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“Inclusive, limitless”: How WOC run communities are thriving digitally

In partnership with Squarespace, Sophia Powell talks to gal-dem, AZEEMA and thy.self about how websites have been integral to building their brands

28 Dec

Produced in partnership with Squarespace

Being a POC business owner can be both challenging and rewarding. When the system is not designed for you to thrive in, it can put in place an endless stream of business and financial barriers. In this context, starting a business tends to not only be a question of effort and determination, but of resilience. 

Despite these hurdles, people of colour choose to take this leap of faith everyday, driven by a deep sense of necessity. Many of these much-needed businesses fill gaps in the market, providing both opportunity and support to their communities. Three businesses whose founders overcame barriers to serve their community are gal-dem, the online and print magazine for POC from marginalised genders, AZEEMA, a magazine, creative agency and studio exploring women from the West Asia, North Africa and South Asia (WANA & SA) regions, and inclusive wellness brand thy.self. These platforms are alike not only in their entrepreneurship, but also in their decision to provide safe spaces with inclusivity at the core. 

gal-dem has always been built around the foundation of community. Its founders failed to see themselves reflected in the media and therefore created the representation that was so pivotal, amassing a community of like-minded individuals who have seen and supported the brand as it has grown over the years. A membership model ensured that their work is not only for the community, but powered by it. Squarespace’s product, Member Areas, was the next step in enhancing their membership programme, providing an easy space to service their community through exclusive members-only content that encouraged interaction, engagement and learning.

“A membership model ensured that gal-dem‘s work is not only for the community, but powered by it”

Describing gal-dem’s mission, CEO Mariel Richards mentions a passion for driving inclusivity, explaining the double-edged need to “champion the voices of the most marginalised in society” while being “committed to joy”. At gal-dem, the ability to create Member Areas through Squarespace was a way of future-proofing the business’ finances. While advertising is a traditional way to monetise a business, Mariel outlines the issue that it also represents “a capitalist system that we are also committed to criticising and deconstructing”. The introduction of a membership model allowed gal-dem to continue to be “discerning about the types of brands [they] work with,” choosing to work with them rather than relying on them, with the assurance that the memberships are only used for commissioning budgets and staff salaries.

For AZEEMA and thy.self, the next stage in ensuring the future of their business was creating a website: a professional, digital home and established base for information, networking and funding. To achieve this, Squarespace was the platform of choice for these POC business owners offering flexible design capabilities, a simple, seamless interface and eliminating the need for external web designers, a costly addition for these grassroots businesses.

“Squarespace was the platform of choice for these POC business owners offering flexible design capabilities, a simple, seamless interface and eliminating the need for external web designers”

For Jameela Elfaki, founder of AZEEMA, Squarespace created a consolidated space that allowed women and non-binary people from the WANA & SA regions to control their own narratives. “There were a lot less opportunities for us, but now we make our own opportunities,” Jameela explains. 

Created in 2017, AZEEMA began as a coffee table book project for the final year of Jameela’s Fashion and Promotion degree at Central Saint Martins. Since then, it has snowballed into print magazines, events, social pages and a creative agency that stands as a tribute to the faces she grew up around. Jameela, who is mixed Sudanese and English describes her heritage as “between two worlds,” continuing, “it’s the representation that I needed all those years ago, but I never got”.

When the time came to translate AZEEMA into a digital format, Jameela knew it had to be done in-house. “The thing about AZEEMA is that it’s really rooted in DIY,” says Jameela. “It’s where we come from. Being resourceful is part of our upbringing.” Squarespace’s ease of use and cost-effective solutions were a critical factor in ensuring that the business was able to continue sharing stories from its community while maintaining financial security. Instead of paying for a website designer, Jameela was easily able to design their website herself, resulting in a sleek and highly aesthetic finished product. “We haven’t been awarded any funding and we haven’t got investors. We don’t have salaries. We do everything because we want to and because we believe in what we do,” Jameela explains. 

“We do everything because we want to and because we believe in what we do”

Jameela Elfaki, AZEEMA

The same notion of not only serving, but being supported by the community resonates with inclusive wellness brand thy.self. Borne out of frustration with a wellness industry that lacked not only representation and diversity, but also factual information, Chloé Pierre created thy.self in 2018, using her community as a “sounding board.” “We have people who have been with us from the beginning or just really understood our message – those are the people I reach out to for feedback,” describes Chloé. 

thy.self’s values are simple: “to actualise self-care and self-love, rather than making it about a product in a bottle,” says Chloé. Drawing on her background in branding and marketing, Chloé curated a soft colour palette and selected lowercase typography on Squarespace to communicate these values alongside themes of relaxation and openness. Created as a brand that did not exclude on the basis of shape, size, religion, disability or race, thy.self’s success represents a much-needed change within the wellness industry.

“Not only were we putting out content to help our community, but we were starting to get more interest from brands”, Chloé says, explaining the dual functions of her website. During the heartbreaking events of last summer, a time when tensions were raised and mental health plummeted, Chloé created toolkits for allies and for Black and brown people that could be shared to their Instagram stories, without the need to directly speak to others. “Giving people the space they needed was giving them language”, Chloé explains.

“There was a surge of people wanting to support our brand, whether that was wanting to invest in us or wanting to donate some money” Chloé says of the period following, “It was wild. I didn’t expect that”. Noticing that their social pages were serving their community, Chloé felt a need to have a separate platform to “diversify [their] message so people could understand it outside [their] community”. Here, a website became a vessel for stabilising the financial future of thy.self, while also providing benefits to the unsuspecting: “Learning something new, especially for those corporate clients that scoff at the idea of wellness. They can also do a bit of soul searching,” Chloé smiles.

“A website is not simply a professional brand exterior for strangers, but a home for friends to return to”

The common thread between AZEEMA, thy.self and gal-dem is that they are rooted in community. The creation of a website not only provides stability for the businesses, but a space for voices to be shared and received. A website is not simply a professional brand exterior for strangers, but a home for friends to return to. As Chloé states, “It’s ours. We can do whatever we want with it. We’re not filtered. We’re not censored. I think that’s important for a small business.”

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