June 18, 2018

Vicki Saunders is a serial social entrepreneur who has co-founded and ran ventures in Silicon Valley, Europe and Toronto, where she started Canada’s first public incubator for youth-driven tech businesses, which went public on the stock exchange after a $40 million merger.

Her varied entrepreneurial journey led her to the realisation that even though 80% of purchase decisions are made by women, less than 4% of venture capital went to women and less than 1% of corporate procurement was going to women-owned companies.

Confronted with the glaring imbalance of a system which rewarded extreme risk and a ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality, Vicki founded SheEO, a non-profit which operates on a system of #radicalgenerosity. Financing female-run enterprises on a system of 0% interest loans from a pool of $1,000 donations by groups of women, SheEO creates a perpetual and growing fund that encourages greater female innovation and enterprise, as well as a collective spirit of sharing and giving—one that Vicki hopes will help shape a new economic model for our world.

HNW: You’ve described a mounting anger and the frustration of “a death by 1000 cuts” from living and working in a system that isn’t designed for women. Was there a tipping point that made you start SheEO?

Vicki Saunders: I would not characterise what I see that way. As with almost any entrepreneur’s journey, I saw something that was an opportunity and a challenge. We were deeply undervaluing women’s innovation and I saw a huge possibility in supporting that innovation. Women have money like we’ve never had before, we have networks, and we make 80% of purchasing decisions. If that power was aligned in a direction towards picking amazing women-led ventures with game-changing business ideas, to me that was an opportunity to really make a difference in the world.

What do you hope to achieve with SheEO?

I’m looking to amplify a message around success that is broader than winner takes all. By creating a mindset where one winner takes home everything, we have created a world of 5 people having the same wealth as half the planet. This is an obscene result to a model that has run its course. We need a new way forward and thinking. What if you could run a successful venture by working 3 or 4 days a week or more flexibly, rather than having some crazy unattainable mantra where you have to work 24/7 in order to be successful? I think there are so many alternatives to our current systems of leadership and success. Everything around is a made-up rule or principle or value that can be changed. It’s time we got behind some truly radical ideas that can get us to a better world.

Can SheEO alone bring about true systemic change to the way the world’s businesses and economies are run?

We need thousands of system-changing innovations across all sectors in order to create true systemic change.

Your model of radical generosity hinges on a spirit of community and altruism in people. What gives you the confidence and faith to believe this can overcome capitalistic self-interest and greed?

I don’t need faith in it, I witness it every day. We have hundreds of regions around the world with women reaching out wanting to replicate this model. Over 3,000 women have come to our website, contributed $1100 and are making a difference every single day with their money and it’s been used very efficiently, and with big impact. When these ventures pay back their loans, it is used again by the next round of ventures.

Who are inspiring female figures you admire and why?

I am inspired by every woman who steps out of her comfort zone to make history; whether that’s to start a business, a movement, to stand up for something she believes in, or to take the uncommon path forward. It’s certainly not easy to stand up for your dreams, hopes and values, but when I see that in action it rocks my world, and makes me want to help.

What keeps you motivated and fighting the good fight?

I don’t view it as a fight. I am driven by sharing my network, expertise and lifelong experiences as an entrepreneur. I’m also driven by the complex challenge of changing the way systems work—and we are working to find a model for a better economy and society. In addition, I’m driven by the courage and passion of women that I meet everywhere around the world who are creating amazing businesses that lead to improvement in their communities and bring about new solutions.

A lot of women see starting a family as a career-ender, or else struggle to succeed with a work-life balance. Does something always have to give? What are your thoughts on the issue of motherhood and childcare for “working mothers”?

I think we have a crazy notion that you can have balance. I see it as flow. Sometimes you are way too crazy with work, other times family is taking up all your time. You need to flow with it and it’s highly unrealistic to expect to be balanced at all times. Incidentally, I don’t ever hear men getting asked this question so I think it’s another example of a male-designed system working against women’s potential.

What do you have to say to men who might feel that feminism and female-empowering ventures/organisations like SheEO, unfairly victimise and discriminate against men?

I don’t say anything. They aren’t my target audience. 🙂

Should all women work? What is your best advice for women?

I have no “shoulds” in my vocabulary. People have choices and we all make choices that work for us depending on circumstances as well as timing. I only know that following someone else’s path will not lead you to reach your fullest potential. You have to find your own path forward.

What would you tell your 14-year-old self, and why?

Breathe. It’s the answer to everything. If you take 3 deep breaths in a row you can’t be stressed. Keep breathing.