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SheEO has a bold vision to get venture capital to female entrepreneurs

Janice McDonald is president of the Beacon Agency, an Ottawa-based business strategy advisory firm that is conducting a national study on female entrepreneurs and their approach to risk.

When I filled in my credit-card information, I did something more than donate to a cause. I joined a movement. With a swift gift of $1,000, I helped to change how female entrepreneurs in Canada are financed, supported and celebrated.

I easily could have put that same money toward an all-inclusive getaway – something I will likely long for during the mid-February harshness of a Canadian winter. But I didn't. Instead, I supported SheEO, which offers something better than sunshine: a bold vision to alter the funding landscape for female entrepreneurs.

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Vicki Saunders is the founder of SheEO, an organization with a new way to give to and grow female-led companies in Canada. She calls it Radical Generosity. The idea is simple; it is also grand: We need a different model of support and funding for female entrepreneurs to develop their businesses.

Ms. Saunders' model is designed specifically to tackle the kinds of challenges female entrepreneurs face. The harsh truth is that women in business are chronically underfinanced, undersupported and undercelebrated. The statistics are depressing and have remained so for years. Venture capital funds less than 7 per cent of female-led ventures, according to SheEO. Not only is access to capital more difficult for these entrepreneurs, their stories aren't covered equally either. Less than 19 per cent of business news mentions ventures led by women.

I am not alone in my desire for a new way forward. Hundreds of Canadian women have opened their wallets to give – without hesitation and without promise of monetary return, but with the satisfaction of knowing they are helping other women succeed.

SheEO is raising $1-million to support 10 female-led ventures in Canada. To be considered, yours must be a Canadian female-led company with at least $50,000 in annual revenue. The twist is that the 10 companies selected will themselves decide how the money is to be divided among them. This model of funds dispersal is fresh and female.

The money will be given and recycled through five-year, interest-free loans. New companies are funded as loans are repaid. An added benefit is that women can tap into the expertise of the donors as well. This is appealing to me – I can contribute my talent, network and expertise and have the option to review, rank and select the 10 initial ventures that will be funded.

Female entrepreneurs are often called risk-averse. In my experience, that isn't true. But I wanted to investigate further. My company, the Beacon Agency, in conjunction with Carleton University in Ottawa, is in the midst of a national study on female entrepreneurs and their approach to risk. The results of the study will be published in the spring of 2016. The research project is supported by Bank of Montreal.

As colleague Clare Beckton and I travel across the country, we are speaking to entrepreneurs in all kinds of industries and in various stages of developing their businesses. Lack of access to capital is a common theme for female business owners. As an entrepreneur myself for more than two decades, I know how challenging it is to take an idea, launch and grow it. We need people like Ms. Saunders, who not only imagine a new way forward, but who follow up with a plan of action.

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SheEO's bold goal is that by 2020, one million women will have contributed $1-billion and supported 10,000 ventures with zero-interest loans. I like that a lot.

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