Rethinking Venture by Creating an Entrepreneur Support Network
Interview with Vicki Saunders, Founder of SheEO
Businesses led by men are more likely to receive venture funding, and that’s something that SheEO wants to change.
Founded by Vicki Saunders, SheEO is leading a movement to support women-owned business, and has worked to redesign venture funding. It’s created a program that provides women-led small businesses with an interest-free loan and a network of entrepreneurial expertise.
Last year, SheEO engaged 500 female activators across the country, each of whom contributed $1,000. The combined capital funded 5 selected women-owned businesses. The SheEO model is now expanding to cities across Canada, as well as into Los Angeles, New York and Mumbai.
I spoke with Vicki earlier this year and we discussed the SheEO process, as well as the ways in which we can rethink venture funding.
Menaka: SheEO has taken a unique approach to funding small business, and one thing that really stands out is the fact that it relies on radical generosity from the activators. There’s no return on the investment. Why was that important?
Vicki: If we’re going to change the world, we don’t do that by getting a bunch of women in a room and talk about how to invest better. I didn’t want the main focus to be on investing – the starting point was just women helping women.
In order to really dramatically transform the way we’re supporting and financing female entrepreneurs, I think there’s a culture change that needs to happen. We need to look at how to create a new model and how to support it.
And so, when I stepped back and looked at this challenge, the starting point had to be this process of women helping women. If we realize that we have all that we need to support each other – we have the capital, the buying power, the networks and expertise – then we can change things.
So this process needed to celebrate female entrepreneurs and tell their stories of success from a different perspective. We’re supporting women in more agile ways, giving them a strong network, and also financing them long-term.
Menaka: You’ve mentioned how essential it is to create a network here. Why such a focus on building a network of entrepreneurs?
Vicki: Well, a lot of founders and entrepreneurs feel very lonely. They’re always on their own doing things, which is what I felt like for a lot of my career as well. But as I started to get a little more experience I realized that there really are a ton of people out there who want to help, but we just aren’t connected.
So I wanted to bring entrepreneurs from a place of being alone, where it’s difficult to find an advisor or support, to this completely different other world. We created a network where 500 women have each other’s back. All of a sudden all of these people are on your team, and you can find someone in an instant that’s ready to help you.
That kind of shift can really change things. I wanted to create this completely abundant model, one that would let people experience what it’s like to have that network around you.
Menaka: You’ve reworked the way a typical investment happens, so did the process of selecting the businesses that receive funding need to be changed as well?
Vicki: Yes, in order to do this we’ve redesigned many components. It’s not just bringing together a network of women to help and contribute capital – we also redesigned the application process. We kept it very simple – it was literally just tell us about your business, tell us about you.
A lot of times women don’t actually apply unless they’re sure they check all the boxes. So we removed all the boxes except 3 basic ones: do you have at least 50k in revenue, are you majority women-owned and are you women-led.
The companies we have selected have huge potential to grow. Right now they’re small, but with a loan from us, and more importantly, access to our networks, these companies should double or triple their revenue easily this year. And we’ve given them a five year loan.
Menaka: Can an initiative like this change the way we think about venture funding?
Vicki: When we talk about growing our economy, we often focus on venture capital and looking for unicorns. We keep measuring our innovation and success based on these billion dollar companies, which is a crazy measure. It so rarely happens.
Most of the Canadian economy is small and medium-sized business, and there’s huge economic opportunity there. But we keep missing it because we have this narrative that unless you’re big, you don’t matter. We have all of these companies across the country that are doing well, that are profitable, that are hiring people, that are having an impact and have massive growth potential. They’re an untapped resource.
Every government around the world is struggling with how to grow their economies, but we’re always looking at using the same tools, and looking to set it all on one big idea. We can better use our resources.
So we want to show that there’s another way of supporting economic growth. And this model is actually much more aligned with what our economy really looks like.
The entrepreneurs and companies that received SheEO’s first loans: