Three Ideas to Help us Build the Feminist Businesses of the Future

May 11, 2017 0 Comments

“Conventional tools show us the conventional view. To envision something different, we need different tools.”

CV Harquail, creator of the Feminist Business Model Canvas

What if we could fundamentally transform systems and create new systems instead of working so hard to include people in existing systems?

On April 28th, CV and I were delighted to partner with Petra Kassun-Mutch, creator of Liisbeth, a consistently excellent magazine for feminists in business, and Dr. Barbara Orser, Professor of Management in the Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa and co-author of Feminine Capital, on a workshop dedicated to feminist business practice at the Centre for Social Innovation in downtown Toronto. View photos from the event here.

Petra gathered all of us together, welcoming entrepreneurs, academics, and other changemakers to CSI for a day of learning. Barbara opened the day with a keynote looking at the hard truth about the state of women’s entrepreneurship (and funding/capital) in Canada, summarizing key findings from her book, and making a case for “entrepreneurial feminism”. And then CV debuted her Feminist Business Model Canvas (FBMC), a Feminists at Work tool, which among other things, helps entrepreneurs build the businesses of the future by working with feminist values and generative design principles.

It was a good room to be in. Our only regret was that we didn’t have more at least one or two more days beyond the workshop to explore participants’ businesses and canvases in greater depth and for participants to develop their canvases together. Between a Liisbeth-hosted salon the evening prior, the workshop itself, and a weekend of reflecting on what we learned, here are three core contributions from this group and ideas we explored:

From CV Harquail…

Businesses can be effective, profitable, and feminist all at the same time. It’s true! But the great majority of our business development tools (as they exist now) reinforce patriarchal models of thinking and operating by design. Given the way women’s and feminists’ ideas have been left out of history (and business and management thinking), particularly those ideas from women of color, how could our current tools possibly help lead us to the future of work? New tools for feminist business practice like the FBMC design these considerations back into your business. They work on social and expressive solutions right alongside functional product/service solutions. They center foundational strengths, collective values, and social/political/economic impact right alongside revenue streams. They value care for relationships, justice, and social equity. They ask questions of entrepreneurs about how to meet customer, community, and stakeholder social needs while contributing to community wellness.

If this comprehensive incorporation of (return to?) feminist values in business sounds like a tall order, maybe it is. Still, CSI was filled with people who are building these kinds of organizations and processes. The capabilities are there; the FBMC provides a framework for supporting these entrepreneurs and businesses that already exist.

From Barbara Orser…

There’s a difference between calling yourself a feminist entrepreneur and practicing entrepreneurial feminism.

Feminist entrepreneurs arefeminists and entrepreneurs who may or may not be feminist in the way they go about running their business. Entrepreneurial feminism is about applying feminist thinking and principles to how we go about entrepreneurship. Feminist entrepreneurs are great—it’s always good to have more women entrepreneurs who identify as feminists! But entrepreneurial feminism is transformative because it’s rooted in changing the very way business gets done. How do we throw our collective weight behind entrepreneurial feminism? How do we connect the power of feminism with business and innovation (rather than just paying lip service to feminist ideas)? In short, by advocating for policy changes and by investing in women and feminist-led businesses. This is a topic that requires its own post.

From Petra Kassun-Mutch…

In short, this is the moment for feminist business and leadership/management practitioners to come together and build something different than the current world we’ve got. And in many ways, feminists of all genders in Canada are leading the way towards a more socially equitable, resilient, and just business future. Plenty of challenges remain, as Orser explained in her opening keynote, but there is no shortage of interest or commitment. To move forward wisely, we need new tools like the FBMC and those tools in Orser’s Feminine Capital, and we also need to share our successes, questions, and challenges as we use them. It was in this spirit that Petra brought Feminists at Work to Toronto and gathered leaders in the social enterprise, women’s leadership, and feminist business practice space. The opportunity now is to use this moment to create momentum.

As for me? When I’m not designing gatherings and workshops with CV, I’m committed to sharing all the learning that I can from events like these, whether they are Feminists at Work events or others, so that together, this ecosystem of leading thinkers, learners, and entrepreneurs (and leaders within established organizations) can co-create what is clearly an emerging field. I call it feminist business practice, but it has plenty of overlaps with the sustainable business and flourishing business communities as well.

I’m reminded of the late systems thinker Donella Meadows’ words in her piece, “The Laws of the Earth and the Laws of Economics”:

“Compete, yes, but keep your competition in bounds. Don’t annihilate…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.”

I’m reminded, too, of pretty much every word in the journalist Katrine Marçal’s brave and superb book on feminist economics, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? And I’m reminded of every colleague and entrepreneur I’ve worked with who generally believes there is enough to go around in our communities and that there’s a fundamentally different, more just, generous, and caring (and yes, more effective) way of doing business.

It’s up to all of us to create spaces where we can develop these ideas individually and collectively, inviting the strengths of our different lived experiences to show up.

What ideas intrigue you about feminist business practice? If you were there on the 28th, how are you using your Feminist Business Model Canvas? If you want to learn more, visit us at FeministsatWork.com, Liisbeth.com, and learn more about Orser’s book Feminine Capital here.

Photos by Maria A. Vassiliou.

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