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New fund provides more than capital for women entrepreneurs

Toni Desrosiers
CEO Toni Desrosiers, whose company, Abeego, won funding and support from the SheEO Radical Generosity Fund. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The SheEO Radical Generosity Fund is an initiative created to transform the experience of women entrepreneurs who are bringing forth world-changing ideas. In the pot is $1million in capital that has been crowdsourced from 1,000 women, each of whom has contributed $1,000 to invest in a handful of female-led companies in the form of zero-interest loans.

This formula, spun from the experiences of Toronto-based serial entrepreneur and award-winning mentor Vicki Saunders, is meant to remove barriers, not only to funding and networking opportunities for women entrepreneurs but also to the fulfilment of their ideas, on their own terms.

“We live in a highly unforgiving business environment that works against us reaching our potential, especially women,” Saunders explains. “Imagine how much bigger we would dream, how much further we would shoot, if we thought we’d be surrounded by radically generous responses. It would be a game-changer for women.”

Such “responses” in the world of SheEO translate to far more than an injection of much-needed capital for female entrepreneurs. Those contributing to the Radical Generosity Fund are more than donors; Saunders calls them “activators” who mobilize their own networks, their buying power, and their expertise for the benefit of the companies chosen as recipients of the fund.

Like all successful entrepreneurs, Saunders sought a resourceful solution to an identified “pain point” in society. Less than five percent of venture capital goes to women, yet women make 80 percent of purchasing decisions and are starting businesses worldwide at one and a half times the pace of men.

Saunders started the work on SheEO in the summer of 2013 by initially pairing female entrepreneurs with mentors, in an experimental program to gauge interest in an incubation program.

A year later, the Radical Generosity Fund officially launched with its first call-out for capital in Canada. Although the fund didn’t reach its target numbers during its inaugural year, $500,000 was divvied up by five finalists. By 2016, the fund had solicited enough contributions to fill the $1 million kitty.

“Imagine how much bigger we would dream, how much further we would shoot, if we thought we’d be surrounded by radically generous responses. It would be a game-changer for women.”

So far, the chosen ventures are experiencing growth on several fronts. Among them is Abeego, a company based in Victoria, British Columbia, that produces “breathable” and reusable food wrap that keeps food fresh and replaces toxic plastic wrap. Abeego founder and CEO Toni Desrosiers explains the value of being selected as a radical generosity fund finalist:

“The SheEO funding allowed me to execute on a complete rebrand for Abeego. This move was critical in our efforts to shift from a single-niche product to a product line that is truly scalable. I’ve grown immensely as an entrepreneur since being selected as a SheEO top-five venture. Most notably, I’ve developed resilience. Knowing that 500 women have my back, believe in me, and are willing to help when called has allowed me to make bolder moves with Abeego.”

The other four 2015 finalists include Twenty One Toys, a company that designs toys that teach empathy, failure, and other “21st-century skills”; Skipper Otto’s Community Supported Fishery, a fishery that is disrupting the global supply chain by providing a direct connection between fishers and consumers who care about sustainability and fair trade; Magnusmode, an app for people on the autism spectrum to live more independently; and Lunapads, a manufacturer and retailer of natural feminine hygiene and personal care products.

The entrepreneurs receive one-on-one coaching with a business coach, but it’s up to them to take advantage of the community to get the support they need. “We are literally one step removed from anyone,” explains Saunders. Desrosiers provides an example of this benefit, explaining that she was recently invited to participate on Dragon’s Den (Canada’s Shark Tank) and sent out an “ask” to the network of activators to help craft her pitch. “Nancy Trites Botkin, the founder of the consultancy company Think8, answered immediately and offered her assistance. She helped me create amazing TV, and as a result Abeego will get nationwide airtime when Dragon’s Den airs on March 1.”

Any women-led and women-majority-owned company with at least $50,000 in revenue can apply for the Radical Generosity Fund. They must be able to demonstrate that they’re “creating social impact through new models, new mindsets and new solutions for a better world.”

SheEO’s call-out for capital has been received by a cross section of women. “Activators” are corporate executives, public leaders, change-makers, early-stage entrepreneurs, and even those hoping to become entrepreneurs.

“Everything has spread by word of mouth,” Saunders says, “living room by living room, through speaking engagements and the media.”

Attend any SheEO networking event and you’re likely to hear Saunders say, “Everything is broken; what a great time to be alive.” Her words echo those of Jaqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of Acumen, a non-profit tackling global poverty, who back in 2009 in a TED talk entitled “A Third Way to Think About Aid,” stated, “Clearly we’re living in a moment of crisis. … Financial markets have failed us, and the aid system is failing us. … There’s probably never been a more exciting moment to be alive.” While Novogratz spoke of aid and lifting people out of poverty with “patient capital,” Saunders has tasked herself with a model that addresses the underfunding of women-led ventures. In some ways she’s working in the tradition of micro-lending organizations and venture funding organizations that have been around for years, but the Radical Generosity model offers a new framework of women contributing to support other women.

In 2016, more than 400 companies applied to the fund, roughly 200 from the U.S. and Canada each. From these applicants, ten finalists have been chosen by the “activators.” When making their selection, Saunders says, the criteria are straightforward. “We ask our activators if they are so excited about the venture that they would buy or recommend the product or service. We also ask them to consider whether they think the entrepreneur and their team have what it takes to grow and run the business and if they think the business can leverage our network to expand globally.”

The winning ventures will soon be announced at SheEO events in both the U.S. and Canada. The five winning U.S. ventures will be announced at a summit and gala in Denver, Colorado on February 27th, and a week later, on March 6th, the five winning Canadian ventures will be announced at a gala and summit in Toronto, Ontario.

Saunders explains that the goal of SheEO is to build a “muscle of generosity until it’s realized that being radically generous returns to us much more than we give and creates a world that is much more inclusive and sustainable.” It’s difficult to ignore that both the language and the momentum of this initiative are suggestive of a movement.

However, in an article written for Canada’s Globe and Mail, she stresses the importance of having a growing network at the core of a fund with radically generous ambitions: “The next step we need to see is women stepping forward to be investors in these innovative companies, or we will leave another generation of innovative, female-led companies starving for capital.”

SheEO’s long game is to apply its funding model globally. The team plans to roll it out, city by city, over the next five years, calling on one million women to make $1,000 contributions. The goal: to have one billion dollars in the fund by 2020.

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