Finding our feet in those first few weeks once the nation went into lockdown needs its own separate blog. Once we were able to help our tribe lockdown in their homes safely and close all the spaces we operate, we turned our attention to figuring out how to lengthen our cash runway so we could support everyone for as long as possible and starting conversations with our landlords. We began releasing communications to our landlords as soon as the week after lockdown and we continued sending updates, proposals that looked at when we felt we could reliably reopen and what we could structure so that we take our and the landlord’s needs to survive into account. We had already had numerous conversations with all our other landlords before this particular landlord decided to respond to one of our updates claiming to have forgotten that the person they were liaising with in our team was no longer with us (even though she carefully took the time to send emails and host a call handing over communications with the landlord to the rest of the team). There was still no recon or communications from their accounts team.

They postponed meetings and eventually connected in October where a new head of accounts opened up an excel table that had never been shared with us and told us according to their records (the excel table) we owe a ridiculous amount of money – 3 years worth of utilities that they just never billed us for. Not one invoice, not one source document had ever been sent to us. Piecing together the landlords history of inaccurate accounts, we asked that we get all source documentation relating to those utility charges and a follow up meeting.

We never received source documents. At the follow up meeting, when we presented that there was a big difference between our records and theirs and explaining that we cannot just pay based on records we can’t substantiate, the new head of accounts conveniently told us “whatever happened in the past doesn’t matter”. He had personally put together his excel table and according to his table we needed to pay an amount that no one could reconcile.

We suggested various structures we had been working on with other landlords including extending the lease so we all had a longer period to recover and importantly align on the numbers. At the same time, just sussing out how other tenants were being treated, it turned out if you didn’t have a direct line to the C-suite, all the promises that the friendly salesperson made were thrown out the window and only those with access to the decision-makers were able to have reasonable conversation and secure rental relief.

We left the conversation in mid-December 2020 with the head of accounts agreeing to take the different proposals we put on the table to his decision makers and reconvene early in 2021. Without any further communication, we began 2021 with chains on our doors (illegally) and a letter of demand from lawyers. When we tried making contact with the landlord we were told that it was decided to hand over to lawyers. An honest assessment of the situation: lawyers weren’t needed. It was a power move. We didn’t want to escalate the situation and we genuinely felt that we could find a way forward through conversation. In response to the letter of demand we compiled a detailed recon and proposal that offered payment that we could afford; an offer to vacate premises early so the landlord could find new tenants and essentially offered whatever we felt we could afford to take the landlord's commercial wellbeing into account. Without engaging with the proposal or taking the opportunity to counter, we received another letter of demand with an escalated threat of legal action.

There comes a point where all the meditation, breathing and effort to self-actualise through these moments just doesn’t seem enough. No amount of breathing helps the nausea, the light-headedness, the grip on your throat while fear and anger both surge through your body. That’s exactly what these power-moves are supposed to do; scare you into doing whatever the bully wants you to do. And it is so tempting to succumb because that fear is debilitating. My co-founder and I spent hours on the phone counselling each other. Funnily we took turns to breakdown so at least we had the other to help us work through the panic attacks, the anger, the confusion and then the heartbreak. We knew that the proposal we sent was more than fair and if we involved lawyers we would all probably settle on something not too far from that proposal but this changed from finding a commercially agreed way forward to showing us just how big and bad they really were. Through the messiness, we still had an organisation to nurture & lead. The emotional toll diverts resources away from what actually matters and you quickly find yourself consumed by a situation that’s moved far beyond the realm of reasonable. We made the decision to handover to lawyers. Compiling the case file and briefing the lawyers was a heavy process but as soon as everything was with the lawyers and there was nothing else for us to run with, it was a hugely freeing moment.

As I write this, things remain unresolved. The landlord followed through with their threat and started the legal process. On the very same day, they started sending us invoices for utilities for years back so that they could prove that they generated some sort of record to go along with their court documents.

What’s been eye-opening is learning about how much of the legal process is just procedure and how not knowing this creates so much fear around the word “lawyer”. Even thinking about moving into litigation sounds so intimidating when it’s a process you haven’t actually been exposed to. And it still seems like an unnecessary way to resolve something that could be concluded if ego’s were put aside and everyone convened around a table to talk. With a little time & distance from the situation, I’ve been able to reflect on what’s unfolded and I am so damn proud of us. As women of colour and co-founders of an impact model, we are so easily underestimated. We’re the furthest away from the “boys club” and with that, we’re often the outlet for fragility of male egos. When we ask questions or challenge situations we’re labelled “acrimonious”, when we refuse to accept something just because we’ve been told a man compiled it in his very own excel table, we’re labelled “impossible”. The labels become personal attacks, inappropriate messages, aggressive tones and eventually when we refuse to play the helpless damsels in distress, the mission to put us in our place knows no bounds. Through it all, we’ve kept our discourse respectful, we’ve engaged with integrity and we have taken a stand. We’ve also learnt so much about the legal process and just seeing it unfold demystifies it. We’ve worked out a retainer we can afford with our lawyers so that we have legal support that we can draw on for everything we negotiate going forward. In that, the lesson for us was not to see legal help as what we resort to when we have a fire but as something to invest in to help cast an eye on all the relationships we enter into contracts for.

Importantly, we prioritised our mental, emotional and physical health. We threw out whatever story we had told ourselves about needing to solve every problem or needing to try one more time to reach a resolution and created a firm boundary to protect ourselves because as leaders our organisation needs us to be healthy, present, engaged. As women, protecting our mind & heart space extends beyond being present as leaders in our organisation, it's important for us to be present in our lives as life partners, parents, children, siblings, friends.

Leave a comment