Making a name for yourself in the business world can be hard for women, whether you are looking to branch out with your own company or make your way up the ranks. This is why we need women supporting women in all areas of business. Successful serial entrepreneur, award-winning mentor and founder of SheEO, Vicki Saunders, is tired of seeing women fighting it out for a space at the men’s table, she thinks it is time we find our own, women’s, way of doing things.
Advice from a SheEO
“Female entrepreneurs are always asking me if they are doing things right. My response is: ‘does it feel right?’ And: ‘yes, of course you are doing it right if it is working for you.’ There is this external validation that we are always looking for. Nobody really knows what is right for you, only you do, and it is incredibly important as a person in this world to hone and build your intuition and know what is right for you. We always get so surrounded by ‘what does the expert think?’ Well, the expert is clueless, honestly, because they are talking about themselves not about you. And the more that we can trust our inner voice, the better, and that is why [I like] radical generosity – just give an entrepreneur a hug, because it’s hard,” Saunders says.
Vicki Saunders, like many women, had her pitfalls and struggles in the male-dominated world of business, having hit roadblocks and doubters throughout her journey. Tired of seeing other females in business being put down and unsupported like she once was, she decided it was time to take action and make a change to something that was obviously broken.
“I was witnessing young women that I was mentoring getting told the same [stuff] that I was told, which isn’t true.” This inspired Saunders to create change. “If you just look at the world and follow all of the ways that we have got things designed, we are going to get more of this, which isn’t helping. So we need a new approach… I walk down the street and everything is missing; literally every part of society needs to be redesigned,” she says. Take, for example, her pet peeve of the moment. “Every time I go to speak on stage, they bring out their lapel mics and tell me I am wearing the wrong clothes,” she explains. “They are designed for men’s suits, which are sturdy.” It is at this point that Saunders gets an idea to change the way things are done. “You know what, I am going to get a women to redesign [the mic],” she says. Instances like this, and bigger obstacles such as women starting their own businesses, encourage Saunders to put her knowledge, her ‘mistakes’ and her passion for making the world a better place, to use. This is, indeed, how she came up with her latest endevour – SheEO, a platform for women, supported by women.
Women supporting women will change the world
There are always new, creative ways of looking at problems, something Saunders has exemplified in the creation of SheEO. It represents a new model of wealth creation that uses the power of relationships to overcome challenges. In this case, contributions from radically generous women solve the problem of women not receiving venture capital to start their own businesses. Take, for example, a study completed by venture capital firm, First Round Capital, which found female CEOs get just 2.7 percent of all venture funding and women of colour get 0.2 percent. Despite the fact that companies with women on the founding team are outperforming their all-male peers by 63 percent, we still see evidence that women are not being funded. This is where the SheEO approach comes in, helping women reach their potential and goals.
“Women, whom we call activators rather than investors, contribute $1100. It is an act of radical generosity, they don’t get this back,” Saunders says. “It goes into a pool of capital, then it is loaned out to female entrepreneurs that [the activators] select as a group, so everybody who contributes money gets to vote. So, if you have 1000 activators, you pick 10 companies [that] need to have at least $50,000 in revenue this year; be majority women-owned and women-led; and have the ability to answer how they are creating a better world. We don’t necessarily say a ‘social business’, but definitely [they] need someone who can articulate how they are not creating harm and actually creating good.”
This means female entrepreneurs have the opportunity to get a business off the ground and, all going well, grow the community of females entrepreneurs by becoming activators themselves when they are able. The way SheEO works means there is the opportunity to add a new company (hopefully companies) each year. “They get low-interest loans that they pay back over five years in 20 equal payments and once the money is paid back, it gets loaned out again. So every year, about 20 percent of the money is paid back and we just keep adding another company each year,” Saunders explains. “The idea is if you do this in your country for five years, you have a perpetual fund forever that we can pass on to daughters and granddaughters and nieces.”
Establishing this unique approach of radical generosity was not an overnight task, and Saunders admits it was something she avoided doing for 25 years as she was hoping she wouldn’t have to do it and that things would change. “I really thought this would change over time, but it really hasn’t changed at all; I feel like it is getting worse.” But when crowdfunding began, it was like a light bulb moment for Saunders, who was struggling to find the right business model to achieve it. “I wanted to solve this problem but I couldn’t think how to do it as a business. I didn’t want to do it as a charity because women are not a cause at all. So when crowdfunding occurred I was like ‘ahhh!’. So here is this thing: smaller amounts of money aggregated together is much more likely [to work] as opposed to trying to get a local woman to write a $1 million cheque to invest in 10 companies.”
To say this strategy is welcome in our world would be an understatement. Women are starting companies at twice the rate of men, yet female-founded companies get only 13 percent of the total angel financing available. Why? “Because the people writing the cheques are men and they like to invest in things that look like them, so I don’t think they often see the opportunity of the experience that we come forth with in our ideas sometimes. There is just unconscious bias out there in the world, which is part of the challenge…[the] model is really very broken for women,” Saunders says.
The Future is Female
For Saunders, it all comes down to changing the current systems and ways of thinking that we have in our society, which she believes are clearly male-focused. “I think we can do much better than the model we have got and this is one idea… I just think that we are living in a world where we have this economic model of ‘winner takes all’. And so, this idea of your money going in and flowing forward, and as it comes back, going out again as this perpetual fund; if you actually go back to indigenous culture, this is something that they talk about.”
Of course, as Saunders points out, this is a world we have created. “Part of the thing we all need to realise is we made all of this up. It’s not like there is some guide to how to build humanity. And so, if it is not working for you, let’s change it. We do this all the time in other parts of our lives. But part of that comes from feeling like you are powerful enough to do that and that you are emboldened to do that.”
Saunders is working tirelessly to inject empowerment into her companies, the people she mentors and SheEO. Many women in business, no matter the field or their level of expertise, are unfortunate enough to have a moment where they felt discouraged and unsupported by male, and at time female, counterparts or bosses. Sometimes this is down to the old-school nature and beliefs systems, other times it is down to the unconscious biases that exist not only in business, but in our society. Saunders, an individual who has experienced this numerous times, is dedicated to emboldening women. “[Everyone is] trying to fix women all the time: ‘you should be bolder, you should have more confidence, you should, should, should’ … What if women are just awesome the way we are and we just need to actually create an environment to support ourselves in bit of a different way?”
These key premises of thinking – in a ‘different way’ and in a ‘new environment’ – underpin Saunders’ and SheEO’s success. In order to encourage us to take a chance and support each other, Saunders has one last message to ignite a fight in us: “I really think if you step back and look at everything that is here, the world was not designed by us, women were not at the table to create this and so it’s not a deep surprise that it’s not working; but we really need to be there for this new world… I don’t want to be included in the old game; I want to create a new one.”
Whether you are looking to turn your latest idea or passion into a future, or you are simply unhappy working in a man’s world, using SheEO, or at least the ethos that it is built on, can help craft a new future for females.
This article was featured in the July/August 2017 issue of M2woman Magazine.