Shopify execs launch angel fund aimed at women, non-binary founders

Backbone Angels
Backbone Angels investors (clockwise from top left) Marcie Murray, Brittany Forsyth, Konval Matin, Erin Zipes, Solmaz Shahalizadeh, Anna Lambert, Atlee Clark, Alexandra Clark, Lynsey Thornton and Arati Sharma. Photo courtesy Backbone Angels

As rising tech executives who help entrepreneurs build online storefronts, Atlee Clark and Konval Matin know that taking a business from a concept to a viable entity can be a lonely and frustrating journey ​– especially for women.

The numbers tell a stark tale: women founders are much less likely to receive capital than men – according to business data platform Crunchbase, women-led businesses brought in just 2.3 per cent of all global VC funding in 2020, down from 2.9 per cent in 2019 – and when they do, the cheques are typically smaller.

“We see these statistics, and it is a big motivator for us,” says Clark, a director of marketing and partnerships at Ottawa-based e-commerce powerhouse Shopify.  

In response, Clark, Matin and eight of their current and past Shopify colleagues have banded together to help push the funding needle for female founders in the other direction.

On International Women’s Day, they announced the launch of Backbone Angels, a new early-stage fund aimed at startups helmed by women and non-binary founders. In particular, the all-female team will focus on assisting Black and Indigenous founders as well as other business leaders of colour. 

“We believe that having women entrepreneurs being able to bring their ideas, their products, their vision for the world … makes the world a better place,” explains Clark. “This is our answer to that.”

Matin, whose family moved to Canada from Pakistan when she was nine, says that while many founders rely on friends and relatives for financial backing to get their ventures off the ground, other would-be entrepreneurs aren’t as fortunate. 

“That’s not always an option,” says the Carleton University commerce grad, who now serves as Shopify’s director of merchant stories. “That’s something that we’re looking to change and make (funding) accessible to folks of all different types of backgrounds.”

Clark spent a decade in Silicon Valley before returning to Canada last fall. Before joining Shopify’s office in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2014, she helped launch C100, a group of expat Canadian tech leaders who invest in promising startups north of the border. 

“When you have women investors, then you have women board members, then you have the ability to have more women executives,” Clark says. “It’s a trickle(-down) effect. We’re hoping that ... down the line, this isn’t a conversation that we’re talking about.”

Matin says each of Backbone’s 10 initial investors brings a unique perspective and skillset to the fund. She says they’ll offer founders input on all aspects of building a sustainable business, whether it’s plotting growth strategy or dealing with legal issues. 

Backbone Angels plans to announce its first investment shortly.

“We’re going to be writing cheques, but we want to be (more) involved,” Matin says. 

“Most of us have day jobs and we have hands-on experience, and that’s the expertise we have that we want to share. It goes beyond mentoring. We’ve collectively helped build one of the largest companies in the world, and that’s what we’re looking to share and (help) create more businesses that can scale in that capacity.”