Meet Jennifer Armbrust, Founder of Feminist Business School
A condensed version of this interview originally appeared in Forbes on September 28, 2017.
Jennifer Armbrust is the founder and director of Sister, where she cultivates teaching and tools for the feminine economy and runs Feminist Business School. Jenn and I recently discussed how entrepreneurs can build businesses that align with their values, cultivate deep meaning and earn money — all at once.
Stephanie: What is the Feminist Business School, and how do you run it?
Jennifer: Feminist Business School is an online school. My primary course is called Concepts and Conceptions. It’s a beginner’s course, but you don’t have to be a beginner in business. I’m working with feminist literacy, helping students understand what feminism is and how to find their own passion and purpose within its ideals. These ideals have been beautifully articulated by the second wave of black feminists, and I’m building coalition with their ideas.
The curriculum itself is dynamic. Through reading, journaling and writing, we work on unraveling our internalized sexism. We address questions like: What’s our internal relationship with money and power? What is empathy in business? How do you build business structures that honor intuition and make room for rest?
For me this work is a site of deep integration. I’m pulling from so many different places, especially my body and my own journey. There is a belief that when you go to work you have to leave a part of yourself at the door. But I think there’s an opportunity not to alienate ourselves in that way, but to integrate. Your business can be a homecoming.
How long have you been working on the Feminist Business School?
My whole life! It really does feel that way. My undergrad degree was focused on critical theory. Then I graduated and opened an art gallery in Portland, Oregon, working with emerging artists for 5 years. That was the beginning of my entrepreneurial career. I translated that to running a small design firm, and from there, I transitioned into doing strategy. Strategy is a place of play and ideas, and I realized I had an opportunity to bring back feminist theory in a way that might be useful and interesting. My business is this amazing nexus of all the facets of my life, and that fun pulls people in and sustains adventure. I really try to help entrepreneurs find the pleasure in their own work, because if that’s not there you’re going to burn out. Pleasure is integral.
A lot of your work centers on the feminine economy. What is the feminine economy and how does it differ from traditional capitalism?
The feminine economy is an idea that grew out of a gendered critique of capitalism. I’ve always been interested in the political economy and gender. As I got deeper into working with business, I started to see that masculine traits are the foundation of capitalism. It’s a system that rewards toxic and unhealthy masculine archetypes. The feminine economy asks the question, “If capitalism is an economy that values masculine traits, what could a feminine economy look like?”
Capitalism is both an economic order and an ideology. What I’m doing is working with the ideological piece. I’m not an economist. I’m asking what happens if we shift our priorities and values from masculine to feminine, and I’m inviting entrepreneurs to play with these new models.
Your feminine economy is pretty revolutionary. Do you ever encounter resistance to your ideas? If so, how do you deal with that?
I have definitely gotten some pushback, mostly on social media. What I’m providing is an entrepreneurial framework for people who are critical of capitalism, and who are creative, visionary and independent. I don’t aspire to be an economist. I make my work for people who want to thrive without compromising their creative integrity and political beliefs. These tend to be women and artists. They’re wondering: Where can I go and what can I do with all my passion and purpose?
Capitalism is a system built on slavery and the exploitation of the earth. I'm wholeheartedly against all of that. Thomas Piketty reminds us that this creates economic inequality. There’s no two ways about it. My framework is what I have to offer. It’s totally fine for people to reject my model, but I encourage them to devise their own entrepreneurial framework. Criticism without action is just cynicism.
What are some of the biggest dilemmas your Feminist Business School students face? How do you advise them to resolve these sticking points?
My work is radical. I’m trying to help people get to the source of what’s shaping their beliefs and behaviors. A lot of people believe they have to compromise their values in order to survive. I’m saying: What if you don’t? Where does that belief come from and where is it reinforced? It’s challenging work. What I bring is support for the process, and tools to help get you through the compromises you’ve made. I help you recognize where you’ve given your power away. Then you can begin to script your own life.
Something else I’ve learned from working with women: the idea that the “customer comes first” is really gendered. When women make their customers the priority of their business, I see martyrdom everywhere. A woman takes it on as emotional labor. Obviously I’m making sweeping generalizations, but it’s a pattern I see. My students discuss co-dependency and building healthy boundaries, so that they're not over-giving or giving away the value of their business.
What kinds of results have your students seen, especially financial results?
The most common feedback from students is that Feminist Business School is a “life-changing experience.” Some of the ideas that facilitate business growth are experimentation and play. When you’re having fun and are really in the joy of what you’re doing, people want to be around that. Instantly your business becomes more attractive.
We emphasize these concepts, and all of a sudden, that frees people up. I'll have students ask, "Well, what if I do end up doubling sales by trying this thing I haven't let myself try?" Often it turns out their ideas work.
For readers who would like to begin applying your principles after reading this interview, where should they start?
In so many ways, it’s about taking full accountability for your life and happiness. It’s a commitment to choosing yourself. Stop being who other people want you to be. Infuse your true self into the foundation of your business. The power of business is to own your truth and to speak it. Once you make that commitment to yourself, your work will flow.