Feminist Business School with Jennifer Armbrust
Can business be a site for radical creativity and social change? Join us as we go back to school with feminist business consultant Jennifer Armbrust.
Jennifer is the founder and director of Sister, a consulting firm that advises companies on bringing feminist principles into business practices. She’s also the creator of Feminist Business School, an online course, and the author of Proposals for the Feminine Economy. We talk to her about what it means to bring feminism into business, what it might look like to build more equitable economic systems, and why she thinks all entrepreneurs should read some Audre Lorde.
Listen to your body’s messages as guidance, instead of seeing your body as an inconvenience to work—which is what capitalism says. Capitalism says, “you could work so much more if you didn’t get sick or pregnant or have to eat or go to sleep!”… So, that’s kind of the first place I work. How do we bring your body back into your business and let your body have some votes on what happens throughout the day?—Jennifer Armbrust, founder of Sister and creator of Feminist Business School
We chat about:
- Why Jennifer let go of the pursuit for “ideological purity,” and embraced bringing her feminist backpack into the weeds of capitalism instead
- How our culture of overwork and constant pressure to produce fails us
- Why listening to your body, not just your to-do list, is a feminist act
- Why fear is what keeps people—and companies—stuck
- The importance of “tinkering”—using small shifts to create change
- The limitations of “conscious capitalism” in creating equitable futures
- Sara and Katel talk about their own successes (and…not-so-successes) bringing their feminist practices into their work
- Why having a woman in charge doesn’t make a business feminist
- The problem with individualistic “go get yours” women’s empowerment messages
- White feminism in history: how Southern white women’s slaveholding helped secure their economic future
Photo credit: Aubree Bernier-Clarke
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Katel LeDu And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL Today we are talking about feminist business practices and that is a topic near and dear to my heart. Our guest knows a lot about it—that’s Jennifer Armbrust and she’s the founder of a feminist consultancy called Sister, and the creator of something called Feminist Business School.
SWB I never wanted to go to business school until right now! [KL laughs]
KL I know. Sign me up immediately; I am so ready for the homework.
SWB So, something that I really loved about this interview and about the way that Jennifer talks about this work is that she really wants us to question what we think business is and what business can be. And I feel like I’ve been toying with that for a long time with the idea of a feminist business—is that possible, does that exist, do I have one, do we have one? [laughs] And is that something that’s even possible to make coexist or are they naturally opposed? And I think that one of the things that she’s really trying to do is decouple some of those assumptions we have about business that are really tied into a very narrow, capitalist and patriarchal vision, and think about what business could mean outside of that, which is super interesting even if I don’t know all the answers. [laughs]
KL I know, same. I also love that it’s not all or nothing. You might not radically shift your business model completely overnight, but by asking these questions and dissecting those assumptions you’re talking about, we can start to make real change.
SWB Yeah, so starting to think about that—about making real change. Okay, so I don’t think that I have a perfect feminist business, [laughs] but I’m curious—how has your feminist practice started to shape or shift the way that you’ve built or that you run A Book Apart?
KL Yeah. I mean, I definitely think a lot about building frameworks that support feelings and empathy. And I think I’ve done a pretty solid job of that—building that kind of framework to support honest communication as well, so that I think we can work together to solve problems a little bit better. One big area this comes up often in is hitting deadlines. Publishing against an editorial calendar relies on deadlines, it has to. But no one is working full time on a book, so everyone is juggling workloads and schedules, and that’s whether you’re an author or an editor—everyone on the team. And while we don’t want to throw due dates completely out the window and we need to work toward mutually agreed upon milestones and launch dates so that we’re held accountable to something, we also know that we have to account for shifting and sliding timelines because everyone working on a book project is human and humans are not perfect time-punching robots. [laughs] And I think creating that framework is something that aligns a lot between my work and my personal values, but that’s not always the case.
SWB Yeah, yeah. I think that’s definitely true and I think that’s not feminist business in the sense of it’s just about women or something—that’s about transparency, and equality, and recognizing that people are human and have things that come up or things need to shift and we have to be able to work together in more humane ways.
SWB Yeah. So, something I realized is that for a long time, I feel like I was sort of living some dissonance when it came to my work versus my feminist practice because earlier on—like in my early twenties in college—I was working a rape crisis center, I was imagining myself doing something in public service journalism or something like that, something where there was some kind of specific and direct sense of good that you were doing.
SWB I don’t necessarily think all journalism is good per se—
KL [laughing] Right.
SWB —but I think there is a lot in there that is at least aiming to be and a lot of people have that in themselves when they think about what they do. So, I didn’t know exactly what it would like look, but I kind of saw myself somewhere over there. And then just a couple of years later, I ended up working in a design agency, and ended up doing all of this tech work, and effectively doing shit for money.
SWB Which was not really what I had anticipated for myself. And during that time, it’s not like I renounced my feminist beliefs, but I didn’t really attempt to reconcile them with the work that I was doing on a daily basis. I didn’t really think about them that much. Or I mean, I would think about them a little bit, but I never really let those thoughts become primary and grow. And as a result of that, I think that my feminism and my personal perspective on the world was actually kind of stunted for a while. There was no room for it to flourish; it was not some place where I was learning and rethinking and making new connections and all of that because I had to keep it separate from my day to day work in order to keep doing the day to day work. That got me through a few years, but it wasn’t very sustainable for me. So, in 2015 or so, I started to break through some of that dissonance and try to reconcile the work that I was doing with some of the things I believed and some of the values that I had. I started writing about tech and design from a more feminist lens and being more explicitly political in my work. And at first, I was pretty scared of that; I was really scared that that was totally going to fuck up my career. And it felt risky and sometimes it still feels risky, but I think that that’s when I was able to get back on track in terms of personal growth—and in a lot of ways professional growth, especially professional growth toward something that I care about. And being willing to alienate some people and being willing to lose out on some types of opportunities along the way was sort of a necessary risk I had to take—that concept of being willing to lose something in the process.
SWB And even though I did that, I still am questioning how well am I doing and how far am I on the road there.
SWB Okay. So, was there ever a time that you feel like you really were able to put some of your principles into practice in your work?
KL I mean, recently—I think over the summer—I talked to an author who was telling me that a partner we’d occasionally worked with previously had treated them really shittily. And it wasn’t just a one-off case, they tried to have a reasonable conversation with them and that partner just kept being shitty. And I decided that we should not work with this partner again. To me, it’s not worth any amount of marketing or opportunity to collaborate if it’s putting someone in the path of getting hurt or just treated badly.
SWB Mhmm. I just turned down an opportunity to work with an organization that while is focused on wellness, is actually I think very much part of diet culture and kind of has a huge influence on diet culture historically. They reached out wanting to see about me coming in and giving a talk, and I had to say no because even though they want me to talk about things like inclusivity, and sexism, and race, and things like that in design and UX, which sounds like “oh, maybe they want to learn stuff,” the ultimate thing that they create—the product at its core, the thing that they sell—I think is super anti-feminist and harmful. And there’s no talk I can give that undoes any of that I don’t think, so I had to say no to that.
KL Yeah, that’s so rough. I feel like it really isn’t always super easy to do that. I also keep asking myself this question: what am I willing to give up? I’m in a position of power, I have a certain amount of privilege, and I’m benefitting from systems that oppress black and brown women. So, it’s not enough for me to say, “okay, cool, I made it to the most senior position in my company and in my industry.” What am I going to do with that power and am I willing to give it up?
SWB Right, right, exactly. And I’ve asked myself that too and sometimes I’ve not been very proud of my answer.
SWB I’ve definitely made compromises, I’ve definitely been unwilling to give up power, and I’ve definitely also done work that I don’t feel great about, but has been personally beneficial. And I think that’s typical for anybody who is trying to live and thrive within a system that’s kind of broken, which I think we are. [laughs] But I also don’t think it’s okay to just blindly justify those compromises just because I’m trying to get by in a broken system because I don’t want to assume that it’s necessarily good for women in general or a feminist act just because I personally get ahead. Right? That does not actually add up.
SWB It may or may not be good for women in general or for marginalized people in general for me to get ahead.
KL Yeah. We talk about making space for and amplifying marginalized voices, but I think we want to go further than that. We have to think about the choices we make and what impact they have on black and brown women, and the individualistic systems of patriarchy and capitalism want us to be selfish and to not think about anyone else—not only to ignore them, but to actively hurt or destroy them to get ahead or to get anything.
SWB Right! So, I think a lot about the white feminist rhetoric that I think is very prominent right now, that basically is like “go get yours” is the message. It’s super individualistic, and it’s very focused on your individual success as a woman and that being evidence of some kind of feminist act. And it creates a system where we end up celebrating any woman who has ascended any ranks of power without questioning what she’s doing with that power or what she had to do to get there. I don’t know if you saw this—I remember there was this piece that was going around online—super popular—a few months ago that was an interview with the mom of both Susan Wojcicki, who is the CEO of YouTube and Anne Wojcicki, who is the CEO of 23andMe. And the buzz about it at first was like, “fuck yeah, look at this amazing mom raising these awesome powerful daughters—feminist shero!” [KL laughs] And the problem is both of those companies are super problematic and have massive ethical concerns. For example, YouTube—in their push to maximize profits above anything and everything else under Susan’s leadership, they started optimizing toward sending kids to all kinds of creepy sexual content—
SWB —and then also doing things like sending young men deeper and deeper into neofascist, sexist, violent, extremist content. The way that that algorithm is optimized to just keep them going deeper and deeper and deeper—that has actually been very, very bad for feminism. So, YouTube might have a woman in power, but that is not what I would call a feminist business.
KL Ughh, no! It’s so fucked up that so many people see a woman in a CEO role and they think, “awesome, that company is doing it right; that company is feminist.”
SWB Or that somehow like, “check!” Right? Like “done”? [laughs]
KL Yeah, right. [SWB laughs]
SWB Well, thankfully, I don’t think you’re on that path, even though you are a CEO. [KL laughs]
KL Don’t try!
SWB Oh my gosh. So, this actually reminds me of a piece I was reading in Vox that came out a couple of weeks ago. It was an interview with a historian named Stephanie Jones-Rogers and her expertise is on white women slave holders. She talks about how there’s this common narrative that white women were abolitionists and that white women in the South didn’t hold power, that men held the power. So, basically the message ends up being that white women are absolved and blameless—this wasn’t a thing that white women participated in.
KL Oof. That piece is so good and I feel like it illuminates a lot.
SWB Right. So, her research demonstrates that white women were actually routinely amassing wealth in the form of enslaved people because enslaved people was one of the only ways that they could gain and keep economic power in the context of that society.
KL Mmm, yeah.
SWB Which is the ultimate “I got mine,” right?
SWB Because okay sure, were they existing within an unjust system that was patriarchal and preferential to men? Yes. But were they basically looking at it as like, “okay, well given this unjust system, I’m going to optimize it toward my personal benefit without regard for who is harmed in the process in the most extreme way you can imagine.”
SWB So, I think a lot about those everyday women in business puff pieces we see, and I very much see them as a parallel to that story. And I think it’s a harsh parallel to draw; I think some people might not want to think about it that way, might not be comfortable comparing white women’s success in business to white women slaveholders, but I think it’s one we really need to draw. Because I think that as white women, we have got to get so much better at coming to terms with a historic and an ongoing exploitation of blackness that we have perpetuated and that we benefitted from, and to kind of let go of that mythology that I think we hold onto really easily about white women being innocent or that anything white women do to get ahead in the system is worth celebrating. Like if you would not celebrate a historic white woman for the large number of enslaved people she was able to procure—
KL [laughing] Right.
SWB —then why are you celebrating a CEO simply for getting rich?
KL Right. Ughh. So, damn. I am so glad that our conversation with Jennifer motivated us to really dig into all of this. And I think one thing that’s really clear is that it’s ongoing work. I think we’re going to continue to talk about it and ask ourselves these questions. And hey—y’all listening—are you asking yourself some of these questions? If you are and you’re having some realizations you want to share with us, please do tell us. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Jennifer Armbrust
KL Jennifer Armbrust is the founder and director of Sister, a consulting company that brings feminist principles into business practices. She’s also the creator of Feminist Business School and the author of Proposals for the Feminist Economy. Jenn, we are so excited to hear about your work. Welcome to Strong Feelings.
Jennifer Armbrust Thank you! I am really excited to be here.
KL Yes, we are so excited! Okay, so first up—tell us more about feminist business. How do you define it?
JA For me, what feminist entrepreneurship is is about bringing feminist principles into business practices, like you just said. That’s sort of the tagline of our company. And for me, that is really rooted in the feminist movement, so I look to those who have come before us. There are over 200 years of feminist scholarship, we’re in the fourth wave of the feminist movement, so for me it’s looking to our feminist grandmothers, looking to scholarship, looking to feminist art, looking to the lessons and the wisdom of the feminist movement, and bringing that into business with the goal of using business as a site to get closer to some of the goals of feminism.
SWB So, you’ve talked about that before. You’ve talked about how you see business as a potential site for personal power or for radical creativity and for social change. And I’m really curious about what that means to you. How does business become that kind of place? Because I don’t think that’s what people normally associate when they hear “business.”
JA Yeah, sure. And especially if you study women’s studies or any spin off of women’s studies in the academy and college, a thing you learn pretty quickly is that capitalism and feminism don’t mix. [laughs] There are a lot of really great feminist scholars that are really critical of capitalism, but at the same time, we’re living in it. We’re living in capitalism. We all—in America, we have jobs. Most of us work in the—well, I can’t say most—a lot of us work in the private sector, we work in business. I think that I went through college and majored in critical theory—which includes feminist theory, and cultural studies, and critical race theory—and graduated. And what I learned, which a lot of people learn in liberal arts, is that capitalism and feminism are incompatible. That capitalism inherently creates inequality and is embedded in the systems of racism, of patriarchy. And that’s all really useful to have that critical information, but when you enter the world, we graduate from college and then we’re in it. We’re in the economy, we’re in capitalism, and there’s no way not to be in it. So, I’m sort of rejecting the idea of [laughs] ideological purity. This idea that we can somehow live outside of capitalism or somehow be non-participants. And I’m in it! I’m in the weeds of capitalism, and I’ve got my feminist backpack with me, and I’m ready to get to work. So, Sister, and Feminist Business School, and Feminist Business Consulting were all created out of this idea, this acknowledgement that here we are, we’ve got work to do. We’ve got a lot of wisdom, of scholarship, of lessons from feminism, and let’s stop leaving those out of our work, leaving those out of our businesses, and see what happens when we bring them in. Not so that business can just be better or we can put a feminist stamp on it, but so that we can actually start to create something new, that we can start to disrupt capitalism.
SWB Yeah! So, let’s talk about that a little more. You mentioned that that’s really at the heart of what Sister does, and I’m wondering if you can tell us more about Sister.
JA Sister really is the culmination of my entire adult life. Like I mentioned, I’m 41 now, so I was in college 23 years ago [laughs] and that’s how I really got my theoretical background. I went to Evergreen State College, I had a really radical education, a really fantastic education. And then I graduated and became an entrepreneur pretty quickly—opened an art gallery in Portland, Oregon called Motel. I ran that for five years. During that time, I started doing graphic design for people who found me through the gallery. When I closed the gallery, I did graphic design more and eventually transitioned that to an interactive studio doing web design. Then transitioned out of that into doing just the brand strategy—and I love strategy! I’m good at that and I like thinking strategically. And I don’t know exactly what inspired me to bring the feminism back, but I had this idea. At that point, my company was called Armbrust and Company and it was just a consultancy doing brand strategy. And I was like, what if I bring the feminism into the strategy? This was probably about five years ago. And then everything got really interesting, and started getting a lot more exciting. And there was no reason not to do that. And that was sort of the birth of Sister. About that time, I created Feminist Business School just as a two-hour workshop [laughs]. I created it for a design conference, and it was way too much to fit into two hours. So, then it grew into a six-week curriculum and now it’s one of the staples of our company. And now we also still do the brand strategy and consulting, but bringing feminist principles into that work together. So, that’s how Sister came to be.
SWB When it comes to the kind of consulting work that you do now, what kinds of businesses do you typically work with and what does that work look like?
JA So, I work with a really—I would say—diverse and wide variety of clients at all scales. I have some solopreneurs, some people who are running larger scale companies. I usually work with leadership; I think my work is most effective when we are working with those people with the ability and the will and the want to make executive decisions. So, I work with executive leaders who really want to start new practices or prototype new models for their own business in order to bring their business practices into greater alignment with their own values and their own principles. So, these are mostly women-led companies, mission-driven. I’d say most of them are pretty wildly creative, they’re committed to this bigger picture. They’re not just focused on making a highly functional, profitable business, they really see their business in a broader context. And they’re interested in their legacy, the legacy of their company, and I think they’re interested in creating new business practices that offer a model for others even.
SWB As you’re working with them, as you’re trying to evaluate whether their businesses are living up to their values and what they’re doing with them, what kinds of challenges do they tend to hit up against? What are some of the ways in which it gets hard for them to actually make that happen?
JA I would say the challenge is universal and the challenge is always fear. And then we just have to figure out what the fear is—the fear of what? And that’s kind of part of my work! And part of the magic of the work is to get clear on what the fear is, what the resistance is. Is it a fear of losing money? Is it a fear of being too weird? Is it a fear that your internal operations are going to break down and there’s going to be anarchy among employees? [laughs] It’s hard to say. Every company is different, but it’s all about that fear point. And I think something that I’m really good at is going into the fear without creating more fear. [JA & SWB laugh] Right?
JA Because that’s why people don’t want to talk about fear. They’re afraid that once you start touching on it, everything’s going to get really wild! And then everybody’s afraid! Everybody’s defensive because talking about the fear makes people more fearful. So, I think embodiment practices are a big part of my work. We’re always checking in with our bodies, and just trying trying to find out what that fear is, is that fear real, how much power that fear has, and then what’s the story we want to tell that’s not about the fear? How do we connect with the vision of what’s possible—of what we want to create—and use that to help guide through the fear, especially when the fear starts running the show? So, I know that sounds really therapeutic, but in some ways, this work is really therapeutic because it’s about transformation. And that’s what feminism is about, it’s about transformation. And that’s what I think new businesses need to be about is about transformation. About not doing business as usual, but transforming the business paradigm, transforming the paradigm of executive leadership, of CEOs, of entrepreneurship.
SWB Yeah! I think your conversation is about fear is so interesting to me and so powerful to me. I think so often it’s like people want to be quote-unquote “good people” and they have some definition of that, but they’re scared of missing something, losing something in the process. And I think until you can start to reconcile that, nothing really changes.
JA For sure. And I think you can have really great strategy. I think something that’s different from my consultancy than a lot of other consultancies is a lot of other consultancies will come in with really brilliant ideas. And they are genuinely brilliant ideas, but unless those are actually emergent from the community and the culture that needs them, which in this case is business, and unless those directly address what’s already broken and what does need healing in the business, your brilliance is sort of lost. So, it’s a different kind of brilliance that I’m interested in, a different kind of strategic approach that’s really emergent, and emergent from within the company—and it directly addresses their unique needs, their unique values. So, I’m not going to come in and impose anything on anyone. I want to work with my clients to find the solutions, the strategies, the ideas that are exhilarating for them, that get their business closer to the business they want to be in the world, the people they want to be in the world, and the world that they want to live in.
KL You mentioned starting Feminist Business School and turning it into a six-week program—can you tell us a little bit more about what it is and what you teach?
JA I’ve been running it online for the past three years, and it existed as a workshop for a year or two a couple of years before that. And at this point, we have an international rostra of students. People come from all over, it’s hosted online—I use online platforms. And over the past three years, I’ve developed and taught a variety of curriculums, but our centerpiece program is really Concept and Conception, which is an eight week incubator for anyone who is birthing a new business. I went to a really radical liberal arts college with cross disciplinary studies, and I also had professors from different disciplines working together to develop the curriculum, and I thought that that created a really rich education. And I’ve brought that experience and that model into my work. So, the curriculum is really diverse. It’s not like any business school you’re ever going to go to. I’m working with people to help them get more in their bodies, to get grounded, to kind of have the capacity to work through those fears as they come up. Then there’s a feminist literacy piece. One thing I learned when I started Feminist Business School was that I thought in using the word feminist, I would really attract people who had spent some time with some feminist books or some feminist theory. And what I learned pretty quickly is a lot of people are excited about the concept of feminism, but don’t actually know much about feminism itself as a movement, as body of work, as a legacy. So, feminist literacy is always a part of Feminist Business School, just so we have some common language that we can really ground this work in where we’ve come and where we’re trying to go together. We talk about what is a business. [laughs] I think a lot of people, especially who are new to business, think if they’re charging for services and making money, that they have a business. And I really try to paint a picture of a business as an ecosystem and a business within an ecosystem, that ecosystem of our world. And then from there, we move into—there’s a lot of parts about activities to support creative visioning and really calling in that business that’s your own, that embodies your purpose, and allows you to be the most effective in the world. And I work also with my clients with their relationship with power, their relationship with money, and their relationship with the meritocracy, and the glorification of overwork. I really try to help my students unlearn that, which I think is really feminine. It’s really masculine to get your ego from how much you’re sacrificing and how hard you’re working. It’s really feminine to be more respective, to let things flow, to let things be easy, and to not glorify overworking.
SWB That’s so interesting, especially… we’re in a moment now where I feel Iike burnout is on everybody’s minds, and everybody’s lips, and being written about extensively. And there is such a deep culture of overwork. Certainly, the glorification of the tech industry has also been part of that because that’s a culture that really has glorified working all hours. And I’m really curious—how do you help people move past that? What kinds of advice do you give people who are stuck in those overwork cycles?
JA Some have to do—there’s embodiment, first of all, of just starting to really feel “how does my body feel” and to listen to your body’s messages as guidance, instead of seeing your body as an inconvenience to work, which is what capitalism says. Capitalism says “you could work so much more if you didn’t get sick or pregnant or have to eat or go to sleep!” Right? [laughs]
JA So, some of it is learning to be like, oh, my body’s tired, or I need to pee right now, or it’s time for lunch. Those little things that we start to whittle away at, especially in entrepreneurship where the to-do list is always very long—we start to sacrifice our bodies. So, that’s kind of the first place I work. How do we bring your body back into your business and let your body have some votes on what happens throughout the day? And then I think another part of unlearning the myths of the meritocracy is about critical consciousness. Of realizing that the meritocracy really is a device in the creation of capitalism, of the patriarchy, of racism, that tells us that what you have, you earned through hard work. And that implicitly ends up vilifying poverty and people who are poor. We end up with tropes about laziness and people of color. These are all tied together! And I think that creates some real “aha” moments for people. There’s a really great piece that now is at least 20 years old called “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and it’s about white privilege. That’s where I got the phrase “the myth of the meritocracy.” It’s from that really important essay that makes white privilege visible and talks about the meritocracy as part of the system that upholds white privilege. The final piece of unlearning the meritocracy is what I was talking about—to really show people its gendered quality of “this is a hyper masculine state, the state of overworking, the state of sacrifice, of glorifying your exhaustion.” Let’s talk about instead what the vision is—to be in a more feminine state. Of receptivity, of letting things be easy, of working with flow, of resting, of pleasure.
SWB Yeah, I’m into all this. [KL laughs] I feel like especially this week, me and Katel are battling colds [JA & KL laugh] and we’ve had a lot going on. And yeah! You know what? You’ve got a cold and you can’t always power through. And why should you try to power through?
SWB Why should you minimize your bathroom breaks to get more done? [laughs]
KL Right. And if you do take the time that you need to rest, then maybe you have better connection to your work and you do more quality work on the other side of that.
SWB Or even if you don’t, maybe—
KL That’s okay!
SWB —that’s also fine!
SWB Maybe that’s okay! [laughs]
KL Right! So, you’ve also recently been promoting your work on Proposals for the Feminine Economy. Can you talk about that a little bit more?
JA So, Proposals for the Feminine Economy is the title of a talk that I gave to the Creative Mornings lecture series on the topic of revolution. And at this point, my company was Armbrust and Company. Like I said, I was doing brand strategy, I hadn’t yet brought the feminism in. And that talk was just a really exciting moment for me, for my work, for the arc of what I have to give to the world. So, I was able to just synthesize all these different parts of me, all these different experiences, all my years in business, my years in the art world, the gender theory, the critical theory. And what I created, what came out was this talk called Proposals for the Feminine Economy. At its core, is a gendered critique of capitalism. The question is, if capitalism is an economy that values masculine traits, what could another economy look like? And then I presented a vision of some feminine traits and how those might look in an economic perspective. That’s sort of lofty though. That was this capitalist critique, this ideological idea of putting forth a new economy without actually creating any sort of economic model. Instead, I was really looking from the ideological perspective. But I wanted to ground it, I wanted to give us something to work with, and I wanted something for myself to work with as an entrepreneur. So, in that talk I also created the twelve principles for prototyping a feminist business, and I really see those as an ever evolving draft. So, if the economy is this big umbrella that we’re all living in—capitalism—I really see business as sort of the foot soldiers of capitalism, or like, the on-the-ground iteration of capitalism. And it’s the way most of us interact with the economy. Most of us are not studying fiscal policy, but most of us are interacting with businesses, whether we work in them, shop in them. So, I wanted to bring these twelve principles as a really tactile way of starting to shift our relationship to the economy. Instead of providing a big, beautiful, new engineered economy, I’m sort of asking, what if we start tinkering on the ground level?
KL Yeah. I really love how you talk about placing value on feminine characteristics versus masculine ones, specifically in context to something like economy. Are there some really core ways you can tell us how you would view a feminist economy being different from what we know as the economy today?
JA I mean, the first one that comes to mind is the inequitable distribution of wealth, which we’re reaching a really extreme point of here in America for no good reason other than capitalism [laughs] literally creates that situation. It concentrates wealth in the hands of a few and it concentrates power in the hands of a few. So, for me, a feminine economy is much more about redistributing power, redistributing resources, redistributing wealth in a more equitable way. And then when you start to look at that and what does that mean, it means we all get to live in more abundance, in less hierarchy, more relational, more community. So, something like the inequitable distribution of wealth isn’t just about money, it’s about how we relate to each other and it’s about how our society ends up looking, either stratified or not.
SWB You mentioned tinkering, right? So, how do people start tinkering with how wealth is distributed in the context of maybe their own small business?
JA I think it’s about making really conscious choices with money and starting to think about new models. I want to say the shortest, sweetest answer to that is to consider a co-op. [laughs] What does it look like when the workers own the company together and how does that change the way decisions get made and the way money circulates? Not every business is going to be a co-op, and I don’t expect that to happen overnight, but I think co-ops have shown us one way that we can rethink how wealth is distributed. I think some of it is about changing the culture of a company and that’s again where we start to hit the fear when I work with leadership. What if you start having more conversations with your employees about compensation, about benefits, about the economics of the business, about where the finances are going? That’s super scary for a lot of leaders. But those who aren’t afraid to have those conversations are in a really powerful position to make some exciting changes that really have real world effects on the lives of the people who work in those companies. In some ways that’s really big, but in some ways it’s really small to make these changes.
SWB It’s interesting you mentioned something like a co-op business model as a potentiality. I think what’s interesting about that to me is that I think there are a lot of companies where…they’ve just never even thought about it. It never occurred to them, it’s not seen as an option, it’s not put on par with other ways you might structure the business. It’s almost so off the radar entirely. And I think that that’s a really interesting place that we can start thinking about. It doesn’t mean that that’s the right answer for you, but what if that became part of the discussion every time? How would that shift businesses or what new things might we learn from that?
JA Right? So, it’s not about blindly adopting someone else’s system, and that’s why I’m always resistant when someone is like, what do I need to do to create a feminist business? It’s not about a checklist. It really is about that process, about those conversations, about looking for other models, and again about looking at the history of the feminist movement, of the labor movement. What can we learn from these people who have fought for their rights, who have been on the front lines of trying to change society for a long time? We don’t have to start from scratch. Instead, we can just bring, like you’re saying, new ingredients into the conversation and see what happens.
KL I love this. And I think sort of adjacent to this is I’ve seen you reference “conscious capitalism” as something feminists are turning towards, and you kind of caution against that. What is that and why isn’t it enough?
JA Don’t get me wrong, I feel aligned with a lot of people who are doing conscious capitalist work because I think we’re both acknowledging that this is where we are—we are in capitalism. But the difference that I see between myself and my work and Sister, and those who are doing conscious capitalist work is I would love to find a way out of capitalism. And I am not an economist—a big picture, capital “E” economist. I am not going to come up with that, but this is what I can do right now—Sister, Feminist Business School, Feminist Business Consulting—to try to find a way out of capitalism and into something new. So, that’s my commitment, that’s a big picture commitment of my company. I don’t have any delusions it’s going to happen in my lifetime, but I’m going to contribute what I can to that project. I would say conscious capitalists don’t have that commitment in the big picture of their company, of their work. There’s not a desire to find a way out of capitalism. There’s a similar acknowledgement of we’re in capitalism, but I don’t see the same…I’m just appalled [laughs] at the world that capitalism has created. The inequitable distribution of wealth, of power, these x, the rise of racism, pervasive racism, sexism. I’m sick of it! I think capitalism is one of the key problems to the society that we’re in right now, and I just don’t see conscious capitalism critiquing it at that level. So, the fear is if you make capitalism better…for whom? And are we still stuck with it then? [laughs] And then how do we get rid of these problems that capitalism has created? So, for me, it’s just not radical enough.
SWB Yeah. I’m curious too if you can tell a little bit more about how you would define conscious capitalism because I’m not sure everybody has heard the term before, and I’d love to kind of make sure everybody is on the same page about that.
JA My understating of conscious capitalism is something a little bit more like a b-corp, although there are definitely some really cold b-corps. And again, I’m not trying to vilify people who are using their businesses for good, but I see conscious capitalism as trying to make a better business or a better model within capitalism, but it doesn’t question the core tenets of capitalism itself—capitalism being the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit, which in America is inextricably linked with our political system and really affects the consolidation of wealth and power. I don’t want retreat systems that perpetuate the consolidation of wealth and power. So, conscious capitalism…I don’t know, it’s tricky. It’s like, conscious of what? How deep does that consciousness go? Because at a certain point, when your consciousness [laughs] really lights up, you can’t help but see that capitalism is the problem.
SWB Mhmm, right. So, it’s sort of like—when you hear about conscious capitalism, you hear about businesses that are trying to say, we’re going to operate in this more ethical way, maybe we’re going to have more environmental care in what we do, we’re going to think about the impact of what we’re doing, but they’re still very much driven by wealth consolidation. So, when you have a model that drives towards wealth consolidation, you fundamentally aren’t going to change some of the big problems with inequality, for example.
SWB And I think that’s sort of the key there. I have heard you talk recently about the idea of thinking of business as art. And maybe just that’s another thing to tinker with—what if we thought of business as art, what would that look like? I’m curious if you could explain more about that. What got you onto that track and what do you mean by business as art?
JA So, again, I did spend five years as the owner of an art gallery and then worked as a designer and in the creative field for another seven to ten years after that, depending on how you count it. But anyway! I have a lot of experience in art and design realms. And to me, art and creativity are not synonyms, they’re not exactly the same. So, when I think of great art, art that lives with you, art that has changed society, that art is risky, that art has something at stake, that artist put something on the line. It wasn’t just about creative practice or making something new, it was that there had to be a moment of risk. And again, that makes me think about how we talked about fear earlier. There has to be… you can tell that the artist had to confront and move beyond their fear to get to the place where that art could be made. And that’s why it resonates so strongly usually with a large flock of people because we feel that journey, and that arrival, and what it took to get there to make that. So, when I talk about business as art, I’m not just talking about “be really creative!” [laughs] There’s a lot of creativity in business that doesn’t get us anywhere new socially. So, for me, Business as art is really about finding what’s at stake and then using your ingenuity, your innovativeness, your visionary capacity to go beyond, to create something that didn’t exist before that we need, that moves us together through fear to the other side. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s not for those who want a safe life, a safe business. It’s not for those who want to adopt others’ systems. That piece of the art, of great art, is about going into the unknown and then coming back. So, that’s what I mean when I talk about business as art.
SWB Is there anything that really changed for you personally when you started thinking about your own business as art?
JA I think that for me is where I just felt a lot more permission to get weird, to get radical, to really own my values, to stop hiding, to need to please large swaths of people. At that moment, for me my business becoming art was really about owning the feminist piece of it, and pushing that forward, and making that the cornerstone of my business. And that act is actually really scary for a lot of business owners. They don’t want to use the word feminism or they don’t want to take up language of social movements. And, first of all, [laughs] I want to say please don’t if you’re just going to appropriate it. But if you’re really aligning your mission with that, it is a leap of faith. My business is going to repel at least as many people as it attracts, and I had to be okay with that because I was so in love with the vision though. When it all started to make sense—Feminist Business School, bringing feminist principles into business practices—all of the other stuff—all of the fear, all of the detractors, all of the critics—it all became less relevant because I was so excited about how big this was, and how possible it was, and how not bored I would be doing this.
SWB I am so nodding along with this because I think I had some at least similar realizations where I knew that by being more political in my work, it was going to repel some people, it was going to make some people feel uncomfortable or alienated, that I wasn’t just going to put on my business lady outfit and give my very comfortable business lady advice. And it changed my life to do that—it really did—because it made me feel Iike there was so much more of myself and my heart in it, and also something so much more meaningful and unique about it. And I think that that has resonated with people—at least some of them! And then some people are not into it and, you know, that’s okay. So, I love that you’re talking about that, I think that that’s such a big thing that fear, that fear of what other people are going to think, fear of you being too much, too weird—talking about getting too weird, ugh! [JA & KL laugh] That just really connects with me and I hope that that connects with our listeners too.
JA Yeah. There’s a great adrienne maree brown quote that a friend sent me that just says, “we are getting weirder, and wilder, and more interdependent.” And I hung it next to my desk and was like, I’m ready to get weirder, and wilder, and more interdependent. I was like, I want that, I want that. But yeah! It does take a certain amount of…I don’t know if the word is quite “confidence?” But for me, it definitely had to do with some maturity and just the feeling grounded just in myself to be ready to do that. And I kind of had to get there. I don’t know that I could have done it in my twenties, but I’m all in now—all in.
KL Well, you have shared some really big ideas with us here, so thank you for doing that. We’re almost out of time, which is a bummer, but I want to ask about a starting point. What is one thing you’d suggest to a listener who identifies as a feminist and they want to start rethinking what business means?
JA Well, of course, I’d have say, “start with Sister!” [laughs & KL laughs] But really, this is a niche that I have been cultivating for five years. There’s a lot of even free resources on our website. I’ve got a reading list on the homepage of books that I find really valuable and the teachers that have shaped my thinking. Then we have a number of ways to engage at all price points. You could buy the book and get yourself thinking. We’d love to have you with us in Feminist Business School if you’re birthing a new business or a new way of being in business or if you’re ready to bring more feminist principles into your practices. We’d love to consult with you, we’d love to work with you on those strategies, those ideas. But if for some reason you don’t want to come to Sister, I would say the best place for any budding feminist entrepreneur to start is to go pick up Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and read it. I think especially if you are drawn to feminism, but don’t know how to answer the question “what is feminism?” She’s just like my favorite feminist grandmother. She’s going to make you smarter, richer, more compassionate, and a better agent for change and a better participant in the feminist movement.
SWB I think that’s good advice for humans in general.
SWB Go read some Audre Lorde.
SWB Thank you so much for being on the show today. Now, I hear that you have a new edition of Feminist Business School starting up soon this fall. When is that starting and where can people sign up for it?
JA Yes! It’s starting in just a few weeks. Registration closes September 17th, it starts the week after that on the 24th. This is our eight-week incubator, it’s our most popular course. It usually sells out. We have registration open right now on our website—sister.is—and we’d love to have you with us! If you’re curious about it and you read about it on the website and you still want to know more, I’m always happy also to jump on a quick phone call and help you determine if it’s going to be the right thing for you.
SWB Awesome. Thanks so much for being on, Jenn.
JA Thank you for inviting me! [short transition music plays]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
KL Alright, Sara, I have a “fuck yeah” for you—it’s a little bittersweet.
SWB Okay, but we have to have a little joy in there, right? Or else it’s not a “fuck yeah.”
KL There is joy, I promise.
SWB Okay. Alright, what have you got?
KL So, as you know, the other day we were doing some work out at a coffee shop, and we had a really good conversation, and it led down this path where I started thinking about and talking about how burned out I was feeling. And you were so wonderful, you gave me some space to do that, but I couldn’t help but start crying because I was feeling really overwhelmed and emotional. And there we were in the middle of a coffee shop and I was not just tearing up, I was like…crying. [laughs]
SWB Aww, you were crying a little—that’s okay! It was okay to cry!
KL Yeah. But I want to say “fuck yeah” not only to just crying and letting it out and feeling good about that afterwards, but we were in a pretty crowded place and I knew people might be looking at me, but I didn’t care because I was working through something with you, and I felt safe that you were there, and I knew that even if people were around and looking, it was okay because I was okay! [laughs]
SWB Aww, that does make me feel better about it because I don’t know if people were looking—I think sometimes it’s easy to feel self conscious in those moments—
KL Yeah, totally.
SWB —but fuck those people, right?
SWB You deserve to have feelings and sometimes you have feelings in maybe places that aren’t ideal.
SWB But that’s okay. And you know what? I’m glad that you feel like you got to really work through something.
SWB And that’s good!
SWB Crying is cool.
KL Yeah! [laughs] Crying is cool; we’ve got to get t-shirts or something. [both laugh] So, fuck yeah to that.
SWB Fuck yeah, Katel. Fuck yeah to you.
KL Well, that’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is Deprogrammed by Philly’s own Blowdryer—check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks for Jennifer Armbrust for being our guest today, and thank you so much for listening. If you like our show, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And—get some Strong Feelings delivered straight to your inbox; sign up for our newsletter at StrongFeelings.co. See you again next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]