Years ago Vicki Saunders received over 300 applications for her venture capital fund, but just four of those came from women-led startups. The low number was enough to urge Saunders to create the SheEO (like “CEO”) $250,000 prize for the best business idea by a young woman under 30.
Ten years later Saunders met Kaela Bree, and along with a third cofounder named Abigail Slater, the three entrepreneurs launched SheEO’s new incubation program. It’s focused on guiding women-led ventures “on their own terms.”
“I know that in the last ten years or so I’ve had a lot of women come to me for advice and young women are asking very different questions than young men are, generally,” Saunders told Techvibes. “What’s missing is a place where lots of women can get together and talk about how they can really lead their businesses the way they want to lead their businesses, and get connected to an amazing network of women who can help them be successful.”
SheEO is actually the first women's incubator program ever that is focused on social ventures. This week it wrapped up it’s first cohort of 10 women-led ventures at Ryerson University. The SheEO program is partly presented by the university and is hosted at Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ).
The program involves 10 young women entrepreneurs who are mentored by 10 established women entrepreneur “angels” from the private sector. Each mentor donated $5,000 each to create a $50,000 prize for the winner of the first SheEO cohort. At the conclusion of the program the cohort actually determines amongst each other how the funds will be divided. Their businesses range from fashion to high tech.
Saunders, a serial entrepreneur and mentor with the likes of The Next 36 program, felt women often struggled with issues that weren't always addressed in traditional incubator settings, like boldness, fear, networking and work-life balance. In that sense cohort members are encouraged to “achieve greatness on your own terms, in a way that can help you thrive personally and professionally.”
The program was partly funded by the provincial government while the network of successful women “angels” contributed the prize money. But will it be difficult to unveil new cohorts if Saunders always has to convince ten new angels to write cheques?
Actually, no convincing was required. Sixty women applied to be one of 10 angels for this cohort, and Saunders already has a wait-list of successful women who want to mentor the next cohort.
“One of the concepts that is emerging out of the market place is this concept of ‘impact investing,’ looking at financial returns as well as social/environmental returns,” said Saunders. “So I have a lot of women in my network who have worked really hard in their lives, made it often against incredible odds and they’ve got to a certain point where they would love to help the next generation but they don’t know where to find them.”
The mentors are not the only ones interested in helping future cohorts: after the success that Ryerson experienced hosting the first cohort, Saunders received interest from two other Canadian universities to leverage their alumni networks for a cohort.
One interesting part of SheEO is its move away from the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) and towards social startups. A current emphasis on STEM graduates often unintentionally excludes women, who are under-represented in entrepreneurship. SheEO advocates a “women for women” approach, provides aspiring female entrepreneurs with coaching, resources and women role models.
After a successful first cohort, Saunders indicated that the cofounders intend on rolling the program out to other locations. Saunders said she’s received global interest from people in New York, San Francisco and London as some of the initial cities where SheEO could produce a new cohort.
Regardless of location the message will remain the same: women interested in participating in the program will be encouraged to find their own style of leadership through a personal approach, rather than a rigid, pre-defined formula.
“Everyone’s leadership style is different, people ambitions are different and if you can start from that place you can gain a lot more success trying to see what you’re good at, who you are and what you’re trying to create as opposed to trying to fit into someone else’s model of how you’re supposed to do things,” said Saunders.