For some women entrepreneurs, the mission is both simple and immensely challenging: Change capitalism from the inside. (Credit: WOCinTech Chat, Flickr)

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered upheaval within us all.

But U.S. workers aren’t just questioning their individual priorities – they’re also interrogating the very capitalist system upon which America was built.

This isn’t a new conversation, nor is it one solely happening among some radical, fringe portion of the populace. Even before the pandemic, a third of Americans reported having a negative perception of capitalism to the Pew Research Center, often citing concerns over inequitable distributions of available wealth – what sociologist and educator Erik Olin Wright referred to as “poverty in the midst of plenty.”

But now, as in-person workers – those deemed either “essential” or “low-skill,” depending on the day and politician – report significant, persistent struggles, a growing number of people are challenging the current economic system. And it’s not just talk; that pushback is driving what’s being called The Great Resignation. Over 20 million Americans left their jobs in the latter half of 2021, in a broad, simultaneous rejection of too little pay, subpar working conditions, and the very idea of “working to live.” 

It’s a movement that continues in earnest as employees are increasingly encouraged to return to workplaces to help the economy rebound from a pandemic-induced recession – despite a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths due to the now-dominant omicron variant.  And Walmart and Amazon – the two largest employers in the country – recently cut paid sick time for workers with Covid-19.

While some bigger corporations are attempting to counter past ills by enacting progressive, worker-friendly policies, there’s anecdotal evidence that women entrepreneurs are taking a different tack from their large-scale contemporaries – by becoming a vocal part of this latest groundswell of anti-capitalist sentiment.

Their mission is both simple and immensely challenging: Change the system from the inside by building employee-friendly firms from the ground up.

Grappling with Capitalism

Isa Gautschi, founder of Portland, Oregon, marketing firm M.Isa Messaging, is one such entrepreneur. She describes capitalism as “fundamentally broken and inequitable.” 

As a queer, Chicana business owner who “grew up with the working poor,” Gautschi says she “can’t see any sense or merit in a system that deprives humans of what they need to survive,” including food and shelter.  She struggles with seeing “some of the hardest working people I know going hungry, facing eviction, or unable to pay their bills despite working long hours for companies owned by billionaires.”

For her, business ownership is an admittedly fraught method of chipping away at the system. But, she adds, “running my own business gives me the opportunity to consciously build my systems in ways that counteract implicit bias and unfair working conditions.”

She’s not alone in trying to lead by example. Renee Powers, founder of subscription box seller Feminist Book Club in Minneapolis, agrees that “participating in capitalism is compulsory – but that doesn’t mean we have to blindly follow the rules of a system that was never meant for us.”

By “us,” Powers is referring to those lacking means or standing, who don’t fare as well in a free market that often favors the privileged. Ever since the pandemic changed life as we know it, people across a broad swath of ages, races and genders have struggled more than ever to earn what they need to survive, nevermind thrive. 

Current minimum wages are too low for Americans in any state to afford rent on a 2-bedroom apartment. Minorities and members of the LGBTQ community in particular grapple with hazardous or abusive workplaces and job insecurity. A lack of access to affordable, reliable childcare has meant even more compromises for women, a group that was already handling the vast majority of unpaid home labor and caregiving responsibilities. And Covid-19 made matters worse still, with women’s finances and career trajectories disproportionately impacted.

At the same time, billionaires – the miniscule 1 percent, overwhelmingly white and male – saw a collective, pandemic-era wealth increase in numbers so large one struggles to comprehend their grandiosity. (This visualization of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ wealth helps.)

Moments such as this one have “radicalized liberals and electoralized radicals,” Maurice Mitchell, director of the progressive Working Families Party, told FiveThirtyEight. “People are looking for solutions, and people instinctively understand … that the solutions of the past will not take us out of this moment of realignment and will not take us into the future.”

Effecting Change from Within

That’s why some women entrepreneurs aim to make a difference by creating companies that support workers and customers alike – by being the change they want to see.

Women founders have long taken on the task of building socially conscious businesses and supportive workplaces in the past – from bigger names like Spanx founder Sara Blakely and fashion mogul Eileen Fisher, to small business owners like Ruth Álvarez-DeGolia of Mercado Global, whose Brooklyn-based social enterprise connects Guatemalan women artisans with international fashion retailers who purchase their wares.

But the pandemic has introduced new urgency to the situation.

Feminist Book Club founder Powers says she runs her business by way of one guiding principle: “The bottom line is important, but not the most important thing.” She endeavors “to create a more just economic system” by offering unlimited paid time off to her staff, sharing growth tips with other subscription box entrepreneurs to encourage their success, and donating a portion of her sales to social justice organizations doing localized work.

And though it’s early days for Gautschi’s marketing firm – she launched last April – she’s creating an inclusive work environment from the get-go by seeking out diversity, equity and inclusion experts while building her team and pitching marketing strategies to clients that feature a diverse cast of models and progressive messaging.

Increased opportunities and inclusive, flexible workspaces are some of the solutions that have been set forth for workers’ woes, as is federal-level labor reform – from doing away with the 40-hour work week to further elevating minimum wages. (In order to survive on them today, experts say those wages should be closer to $24 per hour.)

Promoting a small-business-centric economy where these firms are solicited more frequently could also siphon some power away from our largest corporations – a critical step toward a fairer society, some entrepreneurs argue. Also, “we need actual, viable actions from large corporations and billionaire CEOs,” says Shannon Conway, founder of Wicked City Apparel in Chicago, in the form of salary cuts for themselves (with the difference paid forward to employees), vocal and financial support for small businesses, expanded benefits and improvements to working conditions.

And promoting growth for growth’s sake is no longer sustainable, these founders add.

Of course, starting up as a means of pushing back against our current capitalist system isn’t an easy prospect for anyone, but especially not for women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ community – largely because accessing the necessary capital is harder. And because they have fewer means with which to launch and scale, businesses owned by people within marginalized groups tend to be smaller, and grow at slower rates.

But when given a chance, these companies can offer a blueprint for a better way to build businesses, says Abbey Hudetz, the Brooklyn-based founder of digital marketing firm Oyster Creative. Her company offers discounts to women- and minority-owned businesses, and through working with them, she says she’s seen firsthand how marginalized founders of small firms are “rewriting scripts that are heralding a new era of business ownership.” 

Hudetz adds, “People are breaking the mold of entrepreneurship. And with new ideas, I am hopeful there will be a renaissance of innovation.” ◼