A group of female leaders from Shopify Inc. has launched an investor collective called Backbone Angels to back early-stage female and non-binary founders, with a focus on Black, Indigenous and women-of-colour-led companies.

Shopify, which became Canada’s most valuable publicly traded company last year, has created many paper millionaires among its staff thanks to its soaring stock price. They, in turn, have become one of the most active complements of angel investors in Canada – often backing some of the young companies that use Shopify’s online platform to manage e-commerce sites and back office operations.

The group includes the 10 co-founders of Backbone, who are drawn from across the company and range from operations directors to chief talent officer Brittany Forsyth. They each have made individual investments in early-stage companies in recent years, about 50 in total between them.

As the women began talking among themselves about their efforts to fund or advise outside entrepreneurs, “we naturally all just started sharing deal flow with each other,” said Arati Sharma, who left her job as director of product marketing this year to start her own e-commerce business on Shopify. Other women in the group – all still Shopify employees – include Alexandra Clark, vice-president of strategic initiatives; assistant general counsel Erin Zipes; and Solmaz Shahalizadeh, vice-president of commerce intelligence.

About two years ago, the group began looking to formalize efforts to combine their experiences to help fund and advise entrepreneurs, particularly those who have been relatively marginalized by traditional early-stage investors.

“We’re all very fortunate … that we have been able to be part of Shopify’s growth,” said Atlee Clark, who leads operations, marketing and partnerships with Shopify’s Shop app and is Ms. Clark’s sister. “To be able to go through that experience for most people isn’t even a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Bringing that kind of experience and expertise to women in particular is such a powerful idea that once we realized it and looked around the table at each other, we couldn’t not bring it to the world.”

The effort, launched on International Women’s Day, is still in its early stages. The group doesn’t have a formal structure or specific investment criteria, but has built a website where entrepreneurs can send pitches for Backbone to review. The group will look to bring in co-investors as well. “We want to move fast,” Atlee Clark said. “We’re hoping in the not-too-distant future you’ll see the first Backbone investment.”

New sources of capital for female entrepreneurs are sorely needed, particularly after a deterioration in multiyear gains toward gender equality during the COVID-19 pandemic, observers say. While there are a handful of initiatives across Canada to support female entrepreneurs, including Calgary’s The 51 Fund, Women’s Equity Lab in B.C., StandUp Ventures in Toronto and BDC Capital’s Women in Technology Venture Fund, those entrepreneurs remain chronically underfunded.

Women-led startups in the United States received just 2.3 per cent of venture capital funding last year, down from an already low 2.8 per cent the year before, according to Crunchbase. The figures in Canada “from what we can tell aren’t much different,” said Claudio Rojas, CEO of the National Capital Angel Organization, an umbrella group representing angel funding groups across Canada.

He said the emergence of angel collectives such as Backbone is part of “a secular, long-term trend” in which grassroots investor groups focus less on geographically specific opportunities and “more on impact and community building, where angels essentially lead with their hearts and then make the business case. It’s a really positive development. As we think about the economic recovery, we know we need to activate angel investment by an order of magnitude more than we’ve done in the past.”

Michelle McBane, managing director with StandUp, said Backbone will help address what has been significant underrepresentation by women among the ranks of investors in early-stage technology companies. “Having such a sophisticated group of operators at one of Canada’s top success stories is great to see. They’ll have different networks than traditional angels … I’m thrilled there will be more folks I can co-invest with.”

The Globe and Mail, March 8, 2021