While I understand, intellectually, the need for months and days designated to honor and/or celebrate marginalized communities and cultures, I’ll be honest that sometimes they feel inauthentic, performative, and unhelpful - especially in the business world. As this women’s history month is coming to a close, I have spent time in reflection pondering what I, as a woman and a mother, need woman’s history month to be in order for it to feel productive, relevant, and valuable.
Where I have found nuggets of hope is when I watch my children participate in women’s history month activities in their classrooms, learning about historically important women who I didn’t know anything about as a child. When I think back, there was a serious lack of critical thinking or discussion around the differences that make us human - gender identity, race, sexuality, physical abilities, citizenship status, age, economic status… and the list goes on.
The egregious lack of a baseline truth around these matters made my experiences as an adult traversing the world fraught with jarring reality checks. When I was in early elementary school, a woman literally couldn't own a business in the United States without the signature of her husband. That law wasn’t changed until 1988. Today women technically own 40% of businesses in the country, but in 90% of those cases, the woman is the only employee. Women still have very little power in large industries. Take manufacturing, for example, where women own less than 2% of the 400,000+ manufacturing companies in the country.
An important note on intersectionality
While women across the globe are in the same shitstorm of patriarchy and misogyny, we’re not all in the same boat. Intersectionality plays a gigantic role in a woman’s experience and access to success. I am a cis white woman and have more advantages and privileges than women who are Black or Brown, LGBTQ, disabled, immigrants, formerly incarcerated, impoverished, or elderly. Take for example the manufacturing industry -- while less than 2% of companies are woman-owned, the number owned by women of color is not even recorded, but we can assume it is less than a tiny fraction of a percent.
What it means to be Fillaree, a woman-owned, and led business.
Community - Family - Safety - Grit & Integrity
“It takes a village” is a phrase I have heard throughout my life and one that continues to hold significant meaning in my heart, my mind, and my actions. Perhaps most commonly referring to raising children, it’s a philosophy I put into practice while growing this business as well. Our village is our community made up of all you loyal refillers, our retail partners, our vendors up and down our supply chain, and fellow business owners in Durham and beyond.
I believe that it is because we are women that we embody our core values and protect our community so authentically -- it would feel unnatural to do it any other way. It stems from a lifelong knowing that it truly does take a village to achieve success. We don’t do anything in a vacuum. We live this daily by working with, buying from, holding up, and living for our community of small women-owned businesses. In fact, 99.5 % of all goods we sell in our store and almost all of our refill partners are women-owned businesses. We care for our village and each other in a way that can easily be described as maternal.
When I began Fillaree I had a one-year-old and a four-year-old. I was balancing my number one job (Mom) with my entrepreneurial spirit and this great need I saw in the world for a company like Fillaree. (Read that full story here!) But having children puts up lots of barriers to entry into the business world, especially when you’re a woman. For me, that meant limited time, limited energy, and a visceral risk aversion to anything that might put my family’s resources at risk. The momma bear in me was not about to rack up debt or tap friends and family for funding, because we couldn’t afford to lose the resources we had. This meant that I started Fillaree from a very grounded place, with less than $700 of my own money, zero investors or loans, and a very slow growth mindset that allowed the business to grow at a pace that I could bear, which increased as my children got older.
Intuitive fear and the extra parenting burden that comes with being a mother was a real thing for me that simply isn’t the same for men or fathers, or even women without dependents ( elder parent care often falls on women and carries similar concerns). For years I was embarrassed about my risk-aversion tendencies. I was existing in fast-paced entrepreneurial circles surrounded by headlines of “venture capital raises”, “multiple million dollar series As”, “grow fast,” “break things,” which made me feel like I was doing it all wrong. In 2017 I was 3 years into Fillaree with barely more than 0% growth yet I still wasn't willing to break anything! I stuck to my gut and my senses and over the following few years things started to shift in a slow and steady way that was comfortable for me and didn’t put my family at risk. Being a woman-owned and led business means organic, slow, intentional growth. At Fillaree, that’s person to person, one refill at a time.
When you walk into Fillaree you’re greeted by warm lights, bright smells, and a welcoming safe environment. This is very intentional and very important to our business model. If you’re a woman who has never felt sexualized, harassed, or physically harmed on the job, you’re one of a very small minority. When women hold leadership positions and are intricately involved in building workplace culture, we will protect each other and create safe spaces. Our longtime team member Meredith shared her thoughts on this, so take it from her first hand:
“It is hard to articulate exactly what it is like to be part of something as special as Fillaree. The women I have met through this experience have all been nothing but encouraging, strong, intelligent, funny, and supportive. I walk into work each day greeted with beautiful energy, either from the store itself or one of my lovely co-workers. I leave behind reservations about how I need to dress or how to act. I can be myself without comment or judgment. Self-expression has been something that I used to have to fight for in spaces that I worked at in the past. The lie that was told to me about needing to fit into a certain box so you can land a corporate job couldn’t be more inaccurate. I got this job with these women by simply being true to who I am. Working for someone who wants to build a positive environment, and give people that she loves the chance to thrive and learn is the best part of the job. It is clear that when Alyssa hires someone, that she hires them to be part of our family.” ~ Meredith Lewis, Fillaree Team Member
Our reality as women who have grown up in a world where sexual violence, threatening aggression, sexual harassment, and unwanted advances are part of our daily lives is that we are always vigilant: locking the door when we're alone, always being alert and aware when walking to our cars, documenting harassment in notes on our phones, and telling each other about men who are threats. As a woman-owned and led business, our physical and emotional safety is top of mind, but it’s rarely noted how much of our time and energy this consumes.
Fillaree is a SAFE place. PERIOD!
Grit & Integrity
We put the 'grit' in integrity. Women forge paths and make way for our dreams with the same grit with which we have cared for our families, our communities, and ourselves for millennia. Modern civilizations are built on the backs of unpaid labor. Behind every man who gets all the credit (and pay!), there are women cooking, cleaning, hosting, entertaining, consoling, peace-keeping, and bridge-building in the background, always. We know how to get shit done in thankless environments. So when I dreamed of Fillaree, I put that same tenacity to work, within systems and at tables that had no place set for me. There was no roadmap or model for me to follow, but with my passion and an unwavering commitment to sustainability, safety, and community care, Fillaree slowly and steadily took flight the way I envisioned it would. It just so happened that for me this involved washing more dishes in the last decade than I care to recount. I dare say every woman business owner has her own dish pit of grit that she endured without a second thought because if nothing else, generations of unpaid labor have made us strong and resilient.
We are building the future we want to see, built for sustainability - for both people and planet. Our team members have to be able to tend to their own needs (food, shelter, rest, etc) while also producing essential products for our community like our tried and true Soap & Suds Hand and Body Soap, our “firstborn” at Fillaree and the product that keeps our doors open and our loyal refillers coming back again and again!
Being a woman-owned and led business today and reflecting on the past, present, and future, it’s clear to see that we have come a long way. And, we have a long journey ahead of us yet. I’m just so grateful that Fillaree is the vehicle in which I am taking this wild ride. It’s a bright beacon of light, a soft place to land, a place that feels like home when we need it the most. And as always, mi casa es su casa. You’re an important part of this community we are building and we hope Fillaree feels like home to you, too.
💚 Sustainably Yours,