“Despite current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible…”
– Margaret Wheatley & Deborah Frieze
On Monday, May 13th in NYC, I’m participating in a sold-out Powerbitches roundtable, “Feminist Entrepreneurs Unite!” hosted by Powerbitches founder Rachel Hills. I’m excited because when Rachel invited me to speak on feminist business practice at this event, she didn’t want to do a panel; she wanted to start a good conversation and invited my thoughts on how to do it. So on Monday, 40 or so people will talk about what feminist business means as well as what the feminist business community in NYC needs to look like.
According to CV Harquail, one of the leading thinkers and scholars on feminist business and management theory, a feminist business does the following:
- Enacts feminist values
- Promotes justice
- Operates in socially, economically, and politically generative ways
- Advances collective flourishing
Harquail, whose book Feminism: A Key Idea for Business and Society, comes out in July 2019, is also creator of the Feminist Business Model Canvas. (Full disclosure, CV is my business partner at Feminists at Work, and I’m damn proud of her and grateful to her for work).
Despite Jennifer Armbrust’s good work on the feminine economy, I would add that feminist businesses need not be feminine.
I’m also looking forward for Monday because feminist entrepreneurship (or entrepreneurial feminism), however you want to slice it, just has its own (global) momentum. I am grateful to Barb Orser and Catherine Elliott, authors of Feminine Capital and Petra Kassun-Mutch of LiisBeth for building the field! And sure, I co-produced and co-curated the agenda for the Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum in Toronto in 2018 and 2019 (and taking credit for things is important as a queer lady in the world), but for a variety of reasons, this thing just has wheels. It’s Hills’ turn right now to push this conversation forward and soon it will be someone else’s (thanks for exercise Rivera Sun) because we live in a world with many different moving parts and no one owns the idea of applying feminism to business… and this is a really good thing.
“When separate, local efforts connect with each other as networks then strengthen as communities of practice, suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale. This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals. It isn’t that they were hidden; they simply didn’t exist until the system emerges.”
adrienne maree brown is another teacher and voice teaching us all about this not always sexy, but terribly useful idea of emergence. You can read about it in her book Emergent Strategy or her early talks on “flocking.” She makes a point to weave in the words of the Black lesbian activist and science fiction author, Octavia Butler:
“Civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals. It is a means of combining the intelligence of many to achieve ongoing group adaptation.”
I’m forever invested in being part of and feeling this emergence of a larger, more equitable “system of influence” (in this case, of feminist business practice) not because I don’t want to give leading thinkers in this space credit… We need to acknowledge and thank thinkers who came before us and who, in many cases for reasons of racism and sexism and classism, haven’t received the acknowledgement they deserve. We also need to lift up each other’s work so we can all find each other. But one of my deepest hopes is that businesses just figure out how to stop doing harm and learn other ways of operating in the world. And to do this, we need all hands on deck. We need leaders to swap in and swap out leading each other and leaders leading the way, many different ways, in parallel.
To me, being a feminist business means making an effort to practice care for customers (let’s call them community members!) and employees as much as you make an effort to create revenue. It means making money, of course, but doing so without treating people like shit. It means paying people a living wage and respecting human rights and respecting the earth and fixing supply chains and investing in community-led enterprises with a social justice analysis and, as I am learning from Dr. Dori Tunstall, decolonizing design. And it means protecting people’s dignity while we do all of these things. It means knowing (and acting from the idea) that difference only makes us stronger, wiser, and more resilient.
Interestingly, none of these things require that you be a woman! But women (and people who aren’t men) are leading the way on feminist business practice, it’s true.
Mostly, I want businesses that understand the laws of the earth. Feminism seems to be a way of understanding and appreciating these laws. As the late, great systems thinker Donnella Meadows wrote:
THE LAWS OF THE EARTH AND THE LAWS OF ECONOMICS
Economics says: compete. Only by pitting yourself against a worthy opponent will you perform efficiently. The reward for successful competition will be growth. You will eat up your opponents, one by one, and as you do, you will gain the resources to do it some more.
The Earth says: compete, yes, but keep your competition in bounds. Don’t annihilate. Take only what you need. Leave your competitor enough to live. Wherever possible, don’t compete, cooperate. Pollinate each other, create shelter for each other, build firm structures that lift smaller species up to the light. Pass around the nutrients, share the territory. Some kinds of excellence rise out of competition; other kinds rise out of cooperation. You’re not in a war, you’re in a community.
Economics says: worry, struggle, be dissatisfied. The permanent condition of humankind is scarcity. The only way out of scarcity is to accumulate and hoard, though that means, regrettably, that others will have less. Too bad, but there is not enough to go around.
The Earth says: rejoice! You have been born into a world of self-maintaining abundance and incredible beauty. Feel it, taste it, be amazed by it. If you stop your struggle and lift your eyes long enough to see Earth’s wonders, to play and dance with the glories around you, you will discover what you really need. It isn’t that much. There is enough. As long as you control your numbers, there will be enough for everyone and for as long as you can imagine.
So on Monday, I’ll do my best to inhabit this brain space, where there’s enough to go around and everybody’s a learner because of course we all are… even as women learn to claim our own expertise. And I’ll aim to share what I learned at this past fall’s Entrepreneurial Feminism Forum. Here’s what the 2018 agenda looked like below:
And while we’re talking about the laws of the earth versus the laws of economics, be sure to read Katrine Marçal’s brilliant and totally accessible book on feminist economics, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?
Want to learn more? Find Rachel Hills’ piece about this event, “Feminist Entrepreneurs Unite!” on the Powerbitches blog.