By strengthening women’s economic independence, Lis Suarez-Visbal is decreasing poverty rates among immigrant women in Canada while increasing their awareness of social and ecological practices. Lis is providing immigrant women with opportunities to be successful entrepreneurs who exchange their knowledge and skills with their peers in the global south, creating a local, national, and international network of women entrepreneurs who share best business, environmental, and social practices while building their communities.
Through her organization, FEM International, Lis supports women working in highly feminized industries, such as the textile and fashion industry to lift themselves out of poverty by giving them the tools to be ecologically and socially-conscious entrepreneurs, while also turning them into peer supporters through global volunteer experiences, where they share their skills with and learn from women from the global south. Lis teaches women micro-entrepreneurs how to incorporate sustainable practices, social responsibility, recycling, and waste reduction into their businesses. These life-changing global experiences give immigrant women the confidence and practical experience to turnaround their lives, and create long-lasting impact.
Women bring their cultural knowledge and design skills to FEM International, which trains them to build their business plans, and make their products sustainable and marketable. Lis teaches the women how to network, build partnerships with the private, public and citizen sectors, while developing the necessary leadership skills to confidently begin and grow their businesses.
There have been more than 2.5 million immigrants to Canada in the last 10 years. More than half of new immigrants are women and about 325,000 of these women (23 percent) are at risk of living in poverty, due to discrimination and other systemic barriers. Canadian women working full-time, year-round, earn 70.5 percent of what men earn and account for two-thirds of Canadians working for minimum wage.
Starting a business venture is not often an option for women, particularly underemployed immigrant women, to generate an income. However, launching a successful business requires technical and managerial training, access to markets and financing. Immigrant women and women in developing countries, in general, have little access to this type of support. If they manage to get some training and credit, they struggle to find help with post start-up and growth strategies. In addition, they may require communications, negotiation, and leadership training for their business to flourish, their network to grow, and their influence in the community to expand beyond the limits of their business.
With increasing immigration rates (Canada opens its doors to about 250,000 immigrants per year), governments fall short of creating an environment that enables potential migrants (particularly immigrant women) to fully exercise their economic, social, cultural and political rights that protect their physical security, and fulfill their expectations and aspirations.
In Canada, there are a number of initiatives working at a policy level (Association for Women’s Rights in Development), while others work to provide access to economic support (YWCA) or at building capacity at the international level (OXFAM). However, little has been done to empower immigrant women living below the poverty line to become entrepreneurs, while linking them to a global network and market of other women entrepreneurs from the global south whose businesses have integrated ethical and environmental practices.
In 2005 Lis moved to Canada and soon founded FEM International. She has already built the relationships and support network to pilot her program for immigrant women entrepreneurs. Both locally and abroad, FEM International teaches women how to manage a business and incorporate social responsibility and sustainable practices into their small businesses. Lis also helps women build their networking and leadership skills, providing them with opportunities to act and react within their “zones of influence” and move their businesses forward in ways that are beneficial to them, their communities and their environment.
Lis’ collaborative and integrative approach fosters the creation and the survival (post start-up phases) of women-led ventures. She is working in Canada, Colombia, Bolivia, India, Mali, and Thailand, where she has built partnerships with local women’s citizen organizations (COs) who deliver her methodology, such as sustainable business planning, leadership and access to ecological markets. To complement this, FEM International facilitates exchanges for women immigrants to learn from and share best practices with women from the global south. Using traditional skills (i.e. sewing, embroidery, and dying fabrics), Lis teaches them to incorporate eco-friendly and recycled materials. She gives them the tools to build local relationships that can support them to be sustainable entrepreneurs. These include partnerships with recycling cooperatives, export agencies, and micro-credit organizations.
To raise awareness among the broader public, FEM International has built partnerships with schools, government agencies, Montreal Fashion Week, the Ethical Fashion Show in Paris, and Fashion Takes Action in Toronto, in which she showcases the women’s designs. Lis also works with secondary schools to educate future consumers about their choices and with post-secondary institutions to increase the awareness of sustainable sourcing options among aspiring designers. Lis is developing training material and resources to help schools incorporate the notion of socially-responsible production and eco-design for future designers and entrepreneurs. She has a partnership with the Cégep Marie-Victorin fashion school in Montreal and is harnessing expertise from local and international business and design schools through student internships with FEM International. For example, in Thailand, Lis’ program made connections among Baankredtrakarn, a social welfare organization partner, an independent Thai designer, and the Mahidol University Faculty of the Environment and Resource Studies.
In Montreal, FEM International promotes ethical awareness and responsible consumption through its ethical fashion incubator (ETHIK BGC). They host unique and entertaining ethical awareness events and activities such as ModEthik, the “5à7” (happy-hour) ethical cocktail hour, eco-design workshops, and conferences. Lis opened her boutique in 2009 to support her organization’s international operations and to showcase the products made by her initiatives global and local women members. The boutique is collectively managed by a number of ethical designers, but benefits from FEM International expertise, know-how, and international networks. In return, designers contribute a rental fee for their selling space. Lis plans to establish ETHIK BGC in three to four large Canadian cities so that women designers from Canada and abroad have the option to own several boutique spaces in different locations. This strategy will diversify the dollars invested in the project and allow designers to have greater exposure to markets. Lis is investing all of her profits into the social mission of her organization.
With the use of technology and online classes, Lis’ training tools will be delivered anywhere there is access to the Internet. Its train-the-trainer approach will allow cross-country collaborations and approaches. Each ETHIK BGC boutique will select women leaders to become designers-in-residence, a privilege that provides personalized-support and start-up resources. This will help them jump-start their ventures while strengthening the collaborative structure of each ETHIK BGC and the sustainability of the solidarity cluster. It will also help women develop ownership of the project and a sense of commitment to its success.
Lis plans to replicate her success by creating chapters in other major Canadian cities that strengthen and build partnerships across sectors. Her integrated approach ensures participation of schools, women and immigration departments, labor organizations, and environmental networks. In 2010, 47 percent of women trained with Lis increased their revenue, and among them 29 percent increased their revenue by starting their own business.
Lis’ father was a lawyer, and throughout her childhood she saw him choose to work pro bono with low-income clients; from him she got the ethical fiber. Lis credits her entrepreneurial spirit to her mother, a self-made entrepreneur, for whom there was no impossible dream and never too big a challenge. She taught her to never give up.
Lis studied finance and international development in her native Colombia and earned a graduate degree from Harvard University. While in the U.S., she worked in investment banking and volunteered at an immigrant women’s organization. Teaching workshops on basic business skills lit a spark in her. Lis became passionate about working with women immigrant entrepreneurs.
Lis made a decision to leave investment banking to pursue her passion. She went on an exchange in Thailand and India, where she designed and taught courses on entrepreneurship to abused young women; victims of human trafficking or child sex workers.
Upon moving to Canada to pursue her passion, Lis built on her overseas experiences. Since there was no opportunity to expand the programming of the organization with which she volunteered, she founded FEM International in 2005. Using the strong relationship with her volunteer organization, Lis developed partnerships with local and international organizations all over the world, as well as a variety of like-minded businesses in Canada.