Steps Towards Building an Equitable Business.
Lately I’ve been thinking more than ever about pricing, access, and the assumptions we are, often unconsciously, baking into our business models. Particularly for those of us who have high-priced consulting or coaching services as all or part of our business, I’m thinking about how these models intersect with unearned privilege, and, for our (we, meaning earth dwellers) current place in the most economically stratified time in modern history.
There’s a high stakes question that I’ve been asking since beginning my business, that continues to help guide my vision (with a touch of cheek):
How can I actively ensure that our business is not unquestioningly only helping the privileged become more privileged?
Online business is rife with meme-ified ideas of “charge what you’re worth”; or “live your zone of genius and abundance will flow”; and other notions that upon examination, are incredibly harmful and demoralizing for many. These kinds of frameworks ignore racial and class privileges, and assume a level playing field that does not exist.
We need to ask where these ideas come from and who they serve.
We need to ask deeper questions about the business models we create and who they are for.
We need to ask if we can create new models that are neither idealistic and hungry nor profit + power driven and blind to structural iniquity. I believe there are ways to create a business that supports owners and workers, that also finds ways to disrupt the status quo and builds frameworks for social and economic justice into our businesses.
One place where I feel frequently stuck, frustrated, and equally inspired to act is where the reality of the economics of what it takes to run my business intersects with the equal reality that the prices and model preclude a huge swath of business owners that, for reasons that are drenched in structural inequality, do not have the resources to work with us, even while knowing that we could really make an impact.
There are many folks for whom starting, owning, and running a business will come with more obstacles:
~ People that do not have the privilege of legacies of wealth — often, and particularly in the US, this means people of color. It’s not just about access to start up capital, but also access to savings and a sense of fiscal security.
~ Single earner households. I know a lot of folks that have partners and spouses that make it possible for them to not draw much of a salary for extended periods of time. Single earner households, solo parents, etc… we don’t have this safety net.
~ People who do not come from an entrepreneur family and don’t have models to look to or the permission and support to start a business. Sometimes this is linked to economic privilege and wealth — families that have been more financial security generation to generation (because, like trauma, security is also inherited) are able to create a sense of safety and a net for taking risks.
Those are a just few examples that I think about as I consider how to grow a business with a racial and social justice backbone.
Let me be clear:
I’m not saying everything should be for everyone.
Or that we should bankrupt and martyr ourselves at the altar of being in service. (Please see my forthcoming publication entitled “This Isn’t Working: A Primer for Arts and Non-Profit Leaders” for more on that. )
Indeed, we can do some basic math and show that chronic undercharging will leave a company depleted, burnt out, and struggling to make enough revenue to cover expenses or asses. Our businesses aren’t any more exempt from the capitalist system we’re steeped in than anyone else’s.
It’s worth grappling with these choices in our business models; in our pricing; in how we talk to our community and what language we use; and in how services are structured (example: does everything happen online? I’ve worked with businesses where not all of the folks involved have access to computers. We had to adapt.)
There are no straightforward and easy answers to the above questions! I have no clean “5 things I’ve learned” bulleted list here, only a call in and reminder to think critically about how the choices we make, the language we use, and how we run our businesses are part of a larger structure that is heavily slanted in favor of a particular, narrow slice of the population. It’s worth remembering where modern expertise businesses came from and considering the biases implicit in the model as a result.
Complicating this structural problem further is the sense that many of us are just scraping by; or we’ve worked our asses off to get where we are; or we’re frequently overwhelmed and can’t possible consider one more thing; or, we’re still struggling with charging enough, and now being asked to consider that there’s a problem with that value too (wtf?!?).
All of the above are true, and yet, I know that we must still keep opening up space for more than our own needs, more than our own viewpoints. For Wanderwell, asking “is there more?” is integral to the values we hold deeply and our huge vision for the world. As a leader, I must keep asking myself“what power— as an owner, as a white woman, as a person with economic privilege — am I willing to give up?”
As I stated, there are no easy answers to the above questions or perfect models to solve these deep structural issues of equity. There are only experiments and continuing to make space for the deeper questions. r
Below are a few experiments we experiment with and put time and energy towards:
Partnering to open up funding and grants — the current cooperative development work we do falls under this category.
Looking at ways to leverage business relationships to create micro-granting opportunities — see our Shared Interest grant
Continuing to experiment with sliding scale models, holding slots for folks that are still developing resources, who come from communities that are not the traditional beneficiaries of structural privileges, or who don’t have access to capital or cash flow.
Barter. Don’t forget about this very ancient and still great system of value exchange!
None of the above are the whole of our business model, work perfectly, or are always great solutions, just small ways that we’ve experimented with creating pieces of our work, or have opened up other ways of working and being in business.
Finally, it’s important to state that all of the above is predicated on our abilities as a leaders to show up and do our own work, to continue to examine our own privilege, biases, and leadership frameworks, and to remain open and flexible in our approaches. Throwing up a scholarship without building relationships with those who would be most served by one is not helpful. This is slow, relationship-based work, and that’s a good thing.
To close, here are three of the many resources and spaces to spend some time with:
Aorta.coop– a worker-owned cooperative organization providing anti-oppression resources and trainings, with a great free resource library.
The work of Kate Poole – cartoons about economics! ( and who just launched her own Justice-oriented investment advisement firm. )
The book Emergent Strategy by adrienne marie brown.