Elaine Kunda is the founder and managing partner of Disruption Ventures, Canada’s first private venture fund focused solely on women entrepreneurs. It has been a long — and strategically planned — journey for Elaine; here’s how (and why) she did it.
By Sarah Kelsey
If you were to ask most entrepreneurs about how they got to where they are, you’d likely be greeted with a list of similar answers: hard work, perseverance, luck, some helping hands. But ask the same question while catching a few moments with the incredibly empowering Elaine Kunda, and you’ll be greeted with a different response: planning.
“Everything I’ve done has always been highly strategic. I’ve mapped this out very purposefully and specifically,” Elaine says of her role founding and managing Disruption Ventures, a first-of-its-kind in Canada, made-for-women, private venture fund. “Every connection I’ve made has always been done with a plan in mind.”
Take, for example, the babysitting job she took in university; it was for a woman who was the president of a company. “I thought, I want that to be me one day,” says Elaine. So she babysat the woman’s son and eventually asked her for a summer job so she could learn more about management.
Then there was a stint working as a salesperson at a furniture supply company. The role didn’t inspire passion, but she knew she’d learn the skills she needed to attain a top job. “It was a stepping stone. It was a very conscious and clear decision.”
Every job she’s held has prepared her, in some way, for doing her own thing: business development manager at Grey Interactive, managing director at Toronto.com, president and CEO at ZipLocal, president and CEO of b5media.
Elaine first conceived of her current business, Disruption Ventures, in 2012 after speaking with several women entrepreneurs about the challenges they faced financing their businesses. The idea was initially ill-received.
“If you presented to investors and said, ‘I have an undervalued, underutilized, high-performing asset class,’ would you want to invest in it? The answer would be unequivocally ‘yes,’” she says. “But as soon as you add gender into the mix, the audience is lost. Why wouldn’t you create a fund to invest in women? It’s a missed opportunity.”
“People are comfortable acknowledging that supporting women entrepreneurs is an issue, but it’s still very hard for people to put their money where their mouths are.”
Part of the problem, she notes, is that the audience is largely made up of men. According to the 2019 “Women in Venture” Report from Highline Beta and Female Funders, just over 15% of partners at Canadian VC firms are women. “There was a disconnect between the men who did the investing,” explains Elaine, “and the women who were coming up with ideas for businesses.”
The result can be measured in real dollars: a little over two per cent of venture capital funding goes to women-led businesses, and research shows they not only typically receive less than men, but also less than they ask for.
With a focus on early-stage capital, Disruption Ventures aims to be the starting point for women founders. Anchored by a milestone investment from Scotiabank, the organizations have a broader partnership — including marketing assistance and educational content for entrepreneurs — tied to the Scotiabank Women Initiative. It lines up well with Elaine’s broader goal of advocating for women in business.
“People are comfortable acknowledging that supporting women entrepreneurs is an issue, but it’s still very hard for people to put their money where their mouths are,” she says, noting that the slow pace of change has always worried her. “Every story has a life cycle; if change doesn’t happen soon, then people will say, ‘well, women had their chance.’”
So what advice does Elaine have for women entrepreneurs? It’s the same for any woman trying to reach the top.
Passion is key. “You have to want to get up in the morning and do what you’re doing. I don’t think people close to me have any clue how much I work. They see the fun part of the travel I do on social media — and not the stuff like conference calls or early wake-ups to secure funds. The only way to keep that pace is passion.”
Women also need to develop the confidence to own their successes and manage negative feedback.
“The negative fuels me. The people who are assholes are actually fuelling my passion. When somebody inaccurately puts me in a place I dig deeper,” she says. “Once someone called for a reference on me and my referer said ‘you’d rather have her on your team than have to play against her.’ That’s because success is the only option.”
Lastly, each woman has to do what’s right by them.
“There are some things I know I need in my life to be happy. It’s a marathon not a sprint. I’m creative and adaptable. I don’t need order or structure or quiet or peace. I need things to be opposite; put me in an office every day, I won’t perform. I’m overly productive so why should I follow someone else’s structure that makes me less productive?” she notes, adding: “Every step of the way you have to believe in yourself and trust yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will.”