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Empowering Female Founders and Investors

Shelley Kuipers and her co-founders at The51 are on a mission to increase women’s participation in venture capital

From time to time, we feature business leaders in Acquired Knowledge magazine that may inspire new insights for our readers. 

With their mandate to invest in women-led ventures, the trailblazing co-founders behind the financial platform The51 are certainly a source of inspiration for many entrepreneurs and investors. Some members of the Volaris executive team have invested in The51’s venture funds. In 2023, The51 was recognized by The Globe and Mail through the Report on Business Changemakers Award.

The51’s three co-founders, Shelley Kuipers, Judy Fairburn, and Alice Reimer, started their financial platform after realizing they had each separately come across the same challenges in their careers as entrepreneurs and technology investors. They observed that the existing systems they encountered in venture capital were rarely investing in women entrepreneurs. On top of that, they saw very few women being invited to the table as investors.

“The deals that were being talked about took place in a boardroom where women weren’t invited as serious investors. We noted that there were no formal networks for women as investors in early-stage venture,” observed Kuipers.

The three of them put their heads together to build a new venture that would improve access to capital for women and gender-diverse founders. The name of the platform refers to the statistic that women make up 51% of the world’s population, underscoring their belief that women should be represented proportionally in the economic system.

After officially starting The51 out of Kuipers’ kitchen in 2019, they have expanded the reach of the organization over the years to provide members not only with access to investment opportunities in early-stage investing, but also an ecosystem to help aspiring investors build confidence, financial acumen, and network needed to participate in this high-risk, high-reward asset class.

Shelley Kuipers spoke to us about what drives her and her co-founders at The51.

Before starting The51, the three of you surveyed what already existed in the early-stage investing landscape that was specifically meant for women. What did you find?

My co-founders Judy, Alice, and I went on a trip to Palo Alto, California in 2018 before we started The51. We intended to check out models down there that we thought would be inspiring for what would become The51. 

What we saw was that any programming or infrastructure that was being developed for women entrepreneurs, was largely being looked at as a bit of charitable exercise. 
There was no real intention that women could drive a return on investment. The majority of investors in the room were male investors. Venture capital doesn’t have a lot of diversity in it, and you can see that reflected in the representation of what’s being invested in.

What statistics can you highlight that point to this issue?

The more and more we looked at this asset class of early-stage investing, we were stunned by the lack of participation of women and gender-diverse individuals. 

Statistics that emerged for us:

  • Only about 2% of North American venture capital goes to women-led companies. 
  • The percentage of women as partners at venture funds, as of 2023, was at an all-time high of 11%.

In 2023, companies founded solely by women garnered just 2% of the total capital invested in venture-backed startups in the U.S. (Source: Pitchbook U.S. VC female founders dashboard)

We also saw great economic potential in women:

  • Around 65% of Canada’s wealth will be in the hands of women by 2030.*
  • Women control more than 80% of consumer spending.**

We're enabling women to lead the way, steering towards financial equality across the board. Our mission is to serve as a platform for women who are determined to pave their own paths to success.

-Shelley Kuipers, co-founder, The51

As an entrepreneur, where did you see the opportunity to fill a gap?

We observed that a significant number of women entrepreneurs were not receiving investment. Likewise, women investors lacked decision-making power in investment choices and had untapped capital. However, we also noticed a growing trend indicating that women will increasingly control wealth in this decade.

We’re really on a mission to change women’s economic participation in venture capital. In addition to activating women’s capital, we’re really looking to activate their human capital. We want them at the table helping these companies build as well.

We set up The51 specifically to:

  • Invite women to this asset class as investors,
  • Empower women to make investment decisions, and
  • Invest in women-led and co-led companies.

We were inspired and continue to be inspired by many books, including a great book called The XX Edge, which further convinced us there is a tremendous opportunity in activating women’s capital. 

When women make financial decisions and apply their skills across all capital markets, it leads to higher returns for individual investors and greater economic growth—a true win-win for all.

- Patience Marime-Ball and Ruth Shaber, authors of The XX Edge

What milestones are you most proud of since starting the organization?

As of February 2024, we completed our third close on our Food and Agtech Fund. 
To date, we have invested in 39 companies, and activated and secured $59.5 million (CAD) in capital from more than 250 investors across Canada. Our community has now grown to more than 29,500 members.

As of March 2024, The51 will be celebrating five years in the market.

You have designed The51 to be inclusive of members with varying levels of investor knowledge. Tell us how that works.

The51 has always been designed and developed for those who are founders and investors today. 

But we make room for those who could be founders or investors at some point in the future. We don't discriminate – there's no exclusive club at The51. Anyone can be part of our broader community. They can join our mailing list, engage with our social media, or come to our events. 

The next level is paid membership, which includes our Founder Lab and our Investor Lab. Through these, we offer in-depth educational programming. The goal of those programs is to drive investor readiness and investment readiness by developing financial acumen and confidence. 

Tell us more about what is offered through The51’s in-depth educational programming.

Movement51 (M51) is the The51’s not-for-profit sister organization. It houses two educational programs: the Financial Feminism Investing Lab and the M51 Founder Lab. M51 addresses financial inequalities through innovative educational programs, accessible community events, strategic partnerships with academic institutions, and like-minded organizations.

A founder that graduates from the Founder Lab program can gain sophisticated knowledge in all things financial, and be ready to hold a conversation with an investor. 

The Investor Lab offers an understanding of the early-stage investing landscape. We're really looking to drive improvement in financial acumen. We want people to understand it’s a high-risk asset class, but there is a lot of opportunity in it too. 

Somebody should walk away from our investor program with the ability to assess an investment opportunity. They should walk away knowing how to develop an investing thesis that takes into account what's important to them. They would be able to answer: How would I assess the company financially? How would I do the math associated with investing in that asset class? 

With the Investor Lab, we are really trying to create net new investors for the ecosystem. We set a goal that by 2025, through the funding that we have both from corporations and from government, we'll produce about 650 new early-stage investors out of our programming. We will keep track to see if they are activating their capital. We’ll also track founders to see if they were able to access capital and follow them on that journey.

What else continues to inspire The51?

The founders that we meet every day, the founders that get in touch with us every day, are really inspiring. Their creativity and ambition spark our energy every day.

We are also inspired by our investors, many of whom are taking their first steps into early-stage investing, and are coming on a journey with us to “learn by doing.” Without them, we would not be able to activate capital. Without the capital, we wouldn't be able to invest in women. There is so much untapped potential in activating women’s innovation and capital -- this is what drives us every day.

Read more about leadership development at Volaris:


* The Globe and Mail. Will the transfer of wealth to women take sustainable investing mainstream?

** Nielsen. A marketer's trifecta: Women, the World Cup and holiday shopping