Hundreds of professional women across Canada are pitching in to create a new funding pool and support network for female entrepreneurs.
A program called Radical Generosity – which is one-part business competition and one-part unique funding model – is starting up this week to make it easier for women-led businesses to get the financial support and advice they need. It is led by SheEO, a Toronto-based group that supports women-led ventures, and has global ambitions to connect women around the world.
Radical Generosity starts by seeking a donation of $1,000 from 1,000 women from coast to coast. There's no incentive or charitable receipt for this donation, just the satisfaction of knowing the money will help other women in business. More than 200 have already signed on to contribute to this $1-million pot.
At the same time, SheEO is calling on female entrepreneurs across Canada to submit pitches for why their businesses could use a chunk of the donated funds as a no-interest loan for five years, as well as receiving a one-year support program. The 1,000 donors will review these pitches online and vote for their favourites. From a collection of 25 finalists, just 10 applicants will eventually be selected.
Vicki Saunders, head of SheEO, developed the idea as a way to improve on the low levels of funding that women-led ventures receive, and the limited number of female entrepreneurs that have mentors and advisers.
"I stepped back and thought how could we design an intervention that would kick-start a shift in these challenges?" she said. Her vision was a network of women helping other women.
The competition will force recipients to negotiate with each other. Leaders of the 10 businesses selected will face each other in a war-room situation in October to determine how the money should be divided. That process will involve opening their books and allowing other women to critique both the need for the funds as well as the ability to repay them. The two rules for dividing the cash are that it can't all be given to one person, and it must not be split evenly.
Ms. Saunders said these rules are intended to break down winner-takes-all culture and to force women out of their comfort zone.
"We need to practise negotiating on our own behalf," Ms. Saunders said. "So, in a safe environment, really practising standing up and saying, 'I'm worth this, my business is worth this and I deserve this.' It's super easy to say, 'I don't want to deal with conflict and I love everybody here, let's just give everyone the same amount.'"
In five years, the repaid loans will allow SheEO to start again, with a new crop of applicants. In the meantime, Ms. Saunders intends to expand the program within different cities.
"Next year we want to move this down to a city level. So, 1,000 [women] in Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago. L.A., Mumbai – our goal is to get to one million women by 2020," Ms. Saunders said. That would represent a funding pool of $1-billion globally. It would also dramatically increase the international network of women that SheEO members will have at their fingertips, matching the global ambitions of many entrepreneurs.
The initial $1-million pot will be collected and administered free of charge by the Bank of Montreal, which is the lead sponsor of the program this year. Many of the bank's leaders have also signed on to contribute their money to the cause.
"I was floored at the degree of excitement around this," said Julie Barker-Merz, president of BMO InvestorLine, who leads many bank initiatives for women. BMO did an internal call-out for women in the company that might want to participate and within 24 hours it had responses from 50 women across the business. Ms. Barker-Merz said the donation is a secondary part of the commitment for many of the female donors from the bank, next to the chance to be part of the online support network.
"It's speaks to the tipping point that's happening right now. There's a lot of energy around the women's market. The time is right for this type of initiative to really make change within the Canadian economy," she said.
Businesses that are women-led and majority women-owned can apply for the loan program this week through a 10-question form online at https://sheeo.world, provided they have at least $50,000 in annual revenues. Applications must be submitted before Aug. 31, and an initial 25 finalists will be chosen in September. In October, the final 10 winners will be announced.