The following piece was written by the playwright Alana Valentine, who attended and observed the first Inclusion2 luncheon that took place mid-2018.
‘If you were surrounded by radically generous people,’ asked Vicki Saunders, founder of the entrepreneur organization SheEO, ‘how would you act differently? Would you be bolder, would you step out in faith a little bit more? I think we’re living in a highly unforgiving environment and period and we’ve all learned to keep ourselves small because of it.’
The nine diverse women gathered around the table took a moment to swallow a mouthful of white-plated smoked salmon, some reached discreetly for the stem of the wine glass to take a long sip. Among them was an executive from Twitter, a music producer, an electrical engineer, a cyber-security expert, and a tech-startup entrepreneur working with the City of Sydney as well as Warren Centre board and staff members. When I, a working playwright, was invited to join the Inclusion2 luncheon of fledgling female entrepreneurs, I think I imagined that it would be a kind of private motivational enclave, a spur to be more aggressive, more focussed, perhaps even more ruthlessly ambitious. But here I was not being encouraged to be more combative or even resourceful, but instead to be more supportive and allow myself to believe in survival of the benevolent.
So far, so starry-eyed. But when Ms Saunders went on to describe not only how she is backing this theory with philanthropic investment but how the funds themselves are distributed to novice businesswomen, I saw the women around the table quietly put down their cutlery and focus on the proceedings with rapt attention.
‘What we do is bring together 500 women, we call them activators, and they contribute $1100 each that is pooled together and then loaned out at low interest to 5 women-led Ventures selected by the Activators,’ she explained. ‘Once these ventures have been selected we get the five business-women together, we teach them how to subvert their own usual style of interacting, that is, we teach the women who don’t usually act in a demanding way to be more assertive, and the women who are very assertive to be more magnanimous. Then we put them in a room together and ask them to divide up the funds we have raised. The only rule is that they cannot give all the money to one woman and they cannot divide the money equally.’
As a serial entrepreneur – by her definition ‘completely unemployable by anyone else’ – Saunders now had the room eating out of her hand, disarming us with her analysis of the current state of world ‘Everything is broken,’ she declared, triumphantly, ‘what a great time to be alive. This is a deep moment of disruption and I’m very excited about womens’ role in redesigning the world.’
And that’s when it happened. That moment, in any really successful lunch gathering of strangers, when it feels like the formality and the containment of the preceding half hour changes. I call it the moment when ‘the lid comes off’ and the things that people really want to say to each other, really need to say, despite a sense of caution and discretion, are spoken aloud. It’s like a wonderful boxful of birds all begin to cheep and chirp and trill and warble at once in a song of chaotic passion and beauty. Questions followed in fast succession – about cultural diversity, about generational change, about visions for the future. Soberingly one woman talked about the percentage of businesses owned and run by women around the world (she quoted 38%) but who get procurement opportunities only one percent of the time to pitch for new business to big supply chains including government and the corporate sector.
‘Sixty percent of the innovators I speak to talk about process innovations not product innovations,’ adds Vicki Saunders, ‘female entrepreneurs see systems wholistically. We see inefficient systems and we want to redesign them. But the language women use to describe the ways of changing those systems doesn’t fit easily into the entrepreneurship models that are currently part of those systems. So we have to find a way to capitalize them ourselves.’
So we talked, we connected, we drank, we dreamed. One visionary woman gave us a model for the kind of executive revolution we might create and many women spoke with courage about their hopes for the future. At the end of the lunch we all stood up and gathered eagerly for a group photo. This time, we all fit into a single frame of the phone camera’s eager lens. ‘But next time, in the years ahead’, said the young woman beside me, ‘let’s hope they’ll have to use landscape mode to capture all the female entrepreneurs who we have seed-funded.’ If change always begins with a small group of highly-motivated individuals, then the Inclusion2 program may soon see Inclusion3, or more.