Vicki Saunders on how new ways of supporting female entrepreneurs will transform the world
Vicki Saunders is very clear about her goals: she wants to help change the world. In 2015, she launched her company SheEO, which supports, finances and celebrates female innovators and their companies, all by ignoring the traditional rules and creating a brand-new way of doing business. “We want to fund new models, new mindsets and new solutions for a better world,” says Vicki. “All our ventures are doing business not-as-usual.”
What does that look like? In part, gathering a cohort of 500 women every year to contribute $1100, which is pooled and then distributed to five women-led businesses through zero-interest loans that are repaid in five years and then loaned out again. Each “Activator,” as the women are known, also contributes her talent, expertise, and access to connections to help businesses succeed. In just four years, the idea has taken roots in Canada, Australia, the United States and New Zealand and is about to launch in the United Kingdom. Wengage caught up with Vicki to ask her more about her work.
Wengage: You’re passionate about building a new system when the old one isn’t working. How did you get to that understanding?
Vicki Saunders: Things feel very broken to me, but I think of it as an opportunity rather than such a downer. And so [throughout my career] I’ve experimented a lot with how to create environments where people can reach their potential. I think that most of our environments—our schools, our corporations, a lot of the structures we put in place—keep us in a level place rather than creating conditions for each individual to thrive. So, it’s really rethinking how we organize so people can thrive.
W: You choose powerful language like “Activators” instead of “investors” and “radical generosity” instead of “loan” or “mentorship.” Why is that crucial?
VS: If you want to create new behaviour, you can’t use old words. We are reinventing what it means to invest—it’s hard to say “investor” and not have people think of a particular space in their brain and define what that is. And if you create a new word like “activator,” no one knows what that means, and you can start to behave differently.
W: Why do you think your approach resonates with women?
VS: There are a number of different reasons. Some people get very excited about the systems change approach. Others get excited about the giving back and mentorship and support. Others want to be in community with others who want to be radically generous and help when asked. I think there are others who are very interested in being an entrepreneur one day, when they leave corporate life, and want a backstage pass to what it’s like to create a business that’s thriving.
W: Your Activators are diverse: ages 14-93, people of colour, people who identify as LGBTQ, grandmothers, entrepreneurs…why does that work?
VS: If you’re going to create a new economic model and a new model for society, it has to be inclusive. It’s extremely important that we’re wide open and not elite or niche or focused on a certain target. So we’re agnostic, as it were.
W: Why was it important to include professional education like webinars and online resources as part of your approach?
VS: Most of the education we have in the world is about how to create the old world. It’s just more of the same. If we’re going to surface new innovations, we have to get people rethinking and experimenting with new models. One of the best ways to do this is to showcase how people are doing with things with new models. They’re not yet totally scaled up and you don’t read about them in traditional press and the usual channels. We really want to shine a light on, for example, how one of our ventures is paying a living wage to everybody who works on their production line, and to showcase how you can actually scale up and grow a business with strong [profit] margins, and pay people a living wage, which is different to the [usual] narrative we see out there. It’s about sharing great stories with our networks.
To learn more about how you can be an Activator or the eligibility criteria for Ventures, or to nominate a female innovator and her business, visit the SheEO website.
Note: The above interview was conducted prior to the pandemic and reminds us of a vibrant, socially connected life that is returning! All businesses referenced remain active and look forward to our renewed support.