In Conversation: Vicki Saunders
3 May 2018 at 8:53 am
Serial entrepreneur Vicki Saunders is the founder of Toronto-based not for profit SheEO and #radical generosity, a global initiative to radically transform how we support finance and celebrate female entrepreneurs.
In a career spanning decades, Saunders has established herself as an entrepreneur, award-winning mentor, advisor to the next generation of changemakers and leading advocate for entrepreneurship as a way of creating positive transformation in the world.
She has been named as one of 30 World-Changing Women in Conscious Business by Conscious Company Magazine and one of the 100 most influential leaders of 2015 from EBW – Empowering A Billion Women, and she has co-founded and run ventures in Europe, Toronto and Silicon Valley.
Her current organisation SheEO raises funds to back women entrepreneurs, who often find it harder to raise capital.
According to Saunders, less than 4 per cent of venture capital goes to women and 90 per cent of funding decisions are made by men.
She says she realised the extent of the issue when she launched NRG Group, a business incubator she took public 18 years ago.
Of the first 400 funding applications they received, only three came from women. She decided to do something about it, and SheEO was born.
Saunders will be speaking at tech and innovation festival Myriad, in Brisbane later this month.
Speakers and panels at Myriad 2018 will be tackling a range of themes including the future of food, health, culture, play, work and money, with a focus on finding technological and other solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the world today.
Here Saunders talks to Pro Bono News about creating new pathways for investing, living in a world that works for all of us and why being an entrepreneur is the purest form of freedom.
What motivated you to start SheEO?
I started SheEO because we are in a moment of deep disruption where almost everything in our world is being redesigned and I want to live in a world designed by men AND women, one that works for all of us. And in order for that to happen we need to fund and support women’s ingenious ideas, inventions, and innovations.
For the past few decades/forever, women have not been able to access capital to bring their ideas to market – 4 per cent of venture capital and $1 out of every $23 loaned by banks goes to women. And, we are 50 per cent of the population, not a niche, so it required a whole new model and approach to create the kind of world I want to live in.
Why do you believe it is so hard for female entrepreneurs to raise capital?
It’s hard for a variety of reasons; one, because the vast majority of investors are men who don’t have the same experiences and insights so they can’t always relate to the ideas they are being pitched. Two, because it’s proven that we all have significant unconscious bias around women in leadership and power roles. And three, at this current moment in time we are deeply biased towards “go big or go home” thinking, and women tend to build revenue-generating, quick to profitability ventures that grow at a sustainable pace while capital today wants to chase unicorns, extremely high growth, extremely risky winner-takes-all types ventures.
As you mentioned, less than 4 per cent of venture capital goes to women and 90 per cent of funding decisions are made by men. How can this be equalised so we see more money going to women and also more women making funding decisions?
It can be shifted by creating new pathways for investing. Rather than trying to “fix women” and fit them into an existing system (one that was not designed or built by them) I think we need to design for women.
What kind of environment would work for women to invest, to thrive, to grow? At SheEO we pushed the reset button on how to support women on their own terms. We focus on bringing out the best of women by being radically generous to one another. It’s an entirely new values set designed with a feminist lens. Rather than trying to fit women into the existing models and systems and level the playing field, we are creating an entirely new field.
To what extent do you think “imposter syndrome” plays a role in holding women back?
“Imposter syndrome” is a thing, but it’s really a symptom of a badly designed system. If you change the process, you change the outcome. Women-led ventures in our network are selected by hundreds of women in a simple online voting process. Being selected that way is highly validating and it immediately boosts your confidence into the stratosphere. And now you have hundreds of women asking, “How can we help you grow?”. In this type of environment, there is no room for imposter syndrome to grow. We all recognise that most of us are making it up as we go and we also have selected you because we believe you have something of value to bring to the world. It’s a totally different environment.
How does “Radical Generosity” work?
It starts with the question: imagine being surrounded by thousands of radically generous women, how would you dream differently, how would you act differently? And for those who go, “whoa, sign me up” here’s how it works.
The model brings together 500 women (called activators) in each cohort, who contribute $1100 each as an “Act of Radical Generosity”. The money is pooled together and loaned out at zero per cent interest to five women-led ventures selected by the activators. All ventures are revenue generating with export potential and creating a better world through their business model or their product and service.
The loans are paid back over five years and then loaned out again, creating a perpetual fund which we will pass on to our daughters, nieces and granddaughters. The 500 women activators in each cohort become the de-facto “team” of the five selected ventures bringing their buying power as early customers, their expertise and advice and their vast networks to help grow the businesses.
What would you like to see change in how society celebrates female entrepreneurs?
Well, first I’d like society to actually celebrate female entrepreneurs. All of them. Anyone who steps into their dreams and boldly puts it out there in the world and courageously walks the challenging path of being an entrepreneur is my idea of a role model.
We desperately need new leadership, new thinking, new solutions to get us to a better world and anyone who has an idea and steps out of their comfort zone to make it happen is someone to celebrate.
You have been named as one of 30 World-Changing Women in Conscious Business by Conscious Company Magazine and one of the 100 most influential leaders of 2015 from EBW – Empowering A Billion Women. How does it feel to be recognised for the difference you are making?
It’s great to see more and more focus on conscious business, on business as tool for social change. As a kid I was always looking for where I could be the most free. I think being an entrepreneur is the purest form of freedom and I want to use my freedom to create a better world. Modelling that enthusiasm for others who may want to do the same is the greatest gift I could ask for. I love what I do and I’m inspired every single day by anyone who puts their dreams out in the world and then persists to achieve their goals.
What advice would you offer aspiring female entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with a network of people who lift you up and who have their sleeves rolled up ready to help you, and who honour your commitment to being a leader. It’s crazy hard to be an entrepreneur and it’s not for everyone. We all have enough voices in our heads questioning if we can do this, we don’t need anyone else bringing us down.
Which female entrepreneurs are you most inspired by?
I am inspired every day by women in our network who are working to create a better world. We have 32 ventures selected by 3,000 women in three countries to date and hundreds more who are in our network as activators. Every one of them inspire me to get up every morning and get to our goal of creating a $1 billion perpetual fund that will support 10,000 female entrepreneurs every year, forever.
How can entrepreneurship be used as a way of creating positive transformation in the world?
This for me is the point of entrepreneurship; to make history. It’s not about “exploiting a market niche and capitalising on it”, it’s about using your leadership and a business model to create positive impact in the world.