The Woman Behind The Next Generation of Female CEOs

SheEO is an established global initiative to “radically transform” how female entrepreneurs are supported, financed and celebrated.

30.03.2020 | by Christy Romer
Vicki Saunders, Founder of SheEO. Photo on Toronto Star
Vicki Saunders, Founder of SheEO. Photo on Toronto Star

In July 2015, Vicki Saunders had a radical idea for how to train and value female entrepreneurs.

What if hundreds of women from all walks of life came together each year, pooled a set amount of resources, and collectively chose a small number of women-led ventures to invest in? This “radical generosity” could back companies committed to creating a better world, and once the investment was recouped, loaned out again to other ventures via a perpetual fund.

The idea was the basis for SheEO, one of the most innovative investment funds in the world. To date, it’s loaned out $4m to 53 ventures across five countries, with the first chunk of loans soon to be repaid. The community of investors — known as activators — range in age from 14-94, and from corporate leaders to stay-at-home mothers. Each person invests $1100 to join the programme.

The goal is to reach 1 million activators and a $1bn fund by 2026.

In an interview with Forbes, Saunders said the spark came when she realised that only 2% of capital goes to women’s innovations, and less than 3% of global CEOs are women. “It was clear that the entire system was not designed for us to thrive.” She adds that it took a long time to do anything because she was “brainwashed” by a culture that discounts anything focused only on women. “And I wanted to be accepted and successful, according to the existing rules.”



SheEO rewrites the rules

“We need a gigantic dose of empathy to understand that we are all in this together. And women have a huge competitive advantage to redesign our broken systems and structures because we are relationship-based; we nurture our families and our communities.”

The selected ventures are revenue-generating, of at least $50k and up to $2m in revenue. They’ve been drawn from wellness, AI, education, food sustainability, waste reduction, energy efficiency and biotech fields, comprising both charities and for-profit companies.

The current portfolio includes Grow Your Mind, which makes mental health education playful for children, schools and families, and Neighbourlytics, which gives on-demand data and insights on how people experience the places they live and work.

One innovative element of the programme is that while the Activators collectively choose the five ventures to invest in each year, it is the ventures themselves that come together to decide how to divide up the funding so that 100% of the loans are repaid within five years. There are just two rules: the money cannot be given to just one venture, and it may not be divided equally.

In the Forbes interview, Saunders — who co-founded online platforms for Fortune 500 companies, and was selected as a Global Leader for Tomorrow in 2001 — agreed that SheEO’s discussion and collaboration-led approach was intentionally feminine. “Moving from fear to radical generosity, from control to trust, from competition to collaboration, are all elements of our model.”

SheEO is now active in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. More information can be found on the SheEO website.

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