Inflation, rising costs, a shaky economic outlook.
How can we do business in a way that does good right now and how are women and equity seeking people leading the way?
I’m Andrea Gunraj, at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Welcome to Alright, Now What?, a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder “Why is this still happening?” We explore systemic roots and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.
The work of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and our partners takes place on traditional First Nations, Métis, and Inuit territories. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet and work on this land. However, we recognize that land acknowledgements are not enough. We need to pursue truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship in an ongoing effort to make right with all our relations.
First things first, beyond our wildest expectations, this podcast now averages 4,000 listens per episode. Listener, you are wonderful. It is encouraging to know how many people like you care about gender justice and are doing what they can do to move from “Now what?” to “Now this.” From the bottom of my heart, thank you for listening, subscribing and sharing this podcast.
Now on to our topic today. In Canada, women are more likely to live in low-income households than men, especially single mothers. Indigenous women, racialized women, and women with disabilities and trans people also face a high risk of poverty. That’s why the Canadian Women’s Foundation cares about building economic options and stability for women, girls and gender diverse people. Economic stability and the improved quality of life it creates, is the ultimate goal of our Investment Readiness Program. It equips women and Two-spirit, trans and non-binary people to succeed in social entrepreneurship and innovation.
What is social entrepreneurship, you ask? It’s something women, equity seeking people, and feminist organizations do every single day. When they launch their own business ventures, many of them think, “How can I generate revenue and help my community at the same time? How can I do business while making the world a better place?” They are most ambitious about doing business that does good, and it’s an ambition worth investing in.
The fact that these entrepreneurs face disproportionate barriers to starting businesses and getting financing means we miss out – on the economic benefits of their success and on the positive social, cultural, and environmental impact they could create to help us all. This is a missed opportunity all around. And right now, in 2023, we really need these wins.
In the daily news cycle of rising costs and inequities, investees of our Investment Readiness Program are a bright spot. Munira Abukar joins us to represent one such investee. Stitch Lab T.O is a social enterprise of Scadding Court Community Centre and an innovator in sustainable style. Through Stitch Lab, Munira works with local women designers to create their own one-of-a-kind products. Stitch Lab offers women skill development opportunities, and their products are made from repurposed and rescued fabric.
I currently work at Scadding Court as the Project Coordinator for Social Enterprises. My passion project actually at Scadding Court was the Sewing Hub which kind of has blossomed into the Stitch Lab and a lot of other smaller projects.
Fun fact about myself- I’m one of nine kids. My parents fled the Civil War in Somalia and ended up here in Canada. I was born here and raised with seven sisters and one brother, so I think it really shaped my lens in terms of how I view women empowerment and like the limitless things that we can do as women. I had a very strong mother figure and so I think, for me, it’s really, a lot of what I saw and experienced growing up really led me to where I am today.
The years passed, I turned 30, and I think for me, looking back, I think for my mom, she really fought to make sure that we felt seen and heard. A lot of the times there’s intergenerational kind of gaps that get lost in translation in terms of like what you think a life worth living is for and what your parents think a life worth living is for, and sometimes your parents don’t see the vision. But I think my mom particularly did a really good job- for me at least. Sometimes I think we even butt heads about ourselves, where I became really independent and really strong minded and what I wanted from you is the most important. But also making sure that, you know, my siblings felt seen and heard, that we were a collective, that we uplifted each other when we were going through dark times. And you know, I think, being obviously, a Black Muslim woman, you’re going to experience a lot of narratives and institutions where you feel like you don’t belong, you feel you’re being pushed around, you feel like you’re scared to voice what you really feel. I think from a young age I was really told to “Say what you feel, just say what you feel, do how you feel” and really just you know, go in there representing yourself to the best of your abilities. It wasn’t always easy, I think saying that sometimes, like “Yeah, like, let’s do this”, it’s not always easy.
Especially when you feel like there’s a power imbalance in that space, or you feel like you’re young, you don’t know what the outcome is gonna be. Is this gonna impact my job? Is this gonna impact my life? So, it’s not always as easy said, as it is done, but I think for her, especially with the experience that she had in Canada and really integrating and it was really hard for her, I think. She did the thing you know, she was like parent council for three schools. She really pushed for the schools to change their policies on how well meals- I think the biggest story I have of my mom was like, being in elementary school and seeing her say, “Oh you guys don’t serve Halal pizza to the kids?” and they were like “No, not really, it’s not really something we’ve done before” she said, “But like 40-50 percent your school is Muslim. That’s enough, we’re gonna call some partners, gonna call some contacts, I know in the community” and I think it’s been now with like 20 years since, but they still, at school, still keeps that contact and still serves all Halal because of one thing my mom said.
The anniversary of my mother’s birthday happened this month, and I’ve been reflecting on the gift she gave me while she was here with us. Thank you so much for sharing your mom’s influence in your life. It is so wonderful to hear about. So, tell me how you got into Stitch Lab in the first place, what’s it all about?
Well, what was funny for me was initially I wanted to go into law, but I found like, sometimes there’s a narrative that us immigrant children won’t say where it’s like, going into these professions could be like, burnout, in some ways. It’s like, you’re already fighting a system from a very young age, and then you kind of have to do that now, professionally for your career.
And so, for me, I really had like a identity crisis where I was like do I want to be doing this for the next like 20-30 years. Like, I already feel like fought out in some ways. I want to be able to channel the energy towards something that I can see blossom into something beautiful, you know. Not necessarily being in a courthouse every day, having to fight another fight that I don’t want to have to, necessarily.
Many, many moons ago when I was going to university for my undergrad, I ended up applying on a whim for a scholarship there, investing in diversity scholarship. This was in 2010 when I was 18 at that point and I ended up winning that year. So, it was really interesting because I was like, “Oh, I didn’t think they would bet on me. This is really exciting. I’m gonna use this to pay for my undergrad.” And then my younger sister, who was two years younger than I was, ended up winning and then the one who was younger than her ended up winning and then it ended up being like six of us received a scholarship from Scadding Court. At some point, they asked me to come in and do workshops on how to apply for scholarships and how to be your most authentic self. So, even though it wasn’t geographically close to me, because there’s such a lack of resources where I was, I felt like I really gravitated towards the Center. Like I had a really good community there, really cool staff that reflected you, people were just very chill.
I went from winning the scholarship there, you know, in 2010 to in 2017, 2018, you know, being offered a job there because they’re looking to start a program with the City of Toronto based on sewing. Cause I think fashion being one of the biggest polluters in our industry, one of the fastest polluting industries in general, you know, for our environment. We’re really looking at ways to say, how do we solve this crisis? And so, we kind of help the city create a program model where we would teach like 3 sewing hub classes, like sewing repair classes for both beginners and advanced folks for eight weeks. And then we also have these drop-in sessions where folks could come and use the machines, different activities like, just different workshops in the community. And I think what I kept noticing was like, a lot of the folks who were signing up for these classes, a lot of folks who are using that space, were women of color.
The city, I think, had some ideas of like hey, maybe we should take this in the direction of an enterprise. But I don’t think they foresaw the fact that the enterprise would be like, let’s take this a step further and say how do we take these women who have the skill set, who have had these degrees, had these certifications and you know, accreditations back home, but it gets lost in translation here, how do we take that and rebuild that?
Growing up in a low-income housing, growing up in City of Toronto, services are so easily, like, come and go. You’ll get so attached to the service, you’ll get so attached to a program you’re doing, you really enjoy just hanging out with your friends and then funding’s gone. And then everybody who was there is also gone. And so, for these ladies it was like, if we’re gonna get them in, I don’t wanna be telling them hey, you’re just gonna be selling for minimum wage and that’s it. And maybe it works out for a year or two, or it doesn’t. Cause this is something they love to do and that also creates a lot of trust. Like to be able to have them in that space, to have them be able to trust you is also a lot of hard work and I don’t think folks realize that for community programming.
I want more for these women, I want them to have a livable wage. I want them to feel empowered. I want to feel they could ask for anything and that, you know, whether it’s like the sky or the earth, we provide that for them, because it’s what they deserve. To come from somewhere back home where you were somebody, and to be told here you’re invisible, you want to be able to create a space where people are A) seen and heard, because that was what was created for me.
So, I really was like, we had a lot of focus groups with them, you know, we wrestle with those collective or an employment based social enterprise. It was like I want them to influence the process from start to finish, and so when we were having these talks, it was during an interesting time because it was like right before COVID hit. So, it was really challenging. I think they wanted to kind of put the program on hold and so what was really exciting about CWF was like they kind of bet on us because they were like, you know what like, no, we’ll teach them from home. I will hand deliver machines, which I did, set all of them in the back of my car, in the rental and just drove off.
Was it always easy? No. Older women, they’ve never used Zoom before. I could hear the kids in the background saying “Mom, you gotta learn how to use Zoom” and their mom saying “Yeah come sit, teach me the Zoom” so, I was like it definitely wasn’t easy for them, but they never made an issue like “You know, what if you’re gonna bet on us, we’re gonna bet on you right back”, like “We’ll do Zoom classes, we’ll do things online, we’ll learn”. No one gives them enough credit. I feel like the first objective, obviously is, how do we create products and how do we create a brand that really focuses incentives around sustainability, but also how do we honor the actual true history of sustainability?
I think sustainability isn’t just Greta Thunberg. It’s not these young women who are Gen Z’s who are really pushing for that. Like, you know, I was taking Tupperware containers and upcycling containers when everyone was roasting me at school, at my young age. Upcycling, downcycling, side cycling, my mom was like if it doesn’t fit you, give it to your sister. So, at some points like we were already finding ways in our own communities, like we always had a good relationship with the environment. Always honored and really upheld what it was to really like have a full, I think, circular relationship with where you live.
Hey, there was a story about green before there was a green movement, right? I think especially for folks of color. Yeah, let’s create a brand that does that and honors that.
Let’s pause here. Munira’s wisdom resonates with me. Sustainability, environmentalism, and a good relationship with the land and Earth is very much a part of many of our communities. As she says it, upcycling, downcycling, side cycling, Indigenous communities, newcomer communities, racialized communities have been doing it all. And they have powerful models to learn from, and I know lots of you know what it’s like to be tricked by an ice cream container in the fridge that’s full of soup or stew or sauce.
Also, it’s like, let’s create a brand that empowers women, where they feel comfortable creating their own products, creating their own things, upcycle prayer mats, why not? It’s really fun because they influence a lot of the collections. A lot of the things that we sell are actually things that they want to do. They have their own fabrics. Fabric is donated from partners across the city. Just private partners, folks who are out of business, no longer need that fabric, symbol and divert diverted fabrics. Even if they want to outgrow Switch Lab and say I want to become my own designer- how do I support that? Skys the limit for them, like there’s no limit for what they can do at this point.
We’ll bet on you if you bet on us. I love that way framing community initiatives. So, tell me more about why this women led social enterprise approach is just so important to you.
Changing the status quo is a really difficult thing because it’s so ingrained into our regular lives, in our daily lives, and we don’t even realize that we’re practicing things that could be harmful to the idea of community, right? And these are the individuals who are making your products. These are the individuals who are having a direct impact, shouldn’t their voice be at the forefront? Shouldn’t what they’re saying matter the most?
And it’s like yeah, we can get the funding all we want. We can have funders support us, we could have, you know, the City of Toronto, CWF, we can have all these funders come in and see that. But it’s like, they’re betting on us because of these women, you know. Not in spite of them, but because of them. And, so, I think it’s important to say like this is who matters. This is who the project is about. Yeah, we’re putting it in, you know, on an application that we have a democratic process and this is a collective. But are we actually honoring that day-to-day.
You know, in that weird 2021 – 2022 mark, you know where things still were, kind of, unsure, a lot of them pushed and said we actually want to come back in person. We actually want to be in person together. We want to be able to talk and so for me it’s like I’m not gonna knock down that idea and knock down that space. I’m just going to find ways to make it possible. To give a bit of context, we run the programs out of a 40-foot retrofitted container. It’s really tiny, and so, what we actually ended up doing is we converted that into an office, kind of, sewing studio, but we actually took our laundry room and retrofitted that partially to have tables and stuff. We’re still working on it and still work in progress to have tables and spaces where they can still actually have a little bit of social distance.
And for me it’s really great because you see a lot of them actually go out for lunch together. You see, a lot of them having events and inviting each other to their own personal events. So, it’s like you created essentially a sisterhood and it’s like you created an actual community that’s there for them. They’re able to call each other when things go wrong, and you know, they have their own group chat on WhatsApp where they talk all the time, and so it’s like, I’m glad I listened because if I didn’t, they wouldn’t have created this cohesive group for themselves.
So, your story is so inspiring. I bet people will get ideas. What advice would you give to those starting out in social entrepreneurship?
Andrea, if I have to give a piece of advice for me, what’s interesting is, I actually, when I went to an entrepreneurial academy, I have a specials high schools major for business. I was a business owner before I actually started working at Scadding Court. I had my own baking business. Folks will always support a local brand or smaller business brand that is authentic and true to themselves. A lot of folks try to find ways of saying like “How do we appeal to this customer? How do we appeal to that customer?” And it’s like, “Actually, how do you stay true to yourselves?” I think that’s the key. That’s the key part. Don’t change your brand up for trends, I think you know, remaining yourself and remaining who you are is the most important in a business. And making sure it doesn’t get lost.
I look at all the sales we’ve made for the Stitch Lab like we were really fortunate to even go to London and what really sold folks was not necessarily the products, right? Products are great, they look great. But you could find similar products, it was the story. It was the fact that you took women that you know were made to feel invisible or made to feel like they, you know just were there for just the children and figure out how to live their lives. And they took back a part of their lives that they didn’t think they had. It doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 60, at the end of the day, I want you to feel like you did something here, like your own story mattered. Your own time mattered. And yeah, being a mother is great entity because a lot of these woman in our collective are mothers, grandmothers, that’s a great part of an entity, but now it’s like you have something to do for yourselves. And I think it was that story about you know them saying, “I used to sew back home 50 years ago when I used to have my own dolls dresses, but I didn’t pick it up 50 years until I started doing it again now.”
For me at least, when I’m shopping online, it’s like, yeah, it’s like this tote is really cute or like yeah, this jacket is really cute. But it’s like, whoa it’s made by a business woman? Like who did this because they were brave about it and actually did something for themselves? And the proceeds are going back to XY and Z? That’s where I give my money. And especially the movement now where it’s like, we’re now looking at the MeToo movement, looking at the Indigenous Kids movement, you know, you’re looking at so many different things that are happening in this country, right? It’s like, I’m gonna shut up and put my money where my mouth is. And for me it’s important to support those folks who are going out there and being brave and saying “It’s going back to the Fire Council for Toronto. It’s going back to Six Nations.” “It’s going back to”, you know, like “for like the local program for Toronto to teach women how to sew.” That’s what’s important to me, so I think if you’re starting up a social enterprise, think about what your impact is. Think about what your story is, those are the things, to me, that matter the most. Your products can always upgrade, elevate, change, but who you are shouldn’t.
Alright, now what?
The Abundance Store in Nova Scotia, Farm Gate Crate in British Columbia, Home Care Cooperative development in Ontario, Next, Inc. Women Energy Auditors in New Brunswick. All of these are Investment Readiness program investees of the Canadian Women’s Foundation. Learn more about them and what we can do to both social purpose initiatives of women and gender diverse people by visiting our website canadianwomen.org.
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