2016 in retrospective

2016 was a testing year. I have learned so much about the pros and cons of running my own business that I couldn’t have even imagined at the start of the journey. It hasn’t been easy admitting that my plan was all sorts of wrong to start with. But eventually I learned the hardest lesson – that of being able to admit failure.

What I call failure here isn’t really to some. I have been challenged about that. And it made me wonder about my choice of language. But the choice of words here is very conscious here. One of the most important lessons I have learned on the Angels & Witches journey was that I had to be able to admit failure in order to move on and devise a new plan. Before I was able to admit this lesson, I had spent quite a bit of time feeling sorry for myself and my original plan that did not work out. It wasn’t until I was ready to admit that my original plan has failed that I was ready to stop being a cry baby and work out a new one.

So 2016 taught me some humility. It has been a good year for learning, and as much as I have to admit most of it has not been pleasant (nobody likes to admit being wrong!), I love learning, so eventually I managed to see the silver lining.

2016 has also been the year of unexpected sources of learning. I have learned most about how to improve my business idea from some of the least expected places. One of the best learning experiences was also one of the worst at the same time. A woman in my business course told me I was being negative. In fact, I was the least positive person in the group, according to her. I sulked a little bit after I heard this. And then I thought ‘Get over yourself! If she said it, she must have had a reason. As much as you might not agree with it.’ And there it was, right in front of me – the answer. Perhaps I was, in fact, being a little bit on the defensive about my idea, because I presumed that people would make negative connotations about it since it was a feminist coffee shop?! Perhaps, I was making too many assumptions about how people would react to the word ‘feminist’ in it because of my past experiences and I needed to be able to see past those in order to create a positive vision for the space?

In order to understand my stream of consciousness at the time, you need to know where I’m coming from. My undergrad dissertation was about young women and their perceptions of feminism. My assumption at the start of the project was that British women would have an overwhelmingly positive image of feminism, compared to Polish ones, which was my comparison group. My research findings debunked my ideas. ALL women in my research group were generally negative about the idea of feminism in the 21st century.

Now, there are a couple of important caveats that I seem to have largely forgotten about to the findings. One – as my research project was based on in-depth interviews, my sample was quite small. Two – as I have completed the project in 2010, it has to be noted that feminism has had quite a resurgence  since.

In fact, at the end of the business course we had to pitch our ideas to a panel of professional business investors. And once I was able to get over that deep-seated fear of the terrible ‘f-word’ inside my head (despite my best intentions, I had carried it well into my feminist years), I managed to pass the frightening pitch phase, and with flying colours! I was not expecting to get such positive reactions from the non-feminist investors, considering my prior knowledge on people’s perceptions of feminism. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I still presumed that they would have negative connotations of the word ‘feminist’ but I managed to give them the most positive vision of Angels & Witches I could muster, and it worked! My passion for the idea was contagious. They were actually intrigued by it! They said it was original and thought that it had the potential to actually fill a gap in the market.

That was just a week after the confrontation with reality I had. And within that week I learned two priceless lessons. One – not to let the fears in my head get on top of me, my vision and mission. Two – speaking in public does not have to be the dreaded experience I had always thought it to be, it just takes a little bit of practice, and the right kind of attitude in order to do it well and to get over the fear of it.

These were two of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned during the past 12 months. I have been too stubborn to take those learnings at face value to start with but then I found more and more challenges like that along the way, and found a way to look at them with more of an open mind over time. And that changed everything for me. And then, very recently, I found this book that I did not even realise I was looking for in the first place, and it has helped me make sense of everything that I have learned so far. It brought it all together. I had already written about this book, and quoted it before. But I will do it again, in the hope that it helps other struggling young social entrepreneurs on their journey.

“The human capacity to sense dissonance in the present moment and see the potential for change strikes me as one of our most extraordinary gifts” (Brian J. Roberts). In other words, the challenges on our path can be the most important lessons learned – we just have to find it in us to be open enough to learn from them.

The moment that I found this book, I was actually looking for something pretty different. I was looking for a guide book on how to start a coffee shop. But what I found was much more valuable. It was, in fact, exactly what I needed at the time. It made me realise that I wasn’t alone in struggling with the challenge of being open-minded enough, and how important a skill it was to learn to be just that. I was looking for a recipe book, but instead I found so much more – one with an important lesson for life. I will strive to use this lesson in every new enterprise that I take up going forwards.

There have been other, less revolutionary and more everyday, but not less important, lessons learned along the way. For example, I have developed and perfected ways of motivating and inspiring myself. I have used most of those all my life, but I hadn’t really realised how important it was to know how to motivate myself until I found myself alone, inspiration drained, on this journey. It is incredibly simple to keep up ones motivation most of the time, if we know ourselves. It is knowing what inspires and motivates us that’s the hard part – and once we do, we just have to make it a part of our everyday routine to ensure that the methods work.

For me, it is meeting people, whether through books, online, or in real life. Books make me feel like I’m not alone on this journey. Too many of my predecessors have faced the same kinds of challenges that I do for me to lose spirit. Networking opportunities can be found everywhere. It is finding the right kind that is the trick. For me, networking with social entrepreneurs is most effective. They have the same kind of knowledge as any other business innovator, but because they do it for social reasons, not just for money, they tend to be much more inspiring than those who just have a competitive streak or want to be the next Branson. Don’t get me wrong, I always appreciate meeting people full of ideas, which all entrepreneurs tend to be. I just don’t quite get the idea of economic development for the sake of itself. There just has to be more t it. In order for humanity to survive. That’s all.

As I love learning, this year has been amazing, probably the most eye-opening 12 months of my life. It has also been challenging, unexpected, difficult and energy intense. But it was all worth it! I started out this year with a vague idea of opening a feminist coffee shop, and that idea developed in ways I could not have foreseen at the beginning of the journey. But I feel it is more grounded in reality now. I will be starting out next year with the idea of starting small, with a feminist stall, while looking for a long-term space, slowly, with less of a deadline, but more of an idea of finding something right. Just right. Slowly, but surely.

Wish me luck! And have a fruitful 2017 all!

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The Feminist coffee shop & other bizarre ideas of mine…

As years go, 2016 was the most bizarre one in my life. Don’t get me wrong, it was wonderfully educational and exceptionally surprising, but it was still pretty eye-popping-bizarre. And I’m not even talking about the Trump vs Clinton fiasco, Brexit, or the Polish government blatantly trying to push women’s rights in the country back to the middle ages. Yes, the political climate is at its most curious in my living memory. But I mean personally here. Obviously, as a feminist, the personal is forever political in my world, so read on.

I have started out this year with a dream of making a feminist coffee shop in London happen. It seemed, at the time, like a total no-brainer. I am a feminist. I have tried and don’t want to work in the corporate world a minute longer. Feminism has been at the centre of my life for a long time, and it’s not going anywhere. I have this wonderful idea. So why the heck not?! And then the reality hit me. I was going against not just the hyper-capitalist environment of London, but often times the feminists themselves! Not that any of my sisters said to me it was a bad idea, they just raised a LOT of questions…

Of all the places in the world, 21st century UK must be one of the most oddly challenging places to be a feminist. Not because feminism is not popular at all. The UK is one of the most interesting, and sometimes mind-boggling, countries for a feminist. With its rich history of the women’s movement, it has been an inspiration to many others. And yet… Many people were surprised when the UN report on the levels of sexism across the world came out a couple of years ago, slamming Britain… Many feminists in the UK saw it coming. But there are things that many feminist in this country fail to agree on.

What is recognised in the UK as feminism is in no way easy to define. In fact, I have been told recently, in no unclear terms, that to say ‘feminism’ rather than ‘feminisms’ is simply wrong, because there are so many versions! I, personally, like to keep things simple and tend to use the ‘feminism is the radical notion that women are human’ definition (Cheris Kramarae) because, whatever background theory you subscribe to as a feminist, this is hard to disagree with. Plus, it really seems that straightforward to me!

As a London feminist who grew up in Poland, and has recently joined the women’s movement in my home country, I can see stark differences between the state of feminism here and there. Poland, with its relative lack of feminist herstory, is now dealing with the same issues that British women were dealing with in the 70s and 60s (Polish women have largely missed out on the second wave because of the restrictive impact of the Soviet Union at the time, and western feminism was then gradually ‘imported’ into Poland after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989). And therefore, there is less talk about which wave of feminism we have in Poland right now, and more debate about ways of overthrowing the extremely misogynistic Polish government…

British feminists, by contrast, consider it quite important to define themselves, many see themselves as third/fourth wave, some still see second wave as closest to their hearts (the debate rages on). Historically, the waves were something that had only been decided upon with the perspective of time. But British feminism has now gotten to a point where it has decided to reclaim the notion of waves for itself. It is an interesting process to watch, since very few feminists seem to agree on which wave we are in right now.

Which brings me to my main point. British feminism is going through a post-modernist high at the moment. In many ways, it is an expression and a celebration of diversity. But in more ways than one, it can become confusing. And so my first year on the feminist coffee shop journey has been bumpy and challenging. And not just because of capitalism and the heartless market forces that go with it…

I have had to explain my idea to many people over the past year. When I first started out, obviously, I knew I would have to spell out the ins and out of what a feminist coffee shop would be to the different business, marketing and other people unfamiliar with the ideas of feminism. But it hadn’t initially occurred to me that I would have to have explanations ready for the feminists too!

It was initially to my shock and horror that I was explaining myself to ‘my people’. I mean, isn’t a feminist coffee shop simply a no-brainer to any woman who considers herself part of the movement?! But gradually, I started to take a more nuanced approach. I started asking people questions, rather than just throwing out those same prepared answers at them.

So, what makes a feminist space? I have to say, by the end of this year, I have learned to spell it out to people in a number of concise and more or less convincing ways. I even pitched my idea to a panel of professional investors, somewhat, successfully. But I have to admit, I am ending the year with more questions than answers. Which is not necessarily a bad thing – the ability to ask the right kind of questions is very important, often crucial, in any line of work, I think.

But the main thing is that the ideas behind Angels & Witches have developed enormously because of all the surprising, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre conversations that I’ve had with people. Some of those who’ve challenged my ways of thinking were feminists, others were not. But they have all added something valuable to the creative chaos of a social business idea that I’d set out with.

At the beginning it seemed like madness to me. So many ideas. What seemed like a simple idea to start with, became gradually more and more complicated as I went on. But there is a method to this madness. Every time I ‘sense dissonance in the present moment and see the potential for change’ (Brian J. Robertson) rather than dismissing the discrepancy right away, I make space for improvements in my initial concept. Ego has to be dealt with in order for this process to work, but once that’s done, it opens up a world of possibilities.

So, let me end on this. The feminist coffee shop is still happening. Not as fast as I had initially hoped for, but it is. And this year has been an uphill struggle but it has helped me realise that the idea has so much more potential than I originally thought. It will be a space where feminists can read, relax, eat, listen to good music, marvel at beautiful, woman-loving art, just as I’d originally planned. But it will also be a space where stereotypes can be challenged and all the questions that I’ve battled with can be raised and debated: what is feminist music and art?; is feminism strictly compatible with veganism?; what makes a feminist space? The space will aim to be a safe haven for women but also to be a space that invites the wider public to challenge their misconceptions of feminism.

And hopefully that brings the day of the death of patriarchy one step closer to reality!

Have a good festive break all!