I co-founded a social enterprise in South Africa that innovates how to create economic opportunities for women who are often overlooked, under-valued and under-estimated by their families, communities and our country at large. As a young, brown woman, my co-founder, a young black woman, we know intimately that daring to create for women in a man’s world is to declare war on the status quo every day.
Keeping our organisation alive is war. It’s traumatic, it’s violent, it’s relentless. I joke with my co-founder that we’re both likely suffering an ongoing form of PTSD because we move from one trauma to the next. Microaggressions we experience every day, dealing with male-dominated spaces become “normal” and we’ve numbed ourselves to the repeated abrasions we endure because we have to.
I read somewhere that small cuts hurt more than big ones – I don’t think it’s just true for our physical beings, I think it holds up to our emotional health as well. One of the reasons listed for why big cuts don’t physically hurt as much is because they may have severed nerve endings whereas small cuts graze those nerves and amplify the pain. I think that pretty much sums up the daily experience of being a woman, a woman of colour trying to lead an organisation of women in a deeply patriarchal country. It hurts every day.
I’ve been thinking about documenting the many “what the f**k” moments my team and I navigate because whenever we’re confronted with these situations I try to do some quick research on whether other women entrepreneurs have experienced something similar and I often don’t find anything or if I do, the full story isn’t really shared. I recently shared with a friend that if we don’t document what we go through and put it out there, it’s basically like it hasn’t happened so when we do share our experience, we’re often labelled “exceptions”.
Our reality as women, especially women of colour, is so under-documented, it’s no surprise we are left out of history. This thought has been sitting uncomfortably in the back of my mind for a long time. And the moment that confronted my team in the first week of 2021 confirmed, for me that I have to document our experience because I know there are women facing the same violence with nowhere to turn, no story to read that can give them ideas on how to navigate their situation and importantly provide a source of comfort and affirmation that they are not alone in their experience.
I started writing this as a form of therapy, to let out the 500 different feelings I had raging inside me and as I continued to document what me, my business partner and our social enterprise were experiencing, I realised that documenting our experience moved beyond being a tool to “outlet”. It’s become a way to put out our very real, very scary story out there so that other small businesses’, social enterprises, nonprofits and anyone really who has been written off as too small or too young or, in our case, too much woman can read what we went through, what options we explored, when we sought help and most importantly have a story they can reference for ideas or just the affirmation that someone else has gone through this and they have survived it.
I thought about whether I should try and reflect first on the history of moments that have led to where we are because we’ve been on this journey for 5 years but the moment we are in is visceral and I want to capture it as we are living it so I’ll bring in past experiences and learnings where the opportunity presents. For now, I want to capture what we’re grappling with as it’s unfolding.