It’s an educational experience. It’s a force for good in the local impact space. It’s a safe place to ask endless questions about how investment works. And it’s serious fun.
Women’s Equity Lab (WEL) is a Victoria-born innovation that gathers local women to pool their money to invest in early-stage startups. Members — 23 in the first round, 20 in the current round — meet regularly to learn how to invest in companies, discuss opportunities, vet deal flow and make investment decisions. In the most recent round, each participant invested a minimum of $6,000 for a pool of $100,000, which was then used to co-invest in companies the group thinks will generate the best return.
Billing itself as a fun and low-risk environment for women to learn about and try early-stage investing, WEL was recognized last June with VIATEC’s Angel of the Year award — a huge validation and show of support from Victoria’s business community.
A New and Equitable Way of Thinking
It was the systemic imbalance of having only men as shareholders in early-stage companies that got WEL’s founder Stephanie Andrew thinking a few years ago.
“It creates a whole business dynamic,” says Andrew, who also serves as executive director of Capital Investment Network and VP of Finance at TIMIA Capital. “That’s a foundation that then ripples its way through the whole business ecosystem.”
Along with WEL’s other founding partners — Bronwen Campbell and Nicole Lee — Andrew understood from experience that when women are engaged with advising and steering early-stage companies, our world ends up with a different — generally more balanced — mix of companies.
This investment model gives women a voice in the traditionally male-dominated domains of venture capital and tech.
“For a lot of women, they’d like to invest in and have the exposure to these investment opportunities,” says Campbell. “But we don’t hear about them. You might hear something in the news, but by that point, you’re not involved. The opportunity to participate in the angel-investing world — and do it collaboratively — generates more discussion about the opportunity. And it diminishes your risk if you’re all in it together.”
The kernel of the WEL idea originated with the Bend Venture Conference (BVC), a community economic development strategy out of Oregon that gathers investors to channel private investment into promising business and non-profit startups.
The Seattle Angel Conference — sparked by Bend’s model of collaboratively pooling funding and then going through a process of learning, vetting investment opportunities and making decisions — provided a framework and a mentor for WEL to follow.
“Josh Maher is the cofounder of the Seattle Angel Conference fund model, and he helped us bring the model to Canada,” says Andrew. “We saw this opportunity for it to be very effective for engaging women specifically, and bringing women into investing in new business ventures.”
In it Together
While there are female-only venture groups active in North America, WEL is unique in that it has an education component as well.
“We have speakers come and talk about tax implications and exit strategies,” says Campbell. “Female venture capitalists have come and told their successes, and their failures as well.”
It’s that education component and the sense of “we’re in this together” that really drew local impact investor Paula Carey to the group.
“You have 23 people with totally different backgrounds, totally different understandings, different experiences, maybe different businesses, and a huge range of ages,” she says.
“Think of how brilliant it is to have all the information available in one place, with a responsibility to look at it, the ability to talk to the entrepreneurs if you want and ask your own questions, but also the brilliance of voting anonymously — and if it’s 70 per cent, it goes. How collaborative that feels.”
As a long-standing member of several local boards, Carey has been on many committees where decisions get made by the extroverts around the table.
“This just evens everything out,” she says. “I think that is why we were able to learn so much so quickly.”
More Than Just a Return
WEL is not only about making money. Sure, that’s often a happy outcome of the learning process (one of the four companies WEL invested in last year is already raising at 10 times its original valuation), however the real benefit is equipping women with the knowledge to make their own decisions in the area of finance — and directing money to its best possible use.
“As a group, what we’ve learned is that we want to invest with companies that are giving back in some way,” says Dr. Olivia Dam, an eye surgeon who joined WEL for its first round. “They’re companies based on being profitable, obviously, but based on the concept of making the world better.”
That conviction — that women can drive investment and drive good at the same time — is freeing.
“Oftentimes, people equate a lot of money with corruption or greed,” says Dam. “If someone wants to ask a certain fee for their time, there’s some negativity attached to it. For me, money is just a resource and a tool. And we can do so many good things if we have enough resources to do so. To want to earn money, to take a proportion of it and put it back into the world, is a good thing. People that frown upon people that have a lot of money … they’re not seeing the bigger picture.”
Now in its second round (WEL2), the group has been going strong for two years and is looking to establish a branch in Vancouver. The organization has sparked a firestorm of interest across Canada, having proven itself as a sustainable, fluid model that gives voice to a vastly under-represented faction of investment power.
A Driver for Change
It is a model of women coming together with other women from diverse backgrounds, learning the ins and outs of investing and making money at it while delivering good into the world. And it’s a model that can drive significant change if widely adopted.
“Women’s Equity Lab has created an opportunity for other communities to introduce the Bend model to their economic development strategy to take advantage of the emerging economy,” says Peter Elkins, member of the provincial government’s Emerging Economy Task Force and, along with Andrew, a cofounder of Capital Investment Network.
Andrew is excited at the idea of seeing the WEL model replicated everywhere to get women involved at the shareholder level in all businesses — and not just businesses run by women.
“We see a disproportionate amount of women-led deal flow, and we’re definitely keen to invest in women-owned businesses, but we don’t only need women investing in women,” she says. “We need women investing in all businesses where the best return and impact potentials are available. We’re creating a further divide if we’re only investing in women-led companies.”
This article is from the December/January 2020 issue of Douglas.