets or surplus supplies trashed, while people go hungry.

The owners of Victory Gardens realize that a small gardening company cannot solve all those problems, but educating people about how good food is produced–by growing good food in home and school gardens–is a good start. With people rattled by food shortages or struggling to keep kids entertained at home, the company has been inundated with requests for garden design and installation, maintenance, supplies, coaching and education. Luckily, the structure of Victory Gardens – a small, feminist, worker-owned cooperative–has enabled it to adapt quickly.

Finding Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Lisa Giroday, Sam Philips and Sandra Lopuch founded Victory Gardens in 2012 when friends started asking the avid home gardeners for help growing food in their backyards. The friends quickly realize they had a business opportunity at hand. “We totally bootstrapped it,” says Giroday. “We held a fundraiser at the beginning of our first year and made like $3,200 bucks, and then bought all of our tools on Craigslist and our truck off my partner who generously let us pay them back over time. And we just saw what we could do.”

From the start, they decided to become a worker-owned co-op as it reflected how they operated –with equal decision making, input of labour and ownership. Lopuch recently left the company, which now has four worker-owners, two seasonal employees and various subcontractors. They design, build, plant and maintain ecological gardens, and even babysit gardens while a client is away. Their coaching covers all aspects from planting to harvesting.

Photo by Alana Paterson

Digging and Growing, Online

When the pandemic hit, many schools and facilities were forced to close. This shuttered Victory Gardens’ extensive school garden program and put major projects on hold, wiping away nearly a third of its revenue.

Giroday says having four worker-owners with diverse ideas has helped respond to the current crisis in creative ways. They used the federal government’s emergency wage subsidy initiative to retain their employees and redeployed them to meet the spike in demand in other areas.

To protect the safety of its employees, Victory Gardens decided not to work with apartment and condo buildings to service balcony gardens. Instead, the company started offering online consultations to design and build garden boxes then virtually coach people to install, plant and maintain their balcony gardens.

For gardens at residential properties, workers commute in separate vehicles and maintain physical distancing while working outside.

In the early days of the pandemic, the company noticed a huge jump in visits to its online shop, which was initially set up as a way for people to book and pay for installation and maintenance services. When major garden centres closed, clients were scrambling for supplies such as seeds, fertilizer and tools. “We had done a big purchase at the beginning of the season,” says Giroday, and they quickly made these available online. Sales, she said, “went through the roof.”

The spike in interest in online shopping has inspired the owners to rethink how they offer education and coaching. “We have a ton of curriculum, we’ve been developing content for ten years,” says Giroday. So they developed educational webinars they can offer through winter, both extending their work into the off season and making gardening education even more accessible.

Growing Big Ideas

The increased demand for home gardens has come from parents looking for creative ways to educate, entertain and connect kids with nature while self-isolating at home. But Giroday says people are also reaching out for their services out of fear of food scarcity and disruptions.

While an acre of land is required to produce enough food to feed a family of four, Giroday believes even a tiny garden can play an important role. It teaches people about the challenges of growing food, especially without harmful pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and also the rewards–how good fresh organic produce actually tastes. People with home gardens are more likely to support farmers’ markets and alternative food systems. And a small garden can still produce an abundance of food, alleviating pressure on budgets and giving people a greater sense of food security.

Photo by Britt Gill

Staying Strong by Sticking Together

Victory Gardens believes its nimble response to pandemic disruptions would not have been possible had it followed the advice given to the owners early on. Looking for financing to expand, Victory Gardens reached out to Vancity, a cooperative that provides banking and financial services to its members. “They said, we love what you do. They liked that we were (then) three women doing urban agriculture and were aligned with their values,” says Giroday. Vancity agreed to a portion of the loan and encouraged the owners to reach out to another lending institution to cover the rest. That institution was also excited by the startup and set them up with a mentor while waiting for the loan application to be approved. “We were basically green lit.” But the founders received a phone call a few days later suggesting they ditch “the co-op thing” and become an articled corporation. The reason? The bank believed that having several worker-owners would dilute decision making as the co-op grew. Giroday can laugh now. “I was so offended. I said, being a cooperative, having more voices at the table, having a diverse cross section of opinions, makes us so much stronger.” They refused to become a corporation and the loan fell through. Vancity, on hearing the story, ended up picking up the balance. “They definitely stood up for Victory Gardens and what we are doing.”

Ironically, Giroday admits, the four worker-owners are now working through the challenges presented by non-hierarchical and democratic/consensus decision making. The four all pitch in to help where they’re needed even though each specialize in different aspects: Giroday in design and installation; Philips on education, design and installation; Jenna Jaski in education; and the lone male on the team, Maxim Winther, in carpentry. The challenge comes in knowing what decisions they should bring to the group or decide independently. “Where does one’s role start and stop? What is essential information for everyone to know and what is not essential to know as business owners? To what degree can we behave autonomously? Where are the boundaries within autonomous decision making and actions? Then there are practical questions, how do we make decisions effectively?”

Giroday says the cooperative model is really attractive as it means community, support, democracy, equity. People are drawn to those values. But she warns there’s a learning curve to being a business owner and a member of a coop. It takes time be engaged with aspects of the business at a high level. Ten years in, they are still working on their model – but they’re not ditching it. Having a diversity of ideas is their strength, she says.

And they will need it as this year’s “off season” promises to be busy as they grapple with challenges – how to grow their online store, deliver education webinars, offer virtual coaching, and get prepared for a return to “normal” next spring with a larger slate of clients added this year on top of school gardens reopening.

“We grew about 30 per cent from 2018 to 2019,” says Giroday. “We’re excited… things are feeling a little intense and we need to make space and time for that.”

LiisBeth Media is a 100% womxn-owned and led, reader supported media enterprise. If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more, please consider becoming a donor subscriber today! [direct-stripe value=”ds1577108717283″]

Related Reading

Activism & Action Transformative Ideas

Butchers, Bakers & Changemakers: The Nightwood Society

A Nightwood Society panel discussion on the future of food with Michelle Battista, along with Kim Malek of Salt & Straw, Alison Wu of Wu Haus, Nong Poonsukwattana of Nong’s Khao Man Gai, and chef/food activist Arlyn Frank of Platano Rising, put on by Cherry Bombe, a magazine devoted to women in food.

As the saying goes, a woman’s place is in the kitchen—that is until money, fame, or a coveted Michelin star is at stake, at which point it can become a male-dominated space pretty quickly. Foodie utopia Portland was no different until an industry outsider named Michelle Battista decided to challenge the culinary boys’ club. In 2014, the designer and marketing entrepreneur with a passion for food brought together a group of women with diverse talents to create what she describes as “a safe place for women in culinary arts.”

Enter the Nightwood Society. The eclectic group—ranging in skill set from butchers and bakers to florists, writers, and visual artists—conceived of a food-based creative incubator to nurture women entrepreneurs striving to find stable footing in Portland’s vibrant and competitive culinary scene. They toiled in a variety of traditionally underfunded areas—live music, cooking classes, immersive dining experiences, catered events, art installations—but believed by joining forces, they could create something special and sustaining.

Battista teamed up with friend and associate Kati Reardon, a product management specialist for global brands such as Nike, Columbia Sportswear, and Banana Republic, to raise the capital to lease a 3,000-square-foot event space in the city’s inner NE business district, where they could bring together food, art, design, and social consciousness in a delightful blend of community activism. “So we decided we could do this, and do this in our own way,” says Battista, “and it could be all women.”

Indeed, Nightwood Society created a women-focused supply chain, from farmers through to sommeliers and chefs. For capital, they turned to non-traditional investors such as women’s accelerators and financing groups. Supportive, like-minded men were welcome to contribute.

But Portland, as Battista describes it, is a finicky market where the average restaurant has a life expectancy of about two years. Those that survive face constant scrutiny over the minutiae of their menus. Was this free-range chicken fed on pesticide-free grains and seasoned with fair trade salt? Is your house kombucha small-batch or just craft?
Nightwood Society overcame the odds and found its way to a stable source of revenue by becoming a go-to space for community groups that share their interests and values in social justice, diversity, and equality. They have hosted events, leased space and catered for women’s outreach groups, non-profit organizations, and even Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown.

A Nightwood evening event.

All that didn’t come about by happenstance. When Battista moved to Portland after going to school in New York, she was shocked by the city’s whiteness—and its long history of racism and exclusion. She knew Nightwood would never reach communities of colour organically but would have to reach out specifically to historically oppressed and overlooked groups. Says Battista: “Nightwood is the hub of a community I built and curated intentionally with a lot of time and attention. We ask, who do we want to reach out to and how do we vet their values? Without shared values it isn’t going to work.”

The outside-the-box business model has also built strength by sharing resources. The range of activities at the Nightwood Society can be eclectic: cooking and charcuterie-making classes, weddings, political events, public speaking classes, and outside catering gigs. Beyond a skeletal staff, most function as contractors and freelancers, posting shifts that others sign up for and taking shifts based on schedules and skill sets. The arrangement suits the ebb and flow of the business and the lives of the people drawn to such a dynamic, artistic enterprise. Says Battista: “Everyone works when they want. No one’s ever grumpy [as] they have other jobs.”

The collective is structured as a limited liability corporation with two legal owners, each with a clearly defined equity agreement. Members can buy into the for-profit business. Leah Scafe, Director of Experience, and Sarah Schneider, “Kitchen Queen,” have acquired a partial ownership, which comes with more decision-making power and autonomy.

But the vast majority of the dozen or so primary members involved have a part-time association with the collective, using the space to grow their business, augment other income, and network with supportive, like-minded entrepreneurs. The model enables Nightwood to be flexible, inclusive, and resilient. It supports growth via diversification rather than simply volume. And it allows them to scale their business sustainably through ebbs and flows of a fluctuating economy.
To Battista, Nightwood’s fusion of food, art, and activism is natural. “I’m a designer by trade and I have a design agency; I’ve always been obsessed with connecting sensory things.” She says she doesn’t just love food and the craft of making it, but the whole experience of food, including the atmosphere of the surroundings and the company at one’s table.
Battista urges people looking to emulate the Nightwood model to build a strong team. “There is a moment when you just have to jump in and be on the ride and use your best assumptions and experience to make it happen.” But it helps, she advises, to have a mentor and to ask for guidance when you encounter something you don’t understand. Then comes the task of building a team that shares your vision and values. “Without the right people to believe in and help you execute your vision, then your vision is only an idea.”

After that, the rules for taking something on, she says, are pretty simple. “Lead with the values always and don’t compromise. This is your compass,” says Battista. Evaluate proposals based on whether they move the venture forward, and whether or not they serve everyone’s best interests, as well as your vision and mission. Make sure what you do stays on brand. Remember that you can’t say yes to everything.

But how does that clear-eyed vision translate into the effective operation of a for-profit enterprise that offers charcuterie classes and public speaking classes, as well as hosts political events and weddings, all under the guise of a cutting-edge restaurant? Pretty effectively, says Battista, albeit with a lot of individual trust, coaching, and business mentoring. The entire staff meets just every two weeks to handle the logistics of the organization. Outside of that, Battista makes a point of not micromanaging the members. The goal is to find motivated innovators with a unique vision and nurture them with resources and opportunity.

“And then,” Battista says, “we let them grow.”

To learn more about the Nightwood Society, visit

Related Readings

Black Foodie Turns The Table

Shoddy treatment at a restaurant inspired Eden Hagos not to stay home but to go big with her business ideas. She sees huge potential in the Black Foodie brand and envisions it evolving into a web series or television show in the future.

Read More »