Vicki Saunders has been disrupting traditional business models ever since she was a kid growing up on a 100-acre farm outside of Ottawa.
Saunders remembers sitting at the dinner table with her three brothers, listening to her parents' latest idea to diversify their family business. From there, the entire family would start brainstorming on how to make it work. The next day, they'd start building.
"It was this constant dreaming, create something, iterate, add-to environment," recalls Saunders, whose parents (both former teachers) founded Saunders Farm, one of Canada's first entertainment farms.
What began as a pick-your-own strawberries farm has turned into a event-driven business that includes farm-to-table dinners, summer camps, and other year-round family and group activities. "That kind of environment was incredibly nurturing for me to be an entrepreneur," Saunders says.
Saunders, a self-described serial entrepreneur, later went on to start and grow a handful of successful business ventures of her own across Europe, Canada and Silicon Valley.
"I've become so enamoured with the ability to notice problems in the world, and then come up with creative solutions and persevere to figure out how to solve them. People who are out there doing things like that are my tribe," she says.
Her newest venture is SheEO, a Toronto-based non-profit with a crowdfunding-style business model that provides backing to female entrepreneurs. Saunders set up the unique business model to support female founders who, statistics show, have great difficulty finding funding. Her goal, she says, was to disrupt the existing startup financing systems that have been designed by — and appeal mostly to — men.
"To me, if you want to shift the narrative, you have to change the experience," says Saunders. "I am absolutely passionate about innovation ecosystems and systems change and behaviour change and how we create systems for people to really thrive."
SheEO operates on what Saunders calls "radical generosity." In each region where the organization operates, SheEO recruits groups of 500 women who each donate $1,100 to a fund. The fund makes zero-interest loans to five companies founded and run by women ($100 from each donation goes towards running the program). Loans of around $100,000 - in local currency - are paid back in 20 equal instalments over five years. Instead of going back to the investors, the money gets reinvested into the fund and loaned out again to new ventures, which is also what makes it "radical" in the financing world.
Saunders says the goal isn't to create an endowment fund. "We want the money to be out in the world." Her plan is working: What was once considered a novel idea has since grown into a sisterhood of serial entrepreneurs paying it forward. SheEO currently operates in Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, and is expanding into the UK, Europe and Asia. The goal is to reach one million women and C$1 billion in funding. Given its current growth rate, Saunders hopes to achieve her goal by 2026. "We are aggregating local capital, investing it in local businesses and then connecting those businesses to export markets around the world," she says. "The whole model is proving out."
Though the investors — also known as “activators" — don't actually get their money back, what they gain instead is front-row access to a growing global network of female entrepreneurs. Saunders says activators can use their capital, networks, buying power and expertise to support female founders and contribute to a powerful ecosystem. "Some women do it to give back, others for the networking opportunities, while others see it as a pipeline to become an investor in certain companies and help them grow," she says.
Activators can also take comfort that the ventures SheEO backs are held accountable. To apply for the funding, companies must have at least $50,000 (local currency) in revenue, and the business must be 51-per-cent female-owned and led, and have a female CEO. Companies must also be able to address how they're creating a better world with their business.
Once selected to receive financing, ventures go through the Guided Development Program which includes a couple of coaching calls each month and regular check-ins with activators and the SheEO team. Activators also receive a quarterly Venture Health Check, which is an update on the company's performance.
Saunders says most of SheEO's ventures eventually become activators themselves, "Paying forward the radical generosity they received."
RBC, which has a number of "activators" among its employee roster to date, has launched a one-year sponsorship of SheEO. The goal is to increase its activator participation as well as to further engage with female founders about how to better support their businesses.
"They want to innovate and are looking to us as a model that is growing rapidly around the world. They want to be part of the experience in that world and understand how to do things differently," Saunders says.
SheEO is particular about which companies it works with and seeks relationships that are reciprocal, including with banks.
"We only want to be in a relationship with banks who are really committed to funding female entrepreneurs to getting better at what they are doing, so we can grow the ecosystem," says Saunders. "We are going to bring an amazing pipeline of female entrepreneurs their way."
Saunders says the SheEO network is not only a natural fit for financial services companies, but also she feels that supporting female entrepreneurs is a safe bet. She says women have proven to be highly capital efficient and have a strong track record of paying back loans — and paying it forward.
"When women come together, it's amazing what can happen, especially when you add the buying power element to it," says Saunders.