Ottawa’s Vicki Saunders brings farm dreams to female entrepreneurship

Vicki Saunders

Growing up in the Ottawa Valley, Vicki Saunders learned the value of hard work and entrepreneurship on her family's farm.

Her parents bought what would become Saunders Farm in 1974. Now a renowned local destination for Halloween fun, Vicki and her siblings grew up working in the strawberry fields.

“It was a lot of hard work,” Saunders tells OBJ. But her parent’s willingness to start something new with the confidence of one day creating something lasting stuck with her.

“Every single dinner was dreaming about what we were going to build next.”

As she moved on to her own ventures, Saunders ended up building quite a lot. At the turn of the century she struck a $40-million merger that would take her youth entrepreneurship incubator, The NRG Group, public on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

CEO Talk

Hear Vicki Saunders deliver her keynote address, New mindsets: Rethinking our economy to drive innovation, at the March 6 CEO Talk speaker series. Click here for more information.

She would later build Zazengo, a social engagement platform that worked with topped brands including Walmart, Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson. In 2001, Saunders was named a Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum.

The serial entrepreneur’s current project is SheEO, a collaborative model for women to support fellow female founders.

Spreading the feeling

Even though entrepreneurship was in her blood, Saunders didn’t always think it was right for her.

The turning point came when she happened to be in Prague during a pivotal moment in history: the fall of the Berlin Wall. She says she was with hundreds of thousands of people in the square that day, where everyone was talking about what they would do with their newfound freedom.

That attitude was infectious, and it planted a seed that would follow Saunders for the rest of her career: fostering entrepreneurship through supportive environments.

“What you get surrounded by becomes what you do. In Prague, I felt I was free to do anything,” she says. “I did not feel that entrepreneurship was an opportunity for me in Canada.”

After spending some time running a business in Europe, Saunders realized she was meant to return home to spread the business confidence she was feeling.

Women for women

Today, she’s expressing that through SheEO, endeavouring to improve access to financial and personal support for women entrepreneurs.

It’s a concern being felt across Canada in recent weeks. A report released earlier this month from Ottawa’s The Beacon Agency, Carleton University and BMO shows that women’s contributions to innovation in the country are being downplayed and diminished.

Women face sexism from investors and potential customers, the report found, with Indigenous women encountering obstacles such as prejudice and lack of resources.

SheEO’s approach hopes to solve these problems by putting women in the investors’ seats. The company solicits contributions of $1,100 from cohorts of 500 “activators,” women in business who will decide on which female-led businesses their collective fund should support. Beyond the initial loan, entrepreneurs chosen by the SheEO fund join a network of women who can provide network connections, expertise and even act as first customers for the business.

“For our female entrepreneurs, being surrounded by women who want to help them and lift them up changes everything for them,” Saunders says.

“Where it may be difficult for them to get access to networks and capital and expertise, we have an abundance of that sitting around them.”

Canadian generosity

Two and a half years in, SheEO has funded 32 women-led ventures with 3,000 activators contributing to its fund. It operates in Canada, the U.S. and New Zealand, with Mexico, the Netherlands and Australia joining later this year.

Loans are paid back into the fund with zero interest over five years. The goal is a “perpetual fund” of $1 billion, and Saunders says they’re on track to hit that goal within the decade.

For the activators, handing over $1,100 without expecting that it’ll come back to you is considered “radical generosity,” and Saunders says some numbers-first businesswomen don’t always get the concept.

She was surprised to find out that the fastest-growing demographic of new activators is women under 30, but says those who get involved are eager to be part of this supportive community.

SheEO’s generous brand is sourced directly from Canada, Saunders says. When she gives talks, she always opens by mentioning her homeland, suggesting that the country’s spirit is globally resonating more often these days.

“I think the world needs more Canada right now,” she says.

Saunders says she didn’t expect to be building towards a billion-dollar fund for female entrepreneurship 25 years ago, but adds that her parents didn’t know they’d be building a destination for family-friendly frights when they first bought the farm.

Like Saunders Farm, she hopes the community approach that she’s building with SheEO is still standing decades into the future.

Vicki Saunders will be back home in Ottawa on Tues., March 6, delivering the keynote address Ottawa Business Events’ CEO Talk event.