Coralus CEO Vicki Saunders wanted to make it easier for female founders to raise capital for their startups, allowing them to grow their businesses on their terms. Her solution disrupts the traditional capital-raising model, turning it on its head. Here, she shares her leadership journey and lessons learned.
When award-winning Canadian businesswoman and entrepreneur Vicki Saunders prepared to launch her social venture, Coralus, she thought women would be lining up to join it. Her new startup would make it significantly easier for female entrepreneurs to raise capital for their startups, allowing them to grow their businesses on their terms.
Unlike traditional capital models, where the investor receives a share in the business, a place of influence on the board, and interest on their loan, the concept behind Coralus was simple: the organisation would provide loans worth $100,000 to select startups at 0% interest; the money would be repaid over five years and then reinvested in the next round of businesses.
To raise the funds, Saunders wanted at least 1,000 female investors, known as ‘activators’, to contribute $92 a month ($1100 a year). Each activator would be given a vote on which startups to support, with priority given to businesses adhering to the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals. The activators would also provide the entrepreneurs with a supportive network, mentoring, and assisting with contacts.
Struggling to gain traction
At age 50, Saunders already had over 25 years of experience starting and growing successful businesses, but Coralus was her most challenging startup to launch. “I thought we’d have a waiting list, honestly, because it was such a cool idea, and people were so excited about it,” Saunders says.
But then the questions from women started rolling in. “Why 0% interest? Why aren’t we making money from this? Do I get my money back? Why does everyone get an equal vote? What if it doesn’t work?” Saunders lists them off.
Understanding they were doing something fundamentally different, Saunders took the time to explain the concept repeatedly. It was hard work, and she reduced her launch goal to 500 women and extended her launch date twice. Nonetheless, once Coralus went live, the concept spoke for itself, and Saunders’ ‘radical generosity’ concept quickly gained popularity, expanding from Canada into the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.
“We invite women to apply with their amazing businesses,” Saunders says. “It’s so inspiring reading through these applications, leaving feedback for people and telling them we loved their ideas.”
The impact has been tremendous, and Saunders has received numerous awards in recognition. These include the YWCA Woman of Distinction – Entrepreneurship, Business Leader of the Year, 100 Most Influential Leaders of 2015 and UBS Global Visionary.
“Seven years later, 170 incredible businesses have been funded with a 95% repayment rate. A lot of them would say their lives are fundamentally changed by being supported by this community,” she says.
Surround yourself with like-minded people who cheer you on and build you up, rather than people who constantly tell you how you could be doing better and make you feel smaller.
“Where you place yourself in the world can make a huge difference,” Saunders says. “When generous people surround you, and when you’re generous to yourself, you achieve a lot more, and you’re bigger and bolder.”
A world of endless possibility
Saunders’ entrepreneurial spirit and desire to positively impact the world came from her parents, who moved her and her three brothers to a ‘fixer-upper’ farm near Ottawa, Canada, in the early 1970s. They instilled a love of community, nature, and trying new things in their children.
Ideas were constantly thrown around the dinner table, leading to the farm becoming one of Canada’s first pick-your-own strawberry farms. It later evolved into an award-winning tourist attraction that has provided jobs to three generations of locals and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
However, by the time she finished school, Saunders knew she wanted to follow her own path. She wasn’t sure what that looked like, only that she didn’t want to be pigeonholed into an office job. “That felt like death to me,” she says.
Initially, she thought she’d pursue foreign policy, undertaking a related Masters degree at the University of Toronto. “I wanted to be the next Condi Rice,” she laughs, referring to the former US Secretary of State.
Saunders was on a break in Europe in November 1989, considering her next career step, when the Berlin Wall came down. She found herself in a square in Prague in the Czech Republic, surrounded by joyous crowds celebrating their freedom following the fall of Communism. Every conversation around her was about what they would do now that they were free. “It was the most intoxicating experience,” she recalls. “And it just lit me up completely.”
Suddenly, the options for her life seemed endless. Saunders stayed in Prague, starting two new businesses, including an English language school, and encouraging others to reach their full potential. After four years, she returned home, determined to bring the spirit of endless possibility to Canada.
Helping kids dream big
Saunders decided to start with young people, wanting to inspire them to dream big. In 1997, she co-founded Kids NRG, a marketing and youth consultancy that hires teams of young people aged between 14-24 to solve problems for big businesses. She approached corporates, asking them what problems they needed to solve with technology, and they funded the resulting project. One such project included putting The Canadian Encyclopedia of Design online.
“It happened to be perfect timing around the .com time,” Saunders says. “So all these kids knew how to do things with technology that adults couldn’t figure out.”
Over 20 companies run by young people evolved from the initial consultancy, followed by an incubator and accelerator in 1999, where a new business was being created every month by people under age 30 and supported with funding to help them launch. The concept was so successful that Saunders listed it on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Invest in your strengths, and surround yourself with people whose strengths are your weaknesses.
“Don’t sit there and go, ‘I’m not good at these things, and I have to work on them,” Saunders says. “The stuff you do without even thinking about it? That’s your magic sauce.”
After going public, Saunders looked for new opportunities to have a positive impact and launched Zazengo. Her latest venture created an employee and consumer engagement platform for sustainability actions and attracted Fortune 500 company Walmart as her first customer.
“We created sustainability plans for their 1.4 million employees in the US, using this visualisation engine as a way for them to see the impact of their small actions adding up,” Saunders says. Later, Johnson & Johnson, Coca Cola were among the many organisations that used the platform to track their collective impact on sustainability.
When founding and running a business, particularly one you are passionate about, it is easy to let your work-life balance slip. Make sure you take time out to recharge.
Saunders acknowledges she overworks herself. After seven years of running Coralus, usually working seven days a week, she took a six-month sabbatical to recharge. She spent 90 days of it walking the Camino Trail with her husband, who she says is her greatest cheerleader.
Rethinking our approach to challenges
Today, Coralus has over 7,000 activators across five countries and over $16 million in funds. “That came in at $92 a month at a time,” Saunders says. “$16 million doesn’t sound like much, but it is a big deal.
“But what matters more is that thousands of women have been part of deciding where their money should go and what kind of world they’d like to live in, and that’s really powerful.”
Saunders would like to see more of the world’s challenges approached with fresh thinking. “Our goal is to increase the imagination, for people to dream of new ways of doing things because we need to redesign pretty much every part of society,” she says.
“We’ve rethought a certain way of funding women. What else could be rethought? What other dreams do people have?”
Vicki Saunders’ Leadership Lessons Learned:
© Laini Bennett, MBA