Career

Meet the woman who wants to overhaul the way the world does business

“I’m not interested in levelling the playing field. I want to build a whole new field.”

Vicki Saunders’ female entrepreneur-led business, SheEO, has been taken up by more than 100 cities. Now, ahead of her appearance at WorldWoman17, she shares her plans to radically transform how we support women in business.

Vicki Saunders is building her very own field of dreams – a radical new take on the global economy driven by the uniquely female characteristics of community, caring and nurturing.

While traditional venture capitalists are still engaging with the idea bolder-is-better, the Canadian-born entrepreneur, mentor and adviser is engaging women around the world with a far fresher approach.

Saunders wants to completely overhaul the way the world does business, through empowering female entrepreneurs and committing to creating a better world through a global network designed to radically transform how we support, finance and celebrate women.

“I’m not interested in levelling the playing field,” she says from her Toronto office. “I want to build a whole new field.”

And like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, Saunders has spent three-and-a-half years focused on the mentality that “if you build it, they will come” with the development and launch of a network of “radical generosity”, aptly titled SheEO.

The pay-it-forward model based on crowd-funding, inspirational investment and perpetual wealth generation launches in New Zealand this year. And it will see entrepreneurial women support local, female-led ventures through the injection of capital.

Having been picked up by more than 100 cities, the goal of SheEO is to create strong business communities and robust financial models that magnify and enhance the unique qualities women bring to business.

The new system
“I decided rather than convert women into men and say we need to be bolder and take more risks, what if women are the canary in the coal mine? What if everything about women is right?

“That’s why I took everything that’s considered a deficit in women and created an asset by putting a support programme around that.”

A SheEO network begins by 1000 women called activators coming together and committing a $1000 annual fee. These women select the local female-led ventures they want to loan the money to, at zero percent interest paid back over five years. This money is then perpetually reinvested.

To apply for funding, applicants answer just 11 simple questions.

“No attachments, no pitch decks [business presentations], no jargon,” says Saunders. “It’s a completely different application process.”

From there, investors go online and can cast one vote. The companies selected come together for a retreat and divide up the capital among themselves.

“The are two rules – you can’t give it all to one and you can’t divide it up evenly,” she explains. “This means the women have to go into negotiation to work out how to divide up the capital for maximum impact. Each time we’ve done that, everybody gets money. It’s a totally different prospect that’s not based on ‘winner gets all’.”

The businesses then enjoy a year-long personalised, guided development programme which focuses on what kind of business they want to build and to what level with support from coaches and guides.

Radical change
“Every month, you get an ‘ask’ of the network and it goes out in an email to everybody,” says Saunders. “We have a 100:1 ratio of women in our network to entrepreneurs and within 24 hours of that email going out, women get exactly what they ask for. It’s unbelievable.

“What’s also happening is the activators in the network who invest $1000 are suddenly becoming each other’s customers, advisers and supporters because they are not only radically generous with their ventures, but they are also radically generous with one another. There’s this spirit of everyone helping each other get where they want to go. This is a network where you give first and receive after.”

The goal is that by 2020 there will be one million women globally supporting 10,000 female entrepreneurs with a $1 billion perpetual loan fund.

New Zealand was the first country internationally to approach Saunders about setting up a network. She is currently in talks with the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment. And now that Kiwi female entrepreneurs will become part of the network this year, she’s travelling to Auckland next month as a keynote speaker for Worldwomen17.

It’s one of the many presentations she gives worldwide to drive a conversation around how “meaning is the new money”.

Her intention is to rally together strong women who can support one another’s visions for businesses that nurture our world, not destroy it — a problem she believes has reached a crescendo.

“It’s much worse now than it was a few decades ago,” says Saunders, who has also penned the book, Think Like a SheEO: Succeeding in the Age of Creators, Makers and Entrepreneurs.

“We have this dominant narrative in the world where if you don’t build something big, it doesn’t matter and that you need to work 24/7 to be successful."

Chasing unicorns
“On top of everything else, all venture capitalists want to find is unicorns – which are these companies that get to a billion dollars very quickly. They come to market and decimate everything else. Think Uber.”

But she says this leaves small to medium-sized businesses struggling for capital.

“Given these [smaller] businesses make up 97 per cent of the economy and all capital wants to do is chase a unicorn, what’s that telling you? We have an economic model that’s bad for the economy and bad for people so we need a new approach.”

This drive to live life with a new approach isn’t an innate quality for Saunders, who says when she left school she never thought she would be an entrepreneur. Everything changed when she travelled to Europe for a gap year.

“I had a revolutionary experience; I was in Europe when the wall came down in Berlin and I went over to Eastern Europe. I was surrounded by people who were dreaming every single day about what they were going to do now they were free. You can imagine being in pubs and cafes in a place where people are talking about freedom, saying, ‘I’m free to do whatever I want because there was a tank in my backyard, I was told what job I had to do and now all of that has gone and I can decide for myself’.

“I realised because I was travelling, I was also free and so I thought, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ That’s literally where I became an entrepreneur.”

On her return to Toronto, Saunders started a business and it went well so she started another one and then “I got all my friends starting businesses”.

“Being in a crucible of a society awakening was a huge moment for me and I needed to be in that environment for that to happen. So ever since then I’ve literally answered that same question — how can you create environments where people do more than they feel is possible for them?”

The future is female
That’s why she is so determined and passionate that the investment model of SheEO will truly change the world.

“For decades, it’s felt like a burden to be a woman in this world designed by men. In business, it’s incredibly difficult. Now the way I look at the world is a huge asset. I have an innovation advantage over the men around me,” she smiles.

And because every business is being disrupted with advancing technology, Saunders believes we are living in a time ripe for redesign.

However, as is her nature, she remains practical about how long it will take for her vision to flourish. Saunders says after seeing the network grow to more than 100 countries since its launch in Canada “with little to no media coverage”, she’s been surprised at how hard it is for women to engage with their capital. She believes it will take time and education for women to become truly comfortable with the concept of community investment.

“One of the big surprises is how fast the idea is spreading. We have so much buzz and excitement around it,” she says. “But the activation rate of women thinking this is a great idea and actually taking the step to invest $1000 in it is a huge gap. It seems like women aren’t used to writing cheques and that it’s hard for them to activate with their capital. That part has been slower than I imagined it would be.”

But Saunders sees getting women comfortable in engaging with their capital is all part of “the work”.

“There’s a reason why women haven’t been engaging with their capital and there’s a reason why 50 per cent of the population isn’t stepping forward and becoming investors. But the world will never change unless women engage with their capital. It requires a leap of faith and a belief we can do this, so if it speaks to you and it resonates with you, please join us.

“The reality is women pick different kinds of companies to invest in; we go for meaning and relationships. If enough of us commit to that, it will change our world.”

Agenda for change
Worldwomen17 is a conference by women, for women, to give guests a space where they can be inspired by powerful local and international individuals who are manifesting change in education, health and business.

The inaugural event is founded by business-woman and philanthropist Theresa Gattung, intuitive healer Barbara Gabler and executive assistant Chris Woodwiss.

They were concerned about the state of the world and so created charitable trust and forum, worldwomen, for women to share their knowledge, to look at issues differently and to question the status quo.

Gattung hopes, through worldwomen, “to be a catalyst for women being inspired to manifest amazing outcomes for themselves, and to create meaningful change in the world in the company of other women”.

Alongside a keynote speech by SheEO founder and award-winning business mentor Vicki Saunders, the conference will feature humanitarian Tererai Trent as well as Dr Neha Sangwan, internal medicine physician and the author of TalkRX: Five Steps to Honest Conversations that Create Connection, Health and Happiness. The event focuses on using love, compassion and joy as tools to initiate a movement that works for women.

The vision for the event is “about sharing a great experience with other women, to feel how powerful and strong women can be as a group,” explain the founders.

“It’s about feeling how much joy and enthusiasm a group of women can create, along with solidarity and compassion. We are not paralysed looking at the state of the world, we love this world, we are grateful for our lives and we want to communicate this with other women.”

Individual workshops will be held by leading kaupapa Māori educator Leonie Pihama, Cambodia Charitable Trust founder Denise Arnold and consultant Hazel Owen.

Words: Kylie Bailey

Worldwomen17 runs from March 17-19 at the ANZ Viaduct Events Centre, Auckland. For further details and to buy tickets, visit www.worldwomen.org.nz.

For more, see the latest issue of NEXT, which is on sale with with two different covers, featuring Ali Pugh and Victoria Beckham

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