I recently left the country (for a weekend) and joined an international group of feminists of all genders at the Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum (EFF) in Toronto. I had been invited to offer a workshop on the tools and strategies activists use to make change. When I first heard about this group (not knowing anything about them), my skeptical radar when off, projecting pantsuits and pink-washing of corporate injustice and business-as-usual. It turns out, I was wrong. The Entrepreneurial Feminists walk the talk, do the work, and embody the intersectional change we seek in the world. To say I was impressed is an understatement. I was blown away, reinvigorated, and tingling with the sensation of finding 150 like-minded souls. By definition, Entrepreneurial Feminists are activists even if they don’t use the word. They seek to implement feminist values in their businesses, and use business to change the world in alignment with feminist values. When I asked my workshop participants how many of them were working for social change, every hand in the room went up.
Here are 8 awesome take-aways from my experience at the Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum.
Really Cool Things Are Happening
From innovation hubs to federal grants aimed at supporting women entrepreneurs (in Canada) to collectives and coops to queer-and-women owned enterprise to B-Corps, really amazing things are happening. The participants in the forum were all engaged in actively changing the world through the vehicle of ethical, sustainable, just and fair businesses. I was blown away by the creativity, hopefulness, expertise, and knowledge that joined together at the forum.
Canada Is Awesome (Especially Compared to US)
Canada has a self-proclaimed “feminist” prime minister, which is the polar opposite of the US “grab-em-by-the-pussy” president. The Canadians are concerned about who is getting the federal government’s entrepreneurial and women-in-business grants, rather than whether or not such things should exist. They’re working on extending their 1-year paid maternity/paternity leave program to small and mid-sized business owners. (When I explained that the US has no mandated paid maternity leave programs, they looked at me in shock. Americans can’t get fired for being pregnant, and we’re given a “short-and-temporary” unpaid leave to give birth, but that’s it.) Canada is making great strides in the direction of progressive values while remaining conscious of its shortcomings and dedicated to visions that I feel few Americans are even daring to dream right now. It was refreshing, sobering, and invigorating to get out of our country for a weekend and listen to the ideas and brilliance happening across the border.
Entrepreneurial Feminists are a thing.
Confession: At the forum, I asked the obvious question, “what, exactly, is an entrepreneurial feminist?” The LiisBeth: Field Notes for Feminists in Business defines it as: entrepreneurial feminist (verb): 1.0 A person (s) who transforms lives by working to advance social justice and transmute the economy. Now, I myself would have said that an Entrepreneurial Feminist is a noun, but Buckminster Fuller clarified long ago that the human being is actually a verb, as “being” suggests. At the forum, speaker CV Harquist offered a foundational talk and explained that an entrepreneurial feminist is someone who is applying the values of feminism to enterprise. This person (of any gender) is pre-figuratively changing the world and supporting social change through the vehicle of their business. They advance collective flourishing, and operate in socially, economically, and politically generative (not extractive) ways.
Feminist Values: The Lightbulb Goes On
For years, I’ve had a reluctance around business. And no wonder: business as usual is built on values and principles I tend to find abhorrent. I’m not in the work I do for the fortune. I’d like to pay my bills, like everyone else, but beyond that, I want my work to support equality, justice, respect, healing, transformation, accessibility, sustainability, and world peace. (A tall order, I know.) Business-as-usual often doesn’t move in that direction. So, I’ve been haphazardly searching for the alternatives. The Entrepreneurial Feminists are certainly that. It was thrilling to see my worldview articulated at the forum and put on a power-point projection about doing business from a feminist lens. In her Foundational Talk, CV Harquail defined core feminist business values, including whole human-ness and inter-independence. She spoke about how feminist business challenges hierarchical leadership and extractive industries. She explained how feminism was not trying to replace male dominance with female dominance, but rather to unravel the structures of domination all together. When asked if entrepreneurial feminists were seeking to be a counterculture in the business world, she replied that the vision is to overturn the patriarchal, dominating, exploitative, oppressive, and extractive economic systems that are destructive to humanity and the Earth. (I’ve always loved a good revolutionary idea.) As I listened, the imagined gap between my values and my view of being in business evaporated. I looked around the room and realized that there were 150+ persons who were, like me, striving to integrate feminist values into their work. CV Harquail said, “the meaning of our collective purpose is the well-being of everyone.” This simple, but deeply profound statement represents a revolutionary upheaval for the current systems and structures built on individual wealth accumulation at the expense of people and planet. If I can do business like a feminist, I’m all for it.
Ecosystems & Murmurations
I taught my murmuration exercise on embodying shared leadership, and I wasn’t the only presenter tapping into the beautiful potential of natural systems theory. The theme of ecosystems ran through many sessions and served as a foundational understanding for all of the ideas that were shared. Feminism embraces our deep connection to the rest of the natural world. It calls out destructive and dominative structures, proposing models based on cooperatives, collectives, shared leadership, emergent systems, self-organizing structures, horizontal organizing, and so on. I attended a session by Petra Kassun-Mutch and Barbara Orser that used ecosystem mapping to help entrepreneurial feminists identify areas of mutually-beneficial collaboration between one’s supply-chain, sales channels, media/promoters, and funders. Much like symbiotic relationships in nature or healthy, balanced ecosystems, the strategies suggested in the workshop demonstrated how collective flourishing supported one’s business, rather than the false model of competition. It was invigorating to see so many people working with these concepts.
Indigenomics & Decolonizing Design
Carol Anne Hilton presented on an emergent field called “Indigenomics” which looked at the economic powerhouse of First Nations. She spoke about how Indigenous values are integrated into economic business models that operate sustainably and respect Indigenous traditions. She also mentioned that this knowledge was vital to changing false narratives around dependency and economic burdens or drains. On related note, Dr. Dori Tunstall, the first Black and female Dean of Design at Ontario College of Arts and Design University, spoke powerfully about the tangible ways in which she is working with others to decolonize education and create a decolonized design program.
Means Are Ends In the Making
The Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum integrated knowledge-sharing styles, drawing from both traditional lecture formats and generative, participatory models of learning. Movement, art, and music all played roles in the conference. A member of the hosting committee attended each session as a scribe, taking notes (and drawings) of the session’s teachings. In the evenings, the scribes offered the whole group report-backs so that we all had a sense of what had transpired during the day. Opportunities for mingling and sharing our experiences and ideas were built into the program. Tabling and flyering spaces were available. SheEO founder Vicki Saunders facilitated a radical generosity session among the participants that taught skills of giving and receiving support in many forms (examples included art/book reviews, business plan development, newsletter signups, and more). Movement sessions began each morning. Snacks, water, and childcare were provided. If entrepreneurial feminists seek to implement feminist values into businesses, the EFF did its best to walk that talk during the weekend.
Practical Action Steps for Yours Truly (and perhaps you?)
I started telling everyone I know about the forum. This is a rare phenomenon for me. Next year, I want to bring you all with me, including those who identify as male and feminist. EFF is for feminists of all genders, including trans, male, non-binary, and label defying. I also set aside three days later this month to do a deep dive strategy and business planning session with my partner, to see how we can incorporate what I learned at the EFF into my work as a writer, publisher, and distributor of my indie books. I also signed up for a couple of newsletters, so I can stay in touch with this movement. You may also be interested: check out Liisbeth Magazine and Feminists At Work. Follow #feministbiz on social media.