Kim Knight sits in on the Kiwi launch of a women-only business model.

They have the sinewed calves of women who tan incrementally and on the run. Fast, faster, fastest. Success wears sequins before 10am and leaves lipstick stains on a white china teacup.

At the Hilton Hotel at the Auckland Viaduct, Theresa Gattung takes the microphone. How lovely is it in here, with the white tablecloths and the orchids and the suffragette-purple accents?

"I am so over women huddling somewhere horrible that blokes wouldn't," says Gattung. "Right? Enough of that. Never again. Not on my watch."

Tough, tougher, toughest.


Before lunch (steamed market fish with butter sauce; baby cos and cherry tomato salad) the women in this room will give almost half a million dollars in zero interest loans to five women-led businesses.

The future of finance is female — and its generosity is radical.

Last month, New Zealand became the first country outside North America to launch SheEO. Gattung, the country's most prominent businesswoman and former chief executive of Telecom, describes it as a "disruptive economic model".

Put simply, 500 women (or "activators") contribute $1100 each to a pool that is loaned to five women-led ventures selected by the activators. Repeat annually for five years, and a perpetual fund is formed. In North America, where the programme is entering its third year, 3000 activators have given $3m to 32 ventures. Some more numbers:

• Only 4 per cent of the world's venture capital goes to women.
• Only $1 out of every $23 loaned by financial institutions goes to women-owned businesses.
• Women make up 50 per cent of the world's population.

"We are not a niche market," says Vicki Saunders, SheEO's international founder. "Our mindset right now in the world is winner takes all. We're all chasing the unicorn. Everybody wants to find the billion dollar company and who cares about the small and medium-sized ones? And that has led to this — five people have the same wealth as 3.5 billion people on the planet."

Pause for effect: "This is INSANE."

The weekend before this summit, New Zealand's five ventures met for the first time. At a retreat at Clarks Beach on the Manukau Harbour, they received mentoring in conflict resolution and negotiating. On Sunday, they split the money — no one venture could take the lot, nor could it be divided evenly.


"You know why we did that last part?" asks Saunders. "Because guess what women would do when they had just become best friends? 'Ooooh, everyone have the same, it's great, I love you, I love you too ...'"

The five ventures negotiated for five hours. No one will say how exactly the cash was shared, citing commercial sensitivity and the idea that a who-got-the-most "winner" would be at odds with the SheEO ethos. But later, in response to activator disquiet, Saunders releases the range: $25,000 to $185,000.

The SheEO summit held at Hilton Hotel on May 9, when the inaugural five ventures (as selected by 442 activators) were announced.
The SheEO summit held at Hilton Hotel on May 9, when the inaugural five ventures (as selected by 442 activators) were announced.

New Zealand activators selected their five ventures from 106 applications in two rounds of online voting. The successful ventures — which must be at least 51 per cent female owned/led and have at least $50,000 revenue this year — run the gamut. ShearWarmth makes traditional blankets from wool that can be traced back to the King Country family farm. DermNet is an online clinical resource for the diagnosis of skin conditions. Dove River Peonies specialises in eczema-soothing products made from organically grown peony root extract. Memory Foundation is creating a network of brain fitness coaches aimed at assisting an ageing workforce to stay mentally agile. Pomegranate Kitchen is a cooking and catering social enterprise that employs former refugee women.

A representative from each venture takes the stage. Mothers, daughters, sisters and life partners. All five have a business partner with a connection that goes far beyond business hours. All five now have money, bi-weekly coaching sessions, and an activator cohort they can tap into with monthly "asks". Earlier, the entire room closed their eyes and held hands while a midwife chanted a pre-colonial prayer in te reo Māori. After lunch, proceedings will begin with a big, long hug. You're not smoking a cigar on the 19th now, Dorothy.

Gattung first heard about SheEO two years ago at a women's conference in San Francisco. The former CEO, who once placed number 49 on a Forbes list of the world's Top 100 Most Powerful Women, knew the model would resonate here. She invited Saunders to present at World Women NZ (Gattung's charitable trust) and, at its conclusion, asked for expressions of interest in SheEO. Half the room put up a hand.

In the end, she didn't quite make her target of 500 activators. Some 442 women had signed up by launch date — the per capita equivalent of 8000 women in North America. Registrations of interest for next year's cohort of 500 opened last week and names are already coming in. Why do women need a new way of doing business?

"When you see these ventures announced, you look at them and you go, 'Yeah, these would all struggle to get bank funding or shareholder support at the stage they are at," says Gattung.

Scenes from the SheEO summit held at Hilton Hotel on May 9, when the inaugural five ventures (as selected by 442 activators) were announced.
Scenes from the SheEO summit held at Hilton Hotel on May 9, when the inaugural five ventures (as selected by 442 activators) were announced.

"How else do we birth some of the new initiatives that actually can make a huge difference, if we don't collectively activate the fact that women are half the world? Unless women stand up proudly in the economic space and the money space ... you can have political equality but you're not going to actually be in your full power if we abdicate the money stuff to men. If you go too long with only men doing a certain job then it starts to seem normal, it doesn't matter what that role is."

In Canada, where SheEO has just received a $2m government grant, the organisation operates in a unique non-profit space that doesn't exist here.

"Which is a serious flaw if you're focused on social enterprise," says Gattung. "You can be a business, which is taxable, or a charity ... and we did not believe we would qualify as a charity."

Enter law firm Russell McVeagh. It's the elephant in this female-empowered room; acknowledged as a "generous partner", it's the company that recently launched an external review of historic incidents of sexual harassment from within its own ranks.

Gattung says senior partner Pip Greenwood and her team have given hours of pro bono assistance to SheEO, working through the tax and business structures and loan agreements that allow the model to operate in New Zealand. Other partners include Air New Zealand (airfares), Pead PR and Co of Women (people power) and Westpac (cold hard cash).

How do the banks feel about this reimagining of business?

"I don't know," says Gattung. "But it's giving birth to entrepreneurs and I have already referred two women to Westpac who were unhappy with their current banking system."

Women, she says, should not be scared of money. Women should stop being coy about money. Women should stop thinking money is, somehow, dirty.

"Women have got to know their numbers. You can't outsource to accountants."

In a small break-out room, Lyn Neeson is introducing activators to ShearWarmth, the company she started with her daughter-in-law Monique, that takes traceable fleece from sheep on the family farm at the junction of the Ohura and Whanganui rivers, and turns it into traditional wool blankets.

The wool is scoured in Napier, spun in Wellington, woven in Auckland and comes back to Tokirima in 50kg rolls, where it's cut into blankets. A former Trelise Cooper seamstress does the satin edging. The dream is a shop in Taumarunui with locally trained sewers, export markets, and a revitalised future for New Zealand wool.

Once, this country was a world leader. Now, claims Neeson, she can't access a loom big enough to make a queen size blanket. There's one in Tasmania, she says, but ...

"Is it for sale?"

Neeson is momentarily floored by the question. A loom, she says, might cost $100,000.

"Yep," she says, with dawning realisation. "The world is my oyster now. Yeah. Thank you."

At another break-out session, a heavily pregnant Emily Oakley is explaining DermNet, the world's largest online photographic resource of skin diseases and conditions, initiated 20 years ago as a free service by her dermatologist mother. Future plans? An artificial intelligence application capable of rapidly filtering millions of images to aid medical diagnosis of the more than 2500 recorded human skin afflictions.

Has she thought about adding animals to the database? Have she approached PhD students working in facial recognition research? Are there copyright issues to be considered? Would an insurance company provide sponsorship? Where is the company based? The questions comes thick and fast. Activators write suggestions (and offers of help) on yellow Post-it notes.

Wool blanket company ShearWarmth, one of five ventures selected for financial support by SheEO activators.
Wool blanket company ShearWarmth, one of five ventures selected for financial support by SheEO activators.

"We have 100 volunteers around the country," says Oakley. "I'm working out of my spare bedroom ..."

But today, the world is her radically generous oyster.

At morning tea, there are no seats. The 250-or-so activators attending the day-long summit are well-versed in the art of the network. The room hums, the fresh fruit plates are picked clean and every activator name tag you surreptitiously google turns up another woman who has made the hard slog to the top of her game — and wants to make that path easier for the women coming up behind her.

"It's women doing it for women," says Lee Mathias. "I'm an entrepreneur in the health sector. I know how hard it is for women to get money, especially seed funding and start-up funding."

The SheEO summit held at Hilton Hotel on May 9, when the inaugural five ventures (as selected by 442 activators) were announced.
The SheEO summit held at Hilton Hotel on May 9, when the inaugural five ventures (as selected by 442 activators) were announced.

She was a nurse for 26 years. Her first business was Birthcare. Her follow-up was Labtests. A couple of weeks ago, she concluded negotiations for the sale of Unitec land now earmarked for the building of 3000-4000 homes.

On the way out of that final meeting, she says, a man patted her on the shoulder. Well done.

"I thought, I'm not going to lose it. I'm not going to lose my rag. But this paternalistic thing? It was a bloody hard negotiation, we had worked for two and a half years to get it there. It should have been a high-five, or a thumbs-up, or ... we've got to train our men better in how to behave better publicly."

Anyway, she says, the woman Canvas should really talk to is fellow activator Ranjna Patel.

"You know what really resonated," says Patel, reflecting on the morning's proceedings. "How each venture picked who came to the negotiating table. When my husband and I started our business, he didn't want to come to the table. I had no tertiary qualifications, and then I had to learn accounting, learn Excel ... when I used to have to get up to speak, I'd just about be crying."

In 2016, Patel was named the Deloitte Top 200 Visionary Leader. The GP practice she started with her husband in Ōtara has grown into Nirvana Health Group, with 220,000 registered patients across multiple health providers, including White Cross emergency clinics.

Monique (left) and Lyn Neeson, of wool blanket company ShearWarmth, one of five ventures selected for financial support by SheEO activators.
Monique (left) and Lyn Neeson, of wool blanket company ShearWarmth, one of five ventures selected for financial support by SheEO activators.

Mathias: "I certainly don't want anybody else to go through what I had to go through to get money. You had the contracts, you had demonstrated the business was sound, you had everything lined up and there was still this sort of ..."

Patel: "She's a woman. Who's going to look after the kids? Who's going to do the cooking?"

Saunders confirms men can contribute if they want ("we're happy to take your money!") but the nominated activator should be a woman. New Zealand's inaugural cohort comes from across the country. It includes the big-name female business leaders, but also their mums and their employees. The sisterhood is strong, but it's not all long hugs after the lunch break. What happens if a venture can't repay its loan?

Saunders is back at the podium.

"Every quarter, they will fill out a health check and report back on 18 pieces of information and you can access all of that. One thing we haven't quite figured out yet, is if a venture is really struggling and starting to have some challenges, how do you say that out loud without making them feel terrible? So, in Canada, quietly we've been watching. Where we can see there's an issue, we have this piece in the credo that says, 'We are here with our sleeves rolled up ready to help.' So we've been doing that. By knowing the skillsets of people in the network and calling on them when help is needed."

It's not just about the money. Throughout the day, women have been presenting "asks". They want their products stocked in the Koru lounge, they want an influencer to wear their eco-jewellery, they want feedback on the name of their new social enterprise, they want support for the launch of their new diversity programme — and all around this room, other women are raising their hands to help.

Because, says Saunders: "The way we currently do investing is not as appealing to women. We look at things differently. I don't want to write a $250,000 cheque to bet it on the red, an unproven whatever. We're much more practical."

Once upon a time in British Columbia, there was a woman who invented a breathable alternative to plastic wrap. Everytime she applied for funding, she was stonewalled — she didn't have a business degree, how could she complete with big supermarket brands? She had laid off all her staff when she found out she had been selected as a SheEO venture. Saunders remembers telling her she'd already done the hard part, because it was much easier to hire an operations manager than it was to hire an inventor.

"Being selected by 500 women changed how she felt about herself completely. She is on target to track $2m in revenue this year."