Sometimes, all it takes to empower women in business is a little support, a big hug and a safe space to ask for help — although an interest-free loan wouldn’t go amiss either.
The SheEO program, now in its second year in Australia, strives to provide all of those things.
With Julie Trell, head of Telstra’s Muru-D accelerator, at the helm, the Aussie program has now announced the 21 semi-finalists for its second round of loan funding, ahead of its summit in Brisbane in April.
For each cohort, 500 women, or activators, contribute $1,100 each, which is pooled and loaned out with 0% interest to five women-led ventures that are aligned with at least one of the UN’s sustainable development goals.
Since 2018, Australians have pledged $500,000 to fund SheEO loans, Trell tells SmartCompany, and that number is steadily increasing.
Speaking to SmartCompany, SheEO founder Vicki Saunders, who launched the program in Toronto in 2015, says Australian activators are some of the most active in the world, with about 75% voting for the ventures they want to support.
“As women are reading through these applications, they’re seeing all these ventures that exist in the community,” Saunders says.
“They’re under the radar, nobody is really writing about them or talking about them. It’s super inspiring.”
It’s a different kind of investing to a traditional committee that’s looking at market conditions and trends. Women are voting for women-led businesses that they think should exist in the world.
“It’s such an interesting process when you trust the intuition of hundreds of women,” Saunders says.
“Our economy could be full of companies that have very high social impact. They’re creating the environmentally or socially sustainable jobs of the future.
“It’s quite special to see.”
And, while there’s a growing trend of businesses coming through focused on waste reduction and other climate and environmental issues, Trell and Saunders are also seeing an uptick in businesses in the education and healthcare spaces.
This year, a few of the finalists are focused on prison reform and the education of prisoners, Trell notes.
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But, even when pushed, she diplomatically declines to pick a favourite.
“Everyone that’s been chosen I’ve got excited about,” she says.
Flex your ‘ask’ muscle
A lot of what goes on within the SheEO community comes down to the power of the ‘ask’. And it’s a culturally tricky hurdle to navigate.
This is a community of “radically generous women”, Saunders says.
And when people are bold enough to ask for something, they tend to receive it.
“When people ask for help for the first time, it’s like this tiny little thing,” she says.
People will ask for a small thing, meekly and apologetically, she explains. Then, when they see the response they get, they invariably wish they’d asked for more.
“You kind of get into this cycle, getting bigger and bigger asks, as you start to realise you really do have everything around you,” she says.
But, for first-timers, it requires something of a cultural shift. Sometimes, in startupland and entrepreneurship, the culture encourages the opposite.
“Every single message is ‘do it by yourself, you have to know everything, you have to figure it out yourself’.
“It’s like a 180-degree shift to say, ‘actually, I’m good at these four things, and I’m going to ask for help with all the things I’m not good at’,” Saunders explains.
“It’s a very different way of thinking.”
“I’ve definitely strengthened my ‘ask’ muscle being in a safe space,” Trell says, and learnt to acknowledge how hard it can be to ask.
“I recognise that, I appreciate the ask, and it’s easier for me to say no if I have to say no.
“Just putting it all in perspective has been really good,” she adds.
“We create the economy”
According to Saunders, not only are Aussie SheEO activators one of the most active groups, but they’re also made up of a high number of people who are entrepreneurs themselves.
They’re a “beautiful, spirited group”, she says.
“They really get how hard it is for entrepreneurs so they’re very good at amplifying the stories of success, the challenges, the connections — and very engaged with helping each other.”
And through running the Aussie program, Trell says she’s connected with women in all the states — both business owners and activators — in a way she doesn’t think she would have otherwise.
“It’s active, it’s supportive, it’s eye-opening,” she says.
“It’s the coolest thing, to see who’s showing up.”
These investors aren’t necessarily experienced — in fact, some are as young as 11 years old.
Those looking for funding have to answer 12 business and personal questions as simply as they can. What it essentially boils down to is what the business does, how it makes money, why the founder is the right person to do it, and how they would use the network.
But, while having the opportunity to choose which ventures secure the loans may be daunting at first, it’s ultimately empowering.
For Saunders, it’s simply a question of deciding whether they think this product or service should exist.
“We make those decisions every day when we go shopping … we create the economy,” she says.
“You really start to see that we all know how to do this. We do it all the time,” she adds.
“Imagine a store full of products that you helped create.”
Love is a disruptor
When working with women and for women in entrepreneurship, one thing that comes up time and time again is the word ‘love’, Saunders observes. And nowhere is that truer than in Australia.
At the first SheEO retreat, she recalls one founder calling love “the new disruptor in business”.
“Isn’t that such a great line?”
If you start your business from a place of love, “you actually come from that place, you have better product, you take care of your customer more, and things grow,” she explains.
“If you don’t really care about what you’re doing, and you’re doing it to make money — it doesn’t work.”
And, for Saunders, that’s the baseline to supporting other women, too. The number one question she is asked is ‘am I doing this right?’
“There’s no right way. Does it feel right for you? There isn’t an answer,” she says.
“To get people to really trust their gut and to believe, really, most of us just need a hug,” she adds.
“There’s so much grit that’s needed on this path. So, if we can help people get through that, it’s easier.”