Towards a feminist definition of success

brooke-lark-194253.jpgThe other day, I’ve had a really odd phone conversation with a recruiter. He was trying to convince me that I should quit my job – that I just got 6 days earlier, because it wasn’t a responsible job to have, career-wise. Fair enough, you might say, he’s a recruiter, that’s his job. But it might seem just a little bit more odd to you if I told you that the job that we were talking about was sort of a feminist dream job. No, not to his mind, apparently. But to my mind a million times better than what he was offering. I’ve never really been a massive fan of the 9-5 but, since I’m a feminist, and after I’ve had my first feminist job, I started looking at all office work as a bit of a waste of time, to be honest.

I mean, I get it, we all need to work in one form or another, and that’s why I turned to the recruitment agency in the first place – they were offering a well paid job, and at a company that didn’t particularly resemble a soulless corporate giant. I guess it could definitely be worse. But having had a taste of what a feminist job looks like, I just couldn’t imagine doing anything but.

The company trying to recruit me was a professional market research company – an area that I have been in most of my professional life and so it seemed obvious, to his mind at least, that it was the job I SHOULD have been dreaming of – a ‘proper’ career development steps, whatever that means. But I just cannot. I cannot imagine – let alone dream of – spending 40 hours each week on work that mostly just makes me miserable, because all I can think of 39/40 of those hours, most weeks, is what amazing things I would be able to do if I spent all this time doing feminist work.

I cannot help it – I am a feminist and once I had a taste of a feminist job, I didn’t feel like going back to my old life of a boring 9-5, in an office full of people that I had nothing in common with, apart from the dislike of said 9-5.

Yes, my feminist job doesn’t pay much. Fact. It is not a full-time job, and therefore it only allows me to pay my rent and basic expenses. Fact. No, it is not a perfect job – it does have its ups and downs, just like any other jobs. Fact. But the ups, in this case, include being able to save a feminist space for future generations of girls and women. And so the downs quickly fade away, if you think about the incredible impact you’re making. I don’t know many ‘proper’ career paths that give a similar sense satisfaction.

What is also true about it is that it allows me to do this tiny little thing every day that not many ‘proper’ jobs do – help bring a world that is better for women just one step closer. Even if it might only be a small step. It allows me to do what I love, what I’m really passionate about, and it gives me the flexibility to also pursue my other interests at the same time. Not many people can say that about their jobs. I consider myself lucky. Most people I know from my last office job barely had time for anything apart from work, family and shopping. That was it for them.

I can’t live like that. And I shouldn’t have to apologise for it. And yet, because we live in capitalist patriarchy, I have this guy, a stranger I must add, on the other end of the phone making me feel like I’m crazy for not wanting a ‘proper’ job, a boring 9-5 that would make me mind-numb within a short few months, if not weeks, instead of a job that I’m passionate about that also gives me the freedom I need to pursue my other dreams at the same time, like the café and my writing.

But what is really bizarre about this whole story is not where this guy was coming from in the first place – this idea that I would be better off with a career-wise job – but just how hell-bent he was on convincing me that my dreams and convictions shouldn’t really ‘cloud’ my judgement when it came to career choice… The thing is, I don’t feel clouded at all. My vision has never been so clear. I want a job that gives me a deep sense of satisfaction, rather than a lot of money and prestige in the business world. I have no desire to become a CEO of a corporation. I want to be able to do something that I love, while keeping my independence and options open.

I was forced to look for work again, as the search for a space for the feminist café took longer than expected. But should that mean that I have to get back to my old life that was not me, that made me feel like I was wasting a large proportion of my life on earth doing non-feminist work, and getting progressively more and more frustrated? I don’t think so. Not if I can avoid it!

We need a new definition of success. One that does not start in the business world and finish at FTSE 100. One that stretches beyond what is simply good for the economy, and includes that which is good for people. One that includes feminist visions of society, work and success.


Photo credit Brooke Lark

The Margaret Thatcher Effect – On Masculinity, Value and Coffee

As I passed by another brand new hip coffee shop in South London the other day, a frightening realisation struck me. Just as much as women’s ‘roles’ or rather what has traditionally been recognised as such, tend to be devalued, those assumed to be masculine for some reason have more value attached to them, both in terms of perceived importance, as well as in remuneration. But the frightening part of it all is that the same is still true. Additionally, there is still a noticeable adverse knock-on effect of a change in perceived masculinity or femininity of roles, on women’s pay.

Let’s take the coffee shop business as an example. While café work is traditionally perceived as low-skill and low paid, a new variety of, predominantly bearded, expert baristas has more recently started taking over London, and other parts of the world it seems, as I witnessed on my trip to Poland last year. This new breed of, again, predominantly male, coffee making specialist, is fast becoming a profession of sorts, with a whole range of hot spots around the city, hip magazines, coffee tasting apps, specialist training and equipment, and eye-watering prices to match the craze.

Out of interest, I had to check whether my theory about diminishing wages in female dominated professions was also going to prove true in reverse, about the changing nature of the coffee business, since the bearded men have started taking over it, and I looked up remuneration bands for baristas. Indeed, what I found, although I don’t claim to have done extensive, scientific research into this, confirmed my expectations. While barista roles in your standard café, which usually employs young women, don’t tend to pay much more than a minimum wage, those in small, specialist, high-end coffee shops, which tend to charge a premium for their product and… employ bearded baristas, have a pay premium of about 20 per cent.

The question that keeps ringing in my head this afternoon is whether the same thing would have been true if women were to lead this new trend of the cool coffee making expert. Now, although I really don’t know for sure, I suspect it would not. I couldn’t find any academic papers on the topic… Perhaps it’s time for me to re-join the academia and do some proper digging into the dark side of the new coffee business trend..? I did find this quote, that still seems fitting, in a 20 year old Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman, book though:

“Gynocentric feminism defines women’s oppression as the devaluation and repression of women’s experience by a masculine culture that exalts violence and individualism”

Iris Marion Young, Throwing Like a Girl

Don’t get me wrong, I do love good coffee myself, with a passion in fact, as you can probably figure out from the theme of this blog. But I don’t seem to fit into this brave new world of hipster coffee makers, not as well as the bearded man who usually serves my coffee these days anyway… Considering that I don’t have the capacity to grow a beard, I suspect I might never…

It might seem like my theory is a bit far-fetched, but actually, if you look back a few years, and remember the days when cooking was perceived to be a female domain, there were scarcely any male chefs prancing around on the TV, talking about a piece of meat on the grill as if it was the best thing under the sun… And now? Nearly all of the most renowned chefs in the world seem to be men, and if you wish to get into one of their fancy restaurants to treat your loved ones to the priciest dinner you’ve ever had, you better be prepared to book twelve months in advance…

But the question of value of the masculine and the feminine struck me for another reason that day. As I was passing by the hip coffee shop that afternoon, I was on my way back home from a charity sector training event. The trainees were predominantly female. For about 10 women in the room, there was one man. And this wasn’t the first event of the type that I went to – and they all tend to have a similar gender ratio. I do ask myself the ‘why’ question in most situations like these, but something different was on my mind that time. What struck me then was the question of value. We all know that charity jobs don’t tend to be the best paid ones out there, as non-profits have to ensure that the biggest chunk of their income goes towards the cause that they support, and so those that work in the sector tend to look for more of a balance between remuneration and job satisfaction, rather than simply just a fat paycheque. But what really struck me was just how big the gender imbalance in the sector was. And then I saw the bearded men behind the café bar… and it hit me.

Then, a couple of days ago, after all that happened, I went to a women in tech event, and the focus throughout was on how to encourage more females into the industry, with a big emphasis on promoting women into senior and CEO roles. What seemed to be completely missing was the reasons why women might not want to go into the industry in the first place. We still have a massive problem with sexism very early on in the educational system, with girls being discouraged, even if they show an interest in technical subjects. Not to mention the persistent sex discrimination problem in the industry. The emphasis was on how women must be more assertive in asking for promotions and money… But the question that was completely missing from the conversation for me is – do women really want be CEO’s? Is the fat paycheque really worth having to be forced to behave more ‘like a man’?

A couple of months earlier, I went to another women in tech event, one that opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities. Until that day, I didn’t know that I was a techy woman myself! I didn’t know that I could design an app without knowing how to code! I didn’t know about hackathons that, by encouraging women to work in gender-balanced or female-only teams, allowed them to outperform the men, finding new ways to work.

That day, I discovered a new way of looking at the tech world that was almost mystical to me all my life. And so, perhaps it is time we stopped blaming women for problems that are down to discrimination so deeply seated that even senior women within the industry cannot see it themselves?

Where women go, the value of work done seems to drop, if we look at it in monetary terms, and the reverse seems to happen when men step in. Women also tend to choose work in the non-profit sector more often than men. While the number of women in tech careers does actually drop by almost a half, due to discrimination, by the time those who’ve qualified reach 30,  despite bulky remuneration packages. And still, economists seem to think that only when enough women have reached the top in the FTSE100 companies, will we have reached equality… Yet, at the same time, senior men (AND women) in tech seem to be stereotyping against junior women, advising them to be more assertive, rather than looking into the deep seated reasons that push them away from STEM careers. Something has got to give.

Perhaps it is time we redefined the concepts of value and success altogether? Perhaps it is time that we, at long last, started thinking about parenthood as something of high value to society that should be shared equally, so that women have real choices they can make, rather than having to choose between career and kids. Perhaps it is time that we started seeing that there is a world of work of value of there in the non-profit sector that does not float on the stock market, and taking it into account when we look at how far women have come? Perhaps then, we will stop, however unconscious it may be, thinking that having our coffee prepared by someone with distinctive facial hair makes it somehow better…

When inspiration strikes

Double inspiration today! Oh, happy days! After the enormous clouds of the past few days, inspiration lovingly came to me, with a double helping, today. Result? Hope restored.

It is one of those very much underappreciated life giving forces, inspiration. At least that’s how I see it. I was feeling very low yesterday, with the UK election results leaving me dazed, and the country largely confused, it seems, under a cloud of uncertainty, with the added threat of the woman-hating DUP getting into bed with the Tories just to allow them to have a slim majority.

But now that the inspiration struck, I am starting to see some sunshine through the parting clouds. In their desperation to form a government, the Tories might be willing to compromise on some hard-won human rights of women and gay marriage, but it will likely only result in diminishing their already dwindling support in the long run. If that’s how they want to play it, selling out on women’s rights just to gain majority, they will have to be prepared to reap what they sow. Women’s rights are not bargaining chips! I am just a tiny bit surprised that Theresa May cannot see it, considering that she is a woman herself. So much for the theory that having a female Prime Minister is a good thing for women by default, that people have been trying to feed me since she’s taken on the role! Theresa May is no feminist, she said it rather clearly herself. Now we have proof that cannot really be denied.

But this post is not about politics, I digress as it’s taken so much of my energy and mental space in the last few days. And then a welcome strike of inspiration this morning brightened up my day! Thankfully, dark days can have that positive aspect to them. Sunshine comes out eventually and it can even seem to be shining more brightly than before, after a few long days of heavy clouds!

I take inspiration wherever I can get some. And sometimes it can come from unexpected places, so I enjoy going on a little inspiration ‘hunt’ every once in a while. A few weeks ago, I went to a screening of a film on women in tech. And as much as the documentary, Balancing Tech, does expose just how dire the state of the industry still is for UK women, it has also inspired me to take unexpected action, precisely for that reason!

The film screening was hosted by the London office of IBM, which is not my normal kind of hangout, and I couldn’t even remember where I got the invite from! And so I found myself, in a bit of a random fashion, in a room full of extremely well-dressed techy women, wondering if I was in the right place. Just for a few minutes though, until the event started. The documentary turned out to be quite informative, especially considering that it is only a short 20 minutes.

But more to the point, the panelists were exquisite! The lineup was hugely diverse, although admittedly all women, with plenty of knowledge and extraordinary experiences to talk about. I couldn’t quite make up my mind as to which question to ask, but I actually got the opportunity to raise two! And the panel really loved my first point, as they spent at least 5 or so minutes addressing it, giving me so many useful tips that they took up about two pages in my notepad! In fact, I was so fired up by the event’s insights that I had to email the Feminist Library team right away, that night. And we’re already planning a new programme of events at the Library, helping women and girls get trained up on useful techy skills!

I couldn’t help but do something! I mean, did you know that, in the UK, less than 16% of tech graduates and 17% of jobs in the industry are done by women?! And that, by 2020, there will be an expected 1 million+ new jobs in the tech industry, and yet the formal educational system is still producing a shortage of around 20,000 skilled workers for the sector every year! The educational establishment can’t keep up with the growth of the tech sector, and yet it still discriminates against women going into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths)!

It seems like an absolute no-brainer to me! If the industry is facing a massive, and widening, skills gap, and it still suffers from an incredible shortage of women, it is about time it has cleaned up its act! And yet, some stereotypes are harder to break than one might think, it appears. It would seem that, considering it is the 21st century, women would not be facing much discrimination getting into IT. Yet, the event also highlighted the many old fashioned attitudes professional tech women still battle with, even at very high level of experience and achievement.

And so, I figured, what better place to train up women in tech skills than the Feminist Library! Producing skills is one thing, but women going into such a male-dominated industry, need to be also ‘battle’ ready. People often say that women in certain professions need to have a ‘thick skin’ in order to survive, which basically means grin and bear it. No! We do not need to face discrimination and pretend like nothing is happening, with big smiles on our faces, but to the contrary – we must challenge stereotypical behaviour, if we’re going to help the industry become more of a welcoming place for women to be at a better rate than it has been so far! Don’t get me wrong, men need to clean up their act too! And the industry needs to try harder too. But it takes a feminist attitude to challenge stereotypes, and effectively make the industry a better place for women as quickly as possible.

And I do realise that the approach does have its flaws. That it might not work for everyone. I don’t think women should be forced into positions that they don’t feel comfortable in. One friend, who works in tech herself, said to me that she is not sure she would want to encourage her daughter to work in an industry that is so male-dominated, as she would fear her child facing harassment. But as much as it pains me to hear that, I don’t think that’s the heart of the issue. The industry is less likely to change its sexist nature if the shortage of women in it persists. And I would never encourage women to do something that they are not comfortable with. It’s more about showing them what is truly possible, at last really breaking the stereotype that women are just not good at math. And then letting them choose – once they truly know all their options.

Plus, it’s not just the environment of the industry that would change with more women in it, but also, quite likely, the nature of its products! With more women in app development, for example, the likelihood is that the technology produced would become more geared towards women’s needs, helping them solve their other problems!

I almost went without mentioning this, but I think perhaps wrongly so, considering that I don’t think that it is a widely known fact that although the gender pay gap is still evident in the tech industry, it is generally smaller than in other areas, and the baseline salaries are much larger for both men and women, at all levels. I can’t help but wonder whether my early career choices might have been different had I known that about 10 years ago. I’m not saying that it’s too late. In fact, I don’t believe that at all, but it is quite possible that my bank balance would have been much healthier now, had I know that then.

Last but not least, the event helped me break some of the tech-related stereotypes stuck in my own head! I used to be one of those women who always say ‘I’m not very techy’ – despite evidence to the contrary! In the short few weeks since, I have gone on to start working on implementing a new database for the Feminist Library, developing the tech training programme, as well as to embark on a programming course to enable me to run trainings like that! Not techy? Well, I am never going to look at my own skills in quite the same way again, that’s for sure!

How does all this relate to the café blog, you might wonder? Apart from the initial bit about the life giving force of inspiration, that is an incredibly useful thing to remember when setting up a business, the Balancing Tech experience has given me some new ideas for new ways to develop the Angels & Witches project. I’m still doing my research into this, so not going to say much more on it now, but do watch this space for more info coming soon!


Soft launching again and again, until a space of our own is found…

I have been getting really good at living with frustration since the journey of A&W started. Finding a space for a café in London is quite a challenge, especially if it’s your first business, and you don’t have the kind of disposable budget that Starbucks and Costa do! Especially if the business is a feminist café…

But thanks to that, I have discovered that prolonged frustration can be a good motivating factor! Particularly, if you’re determined enough that something IS going to happen!

Obviously, something’s got to give, sometimes. And so I gave up on the idea that I would have my SPACE for the feminist café within 3 months – as was initially the plan in my head. It’ll probably take longer, in fact, it already has. Much longer.

But that is not reason to give up. Nobody said it was going to be easy. In fact, just the opposite! I just didn’t want to hear it at the beginning…

Despite my initial insistence on sticking to, what seemed to be at the time, THE plan, I also had to eventually admit that it would be smart to soft launch the café idea, before everybody gives up on me, thinking that I had given up! I haven’t! It’s just taken longer than I anticipated…

And so soft-launch it was. Despite my prolonged mental effort against the idea. And, in fact, it was fun! We first started in Brick Lane’s Backyard market at the beginning of this year. Now it’s on to something a bit more local – we’re going to be at the Leytonstone market @ St John’s on the third Saturday in June. With some fresh ideas. Come and say hi if you want to know more about the new secret Angels & Witches ingredient!

As it turns out, sometimes doing something like that – a thing that your brain has been negatively geared towards for a very long time – before actually doing it – can be quite a good thing! Educational for sure. I have learned a lot when testing my idea in front of people. Who would have thought, right?!

Having the stall in Brick Lane was an amazing feedback opportunity. I got quite excited about people’s reactions to my stall. People were positively intrigued by all the different aspects of it – the logo, the motto and the veg muffins! I actually thought, by the end of the first day, that I should have had a hidden camera with me – the expressions on people’s faces when they saw the beet muffin were priceless! Although I doubt that would have been completely in line with my ethical café stance… Nevertheless, it was useful to have that experience. And it warmed my heart to see people smile brightly at the sight of my stall!

Now on the next stage. Leytonstone market should be quite interesting too. And in a different way, because it is much less trendy than Brick Lane, and much more local. Let’s hope that the reactions are just as positive. Fingers crossed!

I do have to admit that the space problem still bothers me, since I am yet to find a solution! Especially since I’ve been involved in the Feminist Library project and the Reclaim Holloway one too, and I know just how precious those feminist spaces are, and how rare… Still – even more reason to keep on pressing on with the idea!

As difficult as it has been to pin down anything resembling a reasonable price, in terms of a space for the café in London, I have not given up hope, and I keep on trying new, inventive ways of getting around the issue. in fact, a space – proper feminist café space – might be closer within my reach than I think these days, after so many failed attempts. After all, aren’t we always just one good idea away from succeeding in whatever it is that we’re trying to do?! Although the jury is still out on this one right at this moment.

I am currently getting more and more pulled in into the world of architecture, which is new and exciting to me. Feminist architecture, obviously!

When I first found out about the concept of live community architecture from this feminist architects collective, I was ecstatic! Perfect, I thought! Finally something that’s going to solve this massive missing building issue for me! I am yet to find out a route into the architectural world that will help me answer the question of whether that is actually the case.

But at least, at last, hope has been restored!

Angels & Witches 18 months on: What I have learned while setting up my feminist business.

When I was first starting out, I was very reluctant to take any feedback too seriously. As somebody with a research background, I should have known better. And yet, it took me some time to learn how to really take in feedback – the good as well as the bad! After about 3 months of looking into setting up my feminist business, I had to admit that the person who gave me the first bit of useful advice – ‘It’s not going to be easy!’ – was right! Yet, I had to learn it the hard way, rather than taking her word for it…

So here’s what I’ve learned over the now nearly year and a half of setting up Angels & Witches:

  1. Listen to people who’ve done it before! It is not easy admitting that you’ve been wrong. But it’s the right thing to do! The only way to move on to the next stage and to improve your idea is to take setbacks and mistakes made on board, and to learn from them, as well as the advice that experts give you. In fact, if there is one way that can make your idea a complete and utter failure is to ignore wise advice and to stick to the original plan regardless of what happens. In fact, I think it was Einstein who said that to keep trying to do things the same way and to expect a different result is pretty much a definition of madness! Don’t worry, we all do it sometimes… I don’t know if I agree with Einstein completely – I do think it can definitely drive you mad though!
  2. Your mentors usually know better, because they’ve been there before! So even if you don’t like the initial feedback, try to keep an open mind and listen to what they say, even if you’re not going to follow the advice, it might become useful at a later stage. Try to probe them as well. If you don’t quite get what your mentor is saying it might be because you’re too stuck on your own original plan to change your mind, rather than because their advice is bonkers! To be fair, mentors can be wrong too – nobody knows everything after all! – but it’s best to take the advice on board and then to do your own research on the back of that, if you’re not sure.
  3. Try to get a mentor from a completely different industry, even if it might seem counterintuitive! Perspective is your friend here. Getting a mentor from your own field might sound like a good idea to start with, but if their business is very close to yours there might be some conflict there in terms of them giving you advice based on the very specific obstacles that they met along their way, which do not have to apply to you. A good mentor from a different industry will be able to give you robust business advice that will still be applicable, but will steer away from saying anything too specific that could be misleading.
  4. DO get a mentor, or two if you can! A mentor is a person who has gone through a journey very similar to yours and will likely know ways around obstacles that you’re bound to meet along your way. It’s also someone who has been successful in setting up a business, and so has managed to overcome many, if not all, of the stumbling blocks that might be stopping you from achieving your goal.
  5. Do NOT listen to everyone who’s trying to give you advice! You will likely meet some very interesting people along your way, all of whom might be well intentioned, and all of whom might be more than willing to give you tips, but not everyone might be well suited to give you business advice! So take everything with a pinch of salt and then do your own research, and lots of it, to make sure that you don’t get misled. Take advice, but don’t let it drive you away too much from your original mission. If you listen to everyone, you could end up changing your plan 5 times a day, and eventually loose the plot!
  6. Network, network, and network some more! Mentors are great, but they are at a different stage in their journey than you are. They are good allies to have, even necessary on the journey, I’d say, they can be great advisors, but might not be best placed people to vent your frustrations too! If you feel like you need a venting space, best thing to do might be to meet up with a good friend or two to do that. The best business alternative I found, especially after you’ve been on your journey a while, is to find a networking space, among your peers. After a while, your friends, as well intentioned as they might be, may well get frustrated with you constantly going on about the same thing, since they can’t usually put yourself in your shoes if they haven’t set up their own business, or tried! Networking with your peers, people who are going through similar problems you are, is the best way to vent your frustrations, really be heard, and maybe even get positively steered through whatever is holding you back at the end of the conversation!
  7. Sign up to a free business advisory programme. You might be lucky enough to find a mentor with quite a lot of time on their hands, but they still are unlikely to sit with you for hours on end to teach you how to do a business plan, financial projections or set up a website. But there are plenty of free local business programmes that will help you learn those basics, and save you from becoming the biggest pain in the back of your mentor, who after all, probably has their own business to run! Check on your local Council website or the government website, business section.
  8. Find a cool local hot desking space you can work from. Hot desking spaces are everywhere nowadays, at least in London. You usually have to pay a small fee, if you want to work from them on a regular basis, but aside from a desk to work from, they will provide you with a bunch of people like you, who are likely to be going through similar difficulties you are, to talk to! Plenty of random business networking opportunities over your coffee breaks and potential lightbulb moments, for next to no cost! Most of these places will also offer events to encourage people who work there to network, build collaborations and help each other.
  9. Do NOT let stumbling blocks get you down! Try to see them as opportunities and learn from them instead. No one said it was going to be easy! And I don’t think anyone has ever set up a business without getting into some difficulties along the way! That’s why you need to be sure that what your about to get into is what you’re passionate about. You will be spending a lot of time doing it, so you might as well enjoy whatever it is that you’re doing! Also, once you’ve realised that you’re not the only one who gets stuck every once in a while, you will have learned a priceless lesson that will help you see those stumbling blocks as just another opportunity to learn!
  10. Make sure you have a dose of whatever motivates and inspires you regularly! You are setting out on a challenging journey. You will need to keep the injections of inspiration at a regular inflow to keep yourself motivated on the journey. Whatever it is that inspires you, you will need a good dose of it as often as you can manage – while not forgetting about working! – to keep your motivation at a high level in order to keep your energy levels high and to inspire other people to believe in you and your idea too! Whether it is reading about the journeys of other entrepreneurs or meeting up with them for a coffee, make sure you put a regular slot for it in your diary!
  11. Read stories of successful entrepreneurs! They are bound to inspire you! Even the ones that you don’t necessarily agree with, in terms of their business styles or for whatever other reason… Usually, their stories are full of similar lists of tips to this one, that should help you see that everyone goes through the same difficulties you are when first starting out! It helps to both realise that you’re not alone in what you’re going through, as well as to know that all those successful people who’ve ‘made it’ have gone through them! It has been one of the biggest reliefs for me – realising that anyone who’s trying to set up their first business, no matter what it is, goes through the same kinds of difficulties I am! To me, it was a priceless lesson. It meant that I could relax a little bit and stop being so hard on myself. More than anyone, I was the one putting unnecessary pressure on myself!
  12. Don’t second guess yourself all the time! Women are particularly prone to doing this, as a lot of us are still brought up in a society that often makes us think that we can’t do this or that simply because we’re women. Apparently, some people still believe that math is somehow inherently more difficult for women, for example, and so we only have less than 16% of women engineering and tech graduates in the UK, according to this documentary I watched just last night – Balancing Tech. I have heard this story of women second guessing themselves, regardless of their knowledge level or position, so many times – including from some of the most successful women I’ve ever met or read about – that I can’t even count!
  13. Google is your friend! They might not seem very friendly to you, or you might not like the company for whatever other reason, but in the digital age, Google can really be your best friend! Yes, there are other search engines out there, so feel free to use your preferred option instead, but the point is, if you don’t know something, the internet probably has the answer. So use it, but use it wisely. It’s always a good idea to try to use several sources, and preferably ones that are expert ones, rather than go with the first answer you can find. There are plenty of people on the internet – and they are not all experts, even though they might make themselves look like they are! That’s why the below is useful, particularly when you get really stuck.
  14. Join online groups and forums for people in your industry. If you really get stuck on some question, and you can’t seem to be able to find the answer using a search engine, an online support group which has basically been created for people like you, is bound to have the answer! Even if it’s not the complete answer, the people there will definitely have some useful advice on where to find it.
  15. Go to industry events. It might just seem like these are basically a lot of marketing squeezed into one space, but there are usually workshops led by experts, and you can learn anything from great marketing tips to how to run an event yourself! Also, remember that you don’t have to pay to attend a lot of events like that these days! Use Meetup to find your peers! A lot of the events offered by these groups will be free and organised by your peers, on Meetup and other platforms like that, so they are less likely to feel like you’re suddenly right in the middle of this big corporate world when you get to them!

There is bound to be something that I have missed off this list, but I think these are the core things. Most of them come from what I have learned from other people along the way – experts, advisors, others who have set up and run businesses in the past. And most of these people I have met through using the learning channels I’ve listed above, like events, networking and online groups, so they’re definitely worth a try!

More than anything else, it’s important to know that what you’re setting out to do is your passion. But you’ve probably already established that with a good level of certainty, since you’ve decided to change your whole life around in order to get this idea off the ground! As long as you do what you’re really passionate about, you should be alright in the end, even if the journey might get frustrating at times. Keep an open mind, as your original idea is likely to, and will most probably, change. But as long as your stick to your core mission and keep your motivation levels up, people are bound to love your idea and support it! When you do something that you’re really passionate about, people can sense it, and the idea starts to live a life of its own, with people talking about it, giving you an energy boost (and some free promotion) often without you even asking for help!

The Polish vegan feminist – or you can just call me vegetable Polka!

As a Polish feminist, I tend to be seen as something of an oddity. Polish feminists hadn’t really had a known presence in London before 2016 and the Polish women’s strike. And then all of a sudden, last year, we sprung up all over the place. New groups, masses of actions, at conferences and feminist festivals. Same in London, as in Poland – Polish feminism does not really have a history of mass movement before 2016, so it sent shock waves around the feminist world, reaching everywhere, from Asia to the US.

A seasoned English feminist friend of mine once explained it to me quite rightly, around mid 2016, when all the Polish Black Protest action was really starting to kick off: ‘Where did you all come from?!’ I mean, she’s known me for quite a while, but I guess she’s assumed I was the only Polish feminist on the planet (or perhaps at least the only one in London), since she’s been a feminist activist for something like 50 years, so she knows more or less everyone in London feminism!

And then all of a sudden dozens of us descended onto London in 2016 after the Polish government has decided to seriously threaten our reproductive rights. So I get her sense of confusion. Frankly, I was massively surprised myself. 2016 was a year of the Polish feminist rising. And it all happened so quickly! I never thought that 7 million of us would have joined the October’s women’s strike in Poland, even just a week before it was called. And then it just happened! Polish women’s feminist consciousness was raised like wildfire. So I don’t blame Western feminists for being in awe. The world rarely sees massive uprisings like that. Much less in Western feminism. It took the Second Wave feminists years of consciousness raising to get to a stage like that.

I have been going on about the Polish women’s strike for ages. But I have to admit, it was possibly the most exciting, heartwarming – as much as it might have felt completely unexpected at the time – event of the year.

Yet, that is not the reason I’ve started this post. I’ve written about the Polish feminists’ 2016 elsewhere extensively. I am hinting here at the apparent incoherence of my identity to the rest of the world.

Polish and feminist is bad enough. In London, where I live, it is a new concept, but at least feminist women are not uncommon, so I can feel at home being among them. But last year, when I went back home, my father told me in no uncertain terms to get over myself and stop being a feminist.

Needless to add, I ignored his ultimatum. But he’s not the only one. In Poland, being a feminist puts one on par with communists – which, after a long history of Soviet occupation, is possibly the worst thing one can be called.

To add insult to injury, I have decided to be vegetarian as well! Which is near impossible in my home country. I once ate almost exclusively strawberries for two weeks when I went back there, because everyone was trying to feed me goulash or sausages all the time! I mean, I’m not complaining – I love strawberries. But one can only eat so many of them in one go!

London is much kinder to vegetarians! There are vege restaurants popping up all over the place, and most cafes don’t just offer soya milk as an alternative these days, but also almond, and often times coconut or oat. Yum! There is even now a vegan chicken shop in Hackney! I mean, nowhere in Europe that I’d been offers that much vege choice! London is a haven for veggies!

Considering that last time I went to Spain a waiter got upset with me because I didn’t want to eat fish, I am pretty happy to be living in London! But still, Polish vegetarian feminist is not the easiest identity to have! I mean, whenever I leave London, I worry about not having anything to eat for a week or two!

So I should have known better than to decide to make my café vegan as well as feminist! But then, as a Polish vegetarian feminist, I don’t really care much for the easy way, as you can probably tell by now! Plus, the feminists that I know are predominantly vegans or vegetarians, for all sorts of ethical and health reasons. So it seems to make sense. Only when reality hits, when I’m outside the feminist world, becomes a feminist and a veggie is a double challenge!

Trying to set up a feminist café has been highly challenging. Being a feminist tends to be, but then other women in the community don’t tend to want to have their own eateries! Ones that did, in the past, found it many obstacles on their paths – from internal feuds between different factions of feminists to cost. This brilliant herstory article talks about it in more detail. But it also posits that those kinds of spaces are no longer needed!

2017 is going to be even more of a challenge. The coffee shop is finally getting off the ground. Not the way I originally planned but it is. I am starting with a few stalls here and there, testing the market, seeing what people think. While I look for a permanent location for a shop somewhere perfect.

Last year, I had to challenge all my preconceptions. This year, I am taking the lessons learned to heart, and starting out small. With a stall. Then another. Hopefully, growing into a shop.

It hasn’t been easy. But I am not giving up! Hell no!

Food, Spaces & Feminist Places Herstories

As herstory goes, food has not been on the top of feminist agenda for the most part. Not surprisingly, one might say. Women in the past had much more important issues to deal with.

However, in more recent years, it has become a feminist issue. And so, this Broadly article was a wonderful find, as it looks back at the history of feminist food outlets in the US and Canada back in the 70s. But it was painful to read at the same time. Despite many amazing parts on the herstory of feminist restaurants, the author appears to conclude that these kinds of spaces are no longer needed. And this coming from a feminist magazine!

Considering the 6 ways that men dominate space article from Everyday Feminism, as well as this piece in the Feminist Wire, or this great blog post from Geek Feminism, which all talk about men taking over spaces in one at or another, it seems odd to me that anyone would claim that feminist spaces are no longer in need. Much less a feminist! But that seems to be the case…

Frankly, the controversy over women-only space I can understand, just about (despite potentially serious implications for women – this article explores those – most feminists these days agree that women-only spaces are too exclusive). But this, to me was a step too far. How is it that women still don’t feel safe in most spaces preoccupied by men, but we no longer need feminist spaces?!

There is obviously a debate to be had about what makes a feminist space, which I’ve explored elsewhere in my blog (and this book of abstracts, although somewhat academic, gives a good overview of the different discussion points). And I have faced this question many, many times, and perfected the answer over time, having started working on the café project quite a while back. But the bottom line is, whatever goes into it, it would be a space that does not make women feel ‘othered’ – like most public places still frequently do these days.

The 105 Women project, based in Leeds, is a case in point. The women set out on this project in search of a space where they would feel comfortable being women and doing what they do – creative stuff. It’s still not easy for women to find these elusive spaces.

Admittedly, it’s much easier today than it’s been throughout most of herstory, especially in places like London, where many creative institutions tend to welcome feminists. Many feminist meetings happen in places like the Southbank Centre, where abundance of open space makes it easy for women to ‘squeeze’ themselves in. But should it really be about making do with spaces like that, rather than having ‘go to’ feminist destinations, like the Feminist Library where we can really feel at home? The Library has been described as a haven for feminists in London. Not surprising, considering it’s the only space of its kind in the city of 8 million people! And one of just a handful in the UK today.

These Polish authors caught my attention by introducing “the notion of the ‘politics of squatting’ which serves as a metaphor for a feminist quest for space and time” – which seem to me to perfectly encapsulate what it feels like to be a feminist looking for a space to organise or even just talk freely. I cannot count the number of times I have struggled, with different feminist groups, to find a meeting space in London where we could comfortable enough to discuss our ideas without having to shout over ourselves in a noisy pub or a public space, like the Southbank Centre, facing the possibility of not even being able to find a seat! Time and time again, the Feminist Library has been the one go to space for feminist activity in London. Yet, because it is underfunded and volunteer-run, it can only be used at certain limited times.

Yes, admittedly, there are other spaces, similar in ethos to the Library, that are not feminist per se but do welcome us with open arms, like the DIY Space for London and LARC. In fact, there is a whole map of those places in London, which comes at an extravagant cost of 22 pence – and yet has been one of my most prized possessions for a quite some time! But these tend to suffer from similar issues that the Feminist Library does (constant shortage of money), and as such don’t have employed staff, and so can hardly provide regular opening hours.

And that’s why I thought that a feminist café would be a no-brainer! The income from the food and drink would make regular opening hours possible, which would inevitably make it a go-to space for feminists, whether they want to have meetings or simply just relax somewhere they can feel at home. And yet, it does not seem to be such an obvious idea to other feminists, as it was to me…

I keep pressing on with the mission to find a home for Angels & Witches, but the journey has been frustrating as much as it has been fascinating. The questions about what a feminist café would look like have helped me really think about the concept, and expand it to include a bookshop, a space for older women and children, but the feminists challenging the viability of the idea altogether, like the author of the Broadly article that inspired this post, have made me sad.

In a city like London with an anarchist café, and at least one anarchist bookshop, and a series other independent bookstores, defining themselves as broadly radical, surely there should be a space for a feminist café and book seller! Not to say that I forget about the beautiful Persephone Books in Bloomsbury, but their agenda is more about publishing women’s writing, rather than feminist books per se.

Bumps and bruises, and learning to love the bumpy road…

stall_2I do some volunteering at the Feminist Library. I originally just joined the organisation to help it with the gentrification crisis pushing it out of its current home of over 30 years, because of unsustainable rent increases, but then I stayed on to help with some other, more general tasks. Anyway, this story is not about the Library, as much as I love to talk about it. You can find out more about the Library and its troubles by clicking on the link above.

On the way home from last night’s meeting of the Library’s management collective, I realised that, despite all the multiple bumps and bruises on route to Angels & Witches, I actually got quite a lot done in the last couple of months. So I should probably stop being so hard on myself. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy (except me! Before I actually got started…)

Brick Lane market was the first concrete step to actually launching the café on the high street, which I made last month. As much as it didn’t last long, because of the high stall costs in Brick Lane, and my near broke-ness after the long months that the project has taken unexpectedly, it was an interesting and informative experience. People were intrigued by the name, the product and the idea behind the café. I think the most fascinating finding, to me personally, was that we had more men who seemed positively intrigued by the idea of a feminist café than women! On the one hand, it seems encouraging to me that men in our culture are starting to feel so comfortable with the idea of feminism that they don’t see the project as in any way threatening. On the contrary, it seems! On the other hand, it does make me wonder. Why aren’t women just as comfortable, excited even? Part of me thinks that it might be a reflection of the fact that men are generally more comfortable to speak in our society, rather than the reflection of the fact that men are more comfortable with the idea of a feminist café than women!

Then just the other day I started a new group on Facebook – the Feminist Spaces Collective. The idea has suddenly struck me, as I was just about to write an email to one of my contacts – who’s also looking to open a feminist space in London – listing all the potential connections that might be useful to her. And it hit me! Why isn’t there one place where we could all communicate, support each other and work on new and inventive ways of collaborating on feminist spaces? And so I set up the group to try and fill the gap. At the moment, its just a small group of mostly London based women, running spaces here, but I would like it to reach further out, eventually, connecting spaces throughout the UK and beyond. So, if you’re reading this, and this idea strikes you as in any way interesting, please add yourself or friends if you think this might be relevant to them!

Thanks to my two weeks in Brick Lane, I also met the woman I mentioned above who wants to set up a feminist recording studio! How awesome is that?! It’s a project that is not only very cool but that has also inspired me to start the Facebook group I mentioned above. I have met quite a few women, who like me, are trying to set up feminist spaces, since I have started on the Angels & Witches journey. And every time I have quietly wondered why we aren’t more connected, so that we can support each other and work together where possible. But it wasn’t until the studio meeting that I realised that perhaps it was down to me to set up this virtual networking space!

When I first started working with the Feminist Library, I assumed that a place like that probably already exists. And so I asked one of my good friends – and the person who pulled my into working for the Library in the first place! – who’d been around feminism for decades, sure in the knowledge that she would have the answer to my burning question. She did, kind of… Both the UK and the European feminist libraries and archives have collectives which give them a way to communicate with each other, to keep in touch, to support each other, to organise meetings, conferences, and the like. But there’s nothing beyond that, for the wider feminist spaces community! I mean, I heard that there is a feminist café somewhere in Italy, but I have never been able to organise a long-overdue trip, because I wasn’t able to find the exact details online, and none of my UK feminist friends seem to know much about it beyond the fact that it exists! And so I have started the Feminist Spaces Collective in order to bridge that gap.

As part of the project, I have so far connected Rooms of our Own, the Feminist Library, the Feminist Libraries and Archives Network, a feminist bookshop in Texas, one in Florida, and one in Connecticut, and I have reached out to a dozen or so more feminist organisations, including WINE, Reclaim Holloway, WRC, the recently opened women’s library in Vancouver, and a few more bookshops, asking if they want to join. Obviously, Angels & Witches is in there too! And the feminist recording studio in London (to-be)! I hope that the group helps all the projects support each other in times of crises and communicate better to create new collaborations.

I have also gotten in touch with Hi-Vis – a feminist designers and architects collective in London – to ask if they want to join. I have just met them the other week, but they seem wonderfully helpful and collaborative, and at the moment they’re only working with one of the feminist space projects I know, so I thought: why not, maybe they can do some designs voluntarily for some other ones in the group? And maybe they don’t know about them yet!?

In other updates, I am also looking into other, cheaper stall options. Going more local than Brick Lane might be the way to go, at least to start with. All local stalls are bound to be cheaper than the fashionable Brick Lane. East Not East festival has gotten back in touch. And the Feminist Library is also going to be there, doing their own stall, so it might be a good sign.

On top of all that, at the last Feminist Library meeting we’ve talked about Angels & Witches taking over catering of its events going forwards!

Finally, there is a potential option of doing catering for a big academic institution, but I can’t quite divulge the details just yet. And nothing is confirmed just yet.

And the best part is that, after writing all this, I have finally realised that I am not doing as poorly as I thought. I have actually done quite a bit in the last few weeks, and most importantly, despite all the setbacks, I have not given up on my dream! And so the only thing left to do, at the end of this post, is to stop being so hard on myself!

And the other best part? Realising just how broke I was might not have been the best feeling in the world, but at least it made me look for plan b, c and d options… and for funding! Which, as soon as I get, I am going to start searching for that perfect spot for the café again!

Vegetables and other terrors feminists impose on the world…

As an active feminist with a number of years of fighting patriarchy under my belt now, and a vegetarian, I have been witness to all sorts of strange reactions people get to both of those aspects of my identity. I have to also add that I’m Polish, which makes the idea of being vegetarian even less comprehensible where I come from. But it wasn’t until I started my vegan, feminist café stall in Brick Lane last weekend that the proverbial s… hit the fan… It appears that some men have a similar mental image of vegetables as they do of feminists – as scary, potentially deadly things!

Since I have started working on the idea of the feminist café, I have mostly had to deal with people’s fear of feminism, in terms of negative feedback, at least while the idea was just theoretical. But since the launch of my café stall, the news that I am selling vegetable-based muffins has spread a little bit, bringing another kind of interesting feedback my way. I have to say here, most people who visited my stall last Saturday were very positively surprised. The sweet potato muffin, in particular, attracted a lot of intrigued smiles and questions. But some of the feedback I got on the social media was of a different sort altogether… Apparently, parsnips can be deadly!? And there is such a thing as a red vegetables allergy?! The beet is certainly not on the Food Standards Agency’s list of allergens to watch out for… Not that I’d noticed anyway.

Now, this blog post is only half serious to the extent that I do think that the notion of fear of vegetables is just as ridiculous as the idea of feminism being this terribly scary thing, and you might laugh at this, but I do think this a symptom of something quite interesting and worth exploring. The great bell hooks wrote about the latter phenomenon very eloquently:

“As all advocates of feminist politics know most people do not understand sexism and if they do they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.”

Now, I have read about and discussed this issue so many times that I cannot count. I do think there is more to the bad rep that feminism gets than the mass media’s misrepresentation of it. Like it being pretty much a non-existent subject when it comes to school education. But that is a topic for another blog post altogether. I also think it is somewhat self-explanatory why many feminists believe that food is a political issue, and choose to be vegetarian or vegan. There are many reasons, be it ethical, health, or outright feminist. I have read countless analyses of why food is a topic close to the hearts of most, if not all, feminists. But I have never seen anything written about the connection between fear of feminism and of vegetables. You might think, it’s just because it’s a ridiculous idea! But my experience with the café seems to show that it might actually be less outrageous of a notion than it sounds…

Think about it this way: if feminism is simply the notion that women are people (Cheris Cramarae), and most feminists can admit that men often show symptoms of being afraid of it, then, by extension, we might also begin to imagine that there is something to the notion that those same people often times show something of a fright of veggies… And that the two things are both just as irrational, leading one to think that they might actually be connected somehow!

If you still think I have gone a bit mad here, think about it: if you’re a feminist, and you’ve ever spoken about feminism to a man who’s clearly oblivious to the notion, the likelihood is that the reaction was something of a combination of disbelief and ridicule. And again, I must take us back to Cramarae’s definition of what feminism is. If we take this simple definition, and admit that it is essentially true, we can then see just how irrational those reactions to the notion are, and we must therefore admit that they’re likely to be symptoms of fear. Now, going back to vegetables, those are very similar, if not the exact same, reactions to ones that men often have when told they should eat salad. Somehow green leaves seem funny and irrelevant to them, as if they were a little bit silly, not ‘real food’ for a proper man to have..! ‘Real’ men ‘need’ to eat meat, or else they won’t be big and strong, preferably red and bloody, and real women need to cook it for them… Chicken will do, as long as they don’t have it too often. Or else they might grow feathers or something… One might conclude…

Now, I had never realised that salad had gender, but hey, you live and you learn! But somehow, in the patriarchal collective imagination, the notions of meat and masculinity seem to be intimately connected! And so whenever I bump into a ‘proper’ masculine man and the conversation goes on to food (or feminism), their reaction to my lifestyle choices is usually very predictable. Men cannot survive without a daily portion of lamb or pork… Meat protein seems to be like air to them… Depriving them of it is cruel… And salad is for women (just like the outrageous idea that we are people…) Obviously! Everybody knows real women can’t eat anything but salad when they go to a restaurant, or else… A life of a spinster surely awaits them..! All one has to do to get this brilliant education on what it means to be a real woman is to watch a lot of Hollywood movies. It’s all oh so simple!

As I say it, I know I sound ridiculous. I know there are men out there who are vegetarians or sometimes even vegans. There are also feminists who eat meat. But there’s also a reason why I can only usually feel a 100 per cent sane when going out for dinner with a bunch of other feminists. They are the only group of people, in my experience, who do not make me feel ridiculous for suggesting a vegetarian – or even vegan! – restaurant on a night out. Hell, they don’t usually even notice the fact and love it without being utterly shocked that a meat-free meal can be both edible and delicious! Because most of them happen to be vegetarian themselves! And if they aren’t, they at least don’t have a problem with respecting the fact that I am.

Let me just finish on a bit of a clarification note. This is not a rant, even though it might read like one. I am just utterly fascinated by this idea that some people have such strong feelings about vegetables. And I am totally up for the challenge of slowly eradicating this veggie phobia using my café! So, just like the café was to be a space to challenge the stereotypes around feminism right from the start, it will now also be one that confronts negative connotations of vegetables! An unexpected turn of events indeed 😉

Getting over my fear of flying and getting going

The past few weeks have been pretty exciting and… anxiety provoking! I have been preparing for the launch of my café stall in Brick lane market this coming Saturday. Initially, I was fine, with no major issues on the way I was just getting on with it. And then about two weeks ago, I started loosing sleep.

And that does not normally happen to me. I generally sleep well. Better than most people. Too well in fact, one might say. Where most people cannot go to sleep every once in a while, due to some stress in life, I tend to get a comfortable 8 hours of sleep on most nights, or even blissful ten hours, on a day off. Unless I have to fly the next morning. I hate flying, but I dread the idea of missing a flight and being stuck in an airport for 12 hours even more, so just in case… my brain avoids switching to sleep mode altogether.

But in the past couple of weeks, coming up closer to the launch of the café stall, I have started losing sleep. I kept waking up, thinking that I forgot to order an essential piece of equipment, even though I have pretty much checked everything off by now, or that I failed to pay for the stalls I booked in time and I was not let in on the launch day…

Until finally, I realised what was happening to my brain. In fact, at this stage, I have nothing to lose. I have already invested money into the necessary equipment. Most of it could be used in my kitchen anyway, so it’s not like it’s money down the drain. I am on track with pretty much all of the items that I need, have been keeping a checklist. I don’t think I could be much better prepared! It was the fear of the unknown that was paralysing me. I just needed to let go (while holding on to my checklist, obviously!) and try it – the worst that could happen, really, is that I would learn how to improve my business sense quicker, in practice, see what people like, and what they’re not so keen on! Learn, and take it from there. It’s as simple as that!

The reality is such that I have been trying to get the café off the ground for such a long time that I have gotten used to things as they are. And so the new reality seems a bit terrifying. But it’s about time to change the ways things are and kick things off, so the sooner I start the better. I just need to get over the fear of the state of things changing! The fear of change!

In fact, once I realised that, I started looking at things very differently. I started smiling at the prospect of finally launching the café again! In fact, I started feeling excited again! The human mind is a strange and powerful thing… All you have to do sometimes is to change the track of your thoughts, and the world suddenly starts looking a bit brighter!

So, onwards and upwards! I hope to see you there! Starting Sat 4th Feb, Backyard market in Brick Lane. And then back again the following Friday, in Ely’s Yard, just round the corner!