It’s no secret here at Lady Economist that we love lady business – those inspiring women who excel in the business world with attention to the role of gender in the economy. These women are microcosms of a world I dream of. So to honor these ladies, we are going to start profiling some empowered women who are working to change the way business and the economy operate, with more openness and opportunities for the ladies.
Lagusta of Lagusta’s Lucious owns and operates a chocolate shop in New Paltz, NY, which you should all immediately get in your zip cars and drive up to. Or just order online. Her business if a feminist business. She describes what that means to her in the interview below. But this brings up the point of including feminist theory in business ethics. If we are to believe the gender permeates all aspects of society, then so too should it be a critical aspect of ethical business practices in the economy. Janet Borgerson writes in “On the Harmony of Business Ethics and Feminist Ethics” in Business and Society Review, “if business requires ethical solutions that are viable in the liminal landscape between concepts and corporate office, then business ethics and corporate social responsibility should offer tools that can survive the trek, that flourish in this well-traveled, but often unarticulated, environment. Indeed, feminist ethics produces, accesses, and engages such tools.” And without further adieu, Lagusta describes her process below…
When did you start your business?
I started making chocolates in 2003, but it didn’t become a full time business until 2011. I’ve been working for myself since 2003 doing a savory meal delivery service and making chocolates on the side, but in 2010 I closed it down in order to focus on chocolates full time and open the shop. I loved the meal delivery service and it was doing well, but the sweet side of things was really growing and I realized I had to pick one side of my cooking life to focus on, so I picked the job with less onion chopping.
How did you decide to start your own business?
It evolved very naturally, which I think often happens for people who don’t have start-up capital. I had no savings or investment money from friends or family or Kickstarter (which didn’t exist then). I just wanted to work for myself! So I put my student loans on hold and my partner paid my share of the rent for a while until I could afford to pay my way. It took a while, of course, but it was so worth it.
Have you had any support from Minority and Women Owned Business Development or any other women-focused business development support?
I haven’t! There have often been times I’ve thought about seeking help from various sources like that, but to be honest, I was always sort of scared away by the application process! I’m pretty impatient that way. Ridiculous. I’m sure there are amazing sources of loans or other funding that could have helped me out when I really, really needed it.
You define your business as a feminist business, correct? What does that mean?
Well, I’m a feminist, so I try to keep feminist concerns at the top of my mind when making business decisions. If pressed, I’d describe myself as an ecofeminist, because my concerns for the planet and for women are interconnected—without a livable planet, any feminist gains made for women are irrelevant, and I believe that empowering women is the key to ensuring our planet stays livable.
I also believe that our chocolates themselves are feminist. We make a lot of old-fashioned candies—for example, truffles were originally made by French housewives looking for a quick dessert—and in that way we’re part of a tradition of women making something beautiful out of what was at hand, which is what women have always done. In my savory cooking (every month we do a savory 10-course dinner at the shop), I pride myself on cooking the dishes of poor women around the world throughout time—every culture has beloved dishes that are now celebrated but which were once (and often still are) invented by women, out of the necessity of feeding their families. That’s what I love about the food world—tapping into this rich world of knowledge and technique that’s largely passed down by women throughout time.
On a more prosaic level, we hire women, we train them to be assertive and focused, and we make it a point to donate to feminist organizations whenever we have a little leftover at the end of the month.
And we talk A LOT in the shop about the sort of body-shaming that happens in a chocolate shop. Sigh. I love so much that the shop is a place of pleasure for women, where they feel free to treat themselves to something that is so often framed in our society of being “forbidden” (because chocolate makes women crazy, or because women shouldn’t focus on their own pleasure, or because it’s too “fattening.”). But I get super bummed out when women talk about watching their weight, or how fat they would be if they worked here, so we work on creative ways to combat that kind of body shaming in a gentle way from behind the counter.
Why do you think it’s important to combine business venture with social justice? How do you do this in your business practice?
I think it’s important because we can’t all be activists trying to force corporations and the government to change. Some of us have to BE the change, (though that quote from Gandhi has become so cliche). To paraphrase another (more feminist!) cliche, if I can’t eat chocolate, I don’t want to be part of your revolution, you know? I started out as an animal rights activist and became so exhausted with that life. Making something beautiful and fun just works better for me, but because of my activist past, and in order to sleep at night, I know that I need to build social justice, environmental concerns, and animal rights into my business.
That sounds easy, but really it’s insanely tough. Our first concern, of course, has to be survival as a business. We can’t do any of the awesome things we do if we don’t make enough to keep on keeping on. Balancing everyday capitalistic concerns with our loftier goals (and huge reason for being) is a tightrope. I find that more mainstream businesses try to think about these issues as bonuses—they’ll do something that’s “green” if it costs the same as the styrofoam counterpart, or something. Not to be high and mighty, but we try to build in our political goals from the start. For example, if we can’t find a certain size of eco-friendly box to ship our chocolates in, we’ll modify our box sizes to the existing eco-boxes available. And if we find out that one of our ingredients can’t be sourced in a sustainable way, we’ll drop that ingredient.
You identify as being anti-capitalist, correct? How do you rectify owning and operating a business with your political economic viewpoints?
It’s a minefield! I guess truly I identify as being someone who, sigh, thinks capitalism can work if it is drastically revamped. Since I don’t see us transitioning to a glorious anarchist, egalitarian society any time soon, I think our best shot is to do what we can to force capitalism to line up with more lefty values. (Oh what a sell-out I sound to my former radical self!) But honestly, I think we’re walking that tightrope work pretty well—we pay people a fair wage, sell our products at a fair price, buy ingredients that we make sure as much as we can that were grown and produced in ways that are in line with our ethics…I’m sure there are million ways we could be better. But we’re trying.
What ways do you think are most effective for supporting other women entrepreneurs and businesswomen?
Open dialogue! Getting past the mentality that we’re in competition with each other and have to keep so many secrets. I am a member of several business “support groups” online and in real life, and they’re amazing. I know so many smart women near me who run their own businesses, and talking to them always helps me stay sane and focused.