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From left to right, Shelley Kuipers, Judy Fairburn and Alice Reimer founded The51 in March, 2019, with an event at Ms. Kuipers’s home.

Handout

Three experienced entrepreneurs and investors are aiming to disrupt the widespread gender imbalance in Canadian venture capital through their new Calgary-based platform for investors and entrepreneurs.

Judy Fairburn, Shelley Kuipers and Alice Reimer founded The51 in March, 2019, with an event at Ms. Kuipers’s home.

“There’s a desire for women to leverage their capital and invest it in other women and their businesses,” Ms. Kuipers says.

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Women hold an estimated 30 per cent of global private wealth, according to a 2016 report from the Boston Consulting Group. However, only 15.2 per cent of partners in Canadian venture-capital firms and 11.8 per cent of managing partners are women, the Canadian Women in Venture Report 2019 by Highline BETA and Female Funders shows.

“We've waited for some time for this financing landscape to change and for the statistics to change,” Ms. Kuipers says. “We could just keep complaining about the statistics, or we can be part of the solution.”

The51 operates as an “investment collective,” with more than 1,000 members. While most are women, the founders say men can also join.

The51 has no membership fee. People currently pay to attend its networking events, but Ms. Kuipers says it is exploring various membership models. She expects the organization to evolve into a mixed for-profit and non-profit model to meet its goals of helping to create wealth and ensure women are more fully participating in the economy.

At events in Calgary, aspiring investors, accredited investors, entrepreneurs and The51′s partner organizations, such as the law firm Osler and professional-services firm BDO Canada, meet to learn about investing in early-stage companies led by women and do some networking.

Separately, The51 introduces accredited investors – the group currently has 23 – to entrepreneurs seeking financing. While The51 brings forward opportunities it has vetted, Ms. Kuipers says, it is not a fund and the decision to invest is up to each investor.

So far, accredited investors under The51 banner have put more than $4-million into 12 companies with female leaders across Canada, investing for equity or a convertible note.

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Ms. Fairburn says The51 is different from existing initiatives because it includes both aspiring and accredited investors. It aims to help people who want to invest but may lack the experience or capital to become confident and informed on opportunities, while also applying best practices to manage risk.

Christie Stephenson, executive director of the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, says The51 joins an escalating number of opportunities in private and public markets that address the gap in capital available for female entrepreneurs. She adds that it also gives people a chance to consider how an investment for financial gain can benefit women as well, a concept known as gender lens investing.

“It’s a trend that is not going away any time soon. The results are good, the interest is strong, and we’re at a time when women are coming into financial wealth and capital at really a historically unmatched time,” Ms. Stephenson says.

Ms. Stephenson is personally involved in gender lens investing, through both a public and private fund. “These are often overlooked investment opportunities that are overlooked because of systemic bias,” she says.

Ms. Stephenson suggests the interest in gender-focused investments could lead to change, rather than simply create a parallel system for women.

"As we see more evidence that female-led businesses are successful, the more widespread interest will be by all investors and not just those investment funds focusing on female leadership,” she says.

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For Alicia Soulier, founder and chief executive of SalonScale, which provides software services to hair salons, the investment and support she got through The51 has been different from her experience with other investors.

Ms. Soulier founded her Saskatoon-based business 16 months ago, inspired by her experiences as a salon owner and stylist.

“Salons today are free-pouring hair colour, just like alcohol was free-poured in a bar,” Ms. Soulier says. Stylists pouring colour without measuring it don’t know exactly how much product is used, making it difficult to accurately determine the price for each customer, she said. SalonScale created an app that uses a Bluetooth scale to calculate the amount.

More than 2,000 salons are using it.

SalonScale raised $1.1-million in seed funding, including $157,515 from The51 investors in August. In September, Ms. Soulier spoke on a panel at a The51 event in Calgary.

“Being able to have a voice and then have a community behind you, supporting you and leading you, is so important, especially in an early-stage startup,” Ms. Soulier says. “Being given an opportunity to be a part of a community like that, it’s empowering.”

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The community element is also a draw to Kathryn Dundas, a Calgary physician and wellness centre owner who invests with The51.

“One of the big differences from any other angel group or investor group is how they actually bring the community together,” Dr. Dundas says. “You go to one of these events and people are connecting on all different levels. There’s a sense of community and support versus competition.”

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