By Barclay Bram
Nestled near the city of Palmira, not far from the northern edge of the Andes, is Nashira —a matriarchal eco-village developing an alternative social model for Colombia. Fourteen years ago, a private foundation donated three hectares of land and allowed 88 women—some of them victims of the country’s long-running civil war—to build to build a sustainable and productive community where women run the show. In Colombia, 32 percent of households are headed by women and depend on their work as the principal source of income. A toxic mix of civil war and the strictures of patriarchal society have, in many cases, left women as both the sole breadwinners and those in charge of caring for elderly relatives and children.
Nashira was set up to empower these women, allowing them to take back the reins. At its heart lies the idea that female empowerment is at the center of a less violent and materialistic society, and it is helping people reconsider what they value and what truly makes them rich.
Angela Dolmetsch is the head of Nashira, and she was unequivocal when I asked her about whether the community had changed what she cares about. “Being rich is not about money, it is about quality of life,” she says. For her, quality of life is about having a healthy environment, being able to grow her own food, and live in a peaceful community, free from the violence that plagues her country.
Female-led enterprises like Nashira are expanding our understanding of wealth beyond the simple accumulation of dollar bills. For others, it isn’t about money, but how you spend it and—most crucially—share it. Funding platform SheEO bases its work on the concept of female generosity—it moves into a city, finds a thousand generous women willing to pledge $1,000 each, and creates a fund of a million dollars. The thousand benefactors then select businesses to get funding, with ten female-led ventures splitting the pot. This model emphasizes the power of the network—something with no fixed value that its founder says has is worth as much, if not more, than the actual money offered.
“One of our ventures is set to exceed her revenue targets by 200 percent this year. A lot of that is women from the network stepping forward at an early stage and introducing her to key people that she wouldn’t have had access to otherwise,” SheEO CEO Vicki Saunders tells Broadly.
Saunders founded SheEO because she saw that current funding models for young female entrepreneurs were broken––not only were women receiving just 4 percent of venture capital, but economic models optimized for growth at the expense of disadvantaged women.
“What I have seen is that from a VC [venture capitalist] point of view, we look at women and see all the things that are wrong with them,” Saunders says, before listing many of the gendered criticisms she’d heard while working in Silicon Valley: “Women aren’t bold enough; women aren’t confident enough; women don’t take enough risks…” Saunders, however, saw the flip side of these insults: she believes that they indicated that women don’t overpromise what they can deliver and honestly say what they can do. Additional studies that showed women often extract more value and profit from capital than men gaveSaunders the confidence to pursue SheEO.
Surveying the state of our current economic system, Saunders argues it was time for a change. “What if we were optimizing for wellness, or for quality of life? We made up this current model, and it is no longer working for us, so we need a new one. Providing women with funds and a network is the best way to bring that about.”
It does a disservice to women to suggest that they can be paid in other ways, or can be compensated in other ways, particularly in the creative industries.
SheEO has not yet opened in Bangkok, but its mission is echoed by a Thai community mall called The Commons, built by Vicharee Vichit-Vadakan with her brother. Unlike the standard strip-lighting and wall-to-wall shops offered by most shopping complexes, The Commons favors green space and promotes wellness; the shops are all local producers, and there are kids’ play areas and a yoga studio.
For Vichit-Vadakan, starting her own business was a way of providing the flexibility to succeed both in her career and as a mother. Like the founders of Nashira, she came up with The Commons as a way to find a better quality of life in a hectic country . “For me, wholesome living means you eat well, you look after yourself, you exercise, you take care of the ones you love, and you are closer to nature,” she says. “All of those elements I try to incorporate into The Commons and all these things I hope support a more wholesome lifestyle.”
Are women just better at this kind of thing? Vichit-Vadakandemurred when asked. “I think it’s hard to say they’re better at it. But I think the struggle to balance your time and your work and your family pushes women to be more conscious of it.”
HAUTE PURSUIT BLOGGER AND DESIGNER, VANESSA HONG.
Vanessa Hong, an international fashion blogger and designer, agrees that balance is key for women looking to start up their own businesses. “I know women who all they do is eat, shit, fashion,” the designer says. “But from an evolutionary standpoint, women are built to be multitaskers––in our DNA we are built to do more than one thing.”
Hong is traditionally successful in fashion terms: She appears at fashion weeks around the world, and her fashion line, The Haute Pursuit, is sold worldwide. But she also measures success differently: “What I care most about is the value that I bring to other people’s lives. It’s connections that make me feel beyond wealthy,” she says. She sees her blog as a way to inspire people––she has 650,000 followers on Instagram––but also places huge importance on the personal connections she makes in the business of running her company. “All the people who work for me have always been women. When I was growing up I never really had someone who was really there.”
But the pursuit of balance and non-financial measures of success isn’t everything. When I ask Otegha Uwagba, the founder of Women Who, a platform for creative women in London, what made her feel rich, she was blunt: “Money! To be perfectly honest, it does a disservice to women to suggest that they can be paid in other ways, or can be compensated in other ways, particularly in the creative industries. I don’t think that that is at odds with balance and self-care.”
Finding balance and juggling different interpretations of success doesn’t stop women from prospering in the way that we traditionally conceive of—in fact, they seem to complement each other.
In Colombia, Nashira has been a startling triumph in a country still recovering from 60 years of civil war. “[In the village] there have been no murders or personal injuries caused by fighting. Unplanned teenage pregnancies, a constant problem in developing countries, have been eradicated through a program of sexual education,” Dolmetsch notes.
On Saunders’ part, the businesses funded by SheEO are wildly outperforming expectations. “On average our ventures have grown their revenues over 60 percent in the first seven months,” she says proudly. And in Thailand, The Commons was shortlisted for the Blueprint 2016 Award in Best Public-Use Project, narrowly missing out to British architect Zaha Hadid.
It is true that women entrepreneurs often run into trouble in an economic system defined by competitiveness, where ravenous growth and profit are sought at the expense of everything else. But as more women break past the confines so often imposed upon them, they are free to conceive of wealth and richness in a way that makes sense to themIt doesn’t come at the cost of being simultaneously successful in a traditional sense. It means being successful in more ways, more sustainably.
“Just because you have balance doesn’t mean you can’t be focused on one thing and not be really good at it,” Hong says. “Balance doesn’t mean coming second.”