421 Vicki Saunders: Radical Generosity

We all have “to do” lists – and they can be long lists, right? Well, what if hundreds of other women in business paid to help you … tick off some of the world’s “to do” list – that is, solve pressing global problems with innovation and entrepreneurship?


I’m Melinda Wittstock and today on Wings of Inspired Business and I’m so excited to introduce you to an inspiring serial entrepreneur who has made it her mission to get women to invest in other women entrepreneurs.

Vicki Saunders is the founder and CEO of SheEO – it’s a global community of radically generous women supporting women-led Ventures working on what she calls the World’s To Do List – that is, using entrepreneurship to solve the UN’s 17 global goals – from poverty to clean water and climate change to quality education and economic development – and more besides.

She believes, as I do, that entrepreneurship is by far the best way to address these pressing problems where governments have failed – and that women entrepreneurs are uniquely suited to step up to these challenges.

Vicki is a serial entrepreneur and award-winning mentor who has co-founded and run ventures in Europe, Toronto and Silicon Valley and taken a company public on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Vicki Saunders will be with us in just a moment and first…

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Now back to the inspiring Vicki Saunders.

Vicki Saunders calls herself an advisor to the next generation of women change makers and leading advocate for entrepreneurship as a way of creating positive transformation in the world.  She is the Founder of #radical generosity and SheEO, a global community of radically generous women supporting women-led Ventures working on the World’s To Do List. Vicki was named one of the 100 most influential leaders of 2015 from “EBW – Empowering A Billion Women”, In 2001, Vicki was selected as a Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum. With SheEO she’s built an inspiring network to effectively crowd-fund women-led businesses with interest free loans – generated by a community of women each investing $1,100 – or $92 a month. Vicki says, it’s basically like this: “What does the intuition of 500 women pick this year?”

She says her goal is to get to a million women with a billion dollar perpetual fund… that grows and grows as founders pay back the loans as a legacy for the planet.

Melinda Wittstock:         Vicki, welcome to WINGS.

Vicki Saunders:                Thank you so much.

Melinda Wittstock:         I’m so excited to talk to you about the world’s to do list, because it’s a very long list and women tend to have to do lists, but somewhere on our list as entrepreneurs should be solving the worlds problems. And I love that you approach entrepreneurship in that way. What was the spark that led you to that?

Vicki Saunders:                As an entrepreneur myself, I’ve always been interested in how you can do good and make money at the same time and really very focused on social impact and what was the highest and best use of my leadership in the world. There’s a thing in Japanese culture called ikigai, which is really about finding your perfect lift, what the world needs, what you’re amazing at, how you can make money etcetera, the sort of sweet spot of that.

I really do feel like this human journey is about checking off things on your list like what is it that you think is the highest and best use of you? And you’re like, “Oh, maybe I have more potential. Maybe there’s more I can do.” Or, “Maybe that’s definitely not something that I want to do.” And you’re sticking things off your list and you’re adding as you go. So, for me the journey has been very much trying to find what I’m masterful at and what the world needs and trying to put myself in that sort of perfect position for highest and best use, instead of maximizing impact really.

So that’s been my own personal journey and when I started SheEO, one of the things that we were here to solve is really, how do we get money into the hands of female innovators, because literally 50% of the population can’t get their ideas funded, which is crazy.

Melinda Wittstock:         It’s crazy you know, we only get 2% of the available venture capital. It’s such a broken system.

Vicki Saunders:                It totally is and so for me though it wasn’t just create a female version of the existing male world. I think that a lot of our systems and structures are broken and we need to rethink a lot of things. So, it was more, if we were going to find female entrepreneurs, what kind of female entrepreneur. What kind of business. And as I thought, for the next 20 years of my life if I’m going to 100% focus on this, and figure out how to get capital into the hands of women, I want to get capital into the hands of women who are doing really good things for the world.

There’s lots of people who are out there creating businesses for more crap that we don’t need that goes into landfill, not interested in that.

Melinda Wittstock:         Right.

Vicki Saunders:                And so it was really trying to figure out how to… and part of the challenge is it’s do we really know what the new models of the future are that are going to break things open? Not really. So how do we keep it open enough, and then… The language we had was really, are you able to articulate how you’re creating a better world with your business? That’s how we started out into the world.

Then about four years in, we looked at all of the ventures in our network, and we’re like, “Wow, I think all of these ventures are kind of working on United Nations sustainable development goals, which we call the world’s to do list. 200 countries in the world have signed on to these are the global goals, the global priorities, 17 of them, from the UN.

So, we sent it out to our network and we said, “Are you tracking towards any of these goals in what you’re doing?” And every one of our 53 ventures after four years said that they were working on one of those and tracking those metrics. So we connected into the UN SDGs as a way of tracking social impact, to roll it up and aggregate it, because these are kind of the priorities. So yeah, there are traditional financial metrics of people creating jobs and growing and exporting and more revenue, but what about the social impact? How are they solving towards major challenges we’re facing? So, that’s where we’ve kind of aligned with the UN STGs for all of the businesses that we’re funding.

Melinda Wittstock:         That’s wonderful, and so inspiring. Give me an example of some of the ventures that you’ve funded and what some of these women are doing to address those global goals.

Vicki Saunders:                The part I love about this is it makes the goals tangible, because they seem so heady and so huge, like gender equality and-

Melinda Wittstock:         Poverty.

Vicki Saunders:                – and infrastructure and poverty. It’s like, reducing poverty, okay, no problem. Clean water for all. So, they’re quite heady. We have a venture in Canada who started a zero waste grocery store, which is so cool and probably if my great-grandmother was here she’d be like, “A what? Don’t we already have those? Isn’t that what all of our grocery stores are?” You know [crosstalk 00:14:02].

Melinda Wittstock:         No. There is huge mountains of food outside at the end of the day because they over stock with all the vegetables and everything to make it look… right?

Vicki Saunders:                [crosstalk 00:14:12] yeah, absolutely, and so that’s part of the challenge is that we’ve gotten a little out of balance ourselves, like wrapping apples in plastic, like, “Hello? What are we doing?” And so, good health and wellbeing, goal number three is another example.

We have a venture that we’ve funded called the Alinker. It is a rethinking of the walker and the wheelchair to include people. So if you want to stay active… 50% of people who are in wheelchairs can still move their legs, but there is no device to keep them active. It’s crazy.

So Bea invented this incredible bike called the Alinker, you check out their Instagram it’s amazing and you can see how people who literally have not walked the dog for three years are now out walking the dog on this bike because they’re stabilized with their core on this bike and they can move their legs to move it. There’s no pedals. Your feet are the pedals. It’s super cool and it’s bright yellow and everyone’s like, “What is that?” It’s better than having a dog to meet people on the street. So now people that were totally excluded, are included and it’s actually a way of bringing us together.

We have another woman, Ilana Ben-Ari, who’s created a company called Twenty One Toys and she believes that toys are the new textbooks, because it’s experiential. You play with it and you learn more. So she created a toy to teach failure a toy to teach empathy, and this is part of the quality education goal number four, and economic growth and decent work, number eight.

All of our ventures, it’s just like a total range from education to wellness to sustainable fishery to someone who’s invented straws that are made out of seaweed and bio plastic formula to replace all plastics with this seaweed based edible structure. Literally, it’s the coolest things. When you read through the applications of people who apply this year, like, “Whoa, oh my god! This is so cool.” Because we just don’t hear about these stories anywhere. They’re not written about in the newspapers. There are a lot of really amazing ideas that are off the ground, that have gotten started that can’t get growth funding and women in our network are like, “oh my god this is awesome we have to help her.” So, it’s really different.

Melinda Wittstock:         Right, because if you take an idea like that to an angel network or a VC, they’re more likely than not, not going to see it or not see the value. What’s fascinating though is all the research that bears out that these companies are not only doing good for the world but they have a much faster valuation growth.

Vicki Saunders:                Yeah. They get to profitability really quickly in general, women do. We’re very capital efficient. What we can do with 100k, is amazing. We’re not blowing it on things. There’s just so many biases built in. For example Bea, who created the walking bike that I mentioned, she is not an engineer and she designed a bike from scratch herself. So she’d walk in, and it looks a little bit different, it’s super funky and engineers would be trying to redesign it and she’s like, “It works perfectly.” “Why don’t you do this? And what about this? And what makes you think you can design a bike? You’re not an engineer.” She’s like, “I just designed it. I did 14 fricking prototypes and I funded it all on my credit card. Like, what the hell?”

And so now it’s really off but that whole… When a woman stands in front of a room, oftentimes, and is presenting an idea the first thing we’re like, “Who are you? Do you have a business degree? Do you know what you’re doing?” We don’t really ask guys the same thing.

Melinda Wittstock:         No. There’s so much question bias. Didn’t Harvard do some study where they sat in on all these VC meetings for both men and women and the men tended to be asked questions that were very positive like, “How are you going to maximize your growth? Whereas the women tended to be put on the defensive 100% of the time with questions like, “How are you going to minimize risk? What are you going to do about this?” Presuming that something was going to go wrong.

Vicki Saunders:                I was at an event this morning with one of our ventures who’s got this incredible AR, augmented reality device that you put on, or virtual reality device and it tracks for concussions. You can actually diagnose within minutes what’s happening with the concussion with this person versus long waiting lists otherwise to do it. Super cool technology, really, really stellar science and one of her advisors can to her and said, “You know, you’re obviously going to need to go raise some more money. What are you going to do about being a woman?” Like literally quote, unquote. I’m like, “What? What do you mean?” And he’s like, “No, what are you-” because he knows the stats right. And he’s like, “What are you going to do about being a woman?” And she looks at me and she’s like, “What do I have to say to that guy?”

Melinda Wittstock:         What do you even say?

Vicki Saunders:                What do you do with that? Like, “Well, you know, this is kind of what I’ve got here.” Crazy.

Melinda Wittstock:         It’s fascinating though because I think if you start to follow the money on this, these companies that are doing this actually become more profitable, more quickly, but on the valuation growth point, they attract better team members, they’re more likely to attract A players. They’re going to attract really loyal customers and community of customers that feel part of something bigger than themselves. And so the community, the loyalty of the customer… There was a Goldman Sachs study not long ago that said evolved enterprise or conscious capitalism companies really outpaced the growth by almost every metric, not just revenue and profitability but literally valuation, like whether measured by your IP or your community has a value as well. It not only makes sense for the world it also makes sense too for business.

Do you think the rest of the system, the rest of the VC world will suddenly realize that they’re literally burning money, like they’re missing the opportunity. They’re not getting it and they’re going to like wake up some day or do we have to totally disrupt that system?

Vicki Saunders:                I really, honestly don’t care if they get it. I just want a new model built. If the VC want to keep playing doing what they’re doing… Like look at WeWork, what else do you need to know? I mean, really? For me it’s like trying to convince other people about a wealth creation opportunity… Why would I do that? I’m just going to go, “Who wants to come and join this parade?” We’re going over here and we’re going to fund things that really matter because the sky is falling. The world’s on fire. Why are we putting a penny of our capital towards things that create more divide and more inequality and pillage the earth?

Why would we do that? That makes zero sense to me, and to most of the women in our network. So we’re putting our money towards the kind of economy we want. And it blows my mind. We have these venture cards that we’ve created, that show the SDGs that the ventures are working on and then what they’re doing. We’ve funded 53 so far so a full card deck which is super cool. They’re almost baseball card size, so I put these all out on the table and I just looked at it the other day and I said, “Do you know what? If women were actually writing the checks, this is what our economy would look like.” Versus what it does. Oh my god like it’s so different, it’s amazing.

Melinda Wittstock:         Speaking too of women writing checks, one of my personal missions is to get women more interested in investing and particularly in investing is other women. And I’ve found, certainly in my entrepreneurial career and all the money that I’ve raised, it’s hard sometimes to raise money from women, or women tend not to be as open about investing or perhaps there’s a lack of confidence or whatever. Do you find that women are starting to get more interested in investing period and investing in other women?

Vicki Saunders:                The thing for me that I feel is so upside down in the world is, everything is like a transaction in the way that we talk about investing. There’s no relationship at all between people in this realm. It’s just like, “Chase the money. Greed. Make as much as you can. Ten X returns. Find the next unicorn.” versus what I think is sort of missing in this is, “Let’s get into relationships, meet people, see how they interact and then open up your wallet to be part of this.”

So with SheEO, we designed this kind of backwards, compared to the world is, which is dip your toe in the water. It’s an $11 hundred contribution or $92 a month. You then get to go and vote on which ventures get the money, so you’re actually reading through applications, seeing what you care about. And then that’s a vetting structure for us, which is really interesting. Basically like, “What does the intuition of 500 women pick this year?”

Melinda Wittstock:         Gosh, how wonderful!

Vicki Saunders:                And so when you then go and select those ventures, if each of us just become a customer of that company, they’re going to grow like crazy. Then if we bring our networks and our expertise and maybe more capital, that is just going to be a game changer. So to be selected as one of those ventures in our network, you get access to 500 women on your team. It’s crazy amazing.

What starts to happen is you vote and then you find out, oh my god, every one else voted for that venture, amazing. Maybe I know how to pick ventures. Then you talk to your friends about it and they get excited about it and then the venture starts to grow and you meet her and see her and build her confidence as she starts to have the support of 500 women around her who are no longer picking at her, but supporting her and loving her into growth. And then you’re like, “Wow, she needs like a million bucks to expand to the six other countries to help this thing grow. I’m in!” So it’s don from a relationship and an experience perspective as opposed to like bet it all on red and have no voice or attachment to it.

Melinda Wittstock:         This is a brilliant, brilliant model on so many different levels Vicki, because giving women the confidence that they have the ability to pick the winners but not only that, the return on investment is seeing change in the world, seeing other women being empowered. It is suck an abundance play, what you’re doing. It resonates so deeply with me. I think it’s amazing.

Vicki Saunders:                Well, thank you. It’s been a really interesting journey so far. We’re in five countries now. We just launched a new case so US, New Zealand, Canada and the UK and we’ve had pretty much every other country reach out and say bring it to us, because it’s a very simple way of aggregating local capital. Hundreds of women in each country come together and contribute 11 hundred dollars or the equivalent of that. It’s pooled together. It’s loaned out at 0% interest to these entrepreneurs that they select. The money is paid back into the fund over five years and then it’s loaned out again. So we just keep this money going in this perpetual cycle and everyone’s doing good with the money, growing their business, paying it back and then it passes on to someone else to use.

Melinda Wittstock:         How wonderful, so it’s not actually an equity investment-

Vicki Saunders:                Nope, it’s a zero percent interest loan that pays forward over and over.

Melinda Wittstock:         That is a brilliant, brilliant model. Then if someone does want to give more than that presumably they can, or is everybody at the same level?

Vicki Saunders:                Everyone’s at the same level with us. It’s totally democratic. A 14 year old has the same power as the CFO at the biggest bank in Canada.

Melinda Wittstock:         Okay well I’m in. I’ll write you a check. I think that-

Vicki Saunders:                Please do it. It’s so much fun.

Melinda Wittstock:         I think it’s amazing and I think everyone should. I mean one of the big missions I have, the reason I launched this podcast, the reason I do all the retreats I do, is to foster this abundance ecosystem between women because we’re at our best when we’re mentoring each other, promoting each other, buying from each other, investing in each other. This is so in alignment, with the very reason, the very, very reason that I do this. I think we somehow think that we have to do it all by ourselves, but we don’t.

Vicki Saunders:                And that’s a narrative out there that is actually isn’t really true. That’s the message we say but individual entrepreneurs out there did not do all of this themselves. There’s a whole network of patrons behind them, of mentors, of advisors, and then we just put one person on a pedestal. I think this whole human experience is not about being alone, obviously, it’s about being together.

I think it’s hard for people, like when… I talk about scarcity and abundance quite a bit, to pick up on you using abundance a lot and I think that when you think about yourself, it’s very hard to think of abundance when you think about being alone. But if you’re in a room full of women, like I mentioned before and everyone’s got their hand out to help you, there’s abundance there, when you get into community. But if you don’t get into community and you stand aside on your own, you’re done. It’s so hard. It’s like almost impossible to be as great as you can be by yourself. But when you step into community and people have got your back, it’s incredible how much people, how everything changes.

I often say to our ventures when we… we have a special retreat when the ventures are selected and they come together for a weekend and meet their coaches and I do a little talk. One of the things that I try and get them to understand is I’m like, “Women actually paid to help you.”

Melinda Wittstock:         Isn’t that amazing.

Vicki Saunders:                Think about that for a minute. Oh my god. Just imagine. Not only are you worth it they paid to help you and that’s usually when we all break into tears.

Melinda Wittstock:         Right-

Vicki Saunders:                Because it’s like opposite land compared to everything you’re used to.

Melinda Wittstock:         Exactly. Oh my goodness. How inspiring. I just feel like now I’ve got this other mission of getting everybody 100% in the WINGS community to be part of SheEO

Vicki Saunders:                [crosstalk 00:28:36]

Melinda Wittstock:         Because we’re so, so, so aligned. How magnificent. So what is it, do you think that makes women more inclined to want to approach entrepreneurship from a mission driven place, from a socially conscious place.

Vicki Saunders:                That’s such a good question isn’t it. I know lots of guys who are doing mission related things but the vast majority of women who, if their going to go put their leadership somewhere, it’s definitely about creating a better world. So I don’t know exactly what that’s about. I don’t know. One of the things I see over and over is a differentiation between product innovation and process innovation. I don’t know if you talk about that at all in your shows, but most of the female entrepreneurs that I see and doing process innovation. We look at the whole.

Melinda Wittstock:         Yes!

Vicki Saunders:                We think of the whole. The feminine lens is very much whole, whereas the masculine lens is a little bit more linear. And so-

Melinda Wittstock:         Oh yes!

Vicki Saunders:                So product innovation, what’s the next bright shinny object that’s going to solve all the problems. Airbnb for cats, whatever the thing is in a sentence. The part of the challenge I also think with a lot of incredible female entrepreneurs that are doing process kind of innovation, who are thinking about the relationships between things in a system that could be optimize so that we have better results. In a way SheEO is a process innovation. I have looked at, what are all the assets that we have out in the community, women’s buying power, our networks, our expertize, our money is one part of it, but all those other pieces, I’ve just redesigned those in to the system so that they up the game for everyone. Whereas our economic system is just like, money, on your own, go. [crosstalk 00:30:28].

Melinda Wittstock:         I first realized this, what you’re saying about the difference between the linear from A to B and then flip and sell and do it again, which is kind of the “spear the wildebeest” model that men tend to go for. It’s how their brains are wired. My first realization that women were building systems or process-oriented businesses is when I was in Springboard. I’m an alum of Springboard from 2011 and I remember in pitch day, every one of us was applying technology in new ways around processes. And a lot of male investors were not understanding it and were saying things like, “You need to be more focused.” And the women are like, “I am focused, it’s just focused in a different way. I can see how all the dots connect in a way to transform an entire industry.” But it was seen through the lens of the linear lens of being like, “Oh, man, can you just focus.”

Vicki Saunders:                Absolutely, I get that all the time. I mean, almost every company I’ve had, same thing. You know I’ve done five companies too, taken a company public and my board, of the company I took public, use to drive me crazy about this, they’re like, “You need to focus. You have to focus more.” And I’m like, “What?”

Melinda Wittstock:         I get that all the time too. I do. Because every single startup I’ve done has been a process company, so what you’re saying to me just-

Vicki Saunders:                It’s resonating.

Melinda Wittstock:         Oh my goodness, yes. And the one I doing now, it’s the same, same thing. And they’ve all had mission. They’ve all had mission. It’s so wonderful to know that there is really a place to go and be seen, heard, held, supported and what you’ve done is truly amazing. When did you start SheEO?

Vicki Saunders:                We started in 2015 in Canada with the first 500 women coming together and funding five businesses and then we’ve just grown it, added a country each year. Our goal is to get to a million women and a billion dollar fund and then we will leave this perpetual fund as a legacy on the planet. We have very close to 100% payback rate on our loans and so the money is loaned out, paid back, loaned out again and just keeps going in cycle. So we want to leave this so that at least 10,000 female entrepreneurs are funded every single years forever. Our daughters, our nieces, our granddaughters whatever.

Melinda Wittstock:         That’s wonderful. So for women who are listening to this podcast and I have many, many entrepreneurs who listen or executives thinking of taking the entrepreneurial leap or taking some side hustle and turning that into something bigger or just wanting to play a bigger game and who haven’t really had the confidence to put a stake in the ground and say, “Yep, okay, you know what? I’m going to go do this mission driven big, big, big thing.” How do they apply to SheEO.

Vicki Saunders:                You can come into SheEO as a venture, as an entrepreneur. You need to have $50k in revenue, somewhere between 50k and two million, and be majority woman-owned and woman-led, and answer how you’re creating a better world. We do this once a year. So go to our website, put your name in, say you’re interested and we’ll ping you soon as applications go live.

The other thing is, what we’ve started to notice, it’s really interesting, is that this community of women, we’re all online together, so there’s thousands of us across all the different countries, and you can reach out to anybody and ask for help. At $92 a month, or $1100 is literally the cheapest business development you’re ever going to get.

You get into this network, if you want to build your business and you have less than $50k, become an activator in our network. Join in and use, get into that community, build relationships, grow your business and then apply after. We’re seeing people kind of also do the opposite, because everyone’s in that network to go like, “Who’s doing cool stuff and how can we help?” That’s why we’re there. SO it’s a really different kind of vibe.

Melinda Wittstock:         That is amazing. So Vicki, when you go back and you look at yourself as a kid, were you always entrepreneurial and did you always have sort of the mission? Was this sort of in your DNA? Or was this something that you kind of learned or found later in life?

Vicki Saunders:                I don’t think that I had the entrepreneurial bug as a kid. I knew that I wanted to do something, quote, unquote, big. I wanted to have a big impact in the world and I just didn’t know what that was. I remember looking around all the time and thinking, I don’t really see anything that I want to do. A lot of my parents friends were teachers. I grew on a farm. I was like none of this stuff is going to be what I’m doing. I was seeking, like where is that thing.

And I had a massive breakthrough experience in Prague. I happened to be in Europe when the wall fell down and I got on a train and I went, “Oh my god history’s in the making.” And I was in my twenties, my early twenties and I ended up staying in Prague for four years and it completely changed my life and that’s where I became an entrepreneur.

I was surrounded by people every day who were dreaming about what they were going to do now that they were free. It was electrifying. I get the goose bumps every time I think about it. I was standing in the square and every single conversation with like hundreds of thousands of people was, “Now that I’m free I’m going to do dot dot. Now that I’m free, oh my god.” And I just like, “oh my god I’m free too. What am I going to do?”

Melinda Wittstock:         We forget that we’re free.

Vicki Saunders:                Yeah, we totally do. It was just so eye opening because I grew up in a country where I’m supposed to be free but I surely did not feel that by the time I was in my twenties. It was like, “Here are the jobs you should get. Here are the people you should hang out with. Here’s how money you should make.” There’s all the layers of everyone else’s expectations on you. But when I was there I was able to kind of reinvent myself. And I’m such a natural entrepreneur and a connector and I love learning and sharing. And I’m super curious and I’m an early adopter of everything, so it was obviously…

And I did grow up in a quite entrepreneurial family, but it’s not something I thought of because truly nobody talked about being an entrepreneur. [crosstalk 00:36:55] were entrepreneurs but never talked about it.

Melinda Wittstock:         No, nobody, nobody did. I grew up in Toronto. I’m also Canadian and I remember doing my first kind of show. And going door-to-door demanding prepayment for my show when I was six.

Vicki Saunders:                Whoa. Go girl. Amazing.

Melinda Wittstock:         But like I had… It’s so funny, when you’re a little girl, you have no reason to question your own value so you go do these things and then over time though society kicks in and teaches you all the ways that you’re not enough, or that you have to do this, or you have to live a life of “should’s”, or this is who you should be or whatever. And I got sucked into that like anybody else, but always have been entrepreneurial. I can’t not see opportunity, always want to… You see a problem, you want to fix it.

You mentioned such a great word that’s a predictor of entrepreneurial success, which is curiosity.

Vicki Saunders:                Absolutely. Too many things. That’s why it was hard for me to kind of find that starting point, because I was interested in so many things. My uncle was a really interesting guy who had traveled all over the world. It was so exotic to me to meet him and he’d lived in all these countries and I was like, “Wow. I want that kind of life.” And I remember sitting with him going like, “I wouldn’t even know where to start with what I want to do. There’s so many things that are interesting.” And he’s like, “Just make a big long list of everything you think you might want to do. Try it and then start stroking it off the list.” So, that’s kind of what I did. I thought, “Oh, I want to be this.” And I’m like, “Nope, not going to work.” You don’t really know until you start jumping into it.

Melinda Wittstock:         It’s true. This is what I tell my kids because they have all this pressure on them to think that they have to know everything. And no, no you don’t. You have so many different acts in your life. Tell me a little about your first company. What was that like and what did you learn from it?

Vicki Saunders:                I started this tiny little English language school in Prague because I was there and I’m like, “What could I do here? I want to start something. I want to do something.” And I spoke English and basically nobody else did and they all need to learn how to speak English. So I started teaching. I started the school and then that kind of went well, and I was only doing that for a few hours a day and it started to grow.

And I was like, “Hmm, what else could I do?” And there were no nice clothes in the city believe it or not. I had never worked in retail. I knew nothing about fashion, but there was one brand I really liked that I used to buy in Canada and it was from India. So I went to India with $7000 strapped around my waist in cash to find and find this brand and see if they’d sell me stuff so I could open a store. I literally had no idea what I was doing.

Melinda Wittstock:         It’s amazing.

Vicki Saunders:                Anyways, crazy long story, but I ended up opening up a retail store in Prague. Then, just the anything’s possible kind of environment was so incredible that I then became an evangelist for everybody else to start businesses. I’m like, “This is the time. We’re in this amazing place.” It was a really very, very special time in Prague. And then people would say to me, “Why are you doing this here instead of in your own country?” And it kind of hit me, like, how do you create and environment for people to feel free, when they’re already supposed to be in a place where they’re free? How do you create and environment for people to thrive and to become what their potential is?

That experience and then coming back to Canada in the 90’s when things were super locked down conservative and everybody looked at me like I had seven heads when I’d come up with a big idea. They’d be like, “Are you American? What’s up with you?” It started with a pilot and then I went to silicon valley, where they’re like, “Great idea. Can you do it twice as fast with twice as much money?” So one of the things that I ended becoming a student of is like the environment that you’re in really dictates who you can become and it sort of brushes off on you in a way.

So how do you design environments for people to really thrive and to go beyond what they think is possible for them. I have done a ton of experimenting, twenty-something experiments over the last decades learning how to create the conditions for people to thrive. So, SheEO is like my master design of everything I’ve learned, which is really, here are the places…

I had a quick example of… Most incubators and accelerators tell you who your advisor’s going to be. “Here’s the expert in the retail space and they know everything and they’re going to be your advisor.” And then you have the first meeting with them and you’re like, “Hmm, that one doesn’t really feel right.” But then you question yourself because they’re the expert and they should know. Then I’m like, “Have you guys seen what the world looks like? Why would you follow who’s done something before. We need to rethink things. In fact, the fresh thinking and the values centered advice is what you need to go for.”

So I’ve literally, a friend of mine said, “You must have seen like every single bug in the system, because you’ve redesigned every part of this.” And it’s true.

Melinda Wittstock:         Yeah. I see a lot of women get over-advised by folks who did it a certain way in the past and are wedded or attached to that. Just psychologically, when someone comes along with something that’s disruptive, that advisor, however well meaning, may definitely push them off course, or make them question themselves and their confidence. I go back to the woman that you describing who created this amazing, she wasn’t an engineer, but created this amazing movement vehicle for people in wheelchairs. Had she been like an engineer, She probably wouldn’t have had the idea.

Vicki Saunders:                100% and we see that all the time. So we have someone who invented a whole new category, breathable food wrap, which is now a thing in the world, and then we have marine biologist who created the zero waste grocery store. One after the next we have all of these incredible founders who literally don’t have the domain expertise in the area of where they innovated, partly because they don’t expertise, so they’re not in a box on how to think about it. It’s really fascinating.

Melinda Wittstock:         Fresh thinkers. So, in your mentoring then in SheEO, is it very inter or cross disciplinary?

Vicki Saunders:                Yeah. So here’s the other part. It’s a little bit chaotic because what we do is, the ventures are asked, they’re required in the first year, just to build the muscle to ask for help every month, what do you need? So they’ll ask of the community what they need and then if you’re one of the activators in the community you just respond. So it’s completely on demand. “Hey, I need an intro to something here.”, “Does anyone have expertise in doing cash flow or this phase I’m in, et cetera.” And women just respond. If you’re paying attention at that time, and you have time, and you want to help, you just ping the person.

It’s an on demand network, and you’re literally one step removed from whoever you need. So it’s not, we don’t set you up with the six people who are going to help you because you just never know and lots of people are busy and so if you can pay attention when the ask comes out, great. If you can’t, that’s fine because we’re getting what we need. And if every woman in the network is trying to help every venture, they would never get their work done. They’d never be able to work on their company. It seems to be working really well. The way that it’s going right now, it’s just organic, on demand.

Melinda Wittstock:         Fantastic. So, you took a company public on the Toronto Stock Exchange. It’s something that not a lot of women get to IPO. More and more, which is awesome. But what was that like?

Vicki Saunders:                Painful.

Melinda Wittstock:         Everyone I know who’s taken a company public says, “Oh gosh, I wish I hadn’t done that.” I mean-

Vicki Saunders:                Yeah. It’s brutal. It’s brutal. It was a dumb thing to do. Just a million different bits of learning and I just, I was too full of myself and I thought I would be able to not get crushed by it and I got crushed by it. My leadership style was really different. I was booted out of the company within a year of going public. I just didn’t understand how important it was to surround yourself with supporters. I didn’t understand how important having people on your board who actually trusted you and liked your leadership were. And it’s one of the reasons why I ended up starting SheEO.

I got psyched out of my own leadership capability. I was in my thirties, and literally everyone was telling me what I wasn’t. “You’re not this.” “You’re not that.” “Oh god, you’re a disastrous leader, you’re and ambivert.” I’m like, “A what?” “Yeah you’re…” I had some assessment people when we went public. You know the psychological assessments to get your insurance or whatever you have to do. And I’m apparently half introvert, half extrovert. So-

Melinda Wittstock:         And this is a problem why?

Vicki Saunders:                This is a problem because it’s confusing for people because they think you’re mad at them when you’re not always bubbly and outbound. When you go quiet, they think there’s something wrong. I’m like, “oh my god, really? Why don’t you just tell people that’s what I am?” But it’s just one of these funny things of, “We have a certain view, and a certain narrative around what makes a good leader.” And it’s not us. It’s a certain kind of male, who stands on stage and gives everybody confidence that they can disrupt the universe. And most women aren’t that leadership vibe, so it’s challenging.

One of the things with SheEO that I am deeply passionate about is showing that women can run scaled up companies, in different ways than we see as the only way, which is everyone has to work 24/7, maximize profits at the cost of everything else, lack of flexible work, lack of all these really progressive work policies. So our ventures have positive carbon, are paying living wages, have super flexible work and are running their businesses in super unique ways, with all kinds of innovation. As those scaled up we’ll be able to go, “This is what it can look like running a company that does really well.”

Melinda Wittstock:         Yeah, because the company often tens to do… I know so many Millenials who’ve created companies with these different kind of work structures and have higher productivity rates.

Vicki Saunders:                Absolutely. Happier people and if you treat your employees well, you tend to have a great product out in the world. And if you don’t, it shows in your product.

Melinda Wittstock:         Absolutely. The culture is worth a lot. I always go back to, why would Amazon buy Zappos for a billion dollars when Zappos wasn’t really doing anything that Amazon couldn’t otherwise do apart from the fact that it had this amazing company culture. And the culture was contrarian. I think Tony Hsieh wrote in Delivering Happiness about the time that he ordered a pizza from Zappos and the customer service person wasn’t like, “We’re a shoe company, get lost.” IT was like, “Oh, let me look up, where are you, New Hampshire? Let me look up a couple places for you.”

Vicki Saunders:                Oh my god I love that story. That’s delicious.

Melinda Wittstock:         It’s amazing. And so as a result of that, can you imagine the customer loyalty where actually in most call centers, or that sort of customer service, it’s seen as an advantage to get off the phone as fast as possible. And Zappos, it was the exact opposite. People were rewarded for staying on the phone longer because you’re developing a relationship with your customers. How could that be bad? Again, just a completely different way of looking at it, worth a billion dollars.

Vicki Saunders:                Yeah. Absolutely.

Melinda Wittstock:         Like that, pretty much alone and you know happy team, happy customers. These things they start to seem very obvious. SO when you look back on your life, to date, because you’re doing so many amazing things already and you’re going to go do way more big things. I know this about you from talking to you. But you know that old Steve Jobs quote about when you look back at your life and you can connect the dots looking backwards, but it’s harder to do so looking forward. So you have that sense? Does a whole bunch of things, all the different points in your like kind of connect in a way in SheEO?

Vicki Saunders:                Completely. I mean really every single things I’ve done has led me to this point in the most amazing way. And now I understand all these weird sidebar things that I did, that just really have informed where we are. Now I talk about just follow the breadcrumbs. Each of those things is like taking me on a path to where I’m meant to go. It’s just been amazing. I can definitely draw the red thread or whatever it is you want back to how I began.

Melinda Wittstock:         This is amazing. So, Vicki, I could talk to you for hours. You’re doing amazing work. Thank you for all you do and I’m going to make sure in the show notes that everybody knows how to find you and of course link in with you, master connector. Really, everybody join the SheEO community. I mean if you’re listening to WINGS it’s because you believe in this mission of women really lifting as we climb, so how better than to do that in SheEO. And if you have a nice wonderful mission drive thing apply-

Vicki Saunders:                Please do.

Melinda Wittstock:         And you do have application processes once a year and so the next one is going to be in October next year 2020?

Vicki Saunders:                Yes. Exactly.

Melinda Wittstock:         Okay, amazing. Well, Vicki thank you so much for putting on your WINGS and flying with us.

Vicki Saunders:                Thank you. Thank you.

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