Let’s get clear from the start: Jennifer Armbrust, the founder of the Feminist Business School, does not like capitalism. Yes, she’s a serial entrepreneur. Yes, the gallery owner-turned-consultant and educator thinks running a business is a form of art. Yes, she works extensively with other entrepreneurs and business owners and gives talks about the economy. But that’s all in service of radical social transformation — to move away from the mechanics of capitalism that she says have created the economic and social inequality we see today.
“My idea is that through innovation, iteration, experimentation, and working with practices deeply embedded in our values, we might begin to agitate those systems and find our way out of capitalism into something new,” she says. “I’m not an economist and I don’t know what that structure will be, but I’m interested in working in collaboration and coalition with other people who want a different way to see if we can find new practices that will lead us to new models.”
“A business can be a prototype of the world you want to live in. As we honor feminine and feminist principles in our practices, we reshape the business archetype.”
Armbrust first publicly articulated her vision for a feminine — and explicitly feminist — economy in 2015 when she was asked to give a talk about the art of business. That same year, she launched Feminist Business School, now an online course that’s part of her company Sister, also home to her “embodied business consulting.” But the ideas had been percolating for years. Her bachelor’s degree was focused on critical theory, and after college she opened an art gallery in Portland, Oregon, and worked with emerging artists for five years. She parlayed that into running a small design firm, and from there, she transitioned into helping businesses. “Strategy is a place of play and ideas,” she says on her website, “and I realized I had an opportunity to bring back feminist theory in a way that might be useful and interesting.”
She’s quick to point out that by using the word “feminist” she doesn’t just mean that she’s pro-women. “‘Feminism’ as it currently exists in the lexicon vaguely means something about women’s empowerment,” she laments. “But ‘feminism’ is a thing. It’s a movement. It has a history. There’s scholarship around it. There is feminist art. There’s feminist theory.” As she says on her site, “This is about redistributing power and resources. This is about radical social transformation. A feminist business can model new ways of living, working, and being together. This is about transforming our relationship to money, to work, to the Earth, to our bodies, and to each other. A business can be a prototype of the world you want to live in. As we honor feminine and feminist principles in our practices, we reshape the business archetype.”
We were intrigued by the overlap between Armbrust’s work and the visions we see conscious companies enacting, so our editorial director Rachel Zurer spoke with Armbrust about entrepreneurship, social change, and her vision for a new kind of company.
You’ve said in your talks that you have “a passion for growth.” How is the type of growth that you’re talking about different from an out-of-control capitalist growth mentality?
Jennifer Armbrust: I have a passion for personal growth. I’m talking about my own consciousness, self-
reflectiveness, and a willingness to put the work in towards my own healing and expansion and intellectual understanding of the world I live in.
That word does get bandied around quite a bit. I would distinguish linear/financial growth as a masculine/capitalist model, versus cyclical growth, which is a more earth-based type of growth that our bodies and the plants around us experience.
There is a cyclical quality to nature that hasn’t, of yet, been drawn on in business. I’m interested in business not undertaking an ambitious growth plan, but instead flowing down, being more intentional, and leaving room for things like fallow periods, death, and sunsetting.
When we talk about personal growth, it’s clear that we mean change, evolution, deepening, or, as you said, healing. It’s not just about getting bigger. It’s funny how we have the same word for both. I wonder if that’s part of our challenge. How do you understand the importance of our language in this process of changing capitalism?
JA: Language is really important, and exploring the meaning of language is crucial. Capitalism, particularly advertising, has alienated words from their meaning. For example, “feminism” right now is popular, but what I quickly learned when I launched Feminist Business School is that feminist literacy is low. All the history, all the rich, rich thought that has particular ideals, that has an agenda, that is what feminism is about — those have all fallen away, and now it’s a rallying cry for women. I think that’s unfortunate.
That has happened, too, with the terms feminine and masculine. You hear “the divine feminine” a lot, but we don’t know exactly what that means. All of a sudden it has something to do with buying yoga clothes, maybe. Stealing words back from advertising and understanding their meaning and their historical context is crucial. That education piece is a big part of what I’m doing; it’s why my work involves the school and teaching, not just consulting.
That’s a lot of levels of nuance to be asking of people, especially as you think about spreading these ideas, creating change in a bigger, systemic way. This isn’t very marketable in some ways. What are you going to do about that?
JA: My work is about critical consciousness and it’s about people choosing to learn to survive on their own terms without compromising their values, and that’s why it is capitalist-critical. It’s not consumptive. I’m not creating unnecessary needs. I’m not fulfilling temporary addictions.
This is about a commitment to self, to personal growth, to critical consciousness, to social change. It’s not shallow work. It’s work that’s been going on for years. There’s a legacy of civil rights, of feminist movements, people who have lost their lives for labor rights. This isn’t glib. It’s not meant to be a product that you’re going to pick up, wear a t-shirt, and call it done. This is a lifelong project. This is the commitment to a totally different way of being.
You have a particular definition of business: “An experiment in survival involving money and the creative impulse.” For a lot of people, the idea that you can be capitalism-critical yet pro-
business is a tricky tension or paradox. Can you speak to that?
JA: My work exists not as an endorsement of or a reinvestment in the business paradigm. It’s more that I see entrepreneurship as a site of opportunity for those who have previously been excluded from it — women, people of color. I see it as a place of experimentation and play, where there is a lot of agency and freedom to create new models and to make new rules.
It’s what’s available. The tool of the era. Is that a fair way to put it?
JA: It’s a tool, for sure. I just want to mention that other people are working in other capacities in a similar vein. People are working in academia, government. This just happens to be my particular home, my niche, the place that I’m comfortable, and what I have to offer to the bigger project. I’m interested in business, in gender, in art, in money and economics. And entrepreneurship is where those converge.
Do you know any businesses that you would consider truly feminist?
JA: No. There are companies working consciously that I think do want to be asking questions about how we use money, how we use power in business. But as far as an actual feminist business goes, I don’t have one that I can conjure at the moment.
First, this entire idea of taking feminist scholarship, the lessons of feminist movements, and the ideals of feminism and applying them to business in an explicit way is new. I only know of a couple of other people who are thinking about these ideas. There may well be people who have explicitly taken feminism and begun to embed those ideals in their practices, but they haven’t promoted it, so I’m not aware of businesses that are explicitly merging feminism and entrepreneurship.
That said, I see part of the goal of feminism to be a redistribution of money and power on a large scale. There are some businesses working in alignment with that goal. Things like profit-sharing — we almost all know and love a food co-op somewhere. The co-op model is one of shared power, of shared resources, of shared ownership.
I would consider on-site child care to be a feminist issue. Or I think of companies that are building giving into their profit models, giving to Planned Parenthood … Reproductive rights is a fundamental feminist ideal. There are companies that are doing things like that.
This is why I see this as a huge opportunity. I’m personally working on a framework, and I’m asking my students to co-author it with me, of what kind of business can be feminist, and what that would require. It’s a wide question. It’s deep. There’s a lot to it. It’s taking a while to flesh out the scaffolding of what that means.
One of your 12 Principles for Prototyping a Feminist Business (see below) is “institutionalized empathy.” What does that mean to you in practice?
JA: Institutionalizing empathy is about going into an individual business and looking at places where the structure of the business, the way the business was set up, is overriding the needs of people’s bodies, their emotional needs, their creative needs.
Business structure gets a lot of authority. The business itself becomes this entity that we all then bend our bodies, our days, our lives around. The truth is we make those structures, and we can make them differently. So institutionalizing empathy is asking, what does it mean to have a body in business? What does it mean for the way we structure our businesses or the way we work with others? Are the bodies in the business happy? Are they in pain? Are they tired? Are they getting fed? Are they rested? How many hours do we work? What does it mean if we need to spend less time in front of computers for our bodies not to be in pain? How does that change our entire business structure?
Then it’s looking at, when do we create situations of stress or of disease or fear in our business? Then we can even zoom way out to social issues when we start to ask, when is our business complicit in institutionalized sexism or structural racism? When are we complicit in the larger systems that are embedded in structural white supremacy?
It requires a lot of self-critique, but it’s about connecting to our humanness and not letting the business be an imposing structure that we all bow down to. Instead, the business becoming a responsive structure that meets needs and that brings people together and deepens our humanity.
How are modern life and civilization as we know it not going to collapse if we stop working so hard and start paying so much attention to bodies instead? Our whole modern world was built on capitalism.
JA: I would argue that if we stay on the path we’re on, we’re going to self-destruct. We have reached critical unsustainability with the way we treat the Earth. We are on an untenable track. We are treating our bodies horribly. People are sick. People are angry. People are unhappy. People are depressed. People are on painkillers, opioid addiction. Things are not going well, so I don’t see that we have a lot to lose.
We will lose our stuff. The capitalist addiction is part of what will go. We’re consuming things we don’t need, that we don’t want, that we buy for ourselves as rewards for overworking. We eat rich foods. We drink alcohol after a long day. We’re in a constant state of rebalancing and rebalancing and rebalancing, because we’re out of balance.
What I’m proposing is a return to sanity, not a departure from it. I think capitalism has made us gluttons. It has made us narcissistic. It has made us selfish. It has made us terrible stewards of the Earth. It has made us competitive with one another. Slavery exists because of capitalism. It has definitely shaped our social relations, our racial relations. We’re on a path to destruction. I see what I’m offering as an antidote to that.
What are the roles of men in feminist business and the Feminine Economy?
JA: There is unquestionably room in feminist entrepreneurship for men. But in the same way that women have to unlearn their patriarchal and masculine thinking, men need to do that too, and even more so because they are the ones who have benefited from it.
Part of what it requires is self-work, an acknowledgement of male privilege, and an understanding of what that is. An understanding of what masculine principles are, and how those have been tied to success, to monetary value.
Then there has to be a concerted effort by men to reclaim and allow for their own feminine qualities and to see the value of those in others and to begin to embed those qualities in their business models. It’s going to take a step out of ego, a step out of the hero model or the charismatic leader, and humility and an openness to working in collaboration, to working in coalition, and to being in a constant state of learning and listening.
Your thesis is that we’re horribly out of balance between the masculine and the feminine. But is there room for the masculine in a Feminine Economy? What would be the danger of going too far toward the feminine?
JA: My idealized future is clear: a beautiful, unique mix of masculine and feminine qualities in each of us. Just because we’re born with male or female bodies wouldn’t mean we are masculine or feminine. Instead, we all as human beings would have access to and capacity for both masculinity and femininity.
With the Feminine Economy — sure, there is the possibility that it can swing too far, but I would argue that most Americans have no idea what it actually feels like to be in a feminine workplace or in an environment that really, deeply honors feminine values and feminine principles. Most of us don’t have a felt sense of what that even is. We need to cultivate spaces that allow people to feel that in their bodies. We know what the masculine feels like. We’ve all been in it our whole lives. In fact, I’d say that right now we’re in a really amplified state of it.
Ultimately, we will be in a more yin–yang balanced place. But first we have to feel what the feminine is. We need to hang out in that place so that we have a deep knowing of it, and then can combine that with our longstanding knowledge of what the masculine feels like and find a facility in between.
There are not a lot of feminist businesses yet, but there probably are still some places out there to feel that feminine energy. What are those to you?
JA: Nature is the first place to feel that. Deep communion with nature. The ocean is one of my favorites. The ocean is a deeply feminine place.
Or spirituality not tethered to religion: to be in a deeply spiritual state, a state of meditation or ecstatic reflection, is a feminine experience. To be in a state of awake rest. To be relaxed and aware, like an open receptiveness, is a feminine state of being. Those are the first ones that come to mind.
What makes a good feminist business leader?
JA: Feminine entrepreneurship requires vigorous self-reflection and thinking critically about our business practices. It requires a willingness and an eagerness to engage with questions of sexism and exploitation, of race, of class, of elitism, of access, of how we circulate money, and how we treat others and ourselves, how we use our natural resources.
It requires that we quit equating masculine principles with success and strength, and feminine principles with inadequacy and weakness. Ultimately, it’s about curiosity, self-reflection, and then eagerness to engage with larger systems of power and the commitment to come up with solutions that redistribute that power.
It requires a lot of accountability and responsibility for what you’re creating and its effect in the world. And that’s where I feel a real lack of genuine leadership, particularly in the tech industry, but even beyond, in liberal capitalism. The question of accountability is crucial, and I just see all these men building these quick-scaling companies that are bent on breaking things. That’s irresponsible. I’m not interested in breaking things. We need leaders who want to build things, who want to work in coalition with other people, who are already engaged in these larger questions of these larger social movements, these larger problems, and who are productive instead of destructive.
One of your principles here is creating new definitions of success. What does success mean to you?
JA: My long-term goal and commitment with my work is to learn to survive on my own terms, with my personal and creative integrity intact. As I endeavor to learn how to do that, that’s what I’m trying to teach others to do. How can we survive with our personal and creative integrity intact? That’s my purest definition of success.
It’s also important to me to enjoy my body while I have it, and to nourish it. To work with ease, to contribute meaningful work, to live in abundance, to attain surf mastery by the age of 50, and to retain a sense of awe and wonder and a dry sense of humor until my final days.
You were just able to list off a lot of clearly articulated goals there. Do you have any advice for people who feel less clear about their personal definitions of success? How can they start to create them?
JA: It’s about starting to look around the landscape of your life and identify where you’re making choices based on what other people want you to do. That’s where it starts. It starts with a reclamation of choosing to live life on your terms, for you.
The first part of it is: reclaim happiness. Reclaiming happiness means to really, truly find where your pleasures lie, where your passions lie, not what you’re told will make you happy. Not the car, the house, the two-and-a-half kids or whatever. But what happens when you let go of the life you were told you would, should, or could have — other people’s scripts for you? What happens when you let that go and start to follow your pleasure, your passions? That’s when a new definition of success starts to become available — because you start to remember what feels good.
That initially sounds really selfish. But once you begin that project, you start to hear your own inner voice. You start to hear your colleagues connect with why they are here on earth. That’s really when your life begins.
I suspect that there’s a shallow version of “reclaiming happiness”; things that make you feel good in the moment, those coping mechanisms you mentioned, versus the things that really bring you deep happiness. How do you make sure that you’re not settling for the shallow?
JA: The easiest way for me to look at that is through the lens of addiction. Capitalism puts us in an addictive state. I see an addiction as a habitual action taken towards the promise of a reward. And it’s that promise that keeps us going back to the same action over and over. We may have received that reward once, and then we want it to come back again. And sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t, but we end up in these ruts. Capitalism feeds that behavior.
It does require a certain amount of deep work; of stepping out of that system of earning and deserving and reward, out of the things that temporarily feel good but in the long term don’t nourish our bodies. It requires a recalibration and attunement to ourselves, being honest about what really does feel good. What is nourishing? What provides us with a sense of pleasure that endures, not that acts as a hollow promise?
Say somebody reads this and is totally excited about feminist business. What would you recommend as the first step for somebody whose life looks nothing like this?
JA: Of course I’m like, “Please come work with me. We need you. We want you. There’s a community waiting for you at www.sister.is.” I don’t want to do this alone. I can’t do this alone. This is about community. This is about collective momentum. If nothing else, spend a little time with my talk on the Feminine Economy, and just notice where you feel called. Notice the things that light up in you, that inspire you.
There’s a great quote by civil rights activist Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” If nothing else, if you want to start something today, start noticing when you’re most alive.