The Cult of the White Co-Founder

Posted by Fiona McAlpine on

Sharna de Lacy.

I am a feminist activist, turned co-founder of an ethical fashion enterprise that works exclusively with women who have been affected by armed conflict.  I love my work, and I love creating something that is a true collaboration with a feminist mission. What I don’t like, is putting my face front and center. Not because I am camera shy (although I am), but because it defies everything in my feminist bones to speak on behalf of my non-white sisters, rather than to take a step back and give them the stage.

Since day one, the advice my fellow co-founders and I have received from people far wiser in business matters, has been that we must put ourselves out there -  or fail.  To fail, would mean a failure of our social mission - to create a business model that supports economic independence for the women with which we work. 

So that is what we have done – we’ve shared our names, our faces, our stories. We have made our personal journey as co-founders part of our story. This is reflected in most of the content of our interviews. People want to know how we built the idea and bootstrapped the business, the classic scrappy startup underdog anecdotes - our ‘aha’ moment, our working-out-of-mum’s-garage narrative.

And it has worked. Why this is such a successful marketing strategy is something that I think hints at strange comfort we still have with the White Savior archetype – slipping into it, and consuming it.

I am pretty white – Anglo Australian, with a profound love for brunch, microbreweries and Apple products.  As Peggy Macintosh has argued in her now famous essay, the accident of my whiteness comes with more than just a keenness for quality dark ale. It comes with a great big bag of unearned privileges, most of which are taken for granted. Like the fact that when I speak, people are more likely to assume that what I say is relevant and insightful. Or when I pitch my business idea, donors are more likely to see me as a good investment.

The handsome package of Anglo heritage, and a spanking new start-up is ripe ground for white-privilege to proliferate. Just attend any start-up networking event or pick up a copy of any start-up rag, and you will find a lot of white people all talking about their great ideas. White people love start-ups, so much so that it should probably be added to the infamous list of Stuff White People Like. Not to mention the Anglo dominance in this space is invariably helped along by the unearned privileges that come free of charge with the pale skin tone.

There is nothing wrong with white people having and talking about their ideas. Some ideas are great, and I happen to think ours is. It just also happens that some ideas, like ours, are designed to open up a little more space for people who have not only lacked that awesome sack of white privilege, but who have faced innumerable barriers of structural disadvantage besides. By standing front of stage when we enter non-white spaces, we are doing what we have always done - hogging up all the space.

There are loads of social enterprises for which the faces and stories of their co-founders are a cornerstone of their marketing strategy. Many use simple means to achieve their social purpose - like 1 for 1 programs, or donating a percentage of their profits to a chosen cause. People get it, and they trust the faces behind the brand. However, complex issues of intergenerational poverty, gender inequality and structural disadvantage often become opaque, remotely understood “causes” in this mode of marketing.

Amid all this white co-founder autobiographising, I am afraid we are not only writing everyone else out of the picture, but we are reducing their experiences and their voices into easily digestible, Caucasian friendly chunks.

Of course, it needs a little more consideration than simply removing one’s self from any and all external communications and putting the real people and purpose behind the brand front and center. Informed consent is extremely important, and difficult to negotiate when you are working with children, people who are illiterate, or have never accessed the Internet.

Or as the case of The Fabric Social, where the women we work with may be placed at risk if they choose to share their stories and faces in a highly visible way. We work in conflict-affected communities, and we have a responsibility to be extremely sensitive to that.

Brand messaging is hard work. As activists who’ve spent a long time working in the women’s rights and the peace and conflict space, my co-founders and I have had to work hard at communicating a message that doesn’t assume people possess the same intricate knowledge that we do – but that it is not overly reductive. We are continuing to work on it.

I was recently talking all of this over with one of my fellow co-founders, and a good friend and fellow activist from Costa Rica. My Costa Rican friend was quite frank in expressing her view that The Fabric Social has not made itself an exception to the Great White Savior rule.  And I absolutely agree.

We do our best to sell a product, and to tell a story that is not reductive, and that doesn’t suggest we are “helping” anyone. These women are our partners, our allies, and they are skilled women in their own right. What we have built, we have built together and we try to convey this, even if we have to use our own faces and words to do so. We are tip toeing through the difficult waters of informed consent, so that we can take a step back and let the women we work with take some of the spotlight, should they choose to do so. That will take time, and lots of careful consideration of safety and other risks.

But I think we, and other enterprises like us, can do a lot more to scrub off the white-wash.  Australian owned, and Cambodian based company, Dorsu does a great job of getting the balance right, as do The Social Studio, and YEVU, and we can learn a lot from them. Using more local talent, like fashion photographers, stylists and models is just one way we can inject a more local identity to our brand, without compromising the safety of our producers. For our next release, we hope to do just that.

We all need to let the White Savior Complex die, whether we are consumers, or the people behind cross-cultural projects. Activism is a noun, but is also a verb. It is an active process - of listening, of learning, self-reflection and willingness to change ideas and ways of working.  As a bunch of feminist activists turned social entrepreneurs, this must continue to be our benchmark. On finding new ways to do that, we are all ears.



Sharna is the Co-Founder of The Fabric Social, a social enterprise working exclusively with conflict-affected women. The Fabric Social work to transform one of the greatest causes of poverty: armed conflict. You can shop, donate, or get involved here

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