How Vicki Saunders of SheEO built a new financial model for a better world.
Her radically generous community is fostering equity and sustainability.
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.”