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2017 –

This essay written by Kate Jordan was published online in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 2019.

Women-led businesses are much less likely to receive venture capital, the funding needed to establish or grow a business. [1] To address this imbalance, in 2015 Canadian businesswoman Vicki Saunders established SheEO, an organisation to help women gain access to venture capital and mentoring support.

Saunders set up the SheEO model whereby, in an act of ‘radical generosity’, 500 women donate $1100 and become ‘activators’. Each donation is divided: $1000 goes into a funding pool and the remaining $100 is put aside for administration costs. The pool is then distributed to five women-led businesses (called ventures) in interest-free, five-year loans.

Ventures must be at least 51 per cent women-owned and led, have revenue of between $50,000, and $2 million, be capable of further growth, and have export potential. Those women wanting their businesses to become ventures submit an application and go through two rounds of voting by activators. The accepted ventures must negotiate between themselves how the $500,000 pool will be split. It cannot be split evenly and cannot go to one recipient.

In addition to funding, activators provide support and mentoring. Radical generosity extends to fulfilling ‘asks’ whereby ventures can ask, for example, for an introduction or specific advice, with a pool of 500 experienced businesswomen to draw from. Ventures regularly meet with their mentors and must submit quarterly and annual reports. The money is repaid into the pool, with the aim that in five years the fund will be self-sustaining. [2]

SheEO in New Zealand

Early in the development of SheEO, New Zealand businesswoman Theresa Gattung heard Saunders speak at an event in San Francisco. Gattung immediately thought SheEO was a good model and one that would work in New Zealand. Speaking in 2019, she said:

The nature of Kiwis is to be very practically focused, the energy of the country is to give things a go. The collaborative nature of New Zealand, the idea of 500 women each putting in $1100 to support other women with ventures, I just thought that that would really work. And the mixture of the funding and the mentorship model – I had seen funding circles work here and mentoring work here and I thought to bring it all together, in that holistic way, would work really well. And nothing quite like it existed in New Zealand. [3]

The SheEO model offered many benefits for women’s ventures. As well as the influx of cash without the burden of interest, it saved the time involved in seeking a loan from conventional lenders, and made it possible to get a loan when banks were tightening their lending. The loan could also ensure that women kept control of their businesses for longer, as they did not need to sell equity to raise funds.

In return for this support, the ventures needed to be working on one of the world’s problems and benefiting the community. They also needed to be scalable, because, as Gattung explained, ‘that’s how you make a difference’. In this way, Gattung further argued, SheEO ‘reflects the change that there's no longer such a steep separation between business being about making money and good [being] a product of charity’. [4]

Gattung arranged for Saunders to speak in New Zealand, and the first funding round took place in 2017. A total of 442 women signed on as activators and 100 businesses applied to be ventures. The activators selected five: Pomegranate Kitchen, a social enterprise employing people from refugee backgrounds; DermNet, a website providing authoritative information about skin conditions; Memory Foundation, a network of brain fitness coaches providing resources to improve people’s memories; Dove River Peonies, a company offering peony extract-based skincare products; and ShearWarmth, mother and daughter farmers producing quality woollen blankets. At a weekend retreat, these ventures negotiated for five hours to split the fund. The final split was not released, but the businesses received between $25,000 and $185,000. [5]

In 2018, a total of 262 activators signed on. There were fewer venture applicants (about 60), but they were of a higher calibre. [6] A summit was held in Auckland, with the support of several of New Zealand’s largest companies, where activators and ventures could network and the successful ventures were announced. They included Beany Limited, Chia Sisters, Guardian Angel Security Ltd, The Hello Cup and The Better Packaging Co. [7]

SheEO gathering
From left: Vanisa Dhiru (President, National Council of Women New Zealand) and Florence Van Dyke from Chia Sisters at the SheEO NZ Summit in Auckland, April 2019.

In 2019, Dove River Peonies launched their rebranded products as Pure Peony and showcased them at the SheEO summit, stating:

Through SheEO we’ve been able to call on some of New Zealand’s top business women for advice, connections, and support. It’s amazing. As well as the help with re-branding and re-packaging, we’ve had help re-scoping our scientific proof project. [8]

As of 2019, only one business (which was undergoing a re-pivot) had not repaid their SheEO loan, a record almost unheard-of in the business world. For the third funding round, in order to avoid the shut-down period over Christmas and New Year, the cycle was shifting from October–March to February–July. [9]

Kate Jordan


[1] For example, a study in 2018 showed that female founders raised only 2.2 % of venture capital in the United States. See Hinchliffe, Emma, ‘Funding for female founders stalled at 2.2% of VC dollars in 2018’, Fortune, 28 Jan. 2018,

[2] Information derived from SheEO website,

[3] Gattung, Theresa, interviewed by Kate Jordan, 2019.

[4] Knight, Kim, ‘Revealed: Theresa Gattung's new venture’, Stuff, 12 May 2018,

[5] Gattung, 2019.

[6] 2018/2019 SheEO Ventures, SheEO website,

[7] Gattung, 2019.

[8] Marrassé, Sandrine, ‘Pure Peony a blooming success for entrepreneurs’, Scoop, 9 April 2019,  

[9] Gattung, 2019.