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How Do We Know If That Business Will Help Women?: Implicit "Theories of Change" that folks don't want to acknowledge

One of our Entrepreneurial Feminist Community members, Petra Kassun-Mutch, was recently called out for suggesting that a government organization’s strategy for investing in “women led and women owned businesses” might be falling short of its overall goal of improving the economic situation for women and gender non-binary citizens. Petra was questioning whether the nominal criteria being used to certain that a company is benefitting some has any relationship at all to producing outcomes that support women.  (For example, does one woman on an executive team of 8 really make that company work on women’s behalf?

This is an incredibly important issue.

I’d argue that, in the main, the qualities used and the amounts necessary to qualify are close too pitiful. As in, nearly meaningless. Or, more positively, “extraordinarily optimistic”. 

The commonly-accepted criteria for being ‘women oriented’ seem slight, insignificant, easy to game, and — most importantly — without a ‘theory of change’.

A theory of change is a simple explanation, a cause-and-effect statement that describes how the action you’re pursuing will ultimately make a difference.

My theory of change is that if I add salt and baking powder to pancake batter, the gas released by the acidic interaction will inflate the batter with tiny gas bubbles, causing the batter to lift and rise, ultimately creating a puffy cake instead of a flat cracker.  The theory of change directly explains how my action (adding salt) causes the outcome (puffy cake) because of an actual mechanism (additional gas bubbles raise the batter as it’s cooked).

Most of the criteria used by groups wanting to invest in businesses that will in some way help women (and/or reduce important gender gaps) are features — not actions. They are the equivalent of having “1/2 tsp salt” on the ingredient list of the recipe. Not necessarily acting in the batter. Just on the list. 

Investor criteria count the number of women featured, as owners or as executives (and sometimes as customers). They do not assess what these women are doing, whether their actions are influential, and whether their influences actually help women. They lack a theory of change. 

What is the mechanism of change that these investors are assuming as they select companies to invest in? 

I’m not sure if they even know. So, I thought I’d put together a preliminary chart to begin to make these theories of change more explicit.     See the table “Levels of Change Potential Based on Funding Criteria”.

In the table, below, we’ve got a column for the Criterion for Decision. This is the specific feature that the investors are counting as an indicatory of the company helping women, such as being women-owned or women-led.

The column Expected System Impact tries to answer three questions: What happens?Where does the wealth/ profit go? What does the wealth get used for? The idea here is that, if women are helped by companies, it’s because these companies generate new wealth. (Generally, that’s how businesses work.) How that wealth is deployed also influences the company’s impact.

The column Theory of Change is my preliminary/draft effort to answer the questions Why does this change women’s overall situation? What causes these improvements?.  Here I’m trying to make the causal chain explicit. How is one thing expected to influence the next, to create positive change?

It’s important to be clear that in any theory of change, you won’t always get the outcome you seek. For example, you can put Betsey DeVos in charge of education (a woman in power!) but you won’t get educational policies that benefit women, girls, and gender nonconforming people. But you have to be explicit about the steps so that when something isn’t working, you know where to change things.

Finally, I grouped these criteria according to their Implicit Equality Goal, the vision of ‘equality’ that they seem to be working towards.   “Parity” is simply the idea of spreading the same proportion of women across organizational levels, often with the assumption that the ratio of women to me should be 50/50. This is a basic goal of representation and fairness.   “Equity & Justice” goals are about making sure that (1) different groups get different resources according to what they need to flourish while we eliminate the biases that prevent them from participating in the system fully, and (2) about changing the system so that supports everyone as needed in a system that’s been changed so that no group is privileged over others and no group is oppressed/subordinated/dominated by another.

Levels of Change Potential Based on Funding Criteria

Screenshot 2019-05-02 12.44.20.png

What does it mean to be “women-led’?

This is a great question, recently raised by Nancy Wilson, Founder & CEO, Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce.  Often the criterion of “women-led” gets operationalized by simply counting the number of women on the company’s executive team (EVP level and/or C-suite). But no consideration is given to the concern that one woman is not enough to show that the company is “women-led”, or the other critical consideration that not all leadership positions are created equal. We all know that the EVP of Human Resources or Marketing is rarely (never?) as powerful as the EVP of Product or Finance. There’s a hierarchy, and if a firm is women-led then women need to be at the highest points of this hierarchy.  

Wilson makes this intuition clear, writing:

Finally, if a fund is directed to support women in a particular industry, at least one of the women in a senior leadership role must be in a position directly related to that industry. In the case of technology, that requires a woman to be chief executive officer, chief technology officer or other tech or development role at the most senior level.

When a person holds a position where their expertise is indispensable to the company’s success at its core activity it’s more likely that this person will have organizational leadership.

These women leaders’ influence on the company’s direction can’t merely be inferred by her/their titles. It must be perceptible, constant, and long-term.   

What does it mean to be women owned? 

Wilson also offers important texture to this question, since with many star5tups and going enterprises the ownership structure can be complicated, with no one group or person owning enough of the company to direct it by near fiat as the Zuckerbergs and Bezos of this world  

Women-owned can mean that women owners of capital get a significant and perhaps majority of the return on investment (e.g., profits, wealth). It can also mean that women owners – regardless of their percent ownership – have a significant influence on the direction of the company.  What we’re looking for in this case is one or both of these situations. 

Even where there are formal criteria for assessing “women-owned’ and ‘women-led’ companies, it is possible for these criteria to be gamed.  Astute ‘gender lens investors’, philanthropists and government agencies should have their own due diligence procedures to make sure that the companies they invest in meet these women-first criteria in substance and not just on a check off list. What does it mean to be women-led? How many/ what proportion of women is expected to make a difference and be the tipping point of influence? 

Your thoughts? This table is my first step, so there are sure to be typos, errors, oversights, and ideas we should add. Please offer your suggestions in the comments or side notes and I’ll incorporate them into the next version of the table.

I’m hoping that decision makers at investment funds, government agencies, accelerators, and any other institution that’s hoping to support gender equality in entrepreneurship and business will find this table useful in helping them understand their own implicit theories and make clearer decisions about which “women led” companies they want to support, and why. 

Apologies in advance for typos, etc. I’m trying to get ideas out, not to get them perfect. Onward!

What Defines a Feminist Business?

Currently, we don't have a way to define a business as feminist. This draft, below, is an excerpt from a longer chapter. I'm offering it here as a first step in the conversation about how to define a feminist business. We'll develop and polish this idea together. 

My graduate school professor who couldn’t even imagine the existence of a feminist profit-making business was not alone in this challenge.

Lots of people struggle to imagine what a feminist business would be like.  This despite the fact that feminists businesses are — and have been — all around us.  Businesses defining themselves as feminist have been around for at least half a century.  Emerging in the 1960s and 70s, feminist bookstores, food co-ops, homeschooling centers, auto body shops, doula networks, and more were trying to find ways of making money and supporting themselves by selling goods and services in the marketplace, while also promoting feminist values, while also creating a more feminist collective environment in which the members could work, grow, and feel safe.  Feminist businesses were the original social enterprise.

Despite their existence and success in real life, feminist businesses still seem implausible to many people. 

Even if you have a pretty good understanding of what it means to be a feminist and what feminists believe, it’s hard to imagine how these values would translate into businesses that would make a profit. That’s partly because feminism has often (always) been working against “business as usual”. Feminists understand that much of conventional business works only because companies are able to use sexism and racism to exploit marginalized people who have less power. 

When folks do imagine feminist businesses, they think of the crotchety pair at the helm of “Women and Women First”, the bookstore featured in the sketch comedy Portlandia. At “Women and Women First” the owners are so doctrinaire in their feminism and anti-capitalism that they can’t find a way to serve customers in a profitable and politically purposeful way.  Feminist business is unimaginable to them.

The challenge of imagining a feminist business isn’t helped by management scholarship. Very few studies focus on real-life feminist businesses and there's not much feminist theorizing where scholars aim to identify what would make a business “feminist”. 

Notably, Susan Koen’s 1984 research looked closely at four feminist business / service organizations— a bookstore, a restaurant, a health services center, and a magazine.  Her discussion of the features common to these workplaces yet different from conventional business offers real-world proof of how feminist businesses are distinctive.  Patricia Yancey Martin (1990) offered a theory-driven list of ten dimensions that would mark a business as feminist, helping to identify conceptual categories.  I used both of these works, as well as my own knowledge of the literature on organizational identity, to proposed the seven dimensions that follow. 


Seven Dimensions That Define a Feminist Business

The perfect aligned, fully-realized feminist business would have 7 key features:

1. Feminist Leaders and Members: Individuals in all roles within the company who are practicing feminism and actively learning about feminism.

2. Feminist Organization: Structure, processes, and culture that aim to reflect feminist values and support feminist practices (e.g., collaborative democratic decision making, flatter and more distributed authority, wellness & sustainability oriented, etc.) 

3. A Feminist Intent:  A collectively defined, shared, and explicit feminist ideology (aka theory of change) about how the organization is making a difference in the world.  This ideology would link the company’s identity and actions to each other.  

4. Feminist Ownership & Governance: A structure where ownership, stewardship, and direction are shared along feminist principles, where the owners/ stakeholders themselves practice feminism.  

5. A Feminist Product or Service:  Something made and offered by the business that helps to improve the situation of women, girls, and people in a feminist way; that challenges dynamics of oppression, that offers non-exploitative alternatives. Marketing that advocates feminism.

6. A Feminist Revenue Model:  A net-positive (i.e., non-extractive) plan for raising, deploying, generating, and distributing financial and non-financial value and impact (all company resources) so that all stakeholders gain fairly when as the company succeeds (e.g., employees as well as investors, customers as well as employees). Think of triple-bottom line companies, and Regenerative Businesses.

7.  Connection with the Feminist Community: Open interaction with other feminist groups and individuals, checking in for encouragement and support, contributing whenever possible.

These seven dimensions cover the key elements (and of course not everything) that can distinguish one kind of organization from another. 


Knowing what to count and how to count it is challenging.  

I haven’t yet developed ways to assess a company’s feminism on these specific dimensions in more detail, in a way that would create a scale that measures what’s more and what’s less feminist. Just to measure conventional organizations, management scholars have a jungle of definitions and scales for each dimensions.    (There are several hundred different ways to measure organizational culture alone).

For all seven dimensions, we’re still figuring out the sub-elements that compose them and how they might be measured. 

(For perspective on the difficulty of this task, consider that B Labs have taken over 11 years to establish the definitions and measures of a B Corporations. They started in 2006 and are still evolving their criteria. ) 

Even more challenging is that we don’t have a single definition of what’s feminist — there are many feminisms. And, we don’t have any roadmap, ladder, or pyramid thing that shows levels of feminism advancing from basic to sophisticated, self-focused to global.

We don’t know yet, for example, how to measure something as simple as the level of an individual leader’s feminism. There actually (still) isn’t a well-established sociological questionnaire or psychological scale that helps us identify what beliefs are more or less feminist, or that establishes the sophistication of a person’s feminist understanding.  

That said, worrying about an accurate and precise measurement strategy takes us off on a tangent.  (That kind of measurement is an objectivist, patriarchal plot anyway.)


We care about defining feminist businesses not because we want to score and measure them, but because we want to understand where and how to grow as feminist organizations.   

I’m proposing these seven defining dimensions not so that we can “accurately” or “precisely” measure a company’s feminism along some scale that researchers and experts devise. The purpose of these dimensions is, instead, to help focus our efforts as we evaluate our companies and as we imagine what our companies could become.  

This exercise invites us to evaluate and reflect on the organizations we're building. The process can give companies a fuller sense of what they need to consider as they grow to be more feminist and have a stronger positive influence on the world.


These Seven Dimensions That Define a Feminist Business
offer us a framework for discussing and assessing a company. 

Take a look at this circle, below. Radiating from the center point is a line for each of six* dimensions that stretches to the circle’s perimeter.   The center point is “none” and the point on the perimeter is “a whole lot”.  

With a rough sense of where a company falls on each of the seven dimensions, using a scale from “not much” to “a whole lot”, we can see how big and widespread a company’s feminism is, or isn’t. 

six of seven dimensions.JPG


Using two well-known menstrual products companies as my models, I’ve sketched out how I (roughly) assess how feminist each company is.

Company A is mapped out in pink. 

  • The company’s leaders and co-owners identify themselves as feminists, and the members all espouse feminist values. On this first dimension, the company is “a whole lot” feminist. 
  • As an organization, Company A uses a co-leadership model among the top management team, and a team-based, self-directing model among the members as a whole. Company A is “somewhat” feminist in its organization
  • With regard to ownership and governance, it is mostly owned by the founders and two large investors, not the membership as a group.  Still, it’s a B Corporation, committed to a triple bottom line. So, Company A is “quite” feminist on this dimension. 
  • Company A’s products are eco-friendly, body positive, and affordable. I think they’re “a whole lot” feminist.
  • Its revenue model aims to distribute value to all stakeholders, including the local community. The company focuses on reducing waste and increasing sustainability (to be less extractive). It contributes its non-financial and financial resources to help others, so overall it seems “a whole lot” feminist.
  • And, the intent of Company A is “a whole lot” feminist — its goal is to transform the way the world things about women’s bodies.  

Given the amount of space covered by these dimensions, Company A looks “a whole lot” like a feminist business. 

company A.JPG


Now consider Company B, another menstrual products business, mapped out in blue. 

  • Company B’s leadership says its feminist, but doesn’t seem to act that way.  Members support the feminist intent of the company, but we don’t know if they identify as feminists. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, Company B’s leadership and members are “somewhat” feminist. 
  • Organizationally, Company B is a hard-driving, fear ridden hierarchy. “Not very” feminist.
  • Similarly, the company is owned and governed by the CEO and two corporate-y investors (I.e., not social entrepreneurs).  “Not very” feminist.
  • Company B’s products, however, are “a whole lot” feminist. Body positive, period positive, eco-friendly. 
  • With its revenue model, Company B seems to be trying to share value with partners/ suppliers, and to become more sustainable, so it’s “somewhat” feminist.
  • And, Company B’s espoused purpose is to change how the world sees women, so its intent seems more than just “somewhat” feminist.

Looking at the graph of these dimensions, we can see that Company B is feminist in some ways. 

company b.JPG


The graphs are useful for showing us a big picture of each business, and they’re especially useful in comparing one company to another.   Compared to Company A, Company B somewhat less feminist, especially on the ownership/governance and leadership dimensions.

[[ * I noticed after I started drawing the graphs that I’d missed the seventh dimension, the Connection with the Feminist Community. Although embarrassed at my lapse, I wasn’t really surprised that I forgot to graph this dimension — it's the most radical one, and the most feminist.   Also, very few for-profit organizations even think of themselves as responsible to and in relationship with a specific community.   I’ll hold this topic for a fuller discussion in a later post. (Also, I’ll need to find a circle graph with seven rays and not six.) ]]


How much does it take to be defined as a Feminist Business?

A company doesn’t have to reach some pre-defined threshold on all seven of these dimensions to be considered feminist. Any company that is working to become more feminist on these dimensions can call itself feminist (or be seen as feminist by others), with the understanding that feminism is more about practice and action than about meeting some outside researcher’s static criteria.  

 Of course, a company aiming to be feminist shouldn’t have any features that blatantly contradict feminist values and beliefs (e.g., the majority shareholder shouldn’t be Simon Legree, and the product should not be polluting the earth). 

How do these dimensions work for you, for defining a company’s feminism?

Some people may find these criteria surprising. They may want to focus on visible features, like the number and representation of women. They might define a feminist company as one where 51% of the company is owned by women, or where women as 51% of the top leadership team. 

(Of course, the idea that having many women means that the company is feminist is problematic. “Women” and “feminists” aren’t the same thing. Many women are not feminists. Many people who aren’t women are terrific feminists.) 

Folks might also want to require that a feminist company make products for women or girls.  But, I don’t want want to exclude companies that produce gender-neutral or universal products and services. There are too many companies that serve other focused populations that could, if so inspired, use their business to practice and promote feminism.  I think the definition of a feminist business is, and should be, more complex and more comprehensive that either of these two criteria.   

For now…

The invitation here is for any company to consider where it lands on these seven dimensions, and then grow from there. 

Having seven dimensions to the definition helps to offer more pathways for companies to grow more feminist. Companies owned by men or not-yet-feminists, companies with conventional shareholder owners, companies with traditional hierarchical management structures, companies that emphasize sustainability and not (yet) gender justice, companies still figuring out how to distribute profits more fairly, and especially companies who don’t yet see themselves as responsible or responsive to the feminist community can all find their place on these seven dimensions, and recognize where they have opportunities to grow. 

Let me know what you think!

August 19 draft






Koen, Susan. (1984) Feminist Workplaces: Alternative models for the Organization of Work. PhD dissertation, University of Michigan.


Martin, Patricia Yancey. (1990) Rethinking feminist organizations. Gender & Society 4:182-206.

What if Uber Were a Feminist Business?

With the resignation of Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, it would appear that critics of the company’s sexist culture have won.

The remaining executives, board members, and investors plan to set diversity hiring and promotion goals, to eliminate explicitly sexist criteria and policies, and take a “zero tolerance” approach towards issues of harassment. The culture of Uber will surely improve.

It’s too bad, then, that swapping out the “BroEO” and adding some diversity programs will only do one thing: make the company less hostile to women, and men of color.  That’s the same as making the company equally hostile to woman as it is to men – gender and racial equality, but still in a business that’s designed to extract as much as it can from every single stakeholder.

Having a less sexist, less misogynist, less brotastic, less hostile workplace won’t make Uber a better company. It won’t change the ways that Uber takes advantage of riders and drivers. It won’t change how Uber understands its role in the economy and community. It won’t make Uber a better local citizen. Alas, these changes will not make Uber an exemplary company, one that contributes as well as takes.

And with a valuation at $70 Billion, Uber should be an exemplary company. 

The only way to really change Uber for the better is to aim at the root causes of Uber’s toxic culture. That means changing Uber’s emphasis from domination to collaboration, from extraction to contribution, and from selfishness to collective gain.  The only way to fix the rot at Uber’s core is for Uber to become not merely a less sexist company, but rather a feminist company.

Feminist Business

Feminist companies do more than treat women, men, and all employees equally. Feminist companies are businesses that – while making a profit – build the agency of their employees, treat them as whole human beings, emphasize their creativity and contributions, and recognize the how the success of the company depends on the success of its employees, its customers,  and the communities in which it operates.

Uber, a feminist business?  It’s hard to imagine.

What if one of the most disruptive, technically sophisticated and highly valued companies was to focus on making a positive difference for all its stakeholders?  What if Uber were to put into practice one or more of the core values of feminist business, such as Equality, Agency, Whole Humanness, Generativity, and InterIndependence.  [For more on these values, see FeministsAtWork.com..]

Just try it as a thought experiment: What if Uber were a feminist business?

Equality isn’t Enough. 

We’ve already begun to imagine how Uber might change if all employees were treated equally. What if Uber took equality further? What if Uber treated its drivers and riders and community members as stakeholders whose interests were as important as those of investors and owners?  If Uber were a feminist company, its commitment to equality would have it engage all stakeholders in mutually success, with each group of stakeholders being treated with respect and care. A feminist Uber would do more than make sure that employees were treated equality; it would transform its relationships with all stakeholders, starting with drivers.  

Acknowledge and Support the Agency of Drivers.  

If Uber were a feminist business, the company would design its systems to support drivers’ human agency.  Agency is a person’s ability to take independent action and make their own decisions freely, instead of being subject to some other person or company’s directions, orders, or force. (In this way, agency is the opposite of oppression, where someone else has power over what you do, how you do it, and what your options might be.)

If Uber were to support the agency of its drivers, it would treat these drivers as adults capable of setting their own goals, making their own schedules, making their own decisions.  And it would do everything in its power to help these drivers make a real living working for Uber.

While Uber claims to treat its drivers as independent contractors free to make their own choices, the truth is more complicated.  Because Uber makes its money by squeezing every last cent out of the drivers, all of Uber’s driver support technology is designed to press drivers to work up to and past their limits. 

Uber’s tools, including “the rating system, performance targets and policies, algorithmic surge pricing, and insistent messaging and behavioral nudges are part of the “choice architecture” of Uber’s system”.  Uber’s tools push drivers to drive to locations where, and during times when, the company can maximize its own revenue, even though driving at these locations and times doesn’t necessarily earn the drivers a living hourly wage.

Instead, if Uber supported drivers’ agency, Uber would give drivers tools to help them set and meet their own individual driving and earning goals.  These tools would let drivers plan their own work shifts to maximize their hourly wages.  Uber would reward drivers financially when they stayed inside speed limits, or met safe driving targets, or were especially kind and helpful to riders.

Recognize and Support the Whole Humanness of Riders.

Beyond being seen as agents in charge of their work days, A feminist Uber would also support the whole humanness of drivers and riders.   Whole Humanness refers to the physicality, emotionality, and diversity of human beings. When we acknowledge the whole humanness of customers, we create products that serve their immediate functional needs in ways that are emotionally supportive, cognitively streamlined, and physically comfortable. And, we serve the needs of every kind of human being – not discriminating based on gender, race, spirituality, age, physical ability, or other human feature.  

Think about the limited and shallow way that Uber imagines their customer-riders. 

According to the Uber app, the most important thing to a customer is how far away their car is, and how long they have to wait. As if that’s all that matters.  Constant updates (5 minutes away! 2 minutes away!) focus our attention on swiftness and make us anxious about all these extra seconds whizzing by while we wait.  Meanwhile, Uber’s app directs our attention away from other human needs – such as the driver’s safety, other drivers’ safety, and our own safety, to offer one example. 

Uber’s service also directs riders’ attention away from human differences that might be meaningful beyond their own selves, such as the needs of other riders who may not have conventionally mobile bodies. Currently, if you need a ride and you use a wheelchair or a walker, you’re out of luck with Uber.  Uber has aggressively maneuvered around municipal regulations that made sure taxi fleets had enough modified vehicles to serve humans with any kind of body. Uber cares only about serving the physically abled, and only about serving our artificially amped-up need for speed.

Honor the InterIndependence of the Stakeholders and the Company. 

While Uber is teaching us to stress out about a 3 minute wait that turns into a 5 minute wait, it’s also teaching us to be self-centered, and to ignore our interindependence with other people and the larger community.   The feminist principle of interindependence recognizes that none of us succeeds alone, and that individual success, corporate success, and community success are interdependent. 

Uber teaches us to ignore how our own convenience depends on Uber’s – and our – willingness to exploit drivers, to skirt regulations that support public safety and health, and to pollute the environment we share.  Uber teaches us to care more about friction-less payment than about giving the driver a tip.  Uber helps us beat the price we’d pay for a real taxi, and ignore how the taxi fares we’re avoiding pay for worker protections, and sometimes even a living wage, for those taxi drivers.

Use Creative Power to Innovate for Good

Feminist businesses aim not to disrupt, but to generate.  They use their skills to create new ideas and new value.  They use their creative power for innovate for the greater good.

People describe Uber as an innovative company, although Uber rarely innovates in ways that add net positive value.  Uber’s innovation has been to aggregate self-focused riders, to extract maximum value from drivers, and to create a drag on the overall ecosystem.  It hasn’t really contributed anything beyond rider convenience, which is simply not enough.

Don’t believe me?  Just think of the way Uber uses its data.

No company knows better than Uber where Americans want to go, and when, or can predict people’s ride-needing patterns.  What does Uber do with this knowledge? It uses its data to urge drivers to drive more, so that there are more cars on the road in the right places.  That’s an efficient short-term solution for each individual rider, and it adds to Uber’s revenue, but it doesn’t help the overall community.  

What if Uber some of its data & knowledge for the public good? What if Uber shared its data so that communities could reroute bus lines, revise train schedules, and balance bike sharing racks, so that public transportation were more efficient?   What if Uber concentrated on the ‘last mile” or the idiosyncratic itineraries that can’t be met by buses and trains?

Or, what if Uber expanded the focus of its formidable hardware and software investments, to pursue not only self-driving cars but also cleaner cars, safer cars, more resilient cars, and less polluting cars?  Right now, Uber’s focus is eliminating the costs of human drivers. But why not eliminate the costs of cars themselves?

Imagine if Uber treated drivers and riders as whole human beings, able to make smart decisions and not merely short term and selfish ones? Imagine if Uber acknowledged all parts of our humanity, not just our stress about time? Imagine if Uber used its skills and resource to build up each of its stakeholders and its community, too?

Imagine an exemplary Uber. Imagine an Uber that demonstrated feminist business principles of equality, agency, whole humanness, generativity and interindependence.  I've offered just a few examples here, and there are many more right around the corner, ready to zip into your imagination.  

Critics of Uber and Uber’s leaders themselves should aim bigger.

It takes more than a sky high valuation and a harassment-free culture to make a business exemplary.  It takes a culture where all people are treated as deserving, that recognizes and supports all kinds of our humanity, that builds up both itself and its community, and that uses its creative power for shared good.   To become a truly exemplary company, Uber – and all companies – should practice feminist business principles.

For more ideas about how feminism is transforming business and the workplace, visit FeministsAtWork.com.


How Generosity At Work Saved A Local Business

A Generosity at Work story from my hometown!

When I was getting my start-of-the-semester haircut in February, I was surprised to see Hannah, the woman who cuts my teenagers’ hair, working in the hair salon I go to.  

Hannah normally works at Parlor, which has a hipster clientele. Yet here she was at Aesthetica, where they play 90’s alternative rock for us olds.  What was Hannah doing at Aesthetica, I wondered? Had she defected from Parlor to a new workplace?

I asked my personal stylist and informal consulting client, Legia, what was happening.

Just a week earlier, Parlor’s salon had gone up in flames.  Some electrical issues at the wine shop next door. It would be at least two months, if not three, before the salon would be renovated and open for business again. In the meantime, 12 stylists had nowhere to go and no way to serve their clients. None of the stylists could afford two months without a paycheck.

An owner of another salon in downtown Montclair had an idea — why not have Parlor’s stylists work in the empty chairs of the salons nearby?

In Montclair' competitive hair salon marketplace, this idea was a little surprising. Why? 

Salons grow their businesses mostly by luring clients away from one another, not by the growth or change in the local population. Clients can switch easily from one stylist and salon to another. 

For Parlor, there were lots of reasons not to send its stylists to other salons. 

  •   Stylists might defect from Parlor to the salons hosting them. 
  •   Parlor clients might like the temporary salon better, and move their business away from Parlor. 
  •   Scheduling appointments with clients and managing payments would put all of Parlor's customer information in the hands of competitors.  
  •   Clients might just get confused and leave Parlor’s stylists altogether.    

But the alternatives for Parlor, of staying closed, leaving their stylists temporarily unemployed and abandoning their clients, seemed worse. 

For the potential host salons, there were obstacles too. 

Their own clients might see a ‘new’ stylist and consider switching to her. Additional stylists and clients might add to the wait time a the shampoo sink as well as the garbage and laundry. How would their own receptionists schedule appointments for someone else, and manage the payments to visiting stylist not on the actual payroll?   

There was not a lot in it for the hosting salons, but a half-dozen owners teamed up with the owner of Parlor to work out a plan.

For the past two months, pairs of Parlor stylists have been working with their own clients, but at one of the hosting salons. The stylists move to a different salon every week, so they don’t get too comfortable or feel awkward for too long (depending on their fit with the current host salon’s vibe).  Appointments are handled by Parlor’s owner, and payments are handled by each Stylist on her iPhone (thanks to Square).  Each host salon figured out a way to charge the Parlor stylists for the products they used on their clients, not making extra money on this but also not losing money either.  So far,only one of Parlor’s stylists chose to move permanently to a new salon.

Parlor’s business — at least the bulk of it — was saved by the generosity of its competitors.

I asked Legia how she and the stylists at Aesthetica felt about hosting the Parlor folks.   What did they and the host salons get out of the deal? 

They didn’t get any publicity, because the arrangement was not discussed in the newspaper article about the fire. (I had to be curious, and have noticed the new stylists in the first place.)

Well, for one thing, Legia told me, she'd learned a new blowdrying technique by watching one of the Parlor stylists at work.  She and another Parlor stylist had chatted about managing difficult clients, and had collaborated when a client came in for a hair color emergency. (Apparently, blue hair didn’t look good on her. Who’d a thunk?) 

Yes, it was a bit awkward having these guest stylists visit at Aestherica. The visiting stylists kept a little separate, and some of them dressed and styled themselves rather differently from the norm at the host salons.  Some of the stylists were not as quick to clean up after themselves as was the norm at Aesthetica. There was a little awkwardness about how much any of the host stylists should interact with the clients of the visitors, and that sort of thing.  But overall, it hadn’t felt like a burden at all.

Instead, there’d been a palpable feeling of camaraderie, of professionalism, and of local pride in being part of each other’s community.

This story made me wonder how many other acts of collective, business-to-business generosity go undetected.

Maybe Generosity At Work is less uncommon than I’ve thought?  Let me know if you see any subtle acts of generosity at the businesses you frequent...

How Etsy's Parental Leave Announcement Demonstrates Generosity At Work

For so many reasons, Etsy has been one of my leading examples of companies practicing Generosity At Work. 

I rely on Etsy’s Code As Craft initiative to illustrate the strategy of Opening Your Learning, but that’s only one way that Etsy demonstrates an expanded culture of generosity. Etsy uses each of the five higher-level generosity strategies, as well as over two dozen specific generosity practices. And, sometimes with one move, Etsy demonstrates several generosity practices at the same time.

That’s the case with Etsy’s new Parental Leave Policy, announced last week in a blog post by Juliet Gorman, the Director of Culture and Engagement at Etsy: “Strong Families, Strong Business: A Step Forward in Parental Leave at Etsy”.

In addition to demonstrating the strategy of Promoting Your Unique Culture, the policy and its announcement demonstrate the generosity practices of Networked Citizenship and Industry & Marketplace Advocacy.  

Here’s how:

Generosity Strategy:  Promoting Your Unique Culture

Etsy’s revised Parental Leave policy is a generously conceived and well-designed effort that strengthens Etsy itself, sets a standard that other similar companies should follow, and aims to influence the conversation about family leave in our society. 

The details of the policy are all wonderful. 26 weeks at full pay is generous, period. The policy is open to biological, adoptive and surrogate parents, of any gender expression or family status, regardless of the country in which they reside. It’s about as inclusive as you could imagine.  Some of the 6 months of paid leave must be taken as a chunk of 8 consecutive weeks so that parents get the maximum psychological benefit of the leave, while other time can be taken in a flexible distribution.   

Etsy promotes its unique culture through the original announcement and a companion piece, 5 Facts That Support Gender-Blind Parental Leave.   Etsy offers the details of its new policy as all as the data supporting its decision to advocate that other companies follow Etsy’s lead. (Recall that I’ve talked about Promoting Your Culture before, using the example of Buffer and its efforts to promote radical transparency and the distributed (aka remote) workforce.)

While it’s certainly true that this new policy will help to keep Etsy competitive in a marketplace where it’s hard to find software engineering talent, its also true that it fits with Etsy’s core values and with Etsy’s vision of the company it wants to be. This generosity towards employees reinforces Etsy’s unique identity.

Generosity Practice: Networked Citizenship

Promoting its Parental Leave policy also helps Etsy remain a leading citizen of its business network.  By proactively taking responsibility for steering the growth and development of behavior in its network, Etsy’s policy reinforces the efforts of other pioneering digital businesses who already announced generous parental leave policies (such as Spotify). 

Especially because Etsy has a public profile that’s much bigger than its actual size (still less than 820 employees), throwing its energy behind Parental Leave -- 

  • Draws attention to parental leave policies at digital companies,
  • Pulls in a broader business audience (e.g., this Time article), and
  • Strengthens the perceived legitimacy of these policies.

Etsy’s efforts are helping its network shift perceptions of its parental leave policies (and “great place to work” reputations) so that these are not ‘exceptional’ within its industry, but normal to the network.

Generosity Practice: Industry & Marketplace Advocacy

But the part I like best, and where Etsy is demonstrating a rare form of generosity at work, is revealed in the final paragraph of the formal announcement:

We (at Etsy) believe parental leave policies like ours are just one step towards a more fulfilling, lasting world. Our policy is premised on the traditional employer-employee relationship in the U.S. We applaud the efforts of leaders like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has proposed a paid family leave program for all workers in the state, similar to programs in California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and Washington, DC. We’re also mindful that many Etsy sellers are independently employed, like more and more workers today, which is why we advocate for portable benefits.

Our hope is that policy makers and future business leaders find a way to provide a stable and flexible safety net for all people.  You can read more about the research that informed our decision in our companion post: 
5 Facts That Support Gender-Blind Parental Leave.

With this final paragraph, Etsy is proactively advocating for an approach to parental leave that it believes is good for the economy as a whole.

That's giving big.

Etsy is expressing its values AND practicing generosity by taking a stand that paid parental leave helps everyone, and thus should be universal.

Here’s more, from the companion post mentioned on the Etsy blog (below), where Gorman notes:

At Etsy, we’re working to be a diverse and inclusive company. In sharing our thinking, we hope to advance the conversation among our community  including our employees, business peers, other corporate leaders and policymakers  to build a business culture that’s more enriching and sustainable for everyone. (emphasis mine)

Etsy ties its Parental Leave policy to a much larger mission and purpose.  By promoting its own unique culture, Etsy is generously advocating for something that will benefit every company and every worker in the USA.

Well done, Etsy.


On a Related Note:   (here's the extra newsletter section:)

I believe that parental leave, like health insurance, should not be attached to a person’s job or place of employment. We should encourage companies to provide leave while we advocate for universal paid parental leave, as well as universal child care. And, we need to encourage companies of any size and any industry to offer parental leave in whatever capacity they can.

That’s why I was surprised to see this statement, by Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures (USV), an early investor in Etsy and now a board member. 

I fully support Etsy’s parental leave policy and am proud that Etsy is at the forefront of a movement in the tech industry for more family friendly employee policies.

However, I am not suggesting that all startups or all USV backed startups should do the same.

There’s a vast gap between “a workforce in the thousands or tens of thousands” and the “team of four people working from a co-working space” that Wilson uses to anchor the size of companies that can and can’t offer parental leave. Companies don’t have to have thousands -- or even hundreds- of employees to find ways to offer paid parental leave. 

Remember how, just a year ago,  Mary Ellen Slater shared how her small startup managed to give employees parental leave, and Sara Holoubek of Luminary Labs wrote about planning for her own parental leave?  Rethink those excuses, people.

Two perspectives on Family Leave Policy worth checking out:

Bravo for Etsy, but Its Paid Parental Leave Policy Really Shouldn't Be Exceptional, Inc.com, by Jessica Stillman, @EntryLevelRebel, March 16, 2016.

— I always appreciate Stillman’s perspective --she has a good eye for the meaning behind the stories she reports. Here she shows us the big picture of parental leave in the USA and globally.

These Are the Companies With the Best Parental Leave Policies, Time.com, by Alicia Adamczyk, Nov. 4, 2015.   

--  Do you wonder what it would be like to work at Netflix and actually TAKE your unlimited parental leave? I do.

Sign up to be a Beta Tester of my new newsletter, Generosity At Work.


Defining Your Business's Success Using "Net Positive Value"

Here's an excerpt from the introduction to Generosity At Work that defines a concept that's critical for assessing the impact of your business. Let me know what you think!

Defining Net Positive Value

Self-centered businesses care whether their own bottom line is growing.  

Generous businesses care about their own growth at the same time as they care about the growth of their business network itself.


Generous businesses want to grow by creating "net positive value".

Net positive value is created when a group of businesses works together to create new sources of value and additional kinds of value while using or claiming for themselves less than they contribute. Any individual business can influence the network's net value by adding more value and/or taking less itself.

Generous businesses think about what they're taking, what they are contributing as they assess whether or not they are really, truly, growing.

In a network with net positive value, businesses are being generous themselves and helpful to each other. Business are growing, and so is the network.

What "Net Positive Value" means

The word ‘net’ does double duty in the concept of ‘net positive value’. It stands for the balance of inputs to outputs while also emphasizing the system's health instead of just the health of the individual business.

In accounting, the term ‘net’ means an entity's income minus cost of goods sold, expenses and taxes. It tells accountants whether profits are growing, or not. An entity has net positive, net neutral or net negative outcomes. The idea of "net" gain or loss can be used outside of financial accounting, to consider any kind of resource or value. It’s a way to understand, when it’s all said and done, whether the entity is growing, maintaining status quo, or declining in value.

When self-centered companies focus on their own growth, they think about net value the way accountants do.

They want to end up with more value than they had when they started, and more value than they burned through to get here. Indeed, that’s what competitive businesses are supposed to do— they are supposed to maximize the value they claim for themselves by efficiently using the least amount of resources necessary to create that value. They try to be efficient with their resources and aggressive with their pricing, so that the net effect of their efforts is a positive number on the bottom line.

But what’s good for the bottom line of the self-centered company can be bad for the net positive value of the group.

Consider what happened in 2002, when Walmart introduced an inventory management system powered by RFID tags. Walmart wanted to save money by shifting away from the labor-intensive process of taking inventory by hand. They also wanted to increase sales by eliminating out-of-stocks. Both goals could be addressed by the RFID system, and the savings generated for Walmart by this system would show up as increased profits. For Walmart.

Walmart mandated that every one of its product suppliers put these RFID tags onto their products — at the suppliers’ expense — before Walmart would accept shipments from them. Walmart wasn’t concerned with the impact of its mandate on the bottom line of anyone but itself.

Walmart could have put these tags on pallets of inventory once products arrived in its own warehouses, using Walmart’s own workers, equipment and time. Instead, Walmart used its power to push the costs of these RFID tags onto its suppliers. By aiming to reap the benefits of an RFID-managed system all for itself, Walmart decreased the net value (bottom line) of each and every supplier whose products Walmart sold in its stores. Worse still was that few if any suppliers were able to use this RFID technology to make their own internal systems more efficient.

The added expense of the RFID technology for the suppliers became the cost of doing business with Walmart.

If the costs to suppliers were about the same as the additional value Walmart received, then the overall impact on the network was neutral. More than a decade later, however, the jury’s still out on how much and even whether this move to RFID actually helped Walmart’s bottom line. We know that for many of Walmart’s suppliers, the shift to RFID damaged their bottom line for years.

A self-centered business might think that it is generating net positive value of the accounting kind, because it is taking and claiming more value than it spent. But from the big picture, there isn’t any net positive value created overall.

Business that take a network point of view (NetPOV), however, understand that looking at their individual balance of contributions and claims is not quite enough to evaluate their success. They need to consider the the network as a whole. When companies with a netPOV think about their growth, they pay attention to the outcome for the system. These businesses look beyond their own balance sheets to include in their calculations their effects on the businesses around them and on the network itself.

From the perspective of the individual business, the goal is to ‘claim’ as much as you can of the value you help to create.

Does your business introduce other businesses to your customers?
Then charge these businesses when you offer them your mailing list.

Does your business help customers understand an entire category of products?
Then, to every business in the industry, send a bill for p.r. ‘services rendered’.

Do other businesses adopt a software tool that your designers made?
Then charge them a subscription fee for every month that tool is in their service.

That’s how business is done. That’s how a self-centered company can ‘capture’ more of the value that it helps to create within a network.

But in these examples, as in so much of "business as usual", the value has been moved to the bottom line of one company right from the balance sheet of some other business. The impact is net neutral at best.

Generous business, because their are network-focused and concerned about all kinds of value, recognize that they need to assess the health of the whole network before they can tell whether or not the value they are claiming on their balance sheets is fundamentally new value.

New value, that didn’t exist before and that the generous business has helped to create, leads the network's value towards net positive.

That’s why the assessment of value at the level of the network is so important:

We can only tell if our business is growing in a sustainable way if it is contributing to the network's net value as well as our own. 


Inclusion & Diversity In Tech

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Building Authentic Organizations

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