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Categories
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

https://www.liisbeth.com/2020/03/25/when-great-granny-inspires-great-work/

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

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/04/30/butchers-bakers-changemakers-the-nightwood-society/

Categories
Uncategorized

Selling Up, Moving Up

 

 

When co-founder of Women on the Move Heather Gamble introduces herself to me following a networking workshop at the Dundas Street West co-working space, she describes how she “climbed up the AT&T corporate ladder” before the age of 35 because she “could sell any early adopter technology.” After leaving her roles in sales and marketing at the company, she launched her first business with Eva Gooderham in 2004. In her first year with their business-to-business marketing firm SalesFuel Inc., she won a $1-million contract with Shaw Communications. Her story sounds to me like a well-rehearsed sales pitch, which I imagine her delivering hundreds of times.

An unapologetic saleswoman, Gamble knows the value of a good story. She insists that every entrepreneur needs sales skills to survive. Gamble models this commercial spirit in her work. Unlike many other organizations geared to female entrepreneurs, she points out that Women on the Move is a for-profit enterprise. “We don’t believe that if we’re teaching women entrepreneurs to make money that we should be non-profit. That’s hilarious,” Gamble says. “You cannot build a business on government grants and loans. If you really want to build a business, we can start you off. And we start you off by saying sales is number one.”

This approach to business makes some women uneasy. After opening their business accelerator (a co-working space, business training program, community network and venture capital fund) in January 2015, Gamble and co-founder Nicola Morgan discovered their biggest hurdle has been changing women’s negative connotations with sales. “This is what we see: women in particular have an aversion to selling,” Gamble explains. “The stigma is [that] in sales you have to be aggressive, you have to be manipulative.” Morgan suggests the solution to this problem is to make the medicine taste good. “The way we have overcome it is by showing them it’s not what they think it is. Sales is a transfer of enthusiasm.” The two longtime friends met at Carleton University back in 1981. Between Gamble and Morgan, a former Arthur Murray Dance Studio franchisee, they have accrued around 35 years of experience training people in sales. As Gamble explains it, she observed a market need for their endeavour, and, being a serial opportunist, decided to take advantage of the opening. “I saw more women going into entrepreneurship, and I saw more women not being successful, and I saw more women going back to that job they didn’t like.”

Data collected by Statistics Canada shows that women small business owners had less revenue growth than men (57.7 per cent compared to 62.4 percent) between 2009 to 2011. According to Forbes Magazine, only 2 percent (4 percent in Canada) of female-owned businesses in the United States reach $1 million in revenues while male-owned businesses were 3.5 times as likely to do so. Gamble lays the blame more on women’s own inhibitions than on systemic discrimination, noting that women tend not to speak up when men are around. “I felt it was imperative to give women their own place and space for them to say what they really believe, come up to the table and be fully engaged participants,” she explains. In terms of preparing students for the reality of life outside of the training, Morgan says they assess what skills each individual might require and focus on helping them understand and sell effectively to both male and female buyers. While women often take a more complex approach, when men are doing business, “it’s just business,” says Morgan. “We do work with women to (help them) understand how men think and that they do think a little bit differently than we do. So, really, it’s all about understanding your buyer, whoever that buyer may be,” she explains. “Men don’t really care how you feel,” but women, generally speaking, are much more focused on their feelings, according to Morgan.

Women on the Move member Michelle Isocianu and co-owner of Board Again Games happened upon the space when she was searching for a location to rent out for board game nights and ended up registering as a student in the She Factory business training program. She says the course has taught her “basic business 101 stuff” and how to apply that specifically to her own enterprise.

But it has been the support of fellow participants and the instructors that has benefited Isocianu most. “It’s nice to know that other people are going through the same thing,” she says, adding that the course has helped her to increase revenue and make wiser investment decisions. “I think going back every week and Heather being like, ‘You’re perfect and you’re great,’ – as cheesy as it may be – it does give you the confidence,” she says. “I certainly have gotten the confidence to put a value on what I do.” Isocianu admits that at first she was intimidated by the “all women kind of approach,” but now sees the critical need for such a place.

The She Factory is an intensive training program that runs weekly from September to June. Although students can be anywhere in business development, from just starting out to two years in, Morgan urges women to enlist sooner rather than later. It incorporates elements of sales and business education for women entrepreneurs, with individual classes starting at $40 and personalized coaching that is tailored to individual budgets.

Gamble’s initial mission was to train 10,000 women by 2020 and position them each on their “$1-million path” within three years. One of their first students, a business consultant in the mining sector, saw her business jump from $400,000 to $2-million in revenue after just one year. But their latest training session, which ran from September to June, brought in just 25 women. “It takes time to build a business,” admits Morgan, explaining they pour whatever financial resources they have into rent rather than marketing, which she notes can also be costly. They hope to increase their numbers by taking their business on the road — or rather the train — for a cross-Canada tour that aims to connect and train women entrepreneurs. In June, Women on the Move rolled out its “Save Our Sales” service, an app that offers access to a branding specialist, sales specialist, writing specialist and interpersonal personality specialist. The personality specialist can help business owners understand how to sell to different personality types by communicating and connecting with them more effectively.

Don’t expect their training to include tackling the systematic barriers to equality that women entrepreneurs often face. Morgan herself claims that she has never personally experienced sexism as an entrepreneur; however, she acknowledges that inequality does exist and that women deserve equal opportunity. But she and Gamble choose to focus their efforts on helping women work within existing structures to boost sales and revenue.

“I don’t know that I have to put myself into any particular category,” says Gamble when asked if she would call herself a feminist. “I categorize myself as one thing and that’s a woman on the move.”

Publishers Note: Gamble and Morgan have also launched a new workshop series called Accelerate Your Success. It is held on Wednesdays from 12 – 2 p.m and includes a one hour workshop plus an hour of networking and a catered lunch.  The focus is on developing effective sales and marketing skills with an emphasis on using social media to increase sales and find prospects. Tickets start at $40. You can learn more at www.womenonthemove.club.

 


 

Additional Business Support Groups for Women in Toronto

SheEO: A peer-based venture capital fund for women;
Shecosystem: A community that holds weekly co-working events with a focus on wellness; and
Ember: A co-working space with mentorship opportunities for women.

For a more complete list of supports for women entrepreneurs across Canada, visit http://weoc.ca/ or download their eco-system diagram Womens-Entrepreneurial-Ecosystem_2016_03_01_weoc (1).

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
Our Voices

Its Time To Redefine Entrepreneurship

It is no secret that most women face difficult barriers as entrepreneurs. Gender inequality remains and alongside pay inequality, the language and narrative around entrepreneurship is a dominantly masculine one. Even today most major business management curriculum and mainstream media narratives seem to displace our entrepreneurial heroines. We are used to honoring the superstars like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, but have you heard of Ursula Burns or Sara Kirke? If the answer is no, we are not surprised. On a whole the language of enterprise still remains skewed toward the celebration of mainly masculine traits.

In an article for the Stanford Press University Blog, Barbara Orser and Catherine Elliot, co-authors of Feminine Capital: Unlocking the Power of Women Entrepreneurs, discuss the current state of entrepreneurship and talk about the anticipated arrival of the feminist entrepreneur. Someone who’s unique experience as a woman will be powerful in creating wealth and social change. Their idea is that by leveraging this distinctly feminine capital, entrepreneurial feminists are breaking new ground in creating wealth and social change.

Read more about the idea of feminine capital and the rise of the feminist entrepreneur here.

Barbara Orser and Catherine Elliot have also recently published a new book, Feminine Capital: Unlocking the Power of Women Entrepreneurs, a read we highly, highly recommend.

Categories
Our Voices

LiisBeth Podcast Show #1: Elizabeth Verway