For our #MoneyCrushMonday series, we interview women who are forging unique paths in business and entrepreneurship AND making room for other women at the top. Shelley Kuipers, the co-founder of The51, and a businesswoman who has founded several other companies, embodies both. The51 is a Calgary-based feminist investment and venture capital platform that deploys women’s capital to invest in women-owned innovations. Btchcoin founder Claire Porter Robbins and writer Srivindhya Kolluru interviewed Shelley to learn more about women and venture capital, and how the51 plans to shake up the game.
What sets The51 apart from other VC firms in Canada and Alberta?
The51 is very much different – we’re activating women’s capital. Only four percent of venture capital (VC) goes to women in Canada. Our hypothesis is when the system is largely being managed by men, and the capital going into the system is largely men’s capital, you’re going to invest in men. We’re not criticizing that, we’re saying this is a huge economic opportunity for both investors and entrepreneurs. At least 90 percent of our capital comes from women, and the group running the fund is led by women, looking to invest in women-led companies and women-led innovations. We’re coming up with a system that is looking to fill a gap that is not being filled by the market currently.
In a traditional fund structure you’d have a management fee and a carry fee, the carry is what the managers of the fund take for success only, usually around 20 percent. What we are committing to doing is that we will allocate a percentage of our upside back into the nonprofit arm of the51, where we embark on community initiatives like the University of Calgary Financial Feminism Investment Lab, and other causes that advance the financial feminism movement.
What are barriers for women in Canada specifically in accessing capital?
On the entrepreneur side: we need to create a pipeline of women that are innovating companies that are going to be large-scale. There hasn’t been a lot of women that have done that in Canada before. Once women see other women pursuing entrepreneurship, they get inspired too. We need more role models, we need more infrastructure and support and championship to develop high growth companies.
The world has been designed by men for men; women are redesigning what they want to see in the world. If you think about healthcare for example, women have an enormous opportunity to redesign different solutions and experiences for healthcare, because those systems haven’t been designed by them, for them. That’s where growth is going to come.
On the Investor side, a lot of women can speak from personal experience that if there is an investment opportunity, it’s likely their husband will be approached first, they’re not being invited in. The51 is trying to create an invitation for that participation. Again, we don’t have a ton of role models of women who have invested in high growth companies. Because women have influence in their capital and our spending, women will direct our capital and our spending to the things we want to see in the world.
So there’s an influence from the entrepreneur side and the investor side, and even from the [women’s] consumer side. Women are going to be at the forefront of the building solutions.
What is it like to be part of a startup ecosystem in Alberta at a time when people are looking to move the economy beyond oil and gas?
The venture community is really important during this transition. Venture investors are high risk investors, looking to invest in things that are “far out”, so the venture community is enormously necessary and required in the Alberta environment right now. As much as we can do to drive (economic) diversification in Alberta, we’re going to do that. Venture investors want to invest to get a return and to invest in companies that are hugely scalable.
What advice would you give to someone who’s in university now or has recently graduated about a career in VC? What did your path look like?
Read a ton — there is so much free content out there and so many communities being built around VC, and lots of interesting online events that can help you learn more and network. Follow great people on Twitter, look for newsletters like PitchBook, [and]ffer to help startups and VCs.
Another great way to get involved is through venture funds’ labs or studios beside the fund. — that’s a great place to get experience because you’ll have the opportunity to see what kind of ventures get funded. I know many venture groups do internships.
There are lots of different programs to apply your skill sets.I think it’s a combination of knowing what’s coming, and coupled with knowing what’s actually required for an idea to be executed.
It’s important to be able to look at an idea and think about how it can be even better or even bigger. And if you’re on the venture side, you need to have the discipline of knowing whether or not an idea can be fully executed by the team presenting it.
We’re all on board with more women in VC and more women in economics, but we noticed most of the women on the51 are white women. What are you doing to change that?
I really appreciate that question and I’m glad you asked that head on. Just like we’ve ridiculed the guys for having their white men club, we’re extremely worried about duplicating that. In this time of COVID and following Black Lives Matter, we’ve realized we need to hold ourselves to a better account, and that our [lack of diversity] is unacceptable.
So, this summer we put out a call for a community council, and got a ton of responses. The whole goal is to drive diversity and inclusion across our team, across our investment opportunities, and across our portfolio, and where our capital comes from. And finally, how are we making sure that the innovations and the experiences that we are developing are really representative?
We know that we’re not good enough. We recognize and acknowledge that and we said that out loud to the market.
We’re looking forward to seeing the recommendations the Community Council puts forward for our Board this December. That’s still not good enough, but those are the steps we’ve taken so far and will continue to build on.
What do you see for The51 in 5 years, 10 years?
We see ourselves as a financial platform. The fund is just a product that we are delivering to the market, we have many more products and services that we want to bring to market. We plan to be a formidable financial platform designed by women, for women. We have big plans.