International Women's Day - Leading Through A Feminist Lens
Oppression has been used as a tool to prevent people from advancing for as long as we know. For women, existing within a patriarchal system means that the rules we must play by are not designed for us to succeed. We see this play out throughout history, and it continues to persist till this day with the pay gap, stereotypes about women lacking financial knowhow, and our ability to make decisions about our own body. Confronting our history is rarely fun, but integral to coming up with solutions for improving it. As a queer woman owned business, it's necessary to contribute to the dismantling of these ideas, and there is no better time to have the conversation than on International Women’s Day. As a business that sees the value of knowledge and is working toward building more equitable systems, we feel the only way to enjoy success is with one another. We have found power through vulnerability and financial transparency — dismantling oppression in the workplace, and empowering our employees. So I (Andiyah) sat down with our CEO Sara Berks, and Head of Operations Margaret Knowles to talk about how we are actively dismantling oppression in the workplace and how we got here.
By Sara Berks
Prior to starting MINNA, I worked at design start-ups and agencies. The culture was predominantly male - straight, cis, and white. There were so few women in leadership roles that I couldn’t imagine myself as one. Amidst the constant and exhausting male-dominated work dynamic that permeated a patriarchal workplace culture - I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a boss. Not if it looked anything like that. At one of my last digital agency jobs, working with a group of queer women for the first time, I finally found a sense of relief and admiration. If they could do it, so could I.
So I did. However, I found that despite having built a space and business founded on community, equal opportunity, and support - I could still feel cut down and belittled. Internalized oppression is real. When I first started out, I was told ‘oh, you’ll need a rich husband to support you if you really want to go into an artisan type business.’ In a more recent meeting with a bank I was asked ‘who actually runs the business?’ In the shop, I’ve found myself on the receiving end of questions like ‘Does the store actually make you any money? What else do you do for work?’
While I’ve often shied away from the title of ‘entrepreneur’ because of its close association with men I don’t respect, I feel a responsibility and opportunity to change the narrative. As a founder, I find myself constantly navigating a system that wasn’t built for women. Our understanding of who can and cannot be a successful entrepreneur is dictated by patriarchal measures of success, designed to oppress anyone who doesn’t fit the profile of the men I often found myself working besides. I don’t come from a business background and because of the societal doubt surrounding women in business, that title felt like a farce. MINNA grew out of a passion with very little planning or forward thinking. It was simply a dream that felt entirely unrealistic, and possibly unachievable. It wasn’t until year three that I really got my footing with the numbers, strategy, and all things business.
With an understanding of how MINNA came to be, it’s no surprise that I’m a strong believer of learning on the job. Though tough at times, there’s something about going through the experience that allows knowledge to stick and strategic thinking to kick in. As women, we are often stereotyped as entrepreneurs with no real understanding of how to create a financially viable business. Which is why, I’ve found my work with advisors and talking real numbers with other business owners has empowered me. It’s my way to fighting back, dismantling harmful attitudes that cause other women to second guess themselves. Which is why I believe in being transparent and sharing financial metrics with my team. The only way we can build a viable business together, is by knowing what we are working with.
We incorporated open books in 2018, which means the entire team sees our Income Statement. Together we look at our proposed budget for the year and we have weekly team meetings where we report on money in, and monthly meetings where we review the entire P&L, including money out. I’ve seen every team member learn and grow through this level of transparency and gain a deeper understanding of how the business works. From Sam, our design associate, asking what’s the budget for a new project to Fiona, our admin assistant, putting together a budget for some new improvements to the warehouse. Empowerment through transparency. When you understand how your role fits into the bigger picture and connects and impacts another, everyone grows.
Going from working in a closed door environment with mysteriously lengthy hierarchical structures to building my own business, it’s been an interesting road to find my own comfort in leading and guiding a team. It took me a while to realize that transparency is a strong leadership tool. There is incredible vulnerability in sharing the ins and outs of how you run your business while you’re still figuring it out. But, vulnerability creates strength, and leading with vulnerability is perhaps the most feminine way to lead. While gender is only a construct and exists on the widest of spectrums, sharing more about leading through a lens of feminism is one way of paving a path forward for more women to lead.
More from Margaret our Head of Operations:
In roles before MINNA, I worked in museums, where the tension between progress and the Institution is palpable. Often we would be exhibiting work that related to topics of oppression, but all the major decisions were made by old cis white men. That patriarchal attitude and structure really permeates a workplace culture.
At MINNA, we practice Open Book Accounting, which means that each week at our team meeting, we talk about all the money coming in and all the money going out. This is a practice that we learned from a business we love called Zingerman’s (they host lots of trainings for other like-minded businesses out there!) Every staff member gets to look at our full Income Statement and understand what drives our decisions. So often the power in an organization (most frequently held by cis straight white men) is hoarded and decision-making is shrouded in mystery. One way we like to combat this is through financial transparency with the full team. Not only does transparency about our finances give team members a sense of ownership and agency, it lets us get input from every member of the team on decisions that impact them. We gain a lot of insight that we wouldn’t have if the leadership just made decisions in a vacuum. We also hope that by gaining some knowledge about the inner-workings of a business, team members will be able to feel more confident in future roles - like they have the knowledge they need and they deserve a seat at the table.