Canadian Body Shop founder Margot Franssen puts financial force behind Canadian Women's Foundation
When asked if she always wanted to be in business, the founder and former president of Body Shop Canada, Margot Franssen laughs and says no. She was a party girl in high school, she says,and after graduation took a job as a secretary.
“I worked in an investment firm and saw all these young men going through the training program to become stock brokers and I thought, I can do that. So I went to my boss and said, I’m really interested in doing this and I know you’re having all these young men coming through. You’re paying them to do it. I’d like to be given a chance."
The reply from her supervisors at the time—in 1971—was that they didn't pay to put women through the program. Their reasoning? It was unlikely she'd pass.
“I was just flabbergasted. I had been brought up to believe I could do anything that I wanted."
Double standards against women
She left the firm, got a new job in a personnel department and there came up against another double standard. She was responsible for interviewing potential employees.
“The questions I had to ask women were appalling, and they were all legal,” she said.
“It was like, what kind of birth control are you on? How’s your marriage? How many children are you planning on having and how will you take care of them? It was invasive questioning, and I couldn’t stand it.”
Franssen again left her job and finally found another firm that would pay for her to take the stockbroker course. To her male colleagues’ surprise, she aced the test while they barely got by. But even with her certification, when she asked to start trading, she was told no.
Discouraged by this chain of events, Franssen decided to go to university and study business and eventually switched her major to philosophy. It was then she began working for feminist artist Maryon Kantaroff, who she says provided the inspiration for her focus on women’s issues.
“I had this dual education—in the daytime at school I was learning about truth and dignity and analytical skills and history, and when I was working with her I was learning exactly the same thing but with a gender lens attached to everything. It was an amazing education in the world of women,” said Franssen.
When she graduated, Kantaroff gave her a gift basket from a new British bath and body store called the Body Shop.
“I opened up the basket, and there were the ugliest bottles containing the nicest product,” she recalled.
“I had never seen anything like that before. So I flew to England.”
With only six locations open at the time, the company was still very much in its youth. But after seeing a few of the stores, Franssen had made up her mind—this was a revolutionary corporate culture that she wanted to be a part of. She set up a meeting with the owners, and by 2 a.m. after a few drinks, they shook hands and agreed that she would bring the Body Shop vision to Canada.
“I was bullshitting my way through the whole evening, by the way, because I knew nothing about retail or business or anything. But I didn’t realize that they were bullshitting their way through the evening, because they knew nothing about franchising and they knew nothing about North America,” said Franssen.
“But I thought, if you’re going to stand on thin ice you might as well dance on it…you’re going to go through anyway.”
Before long, Body Shop Canada took off. The company’s U.K.-based founder Anita Roddick gave Franssen the freedom to explore her own vision with the Canadian store, and what she did with it captured the attention of women across the country.
“The company was 95 per cent women, and our customers were about 99 per cent women. So it was a very female-oriented business,” explained Franssen.
“I didn’t know how to be a business person. I knew how to be a customer. So everything I did was based on how to be a customer, and I threw into that how to cater to women. What do women really want? I knew all about the feminist philosophy and how to treat women with dignity and respect and with love. And I took my philosophy and put that into all the corporate culture.”
The campaign against violence
The Body Shop had always been dedicated to environmental activism, at a time when it was not as visible on the public agenda. But in Canada, Franssen engaged consumers on a whole new range of issues.
“In many respects the Canadian end of it led the way for many of the campaigns, especially ‘Stop Violence Against Women’, which was ours,” she said.
Franssen’s groundbreaking campaign against violence began in 1994, and by the end of that year had already raised $155,000 to support prevention and recovery programs. She says she started thinking about it after a previous campaign they had done around child poverty in Canada.
“It made me start to think, why are there poor children in Canada? And of course, the answer is so simple—it’s because their mothers are so poor,” she said.
“And I started looking at the reasons that mothers were poor, and many of the reasons were because they were locked into relationships that were violent or emotionally draining, or just chipped away at women. And if they wanted to leave that relationship, they left with nothing.”
The troubling statistics involving female victims of violence really hit home for Franssen.
“Every minute of every day in Canada, a woman or a child is being sexually assaulted. Every minute of every day,” she said.
When the “Stop Violence Against Women” campaign launched, it was so successful that it became an annual “signature” program for Body Shop Canada. Franssen recalls both the fear and excitement of being at the forefront of the movement: she and her colleagues would receive calls and threats from angry men, as well as emotional appeals from women in violent relationships. In any case, it was clear the project was causing a stir.
The company’s efforts against violence also earned Franssen international recognition, when she was granted the United Nations Grand Award for addressing an issue of vital concern.
“It was quite hilarious, actually," Franssen recalled. "They called me and said, ‘We’re giving you this award,’ and I said, ‘Oh, you must be mistaken because I didn’t apply’. But they went, ‘No, no, no…you brought an issue to the public that has never been discussed before. And you need to be recognized for this.'"
Of course, the recognition didn’t stop there—in 2002, Franssen was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, and she has also received a prestigious award from UNIFEM for Outstanding Achievement in the Advancement of Women.
Moving millions to battle poverty among women
Since selling the Body Shop in 2004, Franssen has continued to strive for progress on violence as well as on other important issues facing women in Canada. As a board member and endowment co-chair with the Canadian Women’s Foundation, she has helped direct support for efforts against human trafficking and violence against women, as well as helping to bring women out of poverty.
“If the Canadian Women’s Foundation was a human being, I would marry them,” said Franssen, emphasizing her passion for the organization and its causes.
“They are my perfect match…because they’re intelligent, and they’re relevant and they’re full of integrity. And they run themselves with the efficiency of a business, but with the heart of a woman.”
The Foundation’s goal is to help women and girls reach their fullest economic and social potential. To that end, the group raises money to fund research and programs across Canada, primarily focused on ending violence, supporting low-income women, and “building strong, resilient girls.” It is the fifth largest women’s organization in the world, and Franssen said in 2011, they doled out $3.5 million to community projects nationwide.
She explained that part of the Foundation’s success comes from having women at the helm—she believes there are some things females bring to philanthropy that men often don’t.
“It’s a much more emotional, visceral response that women have to philanthropy, which I love,” Franssen said.
“For me, my philanthropy is much more a matter of consumption than expenditure. I get more than I give. And that’s really what my work now is with my organization Women Moving Millions.”
Franssen is now the co-chair at Women Moving Millions, another inspiring project that connects women with resources. It was created in 2006 by American sisters Swanee and Helen LaKelly Hunt, as a way of mobilizing female donors to make million dollar gifts to organizations supporting women and girls around the world.
“In Canada, all the women who are in Women Moving Millions have given their million dollar gift to the Canadian Women’s Foundation,” said Franssen, who donated one of those millions herself.
Despite the great work being done by organizations like the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Franssen says the fight for real gender equality is far from over. While she agrees that standards today aren’t quite as discriminatory as they were in her secretarial days, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
“There are lots of things that have changed, but there are lots of things that have remained exactly the same. One of those things that’s remained the same are our wages,” she said.
“Today women are making 68 cents for every dollar a man makes in Canada…and ten years ago we were making 70 and a half cents for every dollar.”
Franssen also notes that women only make up 12 to 15 per cent of top management and board positions.
“It’s not a good reflection of who the customers of these companies are,” she said.
It's true that these ratios need to change. But taking over executive roles is not Franssen's number one priority.
“I see poverty as the most significant problem,” she said.
“Because I think that if women are not living in poverty, it helps them move away from a violent situation, it helps them move away from trafficking, it helps girls become more resilient and more believing in themselves. So poverty is number one.”
Through the Canadian Women’s Foundation and Women Moving Millions, Franssen is doing all she can to help improve the lives of females here in Canada and abroad.
“I think that investing in women and girls has what I would call a ‘spillover effect’,” she explained.
“The effect that you have spills over from the mother to the children, to the next generation. And it makes communities better, it makes them stronger and it makes them safer.”