I have an incredibly special guest. This is a woman who I have been looking up to for years now as she’s been building the SheEO brand, the SheEO Empire. I love what she stands for and love how she serves and today I am so thrilled to introduce you to Vicki Saunders the founder of SheEO.
I think you and I have some commonalities in that we both believe that women are a large part of our future. So we are an equal player in the business game and we both support women that are doing great things in the world. Vicki, tell us a little bit about your journey. SheEO was not your first venture. You’ve had a couple of ventures. Tell us about the journey that led you to SheEO.
I would say that is a culmination of many, many years of experimenting, trying to figure out how to create the conditions for innovation and for people to really thrive. I love business. I love coming up with business models to solve the challenges that we see around us. And since I was quite young, like in my early 20s, I just felt like there was no place that I saw someone doing something that I would like to do throughout my life. I also never really thought I would start my own company, being an entrepreneur was not a cool thing when I was growing up. It was what you did if you couldn’t get a job, it wasn’t something that people talked about. So I never really considered that to be a path for myself. But again, it’s one of those natural things, if you don’t see what you feel is your path, you go create it yourself. Now I am completely and totally unemployable by anyone ever. I’ve been an entrepreneur and really worked for myself for the last 30 years.
With the path to SheEO. I was in Prague, in the Czech Republic right after the wall fell down. It completely changed my life. Before that, I was thinking of becoming an academic, I had applied to do my Ph.D., and it changed everything for me. One day there was a tank in people’s country, you weren’t free. And the next day all the tanks drove away and everybody flipped a switch. All of a sudden, they were free. And I felt the same way. Every conversation was “now that I’m free, I’m going to do this. Now that I’m free, I’m going to do that.” I’m like, “Oh, my God, I’m free too, what am I going to do?” It just really shifted things for me.
I’ve been kind of obsessed with this forever, which is like, how do you create the conditions for people to feel like they’re actually free? Like they can do what they’re here to do? And what does that environment look like? So I’ve experimented for many, many years, with lots of different approaches to that I started with young people, and created the first incubator and accelerator in Canada that went public in 2000. I did some startups in Silicon Valley, a bunch of other things in Canada, but everything was always around, “How do you design that environment for people to really thrive?”
And now with SheEO, I basically said, I don’t think our existing incubators, accelerators, structures, the business model really works for women or anybody, but particularly for women. And so if you were starting over again, how would you change it? SheEO was my experiment at how do you redesign venture capital and systems? So how does that work?
How is venture capitalism different for women?
I think it’s for everyone, but we started with women just because it was so egregiously unfair, and unjust at the moment where about three to 4% of venture capital goes to women, and we’re not a niche market. We’re literally 51% of the population globally. There are so many structural inequalities built into our existing systems that it’s just painful to watch. So I sort of stepped back and thought, what kind of environment do people thrive in? To me, it wasn’t stepping over each other to win, like a winner takes all model that we have, it was more collaborative. I basically combined a ton of different things I saw out there as pieces of the puzzle, so we have a crowdfunding approach.
Hundreds of women per country come together, they contribute $1100 each or $92/month into a shared pool of capital. Then we all go online, the people that have committed capital, and we vote, so one vote for each person. We’ve disrupted the power dynamic. They’re not one committee of people who are “experts” making the decisions – everybody gets a voice. We select companies that are working on the World’s To-Do List. So that’s our criteria they have to be majority women-owned and women-led and working on critical issues that matter. So we vote, then those entrepreneurs get a zero percent interest loan, which feels very prescient now. We started that five years ago, and now zero percent interest loans are actually a thing. And it’s paid back over five years. But the real magic sauce in all of this is that then those hundreds of women who have contributed capital are now on your team. We voted for you. We’re excited about what you’re doing. We’ve picked you and said, this needs to exist in the world. And we want to help amplify it.
So we come with our expertise and our buying power and our networks and our influence to help you achieve your goals. And then we’re doing this country by country. So the goal is to build up this community of radically generous women who get behind great ideas that women have that are working on critical priorities and scale them up. So we started five years ago, we’ve funded 68 ventures to date, with 5500 women being part of this community, and it’s kind of like, on-demand, what do you need to grow? For me, it’s like the opposite of what I see at Dragon’s Den, which is, “I have a big bank account, go prove to me that you’re going to get me a big return on my money. And over to you” – individual culture. Whereas ours is sort of the opposite. It’s like,” wow, we love what you’re doing, how can we help, we’re putting in a bit of money, but all the other stuff that we’re bringing is worth so much more than the money.” It’s just a completely different approach.
What are some of the challenges of building this kind of model that you’ve met, particularly within the confines of the Canadian banking system and the Canadian economy?
Every part of this because it’s such a mindset shift. At first, just imagine, five years ago, I was like:
“it’s a zero percent interest loan,”
And they’re like, “What do you mean, it’s a zero percent interest loan? How are we capturing the value of our contribution towards those ventures?”
And we’re not. You’re going to feel it in your heart, and you’re going to feel like you’re making a difference and it’s generosity.
“And then you’re going to trust like a 14-year-old to pick a company and give it the same way as someone who’s the CFO of the biggest bank in Canada, what? Wait a minute, that person over there doesn’t know anything about business.”
There’s a lot of models out there to show that collective intelligence is better than expertise. And we’ve proven that out. It’s just incredible. I would have been wrong so many times about the companies I would have picked. I think back to the first cohort, I was like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe we picked that company.” And then that company is now thriving and amazing, right?
So it’s mostly the mindset piece of having people be generous and contribute before receiving. And then just a lot of different pieces like when the money is distributed amongst the ventures who are selected, they come together for a retreat, and we turn it over to them. So the five companies that were picked in our first year, we put them in a room, we introduced them to each other. We created this beautiful environment for them to collaborate. And then on the final day, we’re like “over to you to divide up the money. There’s $500,000 on the table, how should you distribute it.” In a traditional world, the experts would say you’re each getting 100 grand, or there’s one winner or whatever and we decide who is deserving of whatever. In this case, we said, “We trust you. Over to you. You divide up the money.”
We give them two rules. One is you can’t give it all to one. So no winner takes all and you can’t divide it up evenly. Because I know that that’s what every woman that I know would do. Like, “I love you, you’re amazing, you know, we’ll all get $100,000 and be best friends.” Part of the thing is you have to do the hard work of like, what is the highest and best use of this capital, and not every company needs the same amount. So there are endless numbers of things that we do differently. I think the biggest mistake I made at the beginning was trying to explain everything to everybody. Just come and enjoy this and see what happens. It was like, This is so different. I don’t see how it can work. But I did a lot of putting “imagine” in front of each sentence. Imagine if we did this, this might happen. Imagine if we did that. Now I don’t have to imagine anymore because I could just go, “Here, this is what we funded. This is what we’ve supported. Here are some of the impact stories.”
What are some of the criteria that you notice are common throughout those companies that are funded, that people are picking up on as ‘Yes, they would be a good investment’, what is making them sustainable?
We have this the criteria of majority woman-owned and woman-lead and you also have to have revenue between 50K and $2 million. So you’re already in the market, having done a bit of the sort of heavy lifting to get the customer base started. Then we have this intangible thing which is able to articulate how you’re creating a better world. When I look at the 68 ventures that we funded today, I’m like, this is actually what the economy would look like if women wrote checks. It’s like rethinking education.
For instance, 21 toys had this insight, which was, You can’t actually learn most of the 21st-century skills through textbooks. Like how do you learn failure through a textbook? Almost impossible. How do you learn empathy through a textbook? The best way to learn these skills is through experience. So she has created this series of toys, Alana Benari is the founder, a series of toys that teach empathy. As you go through and experience this like it’s just visceral, your understanding of what empathy really means. Somehow when women saw the video and heard the expression in this very simple application form, which is only 10 questions. They were like, there’s something here that sounds interesting. This sounds different to me and this sounds like what I’d like to see education look like. Then when you trust the intuition of hundreds of women to vote.
I’ve heard things over the years, the Alinker, for example, which is a mobility bike that you move with your feet that helps people who have lost some of their mobility stay active. When I first saw this, I’m like, this is fascinating. Then the layers of the onion started to peel up like how interesting this design was. But somehow in an instant, that sort of blink that Malcolm Gladwell talks about, there was something there you’re like, that’s cool. I’ve heard activators say over the years, “Wow, I voted for you, but I never thought that this would actually work. Which is crazy.” And then you see this person execute on something that you had a feeling should be in the world. It’s the thing that’s just been most surprising to me is that I think collectively, we really do have the intuition, the sense of what we need to be creating. We haven’t designed mechanisms to allow that collective decision making to emerge in the world. We only have this old expert model, which has created a pretty broken crappy world.
It’s long gone. We were going to record this about two weeks ago, but you were underground helping your women and rightfully so. You said I’m just I’m jumping in, I’m putting out fires all over. What were some of the pivots or the shifts that you’ve seen the companies you support make that are really helping them during this crisis?
I mean, literally, there are as many pivots as we have companies, it’s been fascinating. I think on the one hand, we have selected vendors who are working on what we call the World’s To-Do List Sustainable Development Goals, top priorities. So, therefore, pretty much all of them are essential. All of our ventures are in that, but they’ve actually sort of, you know, gone even more in the direction of how do we do this. I think a couple of things that we’ve seen, for example, a zero-waste grocery store that has no containers. That is an extremely important business of the future. But then, what do we do if people are home and self-isolating, so they had to move everything online and figure this approach out.
In our network, this is so crazy, one of our activators runs an agency, Interad, and they came to us and said, “We’d like to help Nada, the grocery store, the zero-waste grocery store from Vancouver, go online, is that something we could contribute?” So literally one of our activators came along and helped them create their Shopify store, and then Shopify is one of our partners, and we’ve been working with them around how to help create more and more digital businesses. So it’s just been fascinating to see, like the need. And then because we’re doing asks and gives regularly we do these calls once a week in every market that we’re in with venture saying, “here’s what I need” and activators being able to say, “Oh, I know how to do that,” or “I’ll help you with that.” Stepping forward to support, it’s that community-based effort. So a lot of shift to digital is natural.
Another one is Hannah, from Common Good out of Calgary, who lost 95% of her revenue in the first week. She does laundry services for restaurants with people that are at risk of homelessness. Part of the thing is, first of all, it’s like, “oh my god, I just lost all my revenue” Cue the fear, freakout, uh-oh, and then it’s like, okay, breathe. What do you need to give yourself a moment to think through this and figure out what to do next? So let’s breathe. One of the other ventures in our network, I’m going to loan you that money so that you can breathe through this month. That happened on the very first day. So she was able to breathe through that and by the end of the week, realized, “Oh, I have these delivery trucks, I can start doing this with food, I could redeploy people to be delivering meals.” And bam, she pivoted her whole business within the first three days.
So part of what’s happening within our community and we’re seeing in other places as well, is the need to pivot also requires a wee bit of stability, a virtual hug. A little bit of like, mental health support as you immediately go to this like fear – skies falling, oh my god, what am I going to do? And then we put out this intention on one of our first calls, someone said this out loud, which was amazing. What if we didn’t lose any jobs in our community over the course of this? And what if none of the ventures went down? Like, what if we create that intention together?
And I know in a parallel universe and other calls, people were like, extend your runway as much as possible. Fire as many people as possible so you can survive. We kind of went “No. How do we all do this together? We have everything we need in this community. How do we keep everyone in?” And those are two Old World vs. New World business practices. So I kind of feel like we’re at this moment where really anything is possible. So what is the best possibility you can imagine out of this, and then trying to design for that, as opposed to going back to what we did before and doubling down on an old model?
A lot of the women that are listening to this right now are essentially classified as a micro-business, they would fall into the small business category. Many are sole proprietors and don’t have employees, they have contractors. We seem to have slipped through all of the holes of the Canadian government. I know 95% of my women don’t qualify for anything. Though we’re being told, “Yeah, yeah, the banks will give you a loan.” But they’re not interested in investing with us. What do you think we should be doing right now?
So a few things we’ve been in a fairly regular conversation with the government around these policies and noticing what’s falling through the cracks. It’s my belief that we are on a fast track to universal basic income. We just we’ve come at this from I would say a fairly traditional way of looking at, first of all, it’s massively unprecedented times. Kudos to the government and Canadian Revenue Agency to get all these checks out the doors is phenomenal. We’re using these tools of stimulus for an economy that we shut down. So, of course, it’s not gonna work. And it’s a 12-week window.
I just heard this crazy stat from Chris Rick at the City of Toronto the other day, that one in four people who had a job in Toronto have lost their job. And this is just the beginning, right? We’re in the first 12 weeks of this whole thing. I think in the next layer, there is going to have to be a blanket of coverage for people to get to universal basic income, whatever the rules look like that should cover everybody like that has to be the next layer. And then we’ll start to see what does that start to create in terms of shifting what we’re doing with our time, how we’re topping that up, where we’re living like just the ripples are coming out from there.
I think the other thing that’s very painful going through this process is just recognizing what we value and what we don’t value, what we see and what we don’t see. So I have a friend who was an Assistant Deputy Minister of Finance, like 20 years ago, and one of his insights was in that role in government, he was only hearing from big business. Those are the only people coming near them to talk to them in government. So all the policies were for those people who they were in conversation with. There has never really been a sustained, advanced, deep dialogue with small business and the government. There really hasn’t been, and therefore, shockingly, there are no policies at work and not on the radar. What I’ve seen happen in the past six weeks, which I’m really quite blown away by is, you know, there are 900 people on a call each morning with key people from finance, treasury, small business, all in a dialogue sharing in stories to say, here’s the reality that’s out there.
There’s a new consultation process. It didn’t exist before. So I feel very positive about where that could potentially go. And I think part of the issue is we have to keep that sustained advocacy going to share these stories, to share what’s not working so that we actually do create the conditions for all of us to thrive and create this much better economic model for society.
I agree with you that the CRA and the government’s done an unbelievable job writing legislation in just a month and getting money into people’s pockets and like anything, there’s still room to go.
Yeah, well, I’m completely and totally in love with New Zealand. They’re literally showing the path forward. They’re putting up a series of billboards across the country called “Up and running.” And they’re going to feature small businesses across the country that are up and running. So you can literally go to a website and type in your thing and your story, and they’ll create billboards for you. Shining a light on what we have locally. So, you know, I think by taking one step in front of the other and figuring our way out and watching what’s working in other places, we can really get to a much better approach.
The challenge in the meantime, for the micro businesses that are falling through the cracks is how can we get into community together? How can we find the others and collaborate so that we are able to thrive? But asking for help and finding other people who can help you is the path to where we’re going. I feel so strong right now that anything that is doing something alone is not the future. We have to get in relationship and community with each other, and build the muscle of asking and giving.
I think that’s beautiful. If I take anything away from our conversation, it’s three points; One is send that positive intention of what the outcome is that you want and then ask the question that’s going to help you get there. And then the third is to ask for help. In order to get you where it is that you want to go.
Resources From This Episode
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