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.”