Bridging the Feminine and Masculine in Business: One Woman’s Journey

The journey began with a dream.

In it I am running away from a burning city, clutching a candle, looking back, wanting to desperately return to what was once familiar, safe and comfortable. But I cannot. As I run, I come to the edge of a cliff. Too terrified to jump, I find myself gently pushed off by an unseen hand, spiraling slowly through the air and—in slow motion—landing on a soft grassy knoll. A voice speaks to me from the depths of my awareness. “Amber, you have arrived in a new kingdom. Here the rules are different. Here we live and breathe from a place of love. The old kingdom you came from burned from fear and greed.”

With that dream, I awoke to a new world.  Just a few months before, I had experienced the painful collapse of my previous company, a multi-million dollar enterprise that had risen like a meteor in the early 2000s, pioneering a global vision for ecommerce—only to crash and close its doors within 7 years. Left behind in the rubble of devastation was the memory of a once visionary company that had received the accolades of the venture capital community with investments of $40 million dollars in its first year of operation, a company valued at $100 million dollars before it had even made one sale, one celebrated by the media and PR world for its pioneering global work and recognized as an emerging leader in the socially responsible business community. As co-founder and spokesperson, I spiraled down with the company, caught up in the breathless unraveling of this once bold entrepreneurial vision. Within a few months, my co-founder/business partner died of a sudden heart attack.

There were many lessons to be learned from the company’s accelerated collapse. Over the next painful months as I searched for answers and reflected on the gnawing question of what had happened, I journeyed into a world that offered sobering insights. In questioning some of the iconic assumptions that supported patriarchal paradigms for business, I understood the inherently unsustainable nature of businesses that were solely motivated by a frenetic testosterone drive and fast-paced trajectories of growth culminating in short-term quarterly performance cycles. These were businesses built upon the shaky foundations of fear and greed that carried a singular appetite for profit at all costs, impatient and aggressive in their drive to succeed; businesses that drew their inspiration from the Darwinian Law of the ‘survival of the fittest’ and succumbed to the seduction of virulent competition and paranoia; businesses for whom the market was regarded as a battleground for conquest and domination. The only other example of unbridled and devouring growth of this kind I could think of was cancer.

In the midst of this exhausting scenario of dysfunction came the whisperings of a gentler but nonetheless powerful vision of a new kind of 21st century business—one that sought a balanced and sober approach to growth, recognized and honored feminine principles as critical to its success, and explicitly invoked Love and Service as the foundation for its mission in the world. This new kind of enterprise is decisive, action-oriented, focused and strategic (masculine), as well as intuitive, empathetic, collaborative and inspirational (feminine). Its success lies in its capacity to create relationships built upon trust and transparency, not suspicion and secrecy. Its actions, infused with respect and goodwill to all its stakeholders—including customers, employees, suppliers, the environment—does not readily dissipate into callous self-centeredness. Here, the values of connectedness and partnership are upheld as sound guiding principles and celebrated as a strategic path to success. Reverence and humility are its hallmarks.

It was the pleas of  ‘do not forget us’ from the three indigenous Bolivian women with their bowler hats, who encircled my bed in a ‘waking dream’ one sleepless night months after the company’s collapse that gave me the courage to return to the business world and resurrect the crumbling mission of the old company. Their call was insistent, as if to caution me that the only way back was to follow the interior path of the feminine, to honor her wisdom as she guided my return into the world of commerce. For without her, I would surely be lost, diminished and devoured. I understood that only by bringing all aspects of my being—as a mother, mystic healer, peace builder and global citizen—into the business world would I be able to authentically forge my way, claiming this multi-faceted feminine identity as essential to paving the foundations for the new company.

So often, we can hear the word ‘feminine’ and experience it as an antidote to the ‘masculine,’ bound as we are by definitions that are solely based on gender differences. The word becomes a polarizing rather than a unifying force, denying the sense of equilibrium that can only emerge when these two universal forces are held in sacred balance. I have come to discover that it is precisely because the ‘feminine’ has been banished into the shadowy corners of business discourse and dismissed at the corporate table that we need to reclaim her spirit and allow her to emerge as a vital part of any new business paradigm. If we are to respond to the evolutionary drive to create conscious and sustainable enterprises in the 21st century, we must acknowledge and celebrate ‘the feminine’ whilst creating a skillful balance between the receptive feminine and active masculine principles. With this, I believe we can confidently celebrate business as a powerful transformational agent for social change in our world.

Woman Candle

Nine months after the company’s demise, I launched the Women’s Peace Collection. Armed with fresh insight and lessons learned, I sought to create a social enterprise that would, at its heart, fuse together the pragmatism of business, the stillness of contemplative practice and the inspiration of a bold vision to serve women artisans around the world. As I began this entrepreneurial journey, I remember sitting at my dining table, with laptop and rolodex, a vase of fragrant flowers and a framed photograph of my beloved spiritual teacher before me. Bowing at this altar of enterprise, I knew that the entrepreneurial journey I was about to embark upon would require patience, vigilance and a steady sense of purpose. What would ultimately sustain me would be my ability to embrace the paradoxical worlds of the masculine and feminine as foundational guiding principles for the company.

It was the late Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop and one of my inspirational role models, who offered a breeze of insight when she remarked, “I run my company according to feminine principles—of caring, making intuitive decisions, not getting hung up on hierarchy, having a sense of work as being part of my life, not separate from it, putting my labour where my love is, being responsible to the world in how I use my profits, and recognising the bottom line should stay at the bottom.” As a visionary and global entrepreneur, Roddick seemed to have successfully married together feminine values that were holistic, collaborative and intuitive with the more masculine attributes of healthy competition, linear and rational thinking and drive. She had claimed her feminine voice, one that seemed to rise up from the noisy marketplace of patriarchal norms as a clarion call for women to step into the business world with confidence and clarity. To do this, we had to trust our voices, relinquish our deep rooted sense of invisibility and have the courage to be seen and heard, not necessarily “as the towering oak that sees storms come and go” but perhaps “as the fragile blossom that opens in the snow” (Alice MacKenzie Swaim). Acknowledging this sense of fierce fragility and vulnerability as we moved into this world in brave, new ways was to be an essential part of the journey.

As I began to discover the secrets embodied by the feminine principle, I reveled in her wisdom, power and beauty.  I learned to pay attention to the rhythms and cycles of Nature, recognizing that in seeding a vision for my company, I had to allow the seed to be sown, nourished daily, allowed to gestate and then manifest as a clear sense of mission and purpose. This would take time. Too often, it has been a spirit of restless impatience that has informed business decisions, resulting in a myopic focus on performance under the pressure of artificial deadlines. Perhaps what contributed to the demise of the old company was the sobering reality that before it had had the time to root itself in its mission and understand clearly what it stood for, it had multimillion dollars thrown at its feet. Overcapitalized (and overwatered) it struggled to meet the expectations of its investors in its fledgling early years, pressured to exceed its performance when in reality the foundations had as yet not been built or taken root.

Collaboration, empathy, nurturance, creativity and connection are intrinsic to the vitality and well-being of the feminine. In her ease of relatedness, she seeks to cross borders and build bridges, to feed her family and create alliances that benefit the common good and nourish the whole, to forge a path that is co-creative, holistic and deeply integrative. In launching the Women’s Peace Collection I recognized that the success of the company would lie in the strength and caliber of its partnerships and that it was within the context of this enlivening collaborative model that each of our partners could achieve their singular goals: to impact the lives of impoverished and resilient women around the world. Rather than competing for scarce resources, we understood that by working together we could make a sustainable difference, one that would serve the well-being of all.

Over the years, it has been this breathtaking vision of business as a vehicle for ‘compassionate commerce’ that has guided me in my work with refugees in Darfur, war widows in Afghanistan and Iraq, craftswomen in Palestine and Israel and genocide survivors in Rwanda. In each instance, I have understood the transformative power of business as a catalyst for change whenever it is able to open its doors to a heart-centered vision of what is possible. It is the image of Halima, the middle-aged Sudanese woman who dances in the makeshift refugee camp in Darfur, celebrating the fact that she can feed her family from the income she now receives from the woven baskets marketed in the United States through the Collection. Her spirit soars as she exclaims, “Look at me, I am no longer just a refugee; I am a talented weaver who can feed my children.” Her world is now transformed and dignity restored.

There is an Indian story of a wicked demon king whose reign resulted in a terrible drought for his people. The rivers dried up, there was no food to eat, the people starved.  One day, Durgha, the Goddess of Wisdom arrived in the kingdom and saw what had befallen its people.  So outraged was she, that she found the King and pierced his heart with a sword. In that moment, flowers began to blossom, rivers to flow and the world was restored to balance. 

This perhaps is the potent message for our time—one that cautions us to pay attention to the power of the feminine as she claims her seat at the table, speaks her truth and restores this delicate balance between heart and mind. Through my work in the business world, I have come to discover a deeper truth: that the disparate worlds of business and spirit, of warrior and healer, of masculine and feminine are not so distant after all—each may dance to a different rhythm but both are essential and ultimately inseparable.

This article can be found in the Spring | Summer 2012 issue of Kosmos Journal.