Ladies First: how grassroots initiatives can make a difference

By Lucia Camblor, photos by Ladies first/GROBUND

Ladies First is a network that aims to empower women through entrepreneurship and it currently has more than 5.500 followers in Aarhus

One of the most popular words used nowadays is “entrepreneur”. Its hashtag has a worldwide popularity of more than 78%, according to statistics provided by hashtagify.me, while being used together with terms such as #startup, #business, #success, #leadership. With a plentiful presence on the social media, the press, and daily conversations it is easy to get an idea of its significance, but how easy is to grasp the meaning of “entrepreneur”? Apart from someone who has been bitten by the fly of curiosity… what does an entrepreneur look like?

Just like a woman

Five years ago, three students living in Aarhus wondered about the same question. But one thing was clear for them: they wanted a woman to lead that role. This is why they created “Ladies First”, a network that started as a Facebook group with one hundred women, and that currently has more than 14.000, with a nationwide presence in Copenhagen, Aarhus, Aalborg, Viborg, Vejle, Varde, Kolding and Odense. Originally founded by Marie Spliid Kirkegaard, Maria Garde, and Alexandra Balshoj, the platform has now grown and evolved, and three different partners shape the board today.

Marie Leerbeck, one of the partners and project manager of Ladies First (photo: Ladies First)

“For their concept, it did not make sense to create a network on their own, they wanted to have more people joining in”, says Maria Leerbeck, partner since 2014 and project manager of Ladies First. Back then, when she applied for the position, she was a busy woman: pregnant, settling in a new city after moving to Aarhus from Copenhagen, and starting her own business all at the same time. But her decision was motivated by the energy that comes when you follow your vocation. “I wanted to be an entrepreneur”, she says.

How this net-works?

The women’s project serves as a platform for other women who also have this aim. Through events, podcasts and workshops, it gives them room to discuss their ideas, and guidance about how to develop their own projects. Their goal is not for women to rule the world, but they want to empower their figure. “Many surroundings and networks are still male dominated… we need women in techs, women in leadership, women in boards… and we are still not there”, clarifies Leerbeck, and adds “I like the quote Meghan Markle said recently: Women need a seat at the table, they need an invitation to be seated there, and in some cases, where this is not available, they need to create their own table…”. For her, Ladies First is a women’s own table, a safe network where they can learn, help each other, and have someone to identify with. “We need to see role models, and we need not only those that are on the media, but also… in Danish we would say øjenhøjde, so at the same level”, she explains.

Asked about how the network is financed she clarifies that Ladies First work as a company, their partners are Danske Bank and BDO Danmark. “We do make some partnership with companies, however, we have been very particular with choosing the branding and not compromising the principles that the network has”, she argues.

Instead of stereotypes, the initiative focusses on the value that every woman has, regardless their position. “I think the most important thing to understand about Ladies First is that you do not need to have a title to be there, I mean you are valuable no matter what your title is, anything, we do not hang up your value on the job you are currently holding”, Leerbeck concludes.

Success story

Mette Andersen is an example of how insight and inspiration can result in the following of a dream. She joined Ladies First with one objective: start a business by herself. In August 2016 GROBUND was born. The concept: “slow fashion” by selling clothes online and in personal selected stores through Denmark, like her store in Viborg. Her aim is for consumers to buy less cheaply manufactured clothes.

Mette Holmgaard exhibits one of her garments “slow fashion” designed (photo: GROBUND)

For her, being a sustainable fashion designer is expensive, “you need to acquire a big amount of fabrics when producing just one specific article of clothing”, Andersen explains. Also, being an entrepreneur is not an easy process, the balance between financial risk, time spent and family can be difficult. “I still have a part time job at an advertising agency to secure a basic income”, she says. However, she is determined, “I want to contradict fast fashion”, she states.

She thinks that the world has a high focus on animal welfare and ecology, and yet poor working conditions in the fashion industry are allowed. “We need to make the consumers more aware, and gain more attention to this market, so that the working environment can be just as great as the clothes that they are producing”, she explains.

In the long term, she hopes to have an impact on the way people consume and produce clothes.

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