Published On: Thu, Oct 11th, 2018

Jennifer Wells: She’s helping women change the world — one entrepreneur at a time

There was a premature ending to this story, an ending that involved public markets and rounds of financing and men in suits.

Or the sense of an ending, to steal from a great novelist.

For there was Vicki Saunders, a woman of indomitable spirit who had ridden a comet of an idea, a company designed to foster young brilliance and ignite smart young companies. And then came the flock of suits, the pressure to conform to a corporate playbook women had played no role in writing, the criticisms. You’re too emotional as a leader. You’re not supposed to run a company this way. We don’t want you to be the CEO — we want him to be the CEO.

Placing herself back in that moment two decades ago is effortless for Saunders, for the retelling is central to where she is today. “That was a lack-of-leadership moment for me because I didn’t stand up to it,” she says. “I caved.”

And then she got back up.

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Now Saunders is 53. This past spring she moved into bright white loft-style office space in Toronto’s garment district. There is a map of the world affixed to one wall of the offices of SheEO, the inventively designed, women-directed funding venture she leads. On the map, Canada sports a purple decal. As do the United States, Australia and New Zealand. As Saunders extends the reach of her organization into Asia and Europe those regions too will be coloured purple. The ambition: to create a billion-dollar fund that will annually back 10,000 women entrepreneurs around the globe.

That’s an audacious goal. But Saunders’ story is captivating. Her days running, appropriately, a company called NRG reinforced lifelong experiences that make her journey deeply relatable. “I was surrounded by people who had picked at me and told me everything that was wrong with me,” she says. “I was clearly aware of everything that wasn’t right with me, thank you very much. I realized in hindsight how incredibly important it is to surround yourself with people who lift you up and notice what you’re great at. We are so beautifully trained to notice all the negatives and not the positives. Everything’s about the deficit focus in the world.”

The positives Saunders brought to the table all those years ago were dismissed. Corporate culture? Who cares? If it doesn’t register on a balance sheet, the suits did not want to know. “They weren’t comfortable with my leadership style. I cried at team meetings. Like, oh my God there’s something wrong with you. I brought my emotion to the table.”

Saunders’ smile is broad and welcoming, but her message is firmly set. That emotion, she says, “is part of the power of who we are.”

The power of SheEO goes like this: 500 women “activators” individually or in a group contribute $ 1,100. Understand that this is not an investment. There’s no return on investment, no payback, at least not in dollar terms. The activators can, but are not compelled to, play a role in choosing which women entrepreneurs will be funded. The loan is interest free, repayable across five years. As those funds are repaid, the monies circle back into the venture capital pot. The circle of support, of shared ideas and feedback and mentoring, grows and grows as the circle of activators blooms.

Entrepreneurs are chosen based on certain criteria. The enterprise must be led by, and principally owned by, women. The business itself must bring fresh thinking, defined as a “new mindset, new model or new solution in how they run their business or in their product and service.” The company’s export potential is a key consideration.

Hayley Mullins is the co-founder of SleepBelt and the Joeyband, a skin-to-skin baby carrying system designed to hold a newborn securely against Mom.

Toni Desrosiers in Victoria, B.C., is an activator today. In 2015 she was one of the first SheEO recipients. Desrosiers had invented beeswax food wrap. She named her company Abeego Designs Inc. and spent, she says, the first few years experimenting with it. “I understood its function, but I didn’t necessarily understand its total purpose, which is the fact that it’s breathable, so it keeps food far fresher than any synthetic food wrap on the market.”

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Conventional lenders were not interested. “Their position was, ‘who are you to dare to take on plastic food wrap? It’s a well-established product, with dominance around the world. Who do you think you are to take that on?’” Not that potential lenders were much interested in her response. “The sentiment was, ‘oh, you don’t know anything about business, you don’t have any money and we’re not going to give you any.’”

So she started out selling at small-scale markets. And then she gained distribution across Canada. And then she started selling online, which pushed her into the U.S. She landed a distributor in the European Union. What began as a small, organically grown, “very, very handcrafted” largely self-funded enterprise was at a turning point. “By the time 2015 rolled around, we were scaling quite quickly, we were growing really fast, but the ability to make the product at the speed we needed to make it wasn’t there,” she says.

She had heard about SheEO. Given her lack of success in securing conventional financing, she was hesitant. But she was struck by the unconventional application form. “One of the questions was, ‘How are you going to change the world?’ Incredible … Instead of ‘How are you going to make money?’ Most women I know who are running businesses, the first answer out of their mouths is not, ‘I’m doing this because I can make a lot of money.’ It’s typically related to the impact they’re making and how that’s going to leave legacy ripples through the next generation.”

Of the monies raised by SheEO in 2015, $ 500,000 was split amongst five ventures. Abeego was one of them. “We actually don’t reveal how much money each venture gets,” Desrosiers explains. “Rather we negotiate for our portion of it, which I think is really unique.”

Abeego was rebranded, the production process simplified. “Getting the SheEO funding allowed me to do that,” says Desrosiers. Sales in 2017 grew by 275 per cent. This year Abeego is on track to double that growth.

At the SheEO offices, each of the funded ventures is promoted along those bright white walls. There’s Skipper Otto’s, a Vancouver community-based fishery that supports independent fishing families and sustainable fish harvesting. There’s The Town Kitchen, a corporate lunch delivery firm in Oakland, Calif., that provides skills training and pathways to college for urban youth between the ages of 15 and 25. There’s the SleepBelt, a swaddling skin-to-skin support system for babies and their new parents.

Vicki Saunders never saw herself as an entrepreneur, at least not during her growing up days in Ottawa, many of which were spent on the Saunders Farm, still a going concern today as a venue for weddings, corporate events and “Frightfest” in the fall. “When I was young we had a strawberry farm — pick your own strawberries, 32 acres,” Saunders says. “So I have a sore back for the rest of my life from weeding as a kid. I really learned the value of hard work but also working in a community.” Mazes. Tree plantings. Log construction. There were endlessly creative parent-driven projects. “It was absolutely not OK to be sitting around ever.”

But there was no talk about the entrepreneurial path. “My parents never talked about the word entrepreneur … You go get a job and you do the other stuff on the side.”

Saunders’ own path was marked significantly by her post university backpack travels to Europe, which dovetailed with the fall of Communist Europe. She found herself in Prague surrounded by newly sprung idealists with hopes for a limitless future. For a time she ran an import business, and opened a retail store in the Czech Republic selling clothes from India that had been hand-blocked in colourful vegetable dyes. “Anything was possible,” she says of her time there.

A central thought stayed with Saunders: “What are the conditions that allow a person to emerge at their highest potential? … I have been on that journey for almost 30 years.”

Back home in the mid-’90s she continued on that path, creating an international co-op program for high school students with a curriculum focused on technology, global education and entrepreneurship. The success of that initiative led to the launch of KidsNRG, harnessing teams of young people aged 14 to 24 to provide marketable insights to corporations eager to demystify the consumer tastes and habits of youth.

From there, creating the NRG Group Inc. seemed a natural evolution. Instead of tapping young people for their ideas, why not start a company that would provide seed capital for promising online startups? Why not become an incubator? And why not merge with a Toronto-based investment fund and go public?

The timing was fateful. Markets on the precipice of the dot.com bust were jittery. An initial public offering in the spring of 2000 raised just $ 15 million, a huge step down from an expected $ 50 million. Promises made around the launch frequency of ventures — NRG was to provide as much as $ 250,000 in start-up capital to individual companies — were never met. In the fall, Saunders was insisting that the company was on track with its growth plans. Yet a corporate restructuring in January 2001 left her without an executive title and instead a 12-month retainer to provide consulting services to NRG. In April 2001, just a year after going public, the company’s chief operating officer told the Financial Post that “it’s fair to say the financial guys are now in control.”

Would a buoyant market have delivered a different outcome? It’s impossible to say.

SheEO staff members, including founder Vicki Saunders, far left, gather for a meeting including at the SheEO headquarters on Spadina Ave. near Queen St. W. in Toronto.
SheEO staff members, including founder Vicki Saunders, far left, gather for a meeting including at the SheEO headquarters on Spadina Ave. near Queen St. W. in Toronto.  (Richard Lautens)

But what can be said is that Saunders continued to nurture the germ of an idea. She had already launched the SheEO terminology — NRG would host “SheEO of the Year” contests — and as much as she resisted a broad gender-based initiative, the facts were prodding her in that direction. Consider the paucity of venture capital funding that is directed toward women. Fortune magazine’s analysis of the gender gap in venture capital funding found that just 2.2 per cent of VC dollars went to female founders in 2017. That, says Saunders, calls for radical change.

As for the corporate playbook, Saunders does sound radical. “Our goal here is to fund you on your own terms. We don’t push you to grow. You tell us what you want to do and we decide if we’re going to select you or not based on what you’re going to do.”

At the time of our interview in August, Saunders was in the midst of planning a pilot project for young women in Toronto high schools and busy with “activator season,” working to add as many as 3,000 activators across the four regions in which SheEO operates. That would double the size of the activator network in which Toni Desrosiers continues to play a part. “I will always be an activator because I think Vicki has such an incredibly important vision,” Desrosiers says. Desrosiers’ life has been changed by it, both in the growth of her own business and in the perpetual cycle of supporting other women entrepreneurs.

The Star is profiling 12 Canadians who are making our lives better. Next week we talk to Jean-François Archambault, a food recovery hero.

Jennifer Wells is a business columnist based in Toronto. Reach her on email: jenwells@thestar.ca

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Jennifer Wells: She’s helping women change the world — one entrepreneur at a time