The Price of Motherhood: My Goldman Sachs Story

Original drawing by Liza Donnelly in collaboration with Jacki Zehner for SheMoney.

Originally published as part of the SheMoney newsletter on LinkedIn.

The year was 1996 and I had just been made a Partner at Goldman Sachs in New York City. My husband, Greg, was made a Partner that year as well, making us the first Goldman couple to make partner at the same time. I also became the first female trader and youngest woman to achieve this milestone. To the best of my knowledge, I still hold that record 25 years later. I was 32 at the time, and among my partner class, only two of us were women. For additional context, prior to 1996, only nine women had been made a Partner since Goldman’s founding in 1869.* And here is another kicker. I was expecting my first child when I got that life-changing call about my promotion.

As any parent knows, the decision to have children is one of the biggest decisions you will ever make. And it’s not just one decision. It’s a series of seemingly never ending decisions. When to start trying. Do you want more than one child. How many children. When to start trying again. And maybe, again after that. The implications on all aspects of your life are vast, and at this point you might be thinking, “Yeah, we know that captain obvious.” But do we really? Can any of us look back at the decision to become a parent and say, “I had it all figured out.” I think not. And I think this is especially true for women who are also aspiring to have a meaningful career. At the very least, I know this was true for me.

I married my husband, Greg, in 1995, just days after turning 31. Before we got married, we had a lot of talks about what our married life might be like. What we both wanted. We both wanted to have kids (he wanted five, I wanted two), and we both wanted to have meaningful careers. At the time of our engagement, we were both Vice-Presidents at Goldman Sachs, with similar jobs, similar responsibilities, similar work hours, and similar paychecks, which, given that we worked in the financial services as traders, were substantial. However, we had both had modest upbringings, and, well, we were both cheap, to put it bluntly. We were taught that a penny saved was a penny earned, and to try to never have any debt if you could help it. On money issues we were, and remain 26 years later, very much aligned.

After we tied the knot, which, by the way, is a term that I hate, we decided pretty quickly that we should start trying to get pregnant. Although I could not do a simple Google search back then, there were still plenty of resources that told me all about how fertility does drop off with age, and one never knows how long it might take to get pregnant. For me, however, it did not take very long. I vividly remember the two of us reading that pregnancy stick test and immediately thinking, “Heck Yes!!!!” This was then followed very shortly after by a “Heck No!!!!” In all honesty, I had expected it to take some time to get pregnant, but it didn’t. And in that moment, all I could think was HECK YES we were having a baby. But HECK NO it was a partner making year.

Goldman operates on a two year cycle of making partners, and I immediately felt the fear that if I told my manager I was pregnant, that would be the end of any chance I may have had of being made partner. I was barely pregnant, and yet my future suddenly felt immediately different. Out of my control. More vulnerable. And no amount of talking it through prepared me for that feeling. Whether or not someone gets a promotion is almost always subjective, and it is always a ledger game of pros and cons; you vs another person. Now, at the top of my ledger, was PREGNANT FEMALE. And I can guarantee there was no man who had SOON TO BE FATHER on his ledger. For the next few months while my pregnancy was taking hold, and therefore no one knew yet, I struggled with the paradox of feeling both joy and dread.

Luckily, I was not someone who had a lot of morning sickness. I was able to keep my pregnancy a secret until I got through the first trimester where the risk of miscarriage was the highest. But that did not make any of it easy. At the time, Greg was managing the emerging markets trading desk, while I was at the fixed-rate mortgage pass-through desk. My work days would start around 7am when I would arrive at the trading desk at 85 Broad Street, and for the next ten (ish) hours, I would be buying and selling mortgage backed securities on behalf of the firm. I worked alongside amazing traders, salespeople, and clients, and my days were spent processing market-driving news and information and establishing positions to reflect them. It was a very stressful job, but it was also one that I loved very much. And I should note that when I say alongside, I literally mean alongside. Trading floors contain rows upon rows of desks where traders sit at an arm’s length away from each other. It is a very intimate type of job, and you all know each other’s business. As I approached the end of my first trimester, I knew that my time keeping my pregnancy a secret was short-lived.

I should note at this point that I don’t remember any other woman in close proximity to me and/or of a similar seniority being pregnant. In other words, there were virtually no role models for how to be pregnant while being a trader at Goldman Sachs. There were, of course, women at the firm who did have children, many of them salespeople, but at the time it was still very much the exception, not the norm.

Greg and I had a lot of talks before we disclosed the news and prior to the announcement of who would be made partner that year. We had a plan for what would happen if he made partner and I didn’t, and vice versa, because financially speaking, it would have made sense to prioritize the career of the one who made it. However, we really didn’t talk about what would happen if we both made partner, because we thought it was such a long shot. And yet that is exactly what happened. We both got that life-changing call.

So there I was, a new Partner at Goldman Sachs, and becoming more and more visibly pregnant in front of row after row after row of predominantly men. Thankfully, it was pretty much business as usual. Except, of course, for the trips to see clients, which went down, and the trips to the bathroom, which went up. Dramatically. In some ways, the pressure was off. I had made partner. But in other ways, the pressure was even more intense, because I wanted to prove that the firm’s faith in me was not misplaced.

I think this is a good time to mention that I was not a cute little baby bump kind of pregnant woman. I was a “Holy smokes! How can you have such a huge belly?!” kind of pregnant woman. I had been a competitive bodybuilder in my youth, stayed in great shape through my 20s despite my crazy work hours, and yet I still gained 60 pounds over the course of the pregnancy. And it wasn’t just about that number. I don’t think we talk enough about what it is really like to grow a baby, even now. Especially what it is like to do so alongside other people, in my case mostly men, in a professional setting. Day after day of feeling what you are feeling, which is often weird and uncomfortable, and having people endlessly comment on it, touch you, make it either the biggest deal or no deal at all, and everything in between. Yes, it takes a lot of physical energy to make a baby. But there’s also the emotional energy you need to ride the ups and downs of doing so while carrying on like business as usual and having sights on a long and successful career. For some, sure, easy peasy. For others, not so much. I was in the not so much end of the spectrum. I have always been one to journal, and my gosh did I have a lot to say back then. I filled random notebooks full of my fears and doubts, while also capturing the firsts. The first time I felt the baby move. The first time he had hiccups, which was, by the way, while I was doing a presentation to a client.

As the day of my expected delivery drew closer, so did my level of anxiety. Prior to getting pregnant, I barely took a week’s vacation at a time most years, let alone a maternity leave. I was scared. There was no ‘how to’ manual, barely any guidance of any kind from anyone that I can remember. That said, I was so unbelievably supported by the amazing guys on my desk. I was two weeks past due when I finally delivered by emergency c-section, and I worked, or I should say waddled, almost right up to my delivery day. Side note. One of my biggest pet peeves to this day is when people say things like, “Oh, you poor thing. You did not deliver ‘naturally’.” Yes, I was a woman who “failed to progress” and had to have my baby cut out of my stomach while I was strapped down like Jesus on the cross vomiting over my shoulder because I reacted badly to the anesthesia. Think about that language for a moment. Failure to progress. I had a failed natural delivery. It makes my blood boil. But in the end, I delivered my beautiful, big, and healthy child.

Maternity leave ended up being awesome. Minus the whole having to recover from major abdominal surgery while trying to tend to a newborn part of it. My amazing team was doing an incredible job at work, and back then you couldn’t trade from home so it was a real maternity leave. Greg, of course, barely took a day off, as paternity leave was not a thing back then, and likely still isn’t. I loved my time with my child, and I was a newly made Partner of one of the world’s most prestigious investment banks. I still had a lot to prove at work, let alone as a new mom.

When my maternity leave was up, I went back to work, and Greg and I had to figure out how to manage it all. What has always been true for us is the fact that we were always in it together. And what was so unusual about us as a couple was that the economics of our jobs were virtually identical at that point. We both had the same financial ownership of the firm, and we were both, at that time, very committed to having long term careers. That said, wow, did it get hard, and fast. And I say that with full acknowledgement of the extraordinarily privileged position we were in.

We hired a full-time nanny who traveled an hour by train each way to take care of our child for basically 10 hours a day, five days a week. Greg and I worked out a schedule where one of us would try to be home by 6pm on any given day, while the other could work as long as needed, which often included work related dinners. We became masters of scheduling. Like any new parents, we were sleep deprived. And like any working parents, we tried to make the most of every minute we were at home with our son, all the while feeling like it was never enough.

Our nanny was amazing, but sometimes life happened and she was late arriving or had to leave early or was sick or her child was sick, and we, Greg and I, were left scrambling. We did not have any family close by who could help with childcare at that time, and there was no back-up plan other than for us to miss work ourselves. And then there was work travel, both expected and unexpected, especially for Greg as he traded emerging market securities. We would have to take trips to South America, Europe, you name it, and it was beyond exhausting. It did not take long for us to realize that it was not sustainable. We could not be the parents we wanted to be, nor could we be the professionals we were expected to be. We were both struggling. It has no wonder that the vast majority of partners at Goldman were men with stay at home wives.

I remember one day Greg sharing this story with me. He was leaving work at around 6pm and one of the other Partners he reported to stopped him to ask “where the hell he was going?”. Greg responded that it was his turn to relieve the nanny at a reasonable hour, at which point the Partner said to him, “I don’t see my kids, so what makes you think you can see yours?” Greg and I talked about it and it felt like a breaking point. Something had to change.

We talked and talked about what change we could possibly make. Should one of us leave the firm? Neither of us was ready to do so, and it was clear at that point that the firm would go public, likely in the near future. To leave prior to that happening would have been absolutely stupid from a financial point of view. But there were also no guarantees about if and when that would happen. In the end, we decided that just having one day a week more with our child was an option worth asking for. At the time, we didn’t know of any senior professional, let alone a Partner, who had a formal, flexible work arrangement. We thought it would be more likely, and more socially acceptable, for me, as a woman, to ask for the accommodation. I asked for it, somewhat surprisingly got it, and my partner share was reduced accordingly. Having a four day work week instead of a five made a huge difference, and it felt, at least for a while, to be sustainable.

The following year Goldman went public, and as two of the 221 Partners of the firm, it was an absolutely mind blowing experience from a financial point of view. Like any Initial Public Offering, shares are allocated according to the percentage interest that each person holds. In my case, my share was 80% of what it otherwise would have been because of my reduced schedule. I have done the math in terms of what that one day a week for just over a year cost me from a financial perspective, and it was a lot. An unimaginable amount. But we both knew that this would likely be the case when we made that decision and we did it anyway. For us, it was the price of being the type of parents we wanted to be. The alternative would have likely been one of us leaving or having a breakdown, so we felt it was worth it.

Again, I want to stress that I am very aware of the extraordinary and privileged circumstances I am describing. I know that my story of being a mother on Wall Street, especially at that time, was far from the norm, nor do all mothers receive nearly the same level of support that I did, if any at all. But here’s the thing. How many working couples, regardless of where they’re working or how much they’re making, find themselves in a similar position? How many couples find themselves trying to figure out how to be responsible, loving partners and parents in these modern times? Whether it’s struggling to make ends meet day to day, struggling to save and buy a home for their children, saving for their college funds, or wondering how much is enough when the bank account looks solid but that account balance came at the price of countless missed ball games, dance recitals, and birthdays due to work commitments. I would bet that there are very few full-time working parents out there that have not seriously discussed the financial implications of one of them reducing their schedule, leaving work, and measuring that against the cost and workability of child-care options. And what about the parents who must do it on their own as single parents? For them the option is likely not at option to stop working and the job of finding and managing child care solutions falls on a single set of shoulders.

It would be years later, in 2004, that I would read a very long and intense article in The Atlantic, How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement by Caitlin Flanagan, which, being a finance major and not a woman’s studies major, was both enlightening and troubling to say the least. As I sat down to write this piece I went searching for it, because that is how much it has stuck with me all these years. I wish I could summarize all 30 pages of that article for you, but I can’t. Consider reading it. But I will say that it is the title that has stuck with me the most. It spoke to how much professional, working class women depended on other working women, domestic help and nannies, to support their lives and ‘liberation’. Though our time with full-time nannies was short-lived as Greg left Goldman when our second child was born in 2000, Ms Flanagan’s attack on privileged white women for not fully valuing domestic laborers felt personal, despite how well we paid and treated our help. It is currently estimated that nearly 500,000 people, mainly female, work in the childcare profession in the United States, and sadly so many of them do not have access to benefits of any kind, and many find their way in to that work as their only option given challenging life circumstances. Fast forward a few more years and I would meet the incredible Ai-jen Poo, President of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, whose mission is to support and organize nannies, housecleaners and home care workers. All of this helped me to see that I would never be free, achieve anything close to equality on a personal level, if I did not do more to help and support other women on their journey as well. It helped me to see that the personal is truly political, and as a woman with substantial resources, it was on me to try to change the systems that didn’t, and still do not, support working mothers, domestic workers, and women more generally.

For working mothers, parents, life often feels like a game of dodgeball. You spend your days maneuvering around the curveballs of managing child-care while navigating a corporate career, pursuing an entrepreneurial venture, managing a small business, or just holding down a job, while trying to achieve financial and professional stability and achievement. These are struggles that show up in any income and wealth bracket, but certainly most acutely for younger and lower income families and single parent households. Especially for single mothers.

I remember thinking when I was a new mom, and I believe it is still true now, that mothers are the giant dumping ground for mostly useless advice and conflicting messages. We are told that there is no more important job in the world than being a mother, and yet the lack of policies and practices that support motherhood, from paid maternity leave to affordable childcare options, makes it clear that motherhood is not valued at all. The pressure to raise ‘great kids’ falls disproportionately on the shoulders of mothers, and mothers are both celebrated and shamed for their choices when they attempt to prioritize the well-being of their children over their own, or vice versa. There should be a book that is called, No Way to Win: Motherhood in America.

That said, there are more than a few books that get at the heart of this problem. Books like The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? by Leslie Bennetts (2007), which sounds the alarm about the financial risk women take when they leave the workforce once they start a family. There’s Forget “Having It All”: How America Messed Up Motherhood–And How to Fix It by Amy Westervelt (2018), who astutely notes that while the US may claim to revere motherhood, we treat mothers like crap. There is also  The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued by Anne Crittenden (2010), which describes how mothers are systematically disadvantaged by society, especially single mothers and/or mothers of color. And finally, a new addition to this esteemed list, Ambitious Like a Mother: Why Prioritizing Your Career is Good For Your Kids by Lara Bazelon (2022), which pulls at the seemingly timeless threads of the many ways our culture makes it all so darn hard to be a mom and have a secure financial situation. And beyond the books there are countless reports that present research on the costs of not valuing motherhood and what policies and practices that, if in place, would lead to significant social and economic gains. Taken together what is presented is a rather dark picture of the many realities of modern motherhood.

There is no denying that having a child is expensive, and the more every prospective parent acknowledges it and plans for it, the better. It is estimated that it currently costs about $233,610 to raise a child in the US through to the age of 17, meaning this number doesn’t include the cost of sending your child to college. It also doesn’t account for the fact that due to skyrocketing living costs, children are moving out much later in life than previous generations, with about 50% of Millennials having returned home at least once by the time they’re 27. But the financial implications of having children are much bigger than the actual costs you are likely to include. There’s the gender wage gap to consider, meaning that mothers have to work longer and harder to provide for their children. And then there’s the infuriating statistic that overall, a woman’s income decreases by 4% once they become a mother, whereas a man’s income increases by 6% when he becomes a father.

But all of those stats don’t come close to telling the full story. It is no secret that on average, women of color and/or single mothers have it so much harder. Nearly 80% of single parent households are run by single mothers, and nearly a third of them live in poverty. Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. And being a mother is the single greatest predictor of bankruptcy and poverty in the US. Now imagine the emotional, physical, and psychological toll that all of these issues (and so many more) take on a day-to-day basis. No wonder more and more women are looking at motherhood and saying, “No thanks”.

I think we can all agree that a child, our child, our children, are priceless. Having children has been one of the single greatest joys of my life, so I would never want to discourage anyone from having children of their own. Maybe next year, in honor of Mother’s Day, I will write a perky piece where I only tell you the upbeat stuff about being a mom. But that is not this piece. This is SheMoney and my goal with this newsletter is to share my personal experiences, advice from experts, and facts. Lots of facts. Yes I chose to be a mom, and I feel strongly that being a mother should not be seen as the be-all and end-all for being a woman. Further, if you choose to become a mom you should have your eyes wide open about the implications. What I hope for, and will work for, is greater awareness around the potential financial costs of motherhood, as well as for better policies and practices to support mothers and families. It cannot be denied that there are huge costs and consequences of having a child, especially for women. Financial costs, yes, but also less tangible and potentially more insidious costs. My story is from my experience in America, as are most of the resources and data cited, a country which ranks 28th in terms of work-life balance. As I hit publish on this article I am sitting in a hotel room in Copenhagen, Denmark, a country which ranks the highest . Walking around this beautiful city today I can see and feel the difference.

When I sat down to write this special Mother’s Day edition of the newsletter I had no idea I was going to share my story in the way that I did above, including a full belly pregnancy photo. It’s just what fell onto the page. What writing this has helped me to realize is that I have rarely been asked about my journey as a mom, except in the most superficial ways, and I have barely asked others. Looking back, I wish I was more forthcoming about my challenges, and I can only hope that today’s new parents are more free to do so. What I see amongst many of my friends and work colleagues who have babies and younger children is a greater sharing of responsibilities with their partners, less gendered expectations of who does what, more willingness to change careers when things are not working, and more realistic expectations of what is possible. Words like ‘work-life balance’ and ‘having it all’ are starting to be replaced with phrases like ‘juggling act’ and ‘making it work’, which are steps in the right direction. We have so much work to do to change the narrative and we can all play a role in doing so. And, as an investor, I also know that there are more and more companies sprouting up every day that are bringing innovative solutions to the many, many, many challenges faced by working parents today.   And, it is up to all of us to champion for, and vote for, better policies that more fully support families.

In closing, I want to say Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms reading this right now. And if you are not a mom, you likely know a few, so why not send them a little extra love on May8th. I am lucky enough to have an extraordinary mother named Rose to whom I could not be more grateful. My mom worked outside the home to support our family and I always felt loved, valued, and supported. She really did ‘do it all’ and somehow made it look easy, even though I am quite sure it was not. I was raised to believe that I not only could I have a career and be a mom, but should, while respecting that my choices might not be other women’s choices. She raised me to be a woman that supports other women, and I’ve done my best to make her proud. I also have to give a shout out to all the amazing women and moms that have been there to love and support me on my mothering journey. You know who you are, and I love you. We are in this, together.

*This information is based on my memory, and has not been verified by anyone at Goldman Sachs.

Financial Feminism: Invest, Give, Spend

A cartoon of three women. One is sitting on an arrow trending upwards. One is holding a big red heart above her head. One is sitting on a pile of money bills.
Original Cartoon by Liza Donnelly

As published as SheInvests Newsletter #12 on LinkedIn.

I started this newsletter almost a year ago after writing almost 800 entries on my personal blog and over 160 articles for LinkedIn. At the time, I said that my goal for the SheInvests newsletter was to try and help women take charge of their financial lives, but with a particular focus on investing. However, over this past year, that focus has shifted slightly, because financial engagement is so much bigger than investing. There are countless ways that we can use our financial resources in alignment with our values in the buckets of spending, giving, and investing. And when we do so to not only advance the economic well-being of ourselves as women, and to also advance the economic well-being of other women, I call that financial feminism. In fact, I wrote a whole article about this idea last year in which I declared that finance is the next frontier of feminism.* It was published before I started this newsletter and traces my 20 history as it relates to understanding the economic impact of empowering females.

Feminism; noun: belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.

As it turns out, I am not the only one who has been putting these two words together. The theory of feminist economics has been around for decades, going back to the 1960s when women like Jane Jacobs and Betsy Warrior began writing about the idea that traditional women’s labour, both paid and unpaid, is undervalued and disrespected in modern economic systems. In 1994, the peer reviewed journal Feminist Economics was launched, and in recent years, the term financial feminism has gone mainstream. Just this year, a book was published by Jessica Robinson, titled Financial Feminism: A Woman’s Guide to Investing for a Sustainable Future. Not only did I read this book and loved it, but I recently had the opportunity to talk about it with Jessica prior to ShePlace‘s second LinkedIn Live event that will be happening this Wednesday, July 14th, at 10AM MT / 12PM ET. (Click on the invite below to schedule a reminder for yourself to join!)

A save the date graphic with headshots of Jacki Zehner, Olga Miler, and Jessica Robinson

For Jessica, the context of financial feminism is that of financial equality for women. As she puts it, “to be a financial feminist is to believe that women have a right to financial equality. But it also requires that one talks, acts, and advocates to make this happen. For ALL women.” Let’s just say that that gets a huge heck yes from me! Jessica goes on to outline how we all can do this, and it’s just too good not to share.

  1. View our financial health in the same way that we view self-care, in that it’s really important for our long-term well-being. So make it a priority and encourage other women in your life to do the same.
  2. Push for change in the workplace, especially when female employees are not being treated in the same way as male colleagues. Don’t be silent, call it out. Of course, this has a lot to do with pay parity, but it also relates to other company policies, including parental leave, flexible working hours, and bonus and pension schemes.
  3. Talk about money until it is no longer considered a taboo. Be open about it with girlfriends, sisters, daughters, and mothers. Empower one another by sharing your knowledge and experience, and encourage each and every woman you know to take control and talk openly about the challenges they face.
  4. Use your wealth to support other women. This is about gender-lens investing, and specifically, the gender and racial funding gap. We should all know the numbers by now, and I would hope that we all agree that they are grossly unfair and unjust, so let’s do something about it. Today.

I should note that when I spoke to Jessica, she emphasized that financial feminism is not just about getting women to invest more. There are so many ways that women can use their money for good, and financial feminism is about empowering women to invest in the type of future they want to build. This really resonated with me, because I see money as a tool. A building tool. A tool for creation. The world we live in today, with all of the current structures that may or may not be working; they are all in place because money and people with money built them that way. And I hope that there is little need to regurgitate all the ways that these structures are not working for the majority of people. It is not my opinion that we are currently far away from anything close to gender and racial equity. It is fact. But I hope that more and more each day, people will see money as the tool and path to change. I will be writing more about this framework of gender impact investing, spending and giving and how it provides us all with action steps.

Financial Feminism is a fantastic book, because it doesn’t just delve into the why, but also the how. It is full of practical resources, tools, and steps for how you can better direct your money for good. If you are looking for a place to start your journey in investing for a more just and equitable world, you can find it here as well as in the link below. And if you are already on this journey but would like to go deeper, you will find that in this book as well. There is something for everyone to learn, and I’m grateful to Jessica for continuing the conversation about the importance of financial feminism. I’m also thrilled that she agreed to speak with me for this week’s ShePlace online event.

Jessica and I will be joined by Olga Miler, who I profiled last fall in my very first SheInvests newsletter. Olga is the co-founder of SmartPurse and a financial powerhouse in her own right, and she and Jessica have done many talks together all over Europe. Olga has also recently released her first LinkedIn Newsletter titled ‘Money’s Impact’, which I encourage you to read, subscribe and share. This LinkedIn Live will be quite the international affair, as Olga is based in Switzerland, Jessica is in Dubai, and I will be joining from Utah. I hope you can join us as well for what will surely be a fired up and inspiring conversation.

Side by side headshots of Olga Miler and Jessica RobinsonAn image of the cover of Financial Feminist by Jessica Robinson

*Once again a shout out to my friend Ruth Ann Harnisch for “Finance is the new frontier of Feminism”

Thanks to Liza Donnelly for the original drawing for ShePlace and SheInvests.

She Invests #6 – You Need to Know About SheEO!

Welcome to She Invests, a monthly newsletter on women, money, and investing. This is newsletter #6! If you have not seen the first five yet, please click herehere, here, here, and here. Thank you for reading and sharing. So far 15,000+ subscribers and I thank you all! If someone is sending this to you, please subscribe.

Take a minute to answer this question. Do you think the world’s financial and economic systems are working? Yes, that is a very big question, but just take a minute to really think about it. If you think the answer might be yes, let me offer you a few statistics to ponder from right here in the United States. The US has the highest economic inequality of all the G7 nations, and in 2019, income inequality was at its highest point in 50 years. Between 1989 and 2016, the wealth gap between America’s richest and poorest families has doubled, and the top 5% of wealthy families are the only income bracket to have increased their wealth since the Great Recession. So my answer to my opening question is no, heck no, and while I personally have benefitted from these broken and biased systems, it is also my work in the world to help change them. Vast economic and social inequality is certainly nothing new, so the question becomes, what can be done about it? And if you are a person who really cares and wants to build something, particularly a financial services something, based on radically different values, what does that look like? 

Well, it looks like Vicki Saunders and SheEO. Vicki is the Founder of SheEO, and she is someone who has spent a lifetime noticing how messed up everything is. And then she actually goes and does something about it. In creating SheEO, she set about creating an entirely new economic model; one that is rooted in the potential of community connections. One that focuses on creating the environments and cultures that allow people the opportunity to thrive. 

A photo of SheEO founder Vicki Saunders smiling directly into the camera.

This newsletter is dedicated to looking at the fields of finance and investing with a gender lens, so doing a profile piece on this amazing woman is right on mission. And let me be clear, there will be an ask at the end, because making an ask is one of the things that Vicki believes in. In fact, she will not end a call, including the one we had, without making one.  

So to begin with, who is Vicki Saunders? She’s Canadian (#soamI ) and her pronouns are she/her. She is an entrepreneur, award-winning mentor, advisor to the next generation of change-makers, and leading advocate for entrepreneurship as a way of creating positive transformation in the world. She also happens to be one of the most quotable people I have ever met, and she started our conversation with a doozy. 

“Every 400 years there’s a reboot of what we as a society value, and guess what Adam Smith? The era of self interest is over.” 

Who is Adam Smith you might ask? Heis primarily known for a single work, The Wealth of Nations (1776), which included Smith’s description of a system of market-determined wages. He is credited with being the father of capitalism, which, no surprise, Vicki does not think is working, because it is fundamentally based on the pursuit of self-interest. So if this new and better world she aspires towards is not based on self interest, what is it based on? “Easy,” she answered. “It’s based on Radical Generosity.”

Radical Generosity is the simple (but sadly still radical) idea that we should all be kinder to ourselves and to others. “There are no power words for being kind,” Vicki laments. And believe me, this woman is all about power. “Everything in finance and business revolves around sports or war metaphors. You ‘killed’ it. You ‘crushed’ it. You ‘nailed’ it. Where are the words for being kind and generous?” Matching words like generosity and kindness with capital and funding? Revolutionary. As Vicki describes it, Radical Generosity is a very personal concept, and will manifest differently for every person. The scale of it doesn’t matter. It’s about starting where you are, and then doing a little bit more for both yourself and others.

When it comes to the current economic model, Vicki’s assessment is extremely blunt. “Everything we invest in to make money creates inequality.” My argumentative radar went up with that claim, but when I challenged her, she was quick to say, “Think about it”. And I am. She went on to talk about how over 90% of most countries’ economies are made up of small and medium sized businesses. In the US it’s 90%, and in Canada it’s 98%. Take that in for a minute. The lifeblood of our economies flows through these businesses. If we want to care for people, we need to care about the wellbeing of these types of businesses, in all their forms. And yet the dominant narrative continues to focus on venture capital (VC) funding and unicorn (companies that reach a billion dollar valuation) companies. A disproportionate amount of time, attention, and money goes towards trying to find the next Bumble (shout out to Whitney Wolfe Herd!), but as you already know from my last article about the Cheerios, this system of allocation capital is riddled with bias and inequities.

These past couple of months I have been catching up with the founders of my 17 portfolio companies, and I have seen in real time how this narrative plays out. All of them have taken in investment capital in a traditional way, and for many, it simply is not working given the nature of their businesses. This is a topic for a separate article, but for now, just take my word for it. Vicki is spot on. 

So if traditional venture capital does not work for up to 99% of businesses, and if you are not a white male with a powerful bro network to get access to capital, how exactly do you get the support you need to grow your business? Where is the help you actually need, keeping in mind that this may not just be financial help? Enter the SheEO model. 

SheEO is a global community of radically generous women building a $1Billion perpetual fund to support women working on the World’s To-Do List.

In keeping with her theory of creating new language to create new behaviours, SheEO is not backed by investors. “Women don’t tend to see themselves as investors. We wanted a different mindset coming into SheEO, so we call you an Activator,” Vicki explains. Activators contribute $92/month or $1,100/year into SheEO’s perpetual fund. You do not get that capital back, so it is in effect a donation, but you won’t find the word ‘charitable’ in the language of SheEO. There are currently over 6,000 Activators who all have resources to share. And again, not just financial resources. They share every available resource at their disposal, including their time, networks, and knowledge.

Companies, on the other hand, are called Ventures, and they must meet one basic requirement. All Ventures must in some way be working on the World’s To Do list. In other words, how is this Venture changing the world? Once again, Vicki is brutally honest in her assessment of our current economic reality. “Not a single penny should go towards things that aren’t on the world’s to do list. In order to be accepted at SheEO, a Venture has to be able to articulate how they are changing the world for the better by solving one of the world’s to do items.” SheEO is currently using the UN’s SDGs for this criteria, but they are working on creating a more expansive and inclusive model of just what exactly is the world’s to do list.

So how does SheEO work? Every year, Ventures that are women-identifying majority owned and led apply to the program, and Activators vote in two rounds to determine which Ventures are selected. A number of Ventures are selected each year based on the number of Activators, and the selected Venture leaders are brought together to decide how to divide up the money. The two rules for doing so? You can’t give it all to one (no winner takes all) and they can’t just divide it up evenly. Coaches and mentors are on hand to support the Venture leaders through the negotiation, and once the pot has been divvied up, Ventures have five years to pay back the money at 0% interest. The money is then loaned out to the next cohort, and so on and so on, with all Ventures collectively being responsible for repayment.

To date, SheEO has a 95% successful repayment rate, and Vicki credits this to the shift in collective thinking when it comes to which Ventures to fund. “The number one question we ask Activators is, ‘Would you buy or recommend this product to others?’ Some Activators look at the financials and some don’t, and we don’t worry about that. No one really knows how to pick a winner. We trust the intuition of hundreds of women to vote. Collective intelligence has been proven to work better than experts, so we go with it and it’s served us well. Remember, women control 85% of all purchasing decisions. If women get behind something, the probability is high that it will work.” I nearly did a fist bump when Vicki said this, because it’s exactly what I’ve been saying for years. Women’s purchasing power is one of the greatest untapped potentials for enacting social change. To hear it being used to dismantle structural financial inequity made me want to whoop with joy.

SheEO is also unique in the way it approaches Activator/Venture relationships. As Vicki notes, Activators are not getting their money back, meaning it removes the conditions that exist, often to the detriment of companies, in traditional investor relations. “We believe that the innovator at the helm of these Ventures should set the rules. Activators are not here to set parameters for your Venture. Instead, when you walk into SheEO, you inherit an army of people ready to help and support you in any way they can, on your own terms.”

To say that SheEO is an innovative organization would be the understatement. Financial innovation is at the heart of everything they do. They are disrupting systems both literally and more figuratively. When it comes to traditional investment, SheEO is forcing a collective shift in thinking, and forcing Activators to re-examine what actually matters when making decisions.

Today, SheEO is announcing its next US cohort, and Vicki is proud to note that 24.2% of all applicants were Black and 44% were BIPOC. SheEO has been working hard to establish relationships and trust with marginalized communities, and she credits the testimonials of two previous Venture leaders, Kai Frazier and Wakumi, as helping to open the floodgates of applicants. In particular, there was a 46% increase in Black applicants, and after two rounds of voting among thousands of Activators, all five Ventures of the new cohort are Black. I just met all the founders on a ZOOM call and holy moly! I can’t wait to dig in and offer them additional support as they are all looking for champions, business connects, capital and more.

Listed below (and pictured above) are the winning companies and I encourage you to check them all out. If you feel compelled to try to do something, anything, to help these founders succeed, just do it! Reach out to them directly.

  1. Courtroom 5 – Sonja Ebron – https://courtroom5.com/ – Automated legal toolbox for people in court without a lawyer (SDG targets #10.2 & 16.2)
  2. Mahkers studio – Wanona Satcher – https://makhersstudio.com/ – Green manufacturing and design-build firm that specializes in unique modular shipping container real estate. (SDG targets 11.1 + 9.4)
  3. 100K incubator – Arielle Loren Palmer – https://100kincubator.com/ – The first business funding app for women in Apple and Google’s app stores (SDG targets #1.4 & 9.3)
  4. COI Energy – SaLisa Berrien – https://coienergyservices.com/ – Energy management platform that detects, prevents and eliminates energy waste in buildings to improve efficiency and provide marginalized communities with equitable access to clean energy solutions (SDG Targets 7.1, 11.6, 12.5).
  5. Brown Toy Box – Terri-Nichelle Bradley – https://www.browntoybox.com/ – Children’s educational products company that centers and celebrates Black children to expand ideas of possibilities for their lives (SDG target #4.4 & 10.2)

SheEO is currently operating and supporting cohorts in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, but Vicki knows that this model is easy to replicate in countries around the world. And you’d better believe that’s her goal. “Every single country is in deep trouble when it comes to figuring out how to get money into the hands of small and medium sized businesses, the engines of their economy,” she says. “That’s why we want to scale up and replicate the model in every country. All you need is to find the right people who are locally connected and our model works. At the end of the day, we want to find the innovation and spread it globally as soon as possible. That’s how real change will happen.”

As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, I am an Activator with SheEO. I believe wholeheartedly in the model and Vicki’s vision for disrupting power systems in the financial systems. At one point in our call, Vicki mentioned that she wanted to start her own bank in order to reinvent the system, and all I can say is that I hope she does exactly that one day. In the meantime, I urge you to check out SheEO, and if you can, please consider becoming an Activator. SheEO aims to create a $1B perpetual fund through 1M Activators that will change the course of women owned and led ventures for generations to come. That’s an incredible legacy, and more importantly, community, to be a part of for just $92/month.

It is easy to do nothing. It is also easy to do something. Why not let today be the day you do something? You may have been thinking “what can I do to economically support women, and in particular women of color, in a real and tangible way?” Well this is one option. Just do it. And if you do join, please let me know in that comment section. And.. thank you.

“We are never going to fund more women if women don’t start writing the checks. But if we can change the process, we can change the outcomes. At SheEO, we are not here to win. We are here to transform.”