Sheena Brady founded her first business, Tease Tea, with the aim to bring her passion for high quality tea and women’s empowerment together in an impactful way. Little did she realize, Tease Tea would serve as the catalyst to her rapid growth as a leader and the foundation of a social impact organization that would support hundreds of underrepresented women and non binary entrepreneurs through accessible funding, mentorship and a community, all while challenging the traditional restrictions of what how successful leaders look, sound and operate. This unconventional organization is, Founders Fund.
Founders Fund is unlike traditional business accelerators that have come before. With a membership model of which half of fees are directly contributed to membership funding (available annually), and mentors like well respected serial entrepreneur, Vivian Kaye (CEO and founder of KinkyCurlyYaki), and tech rebel Michael Perry (founder of Kit) , Founders Fund prides itself on unconventional, and holistic approach to support women identifying founders at every intersection of their business. Founders Fund not only provides a core business programming through its community of mentors (like financing, marketing, operations and legal, all tailored for specific growth stages), the organization also provides business owners with expert sessions on topics like diversity and inclusion, mental health, leadership development, all with the message that women don’t have to change their personalities, appearance, faith, or anything else to lead and grow successful and impactful businesses. To date, the Founders Fund has supported 600+ women, and funded 18 companies in just under two years.
Sheena Brady, Founder of Tease Tea & Founders Fund
While it all sounds like a fairytale now, Brady’s rise to success as a business owner was paved with challenges and doubts. Brady began Tease Tea in her Toronto condo in 2013 where she turned her vision for an ethical and sustainable tea brand into a rapidly expanding ecommerce business with her only professional experience having worked in the hospitality industry.
Brady’s expansion was challenged by a similar roadblock that many business owners face: access to funding. She recalls passing a half a million dollars in revenue with no credit beyond her personal credit card which held a limit of just $1,000. Brady reflects on her experience as an unasked for badge of accomplishment, due to the logistical near impossibilities and immense personal stress due to criminally high interest rates, horrible repayment terms and delayed goals, like becoming a homeowner when she had to use her down-payment to finance purchase orders not once, but twice.
When Brady recognized the need to gain more control over her financial literacy skills (something that was not taught to her in her childhood), the reality for her business and her mental well being changed completely. Brady began seeking out experienced mentors and asking questions about how to talk to banks to get the support she needed to grow her business and personal wealth.
“Overnight, I was able to finally get access to a significant line of credit and a better credit card with better rates. I was able to finally accelerate my growth in a way that moved me to commercial banking instead of small business banking which means my personal guarantee was no longer on the line.”
Tease Tea continued to increase in revenue which led Brady to reflect on her experience and the unnecessary challenges that had brought her to that point. She recognized that many entrepreneurs, especially women and especially women who come from underrepresented demographics and experiences had not been given the tools or timing to overcome the similar challenges.
In the beginning, the goal of Founders Fund was to support women identified founders under the umbrella of Tease Tea as a give back program, however in the first year, Brady recognized the amount of business owners she could support through funding, mentoring and community would have the potential immense impact on the future of commerce in Canada and eventually around the globe. In the first year the Tease Tea Founders Fund (as it was initially known) supported more than 230 women and funded 5 companies.
2020 Founders Fund Launch Party In Toronto
“We challenged successful entrepreneurs by saying, ‘What are you doing to pay your success forward? Can you contribute the currency of time and help mentor these budding entrepreneurs? Or can you contribute the currency of money and help fund these women entrepreneurs through non-repayable funding…We had these mentors and funders stepping up to help support these women from all walks of life, and it really just became bigger than anything we could have ever imagined,” Brady said.
As Founders Fund enters a second year (with the membership sales open from mid October to late December), the value remains to holistically support founders who are often left out of traditional business supports and communities.
“It’s bigger and more intentional than buzzwords when it comes to diversity & inclusion. It’s about being incredibly intentional about creating and building spaces where people feel seen and welcome. Founders Fund has been architecting this from day one, to support a wide spectrum of intersectional founders beyond gender identity or race. It’s age, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomics and everything in between. We’ll never get it perfect, but we’ll always keep trying.”
-Amanda Baker, COO
Amanda Baker, COO of Tease Tea & Founders Fund
Integral to supporting this value, Vivian Kaye, was an early advocate for the work that Founders Fund does. Kaye is a serial entrepreneur with a seven figure company, KinkyCurlyYaki, and a single mother, immigrant, and a college dropout who has built her empire without support and access to funding that would have accelerated her growth and success earlier in her journey. Kaye now holds the role of co-owner while hosting and facilitating mentorship sessions that maximize the value members get from their mentors.
Kaye joined the organization in its early days, having been connected through peer mentorship with Brady previously.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur for 15 years. Although I found success, I didn’t have the community of like-minded individuals or access to a network of people to help me figure stuff out. Joining Founders Fund as a mentor, and now co-owner was a no brainer. It’s important for me to be a part of something that would put my skill set to use and help women get the leg up that I didn’t have.”
-Vivian Kaye, Co-Owner & Digital Event Host/Moderator
Vivian Kaye, Co-Owner, Mentor & Digital Events Host
Brady, Kaye, and recently appointed COO Amanda Baker grow their mission with Founders Fund, Brady reminds us that the responsibility of stepping up and supporting women belongs to all of us.
“No matter who you identify as, it’s our job collectively, to step up, sponsor women, nominate women and advocated for women. Tell them that they are good enough. Tell them they are worthy. That’s the most simple yet high impact thing we can do, to get closer to closing the gender gap” Brady said.
2021 Founders Fund memberships open this fall, and the team has plans to elevate thousands of women identifying founders in 2021.