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Vicki Saunders has done a lot in her career. Since the mid nineties, she has spearheaded seven different initiatives aimed at improving the world and empowering business leaders. She has mentored young entrepreneurs, co-founded online platforms for Fortune 500 companies in Silicon Valley and in 2001 was selected as a Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum.
Her most recent venture, SheEO – an initiative that funds, supports and mentors female-led philanthropic startups – was launched in 2013 and has since funded 53 ventures and generated $4M in loans. Having started in Canada, the model has also launched in the US, Australia and New Zealand and, this year, finally makes its way to the UK.
Given that a Treasury report earlier this year found that female entrepreneurs receive 157 times less funding than male entrepreneurs, this venture couldn’t have come at a better time. Rather than find a way to help women fit into the current investment system, Vicki Saunders is intent on creating a new one – one that actually benefits the women it’s serving and seeks to draw upon the strengths that women working together can muster.
Given that proceedings start from a place of generosity – each of the investors (otherwise known as Activators) donates $1,100 to the funding pot – a positive tone is set from the off. The roles of investor and investee have been shaken up, too. Instead of each entrepreneur (known as Ventures) being put under pressure to deliver by a passive investor, they are offered the support, network and mentorship of the Activators, ensuring that each business is given the right set of circumstances in order to do well. What’s more, SheEO debunks the myth that capitalism and saving the world are mutually exclusive – each venture enrolled into the program proves that it’s possible to do both.
I had the opportunity to speak to SheEO’s founder, Vicki Saunders, about the ways in which the initiative is breaking the mould and opening up new opportunities for female entrepreneurs – opportunities that actually allow them to thrive in a way that comes naturally, as opposed to subscribing to way of working that has really only ever served men.
What led you to set up SheEO?
My journey to launching SheEO was 25 years in the making. As a lifelong entrepreneur who has always focused on doing good while making money, it took me a while to deconstruct the utter brokenness and absurdity of our economic model which treats nature as an externality. That was one part. Also, being a woman in this world.
Living as an aware woman is a challenge. When I realized that only 2% of capital goes to women’s innovations, less than 3% of global CEOs are women, less than 10% of film directors are women, and on and on, it was clear that the entire system we live in was not designed for us to thrive . It’s time for a radical redesign of our world so it can be inclusive and supportive of all. We have enough for everyone to thrive.
I have a really different way of thinking and have always thought there was a better way to organize our resources on this planet to create a better world. It took me a long time and lots of experiments to find a design that could have a big impact, that was organized around a different set of values and that was organized in a distributed, networked manner to ensure global reach to shift our systems. And, honestly, it took me a long time to do anything ‘women-only’ because I was so brainwashed by our culture that discounts anything that is focused only on women and I wanted to be accepted and successful, according to the existing rules.
Where did the idea for the SheEO model come from?
It feel like i’ve been putting together a puzzle over the past 30 years with little clues and aha’s been dropped in my path as I’ve tested work environments, experimented with different cultures, designed programs, built companies and talked with hundreds of wise elders. I’m a synthesizer. And SheEO, in its current instantiation is where we are now. The story is not over. In many ways I think it’s just getting started. We are learning. Our community is now co-creating this together. We try things. We iterate. We experiment. We fail, take the learning and then iterate again. It’s a result of deep collaboration and relationship building amongst a community of people who want to create a better world.
Your approach – activators rather than investors, female-led, discussion and collaboration-led – is very feminine. Masculine energy has long been the most recognised and impactful way of getting things done in the world of business – what are the unique feminine qualities you find are most helpful to entrepreneurs and how do you tap into them?
Well first off, the people who made up the rules of our current system decided what matters most. That’s clearly not worked out very well for us has it? We are in a wildly out of balance world right now and need to find our way back to centre. Moving from fear to radical generosity, from control to trust, from competition to collaboration are all elements of our model. We need a gigantic dose of empathy to understand that we are all in this together. And women have a huge competitive advantage to redesign our broken systems and structures because we are relationship based; we nurture our families and our communities and we chose to work on The World’s To Do List versus designing [things] that only isolate us further.
Some have given up on humanity already, a number of the billionaires who have more than enough capital to tackle all the challenges we are facing are spending all their money trying to figure out how to get to Mars. Well, I’m in this to transform this planet, not just extract all the value we can and move on to the next. Women are the caretakers of our communities, we invest in our families, we don’t pick one child to win, we lift all of our children up.
SheEO is here to support and fund those who are putting their energy and leadership into solving critical issues we see around us. We have no time to waste. The world is on fire.
What criteria do you look for in Activators?
We share our model, our vision and our message and see who it resonates with it. The main call is for radically generous women. If that term resonates with you, you step into a very special community. Activators to date are all ages (14-94) and all stages (early career, budding entrepreneurs, stay-at-home moms, grandmothers, corporate execs, leaders of all kinds). All women and those who identify as women are welcome. We are here with our sleeves rolled up ready to help one another.
What sort of experiences have your Activators usually had themselves that lead them to this act of ‘radical generosity?’
Our community is very, very diverse in experience. I think there is really a choice to be made; do you want to be in a community of radically generous women? Can you imagine how that might change things for you? Are you open to receiving that kind of support? Many people aren’t ready to give that kind of love to themselves. Many of us are in fear, or don’t believe we are worthy, we aren’t ready yet, we don’t matter enough, what could we possibly give to a network of women, and so on. We all make up stories in our heads. Becoming an Activator is an act of self-love from my perspective. You step into your amazing-ness and decide to share yourself with the community. And, wow, when that happens, we all start to become more than we ever thought we could be. Its transformational. My life has changed dramatically since I became an Activator. I’m so much happier, kinder, more giving and I’m finally receiving help from others which I wasn’t open to for most of my life.
Do you find the experiences of the entrepreneurs are different depending on the country they’re based in? If so, what is the UK’s own set of unique challenges?
We are just getting started in the UK so I haven’t really experienced any significant differences. From the stories I hear, it’s the same pretty much everywhere. We are all under-funded, under-supported, under-celebrated and underestimated.
What has been the biggest surprise/ learning curve for you since setting up SheEO?
One thing is how hard it has been to get women to activate. Our community of 4,000 Activators have spoken to tens of thousands of women, most of whom have been deeply inspired by the model and follow us on social and are excited by the impact. And, the majority of these women are on the sidelines waiting to give themselves permission to join. One day (soon, I hope) there will be a mad rush to our site to sign up as people realize the impact of their small contribution. In the meantime, we patiently continue and wait. We are gathering, getting into community with one another, fed up with the structures and systems that lock us out. We are coming with everything we’ve got; our money, our networks, our advice, our expertise, all the resources we have at our disposal to create a better world. The world needs women to be at the table and we are going to design to work for everyone.
And what have been the biggest challenges?
Every single day, witnessing our Ventures, who are working on The World’s To Do List – the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – struggle with the weight of the challenges they are working on, from removing plastics from our oceans to re-designing the walker/wheelchair to keep people active.
What do you feel are the challenges your entrepreneurs are facing in the world of business?
Most of our Ventures didn’t start out to create a business. They started to solve a challenge they saw in the world such as lack of inclusion, lack of 21st century skills like empathy and food security. All of the Ventures we fund are working on critical challenges of our time and their impact is as much social as it is financial. We don’t currently have agreed upon metrics to help us track that impact in our existing models. We need more flexible forms of capital and support to get these Ventures scaled. Our obsession with only focusing on a financial return and winning the market (winner takes all) has created massive inequality and social challenges. We need to rethink how we use our capital to what ends, immediately, if we want to ensure humanity’s survival. Our Ventures are on the cutting edge of transforming our economy and our society and it’s deep, deep system changes that will work and that is not for the weak hearted. In our community we are on speed-dial with each Venture every day, cheering them on. They are the modern day heroes of our time.
You give the power of dividing the loans to the Ventures, rather than the Activators – what made you decide to do this and how does it benefit everyone involved?
After the Ventures are selected they come together for a weekend retreat with their SheEO development guides and they get to know one another, share their hopes and dreams, their concerns, their challenges and their current needs. Then we teach them to negotiate so they can understand how each person will react. Lastly, we turn it over to them to divide up the money in a way that has the highest and best impact with a goal of 100% payback of the loans. They only have two rules; you can’t give it all to one Venture and you can’t divide it up evenly.
What advice would you offer to female entrepreneurs just starting out?
If you are just starting out, please do anything you can to get into community with other entrepreneurs who have your back, who lift you up, who understand what you are going through. It can be a very lonely existence if you aren’t careful about surrounding yourself with supporters. And, obviously, I encourage you to join SheEO as an Activator. The best way to grow youR business is to be in a network of radically generous woman who want you to succeed, who have your back and who are here with their sleeves rolled up ready to help.
To find out more about SheEO, visit the website here.
This interview has been edited for syntax and clarity purposes.
May 27, 2019 at 06:28AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs