One of the most encouraging responses to gender inequities and bias (intentional or not) in Silicon Valley and venture capital has been the rise of an alternative network of angel groups, incubators, accelerators and networking and mentoring organizations that focus on women entrepreneurs. Beginning today and continuing through Friday, ID8 Nation will publish interviews with four women helping to build this alternative ecosystem. Here’s the lineup:
Tues., Feb. 24 — Sue Heilbronner of MergeLane in Boulder
Wed., Feb. 25 — Dr. Mary Jo Gorman of Prosper St. Louis
Thurs., Feb. 26 — Vicki Saunders of SheEO in Toronto
Fri., Feb. 27 — Amy Millman of Springboard Enterprises in Washington D.C.
Vicki Saunders has advocated for entrepreneurship in government and as a serial entrepreneur in Europe, Canada and Silicon Valley. She was named a Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum. Her current venture, SheEO, based in Toronto, offers entrepreneurship education, mentoring, investment and networking for women-led startups.
Why she created SheEO:
“Whenever I speak at events, women come up to me afterward and ask very different questions than men. And these questions are rarely “business questions.” Instead, it’s “How do you build your confidence? How did you build your network? How do you manage balance? How do you deal with fear? All these soft skill questions, which perplexed me. I thought, why don’t women ask me about my go-to-market strategy.
“But I realized there’s no space to have this conversation. There’s just kind of a suck-it-up feeling and get over it and you’ll figure it out. I wondered if I created a program that was focused around these main issues — boldness, building your networks, creating a culture of women helping women, getting this peer group together to understand that the way they’re feeling is actually very similar to the way a lot of other women entrepreneurs are feeling. Normalize the behavior and then let’s move on.
“A lot of incubators and accelerators focus very specifically just on the business, not on the person. I think there’s some extra development that’s needed for women to get out there and boldly go after their dreams. So that’s why we started it.”
What’s wrong with the entrepreneurship narrative:
“We have a narrative around what success means today. Go big or go home, right? And you have to work 24/7 to be successful and “it’s just business” is an excuse, a term that we use all the time to treat people poorly. And I feel that narrative is broken and we need a different one. If you’re running a business, setting your own hours, creating the culture you want and making $5 million a year as an entrepreneur, is that OK? Is that success? I know lots of people out there that don’t think they’re successful because they haven’t built something that goes to IPO. I think we need a broader definition of success. I’m not saying that going big isn’t a good thing. I’m just saying it’s not necessarily for everyone. I think we should be able to define success on our own terms.”
Why scalability has gotten out of scale:
“There’s this whole crazy mantra going around, almost every incubator I’ve ever been to, and the first thing I hear people say is, “How’s that idea going to scale?” And I think it’s a bit of a BS questions because it’s like, “Well, so show me why and where in the world scale has really created a better world. There are examples, but not everything needs to scale. The vast majority of economies are small businesses with under 10 employees. So if we’re going to tell everybody to throw away any idea that’s not about scale, I think that disproportionately hurts women. Small is the new big.”
SheEO’s unique investment model:
“We have $50,000 and we turn it over to the cohort to decide how to invest it in themselves. We have two rules: you can’t give it all to one venture and you can’t divide it evenly. And both cohorts decided everyone should get some money. The first time that happened, I pushed back. I said, “Look, there are three women who have ventures that are ahead of the others. Why did you decide that everyone should get money?
“And they pushed back at me and said, ‘Everybody here is incredible and is going to do something amazing with their life. And if it’s not this venture, it’s going to be another one and we all want to be working together to support each other and we’re going to meet each month and hold each other to our milestones.’ That’s a really different model, right? The normal thing we do in society is pick one, pick a winner. Imagine if we had a different success model and said a 3x return for 10 ventures is better than a 10x return once. We have a fairly inefficient use of capital in the venture market, so this will be an interesting experiment.”
On the role of men in SheEO:
“We have men angel investors and mentors. There are a lot of men out there who have daughters, who want the world to look different for their daughters. I think we’re in the early stage of this; this is a 20-year cultural change. We need to create a culture of women helping women and men and women helping women. But it’s not been baked into our behavior. A lot of women have a hard time supporting one another. Our focus is the concept of radical generosity, giving to each other and giving is a way of getting. And women are generally very good at giving to others, but not necessarily receiving.”
The effect of women entrepreneurs getting more funding:
“I think if women were financed to the same degree as men, there would be 6 million jobs created in North America in the next five years. It’s a hugely untapped market that people aren’t paying attention to. There’s a lot of wealth to be made and a lot of change to be made in the world by getting behind women and supporting them and finding the ways they aren’t being supported, getting there, creating those networks and helping them succeed.”
Why SHeEO isn’t a cause:
It’s like if you’re helping to empower women that’s non-profit and if you’re investing in women, that’s for-profit. I don’t see it that way. You need to create nurturing environments and you have to shift the culture of supporting women in order to really drive that wealth creation. A lot of the work we’re doing, it looks non-profit at this point, but there will be a revenue model that will drive this going forward. It just needs patient capital.”
Why it’s OK for entrepreneurs to cry:
“It’s tough being an entrepreneur. You feel alone a lot of the time and sometimes having that cohort of people around you is incredibly important. Some of that stuff comes up in our groups so that’s what we talk about.”
Why women entrepreneurs need more role models:
“We underestimate our talent. We need to create an environment where you don’t have to be perfect. But they have to see others up there in front of them. And right now, it’s pretty tough to see, there are not a lot of women up on stage.”
The desirability of a separate entrepreneurial ecosystem for women:
“I don’t know if it’s a whole alternative path. But if this does anything to increase the number of women who go out there after their dreams, I will be thrilled. I just want to see the numbers change.”