Women of the Year 2021: Michele Romanow is Creating the New Entrepreneurial Playbook
From Olympic athletes and tech startup founders to social impact champions and business changemakers, our inaugural 2021 Women of the Year guide features 37 impressive leaders who are making a difference, both individually and as a collective. They’ve all navigated incredible obstacles to get to where they are (often on an uneven playing field) and yet, despite this, have still managed to summit their industries and change Canada—and the world around them—for the better. In our series of one-on-one interviews, get to know each honouree a little better: their values, mission, lessons learned, and the other women that inspire them in their own lives.
Co-founder and President, Clearco
What is your elevator pitch to the world?
Michele Romanow: I want to build and invest in a million founders through Clearco
What excites you most about the work that you are doing?
Michele Romanow: At Clearco, we are held together by a collective vision that we could build something better for founders. Defend the little guy. The world up until recently has been built for people who had the right parents, went to the right schools, or know the right people. There is a huge group of founders who are overlooked by VC’s but they have incredible businesses that need and deserve access to capital.
Where do you think you have made the most impact in your company and community?
Michele Romanow: We have backed over 6,000 founders all over the world, backed eight times more women than traditional VCs, we’ve funded founders in every province across Canada and 13 percent of our founders are BIPOC versus the VC average of 2.6 percent. We have changed the face of VC.
What kind of problems are you trying to solve?
Michele Romanow: I had the idea for Clearco after I sat through dozens of pitches on Dragons’ Den where founders were willing to give up equity in their companies for funding. It was clear to me that there was a systemic issue in how founders were getting early-stage dollars to scale up. My goal became democratizing access to capital. I wanted to create something that would focus on data and growth. Typically, founders have to go to banks and put everything on the line with a personal guarantee or they have to give up equity and control of their business by going to VCs. At Clearco, we don’t care about your credit and we don’t want your house as collateral_we want founders to own 100 percent of their businesses. For a long time, access to capital has been inadequate. That is what I care about solving.
What are you doing that no one else is doing?
Michele Romanow: During our early days, I remember going to Wall Street pitching the concept of revenue-based funding and being completely dismissed. I got 249 noes. That’s a lot. Clearco is a disrupter in the industry, we created a new playbook on how to fund and support founders and are now the largest e-commerce investor in the world.
Why is your work important?
Michele Romanow: Entrepreneurs are our best problem solvers and we want to enable all of them. Compare governments around the world spending trillions of dollars on mitigating and solving climate change versus a couple of entrepreneurs who invented electric cars that people love to drive. They are now introducing electric trucks, which will probably make one of the biggest impacts on climate change.
Was there ever a turning point in your career that fundamentally changed your business for the better?
Michele Romanow: I said no to all my job offers after undergrad and worked with my business partner Anatoliy Melnichuk to move to the East Coast and build a caviar fishery from scratch. Ultimately, that business failed because of the 2008 recession and I had to take a job at a big retailer. I risked it all again when I left that job a year later to start an e-commerce company from scratch. If I wouldn’t have taken those two huge bets on myself I would never be here today.
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve led your company?
Michele Romanow: I have learned that I am tougher than I expected. This is a job that punches you in the face every day. I try not to let the little things get in the way of what really matters most and stay focused on the mission even when it feels like everything is blowing up around me.
What has been the most challenging part of building the business?
Michele Romanow: The pivots. The macroenvironment is changing constantly and technology affects all of our businesses. Every time I need to make a big change in the business, it’s scary because I know so many people rely on me. It isn’t just about the business, it is about people’s livelihood. I take a great deal of responsibility to get things right.
What has been the most rewarding part of building the business?
Michele Romanow: Seeing my team grow. One of my co-founders Ivan Gritsiniak had just graduated university when he joined us and now has raised close to a billion dollars in capital for Clearco. Seeing teammates like him grow is so rewarding.
What questions do you think all leaders should ask themselves before building a company?
Michele Romanow: Are you ready? This journey is going to take double the amount of time, money, and patience. You have to be on a mission you really love to make it.
In your experience, what do you think is the quickest way to get people on board with your mission?
Michele Romanow: I wish there was a quick way but the truth is that you will often go through a lot of rejection before [you find] someone who really believes in your mission. The best thing you can do is move on, learn from the no’s and iterate until you find the person who can see your vision come to life.
What is your mission? The bigger picture?
Michele Romanow: I have one mission—to help founders succeed at every stage of their business.
How do you define success? What does it mean to you?
Michele Romanow: Success isn’t linear for me. There are so many metrics to define success but for me the one word that stands out the most is growth. If I had a life motto it would be to never be comfortable. Growth often means that what you are doing is on the right trajectory. So for me, success is helping more founders, deploying more capital, and growing our business.
What is one lesson that you hope people will learn or walk away with from your work?
Michele Romanow: Just start, because the perfect moment doesn’t exist when starting a business.
If you could go back and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Michele Romanow: Surround yourself with people who support you unconditionally.
Who is a woman in the community that you admire?
Michele Romanow: I know so many amazing women that I admire but one that I feel deserves a lot of recognition is Joanna Griffiths, the CEO of Knix. Joanna is one of the few people who took a personal frustration and has turned it into one of the most important brands in America. Joanna has been a trailblazer in so many ways; her drive and ability to break glass ceilings is something I truly admire about her. She has been a sounding board, a mentor, and a great source of support whenever I need to run ideas or get a fresh perspective. She has done so much for female founders and continues to be a great source of inspiration.