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EPISODE 15
Reading for Change with Renee Powes


Renee M. Powers (she/her) is the founder of Feminist Book Club, an online media company and book subscription service that uses literature as a launchpad to educate, activate, and organize. Renee is lifelong Midwesterner, an Aries, an ISFJ, a 3 on the enneagram, a Ph.D. dropout, and a former theater kid. She’s been obsessed with feminist theory and feminist literature since her first Women’s Studies class in 2005. When not reading, you can find her sipping iced coffee in her Minneapolis backyard with her partner and their retired racing greyhound.

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Discussed this episode:

  • How a Women’s Studies course changed the trajectory of Renee’s life
  • The journey from reading thrillers for fun to starting a feminist book subscription service
  • Monopolies and other problems with the publishing industry
  • The democratic process behind Feminist Book Club selections
  • Why it’s important to dig deeper than the “airport display of white male authors”
  • Words of warning about self-publishing
  • The challenges and opportunities of competing against celebrity book clubs
  • Positive trends in the publishing industry
  • Ideas for making communities more feminist
  • Owning your mistakes, and using them as fuel for change
  • Why safe spaces aren’t guaranteed, and cancel culture isn’t all bad
  • Renee’s leadership philosophy
  • Running an anti-capitalist, feminist business in a capitalist world
  • Restructuring Feminist Book Club to make sure it remains sustainable
  • Self-care and rest as essential parts of company culture
  • The case for self-funding vs. VC funding
  • The benefits of participating in a startup accelerator

 

Resources mentioned:

 

Learn more about accountability coaching with host Becky Mollenkamp at https://beckymollenkamp.com

Becky Mollenkamp:

Hi, Renee. Thanks for being here.

 

Renee Powers:

Hello!

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I’m excited to chat with you. I love books and I love subscription boxes, so this should be a lot of fun for me. Before we get in though, I’m going to ask you about your relationship with the word feminist, which based on what I’ve read in your bio, I assume is a good one.

 

Renee Powers:

Yeah, so my relationship to the word feminism or feminist, you know, I didn’t, I tell this story a lot. I came to feminism when I was in college. I took Intro. to Women’s S to fulfill a humanities credit. And I, I remember raising my hand in class. My professor, who’s brilliant, said do you think Oprah is a feminist? And this is like the word. the first week of class, right? And I raise my hand all smug and say, I don’t know if she would be a feminist. I think she works for equality for everyone, so I might call her like a humanist. And looking back on that, I’m like, oh, Renee. We learn, right, that equality for everyone is a tenet of feminism. And that is incredibly important to what my definition of feminism is. So it really is not just equality, it’s justice and liberation for all. And if it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminist. And so what does it look like when we decenter whiteness from feminism? And so that is where I have landed since that fateful day in 2000, oh, my goodness. It would have been 2005 I took that course. So I have been building upon that class ever since then. And lo and behold, I ended up, she was my advisor, I ended up designing my own major in Gender Studies, and so we started from the bottom, but here we are.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I don’t know if I think that’s the bottom, but I know what you’re saying. That’s where so many of us start in our college days with feminism. And actually college is where I want to start with you because your academic background, from what I read, is a mix of communications and feminist theory, which really makes a lot of sense for what you’re doing now. But I would guess, and I could be wrong, that you didn’t think when you went into college that you would end up starting a book club subscription box. So explain to me a little bit about your journey. How did you get where you are?

 

Renee Powers:

Yeah, I mean, I have a theater background. So I went to a small liberal arts women’s college in Indiana, the sister college of Notre Dame. It’s called St. Mary’s College. And I started as a theater major and it was, whoo, it was two years and I was just real burnt out after two years. And then I kind of had this feminist awakening in my Women’s Studies class. And I was like, oh. The funny thing is, at that point, there wasn’t a Women’s Studies program, or department, it was a program. So you couldn’t major in Women’s Studies at this women’s college. I’m happy to report you can now. I like to think I was a part of that. But I had to design my own major, which is actually a really cool thing that a lot of liberal arts colleges do. And so I was able to do this kind of cross-disciplinary academic exploration of gender and media and technology. That’s what I was really interested in. In fact, my dissertation, my undergrad dissertation was about Second Life. I don’t know if you remember. It was like an online experiential game. And I talked about gender and representation in virtual communities. And so everything that I have done in the last 20 years has kind of led up to where I am now. I ended up working in politics for a couple years before I went back to grad school. I spent eight years in grad school where, like you said, I studied communication and feminist theory with a very strong emphasis on media, most specifically online communication. So I was studying YouTube influencers. I was studying blog communities. I was studying Twitter hashtags. And all through this feminist lens, and I was very lucky to study under some really incredible feminist theorists. So I spent eight years in grad school. I am considered ABD, all but dissertation. I consider myself a PhDropout. I dropped out of my PhD program. It just wasn’t a great fit. And I was, I really needed to focus on my mental health because I don’t know if you know this, but grad school’s hard. And PhD programs can really break your soul. And, I was trying to just like muscle through it and it was not a good experience whatsoever. So after I finished my exams and failed my dissertation proposal three times, I decided, you know what, I think I am done here. And ended up honestly starting a Facebook group of my friends reading fun books because I was tired of reading. I love to read, but I had been reading theory. I had been reading, you know, globalization and Bourdieu and Foucault and like all of these like old dead white guys, and I was so tired I just wanted to pick up like the latest thriller. I am the kind of person who wants to read it through a critical lens too. And so what began as just a Facebook group of like ten of my friends reading the same book together and talking about it has slowly evolved into this organization that has about a thousand members around the world. And I am a certified bookseller now. I ship these books or I send these audiobooks to our members, and still have these conversations. And it’s just like, everything I have done up to this point has led me here. And I never would have imagined this is what my life would end up looking like. But I think it’s better. than what I had set out to do.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

You started with reading the latest thriller, how does that evolve into sharing intersectional feminist books? I mean, it makes sense because it’s obviously what interests you, but when you started this, it was sort of like, let’s just read what feels good. So how did it evolve and grow into what it is now?

 

Renee Powers:

Well, I would say that it still feels good, right? Feminist books don’t have to be sad or upsetting or difficult or heavy in theory. I think that you can call a book feminist if it centers the voices and experiences of women, or is written through a gendered lens. So I would say the only thing we don’t read is old white guys or young white guys. We don’t read white cis dudes. We have read men of color, we have read trans men, we have read, you know, obviously, women of color, white women, gender-nonconforming folks, queer folks across the spectrum, except what does it look like when we don’t read James Patterson and Stephen King? I mean, caveat, I love Stephen King, but he is not necessarily the most feminist writer out there. There are a few white guys that write really great, you know, female characters, but if we want to change publishing, if we want to change larger systems, we got to put our money where our mouth is. And for me, that means supporting not white dude writers.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Well, talking about changing the publishing industry, I started reading more about the industry in preparation of talking with you. And I had assumptions that there were problems in the publishing industry as there are in most when it comes to equity, but I now I understand there’s only five publishers that control more than 80% of the publishing trade. And I saw another analysis that 95% of American fiction books that have published between 1950 and 2018 were written by white people. 95%. Those are just a couple of things I saw, and I’m sure that you are much more well-versed. So as somebody inside of this industry, even though it’s not your background, What have you discovered as this outsider-insider view of the problems?

 

Renee Powers:

Yeah, it’s fascinating. So yeah, those five publishers, they’re referred to in the industry as the Big 5. We almost got the Big 4. So Simon & Schuster was for sale, it might still be for sale, and Penguin Random House, which is the largest publishing company out there, had struck a deal to buy them. It went to the Supreme Court for antitrust laws and ended up the Supreme Court said, no, you can’t do this, this would create a monopoly. The goal was Penguin Random House wants to compete with Amazon. So Amazon has their own publishing imprints. Obviously, they’ve got Kindle, they’ve got Audible, they’ve got all of these things. Amazon is a behemoth, blood-sucking capitalist monstrosity. And so, you know, my eggs are in Penguin Random House’s basket, like I’m rooting for them because they want to take on Amazon. Should they have purchased Simon and Schuster? Was the Supreme Court correct in their decision? I don’t know. As a reader, I don’t think it would have made a difference. In terms of publishing, first off, the publishing industry does not pay well whatsoever. And so the folks that can afford to work in the publishing industry are typically folks with generational wealth, typically white folks. There has been, I don’t know if you’re familiar, HarperCollins is one of the Big 5 publishers as well. They were on strike earlier this year just to get reasonable wages. The fact that they don’t pay more than $45,000 in New York City is absurd. And I have been, I casually look at who’s, I own a business, so I’m looking at like, who’s hiring, what’s their salary range, and it is always just astonishing how little publishing pays. And because they don’t have a pipeline of diversity, because you can’t, you know, only privileged people can afford to take these low-paying jobs, that means that they are, if they hire from the bench or they promote from the bench, they’re promoting, you know, interns who are doing unpaid internships, and who can afford to do that? Wealthy white kids. And so this whole thing has been, it’s an ouroboros, right? It just eats itself, it just becomes the self-perpetuating problem. And there are some small, independent presses that are trying to disrupt that. But when there’s five large corporations at the top, that’s just what the industry is, right? That’s just the culture of this industry. And it’s really frustrating as a reader because then you don’t get the books that you wanna read. You get the marketing behind your Colleen Hoovers and your Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Taylor Jenkins Reid is a white woman writing Latina stories and it’s just like, honey, you’re taking away a place for a Latinx voice. Like that’s so frustrating to me as a reader because I want to read something authentic. I want to read something that rings true to the population that it’s, you know, supposed to speak for. And so, when we talk about publishing, we are talking about all these different facets that come together to just perpetuate everything we already know. It’s just status quo. So I want to shout out a couple of small publishers that I love. The first is Row House. They’re woman of color founded. They prioritize the voices of people of color. They are really trying to compete with these bigger publishers. And then I’ve also got to shout out Zando, which is they publish really weird stuff, and I’m always here for it. But I think Sarah Jessica Parker has an imprint with Zando, Gillian Flynn. I’m trying to think of, I think John Legend might have an imprint with Zando. Anyway, so these are just like little, little waves, little drops in the in the ocean of change. But if more of these small presses make big waves, I think that we could see a change. And especially as readers, we want to make sure that we are supporting the kinds of books with our dollars and our, you know, social capital, sharing about them online, sharing about them with friends, handing, gifting them, in order to see a more robust catalog of stories from these publishers.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Let’s talk more about that last piece around support, because I’m curious, given all of these issues, that trickle-down effect of promoting the same sort of folks who all look alike, and then it just becomes an industry filled with one type of person, and then the trickle-down effect of that is when they’re the people who are picking the books and picking who is going to get published, ultimately they’re choosing people who probably they can relate to those stories, and then we end up with a lot of stories that are not representative beyond those people’s experiences. They’re not representative of all of humanity. So when you’re dealing with that, what books are actually being published and out there, how do you go about choosing books when you’re trying to give voice to those who aren’t being given a voice in the publishing industry? How do you find books to showcase? It has to make your job much more difficult.

 

Renee Powers:

Yes and no. So I don’t actually choose the books. Our members choose the books. So our members are very well read and very political and, you know, ready to read outside their comfort zone. I love that. I choose the theme. And so the theme is changes month to month. And we really try to make sure that we are filling gaps on our bookshelves that maybe we haven’t read much of. You know, we have focused a month on Native American voices or trans voices. It’s just like identity, but also, you know, 

This next month we are reading books about books. So our theme is bibliophilia of like book lovers reading about book lovers. And what does it mean to like, to kind of self reflect as a reader, and talk about all these things that we’re talking about right now. So I don’t remember the question, but I do want to say that our readers are the ones that suggest the books and then we all vote on it. So it is a democratic process.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Okay, I’m curious about that process then because, and I could be off base again but tell me, I would assume that we are exposed to what we are exposed to, so if only certain books by certain people are getting published, and there’s this limited number of publishers to be publishing things, even when you factor in those independent publishers, they get less publicity than the folks that are part of this big system, so how do your people know about books if they’re not getting published, first, and if they are but you can’t find out about them because they’re not getting a lot of publicity, how do you avoid the same self-fulfilling prophecy that happens inside of these big publishing companies?

 

Renee Powers:

Because our members are super well-read, super smart, and super online because we are a virtual book club, we all tend to go out of our way to follow influencers and read blogs and kind of trade publications that lift up these marginalized voices, right? And so we have, as an organization, we’ve gone out of our way to only work with influencers who are, you know, representative of the kinds of voices that we want to see more of. And, you know, lifting up some of those bloggers and Instagramers and TikTok-ers that align with our mission, that decenter whiteness and decenter the male identity, and I think that because we have kind of, I don’t want to take the credit for this, but we are part of a community that is really focused on reading diversely. I think that our members reflect that and they know where to go to get recommendations for these books. I don’t want to suggest that there are only Stephen Kings and James Pattersons out there. That’s not true at all. There are some really, really great books that are maybe not in the Top 10 of publishing of the best sellers list, but maybe if you go down to like the 30s and 40s, we’ve got some really, really exciting voices out there right now that are getting those marketing dollars, but also like it’s on us as consumers to kind of do the extra legwork to find those voices that we don’t just take the, you know, the airport display of the white male authors. And we do have to do a little bit of that legwork ourselves. And I think that the more that we get used to doing that, it’s just a muscle that we just have to flex, the easier it’s gonna get for everybody in the industry.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Another big shift that I’ve noticed, or at least that seems to be intensifying, is self-publishing. So many folks, especially in the non-fiction space that I’m aware of in the business space, so many of these people are self-publishing books and trying to get out of that traditional route of publishing because it’s overwhelming and feels impossible to even get anyone to sign on and a lot of it is about how many social media followers you have if you’re going to get picked if you’re not already a big name. So are you to highlight self-published books with the work that you’re doing, is that something you’re able to do with your subscription?

 

Renee Powers:

So the problem with self-publishing is, if you’re gonna go the self-publishing route, get yourself a professional editor. I mean, honestly, self-published books are just not enjoyable to read a lot of the times. And I know that sounds really frustrating, but there are also smaller independent presses that are going to be more rigorous than going your own way, self-publishing, you know, putting a book up onto Amazon. And they’re also going to open up avenues of distribution. So that’s the thing that is really hard for booksellers is that there are just a couple of ways for us to get those books in an easy way. And we are overwhelmed and there are millions of books out there, right? So we’re gonna go the easy route. And so we’re gonna go with the big distributors. And those are like warehouses where you can buy at you know, wholesale price, just like line item by line item. I want five copies of that. I want three copies of that. I want 12 copies of that. And then they ship them to you in one box, right? And I would say most of these book distributors don’t have relationships with self-published authors or self-published, I don’t even know, platforms, except for Amazon. Amazon makes it really easy, and we don’t want to support Amazon. So yeah, I’m not a big fan of self-publishing for a lot of reasons, but for anyone considering it, I would say make sure that you are using a platform that has distribution and that you get just a really good editor and take their advice, because editors do this for a living for a reason.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

All the editors would be happy you said that, and I agree. I have a background in journalism and I see even traditionally published books that have errors all the time, and it makes me just cringe.

 

Renee Powers:

Well, it’s not even just typos. It’s just sometimes I’ll read a self-published or a hybrid published, where you pay somebody to publish your book, and they’re just not interesting. They’re just somebody who maybe has a brand and just thinks or a blog and they want to write about more on that and that’s great. I’m so glad that you’re doing something like that but also think of your audience. Do we want to read more navel gazing, or do we want to read you know something a little bit more hard-hitting or well-researched? Like this is this is a book you’re talking about. People are going to be spending hours with this piece of text. Make sure that you respect your reader as well.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

One other thing around visibility when we talk about late-stage capitalism and power being so concentrated inside of the publishing industry, and that means money is also really concentrated. And even in the book club space, you know, you’re competing against the Oprahs and the Reese Witherspoons of the world who have book clubs and have endless dollars to launch and promote them. I saw once on your Instagram where you shared a post about how you beat Reese to the punch on picking a book, which I’m sure felt great, but how do you compete? I know ultimately the answer is probably you don’t, but what is your strategy in being up against that kind of money?

 

Renee Powers:

Yeah, I don’t play the game that they’re playing. I just opt out. I will say that Reese Witherspoon and I are in a feud. She doesn’t know about it, but she is my arch nemesis. Um, just kidding. I love her. I think that she cranks out amazing stuff. But yeah, there was one time when she scooped a debut author. I thought I discovered this author and I was like talking to her publicist and then all of a sudden this book becomes like the Reese’s pick. And I was like damn. And so our schedule just like filled up. So yes, Reese and I are in a feud. But for the most part, I just don’t bother. Like we’re not going to compete with them. So we’re just not, we just won’t. So I mean, that’s just the simple answer, is I don’t concern myself with what the celebrity book clubs are doing because there are so many of them now. I think even Dua Lipa has one. I will say that those celebrity book clubs can be a benefit to us. When a book comes out through one of these Big 5 publishers usually, or some of the bigger indie presses, they have a publicist and they will kind of shoot their shot across all sorts of publications. And we have a blog and a podcast, and so we probably get five to 10 pitches a day of these books that are coming out and you know, sometimes they’ll follow up and be like, hey, just so you know, like this is an Oprah pick in November. And we will say something like, okay, well, can we get on their schedule, you know, before that’s announced so we can publish our interview with them, you know, after that’s announced and kind of reap the benefits of that publicity. People might be searching more for this author and our podcast comes up, something like that. So I would say if anything, like we’re not competing, we’re actually benefiting from the larger book clubs. That’s if those books are good and feminist.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Which I assume is not always the case.

 

Renee Powers:

Correct.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Okay, I feel like, as I sometimes am prone to do, that I’m focusing a bit on the negatives here of everything that’s wrong and that’s probably because it feels like there are so many things wrong. But are there good things? What are the positives that you’re seeing in the publishing space or the book club space that you occupy? Are there signs of hope that make you feel optimistic?

 

Renee Powers:

So one of the problems with being a book influencer is it’s not like beauty influencers or electronic influencers, like there’s no money. The publishing industry doesn’t have money to pay marketers or influencers. So we’re never gonna see those like five-digit deals that you might get if you’re working with, I don’t know, Tarte or Mac or like one of these makeup brands. But I will say just last week I was pitched a book by an author of color and they wanted to see if we could do some sort of campaign and I said what’s your budget? Because yes I will do these things for free. I have to be really selective about pro-bono services, but I was curious to see if this author of color has a marketing budget, and they did. And so I was really pleased to see that because it means that they believe in this author, they believe in this book, they believe in this message, and they are willing to put their dollars behind it, which has been a slow but necessary change. So this isn’t about me making money, it’s making sure that the author is getting the publicity, paid and unpaid, that they deserve. So I am really excited to see that marketing budgets are, more marketing budgets are being allocated to authors of color.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

That is a good sign and thank you because I do think it’s easy to get bogged down in these discussions around all of the problems around equity and feeling like there’s no hope, so it’s good to hear some hope. Alright, I want to shift to talking about memberships and community because with your book club, a big piece of that is actually membership and community . It’s not just a subscription box where you’re getting a book with goodies or whatever, and then you’re on your own. I mean it really it sounds like there’s this big focus on community and the collective, especially since you’re doing this non-hierarchical kind of voting method. And I know from reading about you, that you’ve long been interested in communities and subscription boxes and all of the elements that you’ve put together here. So what were issues that you have experienced or that maybe showed up in your research as you were thinking about memberships and communities? How have those been problematic and how did you want to address those things?

 

Renee Powers:

An online community is strongest when it is decentralized. This is network theory. And so loose ties tend to be the most powerful. So loose connections between people, rather than a few tightly-wound people or tightly-connected people, the more distributed a community is, the stronger that it can be. So the way this shows up in our online community is that we don’t have a whole lot of, what’s the word I’m looking for? We don’t have micro-celebrities in our community. We’ve got a couple of, you know, super-active members, but they know kind of when to step back and, in terms of my team, we’ve got, you know, myself and one full-time employee. And then we have a team of about 20 contributors and so they create content on our blog, our podcast, our TikTok and then internally as well. So yes like their voices are kind of lifted up, but those voices are diverse voices and they’re bringing something interesting to the table. And so what we have done is made sure that everyone gets heard. And I come to business, again, from a feminist theory background and there is a research method that is called Feminist Participatory Action Research and I have kind of borrowed this research method as a business method. And so that is kind of this constant feedback loop of what do the members want? How can we implement that? How can we share with the members what our goals are, and how can we be really transparent about the whole process? I think that transparency is key in an online community. Of course we are running a business, so there are some things that we’re gonna hold back. I think that just, yeah, online communities are really powerful and I really do think that even if it just feels like you’re a keyboard warrior, that can make change. And I think that our group believes in that and is doing our darndest to make change through our little book club.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Well first of all, I assume because of the name of your book club and the messaging and everything, that you’re attracting a certain type of person that would be receptive to the way you’re showing up with the community and all that. And yet I know that anytime that you have a community of any size, there can be issues. There can be strong personalities. There can be someone who gets in and just wasn’t the right fit. So how do you manage that kind of stuff when you’re trying to preserve the value system of your community?

 

Renee Powers:

It’s really rare for us to have someone who’s gonna make waves. We welcome criticism. I will say that flat out. And one thing that I think I do really well, if I could toot my own horn, is I model what it looks like to take criticism and take it seriously. And so I can tell you, I can give you a really tangible example. A couple years ago our theme was fat liberation, which I know has very deep roots in the feminist movement. I am a mid-size woman. I don’t identify as fat. I don’t identify as thin either, but I’m certainly not fat or plus size. So I didn’t know, I didn’t know enough about fat liberation before we got started. And I made some missteps. I said the wrong things, and I really disappointed some of our members. I mean, we gotta talk about crisis communication too. I went to our membership and said, all right, I fucked this up real bad. What can I do to make it right? And I’m not expecting you to teach me, but can you point me in the right direction? And just being unafraid to show up and do it wrong, I think is a huge tenet of my definition of feminism. Because, you know, perfectionism is a symptom of white supremacy in particular. If we are not willing to mess something up, whoof, there’s no hope. There’s no hope for progressive politics whatsoever. I think that if you build the trust in a community, you can have the space to make mistakes and they’re gonna hold you accountable and then you have to take that accountability seriously and rectify that in a way that makes sense for that particular community. And so we ended up writing a joint letter to this organization that I had supported that had a very fat phobic name. I didn’t know any better, but now I do. We did a lot of extra work that month. We did a lot of conversations, and I certainly believe I am better on the other side of it as a human and as a business owner and as a feminist.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Thank you so much for sharing that. I think it’s so important for people to hear. I have very much had those times of recognizing where I have fucked up and needed to fix something that I’ve done or, learn from that and make changes. And I also remember a decade or more ago where that would have been the thing that would have shut me down back in that time when I was really steeped in my whiteness and the white privilege, and really just living out white feminism. And I hear it still with people that they’re afraid because they don’t want to mess up, and that if they do mess up that they’ll be called out or canceled or whatever. And I think it’s important for people to hear that. If you’re thinking of managing a community, and every business has a community, even if it’s your clients or your employees, that you really don’t have a place in leadership if you aren’t ready to be able to receive criticism, to listen, to learn, to grow, to be vulnerable and get honest and transparent about when you’ve fucked up. And so thank you for sharing that because I think people need to hear it. Because we hear a lot about safe spaces and that kind of stuff and I wonder what your thoughts are around safety for your members, which I assume are pretty diverse. How do you, as a white woman, think about safety?

 

Renee Powers:

Safe spaces aren’t guaranteed. We can do our best. And I think if you show up and you set a precedent of like zero tolerance for intolerance, right? Like there’s not gonna be transphobic language here. There’s not gonna be racist language here. And even if you think you’re not being racist, you might hurt somebody. And I think just being open to discomfort again, like we’re going back to learning and growing in community together. Our community is a laboratory to try things, to learn, to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. And that’s one thing that I wanted to, that I noted down. So Brene Brown is fine, whatever, she’s fine. She’s a white woman making a lot of money about us saying the same thing over and over again about, you know, here’s my research on how not to be an asshole. It’s great. It’s necessary. I have lots of thoughts about her. But one thing she says that really resonated with me is she said that shame is not a tool for social justice. We can’t shame someone into working towards a more just and equitable world. It’s never going to happen. And at the same time, cancellation is not a bad thing. It is consequences. And I don’t think that we need to handle everything with kid’s gloves, right? That sometimes facing consequences is necessary for change. And so again, when we make mistakes, like being curious, not judgmental, right? Like just like Ted Lasso says, I’m throwing out a lot of like, references at you right now. When we cancel somebody or when someone is canceled, there has to be room for reconciliation. That is the other side of being canceled is, you know, if we’re gonna go, if we’re gonna show this person like your actions, your words have consequences, here’s how you fix them. Here’s how you reconcile. And nobody is required to forgive or to receive forgiveness, but if we can move the needle a little bit closer to learning, growing, to accountability, I think that we will all do better. And again, cancellation is just a tool. It’s just a way to say like, your words have consequences, you need to fix your language.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Yeah, and I have lots of thoughts around cancelation because are you really canceled if you’re still selling out arenas?

 

Renee Powers:

I have a book to recommend. It’s called “The Case for Cancel Culture, How This Democratic Tool Works to Liberate Us All.” And so that really changed my perspective of like, oh yeah, cancellation’s kind of a good thing.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I’ll include that in show notes. I love that. We’ll get to more recommendations in a minute, but thank you for that because it’s something I hear a lot, especially in circles of white women. Obviously spaces that I tend to occupy where people have that fear so I think that’s a great read. The one more thing I wanted to ask you about leadership before we move on to talk a bit about money. As somebody who’s dedicated to the non-hierarchical principles of feminism and you’re running a business and you have employees or consultants, people who report to you, how do you wrestle with that tension of I don’t want this to be just about me. I don’t want to be, you know, in charge of people, or whatever that might look like. I want to have a more egalitarian approach and still I’m ultimately the person who’s the boss here or in charge. How do you wrestle with that?

 

Renee Powers:

I go into business with this mantra and it’s everything’s an experiment. We’re just gonna try it, see what happens. We’ll iterate if we need to. We’ll trash it if we need to. We are selling books, we’re not saving lives here. And maybe it sounds like I don’t take things seriously. I certainly do, but I am willing to try a lot of things. And that means like handing the reins over to my team and say like, what do you want to build from this? What do you want out of this? Like what’s gonna be fulfilling to you? What is your Zone of Genius? And let’s fit it in. We hired an intern this summer and the internship, it’s a great program through McAllister University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Again, liberal arts school, I will always go hard for liberal arts. But they match interns with startup companies and these are interns that wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to do an unpaid internship coming from marginalized backgrounds, non-traditional students, things like that. And so the university pays a stipend for them to work with these small businesses, so it’s win-win for everybody. So we were at this match event and, you know, the interns would ask me like, well, what What is this role? And I was like, what do you want it to be? What do you need out of this? What are your skills? What’s your skill set? What’s your major? What are your goals? And so we ended up with an intern who is fantastic. Her name is Marvelous. She is a psych major. She’s really interested in going on to grad school. She wants to build a portfolio. And I was like, all right, let’s do some marketing insights. Does that ring true for you? She does a lot of quantitative work. I was like, cool, let’s take all of these stats from our podcasts, our downloads, and let’s code them, let’s do something along that line. And then you can build a presentation deck and take that to whatever else you end up doing. She also really likes to read fantasy books. And so she did some really, really great book reviews for us on fantasy novels. And so like allowing space for our team to do what they do best. That’s my favorite thing about leading. It’s just like giving them the platform, the opportunities to go hard on what they love to go hard on. We do a bi-weekly podcast, so we turn out a lot of content, but the content is whatever falls under the umbrella of books and social justice and feminist work. Go. And our contributors have, I think, found their voices. And then they can use that as a portfolio to get a better paying job, because that’s the other thing, we can talk about that in a minute, but books, you don’t go into the book business to make millions. So in terms of leadership, I think that just building a culture of trust, modeling anti-capitalism in the best way you can as a small feminist business. And yeah, letting folks know that mistakes are not going, you can’t break anything here. I mean, you’re not a doctor. We’re just selling books.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Ah, I see inside that leadership component the way that you’re trying to walk the talk, walk your feminist theory and putting it into practice. I’m sure there’s challenges because obviously we talked a little bit about the challenges of being a smaller subscription service in a world with lots of money. So imagine it’s hard to pay people what you would want to pay them. So what are the things that you’re thinking beyond that?

 

Renee Powers:

Um well, I will be real transparent. I have a very comfortable life. I have a partner who works full-time in a government job. Is it, are we bringing in millions of dollars? No. We own our home. So I don’t pay myself. I am not on the payroll. Would I like to be? Sure. Right now it’s out of necessity that I’m not because I would rather give folks from different backgrounds the opportunity to do a really fulfilling job. So that’s the biggest thing, like that’s just me using my personal privilege to lift other voices up aside from my own. Is it feminist not to make money? Absolutely not. I think you can make money and be feminist at the same time. I’m just not there. Also, one of the things I want to do with this business is to disrupt traditional economic flows. And so to me, that means, again, paying our staff, our staff is very diverse, as much as we can. Those are the bills that get paid first is our payroll. And if we can’t make that, it comes out of my personal pocket. The next set of bills goes to the small businesses that we work with. So our printing company, we have like little inserts that go into all of our packages, right? And so that’s a woman-owned, small business. We make sure they’re paid. So any of the kind of goodies that we include with our books, so stickers and bookmarks and things like that, those all come from woman-owned small businesses or queer-owned or minority-owned small businesses. We do not source anything from overseas unless it is an organization that works with artisans on the ground. So I’m thinking in particular of a textile company that we worked with that works with women in India, and it’s run by an Indian woman. So again, like making sure we do our due diligence on organizations that are making good feminist decisions. Yeah, so I would say that the way that we show up and do kind of feminist economics is putting the people first, putting small businesses first, because studies have shown when you put money, capital into the hands of women business owners especially, you not only raise generations out of poverty, but you also redistribute that wealth to their community. And like, what is better than that, right? So I’m very passionate about supporting small businesses wherever, whenever we can. And so that, yeah, that includes like working with a small, for our boxes that we put things in, like they were designed by one of our members. We work with a local company, family-owned business, and we do not work with Uline. Uline is one of the biggest shipping supply, warehouse supply companies, and what sucks is they’re really close to here, so I could pick it up, I could pick up any order from Uline, but they’re also a major Republican donor, and that just does not align. I don’t care how cheap your boxes are, I don’t care how cheap your crinkle paper is, you know? I cannot support you. I cannot spend our dollars on these values. Again, it takes a lot of research, but making sure that all of our purchases, everything that we do, we have a lease, an office space that is through a non-profit organization in an underserved neighborhood. Making sure that all of these things are aligned, every little bit that we do. It’s hard, but worth it.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

You mentioned being an anti-capitalist as a business owner, and that’s something I’ve been exploring a lot with this podcast because a lot of the people who are listening probably share some of those thoughts. And so similar to the question about leadership and that dichotomy, how do you deal with the dichotomy of being anti-capitalist and running a business inside of capitalism?

 

Renee Powers:

I can tell you the funny answer and then I can tell you the serious answer. The funny answer is like, yes, you need more books because you’re supporting the arts. You’re just a patron of the arts, the more books that you buy. So that’s like, when people come up, we do pop-ups. They’re like, Oh, I have so many books at home. Like, yeah, but is one more really going to hurt. So investing in the things like it’s smart capitalism too, like investing in the things that bring you joy, bring you, a sense of community, a sense of support, like, that’s important. Capitalism is compulsory, and so the way to kind of consume ethically is up to every individual, but I think that we can all say like, one more book isn’t going to hurt you. And it’s not going to do too much damage to capitalism. I will also say that one of the things that we did recently is we were doing the subscription boxes where it was the book of the month and then like three, four, five products from small independent woman-, minority-, queer-owned businesses. We have since retired those boxes because it just felt like stuff. And we were getting feedback from our members that’s like, I love the book, I don’t need the extra stuff. And I was like, you know what, I don’t need the extra stuff either. A lot of times it just felt like stuff for the sake of stuff. And it means that our revenue went way down because we couldn’t charge as much for just a book, right? So those are the decisions, like the bottom-line is not the end all, be all. That’s not what makes decisions in an anti-capitalist business. What makes decisions is our community, it’s our people. Right? And so what is best for our people and what is best for the systems that we are required to participate in? And for us, the stuff just wasn’t it.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

You have to make a lot of really difficult decisions and I’m sure there’s a lot of people who think oh that sounds beautiful and idealistic, and it’s wonderful that you have that privilege. And I can even imagine though, people who have equal privilege, who might not be willing to make the sacrifice of saying I’m not gonna pay myself. So what keeps you going?

 

Renee Powers:

The truth is, I wanna burn it down once a week. It’s hard. I have to keep a goal. I have to do a carrot. I gotta tempt myself with a carrot in front of my face. The carrot that I’m working towards now is I am working towards restructuring the organization as a co-op. And I don’t know if it’s gonna be community-owned. I don’t know if it’s going to be employee-owned. I don’t know what that’s gonna look like right now. What I do know at the moment is we’re carrying a lot of business debt and the only way that we can get to that co-op is to eliminate some of that debt. And so I’m working really hard. We’re fundraising. We’ve always been independent, so I don’t want to take any investor money. This is all like crowdfunding from our community just to make sure we can get on a good financial footing in order to hand it off to our whoever—team, community, whatever makes sense. I think that is just kind of the logical next step of what a feminist business looks like. So yeah, that’s what keeps me going is like, what can I build that’s going to sustain more than just our small staff? In the direction of a more just and more collective oriented economy.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Ah, there’s so many things I want to explore inside of that. The first thing I think is I want to ask you about how do you care for yourself? How do you get support? I think a lot of people can relate to that, I just want to burn it down every week, who might be thinking I could just go get the 9 to 5 and not have all this hassle, so why the fuck do I even bother? So how do you support yourself in continuing on?

 

Renee Powers:

I love therapy. I have a brilliant therapist and I cannot speak highly enough about therapy. I’m also medicated, so I also can’t speak highly enough about Zoloft. But also, I make sure I get plenty of rest when I’m feeling really burnt out that’s another thing is I try to model what it looks like to take care of yourself to my team. So I am unabashed and saying, listen y’all, I need a mental health day. I did this just last week. I desperately need a mental health day. I am signing off. I might be back tomorrow. I might not. Again, just trusting my team can figure it out. So I think that the support that I require is rest, therapy, medication. I drink a lot of coffee, but I also eat a lot of good food. Making sure, yeah, when everything, when my body is aligned, so like. when I am rested and well fed and hydrated, I feel like I can show up in any capacity. I exercise, I have a Peloton that I just, I love. I like to lift weights. So yeah, trying to find really, oh, I love edibles. So yeah, we just legalized cannabis in Minnesota.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Congrats, and that’s one of the rare times where Missouri is ahead of, or more progressive than others, maybe not by much, we’re only months ahead of you. But that’s good. I’m glad you’re finding ways to care for yourself and modeling that. Does that mean that your team is also given rest or encouraging regular rest?

 

Renee Powers:

Oh yeah. It’s, I mean, unlimited PTO, unlimited vacation. Like I trust you won’t take advantage of it. And for the last five years, no one has. And yeah, just making sure that we’re all real honest with ourselves. Where are you? What, how are you, like, where are you mentally? How are you doing? Do you need to take some time? The one full-time employee I have, they’re local and so we work together in the office. Every once in a while they’ll show up just like totally burnt out and I’m just like, go home. What are you doing here? We have what we call the nap couch at the office, like making sure that we can rest, we could shut our eyes if we need to, we got cozy blankets. Taking care of those base needs, what does that mean? And just looking out for each other.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Even when you can’t pay what you want to be able to pay, to think that there are other ways to enrich people beyond just pay.

 

Renee Powers:

Yes, and if I could pay more I would and I would still do those things. That’s the key here, right? It’s like even if you’ve got a seven-figure salary, you should still be allowed to be human.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Rest is a right. It’s something we all, it’s an essential. Okay, I wanna talk about money too, because you mentioned from what I understand is that you have been self-funded from the start. You haven’t taken VC capital or anything. So, what was the decision for that? What were your reasons for not getting into the funding game like many other startups in your space?

 

Renee Powers:

Yeah, it was really practical, honestly. Like I, as a solo founder, I knew that I couldn’t fundraise and run a business at the same time. I’ve seen many of my entrepreneur friends do it, and I know it’s a grind, and I wasn’t going to be able to do that by myself. I wanted to put everything I could into the business, and I wanted to build it exactly the way that I thought a feminist business should be run, without outside influences, and that’s really what VC funding and investor funding does, is it brings another voice to the table, another decision maker and if I was going to try to build something new and different, I didn’t want to have that influence. I also understand that I come to this from a very privileged position, and that’s not realistic for some people. So I’m never going to look down upon somebody who had to fundraise, who had to crowdfund, who had to do something along those lines. I think that it’s a very personal decision for business owners. And whatever your goals and values are, that’s what’s going to make that decision. Looking back, would I have done things differently? I don’t think so. But I do think that had we had an influx of investment money, we could have grown to these goals much faster. So I was in it for the long haul, still am. But yeah, I still don’t see. I don’t know. I don’t know, I’m at this crossroads right now where it’s like, well, could I take investor money? Like, I have a really good, I’d have to be very particular about who. Yeah, I’m not gonna take any old dollar.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Yeah and you talked earlier about bringing someone else to the table, and I know you’re early in this process around the collective co-op model, but that would be bringing a lot of voices to the table, right? I think I can sort of feel I know the difference, but I’m just curious what about that model feels so good?

 

Renee Powers:

Right because they’re invested in it, they’re invested in the community. They’re not just like, I want this, like this is how I see investors is like bottom-line focused. Like what they put into it, they want an ROI, like 10x ROI within, you know, 90 days. Like here’s your runway, like gross. I don’t want to play that game. But if we were a co-op or a collective, like there would be a board of governance, right? A board of directors who would collectively make decisions that have the company’s and the members’ best interests in mind, rather than the bottom line. And I do think that many minds are better than one. And so I have just been, honestly, from Day One building this to hand it off to people who are smarter than me. I just want to surround myself with people smarter than me. Do I want to sit in the back seat and advise? Sure, if you want me to. But I also just want to make sure that it’s in good, capable hands to do what’s best for whatever the community deems is best.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I love the idea of not being the smartest person in the room. I think that flies in the face of how many CEOs and founders show up. And I have clients who are exploring this co-op model, and it definitely represents a radical shift in how we think about business. So I’m excited to see where this journey takes you in the months or years ahead, because I know you’re obviously still early in the thought process. The other thing I was curious about when I saw that you were a part of a startup accelerator. I don’t think it provided funding, but what are the benefits for somebody who maybe is thinking about starting something? What are the benefits of an accelerator program?

 

Renee Powers:

So yeah, I was a part of Lunar Startups, which is a really, really cool accelerator here in the Twin Cities. Their focus is to make more Minnesota millionaires, which I love that. They did, at the time, it has changed since, but this was pre-pandemic. Actually, it was during the pandemic. We met in person for three days, and then the world shut down. It was wild. They did at the time, it was a full-time kind of commitment, year-long commitment, and they had a $3,000 technology stipend, I think. Anything that would upgrade your business in whatever way. I got a computer, and I got a label printer out of it. That was huge. I loved, and I’m still very well connected to the folks, the other companies I met in Lunar Startups, but also Lunar Startups itself. Every year they bring in a new cohort and I always make sure to support those businesses. They focus on non-traditional entrepreneurs and I just can’t speak highly enough of that accelerator in particular. I’m also a former Tory Burch Foundation Fellow. So 2021, I was one of 50 woman-owned companies that received support through the Tory Burch Foundation. When it is a national accelerator like that, it’s harder. I loved both of the experiences. And what I got out of it was the connections. And it’s not necessarily the kind of workshops that you do or like the coaching that you do with these accelerators, it’s really the other companies. I have worked with all sorts of folks all over the country now because I have made these connections and you know we’re always championing one another and supporting one another in different ways and trying to get really creative and working with other non-traditional entrepreneurs has been really fulfilling to me. And so I’m always kind of looking out for these experiences. Do I need another person to walk me through a P&L? Not necessarily, but the other people in the chat at the same time, great. I love those connections. So I think that entrepreneurship can be really lonely at times. And so surrounding yourself with other entrepreneurs in the same boat, going through the same process together. I mean, Lunar Startups was something completely different because we were going through a pandemic and navigating a pandemic for the first time together. And so we really felt like we were in the trenches. And I think that created really strong bonds. But even, yeah, even the Tory Burch folks, I’ve been really grateful to have those connections and those opportunities too. The more people you know, the more opportunities open up. And so that has been very exciting.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

That’s great. Okay, so the last two things I wanted to ask about were first a resource, a recommendation for a book, which in your case makes the most sense.

 

Renee Powers:

All right, so unsurprising, I have an anti-capitalist book. And it’s called “Rest is Resistance, a Manifesto” by Trisha Hersey. Excuse me. You may recognize Trisha Hersey’s work on Instagram. She goes by The Nap Ministry on Instagram. And it is all about rest as a political apparatus to dismantle structures of white supremacy, of capitalism, and all of the kind of structures and responsibilities that are placed upon us that don’t serve us. I am obsessed with this book to the point where as soon as I finished it I started it all over again and I think I will read it kind of in perpetuity for the rest of my life.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Yeah, that’s one that I listened to. And if you are a listener, I highly recommend the audio version because it just feels like a beautiful sermon. That’s how a friend of mine described it. It was like, yeah that’s it. Listening really allows it to soak in. And I could probably just re-listen to it over again and again as a reminder. Was that one of your book selections for the subscription box, by the way?

 

Renee Powers:

It wasn’t one of our book of the month selections, but we did highlight it over the holidays as we did like a radical feminist gift box during the holidays and it sold out immediately. It was our, yeah, it was our bestseller.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

That’s great. Yeah, I think it should be mandatory reading for business owners. All right, so the the other thing, the last thing, is there an organization that you support that does good work? I know that your company supports some organizations, so which one would you love to highlight?

 

Renee Powers:

So actually, I’m gonna shout out a friend of mine. So my neighbor, in fact. They were just featured on the Today Show, I believe. So they have an organization called The Real Minneapolis. And they work primarily with the unhoused population here in Minneapolis. It was founded during the time of the murder of George Floyd and the uprising, which happened just 10 blocks from where we live. My neighbor is formerly unhoused, formerly addicted, so she really knows this population intimately. And so she has an RV that she drives around to some of the encampments and makes sure that, you know, everybody has showers, everybody has food, and everybody has access to services that they need, and just really taking care of our neighbors who are unhoused. And I just think that it is an incredible organization, and she works so damn hard. And it’s really, really necessary. So yeah, The Real Minneapolis, they’re doing really cool work.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Awesome. I’m going to link to that in the show notes and I will make a donation as a thank you for your time today. And I really wanna encourage listeners to do the same. You can find the information in the show notes and make a difference in a community that needs it. And thank you so much for your time today with this conversation. I probably could have talked for another hour, but I want be mindful of your time. So thank you.

 

Renee Powers:

I love jamming on feminist business. Let’s do this again. Thank you.

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