Radical generosity for radical innovation — Vicki Saunders on creating a new financing model

If the system doesn’t work, change it with a complete overhaul and a dash of entrepreneurial intuition.

“Sometimes in order to innovate you need to understand a system deeply so you can unpack and redesign it,” says self-professed serial entrepreneur and reformed venture capitalist Vicki Saunders. She designed and founded a new kind of venture ecosystem, SheEO, to support female entrepreneurs on their own terms — with the humble goal of creating a better world in the process.

“I consider myself a systems change, transformational entrepreneur more than anything else,” says Vicki of her mission to democratize venture capital. “Every single part of SheEO is redesigned from scratch. The economic system we’re living in right now was made for a different time and different place. We don’t live in that world anymore.”

The SheEO model supports small- and medium-sized ventures by building a community that hinges on ‘radical generosity’ to unlock business growth. Each year, 500 women “activators” contribute $1,100 each to a pooled fund and decide how to distribute it to several women-led, revenue-generating, exportable ventures they’ve selected out of hundreds of applicants. Selected entrepreneurs pay back the zero-percent-interest loans over five years, letting them be loaned out again, and creating a perpetual fund for the future.

Financial difference with a societal difference

Radical generosity is about more than money though: the Activators maintain a steady yet non-authoritative presence in each business as it grows, activating not only their capital but their networks, expertise and buying power. The other radical caveat: every business must have a positive social impact.

“I really don’t view what we’re doing as only reforming funding and designing it,” Vicki explains. “For me it’s about creating another economic model and another societal model to help people reach their potential. How do we help people become the innovators they are inside and how do we create ecosystems to support that? Funding is one part of it, but it’s not the whole thing.”

SheEO leverages the expertise and intuition of 500 women to redefine what a successful business looks like. Then they bank on it. “It works every time,” Vicki confirms. That process expands the notion of success from the current high-risk ‘go big or go home’ to multiple definitions that work with entrepreneurs’ own visions and terms for their businesses. “There is no right way to do anything,” Vicki adds.

Emerging trends of blended finance have been foremost on Vicki’s mind since her first ventures into entrepreneurship in the late-90s. “I can’t move myself to go make money if I’m not excited about the positive impact I’m having,” she says. “I’ve always thought about redefining new business models with either/or and both/and ways of thinking. We’re at a point in the world where that is desperately needed.”

Designing holistically for global impact

From the beginning, SheEO applied holistic design to everything it did while acknowledging the need to work with larger, less holistic ecosystems to apply the SheEO model on a larger scale. “There’s a huge appetite for doing something differently,” says Vicki. SheEO’s work with local government policy and regulatory decision makers has now expanded to plans with regions all over the world to apply SheEO’s model of aggregating local capital to fund local businesses and connect them to critical export markets. “When local women pick local ventures they care about, the model can be completely different things in each country, just as it needs to be.”

That model hones in on not only on supporting innovative enterprises, but on collectively rebalancing economies and societies. “Most businesses in the world are small- and medium-sized enterprises, all starved of capital because everybody’s trying to find the next unicorn and they don’t care about anything smaller,” says Vicki. “But there’s a massive opportunity in that space. We have a model that actually gets at the heart of that issue. And at scale, this can really transform economies.”

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Startupfest knows first-hand that innovation comes from non-traditional ways of thinking — that’s why we created the Startupfest 2018 Inclusion Initiative. It includes offering passes to Canadian women working in the technology sector at a 90% discount, making Startupfest accessible to women who would otherwise be unable to attend. Underserved entrepreneurs and innovators simply need to complete this form.