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Leading the Way: The Birth of SVI Women

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Apply now to SVI Women 2023!

You’re never too old to join a revolution. At the ripe old age of 37, I took on a VP role at the Social Venture Network (now Social Venture Circle), having audaciously applied for the position even though the ad explicitly said, “MBA applicants only.” My bachelor’s degree wasn’t up to snuff for this group, but I thought “what the heck, I have nothing to lose by applying.” At the time, I was quite interested in learning more about socially responsible business and how it could be a catalyst for change. And, as luck would have it, I landed the job. 

SVN had an ambitious agenda back then – let’s face it, when it was founded in 1987, the term “socially responsible business” was not in most peoples’ vernacular. Some of the founders – such as Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s and Wayne Silby, founder of Calvert Investments – were considered fringe and not serious business people. Today, we call these men pioneers and credit them and their cohort for making socially responsible business mainstream. Thank goodness.

Still, the challenge for me at that time was the fact that the network was predominantly male-led and occupied. Now, don’t get me wrong, I admired these men and they were doing extraordinary work, but it was easy to see how much we were losing out on by not having many women and people of color engaged. That experience posed a challenge and an opportunity that instigated a meaningful journey in my commitment to inclusion and diversity in my work, which continues to this day. 

In 2002, my colleague and dear friend Deb Nelson, VP Client and Community Engagement at RSF Social Finance and I were minted as the first female co-leaders of SVN. In our new leadership role, it was clear to us that there were so few spaces within and out of the network for women entrepreneurs to gather, to learn, and to support each other in growing their businesses. Sure, there were many womens’ circles, but this was different – we could sense that the women members of SVN craved more. Having previously participated in Social Venture Institute (SVI) at Hollyhock (a program of the SVC that has since been produced by Hollyhock for the past 25 years), a spark of an idea emerged – what if we hosted SVI just for women-identified leaders? What would be possible? What could we create? Our excitement grew.

One late May afternoon in 2004, women travelled from near and far to the island of Cortes on the coast of the Salish sea in beautiful British Columbia to land at Hollyhock.  Almost immediately, we dropped into a vulnerable and viscerally-felt connected space. It was exciting to see participants dive in quickly to share their honest stories of what it was taking to build and grow their businesses, to see them dig into their financial spreadsheets and ask the scary questions that resulted in them “owning their numbers,” and to see valuable mentorship being offered to one another, especially around the unique challenges they faced as women running businesses. The energy of empowerment and possibility was palpable. 

I can still remember listening to the late Margot Fraser, CEO of Birkenstock, share her story of hope, inspiration, and yes, chronic foot pain which led to her bringing the Birkenstock brand to the USA and the launch of a successful multi-million dollar business. Her story was filled with many plot twists and turns, pain and joy, mistakes and teachings; and every single woman in the room was captivated by the truth that Margot shared. Her story illuminated the possibility and pathway for all women to step in and follow their passion and dreams. Over the course of the next three days, I witnessed an extraordinary amount of generosity, clarity, and support being shared with each other. The tears of joy, grief and laughter flowed freely – the skill building was exponential. 

The SVI model has been a catalyst for change for a quarter of a century now. The stories that have been told, the businesses launched, boards grown, investments made, and learnings shared, have fed and propelled a movement. Today, as we face some of the biggest questions and challenges of our lifetime, this movement of social entrepreneurs, investors, and thought leaders are poised to innovate and create the solutions that we know are so necessary in today’s ever more complex world.

Many things have changed since our first SVI Women gathering in 2004 and some things have stayed the same. It is true that the trend of women-owned businesses across North America is growing and more capital is being shifted to women and entrepreneurs of colour, but sadly, not yet at the pace and quantities that will create the impact and change we so desire. We still have a lot more work to do and the good news is that this is not a solo journey – we can, and we must, do it together.

The 25th Anniversary of SVI at Hollyhock (now virtual) offers an invitation for us to once again come together and be in the right conversations that challenge the status quo. This gathering will generate innovative ideas and business models to address the inequities that we know are crippling us. It is an opportunity for us to move the needle towards a more just and sustainable planet. 

I’m honoured to play a dual role at this upcoming SVI, one as a producer and the other as a partner through SVI Women. My passion for supporting women entrepreneurs runs deep, and over the many years now, SVI has provided one clear pathway to do so. Let’s join together on October 13-16th to reimagine what role our businesses can take in leading the way for the next 25 years!

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Editor: Loretta Laurin

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