Dismantling Systems of Oppression in Business: 5 Commitments For Working Together

Tara McMullin
Sep 5, 2018 · 16 min read
Photo by Christian Bardenhorst on Unsplash

In December 2016, I decided to walk away from a brand and product that had generated over $1 million in sales.

Financially, it was a tough call. Ethically and ideologically, it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made.

I was still reeling from the US presidential election, as were many white, progressive, and feminist-identifying people. I started to see just how much pain and trauma were being endured by marginalized groups on a daily basis, despite the strides we had — seemingly — made over the previous 8 years.

I started to see institutionalized oppression and subjugation everywhere — including in my business.

Despite having just actively voted against authoritarian, patriarchal, and crony capitalist forces, my business had been built using many of these same tools.

Whether it was the way I collected contact information, the way I priced products and services, the relationship I created between my customers and myself, or the way I hired help, my business had become — through carelessness — a derivative of the systems I despised.

Honestly, I was ready to throw in the towel. Righting the ship felt like an impossibly big task.

Some soul searching, number crunching, and rededication brought things into focus.

The choice wasn’t between carrying on as before or giving up. The only choice for me was, through imperfect action, to build something unfamiliar and infinitely more valuable than what I had created before.

Below, you’ll find the story of how I found my way to the information marketing, consulting, and personal brand space and how that journey has informed my own understanding of the potential for exploitation and oppression at its core. You’ll also find 4 commitments that my company and I have made as we explore how to do business in light of what we’ve become aware of.

Before I go on, I recognize that my action is imperfect. My understanding of others’ oppression and subjugation is imperfect. And, I recognize that no one needs me to fix anything for them.

I am passionate about the community I serve, the opportunity that the growing New Economy is creating, and the people I am building things for. My voice and my story are part of that enthusiasm.

I share my thoughts here not to call out bad people but to shine a light on bad systems that hurt us all.

That all said, my experience is privileged. It is not only privileged by race but by education, sexuality, and economic status. And so, a disclaimer: Robin DiAngelo writes in her book, White Fragility:

“…in speaking as a white person to a primarily white audience, I am yet again centering white people and the white voice. I have not found a way around this dilemma, for as an insider I can speak to the white experience in ways that may be harder to deny. So, though I am centering the white voice, I am also using my insider status to challenge racism. To not use my position this way is to uphold racism, and that is unacceptable; it is a ‘both/and’ that I must live with. I would never suggest that mine is the only voice that should be heard, only that it is one of the many pieces needed to solve the overall puzzle.”

I recognize that in this article, I am centering not only a white voice, but an upper-middle class voice, a straight voice, and a college-educated voice. Like DiAngelo, I hope to use my voice to challenge power structures from the inside — not to silence those whose experiences are not like mine.

I was originally drawn to the boom of freelancers, online business owners, and bootstrapped startups in the wake of the Great Recession.

I was a brand new mom and had just quit a job at a company in its death knells. The lure of blogging — a medium I had first explored as a senior in college in 2004 — and its power to connect me to hundreds or thousands of people who didn’t know me but were eager to read my thoughts was palpable.

Combined with social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter hitting the mainstream, the opportunity was clear.

I had a voice and could use it to create something valuable enough to earn a little money from.

My first website was a craft and maker blog and community celebrating everything handmade in my home state of Pennsylvania. Through it, I met people like Nick from the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsman, who paid me to teach my first social media workshop, and Jan, who sold me her own blog business so that she could pursue a textile design business.

I entered a phase of rapid growth and expansion.

Now, not only did I have a voice, I had a platform.

What I created was valuable and I learned how to generate revenue from advertising. It became clear, though, that advertising was a losing business. So I explored offering web design services, social media strategy, and consulting.

Soon, I branched into ebooks, online courses, and other digital products. Some were a success, others not so much. All along, I kept writing and sharing about my excitement for the possibilities that online business was bringing us.

I fell so deeply in love with the business side of things that I jumped head first into accumulating methods, case studies, and techniques for growing a small, digital business. I started coaching other business owners and helped them plan products, marketing, and sales.

Before I knew it, small business owners were looking to me for advice, answers, and ideas. I became a trainer, an educator, and a coach’s coach.

I was neck-deep in information marketing and building a personal brand.

Even as my audience grew, the opportunities came pouring in, and my business generated solid revenue, I knew that there was something wrong. I wasn’t doing as well as I should have been doing. I wasn’t keeping pace with others on my same path.

What I couldn’t see then that I can see now is how much of the frustration my business caused me was due to the friction between my values and vision…

…and the way a business like mine was “supposed” to be structured.

I had been making concessions all along when certain tactics or strategies that are common in my industry didn’t sit well with me. But what I didn’t notice was that it wasn’t the individual tactic or strategy that was the problem.

The real problem was the whole premise of how the business was supposed to be structured in the first place.

My little business wasn’t actually structured to help the less powerful claim economic influence and flexibility they’d never had access to. Its structure was based on advantaging the already more powerful, already more flexible, already more economically influential through a system of hierarchy and restricted access. There was exploitation baked right into it.

The structure of my business meant that wealth always flowed to the top, to me as a figurehead. Beyond delivering good customer service, my only financial incentive was to enrich myself as the sole shareholder of my business.

As Srinivas Rao, the host of The Unmistakable Creative, puts it:

“We have the tools, resources, and technology to solve major problems. Influencers can influence real change. Media creators have the power to highlight essential stories. But the profit motive always precedes moral responsibility.”

I sincerely apologize for all the ways my business hasn’t met needs, didn’t accommodate inclusivity, or failed to provide a compassionate response in the past because of the motive to profit and my own inability to see tell-tale signs of crony capitalism at play in my business.

Now, that’s not to say that I haven’t done good work. It’s not to say that I haven’t helped plenty of people grow and manage their businesses. I’ve worked hard to do business “less wrong.”

But, as umair haque writes in his book, Betterness:

“The terra incognita we’ve never explored is whether it’s possible for prosperity and human exchange not merely to go less wrong, but more right.”

That’s it: I want my company and its offerings to do things more right.

How much more prosperous — in real terms — could our customers, listeners, and readers be if we didn’t just improve on the existing system…

…but reimagined our product and structure to incentivize more collaborative, less hierarchical wealth creation?

How much more prosperous could my customers and clients be if we focused on building a structure that doesn’t just exchange value but multiplies it?

How much more prosperous could my company, its stakeholders, and our employees be as part of a more creative, less derivative business system?

Jennifer Armbrust, the founder of Sister and the creator of Feminist Business School, says, “A business can be a prototype for the world you want to live in.”

I completely agree. The world I want to live in values the voices, experiences, perspectives, and skills of all people. There isn’t a false hierarchy based on a perception of who is more worthy, deserving, committed, or valuable.

“What about a life where one isn’t either predator or prey?” Haque writes.

It’s not enough to think I’m doing business differently. It’s not enough to use different language or co-opt and appropriate the language of other cultures to display my level of “awareness.” As long as that’s my only barometer of progress, I’m still likely to construct a business in which there is predator and prey, playing into the long-game of oppression.

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, an activist and anthropology and women’s studies student at Columbia, writes:

“There cannot be an othering between the oppressors of our history and those who continue to benefit from the systems they created.”

In other words, I can’t excuse myself from oppression just because I don’t work for “the man.” As long as I’m benefiting from the traditional predator/prey systems, I am a party to it.

Of course, the predator/prey dichotomy isn’t the only way to divide and conquer.

Much of the way small business in the digital world is taught creates the distinction between the committed and the “flakes,” the worthy and the “freebie seekers,” the deserving and the “tire kickers.”

There are those who “get it” and those who do not, the strong and the weak, the superior and the inferior.

Businesses are structured around the filtering (or sales funneling) mechanisms that separate these two groups. They pit us against each other and reward greater and greater investment as an achievement in and of itself.

Those who can pony up for access to a guru or can travel around the world networking their way through conference after conference end up on the fast track. They’re taken under wing by the already successful and ushered into a new echelon of access.

Those who can’t or are unwilling to, on the other hand, are left to work harder and harder, playing a never ending game of catch-up.

Of course, the people who aren’t able or willing — because of a day job, commitment to family, or health concerns — to invest, travel, and network themselves to success often belong to marginalized groups.

Instead of finding ways to build products that take very real limitations on time, flexibility, and finances into account, the system teaches to question non-buyers’ commitment and worthiness. And so, the violent cycle continues.

Now, I realize that I began this piece saying that I made the decision to make a huge business change in December 2016. But it wasn’t until I was fully in the pivot that I had the hindsight to see all of this more clearly.

My livelihood and even my identity were mixed up in this familiar system, making it incredibly challenging to find the distance and awareness to truly break free.

I thought I had been doing something subversive while, the whole time, I was reinforcing the most dangerous institutions of our society. I was heartbroken — not just for an identity and sense of purpose that felt lost — but for the people I thought I was serving.

I tried to give myself grace while also plowing ahead with necessary changes before I was completely ready.

What I realized through this process of untangling was, without care and thoughtfulness, by default, we recreate what is familiar to us whether that’s what we really want or not. I had recreated a patriarchal, capitalist, authoritarian system despite what I thought I was doing all along.

The familiar systems have socially, culturally, and economically failed us.

What we need is a healthy dose of the unfamiliar.

In my own company’s attempt to build something unfamiliar, I have learned a lot about business, about our culture, and about the people who deserve better options. Based on what I’ve learned, I’ve chosen (at least) four things that I’m doing completely differently than I have in the past.

Yes, making these 4 commitments has made it harder to grow my business. In fact, my business hasn’t grown — it’s contracted — but what has grown is our impact in real terms. And, I know that if we continue down this path, we can generate immense prosperity both for ourselves and for our customers.

Here’s what my company and I have committed to:

1. We won’t build a wall to create value.

Most businesses selling information, skill-building, and knowledge resources build a wall between the information that serves as marketing and the really good stuff that actually solves your problems. Some refer to the boundary as a velvet rope or a hoop you have to jump through.

The idea is the same: if you are worthy and if you are deserving you will find a way to cross the boundary and take advantage of resources on the other side.

Our goal is different. We aim, instead, to create a home — a safe space for the people who choose to enter.

What we offer at The What Works Network, the peer support network my company manages, is readily available to those outside our “home.” We offer a platform for working together with other small business owners, having honest conversations about the ups & downs of running a business, and engaging in collaborative learning. You can do those things anywhere.

But some people value the opportunity to do those things in a environment that is well-tended by humans, away from the bustle of traditional social media, and specially designed for their needs. They value the fact that they’re introduced to people, businesses, industries, models, and strategies that their own social network wouldn’t give them access to (including people from completely different backgrounds).

This difference between building a wall and creating a home might seem semantic. However, from a strategic and operational standpoint, it means everything to me.

The difference guides our daily decision making on member experiences, event planning, marketing, and sales. It means that we center voices other than our own in both marketing and product delivery (think dinner party instead of lecture). It means we amplify conversations that defy conventional wisdom instead of relying on a “it’s my way or the highway” approach. It means we work to create a sense of belonging for those who choose to enter our virtual home instead of focusing on keeping the undeserving out.

2. I don’t have to be an authority to be a respected leader and influencer.

Expert culture has a mean authoritarian streak.

It rewards loyalty and obedience (think the 30-day refund policies based on a strict adherence to a system). It puts the greatest power squarely in the hands of an individual, “the expert,” so much so that cults of personality form easily. It persists through the endorsement of a tight-knit network of other experts and authorities (think the form of affiliate marketing that passes business from one expert to the next).

Building a great business requires none of these things. Becoming a trusted leader and a true influencer requires none of these things.

These strategies exist because, through their manipulation, the people in power stay in power — and dictate who else can achieve power.

I have purposefully taken myself out of the role of expert, guru, and authority in my business. I am done being the one with the answers. I am done with rewarding loyalty and obedience. I am done with the idea that I might be the next person let into the tight-knit network and see my net worth grow exponentially.

Instead, I want to run my company as best I can and I want to be a superuser of the product we’ve built.

3. We won’t steamroll consent to earn attention.

Much of direct response marketing and many businesses operating in the information, skill-building, and knowledge resources space are operating under a strategy of steamrolling consent.

This is what happens when a store takes your email address for a digital receipt (saving the environment, yes!) and then starts to email you about discounts and new products (promotional communication without consent, no!).

But it’s also what happens when we obsess on using freebies, opt-in incentives, and free workshops to buy someone’s contact information for promotional purposes.

It’s what happens when we delay revealing what we’re selling so we can get as many people through a sales campaign as possible.

It’s what happens when we label a sales call as a free coaching session or consultation.

It’s what happens when we chime into a social media conversation with our 2 cents hoping it will lead to a sale.

It doesn’t matter if “everyone knows” what’s really going on. Steamrolling consent is wrong. Clear and direction communication keeps everyone on the same page.

There are opportunities to affirm consent throughout a business — not just before someone hands over an email address. For example, Amy Walsh, an artist, visual storyteller, and brand strategist, created commenting policies for the groups she leads that cultivate a culture of consent. Instead of letting people say what they want about what they want (even if it’s a nice thing), she directs her group participants to create their own guidelines on each post for the feedback they want to receive.

At The What Works Network, we regularly revisit the policies we utilize to codify our community culture. We help members become more comfortable asking for help or support through coaching and scripts. Next, we’re tackling issues of consent when it comes to offering help as well.

This might actually be the commitment I understand least and have the furthest to go on. I have certainly been a perpetrator of this offense in the past and I’m still working to make sure our marketing systems and data collection systems are as straightforward as possible.

4. We won’t use price as a barometer for commitment or worthiness.

How many times has it been said, “When they say they can’t afford it, what they mean is that they don’t prioritize it?” How many times has this line been used against you?

First off, this can actually be true. But someone not prioritizing a solution you’ve created is no reason to judge their commitment to their goals or their worthiness of a particular outcome. This line of reasoning has been used to demonize non-buyers and make creators feel superior.

Second, sometimes people can’t afford it.

Our goal at What Works is to create accessible pricing for the customers who would benefit most from what we offer. That means we create free content based on our paid solutions that is available to anyone and everyone through a variety of platforms. Our paid solutions start around $500 per year, a small percentage of the total business support budget for the kind of member who is going to get the most value from what we’ve created.

We do have more expensive options but we don’t base the price of those options on the perceived commitment of the people who want to purchase them. These more expensive options are more resource-intensive versions of our core product. They literally cost more to produce and manage. The price is a reflection of their operational load on our business.

Not using financial investment as a barometer for commitment also means never shaming or writing off a member who chooses to leave. They’re not suddenly less committed or worthy of success, they’re simply finding what they need elsewhere.

5. We will remain open to all the ways in which we continue to perpetuate broken systems and oppression.

Sara Haile-Mariam, in her piece on a recent major misstep by a popular personal development figure, wrote of the need of all white leaders to take a fresh look at the ways our products, marketing systems, sales processes, and business structures perpetuate white supremacy. She writes:

“Sometimes that means spending seasons in brevity and quiet. Sometimes that means hiring expert help. Sometimes that means taking a step back to simply witness life with an open heart, focused on understanding how you participate in the things that you claim to be against. Focused on how your actions are an indication of where white supremacy, or patriarchy, or islamophobia, or xenophobia, or ableism, or anti-semitism, or fat-phobia, or transphobia, or homophobia, or hatred, are given life through you.”

I am only just realizing the depth my own prejudice and the ways I’ve been conditioned to act as an oppressor. My current action is incomplete but I’m working towards completeness — fully recognizing I can never attain it.

Desiree Adaway, the founder & principal of The Adaway Group, a consulting firm working with corporations on social justice and equality projects, writes:

“To do the work required of social justice is to know that you’re not perfect, can’t be perfect, and that part of the process is learning how to fall and get back up — with grace and fortitude.

At some point you or your organization are going to make a mistake. You’re going to say or do something that is offensive, that is microaggressive, harmful.

It’s inevitable, and it is NOT the end of the world.

So, here’s the question — how do we restore community when we have offended and hurt others?”

I think that is exactly the question. The New Economy and, with it, the boom of freelancers, small business owners, and bootstrapped startups that caught my eye a decade ago, represent an opportunity for the traditionally disempowered to work together, prosper, and gain influence over the direction of our culture.

But if we continue to rebuild the constructs of broken systems, we’ll fail at this higher mission.

For all of our talk of freedom lifestyles, personal empowerment, and pursuing greatness, the white, gender-conforming, and predominantly upper middle class people who presume to lead the charge into the New Economy have done little to reimagine the structure in which those promises are made.

My goal as a leader and our goal as a company is to continue to recognize that every decision we make and every feature we roll out is a chance to do something different and create something new.

P.S. The voices I’ve quoted in this article are working hard to create new solutions to familiar problems. Please check out their work and follow them. Or, support them directly through their products & services:

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