Vicki Saunders is an entrepreneur, award-winning mentor, advisor to the next generation of change-makers and leading advocate for entrepreneurship as a way of creating positive transformation in the world.
Vicki is founder of #radical generosity and SheEO, a global community of radically generous women supporting women-led Ventures working on the World’s To-Do List.
Vicki has co-founded and run ventures in Europe, Toronto and Silicon Valley and taken a company public on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Vicki was received numerous awards for her work at SheEO including; UBS Global Visionary in 2020, YWCA Women of Distinction Award in 2020, Business Leader of the Year 2019 by the Toronto Regional Board of Trade, 2018 Startup Canada Entrepreneurship Promotion Award and was selected as a Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in 2001
You’ve seen the numbers – the minuscule amount of funding that goes to women-founded businesses, the uphill battles, the struggle
What if you could turn the whole conventional model on its head and making fundraising less like the hunger games and more like getting an unexpected banquet?
In this episode, Vicki Saunders, activator and founder of She-EO, now Coralus, talks about the inspiration behind SheEO’s unique model for funding, her vision of helping women entrepreneurs tackle the world’s “to do” list, how getting access to the right community can supercharge your venture, and much more
- The seeds of SheEO’s unique funding and entrepreneur support model
- The unique advantages of a “grassroots” startup investing model versus the traditional “top-down” vc funding model
- How the SheEO crowdfunding model adds value above just capital for founders
- Surprise learnings – how going against the grain makes founders more successful
- How to make interactions between funders and founders productive
- Why the cookie-cutter approach to mentoring is flawed, and how to improve it
- The surprising ways in which being in a community brings out your true potential
- How to get past self-limiting attitudes, particularly those related to money, earning money, and pricing setting.
- The secret to tackling sexism and prejudices in the world of finance
- Encouraging advice for second career entrepreneurs.
- A strategy for creating a network that supports your industry
- The foot-in-the-door strategy for entrepreneurs who aren’t affiliated with SheEO.
Links & Resources
She-EO (now Coralus) – The women founders’ community that Vicki started.
Catalyst at large – Consulting and facilitation services in the arena of gender lens investing.
GenderSmart : Global community of 2,500 investors, investment influencers, intermediaries, and others, in over 50 countries.
Think Like a SheEO – inspirational book for women entrepreneurs, co-authored by Vicki Saunders
Jacki Zehner – Former partner at Goldman Sachs now actively promoting girls’ women’s advancement
Shubha Chakravarthy: Thank you for joining us today, Vicky. We’re delighted to have you – you’re one of our very special guests!
So first off, you have had a very interesting journey all the way from activator to energy and now to CEO. What was the guiding spark that helped you move from youth and entrepreneurship?
Vicki Saunders: I think I’ve basically been doing the same thing over and over again all the way through. I’m very interested in how you create the conditions in an environment for people to thrive.
The thing that I’m most interested in is innovation and business, as in to help solve some of the major challenges we’re facing. So that’s the container but the larger sort of thread through everything I’ve ever done has started from when I was in Prague, in the Czech Republic, when the wall fell down.
It was just so formative to witness myself and how I acted in that environment, which was all about, “You’re now free. Who are you going to be?”
Everybody dreaming. “Anything was possible” was the mindset of the culture at the moment and I just noticed myself being very different in that environment.
A part of it is like, “How do you recreate that environment in another? How do you create the conditions for people to thrive?”
So, I’ve been experimenting with that in multiple different ways, across many different demographics and with different approaches for a long time.
Shubha Chakravarthy: What is the thing that specifically sparked the interest in women entrepreneurs and was there any one thing or was it just a natural progression?
Vicki Saunders: I actually avoided this my whole life. I did not want anything to do that was “Woman only”, because I’m totally conditioned that way. I’m in my fifties and anything woman only in our formative years was considered not interesting. Small. “Oh, it’s a woman. Doesn’t matter—sidebar.”
I wanted to be a part of the mainstream success because I was conditioned to think that’s what you need to do.
But no matter who you are as women, if you show up in these systems that are designed by men for men, then it’s like you’re done and it’s not going to work. We see it everywhere — 2% of CEOs and 2% of “whatever”s.
So, it took me a long time to get over myself and to go, “Actually, this really does matter and we need to go and then figure out how to hack that.” It’s the last thing that I got to and I’m very “boy” inside, like I’m super conditioned with testosterone and so I’ve done a lot of healing of my feminine side by starting SheEO.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That resonates with me quite a bit. For those of us that aren’t as familiar, can you just give a very quick overview of the exact funding model of SheEO? It’s very different from the traditional model of financing.
Vicki Saunders: Yeah, it comes at things really from an ecosystem perspective and it’s my belief that money alone doesn’t solve anything. You can throw money at things and it just doesn’t really transform anything and I’m very much interested in transforming what the conditions look like for all of us to thrive, but for women in particular.
So the model is using crowdfunding essentially and hundreds of women in a country would come together and contribute a small amount of capital pooled together and then that whole group would go online to vote.
It is totally selecting in a democratized manner where the money should go. The money is divided up by the number of ventures that are funded each year— we have roughly a model of a hundred thousand dollars per venture and it’s a 0% interest loan, which is paid back in 20 equal payments over five years.
It’s not just a one-time lump sum at the end but one where you’re paying all the way through. So, it really is the right kind of funding for ventures with recurring revenue, not for tech funded ventures that need a ton of money or all that. It’s debt financing.
Then the money, as it’s paid back each quarter, is accumulated and it’s loaned out again. So the money is constantly sort of rotating forward in a perpetual fund.
Shubha Chakravarthy: What gave you the idea for this unique model? There’s so many different types of funding.
Vicki Saunders: You know, I have no idea. I’m a synthesizer, so, I looked at all kinds of different models out there. I was an early fan of what Ela Bhatt did in Bangladesh and then was copied by Mohammed Yunus, whom everyone calls “the Father of Microfinance”, but it’s really Ela who was the first one.
Shubha Chakravarthy: A woman.
Vicki Saunders: Yeah, of course erased. So, part of the stuff is the microfinance, like smaller amounts of money, but like the real thing with microfinance was the community of women supporting each other.
But I thought even broader, not just the entrepreneurs dividing that up, but what if the whole community was there as a resource? Then a part of my thing was, if you want women to be funded, you have to have women writing checks. How do you get women writing checks?
The existing risk model is really problematic. Writing a $50,000 check on something that you have no idea if it’s gonna work or not — I just thought that it didn’t fit with a lot of the women that I knew.
So, it was, “How could you dip your toe in to try something with a small amount of money?”
Then we made it a gift instead of a loan that you get back because we wanted people to go on a journey of, “You have no power here.”
We wanted to really disrupt the power.
So, when you come into this, anything that happens after you’ve given the money is like a bonus. “Oh, they’re successful. Great. I feel like I’m part of their success.” If it’s not, then you won’t be getting your money back anyway.
It sort of takes all of those stakes off the table because even if you just put in a thousand dollars and then you wanted to get your money back, you’d be sitting on top of that entrepreneur all the time. “Is she doing it right? I don’t like her strategy. Her marketing plan doesn’t work. I have a better idea” — like a nightmare.
So I was like, “Take all that stuff out and have all of us get into this trusting relationship with an entrepreneur and support them to do this their way and only be able to use our influence in relationship — as opposed to power with money.”
It’s blown people’s minds because the ventures are unbelievably successful. When you trust them to do it their way they feel supported, which never happens when it comes to money and investment in entrepreneurs as someone is always giving you rules for how you can spend it. We don’t.
I think there’s a lot of pieces like that and it’s all very decolonizing and de-conditioning — our way of this “power and money disruption thing” and it is a really big deal.
Shubha Chakravarthy: What are you seeing in terms of how they do things differently because of your funding model relative to maybe what they would do in the mainstream?
Vicki Saunders: Literally every venture is different, like an example from the very beginning, we had a venture who had this really cool alternative to plastic wrap that keeps food alive and it allows food to breathe. It’s called “Abeego” and we thought that this was just a really amazing product. The community voted for it and then the first thing she wanted to do with her money was rebranding and fix her packaging.
We were like, “Aren’t there like 10 other things you could be doing?” as experts who’ve done this before and the coaches and myself but she was totally right — it just popped and did really well.
So, a part of the conditioning here that we see is that sometimes what doesn’t feel right to you as an outsider looking in. Actually the entrepreneur who is passionate about this, whose livelihood depends on it, who is living with it every day, has a better idea than someone who has the money does but we’re just not set up in that world.
We are set up for someone with the money who sets the rules for how you’re allowed to do things, which is all based on past evidence, which then guarantees that you’re only gonna get more of the past.
So, a lot of our ventures are doing things really unconventionally. They don’t want to do traditional marketing. They don’t want to do things in a way that you have seen be successful and you want them to do because it’s a new model. They’re trying different things and we are literally here to find those different approaches.
There is a number of our ventures which are just absolutely consumed with zero waste and the gold standard around sustainability. So they will leave money on the table in order to be better citizens of the world, which investors would tell them not to do and they’ll pay better than living wage because they want to be good citizens who are locally supporting people.
There’s a whole bunch of things like this that are not normal business practice because we’re here to maximize profits according to the rules of the game and they break those rules all the time.
Shubha Chakravarthy: To what extent are they able to leverage the activators themselves? Because they are smart women I imagine.
Vicki Saunders: That’s our special sauce — The whole ecosystem! You literally get hundreds of people on your team when you are selected as a venture. All of a sudden all these people want to help you so they voted for you and that’s part of the thing.
In the way that we do funding and stuff right now, a small expert group will determine who’s got the greatest potential based on market conditions and trends and etc.
The way that we do it is hundreds of different voices look at something and the questions are, “Would you buy or recommend this product or service?” — That’s the main one because if 250 women vote for a company because they want to become your customer and open doors for you, all your conditions change as a business and your future’s totally different than it was before. It’s almost like a different way of doing market validation.
Then you also have the passion of all these people who feel like they’re on your team. They want to support and they talk to their friends and they’re your marketing team. They’re your advisors. They’re your influencers and customers and more.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So you have this huge body of activators who have the skills and then you have all of these ventures for it but how do you make that an efficient interaction? Do you assign specific teams or how does that work?
Vicki Saunders: No, that’s like one of the ways that most incubators and accelerators portfolio and they say “Here’s our expert for retail”.
But I’ve been part of a lot of these incubators before and experimented with them previously and one of the challenges is that because a lot of our ventures are doing things differently they have a certain values orientation.
So you could have someone who is an amazing retail expert and but they just don’t jive with the entrepreneur.
I’m not going to make them do that but that’s what most accelerators do. They’re like, this is the person and you need to follow what they did but that again only gets you more of what that person experienced as being success and we’re in a time which is super different right now, the economy and where we need to go in the world is not doing more of the same.
So it’s very organic and we do this — We have an app, an “Ask-Give” app and you’re able to just go into your app and ask for support and then activators respond organically in real time when they have time.
Then we have a group of activators, a circle who are constantly animating those and making sure that they’re tagging people, as kind of super connectors. Then we have that process attached to all of our calls when we do our zoom calls and regularly there’s always an ask-give component. So you’re bumping into people in a breakout room, four or five people on every call. You come to meeting new people. We call this like “#SheEO magic” all the time because they’re like, “Wait a minute, I just asked for that and the person who has answers is in this room.”
It’s so surprising but this is a reminder to all of us, that we have people around us all the time who have gifts to give to us if we’d only ask and we’re not really conditioned to do that and we’re not designed to do that in most of our systems to ask for help.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, one other question from the funding model. Clearly not all business models succeed and not all ventures succeed. How do you experience that within the SheEO model and what happens to the money and the businesses that don’t turn out to be successful?
Vicki Saunders: Well, they just don’t turn out to be successful. I mean, we do all kinds of things to support along the way. We’re quite flexible with our loan repayments. If things happened during COVID, we of course had all kinds of pivots going on and stuff. So we’re really flexible about that.
Everything we do is based on #radicalgenerosity. So, “What’s the radically generous way of giving loans when people have tough times?” Reflect on that — we don’t really care if it’s paid back in five years. It’s a made up number anyway.
So that’s one thing and the other piece is when there’s a challenge that a venture is in and they’re really stuck and they need to pivot, then there are coaches available in our community but we also have a list of all the activators who voted for each of these ventures. So we form a circle around them sometimes to make sure that they’re getting the support that they need.
However, the last thing people also need when they’re in trouble is 14 people telling them 14 different things. We’re quite curated about who are the experts that have a values alignment here that can help but we do quite a bit of heavy lifting around these kinds of things and we take a lot of care. We don’t just write it off and go “Great. They failed quickly. Next.” That’s not why we’re here. We’re trying to create the conditions for everyone to thrive in and every once in a while, things just don’t work.
Shubha Chakravarthy: And as you’re putting these circles together, you talk in your book about how you learned the most when you faced the most strong or the most opinionated people. Have you brought that into your model?
Vicki Saunders: We don’t have to bring it in because people are people. It’s there naturally people where will make a comment. I’ve had these things happen in the past where an activator’s like, “I reached out to so and so to help her and she didn’t get back to me.” I’m like, “Great! It’s working perfectly” and they’re like, “But I wanna help her.” And I’m like, “And she doesn’t want to receive your help.”
Next, we really do trust people to be grownups. Just because you contributed capital and you’re an activator doesn’t mean you get to say “I know it all” and push it on people.
It is like giving and receiving is a breath in and then breath out and there needs to be a full circle on that. It can’t just be giving without someone wanting to receive.
Shubha Chakravarthy: One of the things I noticed is that the people who are eligible need to be having positive revenue. One of the biggest barriers for women entrepreneurs is even to get to the first step and start something. I know that they don’t qualify and I know you have your model for a reason.
But what do you think you would tell women who are yet pre-revenue to get to the point where they could even qualify for SheEO, or just being in business?
Vicki Saunders: The big thing that’s happened with us in the past five years is almost like we flipped our model. So, it started with this place of people who had resources and were sharing it with those who were applying and what’s happened now is that if you are not yet at $50,000 in revenue as a venture or if you even have an idea or something, activate and get into the community because it’s the best way to build your business, to grow your revenue, and to find the resources you need to then apply.
So we’re starting to see now that our ventures are activators, like it’s $92 — the equivalent of $92 a month. It’s the cheapest business development you are ever going to do. It’s the cheapest school you’re ever going to find because you’re going to find people who did it before you who want to share it and just help you. You don’t have to go take a course from someone else because everything is available in this community. Then when you’re ready, they are the customers who helped you along the way, who now want you to be successful.
We’ve seen people come in and dramatically grow their businesses, apply, and then they get selected because they’re in relationship with everybody because now people know them and say, “Oh, she’s amazing. She’s been working on this for two years.” Then your business starts to grow and it’s really the way to business development and growth and it is the way to build your business and it is not like you have to be ready to apply here. You can just come in at anytime.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So it’s almost like a complete circle. There’s no beginning, there’s no end. There’s just a constant and hopefully there is an upward spiral that’s at play.
Vicki Saunders: Yeah, exactly.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Obviously you’re seeing a lot of growth. I saw some of the numbers in the impact report. What trends are you seeing in terms of the types of businesses and people who apply as well as the ones who are getting boarded? How has that changed over time?
Vicki Saunders: So, we sort of have four kind of segments of our ventures now that we’re looking for patterns across it.
We have a group that is very much focused on systems transformation and have very new models to break deep barriers that we have in our systems to rethink healthcare and to rethink supporting people with disabilities and a whole bunch of things around that.
Then we have a group that is into sustainable products and services. They’re gonna help us get to the new world, some are scale-up and some are small.
Then we have a crew that are what we would sort of call “Inclusion” but they are businesses that are about including people in the economy who have really been systematically excluded.
Then a fourth group is a sort of tech systems solutions group.
So those are kind of the four categories that we’re seeing and it’s always a tricky thing to categorize anything at SheEO because all of us think we’re so different that we always click the other box.
When the government sends me the list of, “Are they in manufacturing or are they this?” I’m like, “You’re just going to hate us” because we never answer those questions.
Like even with SheEO, what is SheEO? Are we a community? Are we a school? Are we a funding network? Are we in finance?
There’s never an all of the above, it’s just another box and I’m always typing in all the things. So we get that a lot ourselves too because we really are looking for these new models that take a much more holistic approach.
Shubha Chakravarthy: And in terms of the scalability, have activators shown a preference for more or less scalable businesses and do ventures change their view to scalability once they get into your ecosystem?
Vicki Saunders: Yes! You have such great questions. You’re amazing.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Thank you!
Vicki Saunders: So ventures do change their perspective, both ways. Some come in and they were dreaming of a small amount when they first came in and then their dreams start to really grow and they realize that all the resources are kind of around them if they ask. So, lots of them get bolder.
Then another form of boldness is saying during COVID and everything else, “The cost for me to scale this business is to be in a deeper relationship with an Amazon and I don’t like their practices and it’s predatory, and I don’t want to participate in that realm.
So, I’m going to decide to stay small and local and build locally to have a kind of business that works for me. I’m going to have a two to three million business and hire people and pay them really well. I will be rooted locally and reduce my stress.”
So we’re seeing both and then we’re seeing some that are like, “Oh my God, I’m going to the moon. This is amazing. I have so many resources here.” So we see all of that.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Are you seeing a preference on the part of activators in terms of scalable versus non-scalable?
Vicki Saunders: This is very interesting. Our activators are so wildly diverse.
I will walk in and look at things and I’ll be like, “Eh, I like five of these maybe, out of the 25 that you’re voting for” and others would be like, “I couldn’t decide. I loved everybody” and I’m like, “What?”
We all have such a different perspectives so there isn’t a single way of being an activator. There isn’t a singular perspective. This idea of collective intelligence being smarter than individual expert niche experience is fascinating to me.
I’m always blown away every year by what we end up selecting and what I think sometimes about those ventures. Then I watch those ventures perform much differently than I thought they would.
I’ve just learned over and over that when you’re in a sort of isolated non-connected low resourced space as an entrepreneur before you come here and when you walk through the door into a place where everybody wants to help and where you have some really good strategic advice and you feel supported then the conditions are just so dramatically different that you can’t really tell who’s going to be successful or not.
In fact, someone said to me once, “Actually any failure in our community is a failure of our community, not of the venture. It’s a failure of us not supporting them.”
We really do believe that anyone can be successful, pivot, and change if you are coachable and you are open and you watch what’s happening around you then you should be able to be successful no matter what, in an environment that is designed to support you and your goals.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Oxygen-rich, right?
Vicki Saunders: Yes, oxygen-rich. Beautiful.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Is there like one story that stands out in your mind of somebody who came in and became something so completely different that you just can’t forget?
Vicki Saunders: There are a lot of individual activator stories of people who are like, “I saw this thing, I just signed up, what is it again?” Then all of a sudden they’re like, “Oh my God, this is a community I’ve been waiting for.”
So we hear a lot of things from people about this, “This is a place where I was really able to show up as my full self for the first time. We have such wonderful age diversity, racial diversity, sector diversity, and geographic diversity and the vibe across all of it is that of people showing up with this spirit of radical generosity.
You are listened to and no one is like necessarily disagreeing with you and it’s like, “Oh, isn’t that interesting? How could I help you?” So the vibe around that is a beautiful sort of stew to decide who you want to be in the world and you play with it.
We’ve seen ventures show up who had maxed out other credit cards and were in a world of pain and then they got selected while they were in an emotionally fragile state from having been picked at so much by everyone.
One of our ventures, she talks about how this literally saved her life. She was in just such a terrible, terrible place and all of a sudden being validated by this community and everybody saying, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” and having heard that for the first time after six years of struggling and doing prototypes and all she grew from just over $50,000 to $4.2 million in revenue in four years and she really credits the community with holding her as an inventor and saving her. She’s now giving back to the community so much more.
So, there are very moving personal stories. A lot of stuff during COVID where people just pivoted all over the place. We had someone who was designing this high end fashion clothing with really unique fabrics and in COVID they switched to scrubs.
They had really interesting PPE with a fashion sense with like really cool materials so that now the scrubs — they stretch and they’re absolutely beautifully designed and it is wildly growing that business because she just realized, “Why am I doing this? I need to do something that matters.” So she took that fashion thing and put it into healthcare.
We have had 110 ventures so far and have 110 different stories.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I’m going to pivot a little bit to finance. In the book, what I really liked was that there was a chapter about self-limiting beliefs and how you should get over them and some of the research shows that finance is an area where there’s a lot of self limiting beliefs for women.
So my question is, what have you found most effective and what would you recommend for women to get over these self limiting beliefs, especially around finance, revenue, and price setting?
Vicki Saunders: The challenge with a lot of this work is that you have to do you first. If you don’t feel like you’re worthy, you can’t set a price for your product that’s worthy.
With a lot of these things, you have to do your own personal work to center yourself and ground yourself in who you are and what your value is because if you don’t do that then it shows up in your product.
Your team equals your product — whoever’s presenting that to world. All
of that stuff shows up in the design of what you’re doing and a lot of stuff that we talk about at SheEO is that you need to recognize what your limiting beliefs are and work on those intensely while you’re doing your business so that your business can thrive. The person and the business are connected.
Shubha Chakravarthy: And to the person who may not be fortunate enough to get into SheEO, what would that look like in your view?
Vicki Saunders: Oh, I think there’s tons of resources and opportunities out there. Understanding how you present yourself is important, do you present yourself with confidence or not? And if you don’t, then know that you get what you present.
I think there’s MJ Ryan who is one of the guides. She’s written 13 different books and they’re all phenomenal. So I would highly recommend reading some of her books because they’re exceptional.
For anyone who wants to be an activator in our community, we’re just about to start four tracks where we’re doing unlearning sessions, essentially around finance, around mindset, around systems and around how to run businesses in different ways.
So, we’re kind of getting more into the school side of things because we’d like to have more and more innovative business ideas coming our way.
Most of the ways that we’re teaching people to do business are really old school and not serving us anymore. So we have to update how we’re doing that.
So we’re getting into the business of doing that essentially because we know that the more that we spend on transforming ourselves, the more that we can actually transform systems.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So there’s an internal piece, which I completely get, but there’s also an external piece.
There’s documented bias, especially in the financial world where organizations like yours are a very big part and I’m a huge admirer of your efforts.
What advice would you give somebody who’s facing objective bias in the real world of finance?
Vicki Saunders: Oh, it’s a big question. It depends on what your level of ability is to walk away?
I think a lot of people are sort of trapped in a lot of systems that don’t serve them and harm them. I’m doing a session tonight with a bunch of kids under 17 with business ideas.
The more that you can understand the conditions that you need to be able to thrive and put yourself in places where those conditions exist, the more successful you’ll be.
If you’re in a place that doesn’t value you, there’s very little that you can do to break that if you can’t quit your job, like pointing it out to your boss, who’s biased.
I know there’s some strategies around that but it’s challenging. Increasingly, it appears as if we’re in a market where labor has more power than we’ve had for a while because employers are really struggling.
I think being clear on what your boundaries are and what you need is important but the biases are just absolutely exhausting that exist around us all the time.
I have done so much work and I really know where to put myself in good situations and I found myself again last week in a conversation where I was just like, “Ugh, I just got trapped again. Right.”
The system is so genius at oppressing essentially, it really just is unbelievable to get you to think you can’t get what you want and all of the things that we do to slice and dice is really painful.
So, I think being aware of some of those things and just being really clear on doing what you can to put yourself in a position to be in an environment that is not harmful is important.
Shubha Chakravarthy: And from a financing perspective, if you’re an entrepreneur, no matter what, there are chances that you’re gonna need money from the outside.
SheEO is not a problem but if you’re going to a bank or if you’re going the venture capitalist route and you’ve raised funds, what are your learnings where you could show up and be effective against these objective biases in the world of financial services?
Vicki Saunders: You have to really come with an abundance mindset and know that somewhere out there are people that have your values and you should go towards those.
So we have a venture who told this great story. I put it up on LinkedIn in a little video last week. She was going out to raise $600,000 and she started with a narrative.
She has a great business, good numbers, and strong story. She was all ready to go but she walked in by saying, “Here’s why I probably don’t fit with you” and she just said all the reasons why, because she was trying to get to a no quicker.
Funders, except for banks, venture people, angels, et cetera, they don’t say “No”, they’re just like, “Not yet, do these four things and then come back”. Then when you’ve done those four things they’re like, “Now do these six things.” It’s an endless, painful thing.
You’d much rather someone say “No, not a fit” so you can move on because otherwise it wastes so much time.
So she really came in with the “Here’s what I’m going to do.”
She said, “You’re not going to get your money back in five years, it’s not going to be a 10x. I’m going to pay people more than the living wage and I’m going to probably pay them more so if you don’t like that then that is just too bad. That’s what I’m doing.”
So she’s actually oversubscribed and everyone’s like, “That’s amazing.”
It’s the power pose of walking in and assuming that you’ll get lots of no’s. That’s fine.
But if you don’t break that power dynamic with your investor and get into a really good values-based alignment then you are mostly led by the people who have the money and they’re going to lead you and you may not be able to do stuff your way.
I can’t really state this enough because I think, especially in the world that we’re living in right now, everyone thinks they have to raise money and I just want to step back for a moment and go, “The most free you can be is to bootstrap. Go get customers and be in charge of all of it and not have someone telling you what to do.’
I find it fascinating that one of the first acts anyone with an idea does when they’re starting a business is to go try and find an owner so they’re not in control anymore.
Why do we do that? It’s so crazy. It’s nuts like, “Oh, great. I’m free. I’m an entrepreneur. I have this great idea. Let me go find someone who’s gonna try and tell me what to do all the time.”
That’s what you do when you get an investor.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Fantastic. I love it. It’s kind of like your client when you told them I’m gonna do this, this, and this, when you talk about it in your book. The story is like — to put together the agenda that you talked about, do you recall? That’s fantastic.
So, you talked a lot about youth and entrepreneurship and one of the trends we’re seeing today, at least in the United States is that women over 50 are the second fastest growing demographic of entrepreneurs.
What advice do you have for women over 40 to become entrepreneurs, especially when they face age barriers?
Vicki Saunders: I mean the number one thing I say to any entrepreneur, no matter what age is to get into a community of other entrepreneurs. Surround yourself with other entrepreneurs, learn from them, share your pain, and ask them what they did. This kind of stuff is really important.
I think if you’re surrounded by entrepreneurs, it’s super helpful. I have no advice for women over 50. They know what they’re doing. They’re amazing. They’ve lived through this crazy world. If they’re gonna start a business over 50, they’re solid and incredible and I’ll write them a check.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I’m gonna take that video and slap it across the top.
Vicki Saunders: Go for it. Absolutely. I don’t know a single person over 50 who’s clueless about what they are.
None of them.
Like, if you’re going do this, you have a good social network. You probably have some capital and you have lots of resources available to you and you probably know what not to do, already.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You’ve talked a lot about the SheEO model and I’m clearly bought in, are there other viable models?
It’s clear that not everyone can do this? What are your thoughts on other viable models to jumpstart entrepreneurship among women in general?
Vicki Saunders: We are one example, one experiment, one pathway of doing things. I’m kind of blown away by the power of this concept of the ecosystem, to have all these resources in one community.
It’s very rare that you have entrepreneurs and investors and advisors in the same community.
The way the world is organized, we’re all separate from each other and so to have everything in one and then have all of us get to understand each other and understand the challenges that we’re facing so we can help each other is excellent.
However this design came through me. I’m so thrilled for it because that’s just amazing. Depending on what you’re looking for, it’s kind of like hammer-nail.
If you’re looking for a VC, there’s tons of VCs out there. If you’re looking for an angel, there’s lots of angels out there.
Go to Twitter, find the lists, reach out, and talk to people. There’s lots more communities emerging because people are really starting to understand the power of community.
It is super hard to do this stuff alone and banks have their place and we’ve seen a lot of innovation emerging in the FinTech space around financing for e-commerce companies that have customers that have sort of set revenues. They can borrow against that to help with their cash flow when they can’t get lines of credit in the early days.
I think there’s quite a bit of innovation going on and we need a lot more, especially for those who have been systematically excluded.
So, for women, non-binary folks, black and indigenous people of color, it’s painful to get funded the data and the numbers are so hard so we’re going to need people to experiment because the systems are not going to solve this. It’s just that they are designed for a totally different thing.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I’m hearing that it starts with the community. So you start building the community and then you attract or generate the kind of innovations that you need to serve this community that has typically been underserved in the past.
Vicki Saunders: Totally, a hundred percent and it’s really hard to build community.
I’ve just built the muscle of doing this my whole life. I think one of the key things is to not serve everyone. You should be very clear, like we had this thing, it’s an act of radical generosity, join and your capital is a gift and that idea weeded out a ton of people who are here to take.
There are lots of people who are like, “What is this, I gift my money? I don’t get to choose where it goes? I don’t like that model” and I’m like, “Bye!”
Don’t try and convince anyone, get very aligned on what you’re here to do, who your audience is, and what matters most and then pile forward.
If you think of the long term, there’s now like 7 billion people and the majority of them are online. There’s an audience for what you’re gonna do your way.
It’s just that you don’t have to try and be too many things to too many people.
Shubha Chakravarthy: In the early days how did you find all these people? Did you already have the network?
Vicki Saunders: No, I mean, I thought I did. I had a really big network but lots of those people didn’t show up.
It’s been a fascinating journey and it’s really been the hardest thing I’ve ever done I have to say and I’ve done a lot of hard things because the mindset to step into SheEO is to give up your power, give up a little bit of capital, and not know what the outcome’s gonna be and just trust.
That’s what it takes to walk in through the door. That’s what it took at the beginning because it was imagined.
That this makes sense when it didn’t make sense to lots of people, a 0% interest loan, and now we’ve got tons and tons of stories, and it’s still really hard for people to give themselves permission to come into a community, then imagine coming into the community like this and the first thing everyone’s gonna say to you is “How can I help you and what do you need?”
Most people don’t think that they’re worthy of receiving that. It’s just because we’ve been so conditioned to think, “Oh, well, she’s in that community. I’m not like her. She’s amazing. I better spend another three years trying to get better before I step in.”
And I’m like, “Honey, the way to get better is to actually step in before you’re ready. That’s the way because then it’s easier. Everyone’s ready if you pick yourself.”
But I also recognize that way back in my twenties or thirties if something like this existed, I’m not sure I would’ve put myself into that space because I really didn’t have a lot of confidence and I thought there were all kinds of things wrong with me because I believed what everyone told me, all the things, you should do this, you should do that, you’re not ready, blah, blah, blah.
When you hear too much of that, it just takes over and then you really don’t think you’re great.
Shubha Chakravarthy: How do you break that then?
Vicki Saunders: I don’t know yet. Will you tell me when you figure that out? Because we haven’t figured it out.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s what I’m trying to do.
Vicki Saunders: It’s being invitational with beautiful hospitality. It’s “You matter. You are welcome here.”
We have these global activation calls for people to come and experience it a little bit because it is not what you normally experience in a day.
This is a very different kind of way of being together in a community. It sounds a little bit too good to be true, like you could walk in here and maybe peep an ask but with no confidence or anything, and maybe someone doesn’t help and you’re like, “See, I told you this isn’t real.”
You have to kind of step in and trust and suspend your disbelief and go find a buddy. If you need them to help you along on the way to stepping into it because it can be scary and we continue to story-tell what’s happening here as permission space for people to come and they will come when they’re ready.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Your big focus is working on the World’s To-Do list which is linked to the sustainable development goals from the UN.
So, let’s say there’s a woman who wants to start a business that’s not explicitly linked. Let’s say she wants to start a payment processing firm and there’s no direct link to SheEO, but then there’s also no direct link to an SDG, but it’s a pretty legitimate business that she has.
Vicki Saunders: So come in and be an activator and get support to grow your business and find the other people that are working on similar things like this to get support.
You don’t have to be a SheEO, like a venture that’s selected that’s funded to get help in this community. We’re all helping each other all the time.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Somebody who’s like this could come in as an activator and still get help for their business?
Vicki Saunders: Yeah. I mean, this is all the thing you use. The ask-give app, you ask for help.
People show up to help you. There are tons of people building businesses that don’t fit in the World’s To-Do List in our community.
They’re all helping each other.
Shubha Chakravarthy: What advice would you give to women entrepreneurs just based on your own experience, how should they approach the financial side of entrepreneurship based on everything you’ve learned, what has worked within your ventures and your community?
Vicki Saunders: Yeah, the number one thing for me is to just bootstrap. I feel really the best way to get funding is to get a customer to build your ability to charismatically get people to follow you or find a partner who’s really good at that.
We need so much leadership for new ideas to solve a lot of challenges we’re facing right now and however you’re going use your leadership, please just do it, whatever it is, just lead because we need you.
So I think that from a funding perspective the easiest or the most free way is to go get customers.
You could maybe go get investors. It’s like the same challenges again. Right?
You have to go find an investor. It’s like getting married. You’re gonna be with this person for a while. They have a lot of say in your life, so make sure you like them and they’re aligned with your vision.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You talk in the book about finding resources. You said that there are billions of dollars that are looking for places to invest in, especially for women and girls and I know Catalyst at Large, that’s one resource.
Are there other resources that you can point out, that you’re aware of that would help?
Vicki Saunders: Yeah, I would go to GenderSmart, that is gendersmartinvesting.com. They just put out alongside one of the universities in the state, Wharton, a report on all of the gender lens investing funds globally across all of the asset classes. So, it’s an excellent resource.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So even if you’re just starting as a small bootstrap entrepreneur—
Vicki Saunders: Yes. You can find it on their website. The other person who’s really good at this is Jackie Zehner. She’s got an unbelievable list on her website and she’s got a lot of all these reports mapping the movement. Lots of good stuff.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Excellent. So, the last question for today. If there’s one thing that you want to leave any woman entrepreneur anywhere in the world with to make their own adventurous success, what would you tell them?
Vicki Saunders: Go find a community that fits with your values and get in relationships with others. It makes everything easier. Do not do it alone.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Thank you!