How Vicki Saunders of SheEO built a new financial model for a better world.

Vicki Saunders

When it comes to financing, women business owners face significant barriers when securing capital compared to men — but how bad is it?

“51% of the population are women, yet we receive 2% of the capital,” explains Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO. “That’s statistically impossible without massive bias designed into our systems and structures.”

A serial entrepreneur who has made a career of fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, Vicki Saunders’ latest venture was designed to directly tackle the issue of gender inequity. Launched in 2015 in Canada and now also in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, SheEO is a not-for-profit company that has made an entirely new model of financing for women-identifying and non-binary entrepreneurs.

Built on a foundation of ‘radical generosity,’ the five-year loans SheEO provides have zero interest. There are no requirements for collateral, and a simplified process for applying. And when the money is paid back, everything gets reinvested back into a perpetual fund to support the next round of business owners. 

“When I was getting started with SheEO, people would say to me, ‘There’s nothing wrong with making money on an investment,’ because that’s how it’s always been done,” says Vicki. “But you don’t have to make money on everything. This is a radically different way of thinking about investing — it’s more about a collective ensuring capital is flowing to innovators who have been consistently put to the margins by our systems and structures. We need to rethink what we are investing in, for what kind of future.”

The capital is provided by a diverse community of women-identifying and non-binary individuals. Known as Activators, they come from all walks of life, varying in experience and ranging in age from 11 to 95. In addition to a monthly contribution of $92, they commit to sharing their expertise, networks, and buying power. “We have weekly community calls which are designed for us to get the support we need from one another,” says Vicki. “Everyone in this community has something to give, and we offer it up in a radically generous environment full of trust and love.” 

“All of the businesses we support are focused on creating a social impact, and that happened organically. When we first started, the businesses that would always be chosen were the ones trying to make the world a better place in some way.” 

Each year, Activators democratically vote in their country on the Ventures that will be supported. The businesses who apply to SheEO come from a broad range of sectors, but they all have a few things in common: they are majority women- or non-binary-owned and led; they’re revenue-generating (from $50k to $2M); and they’re “tackling the World’s To-Do List” in their own unique way.

“All of the businesses we support are focused on creating a social impact, and that happened organically,” explains Vicki. “When we first started, the businesses that would always be chosen were the ones trying to make the world a better place in some way.” 

The ‘World’s To-Do List’ is based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) designed to address global challenges such as poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. SheEO selected Ventures not only identify which of the 17 SDGs they are working on, but also measure their impact related to those goals.

Removing the requirement for a financial return has made it simpler to focus on supporting the businesses on their own terms, leaving space for new models and new approaches to emerge. “Many of our Ventures would not have received funding at this early stage unless they are privileged to have friends and family with capital. We are focused on creating more equitable systems and getting capital into the hands of those with brilliant innovations that help us get to a better world. And, in a community that comes from a place of radical generosity, we’ve experienced that businesses that look ‘uninvestable’ through a traditional lens can literally transform almost immediately when hundreds of women get behind them and support them as customers, advisors and connectors.” 

Even by traditional metrics, the results are impressive: About 95% of the loans are repaid, and in the last year alone, the 63 Ventures in the program created 772 environmentally and socially sustainable jobs, and experienced 65% growth in revenue. Those successes, Vicki explains, wouldn’t have come about if not for the power of the deep relationships between Activators and Ventures.  

“Yes, we’re providing capital in a radically different way, but the money is only one piece of it. Our community-based approach is what’s most valuable, as we offer support and connections, and we’re customers,” says Vicki. “The entrepreneurs who have been funded through SheEO would never run a business alone again.”

“Yes, we’re providing capital in a radically different way, but the money is only one piece of it. Our community-based approach is what’s most valuable, as we offer support and connections, and we’re customers.”

The connections are fostered with the help of several events, from fireside chats to the annual SheEO Summit. Their Learning Circles feature topics ranging from the power of email marketing to the creation of sacred space through Indigenous teachings. Since the pandemic started, everything has been pushed online, but Vicki says that’s actually been beneficial. “The virtual transition really worked well for us. We were able to connect more with our community from across the globe.”  

In 2020, SheEO hosted 263 Zoom calls, and reached over 8,000 guests through virtual events. They also welcomed nearly 1,500 new Activators, growing the community by over 30%. This year, largely enabled by $1.2 million in funding provided by BMO, they’ve gone from 20 to 44 Ventures supported globally, including all 23 Canadian applicants. 

“BMO’s investment in SheEO is helping a growing number of women-owned businesses affected by the pandemic to have the opportunity to grow and prosper,” says Vicki. “We are excited to have the opportunity to double the number of ventures for the first time since we launched in 2015 — and we’re particularly excited that BMO has matched our lending terms at 0% interest, recognizing the power of our unique ecosystem.”

Of course, the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. SheEO’s relationship-based, impact-focused ecosystem is doing far more than providing loans, generating jobs, and increasing revenue. “It’s showing the world that another way forward is possible,” says Vicki.      

“Our current economic system isn’t working; it’s built on inequality and it’s unsustainable. We’ve lost our sense of community, and we don’t know how to say, ‘maybe we have enough,’” she says. “That’s why SheEO is redefining how things are done.” 

Vicki believes the old system is dying, but that we’ll continue to be held back if we don’t foster an entirely new mindset. 

“We have this inertia. Even though we’re not happy, we just keep doing what we’re doing because it’s easier, because we know how. And overcoming that inertia takes an incredible amount of force,” says Vicki. “It takes a stretch of the imagination to think in a non-transactional way. Everything in this world is transactional. What if instead we asked, ‘How can I make things better?’ We all have excess capacity. We all have a talent we can share. Maybe you’re a storyteller or a super-connector — whatever it is, there’s a way you can contribute.”

How Anique Asher is leveraging the advice of her mentors to pay it forward.

Anique Asher

As Executive Vice President, Finance and Strategy at Scotiabank, Anique Asher shares why and how mentorship is a mutually beneficial relationship, the ways her mentors impacted her career, and how she’s supporting others in their career aspirations. 


By Shelley White


Take a risk. Trust your instinct. Seek out mentorship. Work hard. 

These are the words of wisdom that Anique Asher has kept front and center while building an impressive career as an executive in the financial industry. Now, she’s passing along that advice and more to a new generation of go-getters.

“Mentorship is one aspect of my job that I really enjoy, because now I get to see it from the other side and provide advice that may help others in their own careers,” says Anique, Executive Vice President, Finance and Strategy for Scotiabank.

“When I say to someone I’m mentoring, ‘I don’t think you’re challenging yourself enough, I think you should take that risk,’ I see myself 10 or 15 years ago,” she says. “And it feels really good to know that you can help that person make an impact in their career.”

Anique is no stranger to taking risks and leaping into the unknown. Growing up on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean, she was the third generation in a family-owned and operated business, and spent her summers as a teenager working alongside her parents. 

“I always envisioned myself becoming an entrepreneur,” Anique says. “I never envisioned a scenario where I would be working in a large financial institution because it’s just not something I had ever seen growing up.” 

But her path would prove very different. Anique’s father had gone to university in Montreal, Quebec, and wanted to give his children the same opportunity. “My parents made the financial decision to enable us to go to a university that was outside of Trinidad. They felt that experience was important for us to expand our thinking and have different experiences,” she says.

“I never envisioned a scenario where I would be working in a large financial institution because it’s just not something I had ever seen growing up.”

Anique went to the University of Western Ontario in London, completing her undergrad and MBA at the Ivey Business School. Instead of pursuing a path of entrepreneurship, she took a position at a multinational financial consulting firm, working in mid-market M&A, eventually moving into investor relations for a major life insurance company. 

“Being in that role, I knew early on that I was going to have a significant learning curve,” she says. “What I needed to do to be effective was to build-out a strong team, to ask questions, to ask for help when I needed it, and to make sure that we were addressing the issues of the shareholders and the institutional investors.”

When Scotiabank approached her in 2018, Anique says she was initially hesitant to make the move, having never worked in banking. But she was enticed by the idea of a new challenge, and once again was encouraged by her mentors to take the risk of the new role.  

“What made this role very appealing to me was a couple of things: First, it was a much larger team than I’d ever managed — 100+ people. Secondly, it was a different industry, and one of the things I have prided myself on in my career is being able to get up to speed quickly, being able to be challenged and learn new things,” she says.

Anique joined the Scotiabank in 2018 in a Senior Vice President role, and in November 2020, she was promoted to Executive Vice President, Finance and Strategy. It’s a role she relishes because it encompasses varied sides of the business, she says. While she is responsible for the more traditional financial side of things, such as global financial planning and forecasting, Anique is also involved in formulating and articulating the bank’s identity from a strategic perspective. 

“It’s rare that you would see finance so well connected to strategy, and sometimes people scratch their heads and say, ‘It’s actually such a different skill set, why would you have the same person doing that?’ But the reality is that it’s such a valuable opportunity to connect those things in a way that will drive meaningful value for the bank and deliver value for our shareholders,” she says.

Throughout her career, Anique says mentorship has been invaluable. Sometimes, her mentors were people that she worked with. Sometimes, they were people that she worked for. And sometimes, they were people outside of her organization.

Anique says that one of the most valuable things she gained through being mentored is having others see things in her that she didn’t see in herself. 

“I remember having a conversation once about a role that I was contemplating taking. And the individual said to me, ‘I think you’re making a big mistake if you take that role, because I don’t think you’re thinking big enough.’ And it was the first time in my life that I’d ever thought, ‘If this person thinks I could do that, maybe I can.’”

“Early on in my career, I would say, ‘I really appreciate everything you do, is there something that I can do?’ And nine times out of ten when you ask that, you get an answer.”

Now, Anique is the one doing the mentoring, through both informal and formal programs like Scotiabank Inspire. She says that the best mentor relationships are reciprocal, with both sides benefitting. As mentees, people should always be asking how they can help their mentor, she says.

“Early on in my career, I would say, ‘I really appreciate everything you do, is there something that I can do?’ And nine times out of ten when you ask that, you get an answer,” Anique says. “Maybe, it’s helping them with a project that’s off the side of their desk, or maybe it’s dealing with an issue that they’re struggling with from a different perspective.”

As the leader of a large team, Anique says that diversity is essential in any organization. She notes that of the 100+ people on her team, more than 50 percent identify as women. “I feel very proud of that as a woman leader,” she says. 

It’s important for people in an organization to see women in leadership, Anique says.  It’s about role modeling, she adds. 

“My husband and I have two kids, 14 and 12. Many times, I’ll say to my team, ‘I have to leave now because I need to do something for one of my sons. I’m going to a baseball or hockey game, so I’m not available at this time.’ And I think that it’s important to role model these behaviors for the team.” 

Anique notes that there were times in her career when she was the only woman in the room, and she had to trust her instincts and ensure that she was heard. 

“I came back to work after my second maternity leave, very clear that I wanted to be promoted, and I was an advocate for myself,” she says. “But if I didn’t have strong women mentors that were supporting me and giving me the runway in which to do that, while still getting to be a mom where I could actively engage with my kids, that would have been a lot harder. I feel a responsibility, particularly within my own team, to be a role model so that people see that it’s possible to have both, just not always at the same time.”

Beyond gender, other aspects of diversity are essential to any successful team, Anique says, which is why it’s important to hire people with different perspectives, such as newcomers. “Because that was me. I was new to Canada and needed somebody to give me an opportunity,” she says. 

“If the person happens to be from a warmer country, I’ll send them a note at the first snowfall saying, ‘Don’t worry, don’t leave. It’s not that bad. You’ll get through it!’” she adds with a laugh.

“When I’m most challenged and I’m really struggling with something, I always think, there’s a path through. Maybe that means getting a different perspective. Maybe that means asking for help.”

Outside of work, Anique loves to travel, read, and play tennis, but most of all, she enjoys spending time with her kids, especially when they’re on the baseball field or at the hockey arena.  

“Both of my sons play competitive sports. I actually find it funny, because I go to these games and they can be so intense for other parents, but I find it to be a source of stress relief for me, because I was so terrible at sports growing up. It just amazes me that we’re genetically related because they are pretty good. And it’s so great to see them take on those challenges and learn how to win and lose as a team a valuable lesson that they can take with them as they grow up.”

While she can’t predict where her career will take her in the future, Anique notes that she’s always ready and willing to take on any new challenge that comes her way. 

“One of the things a mentor said to me is, ‘There’s always a path through, you just have to find the path.’ When I’m most challenged and I’m really struggling with something, I always think, there’s a path through. Maybe that means getting a different perspective. Maybe that means asking for help.”

Or maybe it comes down to those earlier words of advice: Take a risk, and work hard.

“Don’t feel you can’t do something because it’s not innate to you,” Anique says. “You can always figure it out.”

The founder of Balzac’s Coffee left the brand she built — to create an entirely new retail business during COVID.

Diana Olsen

By Sarah Kelsey 


How do you know it’s the right time to leave a job? It’s a question many people seem to be asking themselves as Canada comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers have even begun to warn of a coming wave of resignations. 

For Diana Olsen, who left her long-term career at Balzac’s Coffee Roasters in December 2020, it came down to two things: gut instinct and timing. 

“You have to hone in on your intuition and what it’s telling you,” Diana says. “You can’t listen to the advice or thoughts of anyone else. The decision to leave has to be one you make for yourself.”

Diana became a household name in the coffee world after beginning the much-beloved brand in Stratford, Ontario in 1996. She spent almost 25 years building the company and turning it into a café chain with outposts across the province.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced her into an unusual period of downtime, which she used to reflect on her career and future goals. 

She knew she loved the people she was working with and adored her customers. “The thing that set Balzac’s apart from other coffee shops was I did take the coffee seriously — we roasted it ourselves. I learned the craft of roasting,” Diana explains. “But I was also interested in the design and ambience of the café, and I took my inspiration from the ones in Paris, a city I lived and worked in for years. That’s what made Balzac’s unique. It wasn’t just a chain of coffee shops, it was a coffee roaster with a beautiful space.”

But as the brand grew, so too did her disconnect with these elements of the business. Diana began to desire a return to the fresh and small. That led to the creation of her latest venture, Inner Beach

“Since there were no trade shows, I have yet to meet a supplier, maker, or artist I carry in person. The items in the store all came from contacting suppliers or makers online.” 

“I started Inner Beach in the spring of 2021, months after retiring from Balzac’s, because I wanted to build a community and bring the laid-back energy of beach culture to everyone at a time when they need a way to escape their day-to-day and destress and relax,” she notes. 

The result is a thriving omni-channel business — with a stand-alone store near the shores of Port Credit, Ontario, and online presence at — full of boho-chic finds. Integrated into the experience is a partnership with Swim Drink Fish, a charity with a goal of cleaning up Canadian shorelines to protect swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for everyone.

Launching an entirely new retail brand during a pandemic came with unique challenges. Diana leaned on technologies she had used at Balzac’s to create an online sales channel, and she turned to social media to source suppliers. “Since there were no trade shows, I have yet to meet a supplier, maker, or artist I carry in person,” she says. “The items in the store all came from contacting suppliers or makers online.” 

Even the vintage products carried in the store were found through a combination of virtual and live thrifting events, as well as auction sites. Embracing a hybrid model of online and in-person — which she’s used from sourcing to sellingChas led to success. 

Today, Diana says she feels a renewed passion for the work she does; she’s reconnected to her start-up roots and her ability to be creative. While she acknowledges some may think her move to leave a successful brand to launch something new is risky, she doesn’t let their thoughts phase her. 

“Being an entrepreneur is risky. You want to stand out and you want to be unique, but sometimes in the back of your mind you’re thinking, should I be doing this?” she says. “Don’t doubt yourself. If you feel you need a change, tune into your intuition. You have to keep pushing and being forward thinking. You have to remain resilient and do what works for you.”

“When I’m doubting myself, it’s my support network that shows me it’s just my self-doubt getting in the way of me making a good decision. They know what I’m capable of and they remind me of that every day.”

She adds all entrepreneurs should remember that advice or the unsolicited thoughts of others should always be taken with a grain of salt. You will know your business best, and just because someone advises you of something doesn’t mean they’re right. It’s great to have a trusted mentor to lean on and bounce ideas off of, but you can’t let them knock your confidence or confuse your instincts. 

“When I’m doubting myself, it’s my support network that shows me it’s just my self-doubt getting in the way of me making a good decision. They know what I’m capable of and they remind me of that every day,” she says.

Diana’s last piece of advice for anyone who is looking to make a career shift during this time is to make sure the move is calculated. She reiterates she still loved Balzac’s when she left, but knew it was time to challenge herself in a different way and to take a smart risk. 

“I’ve failed over the course of my career. But I know you have to make mistakes along the way to learn and grow. Any entrepreneur is going to make mistakes. You’re going to be completely convinced of something and then you’re going to realize you’re wrong,” she says. “Just remember: there will be plenty of times you’re right. You can’t let fear stop you. Know when something is no longer working for you. Tap into your intuition. Take risks. All of this is way better than not having the confidence to try something new.”

Rencontrez la femme à la tête du premier fonds de capital de risque dirigé par des Noirs et soutenu par du capital institutionnel au Canada.

Lise Birikundavyi

En tant que vice-présidente, Clients – Diversité à BDC, Laura Didyk dirige les efforts de la banque visant à comprendre et à relever les défis auxquels sont confrontés les entrepreneurs sous-représentés et mal desservis, qu’ils soient racialisés, qu’ils s’identifient comme femmes, qu’ils s’identifient comme membres de la communauté LGBTQIA2S+, qu’ils vivent avec un handicap ou qu’ils aient une combinaison de ces identités. Elle présente leurs parcours dans le cadre d’entrevues, et ce mois-ci, elle reçoit Lise Birikundavyi, directrice et gestionnaire de fonds de Black Innovation Capital.


Au Canada, moins d’un fonds de capital de risque sur dix est géré par une femme. En ce qui concerne les fonds soutenus par du capital institutionnel, on trouve une seule femme noire aux commandes : il s’agit de Lise Birikundavyi. Elle est directrice et gestionnaire de fonds de Black Innovation Capital, un fonds de capital de risque de 10 millions de dollars, soutenu par BDC Capital et lancé en juin 2021, qui investit dans des entreprises technologiques en démarrage dirigées par des Noirs. 

Avant de prendre la barre de Black Innovation Capital, Lise a travaillé dans le domaine de la finance internationale pour plusieurs institutions. Elle a grandi à Montréal, mais son parcours l’a menée en Argentine, en Chine, au Ghana, en Côte d’Ivoire et à Toronto (ce qui fait en sorte qu’elle puisse s’exprimer en français, en anglais, en espagnol et un peu en mandarin). Au fil de ses études et de sa carrière, elle a orienté son travail vers l’entrepreneuriat social et l’investissement d’impact. 

Lise croit fermement à la possibilité de mettre à profit les forces des marchés de capitaux pour générer une richesse plus inclusive et réduire la pauvreté de façon durable. J’ai rencontré Lise pour en savoir plus sur son impressionnant parcours, qui a abouti au récent lancement de Black Innovation Capital. 

Laura : Vous avez consacré une grande partie de votre carrière à la finance à but social. Quel a été le point de départ de ce cheminement? 

Lise : Tout a commencé lorsque je suis retournée au Burundi pour la première fois, à 18 ans. J’ai grandi à Montréal, mais je suis née là-bas. C’est un pays qui a connu son lot de problèmes, notamment la pauvreté, la guerre civile et les difficultés d’accès à l’éducation. Je ne savais pas à quoi m’attendre en arrivant, mais j’ai été émerveillée par la beauté du pays et l’intelligence de ses habitants. 

J’ai été également frappée par le fait que pour la plupart des gens la réussite passe par le travail dans une organisation internationale. Il y avait très peu d’entreprises locales alors que les opportunités semblaient multiples. Lorsque que je réfléchissais avec amis et cousins sur des compagnies qui pourraient voir le jour et régler certains problèmes, on me répondait souvent « c’est une bonne idée, tu devrais créer cela » ou « Oui, pourquoi tu ne viendrais pas commencer cette initiative? ». Et je me disais toujours : « Mais, je ne vis pas ici, pourquoi ne le faites-vous pas? ». Je me suis rendu compte de fil en aiguille que l’aide humanitaire avait son rôle à jouer, de façon bien involontaire, dans la diminution de l’esprit entrepreneurial.  

“J’ai réalisé qu’il s’agissait là d’une véritable autonomisation, qui soutenait la création de modèles dans différentes sociétés en donnant aux populations vulnérables les moyens de bâtir leurs propres solutions.”

Quelques années plus tard, pendant mon séjour en Argentine, j’ai découvert la notion d’entrepreneuriat social. J’ai lu Comment changer le monde : Les entrepreneurs sociaux et le pouvoir des idées nouvelles de David Bornstein et j’ai commencé à me renseigner sur l’entrepreneuriat et sur la microfinance. Cette idée de pouvoir faire le bien tout en renforçant les capacités et en gagnant de l’argent m’a plu. J’ai réalisé qu’il s’agissait là d’une véritable autonomisation, qui soutenait la création de modèles dans différentes sociétés en donnant aux populations vulnérables les moyens de bâtir leurs propres solutions. Cela aurait ensuite un effet d’entraînement au sein de leurs communautés, sans que personne ne se sente redevable puisque le bénéfice financier serait partagé. 

Laura : C’est génial. Je sais que vous avez commencé votre carrière dans les fonds spéculatifs. Comment vous êtes-vous ensuite orientée vers l’investissement d’impact? 

Lise : J’ai adoré travailler dans le monde des fonds de couverture, mais je savais que je pouvais faire quelque chose de plus, sans pour autant savoir comment accéder au domaine du développement avec cette perspective d’autonomisation. Une amie m’a parlé de l’investissement d’impact, puis j’ai commencé à me joindre à un groupe de femmes du secteur bancaire à Montréal qui organisait régulièrement des événements pour en parler et réfléchir à la façon dont nous pourrions développer ce concept au Canada. 

J’ai décidé de m’engager dans la voie de l’investissement d’impact en m’intéressant aux marchés émergents. J’ai fait mon MBA à Shanghai avec trois objectifs en tête : apprendre le mandarin, créer un réseau solide et mieux comprendre la relation entre la Chine et l’Afrique. Tout ce que j’ai fait là-bas tournait autour de l’investissement d’impact, et j’en ai profité pour élaborer soigneusement mes prochaines actions. 

Au début, je me suis concentrée sur les marchés émergents dans une perspective de développement. L’objectif était de faire en sorte que d’énormes problèmes puissent être résolus en donnant aux gens les moyens de le faire, tout en générant des revenus aux fonds pour lesquels je travaillais à l’époque. 

Laura : Qu’avez-vous fait après votre passage à Shanghai? 

Lise : Je suis revenue en Amérique du Nord. Puis, lorsque je suis tombée enceinte de mon premier fils, j’ai décidé d’aller vivre au Ghana pour y travailler pendant mon congé de maternité. J’avais toujours voulu vivre sur le continent africain et je supposais, naïvement, que je m’ennuierais en restant à la maison avec un bébé. J’étais prête pour une nouvelle aventure et je voulais poursuivre mon travail de sensibilisation. Au Ghana, j’ai appuyé Ingénieurs sans frontières, Canada. Nous avons trouvé une communauté là-bas et ce fut une belle expérience. Nous avons ensuite passé trois ans en Côte d’Ivoire, sur la côte sud de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, où je gérais un fonds de technologies éducatives pour la Jacobs Foundation.

Laura : Et ensuite, vous avez créé Black Innovation Capital. Comment avez-vous eu cette idée?

Lise : Lorsque j’ai décidé de me lancer dans cette aventure avec Isaac Olowolafe pour fonder Black Innovation Capital, cela me semblait similaire au travail que j’avais fait auparavant, bien qu’il s’agisse d’un marché complètement différent. Je travaillais auprès d’une population extrêmement talentueuse qui ne reçoit pas le financement qu’elle devrait, en vue de l’aider à créer de la richesse pouvant être réinvestie au sein de leur communauté. Pour nous, avec le Black Innovation Fund, il ne s’agit pas d’une communauté en opposition à une autre, mais plutôt d’une incitation à une plus grande participation de toutes les communautés au secteur du capital de risque. Il est question de diversité et d’inclusion, et de la contribution de chacun à un meilleur système. 

Le fait que BDC soit devenue notre investisseur principal a eu une contribution importante à la création du fonds. Nous avons apprécié l’expérience et le soutien que nous avons reçus, particulièrement au niveau de l’aide apportée aux nouveaux gestionnaires de fonds. Nous avons officiellement lancé le fonds le 7 juin de cette année et sommes actuellement en train de négocier nos premiers investissements. 

Laura : Quelle est la vision de Black Innovation Capital? Qu’est-ce qui le distingue des autres fonds de capital de risque?

Lise : Nos objectifs sont de contribuer à la création d’entreprises technologiques dirigées par des Noirs, d’offrir un rendement supérieur à nos investisseurs et d’accroître la diversité dans l’écosystème du capital de risque. Globalement, notre thème principal est donc la diversité. 

Toute entreprise dans laquelle nous investissons doit comprendre au moins 25 % d’actionnariat ou de cadres dirigeants noirs et être une entreprise technologique en phase de démarrage. Nous nous attendons à ce que les équipes viennent d’horizons divers, car même au sein des communautés noires, on observe généralement des origines et des perspectives riches et diversifiées. 

“Jusqu’à présent, nous avons constaté une résilience intrinsèque au sein des entreprises que nous examinons. Beaucoup d’entre elles ont eu de la difficulté à trouver des financements et ont dû faire preuve d’une grande créativité pour en arriver là où elles en sont aujourd’hui.”

Jusqu’à présent, nous avons constaté une résilience intrinsèque au sein des entreprises que nous examinons. Beaucoup d’entre elles ont eu de la difficulté à trouver des financements et ont dû faire preuve d’une grande créativité pour en arriver là où elles en sont aujourd’hui. Nous voyons également beaucoup de produits et de services inclusifs, qui résolvent les problèmes sous différents angles et perspectives. Et c’est exactement ce que nous recherchons : des entreprises en démarrage qui font les choses différemment, qui répondent à des besoins qui ne sont pas actuellement satisfaits et qui apportent de sérieuses améliorations à des concepts déjà existants. 

Laura : Alors, le Black Innovation Capital est-il un fonds d’investissement à impact? 

Lise : Pour moi, l’investissement d’impact consiste à faire le bien tout en ayant un retour sur investissement qui soit positif. Bien que Black Innovation Capital ne soit pas à proprement parler un fonds d’impact, il a néanmoins un impact qui me tient à cœur. Je comprends ce que c’est que d’avoir l’impression de devoir travailler plus dur que les autres, de ne pas être évalué selon les mêmes critères et de ne pas avoir le droit à l’erreur. En créant des outils qui aident à la création de richesse ou à l’autonomisation en général, je rêve d’un monde où nous n’aurons pas à avoir de telles conversations avec nos enfants et où la diversité deviendra la norme. Pour moi, c’est ça le véritable impact. 

Laura : Le financement par capital de risque convient-il à tout le monde? Qu’en est-il des autres options pour les entrepreneurs noirs, comme les prêts? 

Lise : C’est formidable de voir émerger davantage de soutien pour les entrepreneurs noirs, comme le Programme de démarrage pour ou le Fonds de prêts pour l’entrepreneuriat des communautés noires. Ces deux programmes offrent un financement et un mentorat, ce qui constitue une combinaison importante pour la croissance d’une entreprise. Le choix entre un programme de ce type, l’octroi de prêts, ou l’investissement en capital de risque dépend vraiment de l’entrepreneur et de son entreprise, car les deux sont assortis de conditions différentes et répondent à des besoins différents. 

Quand notre fonds investit dans une entreprise, nous devenons actionnaires et donc un partenaire d’affaires. Nous nous rendons disponible afin que l’entrepreneur puisse nous appeler  pour obtenir de l’aide lorsqu’elle ne sait pas quelle décision prendre. Nous restons présents sur le long terme car nous sommes des partenaires de croissance et nous assumons le risque avec l’entrepreneur. 

Il est important d’obtenir des conseils pour déterminer quel est le meilleur modèle de financement pour chacun. 

Laura : Nous savons que les entrepreneurs noirs ont de la difficulté à trouver des capitaux et des modèles inspirants. Quels sont, selon vous, les facteurs à l’origine de cette situation et comment envisagez-vous d’y remédier? 

Lise : Les raisons pour lesquelles les entreprises appartenant à des Noirs obtiennent disproportionnellement moins de capitaux sont nombreuses. Il est important de reconnaître que les préjugés inconscients existent dans tous les domaines, y compris dans celui de l’investissement. Les gens ont tendance à faire confiance à des personnes et à des concepts qu’ils connaissent bien, donc ne prennent pas toujours des décisions sur la base de leurs valeurs, de leur expérience ou d’une solide analyse de rentabilité. 

Nous avons également souvent vu des programmes de mentorat qui ne sont pas assortis d’un accès au capital. Or, le succès repose sur la combinaison de ces deux éléments. Nous nous efforçons de résoudre ce problème de mentorat excessif et de sous-investissement. 

“L’objectif est de changer la perspective des jeunes générations et de leur faire voir qu’il leur est possible de faire tout ce à quoi elles aspirent.”

On observe aussi parfois un manque de sensibilisation des entrepreneurs qui ne savent pas où ni comment trouver du soutient. Les communautés d’investissement sont cloisonnées et manquent souvent de diversité. Cela peut entraîner un manque de confiance chez certains entrepreneurs noirs. Même s’ils ont une bonne idée, ils ne croient pas nécessairement qu’elle intéressera d’autres personnes. 

Ainsi, le fait qu’Isaac et moi représentions un homme noir et une femme noire à la tête de cette initiative nous positionne comme un reflet de la population qu’on souhaite servir. L’objectif est de changer la perspective des jeunes générations et de leur faire voir qu’il leur est possible de faire tout ce à quoi elles aspirent. Nous investirons dans des entreprises qui finiront par connaître un franc succès et leurs dirigeants deviendront des modèles de réussite pour leurs communautés.

Laura : Quel conseil donneriez-vous aux femmes noires entrepreneures qui sont confrontées à des obstacles liés leur sexe et à leur race?

Lise : Mon conseil est tout simplement d’oser, de se concentrer sur son objectif et de connaître sa valeur. Beaucoup de femmes noires sont audacieuses, elles n’ont pas peur d’être plus fortes et d’aller là où elles ne devraient pas être. Donc c’est de garder cet esprit car nous n’avons rien à perdre. Je crois que nous devons apprendre à nos filles à s’instruire continuellement, à ne jamais avoir peur d’exprimer une opinion si elle est fondée sur la vérité, même si elle semble impopulaire, et à saisir les possibilités qui se présentent. Ce n’est pas parce que nous avons peu de modèles de réussite qui nous ressemblent dans un certain domaine que nous devons nous imposer des limites. Finalement, ne pas oublier de soutenir les autres tout au long du chemin! 

Laura : Dans cinq ans, qu’envisagez-vous pour le Black Innovation Fund?

Lise : J’aimerais voir beaucoup d’exemples de réussite, pour les entreprises dans lesquelles nous investissons, pour nous-mêmes et, surtout, pour le secteur du capital de risque en général. Nous nous efforçons également de modifier l’optique d’investissement en formant des professionnels noirs dans le domaine de l’investissement qui travailleront dans l’écosystème du capital de risque afin de renforcer la diversité au niveau de la prise de décision. Nous espérons que cette tendance devienne la norme, à la fois dans les entreprises qui recherchent des fonds d’investissement et dans celles qui réalisent ces investissements. Dans cinq ans, j’espère voir des fonds de plus grande taille pour les initiatives dirigées par des personnes issues de communautés diverses dans le domaine du capital-investissement et du capital de risque. J’espère que 15 à 20 ans plus tard, ces fonds n’existeront plus, parce qu’ils ne seront plus nécessaires et que la diversité fera partie du quotidien.

Meet the woman at the helm of the first institutionally backed, Black-led venture fund in Canada.

Lise Birikundavyi

As Vice President, Client Diversity at BDC, Laura Didyk is leading the bank’s efforts to understand and address the challenges faced by underrepresented and underserved entrepreneurs — whether they be racialized, identify as women, identify as members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, be living with a disability, or exist within a combination of these identities. She’s sharing their journeys through conversations, and this month it’s with Lise Birikundavyi,  principal & fund manager for Black Innovation Capital.


In Canada, fewer than one in ten venture funds have a woman as a managing partner. Narrow that down to Black women and institutionally-backed funds, and there’s only one: Lise Birikundavyi. She is principal & fund manager for Black Innovation Capital, a $10 million VC fund that invests in Black-led tech start-ups, backed by BDC Capital, and launched in June 2021.  

Before taking the helm at Black Innovation Capital, Lise worked in finance internationally for a number of institutions. Raised in Montreal, her journey has taken her to Argentina, China, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and back to Toronto (picking up French, English, Spanish, and a bit of Mandarin along the way). Through her education and career, she’s steered her work towards social entrepreneurship and impact investing. 

Lise is a firm believer in using the forces of capital markets as a basis for the more inclusive wealth creation and sustainable poverty alleviation. I caught up with Lise to discuss her impressive journey, culminating in the recent launch of Black Innovation Capital. 


Laura: You’ve focused a lot of your career on finance with a social purpose. How did you get started down this path? 

Lise: It started when I was 18 and went back to Burundi for the first time — I grew up in Montreal, but I was born there. It’s a country that’s had its share of issues; poverty, civil unrest, and access to education are some of the main ones. I didn’t know what I’d find when I arrived, but I was amazed by the beauty of the country and the intellect of the people. 

One thing that really struck me is that most people’s idea of success meant working at a large institution or at an international organization. There weren’t many locally owned businesses. When I talked with people about their entrepreneurship ideas, they would always say, “you should start one,” or “you should do it.” And I kept thinking, I don’t live here, why don’t you do it? I realized that an unintended consequence of humanitarian aid was that it was weakening the entrepreneurial spirit.

“I realized that this was real empowerment — supporting the creation of role models in different societies by giving them the means to build something on their own which would then have a ripple effect in their communities.”

A few years later in Argentina, I stumbled upon the idea of social entrepreneurship. I found the book How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein and began learning about microfinance. I liked the idea of doing good while building capacity and making money. I realized that this was real empowerment — supporting the creation of role models in different societies by giving them the means to build something on their own which would then have a ripple effect in their communities, without anyone feeling indebted as the financial benefit would be shared. 

Laura: I love that. I know you started out working in hedge funds, though — how did you steer your career into impact investing? 

Lise: I loved working in the hedge fund world but I knew there was something more I could be doing, I just didn’t know how to enter the development space from an empowerment perspective. A good friend started talking to me about impact investing, and I began to meet with a group of women bankers in Montreal organising regular events to talk about what it was and exploring how we could develop it in Canada. 

I decided I would try to create my own pathway in impact investing with an outlook for emerging markets. I went on to do my MBA in Shanghai with three goals: to learn Mandarin, to create a strong network, and to understand the China-Africa relationship. Everything I did there was around impact investing, and I took the opportunity to carefully craft my next steps. 

At the beginning, my focus was emerging markets with a development outlook. The goal was to make sure huge problems could be solved by empowering people to solve them, while making money for the fund I was working for at the time. 

Laura: What came next for you after Shanghai? 

Lise: I came back to North America, but when I got pregnant with my first son, I decided we should go live and work in Ghana. I had always wanted to experience living on the African continent and I assumed, naïvely, that I would get bored staying home with a baby. I was up for another adventure and wanted to continue my impact work. In Ghana, I worked supporting Engineers Without Borders, Canada. We found a community there and it was a beautiful experience. We then spent three years in Côte d’Ivoire, a country located on the south coast of West Africa, where I was managing an edtech fund for the Jacobs Foundation.

Laura: And then your next step was Black Innovation Capital. How did that come about?

Lise: When I decided to start this adventure with Isaac Olowolafe to found Black Innovation Capital, it felt similar to the work I had done in Africa — despite it being a completely different market. The fund was about economic empowerment, working with a population that is not receiving the funding it should, and wanting to help them create wealth that can be reinvested in the community. For us, it’s not about one community versus another, it’s about the greater participation of all communities in the VC space. It’s about diversity and inclusion and everyone contributing to a better system. 

Having BDC come on as our anchor investor really helped to bring the fund together; we’ve loved the experience and the support we’ve received in everything from working out the funding model to facilitating first time fund managers. We launched officially June 7 of this year, and are currently in negotiations for our first investments. 

Laura: What’s the vision for Black Innovation Capital? What sets it apart from other VC funds?

Lise: Our hope is to help build successful Black-led tech businesses, deliver returns to our investors, and increase the diversity in the venture capital ecosystem. So overall, our main theme is diversity. 

Any business we invest in must be Black-led — that’s at least 25% of ownership or executive management — and an early-stage tech company. We expect the teams will come from various backgrounds, because within Black communities you tend to see many different backgrounds and perspectives. 

“So far, what we’re finding among the companies we’re looking at is this embedded resilience. Many have had a hard time finding financing and have had to be really creative to get to where they are at now.”

So far, what we’re finding among the companies we’re looking at is this embedded resilience. Many have had a hard time finding financing and have had to be really creative to get to where they are at now. We are also seeing a lot of inclusive products and services, solving problems from different angles and perspectives. And that’s exactly what we’re looking for: start-ups that are doing things differently, addressing needs that aren’t currently being met, and bringing about serious improvements to concepts that already exist. 

Laura: So, is Black Innovation Capital an impact fund? 

Lise:  To me, impact investing is doing good while doing well — making money while creating a positive change in society. While Black Innovation Capital isn’t technically an impact fund, it does have an impact that’s very close to my heart. I understand what it is to feel like you have to work harder than the rest, that you’re not measured against the same standards and making a mistake is not an option. In creating tools that are helping with wealth creation or empowerment in general, I dream of a world where we don’t have to have these conversations with our children. Where diversity becomes the norm. To me, that’s the real impact. 

Laura: Is VC funding right for everyone? What about other options for Black entrepreneurs, like loans? 

Lise: It’s great to see more support emerging for Black entrepreneurs, such as the Black Entrepreneurship Startup Program or Black Entrepreneur Loan Fund. Both offer funding and mentorship which is an important combination for growing your business. Choosing between a program like these, extending loans, or VC investment really depends on you and your business — because both come with different terms and serve different needs. 

One of the biggest differences between venture capital and a loan is the loan is paid back on set terms. With venture capital, we mainly use equity, which means that we invest in your company and our return on investment generally depends on how well your company does, so the kind of partnership you have with a VC fund can often be a bit more hands-on. We’d expect you to call us for support when you don’t know what decision to make. We’re there for the long run, we’re partners in growth, and we really take the risk along with you. 

In any instance, what is most important is to get advice to determine what is the best financing model for you and your business. 

Laura: We know that Black entrepreneurs struggle to secure capital and find role models. What do you see as some of the issues causing this, and how do you hope to address them? 

Lise: There are many reasons Black-owned businesses aren’t getting capital. It’s important to recognize that unconscious bias exists everywhere, including in investing. People typically invest in individuals and concepts they are familiar with, not always based on their values, experience or a sound business case. 

What we often see are mentorship programs that don’t come with access to capital. To be successful, you need both. We’re trying to solve this issue of over-mentoring and under-investing. 

“From a role model perspective, it’s really nice that Isaac and I represent a Black man and a Black woman leading this initiative. The goal is to change the perspective for younger generations and make them see that it is possible for them to do whatever they decide to do.”

On the part of the entrepreneurs, there is also sometimes a lack of awareness — they don’t know where to go for help. The investment communities are siloed and often lack diversity. That can lead to a lack of confidence for some Black entrepreneurs. Even if they have a good idea, they don’t necessarily believe others will be interested in it. 

From a role model perspective, it’s really nice that Isaac and I represent a Black man and a Black woman leading this initiative. The goal is to change the perspective for younger generations and make them see that it is possible for them to do whatever they decide to do. We will be investing in companies that will eventually create massive success stories, and those leaders will become models of success as well.

Laura: What’s your advice for Black women entrepreneurs, who face barriers both because of their gender and their race?

Lise: My advice is simply to be daring, laser-focused, and know your value. A lot of Black women are actually fearless, not afraid to be louder and go where they should not be. Many feel they have nothing to lose. I want us to teach our daughters to educate themselves, to never be afraid to express an opinion if rooted in truth, even when it seems unpopular, and to seize opportunities when they present themselves. Just because we haven’t seen many others who look like us be successful in a certain field, it doesn’t mean we should put limits on ourselves. And, be sure to support others along the way! 

Laura: In five years from now, what do you envision for the Black Innovation Fund?

Lise: I’d like to see a lot of success stories, for the companies we invest in, for ourselves, and as importantly for the VC space in general. We’re also working to shift the investing lens by training Black investment managers who will be placed in the VC ecosystem to help create more diversity at the decision making level. We hope for that to be the norm — more diversity not only in the companies seeking investment dollars but in those making the investments. In five years, my hope is to see larger size funds for Black-led or BIPOC-led initiatives in the private equity and venture capital space. In 15-20 years, I hope they no longer exist because they won’t be needed anymore — that diversity will be business as usual.

Mandy Farmer built an award winning retro-themed hotel brand — and kept it going through the pandemic by focusing on helping people.

Mandy Farmer

By Karen van Kampen


For 10 years, Mandy Farmer wrote one business plan after another, trying to sell the concept of retro-themed hotels to her business partners at Accent Inns. Yet she couldn’t convince them to invest in renovating old motels and rebranding them with a 1970s flair. 

Refusing to give up, Mandy brought her partners to a motel that was owned by Accent Inns. The property was projected to lose money, and Mandy asked for their advice on how to turn things around. Standing in front of the motel, her partners proposed Mandy’s idea as their own — suggesting they reinvent the property with a retro theme. Naturally, she agreed.

In 2014, the first Hotel Zed was launched. Today, Accent Inns operates three Hotel Zeds across British Columbia, entertaining guests with a 1980s arcade, mini disco, and bike path that runs through the lobby. “We are rebels against the ordinary,” says Mandy, echoing Hotel Zed’s tagline. 

As President and CEO of Accent Inns, Mandy is being recognized as an innovative hotelier with a passion to bring comfort and happiness to her guests. She was the 2020 winner of the Excellence Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards, that honours an entrepreneur who has built and managed a successful business over a decade through timely innovation, strategic thinking, and smart execution. 

Looking back, Mandy remembers the pivotal experience of watching her dad become a hotelier. She was 13 when he built the first Accent Inn, transitioning from the family construction business into hotels. “I saw my dad come alive,” she says. “There was a jaunt in his step. He whistled. He talked to everyone about Accent Inns. He was so proud.” 

When Mandy was in her twenties, she became Sales Manager at Accent Inns. It wasn’t easy cold calling potential business customers, including film studios and insurance companies that needed accommodations for their employees on the road. “You’d have doors slammed in your face,” she says. “But it was also exhilarating to get a sale.” She worked her way up in the company by recognizing and seizing every opportunity. 

During her executive MBA at Royal Roads University, Mandy wrote her thesis on retro-themed hotels. She graduated in 2003 and became Vice President of Accent Inns. Two years later, Mandy was appointed president and CEO. Today, she continues to brainstorm innovative and unique ideas to grow the five Accent Inns and three Hotel Zeds. “It is in our blood to look at every single thing and decide, how can we make that unordinary?” she says.

Accent Inns are built on fun and humour, with secret jokes hidden in every room. Stepping into an elevator is like taking a hot air balloon ride, with guests surrounded by a 360-degree aerial photograph of the property. At Hotel Zed, things get a bit wilder, with a mini disco where people can DJ their own dance party and a retro office space with a secret switch on a bookshelf that opens onto a 1980s arcade.   

“I was able to go down the rabbit hole of fear and see that I could lose the family business. We kept talking about leading with love and opening our hearts wide.”

Mandy remembers working at franchised hotels that were very formulaic, giving her scripts to read when she was on the front desk. “We are the exact opposite,” she says. “We are surprising and fun, refreshing and real.” 

Mandy is also dedicated to the happiness and satisfaction of her 300 staff. New employees are told, “We hired you because you’re awesome. Please let your awesomeness show, however that is for you,” she says. They are given a name tag and asked to create their own title. There is a disco dancer and dog walker on the team. “It’s permission to be yourself at work,” she says. 

After so much success, the pandemic has brought about a difficult time for the company. “I was able to go down the rabbit hole of fear and see that I could lose the family business,” says Mandy, who decided that if they were going to go down, they would do so with their heads held high and help as many people as possible. “We kept talking about leading with love and opening our hearts wide,” she says.

 After hearing about a nurse sleeping in her car for fear of bringing the virus home to her family, Mandy began providing hotel rooms at cost to frontline workers. When bus drivers were being mistreated by some passengers during the pandemic, Mandy and her team gave drivers thank you notes and gift cards to show their appreciation. She gave her employees the gift of giving at the holidays by providing them with two gift cards: one for themselves and one to give to someone else. 

Then there were the party parades in which staff would drive by kids’ houses in Hotel Zed’s 1960s VW buses with signs and balloons, honking and wishing children a happy birthday. The parades were provided free of charge, which kept Mandy’s team engaged and feeling like they were making a difference. “It’s changed our company,” says Mandy. “To this day, we’re constantly asking, how can we help?”   

Looking to the future, Mandy is excited to continue to grow her business as well as her people. “It’s a passion for us to transform our employees’ lives, however we can do it,” she says. “I want their jobs to be the best of their lives so that when someone asks them when they’re 80 years old, ‘what was your favourite job?’ I want to be it.”

Meet Siobhan McManus: the Women’s Entrepreneur and Client Diversity Champion at BDC

Siobhan McManus

Siobhan joined the Business Development Bank of Canada (also known as BDC), the only Bank devoted exclusively to entrepreneurs, 5 years ago, after working with a large commercial chartered bank, and spending time in healthcare philanthropy. She leverages her expertise to journey alongside entrepreneurs throughout all stages of the business cycle. She has worked across a diverse spectrum of industries and with businesses of all sizes, as a partner, to help them access the financing and advice they need to succeed. She is proud to support entrepreneurs through her leadership as a Client Diversity Champion, and B Corp (Beneficial Corporation) Champion. Supporting BDC’s national Client Diversity and Inclusion strategy, Siobhan works closely with Women Entrepreneurs to equip them with the resources and the tools they need to thrive, understanding the unique challenges they face, and the incredible strengths they possess.


My first job ever was…. I founded and operated a small commercial office cleaning business when I was a teenager. 

The best part of my role at BDC is… Seeing our clients succeed and being a partner in that success. Our mandate is impact, and we have incredible resources to help our clients reach their potential.

My proudest accomplishment is… A career path with positive impact, fundraising millions of dollars as a volunteer and professional, cycling across Canada in 2010, and running as a semi-elite athlete in the 2018 Tokyo Marathon.

I surprise people when I tell them… I don’t like bacon. 

My best advice from a mentor was… Run your race; this applies to all areas of life!

My best advice to women entrepreneurs is… Understand your finances and ask for help. Everyone wants to support your success!

The best lesson I’ve learned from women entrepreneurs is… Balancing risk and reward. 

My biggest setback was… Not making a career move sooner.

I overcame it by…Being more courageous, taking more risks, and always putting my hand up and name forward for opportunities to grow and help others!

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Slowing down to enjoy the moment.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… Read, more.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I love to travel! Seeing new places and experiencing new cultures is a privilege that I am fortunate to experience.

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… Ask for help. You cannot know everything and there is no need to re-invent the wheel; you’ll be surprised to find that your challenges are not unique, and there are lots of great solutions!

I stay inspired by… Being witness to the incredible resiliency of entrepreneurs.

The future excites me because… Consumers are increasingly voting with their dollars and want to support diverse, innovative and ethical companies. I’m excited to see this new appetite foster diversity, inclusion, and ethical commerce!

My next step is… To continue to support entrepreneurs with BDC’s diversity and inclusion mandate so that our Canadian economy is truly reflective of the diverse and rich fabric of our Country.


Feminae Carta: Combining digital activism and research to advance gender equality globally.

Like many people who have had to pivot during the pandemic, activists have had to reimagine the way they advocate for the causes they care about in an online environment. Not only have we had to make the switch to organizing and engaging people in our advocacy efforts online, but have also had to recognize the increased inequalities amid the pandemic. 

Particularly when it comes to women’s issues, gender-based violence, school dropouts, child marriages have been increasing over the past year and a half, with more women at home and lack of access from community allies. 

As we thought about how we can take action, and reimagined possibilities for creating the needed policy changes globally to ensure that gender equality is achieved, we came up with the idea for Feminae Carta. Feminae Carta is the world’s first Digital Advocacy tool of its kind, which aims to make gender equality a policy priority in countries globally. We have more than 20 researchers from all six continents who have been working with us over the past few months to develop our initial background guide, which presents research on the current status of women’s well-being, voices and participation in society. 

In this article, we hope to share the thoughts of some researchers and their findings, to give you a sneak peek into our work. 


Yasmine Nassereddin, Canadian and Palestinian Researcher

Area of Focus for Feminae Carta: Girls’ Education in Oceania and South Asia

Education is a powerful tool capable of  breaking down and eradicating poverty; reducing child mortality; supporting economic and professional growth, development, and well-being; and most importantly closing the gap in gender inequality (UNICEF). From an economic viewpoint, investment in education expands business opportunities by strengthening a nation’s human capital. A larger and more educated labour force results in better wages and income for stable living. Investing in girl’s education can lead to an increase of females in future leadership positions and new perspectives to old persisting problems. While slight progress is occurring in gender parity in education, girls continue to face many barriers to schooling in all levels of education. In the same year, it was estimated that for every 100 boys only 86 girls were enrolled in secondary schools (United Nations, 2015). Girls education is necessary for acquiring sustainable and healthy futures for everyone. Giving girls access to equitable education is a vital investment for our world. When girls thrive by learning and developing their own passions in life, the world becomes more peaceful and sustainable as new ideas and perspectives are shared. Multiple studies and research has shown the economic, political, social, and environmental benefits of having educated women and girls. Oceania and MENA countries have definitely progressed in making improvements to their female population’s access to education, however, many structural and societal barriers block girls from achieving education they feel respected, included, and celebrated in.


Rosella Cottam, British Researcher

Area of Focus for Feminae Carta: Girls’ Education in Europe, Middle East and North Africa

Empowerment has a “transformative ability to affect power relations in societies”, and therefore the empowerment of women is an essential component of the development and interests of nations around the world (Moghadam, 2016). In Europe, the current status of women’s empowerment is dependent on the access of women to services and opportunities within their lives. Women’s empowerment in Europe has been shaped by the legacies of colonialism and this affects the structures and rights of women in the world today. In the case of nations in the European Union, there have currently been some successful outcomes related to increased women’s active role in decision-making in the workplace, yet there are still institutional and resource structures related to leadership, healthcare, and services for the poor which hinder empowerment (Sustainable Solutions).  In the Middle East and North Africa (the MENA region), women’s empowerment is currently characterised by significant change in fighting the challenges to the lack of power and discrimination of women in society. There have been efforts towards improving empowerment through raising the voices of women in policy making roles, and increasing opportunities to influence laws and debates.  An example of this can be seen in Algeria, where there have been efforts to increase women’s empowerment in national parliaments, and by 2013, this has led to 31.6% of women in parliament. This example shows that efforts have had success, yet progress is still needed to reach greater empowerment.

Change can also be created through increasing public knowledge through innovative processes and research suggestions, which creates opportunities for more inclusive solutions for women.  On the ground, young activists have also needed resources in order to deliver change, and this includes technology, networks, skills, and collaboration with governmental and non-governmental organizations to empower women within their communities (UNGEI, 2014).


Soukaina Tachfouti, Moroccan Researcher

Area of Focus for Feminae Carta: Women in the Workplace in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia

The inclusion of women in professional and technical jobs can contribute to drastic changes across all sectors and industries, it can turbo-charge economic growth in regions that will be significantly impacted by the Fourth Industrial Revolution—making their participation all the more critical.  While very few women are breaking through the glass ceiling to top managerial posts, entrepreneurship is gaining importance as an alternative avenue for their economic empowerment, however it is still a widely untapped source of economic growth and social progress, and job creation. 

It is extremely critical that women are included in decision-making and hold formal positions so that their voices can be heard and the interests of women, as well as men, are taken into consideration.  Integration into employment is not limited only to the will of individuals but to a set of factors that are often interlinked, preventing women from unleashing their talent and full potential. Women in South Asia and the MENA region continue to face a range of cultural, financial, and legal barriers more than their female counterparts across the globe. The economic and labour market specificities have positioned women in a weak starting point compared to men, leaving them with a lot of catching up. Moreover, many of the barriers that render women economically inactive also haunt working women in their careers and slow down their progression. In other words, what hinders women from entering the workforce in the first place also naturally hinders their growth into business and management leadership positions.  

There are several policy prescriptions which can help create progress for women in the workplace, not only in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, but also all over the world. Some of these include ensuring girls’ get access to education and the tools they need to access work, and also improving the workplace environment by ensuring that women have equal pay.

While there is a lot of work yet to be done, the progress that has been made and the current work for gender equality is incredibly inspiring, and leaves us hopeful for the future. You can stay updated with Feminae Carta by visiting

Meet Jen Lee Koss, retail entrepreneur and investor with a social purpose.

Jenn Lee Koss

Jen Lee Koss is an entrepreneur and investor, passionate about supporting, uplifting, and making a change in the lives of entrepreneurs and working families. A graduate of Harvard University, Oxford University, and Harvard Business School, Jen has worked in the consumer and retail sectors for most of her career. Before launching BRIKA, a business focused on helping businesses with innovative, curated retail experiences in 2012, Jen worked in the management, consulting, investment banking, and private equity spaces. Alongside her work with BRIKA, Jen is a Founding Partner of Springbank Collective, an organization that invests in early-stage companies that are re-imagining work, building the care infrastructure, and creating solutions for working families — with a goal of a more inclusive future.


My first job ever was… as a House Manager at The American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. I was responsible for making sure the shows started on time and that the audience was taken care of! 

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… if I look back at the trajectory of my education and career, I have always had big ideas and executed them. For example, I founded my University’s first conductorless orchestra (which still exists today!). When I left my finance career to start BRIKA, I was craving a more creative path in life.

I co-founded BRIKA because… I met the right person to start the business with. When I met my co-founder Kena, I knew she had the right experience and skillset that was complementary to my own, and that we would make a great team. 

I co-founded Springbank Collective because… in my role with BRIKA, I have been privy to working and partnering with thousands of small businesses, of which the majority are women-founded, run, and owned. I have understood firsthand how difficult it is to work and raise a family at the same time (I have four young children under the age of 10), so, in many ways, I have always felt passionate about gender equality issues, but didn’t know how or what I could do to make a change. With my founding partners, Courtney and Elana, I knew that the thesis we came up with was a large enough platform to make a difference. We believe the gender gap can’t be siloed as a “women’s issue” — it is an infrastructure gap and a massive, overlooked opportunity. We invest in the tools and services to support working women and working families across the categories of care, career, and household consumer, irrespective of the founders’ gender.

“There’s never been a better time to start your business. If you take things one tiny step at a time without getting overwhelmed by the big picture, you’re well on your way to making something great.”   

My biggest setback was… not being able to accept what I considered my “dream job,” due to a Visa issue that I had overlooked. At the time, it seemed like the end of the world, but in hindsight, I may not have ever started my entrepreneurial journey.

I overcame it by… accepting it was completely my fault and focusing on the next thing ahead. 

One misconception about social enterprises is… that it’s not big business. You can make an impact and a return at the same time. 

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs with a social mission is… there’s never been a better time to start your business. If you take things one tiny step at a time without getting overwhelmed by the big picture, you’re well on your way to making something great.   

The thing I love most about what I do is… meeting and connecting with new people.

One tangible way you can make your everyday spending more impactful is… putting your money where your mouth is. Go out of your way to support your local businesses and small makers because when you do, you’re supporting a dream.

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… the people with whom I have had the privilege of working with. I have worked with some of the best, hardest working, most inspiring individuals out there who believe in supporting talented founders and businesses. 

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I played Division I lacrosse in college for four years. 

I stay inspired by… my kids. They are 10, nine, six, and four, and have completely different personalities and interests. I love the lens from which they look at the world, and how their brains work as they learn.   

The future excites me because… there is still so much to do, but also so much that can be done to make lives better for the generations ahead. The onus is on us to change the gender equality equation for our kids!

My journey as a STEM entrepreneur — and the lessons I’ve learned on the way.

When people ask me how I got my start in reproductive medicine, I often tell them about my childhood. I was 7 or 8 when my fascination and love for biology started to develop. My dad was a scientist and taught reproductive biology. In the summers, I remember going to the lab with him and watching him work. He explained to me how to nurture a seed until it sprouts and grows into a strong healthy plant, and how a plant bears fruit like a woman bears babies. 

I was excited about science — I’ve always been fascinated by biological systems — so I knew I would study STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and that it would be medical school all the way. I am lucky to have been very supported by my parents and other people in my life. The reason we got cable when I was in elementary school was so that I could watch the first open heart surgery be performed. In high school, during a library period, we learned about the 10th birthday of Louis Brown, the first IVF baby, and I found an article about ‘the future of medicine’ that I must have read a dozen times. The meeting of science and technology, and how this would be needed for assisted human reproduction, had me hooked. 

Barriers: They exist, but belief goes a long way

While I may have always had a clear vision for my education and career path, that doesn’t mean it was a smooth journey. I was lucky that the people that surrounded me, believed in me. While some did joke that I should be a lawyer because I’m quite a vocal person — I didn’t want to study law, I wanted to be a doctor.

One area that I did hesitate was about how I was going to learn everything I needed to learn to be the doctor I wanted to be. I was guilty of serially and consistently underestimating my abilities, which unfortunately women do too much of. My male colleagues never seemed to express or show the same hesitancy while learning: I think our tendency for self-reflection to lead to self-doubt is a major chasm for women to overcome, particularly in STEM fields.

“There is something we need to do along the education journey differently, so that girls and women believe that their place is in STEM. To reinforce that their place is to have tremendous skill.”

Education: How can we prepare our children

Speaking of education, I am so supportive of how accessibility has improved. While there are still incredible gender biases that exist, there are also concerted and systemic efforts to address this and change the outcome for the future generations of women in STEM.

On the flip side, I believe that the immediacy of knowledge in the upcoming generations poses its own problems. I have three beautiful children (through IVF!), and when I watch them access Google and the wide world of the internet to get an answer to whatever it is they are thinking about or working on at that moment, it scares me a bit. They get their answer, and then they move on. It is not a piecing together of different learnings to create a whole picture, which I am concerned is stunting the curiosity-related skills that work to slowly build knowledge over time, and deep understanding of systems. 

While my love of science came from my dad, other characteristics that define me today I know that I developed through my mother and our community of ‘aunties’. The women who surrounded me, who were significant players in my life when I was growing up, were heads of university departments, leading government offices; women who were in charge in important positions. It was never a concept for me that I couldn’t be a leader, that I shouldn’t be outspoken. I had the good fortune of having a family filled with boisterous, inquisitive, well-spoken, thoughtful women — who at the same time could be kind, loving and nurturing aunties.

Mentorship & collaboration: Doing my part

I see it as part of my role as a female leader in a STEM field to act as a mentor to other women. If you see a spark, light the flame. There are no set roles for women. Girls are amazing, we are inquisitive, we are vocal, and we are scientists. Let’s tap into it, and encourage more women through mentorship to excel in STEM, in business, and in their personal lives — and especially when you dare to do it all.

You have a responsibility to set an example for the next generation of women. It is hard to be a woman. As a female CEO and single mom to three children, I have different responsibilities. It’s not that I can’t do it, but I have to make conscious choices and yes, certain sacrifices. 

“We have so much to gain from working collaboratively, building community and encouraging each other. When you find great people, nurture that relationship and strengthen your network.”

That’s another area where I have faced critique along my journey. Being a Medical Director & CEO, I have to set aside time for the business while performing my duties as a physician. I also have to set aside and protect time for my children. They need to know that they are a priority to me, even as they see me work long and odd hours. They get to see me as a tremendously fulfilled, successful woman, who is not afraid to say that what I do is my passion and it brings me joy — just as they do. 

We have so much to gain from working collaboratively, building community and encouraging each other. When you find great people, nurture that relationship and strengthen your network. Everyone has their genius — celebrate it, don’t be intimidated by it.

I’ll leave this question here: why are so many men practicing women’s health and infertility? Fertility clinics for the most part are private clinics in Canada, and women should lead more of them. Women should make more decisions within them, working together collaboratively. We can provide the medical care, and run the business. 

So what can all this be boiled down to? I guess at the end of the day I would like to encourage other women to:

  • Dream big. Once you’ve finished, amplify it exponentially — and go for it. 

  • Be strategic, make a plan, and work your tail off.

  • Don’t underestimate yourself, or other women, and don’t under-aim.

Thank you for letting me share my story, and until next time — get out there, encourage each other and dare to thrive.

7 Questions leaders must ask themselves.

Woman leader thinking and smiling

By Dr. Jivi Saran

Ready to become a transformational leader? It’s time to take your mask off.

No, not the one you’re thinking about. The mask I’m talking about is your leadership mask — the ideal and perfect role you’re trying to portray. This is a particularly common technique among people of colour and women. Performing in a leadership role is a bit like dancing in a masquerade ball. There are steps, a routine to follow, but the tempo is always changing. To avoid a misstep, many leaders cling to a routine, even if it’s not in their best interest, or even entirely appropriate to the situation.

As a Senior Business Advisor at the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), I’ve spent 35 years collaborating with business leaders who want to maximize their potential and create high-performance teams. I’ve worked globally in just about every industry except aerospace (it’s on the bucket list). My secret to creating high-powered teams? Executives and CEOs must be willing to un-mask — to realize and maximize their true leadership potential.

Taking the mask off isn’t easy. It’s predictable and protective. For women and minorities who are often judged more harshly, it can feel like the mask creates a cool anonymity that’s often confused with professionalism. No one is supposed to know about the fight you had with your partner or father’s mental decline. Numbers, project deadlines, and growth are where business leaders are supposed to live and die. But that’s not tenable as a leader — or a human being.

Taking Off the Mask

Authenticity is probably the best worst-kept secret of the business world. The knee-jerk horror at the idea of feeling vulnerable is a perfectly normal response, particularly if you feel like you already receive unfair scrutiny and judgement. Yet, it’s this vulnerability — the real stuff — that often works to connect you to your team. 

Think of it like this, if you’re overwhelmed by a work task — frustrated, confused, irritated — your team members almost certainly feel the same. And ignoring this isn’t going to make it go away. A facade of cool unflappability, especially coupled with a by-the-book attitude, can make you unapproachable. At best, you miss out on opportunities to connect and emphasize with team members. At worst, it creates space for miscommunication and errors. 

Team members may be hesitant that voicing concerns may be perceived as weakness. They don’t want to mess up any more than you do. When things go wrong, pretending everything is fine doesn’t work. Acknowledge feelings of futility, frustration, disappointment — and find a way to move forward. When things go right, celebrate. Share your excitement and approval.

Authenticity is a cornerstone of leadership. Your role doesn’t end at business leader, you are also a human being. And the legacy of your company, the stuff that will live beyond your tenure, is made up of your team’s beliefs, its energy — your corporate culture. The ability to unmask, show your humanity, and adjust your course is vital. The secret sauce of leadership has always been competency, with a dash of humanity. 

7 Questions to Ask Yourself

Leading authentically isn’t just about how you present yourself to your employees, it also requires taking an honest look inward. If you’re serious about creating a high-caliber team, the sort that unlocks growth and profitability, ask yourself these seven questions about your performance:

  1. How do team members talk about you?
  2. What stories about you are shared around the water cooler?
  3. When you return home, how do you feel? Are you excited to transition out of your work role to your family role? Or are you tired and frustrated with nothing left to give?
  4. How do you WANT people to talk about you as a leader?
  5. What legacy do you want to leave behind? How do you hope to impact humanity?
  6. How much time do you waste on random thoughts every day? Based on your salary and time, assign a dollar amount. Now multiply that by the number of people on your team.
  7. Do you want to create a workplace where everyone functions with purpose, ease, and grace?

Sovereign Leadership: Preparing to Take the Lead

Removing your mask and asking these seven questions are steps on the path to becoming a sovereign leader. What does it mean to be a sovereign leader? If we return to the analogy of the masquerade ball, this is how you take the lead. Sovereign leadership is about growing into yourself as a leader. It’s where you learn how to leverage your individual industry experience, energy, and passion to create a leadership style that’s smart and approachable. In other words, you gain the confidence to listen and learn what’s happening around you and then make adjustments as needed. However, doing this means coming to terms with several factors:

  • self-identity
  • self-realization
  • self-awareness
  • and self-actualization

Leaders wear many mantles. And the higher you climb, the more will be expected. To manage, report, correct, direct, nurture, assert, and grow, you need to feel comfortable approaching team members with understanding and empathy. You have to feel comfortable being yourself — man, woman, non-binary, person of colour (or some combination of these). There’s no other way this works.

Aligning with yourself as a leader takes work, but it is a profoundly rewarding journey filled with deep, personal insights. By unmasking and becoming the best version of yourself — and allowing others to do the same, you can create a workplace that’s happier, healthier, more efficient, and more inclusive. And isn’t that the point of the whole dance?

Dr Jivi Saran

Dr Jivi Saran

Dr. Jivi Saran is a business advisor, leadership coach, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Permission to Be You. Specializing in change management, she holds a Ph.D. in Organizational and Human Behavior and MBA in Leadership. Jivi leverages almost 35 years’ experience to increase productivity, focus, and creativity within organizations, and guides top-tier executives to reach peak-performance by changing how they teach, interact, communicate, motivate, and inspire.

Meet Kim Taylor and Anne-Marie Kypreos, founders of Little Buddha Cocktail Co.

Little Buddha Cocktail Co Founders

Originally from Florida, Anne-Marie Kypreos worked all over the world as a model before meeting her husband, former NHL player Nick Kypreos. The pair settled in Toronto (his hometown) after he got a contract with the Maple Leafs. Kim Taylor moved to Toronto from the Bahamas; originally coming for school, but eventually staying for career and family. The pair became friends after meeting through their teenage daughters back in 2016. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2020: the pandemic had just started, and Kim (then 48 years old) and Anne-Marie (then 54) founded Little Buddha Cocktail Co. — a line of premium distilled cocktails, made with organic, health-forward (they come in low or no sugar options), and socially conscious ingredients. We asked them about their career transition, what it was like to launch during a pandemic, and what they’ve learned on their entrepreneurial journey so far. 


My first job ever was… (Anne-Marie) at a Hallmark Card Shop and (Kim) at Benetton clothing store.

We decided to be entrepreneurs because… Kim and I felt it was the perfect time in our lives to challenge ourselves. We had both taken time off work to raise our families, but our kids were now in their teens and more independent so it made sense to start a new career chapter. It also was clear to us that there was a growing segment of people looking for healthier and organic cocktail options — and luckily we were ready and eager to create a product to fill the gap. As they say: it’s never too late to be what you might have been.

The idea for Little Buddha Cocktails came to us when… visiting Kim’s farm for the weekend. At dinner we discussed that the adult beverage market had a niche that hadn’t been filled yet. We imagined a flavourful ready-to-drink cocktail that was organic, had no sugar, was gluten-free and that had a low-calorie count. There was nothing on the shelves like that.  The lower calorie drinks we did find didn’t have the burst of flavour that we wanted in a cocktail. Our husbands joked around that maybe we should just start a cocktail company ourselves.

Our proudest accomplishment is… launching a company during the pandemic when the world seemed to basically shut down (we launched in Spring 2020!)  We could only rely on word of mouth and grass roots efforts – we couldn’t do any in-store sampling or participate in any events to get people to try it.  We overcame shipping issues, aluminum can shortages, as well as the inability to have the hands-on approach that is necessary for new companies.  We must have held our breath for the first six months after our product hit shelves.

Our boldest move to date was… entering a blind taste test against very established brands.  We fared very well!

We surprise people when we tell them… how quickly we came into being.  It only took a few short months from conception, flavour development, branding and design, creating a business plan and then contracting supply partners.  It was a steep learning curve, but somehow, we made it happen. 

Our best advice to people starting out in business is… ask as many questions as you can.  And find a product or service that fills a void. Most importantly, ask potential customers what their needs and desires are.

I would tell my 20-year-old self… (Anne-Marie) to stop worrying so much about the what-ifs in life and trying to be perfect. There is no perfect. The philosophy of our company is actually a great reminder to my 20-year-old self. Live mindfully. Live more in the present. Embrace what you have, today. Also, to buy Apple shares! 

(Kim) Celebrate all of your achievements…ideally by dancing.

“As they say: it’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

Our biggest setback was… not being able to have consumers sample our product at the LCBO and restaurants, as well as having to cancel our big launch party. We were also scheduled to be the exclusive cocktail at the Canadian Film Awards. We had planned large events that were all cancelled due to the Pandemic.

We always felt if we could just get people to try our cocktails, they would love Little Buddha. Even now, over a year after we’ve launched, all tastings and events are still on hold. Of course, we are just one of many who have been impacted and certainly aren’t complaining. The most important thing is to keep everyone healthy and safe.

We overcame it by… relying on social media and word of mouth. We’re so fortunate that many of the people who pick up Little Buddha Cocktails share their love for it on social media. We also continue to work to produce new flavours to offer more variety on shelves (we just launched our Organic Natural Peach Tea flavour in April!)

If we had an extra hour in the day, we would… (Anne-Marie) spend more time outside and (Kim) workout with weights.

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… (Anne-Marie) accepting things that are out of my control. I like the analogy that trying to change life’s circumstances is like trying to change the current in a river; it will never switch directions just because you want it to. This is something I especially have to remind myself.

(Kim) Things always happen for a reason, even if you don’t immediately understand the reason. 

If you googled us, you still wouldn’t know… what we thought was a simple concept took many months of 18-hour days to get off the ground. And it came with a few mistakes along the way, but it has been an amazing experience — and we would gladly do it all over again. 

The best thing we’ve done for our business so far is… surrounded ourselves with hardworking partners who are excited about our product. This ranges from flavour providers, sales agents, can suppliers, a marketing team, social media management, and the list goes on. 

We stay inspired by… the reaction we get from people who have tried our product.  We hear from our customers every day. We love reading the testimonials and seeing photos of Little Buddhas being enjoyed on docks, in backyards and on snowbanks. One customer sent footage of a drone finding a Little Buddha at the top of a mountain. We love seeing these personal tributes!  

Also, believe it or not, we stay inspired by our competitors. The ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail market is one of the fastest growing distilled beverage categories in history. We are thrilled to be a part of it.

The future excites us because… people are seeking out drink options with better-for-you, organic ingredients. We’ve always said our customers are people who read labels and want to know what goes into their bodies. We are proud to list and provide transparency about our ingredients (directly on our cans!) which is uncommon in the alcoholic industry… we are excited to see that this industry is starting to incorporate and promote this evolution.