Women entrepreneurs

From Women entrepreneurs

What does a feminist business look like?

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There has been a fair bit of criticism lately about “marketplace feminism” (New Republic, Huffington Post, In These Times, and even a hilarious spoof of the concept from the New York Times). Marketplace feminism in these cases can be loosely understood as the commodification of feminism and female empowerment for commercial gain.

The conversation has given those of us who count ourselves as both entrepreneurs and feminists pause for thought: what does it mean to deploy a political ideology – in this case feminism – in a business context? Is marketplace feminism an inherently exploitative phenomenon, or – if done well – something that can be a positive force?

As a longtime self-proclaimed feminist and career entrepreneur, I am clear on my bias and will come right out of the gate with it: I believe that feminism has a valid and even essential place in business – just like it does everywhere else.

For the record, however, I didn’t always feel this way.

Growing Consciousness And Raising Capital

When I first came to feminist consciousness in my late teens as a university student in the 1980s, unchecked corporate greed was an article of faith. Sure, there were rumblings about divestment in portfolios containing South African mining businesses, however for the most part the Bonfire of the Vanities was still burning bright. Profit was awesome, bigger was better and ideas like corporate social responsibility were barely on the horizon.

As an activist, and furthermore a person of such privilege that I had never been faced with the raw necessity of earning a real living for myself, I turned up my nose at the idea of pursuing a business career. It felt suspect, greedy, dirty to be a money-chaser. I naturally assumed that I would go off and save the world, I would never need to worry about profit or margins, and my income would come from… somewhere. (As an aside, there really is nothing quite like being 19. It feels so great to know everything, even if that time is short.)

When, edging into my mid-20s, the penny (ha!) finally dropped that my limited and condescending attitude towards business served no one, and was actually pretty troubling given my championing of gender equality across the board. I realized that business in fact had the potential to be an elegant and powerful tool to create the social change that I craved, and that meanwhile I had rent to pay and groceries to buy. In short, I got over it.

My entire rationale for commercializing Lunapads and Luna Undies (then known as Lunapanties) in 1994 was to promote feminist values. The company’s original mission statement was “To create more positive and informed relationships between women, their bodies and the Earth”. The first marketing tagline was “Your Body. Your World. Your Choice.” A feminist agenda was the why. Lunapads was the how.

Thanks in large part to the mentorship of my amazing business partner Suzanne, I’ve become a fierce proponent of entrepreneurship as a vehicle for gender equality. Done from a values-based place, it can bring creative freedom, financial independence and workplace flexibility, an aspect particularly critical for parents. Why fight the corporate patriarchy when you can have your own scene, on your own time and terms?

Meanwhile in the for-profit menstrual space, we have watched in recent years with mixed emotions how multiple firms of varying sizes have taken up the banner – or at least the voice – of feminism in the service of marketing their goods and services. Some have featured brilliant, relevant messages about, for example, the absurd double standard of throwing/running/fighting “like a girl” in the service of selling chemical-soaked disposable tampons. Great message. Products? Don’t get me started.

Buying and Selling Empowerment

It rankled us deeply to witness what had essentially been our philosophy since day one get doused in marketing dollars and co-opted by companies that sincerely don’t care about their customer’s health or the environment, let alone gender equality.

The phenomenon, recently explored at length by Bitch magazine founder and creative director Andi Zeisler in her recent book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, takes on the disconcerting fact that since feminism has in recent years become “cool”, it’s now essentially being sold back to us as consumers, erasing the movement’s all-too-real goals and challenges. To be sure, we wholeheartedly agree that buying “feminist” lip balm will not end gender-based violence or pay inequity, nor will it safeguard reproductive rights: it’s an insincere ploy that ultimately adds insult to injury.

As feminists, entrepreneurs and marketers, it leaves Lunapads in an interesting bind. On the one hand, Andi’s critique of the “empowertising” shill is bang-on. On the other, where does it leave “real” feminist businesses (whatever that might be, which begs yet another question) like ours? Do we check our politics at the door? It reminds me of how I think about women in the military, as in I really wish that this thing didn’t exist in the first place, however if things are ever going to change then we need to get in there.

For all practical intents and purposes, a market-based economy is all we’ve got for now. If we’re making useful, environmentally responsible products and thus supporting our employees and community – is profit so bad? How are people supposed to be able to earn a living otherwise?

The current vitriol towards marketplace feminism – almost entirely coming from non-entrepreneurs, I should add – leaves us with the feeling that there may be some babies getting thrown out with the bathwater. Limiting the meaning of marketplace feminism (or not offering a more nuanced take on it) to something inherently negative – as opposed to a practice that can range in quality from appalling to awesome – feels deeply unfair and risks discouraging entrepreneurial feminists from seeking to earn a living, grow the economy, create progressive jobs and generally be their awesome selves.

It bothered us to read, for example, Andi’s sweeping statement in a recent Bitch editorial that “...corporations do not exist to change collective minds, normalize diverse bodies, or promote real-life equality. They exist to profit, to satisfy investors and stockholders, to cut costs to maximize efficiency, to skirt labor laws where they can. The recent elevation of feminism from political movement to brand ideology doesn’t change those goals.”

Ouch. We are not disputing that there are some major assholes out there who take every advantage of the capitalist system in the name of profit at any cost (some even calling themselves feminists while doing it), but – hello, what about those of us who are trying to find a better way?

I can almost hear Andi in my head now saying “I didn’t mean you!”. (Full disclosure: we have had a warm, respectful and entirely successful business relationship with Bitch for a heap of years). But nevertheless there’s something here, something that I recognize because I’ve been there and thought that. And that something goes back to the stereotype that you can’t be a “good” feminist while trying to make a buck. Because then you’re a capitalist, which, as Sarah Jaffe so acridly spelled out in her New Republic article, doesn’t work because “… what is good for capitalism is not necessarily good for women.”

At the risk of getting mired into a potentially endless debate about what qualifies as a “real” feminist business or “good” or “bad” marketplace feminism, here are a few personal guidelines on how, as marketers and consumers who are committed to doing their best to live their politics both personally and professionally, we support our own decision making.

  1. Does a product or service offering meaningfully support feminist values, or is their “empowerment” message just a ploy to sell an otherwise unrelated, possibly dodgy, product? Does the message imply that you are personally deficient (disempowered) if you don’t use their products, or use crappy ingredients or labor practices?
  2. Does the company behind the offering practice what they preach in terms of their internal policies and practices? When I first heard about REI’s Force of Nature campaign, for example, the first thing I did was look up how many senior managers and directors the company employs. Same/same, or different?
  3. Look for consistency, thoughtfulness and tone sensitivity. It’s hard to quantify this one, however as a recent example we were stunned to spot another menstrual product company passing out business cards at the Women’s March in January 2017. Sorry, ladies: not cool.
  4. Is the company taking a stand or otherwise supporting relevant issues and organizations outside of marketing opportunities? Look for initiatives and donations that are not related to marketing. At Lunapads, for example, we donate time and money to organizations that we believe in (Planned Parenthood, and our local Sexual Health and LGBTQ2S activist nonprofits) that we don’t try to “leverage” – we just believe in what they do, support them to the extent that we can and leave it at that.
  5. Look for certifications like Fair Trade, Cruelty-free and Women-Owned and (big shout-out here) B Corp. In order to qualify for B Corp status, a company’s entire operation, specifically its social and environmental impact, is third-party assessed and quantified. Chances are, if a company is committed enough to commit to being transparent enough to participate in these types of programs, there is a good chance that the rest of their values will be a fit for you.

Finally, for those who remain sceptical of the possibility of the feminist reinvention of capitalism, or an authentic expression of feminist values in a business – or at least small business – context (responsible marketplace feminism?), we urge you to, at a minimum, cut us some slack while we rise to the challenge and – better yet – support us. But then again, there we go again using our politics to sell something 😉

PS: if you have read this far, here’s a bonus for you! There is a Canadian blog called Liisbeth that is dedicated to Feminists in Business. Don’t miss their interview with me if you’d like to hear more on how and why I think that feminism can actually save capitalism. Liisbeth’s founder Petra Kassun-Mutch, has even developed a Feminist Business Canvas: check it!

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5 insights from a Facebook-free month

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Me on Facebook – no airbrushing this time

I am admittedly a bit of an odd duck: I love new ideas, people and conversation and am part of a couple of organisations that rely heavily on digital marketing to build community and get the word out about our products and events. You would think that, given this, I would be a social media natural.

Not so much, as it turns out.

This has not always been the case: I have been an avid Facebooker for several years, and have often joked that it’s my version of TV (I don’t even watch Netflix – I just never get around to it), in that it provides me with a variety of news, stories, and education that is part informative and part (mostly) pleasant distraction.

I faffed around with Twitter for a while and, after trying to reinvent myself and follow the plot on a few occasions have finally admitted that, as useful as it can be, I just don’t get it. Instagram I have never gotten the hang of, despite several of my nearest-and-dearest’s entreaties and clear affection for it. As for the rest of it, I have little interest or capacity to learn a new platform, developing a following and so on.

Just over a month ago I spontaneously gifted myself with not checking Facebook during a week-long family holiday. Like, really not going there. At all. I did not make any kind of announcement about my decision, I just decided to let it go. A week soon turned into a month, and, while I felt mildly curious now and again about reconnecting, I felt even more curious about the feelings and insights that resisting the urge has surfaced.

Other than sharing a couple of posts last week to welcome a new G Day team member and share an article that featured my wonderful business partner Suzanne, I have been off for over a month until yesterday: here are a few insights based on the experience.

  1. Tick, tick, tick. I can easily lose track of an hour or more surfing from one thing to the next, on top of a day spent mostly with my face stuck in a screen. I feel a similar sense of regret about the hour-plus that I spend driving every day: what would you do with a extra hour or more a day? I often complain that I don’t have time for yoga or gardening, two of my favourite activities: Hey Madeleine, how about you do the math on where those “extra” hours might come from? See you at yoga 😉
  2. It’s not just about time, it’s also about attention. In addition to my regular work with Lunapads and G Day, for the past 6 months I have also been actively working on a new business case on the side. Sure, I have had to carve out time to spend on this new project, but I have also had to carve out precious mental and creative bandwidth. Perhaps others have more of this than I do, however I have become somewhat guarded about how I “spend” my creative and emotional capital. I am feeling a bit cocooned within myself at the moment in order to focus and feed this new idea: social feels noisy and distracting at a time when I need inward quiet.
  3. When it comes right down to it, it’s not about Facebook: it’s actually about me. I have a ton of insecurities, that if not checked prior to clicking the blue F icon, can have a big ol’ party. It’s often said that others mirror us, for better or for worse. I find this to be magnified in the case of social. If I am not feeling 100% grounded, emotionally healthy and otherwise cool with myself, the comparison impulse gets triggered and all of a sudden, rather than feeling proud and excited by others’ accomplishments and moments of joy, I am feeling like a loser. I can also be a judgy so-and-so, another aspect of myself that I am not proud of that loves to make a self-satisfied appearance at these times.
  4. Appearances can be deceiving. Full disclosure: I am as guilty as anyone of putting on a perpetually shiny-happy face in social (profile portraits included!). One of my pet peeves is when people assume that Lunapads is perpetually “killing it” (can we stop using this expression please?). For sure, we need to celebrate ourselves and our successes: absolutely. Where is the rest of the story, though? The story about hard work, dealing with uncertainty, bad luck, bad timing, mistakes and misunderstandings, overcoming challenges, coming to terms with failure? My fear is that our social “lens” makes it look deceptively easy to aspiring entrepreneurs, or like there is some magical point that we reached long ago where we “figured it out” and are now just counting our money and going to parties.
  5. I missed the “about you” part! I miss my friends and learning about all the cool things that they are thinking and doing! Assuming that I am well and balanced, there are few things more delightful than seeing images of my friends and colleagues’ exciting life events, travel and so on. If I was to reach out and line up a coffee date or phone call to catch up with everyone I know and love, it would basically take the rest of my life: not gonna happen. I feel a bit sad about the cool moments, provocative opinions and interesting events and news items that I have missed.

Yesterday I re-entered the world of Facebook and have since found timely posts related to my new project, a disturbing video about the impact that social/our phones can have on our self-esteem, discovered great local events and “liked” (even Loved – because I do!) so many of you and your cool news and opinions. And – truth be told – I also skirted a ton of stuff for fear of doing another demon dance. Thanks for reading and hope to see you soon in the virtual – or in-person – world.

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Dancing with the demons

DSC_0561“You ladies are killing it!”, “Congratulations: so well deserved!”, “Rock stars!”

There’s a odd thing coming up for me these happy, successful days. We are on a major winning streak – SheEO, New York, speaking gigs, awards and so on (you will love what’s coming up around the corner for that matter, but I digress ;-), and the above comments are just a few of the supportive sentiments that our community have shared. Feels great, am I right?

Having just shared some thoughts about failure, let’s talk about success. The good times, the parties, the spotlight: woo hoooo! Absolutely. We have worked our asses off and are deeply grateful for every bit of recognition that comes our way. And.

Here’s a story about a very recent success that actually conjured up some of my worst demons, what it took to have a dance with them and then let them go.

I don’t know about you, however I can find myself occasionally slipping into the old, yucky, comparison game, particularly in the social media milieu. You know: my inside vs. your outside. You always win, by the way: and you didn’t even know that you were playing!

OK, so, yeah, yuck. We all have them: the voices, gremlins, inner critics, whatever you want to call them. Like rats in the basement, the only way that you are going to get rid of them is to turn on the lights, admit that they’re there, and get down to business. I went with demons this time for their alliterative value, however that’s more credit than they deserve.

Several weeks ago Suzanne and I were invited to attend an event that was billed as “A Celebration of Women Entrepreneurs” by some treasured colleagues over at BMO Bank of Montreal. BMO is actually doing an extraordinary job at recognizing the value of women, and women entrepreneurs in particular these days, and have been putting their money where their mouth is in the form of supporting SheEO, among multiple other initiatives. Check it all out here.

Normally we have a practice of essentially taking turns attending the events that we are invited to that allows us to have personal downtime, family time and so on.  The event was on a Friday night, and happened to fall just under 24 hours after I was scheduled to return from Paris (pauvre moi!). Knowing that I might not be feeling 100% awesome (I wasn’t, as it turned out) and that Suzanne would attend, I took a pass.

Something different was going on though, and I kept getting emails encouraging me to come. I am a total sucker for enthusiasm (Lunapads and G Day job seekers, take note!), and agreed to attend on the condition that I could bring my Mom, who has been a customer of BMO’s for over 60 years, which of course was more than fine.

All good! Lovely reception, thought-provoking keynote, and then: awards! What awards? Something-something Innovation something Global something and then over the speakers comes our story, no names, delivered in the third person by the MC: we are the honourees and are invited up on the stage.

Wow, how wonderful! How exciting! Suzanne is closest to the mic and says some eloquent words about our work and expresses gratitude for the recognition. Would I care to add anything?

For reasons I am still trying to come to grips with (demon foreshadowing hint!): actually, no thanks: she nailed it, I’m good. Big smile, a wave and hand-over-heart gesture were all that I had in me. No “Thank you so much!”: nothing audible at all, in fact. It all passed by in an instant, and the next thing I knew, there I was back in my seat feeling like a spoiled child.

Enter THE DEMONS!!! Here are some of their soundbites: “That was the lamest performance ever”, “You looked like a total @$$hole”, “You let down Lunapads, your business partner, BMO and your esteemed colleagues who fixed this all up for you in the first place”, “Is that all you’ve got? Your Mom was there, for Pete’s sake!” We are talking demon fiesta, a demon freaking Christmas.

Nothing like feeling like a loser when you’ve just won an award: Score one for you, Demons!

As painful as it is for me to recall these feelings, writing this post in actually my way of shining the light into the dark basement and saying enough. I don’t know where these voices come from, and am uncertain that knowing would necessarily make then shut up and go away in any case.

As it happened, I was scheduled to connect with my wonderful SheEO coach MJ early the following week as I was still churning over the previously described scene, who clued me into the neurological fact that, thanks to the flight-or-flight response, our adult brains are “velcro for the negative and teflon for the positive” (as opposed to children, who track success, not failure). Good to know. But what to do about it?

Part of my unchecked baggage has to do with feeling ashamed of my privilege and wanting to shut things down when I feel like I am receiving “too much” or taking up too much space energetically. Like, say… “undeserved” awards, as a random example. Hmmm.

Processing things with a friend, skilled Coach or suchlike can go a very long way, but ultimately I knew that the work was up to me. I sat with MJ’s insights and my crap for a while, and then noticed the large, lovely crystal vase that I had made into an albatross – my award – sitting on the mantelpiece, sadly empty.

There are a bunch of posts about my enthusiasm for gardening over at the Lunapads blog; let’s just say that I enjoy growing things. There is something so wonderfully tangible about it, and also accounts for my predilection for in-person conversations, products and other more-physical, less-abstract pursuits.

Without thinking twice about what I was doing, I went into my garden, picked up my shears and helped myself to a brilliant, generous mass of some of my most treasured favourites: calla lilies, delphiniums, foxgloves, rose campion and even a late peony.

Putting those gorgeous flowers into the vase was total therapy: I had finally found the celebration, the landing, the rightness of the award by putting it so gloriously to its intended use.

Flowers may seem like an unusual weapon of choice with which to fight demons, however they gave me the permission that I needed to forgive myself and enjoy something that I was worthy of. Nature and its creations are a far more potent power than we normally credit it with, and for me at least, using the vase in such a deeply personal way was the perfect tonic for me.

Thank you BMO, Nature, Mom, Suzanne, and the amazing community that is and supports women entrepreneurs in their blooming, whatever shape it takes.

 

 

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Sisterhood in Business

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An inspiring place setting!

As un-fond I am of this classic cliche, I have found myself thinking a fair bit lately that there are two types of women in the world: ones who have your back (aka Sisters) and ones who – let’s be gentle – are playing by different rules (the ones that Madeleine Albright famously said “have a special place in Hell”).

As reductionist as this turn of phrase may be, it’s a topic that has been on my mind for some time (in a not-good way) and came up this morning (in a super-duper, blog post-inspiring kind of way), so let’s save the latter for another time and share the good vibes of the former.

As anyone who has ever spent 5 seconds with either me or Suzanne knows, we are massive champions of women entrepreneurs, with a particular soft spot for those in the social impact space. The breakfast meeting that I attended this morning was a veritable cornucopia of such people, aligned as it was with the Canadian Health Food Association‘s (CHFA) West trade show.

Generously hosted by Annalea Krebs (Social Nature) and Katharine Herringer (Vista magazine and Multibird branding), the event was elegant and welcoming, complete with fresh-pressed juice blends on offer, Danielle LaPorte‘s Truthbomb cards spread around the tables, personalized place cards, and herbal floral displays. Read more

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Lessons learned from our SheEO Sisters

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Our fabulous cohort: Suzanne, Magnusmode’s Nadia Hamilton, Abeego’s Toni Desrosiers, Skipper Otto’s Sonia Strobel, Twenty-One Toys’ Ilana Ben-Ari, Madeleine.

It’s no secret that we are longtime champions of women entrepreneurs in general, with a special fondness for those who find their inspiration in the social impact realm.

We were especially touched and impressed by our SheEO Radical Generosity cohort, who, chosen from among 230 companies across Canada based on their overall business merits, also happened to all have a powerful social impact, as well as incredible lessons and role modelling for us. Here are our impressions of four rockstar entrepreneurs and their amazing initiatives.

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Sonia and Suzanne get their Empathy groove on playing with Twenty One Toys.

Twenty One Toys teach empathy, failure and non-visual communication skills to children and adults alike. Developed by industrial designer Ilana Ben-Ari originally to facilitate play between blind and sighted children, she discovered that they also had novel, universal applications for basically anyone who would benefit from enhancing their communication and relational skills (hello, most of us, am I right?).

It was amazing to watch Suzanne and Sonia Strobel (more about her in a minute) find their way through explaining how to arrange the pieces while blindfolded: it was a moment that beautifully demonstrated the toys’ power, as well as the human capacity to reach beyond our limitations, imagined or otherwise.

Ilana is one of the bravest, most resilient people that we have ever met. While Suzanne and I often rely on one another for support, Ilana has traveled on her own to China with precious few resources, spent her last pennies on manufacturing and even wore a borrowed dress to the Purple Carpet gala. Whether for your team, your kids or whatever people you could use better communication with, check out Twenty One Toys: they’re revolutionary.

So: back to Sonia. We like to think that we’re fairly up on sustainable business, however when it comes to essential, non-urban industries like agriculture and fisheries, we know that they are vital and yet have to confess to being in need of education: Sonia to the rescue!

Did you know, for example, that over half of the seafood available at stores or restaurants is mis-labeled? Or that most of our local BC catch travels as far as China (not swimming) for processing, changing hands up to 20 times, losing freshness and costing more at every step? Sonia created Skipper Otto’s Community Supported Fishery (CSF) to support family-owned Fishermen (Fishers of all genders apparently agree on this name) and provide consumers with fresh, sustainably-caught seafood.

One of the things that struck us most powerfully about Sonia is her remarkable ability to speak her truth. It’s one of those things that I catch myself on sometimes: wanting to please others, or sacrificing my needs for the sake of perceived efficiency. Not this lady: maybe it’s the fresh seafood that gives her the courage?

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(L-R) Nadia, Toni, Ilana, Sonia, Suzanne, Madeleine and Coach Loren Walsh.

One of the most powerful questions asked by Magnusmode founder Nadia Hamilton was “Have you ever been lost?” Fur sure, however consider what this might be like as a daily experience: this is the need that Nadia is solving for. Inspired by her autistic brother Troy, Magnus cards help people with autism and other cognitive disabilities navigate life.

When I think of Nadia, the phrase “the fierce face of love” comes to mind. She is – for real – a fighter: trained as a boxer and uniquely compelling in how her love for her brother has motivated her business – do not even consider resisting her. Know anyone with autism or other cognitive challenges?

Some of us are fighters, and some of us are lovers: which brings me to Abeego founder Toni Desrosiers. There is a lot of talk out there about vulnerability these days, however we have rarely witnessed it as powerfully as in Toni’s presence.

Her innovative products are born from her experience as a Holistic Nutritionist, and were frankly not what I expected. Whereas I had been seeing their value proposition more from an environmental perspective (reusable beeswax wrap replacing plastic wrap and containers), what I ended up learning was the value of keeping food fresher (and ergo healthier) for longer through the lesson of biomimicry: think of the breathable skin of a lemon or avocado – you get the idea.

As the famous E Myth tells us, it’s one thing to be an original thinker and come up with new products or services, however entirely another to run a business selling those things. The ability to do both is extraordinary, and these ladies are it.

Thank you Ilana, Sonia, Nadia and Toni for sharing your brave, smart, strong selves so fully: we are beyond grateful for your leadership and lessons!

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Forget unicorns: the ladies are coming

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Unicorns? Not so much: our businesses have better odds of succeeding. SheEO founder Vicki, with Radical Generosity Top 5 cohort: Suzanne, Sonia, Ilana, Toni, Madeleine and Nadia, February 2016, Toronto.

As small business owners, we sometimes feel a bit neglected in a world that seems to prefer big things: it seems like the tide is finally starting to turn, at least when it comes to recognizing the value and promise of women entrepreneurs.

A recent article in the Toronto Star about the SheEO Radical Generosity fund spells it out: the idea of women supporting women by paying it forward is creating a new model for sustainable economic development not by looking for “unicorns” (startups valued at >$1 billion), but rather by investing in small, women-led ventures.

The article profiles our Radical Generosity sister, Twenty-One Toys founder Ilana Ben-Ari, and extensively quotes SheEO founder Vicki Saunders, an experienced entrepreneur who started the new initiative as an antidote to the startling gender imbalance in venture funding. Ilana’s venture checks many of today’s buzzword boxes: it’s innovative, creative and disruptive, and yet she has had to personally bootstrap its entire startup.

Twenty-One Toys, Lunapads, Magnusmode, Skipper Ottos’s CSF and Abeego form the 2016 Top 5 cohort, and met in February to decide how the $500,000 fund was to be distributed among the group. We are now acting on our plans to grow our businesses, and anticipate collectively growing our revenue by $2.5 million in the next 12 months.

Why the women entrepreneur focus? Turns out that it’s about more than feminist politics: it’s what makes the most sense. Let’s take a look at some statistics that support the claim that today’s biggest and best opportunity for economic growth is companies that are, ironically, chronically underfunded.

Quoting from Vicki’s September 2015 Globe and Mail editorial: “98% of our economy is made up of small- and medium-sized businesses. Fewer than 1,200 companies in this country have more than 500 employees. Big is not the norm.

Investors don’t focus on supporting and growing small– and medium-sized businesses because they aren’t “sexy.” They don’t “scale.” They aren’t in “hot” markets. And they don’t get outsized returns. However, a loan to a solid business to hire a few more people to grow sales is far more sustainable and likely to have a return than betting it all on a new idea with an unproven entrepreneur in a crowded space.”

A February 2016 New York times article that details the experience of a woman entrepreneur’s trials trying to raise capital for her tech startup in Silicon Valley echoes Vicki’s position. A damning 2014 study published by the National Academy of Sciences cited in the article found that 68% of investors who listened to identical pitches delivered in male and female voices chose to finance the male-voiced pitch.

Vicki’s editorial concludes: “Last year, two-thirds of businesses in Canada were started by women. New data have emerged showing that if female entrepreneurs were financed to the same degree as their male counterparts, we’d create six million jobs in North America in the next five years. This is a huge economic engine we haven’t even tried to engage.”

One of the SheEO mantras is “The ladies are coming”: forget unicorns – let’s level the playing field for women entrepreneurs!

SheEO Radical Generosity cohort Top 5 Canada 2016

The SheEO effect

“Collaboration is the new competition.” – SheEO Radical Generosity fund Top 5 cohort

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Our SheEO Radical Generosity cohort: (L-R) entrepreneurs Nadia Hamilton, Ilana Ben-Ari, Suzanne, Sonia Strobel, Madeleine, Toni Desrosiers, Coaches MJ Ryan and Loren Walsh, and Founder Vicki Saunders. Toronto, February 22, 2016. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.

We have just returned from one of the most remarkable experiences in our entire Lunapads journey. In addition to being recognized as being among Canada’s most impactful women entrepreneurs, we have seen and experienced what we believe is the future of sustainable business funding.

Lunapads was ranked in the top 5 from a field of over 230 applicant companies from across the country by 500 “Activators”: women who each contributed $1,000 (including Suzanne and I) to create the SheEO Radical Generosity fund of $500,000, distributed as interest-free, 5 year term loans.

The Toronto-based initiative is the brainchild of serial tech entrepreneur Vicki Saunders. Rather than being a “Venture Capital for women” approach, the fund offers a holistic, arguably more impactful model, harnessing the power of the Activators, effectively bringing each selected venture 500 new customers and advocates.

Vicki’s experience in the Silicon Valley investment world was of a deeply flawed model that is leading to unrealistic valuations – and human expectations – of “unicorn” companies that do not reflect the reality of the vast majority of business startups (twice as many of which are started by women as men, incongruously). Less than 4% of this type of investment is given to women-owned companies in any case.

Some other notable things about why Radical Generosity is so groundbreaking include its process: the $500,000 was allocated, not by a panel of judges or “experts”, but rather by consensus among the 5 ventures. The only rules that we were given were that the funds could not be divided evenly, and that the funds could not all be given to one venture.

Video credit: Kristina Ruddick

Rather than an adversarial, “winner take all” approach, where the venture with the most capital is seen as the most successful, the ventures chose (in the face of considerable media pressure, I might add) not to disclose the final amounts, choosing instead to highlight the combined estimated increase in revenue for the entire group in the next 12 months ($2.5 million).

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“Locked in a boardroom?” Not!

What the process looked like in practice was what made it truly incredible. We were sequestered, not in a downtown boardroom, but rather in a historic country farmhouse an hour away from Toronto.

In the company of two expert Coach facilitators as well as Vicki herself, we were led in a series of deeply thoughtful, heart-led conversations and exercises for a full day and a half prior to the commencement of the final deliberations. We were fed delicious organic food and encouraged to share our personal stories about who we are as people and the “whys” behind our business ventures.

The result is that it would be harder to find a more closely bonded group of ass-kicking entrepreneurs, fiercely committed to one another’s – and the fund’s – success. It is an amazing example of “big picture thinking” that we believe sets an example of true sustainability. “Not for ourselves alone” was a refrain that kept playing in my head throughout the weekend.

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Photo credit: Dahlia Katz

And then there was a party! It was so amazing to be celebrated, especially alongside such inspiring sister-entrepreneurs. The “purple carpet” event was held in a historic Fermentation room (Vicki noted in her speech that it was a perfect metaphor for the growth of the Radical Generosity network) and attended by over 200 Activators. In that room, we felt the overwhelming power of women truly excited about our businesses and eager to offer ways to help us achieve our goals. We are not only now supported by a new model of funding, but we now have 500 new customers, experts and champions of our business. How awesome is that?!

The only disappointment in the entire experience was the lack of depth in media coverage (ie: the Globe and Mail – online only , Techvibes,  and a tiny blurb on News 1130 and in the Vancouver Sun).  Given the innovative funding model and degree of impact SheEO is creating, we strongly feel this kind of story deserves more attention.

We are incredibly proud of this milestone and so grateful for the support of our staff, customers, friends and family that has brought us to this point. To Vicki and the SheEO team, the Activators, Ilana, Nadia, Toni and Sonia (more on these women and their businesses soon), and all SheEOs past, present and future: thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We will do you proud!