Eleven hundred dollars might not sound like much in the world of business where balance sheets can lay out figures in the millions.

But in the last year it has changed lives.

Last October, 432 New Zealand businesswomen each put $1100 into a pool that was then used to offer interest-free, five-year loans to five women-led businesses with revenue of between $50,000 and $2 million.

SheEO, which began in Canada before going global, has helped not only the chosen recipients — which in its first year ranged from a catering business employing former refugees to a long-running free-access website on skin conditions used by millions worldwide — but also people in their communities. New jobs and contracts were created by the capital injection.

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Former Telecom chief executive, and founder of several businesses, Theresa Gattung, encouraged SheEO founder Vicki Saunders to bring the concept to New Zealand after hearing the Canadian speak at a women's conference in San Francisco three years ago.

Gattung, now the New Zealand lead for SheEO, instantly related to the challenges women face in securing venture capital for their businesses.

"I know how hard it is for women, I know the leadership model is seen as white and male ... it's harder for [others] to be seen, heard and chosen.

"It isn't anti-men, it's just women helping other women."

There are no statistics in New Zealand but in the United States only 4 per cent of funding from private investors goes to female-led businesses, Gattung says.

"I see nothing to suggest it's any different anywhere else."

Those who contributed to the fund, called activators, came from all over the country and from businesses large and small.

The size of the contribution, $1100 minus $100 for costs, makes it accessible to a wider range of people.

Some of those who gave also applied to be recipients of the loans. They supported the concept even if they weren't chosen, Gattung says.

Being part of the initiative also connects women in business with hundreds of potential mentors and supporters.

"That's part of the magic that happens. You are part of a community."

Gattung hopes to increase the number of contributors to 500 this year, and six businesses will be chosen to share the capital raised, which by custom is split in different proportions — based on need — by mutual agreement of the recipients.

The aim is also for the fund to be perpetual, so many more can benefit in the future, she says.

Here we talk to the first five recipients of the SheEO fund in New Zealand and find out what it has meant to their business.

'It's changed everything for us'

Chilvi Konanayakam, left, Rebecca Stewart and Claudia Gray at Pomegranate Kitchen, set up to help former refugees into the work force. Photo / Marty Melville
Chilvi Konanayakam, left, Rebecca Stewart and Claudia Gray at Pomegranate Kitchen, set up to help former refugees into the work force. Photo / Marty Melville

Rebecca Stewart was working for the Red Cross when she met the women.

They were former refugees, trying to make a life in a new country and they couldn't get a break.

"They really wanted to work but couldn't get a foot in the door, they didn't have [formal] experience, there were language barriers," Stewart says.

She decided to help women in the same circumstances, opening Pomegranate Kitchen in Wellington with Ange Wither and hiring women who had come to New Zealand as refugees.

Two years on, seven women — from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka — are employed part-time to cook Middle Eastern food for Pomegranate Kitchen's catering clients.

A year ago the social enterprise, a registered charity which operates like a business, was among ventures chosen for SheEO support.

That allowed them to hire a head chef and some part-time sales and administration staff, freeing her to look into product development and events that can help the business continue to grow, Stewart says.

"It's been wonderful. It's really changed everything for us."

Meanwhile, she continues to learn from the women who had come into her life through the toughest of circumstances.

"I've always been really impressed by their resilience and their flexibility in coming to this new country. They really just want to make the best of it."

Loan offers skin in the game

Emily Oakley, left, and her mum Dr Amanda Oakley. The mum and daughter run DermNet, a website database of skin conditions founded by Amanda in 1996. Photo / Supplied
Emily Oakley, left, and her mum Dr Amanda Oakley. The mum and daughter run DermNet, a website database of skin conditions founded by Amanda in 1996. Photo / Supplied

Before Google, dermatologist Amanda Oakley decided to start her own website on skin conditions.

The Hamilton-based doctor, who was named a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in June, taught herself how to code and in 1996 DermNet was launched.

Twenty-two years on and the website is among the two or three top online resources for doctors worldwide treating skin problems, Oakley's daughter, Emily Oakley, says.

The 31-year-old has been helping with the website since she was 12, and now manages it alongside her mother.

Tap in the website's address and the duo's efforts and those of various staff — they employ 12 part-time — and hundreds of volunteers over the last 22 years are clear.

The Topics A-Z tab alone lists hundreds of conditions, each opening to a page of information written by a medical professional and reviewed by two others.

The free resource was originally targeted at patients, but many doctors now also use it, Oakley says.

"It's just become more and more popular," Emily Oakley says.

SheEO's loan will soon be put to use to help continue the work her mum started, by making sure DermNet is sustainable.

"Professionally, it's about keeping the right people [contributing to the website]. That's very important for us."

There are also plans to support investigations of machine learning — where machines are developed to recognise conditions such as skin cancer.

SheEO's other asset, the hundreds of fellow women in business working together to help each other, will also likely soon be tapped after Google's changing algorithm badly hit their website visitor numbers, which previously hovered at 2 million a month.

Someone from the fellowship of women in business might know a solution, Oakley says.

"For me, that was the most exciting part [of being chosen]. There's money everywhere, but that connection and the mentorship is completely unique."

'It gives you confidence'

Memory Foundation managing director Gillian Eadie, left, with director Dr Allison Lamont. The sisters are helping people retain and regain memory. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Memory Foundation managing director Gillian Eadie, left, with director Dr Allison Lamont. The sisters are helping people retain and regain memory. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Auckland sisters Gillian Eadie and Dr Allison Lamont have spent the last decade training people's brains.

They just want to help people, Eadie says of the Memory Foundation they run offering a network of brain fitness coaches, books and plans to stem the effects of ageing on the brain.

Eadie, a former principal of Auckland's Corran School and Wellington's Samuel Marsden Collegiate School, says the venture was spurred by Lamont's postgraduate doctoral degree research into age-related memory loss across the life span.

"From 45 years old onwards the memory changes, biologically speaking... but we can overcome the effects of that. What we are doing is trying to help people in the community, particularly in the 50-plus age group. Strategies need to be in place."

Spreading the message was now much easier, thanks to SheEO.

They were now more commercially focused and better able to tackle the challenges of hosting websites and keeping resources free for the community.

There was also the impact that comes from other people putting their faith in you, Eadie says.

"That confidence it gives when, out of 100 who applied, you are chosen... that people believe in what you're doing."

Finding healing in nature

Dot Kettle, left, and Georgia Richards on their peony farm in Dovedale, near Nelson. Photo / Supplied
Dot Kettle, left, and Georgia Richards on their peony farm in Dovedale, near Nelson. Photo / Supplied

Dot Kettle and Georgia Richards were juggling high-pressure city jobs and expecting their third child when they decided to take a chance on a new life in the country.

Kettle, a lawyer who previously worked as a top advisor to former Prime Minister Helen Clark, and Richards, who ran an IT consultancy, bought a 40-hectare block in Dovedale, south of Nelson, without knowing what they would do with it.

Then a relative told them he was selling his peony tubers. Neither woman had any horticultural background, but soon they were planting 10,000 tubers, Kettle says.

They'd seen research showing root extracts of the flower were used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine for skin problems such as eczema, from which their own children suffered.

Pure Peony — creams, soaps and shampoos made from the extract — began in 2010 and now has 10,000 regular customers in New Zealand and Australia.

Last year, the business received another boost when it was chosen as a SheEO recipient, and the impact has been life-changing, Kettle says.

"In the first three months we were able to increase our growth by 29 per cent."

They also employed two more part-time staff and are helping another three women make a living as suppliers.

"That's the flow-on effect."

But it's about more than just the money, Kettle says.

"It's the business coaching and that network of women around the country who want you do succeed and will leverage all their contacts to help you."

'New Zealanders love rural people'

Farmers Monique Neeson, left, and Lyn Neeson, the mother and daughter-in-law duo behind blanket-making business ShearWarmth. Photo / Supplied
Farmers Monique Neeson, left, and Lyn Neeson, the mother and daughter-in-law duo behind blanket-making business ShearWarmth. Photo / Supplied

When you buy a wool blanket from King Country family business ShearWarmth, it arrives with its own birth certificate.

It's no factory line product - company founders Lyn and Monique Neeson can tell you not only where the wool was scoured, spun, woven and sewed, but even the mob of sheep it grew on.

The mum and daughter-in-law duo started the business on the family farm at the junction of Ohura and the Whanganui River, west of Taumarunui, in 2012, selling 100 Romney lambswool blankets in their first year.

It probably would've stayed on the farm if not for SheEO, Lyn Neeson says.

This year they've sold 600 blankets, expanded into kidswear, capes and cushions, and have upgraded from operating out of the living room to a workshop in Taumarunui.

As well as fulltime jobs for themselves, the pair now employ three part-timers to meet demand, Neeson says.

The capital boost was to thank for the growth, but isn't everything.

"The money's been fantastic but it's also the buy in from the activators ... we've had somebody work through our accounts, through our website."

One of the most surprising discoveries is that so many women backing them came from towns and cities. They're as supportive of a rural business as a town one.

"New Zealanders love rural people," Neeson says.

"There isn't that much of a divide. People are rooting for you."

How to apply

If you want to be a recipient your business must be majority women-owned, women-led and have a revenue of between $50,000 and $2m, with export potential and able to answer how your business is creating a better world.

Applicants must answer 12 questions about their business. The top 25 must then validate their financials and submit a one minute video about their business.

Applications close at midnight December 14 and can be made at https://sheeo.world/apply-to-be-a-venture/

Contributors, known as activators, contribute $1100 and then select the successful ventures.

Activators can activate https://sheeo.world/activators/signup/new-zealand/