Our Views

Celebrating Inspiring Women: Meet Vicki Saunders, Founder of SheEO

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, this year’s theme – Women Inspiring Women – brings to mind a visionary entrepreneur who’s been on a quest to help female innovators thrive. Meet SheEO Founder and CEO Vicki Saunders. Saunders is a passionate mentor and powerful advisor to the next generation of global changemakers and a leading advocate for entrepreneurship as a way of creating positive transformation in the world.

After co-founding and running ventures in Europe, Toronto and Silicon Valley, and taking a company public on the Toronto Stock Exchange, Saunders turned her attention to mentoring young female entrepreneurs. It soon became clear that the system was inaccessible for women, with female-founded start-ups receiving less than 4% of all available venture capital funding.

That’s when SheEO was born. Founded in 2015, SheEO is a Toronto-based global initiative designed to radically transform how women entrepreneurs can succeed. Now operating in five countries, SheEO is a network of women who support, finance, and celebrate female innovators. It’s an extraordinary group of change makers creating and running disruptive ventures, all while getting the World’s To-Do List done.

Newport’s Chief Marketing Officer, Elizabeth Pizzinato, was an early Activator with SheEO and has long been an admirer of Saunders and her trailblazing approach to women’s entrepreneurship. She caught up with Saunders recently to find out more about the journey that led to SheEO; what the landscape and opportunities are for women entrepreneurs right now; and why we all need to practice radical generosity.

1. You grew up on a farm just outside Ottawa, at a time when traditional roles for women were the norm. What led to a path of entrepreneurship?

When I was growing up, no one really used the word entrepreneur and I never thought of it as a pathway. My parents didn’t call themselves entrepreneurs either, even though they were – and highly innovative ones at that. All our meals together focused on dreaming up crazy new ideas to do on the farm and then implementing them without a blueprint to follow. I learned from an early age how to make things happen, experiment, embrace failure (it’s just learning and feedback) and keep moving. Have a look at Saunders Farm to get a peek into why I am who I am and where it started.

2. You started SheEO with the intention of disrupting the venture capital funding system, one that largely disregards women entrepreneurs. SheEO is a completely different approach to start-up funding. How does your business model work?

Our model is what’s considered combinatorial innovation; it’s when you take a range of existing resources and reorganize them in new ways that deliver better results. There is enough for everyone. It’s just not distributed fairly or evenly. At SheEO we reorganize where resources go – to the highest and best use/impact for all of us.

The SheEO model brings together hundreds of women called Activators, who contribute funds as an Act of Radical Generosity. The money is pooled together and loaned out at 0%-interest to women-led Ventures selected by the Activators. With approximately 2% of global capital going to 51% of the population, we are getting at the root issues and systemic biases that exclude women entrepreneurs from sharing their innovations with the world. We have created an ecosystem-based approach where customers, advisors, influencers, network connectors, funders and entrepreneurs are all in the same community. And it’s underpinned by an ethos of radical generosity.

3. What is radical generosity?

Radical generosity is a practice. We believe it is core to creating a better world. Imagine asking yourself, what might a radically generous response be before reacting to someone’s request of you? And what would it look like to be radically generous to yourself?

There’s a global mindset of fierce competition and scarcity in a harsh business environment, stepping over others to “win.” We don’t buy that as the only way of acting. We believe that we do our best work in an environment of trust, focused on caring for one another and bringing our full selves to the mix.

At SheEO when you activate, you commit to showing up with kindness to yourself and others. We all have gifts to share, and our community is committed to helping our members find them. It’s a fundamentally different way of operating and it’s changing all of us as we realize that together, we have all that we need to be who we want to be and to be successful, on our own terms.

Radical generosity is not only about funding. For example, I bring my extensive global network and share it with open arms to those who ask for connections in the community. Or we show up with our wallets and buy the products and services that are on offer from other community members. We open doors for one another, share our power, amplify each other’s work. It’s all based in the spirit of radical generosity and belief in abundance.

4. Well before the advent of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investment practices and socially responsible investing (SRI), you’ve long believed that having the biggest impact and making money aren’t mutually exclusive. How does that philosophy inform SheEO?

We only support businesses in our community who are committed to working on critical global priorities – the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Our extractive business models, our wealth inequality, our imbalanced distribution of resources is all a result of a system that values profit before people. SheEO aims to change that. So, we fund those who are producing new models, new mindsets and new solutions for a world that works for all and it’s fascinating to see these new businesses at work, making real change happen.

For example, we have supported a company called Gotcare that has rethought home healthcare in Canada and pays 30% more to frontline workers. Then there’s Nada Grocery that was the first zero-waste grocery store in Canada and The Alinker, that has created a revolutionary walking bike for people who have lost their mobility so that they can stay active on their own terms.

5. Your book, Think Like a SheEO, was published in 2014. In it you talk about how it felt like everything was broken and that it was actually a great time to be alive. Talk about being prescient! As you look around today, with entire systems that need to be redesigned, reinvented, and redefined, are you still as optimistic?

I’ve always been one of those people who live in the future. When I first started speaking to audiences about SheEO, I would open with that sentence: “Everything is broken, what a great time to be alive!” And people who say, “What do you mean? What’s broken?” They don’t say that to me anymore.

COVID-19 has ravaged all our lives and really pulled the curtains back around the systemic challenges that kept us stuck in inertia. It’s created levels of uncertainty that require an unparalleled need to be resilient and agile. And it’s also created great opportunities.

I am very optimistic about what’s next and what’s possible as we’ve seen thousands of incredible new innovations that help us get to the new world in our SheEO community. You can visit our website to look at our Venture portfolio – there are over 140 women and non-binary led companies who are changing the world for the better every day. Our global community of Activators are all engaged in systems change that is making a real difference. It’s very uplifting to be in a community like this witnessing the impact we can all have together.