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5 min read

How SheEO uses automation in their quest to create a $1 billion fund to support women-run businesses

By Deb Tennen · September 21, 2020
Hero image of women at an event, talking to each other with lots of excitement

Vicki Saunders is a successful serial entrepreneur, and she knows all too well the biases against women that are built into venture systems. Women receive 2.2% of available funding, Vicki shared with us. "We need fresh ideas, we need new ways to approach challenges," she said. "We need to get capital into the hands of women who have these ideas."

And that's what drove her to start SheEO: a "global community of radically generous women building a $1B perpetual fund to support women working on the World's To-Do List."

Or, as Vicki put it, "the opposite of Shark Tank."

Working toward a $1 billion fund

Vicki founded SheEO five years ago in Canada. Her goal was to create a new model to support women founders on their own terms. She'd heard people dismiss biases against women in venture, so she knew she had to do it differently. "The only way we'll find women is if women are writing the checks," she told us.

But SheEO isn't a women-run private equity firm. It's a community.

Once selected, the business owners immediately become part of a community with the women supporting them. The funders—or Activators, as they're known at SheEO—don't just write checks. They also provide introductions to their network, offer expertise in their field, and support the Ventures through their growth process.

Zoom call for SheEO

"Most Activators had no idea these amazing businesses existed because no one is talking about them," Vicki said. SheEO gives these businesses the funds and the support to help bring them into the public eye. It's a simple application process ("no jargon and no pitch decks"), and the Activators all vote on who will receive funding. Finalists get a loan at 0% interest, paid back over five years.

"This isn't 'I'm going to give you money and you'd better get me a 10x return,'" says Vicki. "It's 'we love what you're doing—how can we help?'"

SheEO started out as essentially a crowdfunding campaign, and it has since grown to an international community that's on the path to a $1 billion fund. By the end of 2020, they'll have funded nearly 100 Ventures led and majority-owned by women-identified and non-binary entrepreneurs.

Activators range in age from 11 to 93, and the businesses they support are equally as diverse. One Venture sells off-grid toolkits for sustainable agriculture. Another sells special bikes for folks with mobility challenges. The only thing each Venture has in common is that it's led and backed by women and doing something to help create "new models, new mindsets, and new solutions that benefit humanity."

Using best-in-class software to support best-in-class businesses

When you're building a $1 billion fund, everything needs to run like clockwork. One mistake in data entry could create a catastrophic domino effect, leading to deserving women founders not getting the funds they need to grow their business. SheEO's operations team uses specialized software for each part of their process: they have over 30 software solutions in regular rotation.

"SheEO is all about new models, new systems, new ways of doing things," said Caring Gibner, the systems architect for SheEO. "As a result, a lot of turnkey SaaS solutions don't quite fit the way we work. We're always tweaking things, adjusting the way we work based on how our relationships are evolving and what our community is co-creating with us. That can lead to a lot of manual work when our processes don't fit the mold."

Building their own custom platforms didn't make sense either, because they were evolving so quickly. And, as Caring points out, using all different services means they're never tied to one way of doing things, which they would be if they were investing time and money into static, purpose-built platforms. "We've got a lot of flexibility to iterate and experiment," she says.

Of course, having over 30 apps can be a nightmare if they don't all talk to each other. And that's where Zapier comes in. "When a new person joined our community," Caring said, "there were four or five different things that needed to happen across our software suite—invite them to this, add them as a user to that, check this box when done." That process, along with documenting it and tracking follow-up, took the SheEO team dozens of hours each week.

By automating the process, they were able to take on higher-value projects that added more to the community. "With the time we save by using Zapier, we spend more time building relationships. We can build and offer more programming to our community. We can personalize and customise more of our interactions."

Using automation to grow

Zapier not only allowed us to automate a lot of the manual steps, it also helps us grow.

Caring Gibner, SheEO

But SheEO took things one step further: beyond streamlining their existing processes, Caring told us, they were able to build something they didn't even know was possible.

"We switched our thinking from 'what can we do more efficiently?' to 'what magic can we create? What dreams can now be made real?'"

All SheEO Activators are invited to review and vote on the Venture applications. Two years ago, they invested in an application platform to host this process. "It ended up basically failing on our first day of voting, with 1,000 people looking to review hundreds of applications," Caring said. "We essentially built our voting platform on Google Forms/Sheets and Zapier in about 36 hours. And it was better than the original."

From there, things got wild. They now have an 82-step Zap that connects seven different software solutions. "Our Activator workflows are triggered by payments coming in to Stripe, and then connected to different apps, depending on whether someone is a new or returning Activator, whether their payment is a one-time or recurring one, and what kind of interests they've indicated when they sign up."

A visualization of SheEO
A visualization of SheEO

Connecting apps and connecting people

I asked Caring which app was most important for SheEO's operations, and her answer was telling: "For my role, I think it might be a tie between Salesforce and Sheets. Of course, if you asked other people on the team, I think everyone has their own essential app that really helps them in their role."

And that's exactly why it's so important to be able to connect all those apps together. Everyone works differently, but everyone needs to work together.

"SheEO is really based on relationships—between the team, the Activators, and the Ventures," Caring said. "That translated into a lot of relationships between different SaaS platforms where we held or interacted with data. Our front end and our back end really match."

Vicki wants women to know that, with SheEO, they can have the resources they've been looking for. And not just the financial resources: "You'll never have to work on your business alone again," she says.

SheEO is also always looking for new Activators, women who are excited about helping scale businesses in a unique, relationship-based way. They're also hiring more people like Caring for their tech team to help transform the systems that make SheEO possible. Take a look at this LinkedIn post from Vicki, and email hi@sheeo.world to apply.

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