By Margot Franssen
Friday, September 25, 2009
Margot Franssen, founder of The Body Shop Canada, says women are often squeezed into lives that are too small and her philanthropy rebels against that.
(WOMENSENEWS)--I've always been a rebel with a cause. Why bother getting into trouble if not to stir things up? It's my life story.
Women don't usually describe themselves as being rebellious. They simply see themselves surviving in the world. Every successful woman I know, in any profession--whether it be the arts, the sciences, entertainment or at home raising kids--knows perfectly well that if you're a woman, you need to rebel in order to excel.
I love words, and rebel is a really good one. If you go to your computer's thesaurus it spits up insubordinate, insurgent, mutinous, dissident.
Rebelling toward hope is at the heart of my life, my work and my activism.
It was instilled in me early on, as I immigrated from Holland to Canada with my parents.
As I watched my parents prosper as a couple, I developed a naive kind of hope and confidence. It never occurred to me that women were often constricted by personal and emotional lives two sizes too small.
But I began to get glimmers as I followed a path from childhood to successfully establishing in 1979 and then selling the Body Shop Canada in 2004.
This path began after high school, with a job where I waited on young guys who were stockbrokers.
It sounded fun and lucrative and I thought, "Hey, I can do that."
But this was 1971 and when I inquired about getting into a training program they said, "No, women can't pass." Stunned, I went to university and became a philosophy major.
To pay my tuition I worked for a female sculptor who introduced me to her circle of friends. Smart, funny and irreverent, they were the second wave of Canadian feminism. I was ripe for a new consciousness, and they seeded my newly focused sense of rebellion.
I graduated full of wisdom, life and longing to achieve my goals with a degree in philosophy that some said wouldn't get me a job in the circus.
But one day my boss returned from the United Kingdom and presented me with a gift basket from The Body Shop. With no job beckoning as a philosopher, I flew to England knowing I could duplicate this business in Canada.
I was penniless but my now-husband and then-boyfriend gave me plane fare to see the shops; there were only six in England at the time.
I called Body Shop founder Anita Roddick and we had lunch that same day. She invited me home to meet her husband and children and we proceeded to drink our way into the early hours of the morning.
Gordon, her husband, asked me what I wanted. I said, "All of Canada or nothing." I was horrified and delighted to hear, "You've got it."
Asking for a business loan was not so simple. Bank after bank flatly told me "this is the stupidest idea we have ever heard."
I also engaged a lawyer. When I went to meet with him my husband came along just to provide moral support. But even though the appointment was in my name, the lawyer wouldn't address any questions to me. He would only talk to me through my husband.
So I borrowed $30,000 from my husband, enlisted the help of my younger sister, fired the lawyer and we were off.
Twenty-four years later, by 2004, we had opened 130 stores with annual sales over $130 million and headquarters and manufacturing facilities in Toronto.
We were for the most part a company of women, bubbling over with passions and emotions, usually all menstruating at the same time.
We were wildly successful selling things no one needed and housed in an industry devoted to cultivating, promoting and fostering women's insecurities.
So we began to use our stores as a platform for social change. Following the example set by the UK stores, we began talking about environmental and animal protection issues; all the while developing deep alliances with nongovernmental groups across the country.
These efforts led us to human rights, with a focus on women. After all 97 percent of our customers and our employees were women. We had an obligation to give back to the very communities that fueled our success.
The Body Shop Canada began working with the Toronto-based Canadian Women's Foundation on a series of anti-violence campaigns and programs.
At the time we told the Canadian Women's Foundation that our relationship would be short: a date, not a marriage.
Looking back over 16 years I now laugh. In fact, we closed our corporate foundation and set up a fund at the Canadian Women's Foundation, which knows so much better than we how to deploy dollars in support of women.
Over the years we raised more than $1 million to support women and girls and I became the co-president of the foundation.
Some of the money went to a program that provides abused women with a wilderness experience so they can get back in touch with their own courage, emotionally and physically. We paid for their child care while they were away for that week and for their airfare. Over 1,000 women participated in that program.
Money also went to shelters located in each city that held a Body Shop and money also supported the violence prevention programs across the country.
The biggest change we witnessed was recognition of the problem itself. This was an issue that wasn't talked about and our awareness campaigns gave it a big voice by attracting media attention, public sympathy and the ear of the United Nations.
On May 1, 2002, the campaigns led to my receiving the Order of Canada, an award for a high degree of service to Canada or to humanity at large.
Why direct my social investments toward women? If you are looking for the starting block to unlock prosperity and break a cycle of poverty and violence, look no farther than changing the life of a woman.
Think of all the money we could save--on welfare, health care, lost days at the job and so on--if women were to thrive. I believe that women's status in the world is the biggest human rights tragedy of our time.
One-half of humanity does not have access to all of their basic human rights: the right to freedom from violence, to freedom of movement, to earn a living wage, etc. If women are expected to hold up half the sky they need access to the same sources of strength as men have.
Margot Franssen is an entrepreneur, fundraiser, mother of three and wife of 35 years. She is devoted to women's issues and bettering the lives of women in Canada. Her husband says she tries to control the universe in the most annoying fashion. She is often crazed because of it, sometimes skeptical, never cynical and above all happy.
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