Women Who Lead

Vicki Saunders on helping female-led companies change the world

Vicki Saunders

SheEO is a global initiative geared towards transforming how female-led businesses are financed and supported, with an emphasis on creating positive change in both business and the world.

Written by Holly Walker

After learning that only four percent of venture capital and only one of every $23 loaned by a financial institution went to female entrepreneurs—despite females making up 50 percent of the population— Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO, knew there had to be a solution.

From an app that helps those on the autism spectrum live more independently to edible eco-conscious seaweed straws, the meaning behind the companies SheEO supports is as important of a factor as the money they make.

With over 20 years experience as a female entrepreneur, Saunders is keen to the challenges women face in business, attributing them to cultural issues and stigmas. Rather than changing the existing funding models, SheEO was created with the intention of being a new, female-specific version.

Launched in 2015 in Canada, SheEO funds female-led businesses through a zero percent interest loan. The model is composed of 500 women minimum, known as activators, in each cohort who contribute $1100 each as a form of “radical generosity.” The money creates a fund that is loaned out to at least five women-led ventures that are revenue generating. The loans are paid back over five years and loaned out again, creating a perpetual ever-growing cycle. Eventually Saunders aims to grow SheEO to a billion-dollar fund that will annually back women entrepreneurs worldwide.

Breaking the stigma that entrepreneurship has to be a solo journey, SheEO is built on the belief that when you’re surrounded by support, success will follow.  At its core is the desire to create a better world, support companies that pay living wages, improve their communities and innovate in interesting ways.

Here Vicki Saunders shares her insights.

Female-run businesses seem like an untapped market. Why has it taken so long?
We have such a crazy bias in the world right now. All we talk about now is the companies that can make venture capital. “How much money did you raise?” We have this crazy narrative around go big or go home, and it doesn’t represent what the economy really represents. There’s this massive economic opportunity to look at those other kinds of companies, which compose about 98 percent of the Canadian market. As everyone’s off chasing unicorns, there’s this whole open piece with huge potential. Women pay their debts. I thought if we could create a model that got capital in the hands of women who are capital efficient, create great cultures and sustainable jobs then it’d change the game. I ask myself, why are people using their leadership just to make money? Let’s make money and create a better world.

Why is it difficult for female founders to get funding?
A lot of the ideas that we come up with are really embedded in our own experiences of the world. I think we are blind to experiences that aren’t our own. The vast majority of people writing cheques are men and they want to write cheques for things that they’ve experienced. It’s not a complicated thing. However, it’s not like we have to convince them. Forget that. Women have more wealth now than we’ve ever had before. We’ll be just fine to take our wealth and actually fund the kinds of challenges that we see in the world.

SheEO focuses around “radical generosity.” Why is this concept so important?
The business environment in general is very much dog-eat-dog, step over each other to win, winner takes all mindset. “It’s just business,” is an excuse to treat people poorly. It’s really difficult to reach your potential in that kind of environment. I started thinking about when I felt strong and powerful. It was when I was in environments surrounded by people who were supporting me. In the first four years of this model we have proven that when you’re surrounded by radically generous women, your results are off the charts. Our ventures are growing at triple digit revenues each year, 90+ percent of them are exporting, and less than 5 percent of female entrepreneurs export. They’re all well on their way to $1 million or beyond in revenue. They’re dreaming bigger every year of what’s possible because they have 500 women around them who are there to support and help.

What are you most hoping to see in the next 5 years?
The ability for people to recognize that they can run businesses in many different ways. It’s possible to scale up a significant company that creates good in the world that can pay living wages; that has awesome corporate culture; that has healthcare; that has maternity policies; that recognizes that women have kids. We want to show scaled up $100 million ventures that treat people really well, and do good.