How Michele Romanow is equalizing access to funding with Clearco — a global leader in the venture capital industry.

By Karen van Kampen

 

For 15 years, Michele Romanow has disrupted industries with her innovative business ideas. At 28, the serial entrepreneur became the youngest Dragon on Dragons’ Den. By 35, she had been named to Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list, and had six business launches under her belt. Her latest venture, Clearco (formerly Clearbanc), has been shaking up the venture capital industry with its revenue sharing model since 2015. The tech unicorn is the world’s largest e-commerce investor, with a valuation over $2.5 billion. 

“If you want to change something in this world, the best way of doing that is becoming an entrepreneur,” says Michele.

As Co-founder and CEO of Clearco, Michele was the 2021 winner of the Innovation Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours a forward-thinking entrepreneur who has demonstrated outstanding leadership within her company and industry while setting standards for originality, quality, and successful management.  

Michele has been leading change since launching her first venture in 2006 as an engineering student at Queen’s University. Curious about sustainability in business, she decided to take a high margin product like coffee and see if she could remove all of the waste. Michele used giant composters with red wiggler worms — that eat 10 times their body mass every day — and sold the soil from the coffee grounds to local farmers. Everything was biodegradable or compostable. The Tea Room was North America’s first zero-consumer-waste café. 

“Running a small business and running a big business are really not that much different.”

It was an amazing learning experience — from building the café, to hiring, managing, and motivating 80 student employees, and responding quickly to crises. “Running a small business and running a big business are really not that much different,” says Michele. 

In spring 2008, Michele had just graduated from her MBA when she discovered the worldwide supply of caviar was down by 95%. With approximately $100,000 in winnings from business plan competitions, Michele and her business partners, Anatoliy Melnichuk and Ryan Marien, launched Evandale Caviar. They drove to Canada’s East Coast and built a fishery from scratch, “which is everything it sounds like,” says Michele. “Boats, Fisherman. My hands knee-deep in fish.” 

Then in the fall of 2008, the recession hit. “I’m 21 years old and I’m selling the world’s most unnecessary luxury product,” she says. Michele took a job for a year as director of strategy for a large retailer. Then in 2011, Michele co-founded the e-commerce platform Buytopia.ca. Two years later, she co-founded Snapsaves, an app that she sold to Groupon in 2014. It was her first big break as an entrepreneur. 

In 2015, Michele became the youngest judge on Dragons’ Den, bringing a unique perspective on potential investments. “I am the closest to the picture, because I am still starting and building businesses,” she says.  

Michele began to question why founders were using equity, the most expensive capital, to fund ads and inventory, which had a fixed return. It sparked an idea: Instead of taking 10% of the company, she suggested 10% of revenue until her capital was paid back, plus 6%. “We invented the category of revenue sharing,” says Michele, which disrupted the venture capital industry. 

This became the first Clearco deal. Today, Clearco has invested $3.2 billion in more than 7,000 different founders in 10 countries around the world. 

Michele understands how difficult it is for founders to secure capital. For the first 10 years, she says no one would fund her. With the Clearco 20-minute Term Sheet, no personal guarantee is required — the numbers speak for themselves. Rather than going through the lengthy fundraising process, founders are provided a term sheet within minutes that sets out the amount and terms of capital. 

“The narrative has always been women don’t build enough companies or their companies are not successful. What we’re showing is if more than half our portfolio is women, they are out there and they are building great businesses.”

The process eliminates bias in the venture capital decision-making process. “We are just using data to make our decisions. We don’t hear your pitch. We don’t know what gender you are,” says Michele. “As a result, our portfolio looks so much different than the conventional VC portfolio.” 

A third of Clearco founders are BIPOC, and a large percentage of its founders do not have a post-secondary education. “We really believe that if you have data and a great business, then you should have democratized access to capital,” says Michele. 

Clearco backs 25 times more women than the VC industry average. “The narrative has always been women don’t build enough companies or their companies are not successful,” says Michele. “What we’re showing is if more than half our portfolio is women, they are out there and they are building great businesses.” In 2017, Michele co-founded the Canadian Entrepreneurship Initiative — with Sir Richard Branson as the entrepreneur-in-residence — which encourages and supports women entrepreneurs.  

In addition to founder-friendly capital, Clearco provides business-building tools and resources to help companies grow. This includes ClearX, that introduces founders to potential buyers. Clearco has sold 12 of their founders’ companies within their portfolio.

Michele’s passion for entrepreneurship is also passed on to Clearco employees — approximately 20 companies have been launched by former staffers. “We call our onboarding school Founder School,” says Michele. “We believe that when you come to Clearco, you should learn everything it takes to be a founder. Our mission is to help founders win.” 

Michele’s best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs? “Start now. It’s never going to feel like you’re perfectly ready,” she says, comparing launching a business to jumping into a swimming pool. “You know you’re going to jump in that water, and it’s going to be cold. And you have to jump. You have to be cold, because as soon as you start swimming, you figure out how to do it.”

Meet Connie Down-Cicoria, Founding Shareholder & Executive Chair of the Board of AERIUM Analytics Inc.

Connie Down-Cicoria is a serial entrepreneur, with a long career focused primarily in the Oil and Gas, Mining, Telecommunications, and Forest Industries. She founded Lorrnel Consultants in 1982, Ever Green Land Use Consulting in 1991, and Evolution Geomatic’s in 2013. Her latest venture, incorporated in 2016, is AERIUM Analytics — North America’s leading provider of RPAS based geospatial and compliance solutions. AERIUM builds upon nearly 40 years of experience from it’s co-founders and sister company as part of the Lorrnel Group. Connie also manages a ranch in southern Alberta where she raises and trains cutting horses and cattle. Over the years, she has helped develop environmental procedures to reduce the footprint of industrial activities in Alberta. 

 

My first job ever was… Cashier at a convenience store at age 15.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because…I found working for others limited my abilities. I always wanted to run my own business.  An opportunity presented itself to start my own business in the Oil and Gas industry in Calgary in 1982, so I took it.

My boldest move to date was Buying out my partner when the company was losing money during the COVID pandemic. We are now in negotiations with a client only 7 months later for a 5-year contract and are positioned to have our best year to date.

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t knowThat in 1979 I was a poor single mother working for the Alberta government not making enough money to make ends meet.  My home was a small apartment close to work so I could walk there.  My furniture consisted of a bed with coffee cans for legs, my baby’s dresser consisted of apple boxes stacked on top of each other, my kitchen table legs were held on with electrical tape and my sofa was a fold out cot.  I had to borrow money every month from my parents to pay my bills and by 1982 I had moved to Calgary and started my own company in the Oil Patch.

When starting my business, I wish I knew What I know today! Trust my instincts and to believe in myself more.  Being an entrepreneurial woman in the 80’s was tough because you were surrounded by men that kept telling you that you couldn’t do it.  There were very few women in business back then, but I searched them out and relied on their support. 

My best advice to people looking to disrupt the status quo is…  Most people hate change, but change is important to any company that wants to succeed.  We can either lead change or let change lead us, which can eventually disempower or make your company vulnerable.  Just do it.  Have no fear and don’t weaken.

I stay inspired by… By constantly exposing myself to new technology and looking for opportunities.  By staying physically active, working with my children, and surrounding myself by smart/motivated people it is easy to stay inspired.  I love business.

The future excites me because… I believe we can change the future of the world by making it a safer place for humans and animals alike through innovation and technology.  

Success to me means… Being able to live a healthy, active, balanced life with financial stability while having fun.

Meet Charlene Brophy, President & CEO of Fonemed

Charlene Brophy is President and CEO of FONEMED. For 20 years, she’s guided the company through stellar growth both domestically and internationally and led the development of Fonemed’s Health Management Platform, embracing technology as a means of providing scalable, sustainable, and accessible care. A speaker and author, Charlene has been honoured with several awards, and is an active board member for several non-profit organizations, and two government innovation advisory councils.

 

My first job ever wasan untrained health care aide in a seniors home. That’s where I learned the joy that comes from helping those who could not help themselves. It’s a feeling that resides in the heart of every nurse.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… the time was right to address the bottleneck in accessing health care services in a system struggling to deal with a surge in demand for care related to an aging demographic. 

My boldest move to date was… moving our corporate office from California to St. John’s, NL. If I had it wrong, I wouldn’t be answering these questions today. But I knew I could build a team here at home, that would share my passion and make my vision of Fonemed become reality.  I am so proud to give back to the community and the province that has supported me, growing an international business, offering hundreds of employment opportunities, right here, at home.

My biggest setback was… my greatest motivation. That’s cliché, but it’s accurate. There have been many failures over the years. I truly view every setback – big or small – professional or personal – to be an opportunity to make a positive change.

I overcame it by… trusting my gut, always doing what is necessary to keep focus on quality of care and supporting and encouraging the team that represents our company to the world.

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that in spite of my business success, I am still a nurse at heart and I care deeply about people – family and friends, employees, clients, community partners, and the people I meet daily. I love the business I am in because at Fonemed, we bring healthcare to people when they need it most.  Helping people is what it is all about.    

When starting my business, I wish I knew… how tough it could be to take on the old boys’ club. There were times when I asked if it was worth the bother, but I never asked that same question after each win. I’m very proud of the women who challenge the status quo as tough as it is. That’s how meaningful change occurs; by having the courage to persevere. 

My best advice to people looking to disrupt the status quo is… be curious. You cannot disrupt anything without first asking why something is what it is.

I stay inspired by… my ridiculously passionate team. They dream big right alongside me. The world is out there, and they have the determination to offer access to care, for anyone, anywhere, anytime.  

The future excites me because… of the new possibilities in the digital health space, the pandemic has accelerated both the adoption and demand for virtual care. The sky is the limit now.

Success to me means… making positive changes in the lives of people who sometimes feel they are on their own, without adequate healthcare, without anyone to care.  Offering access to care to individuals and families, making a difference, to me that’s success.  

Meet Michele Romanow, Co-Founder & President of Clearco

Michele Romanow

Michele Romanow is currently the President of lending firm Clearco (formerly Clearbanc), which she co-founded in 2015. In the same year, Michele became the youngest Dragon on Dragons’ Den, a testament to her experience and success as an entrepreneur (she started six companies before her 35th birthday). Clearco has since achieved “unicorn” status — a valuation over $1 Billion US — and has invested more than $2B into 4,500+ companies, making them the biggest ecommerce investor in the world. Michele has been honoured with several awards, sits on many boards, and co-founded the Canadian Entrepreneurship Initiative, a non-profit with international business magnate Sir Richard Branson, to encourage growth of women entrepreneurs.

 

 My first job ever was… doing admin in my Dad’s office. It’s where I first learnt to become very valuable to people at an early age.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I thought it was the biggest way to make an impact

My boldest move to date was… spending all the money had left on 1 ad at Buytopia to see if it would work. Being crazy enough to go up again the VC industry and to believe we could build a new asset class.

My biggest setback was… having lost friends along the way

I overcame it by… learning from my mistakes

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know…  

When starting my business, I wish I knew…  how little I would sleep

My best advice to people looking to disrupt the status quo is… Just start! And don’t listen to the detractors.

I stay inspired by…  the founders we fund through Clearco and hearing all their stories.

The future excites me because… there are so many people becoming first time entrepreneurs. 

Success to me means…  doing what other people thought was impossible.