A network of women and non-binary entrepreneurs unite to change the world

Coralus employs a model of "radical empathy" to uplift marginalized leaders and make the planet a better place.

By Robert DiGiacomo

What happens when a “radically generous community” comes together to support the work of women and non-binary people? The “World’s To-Do List” gets done. That’s the premise of Coralus, an organization that pairs “Activators” (funders) with “Ventures” (start-ups) working on a wide range of new tech, products and services.

Danielle Cadhit, director of systems and emergence at Coralus

Think everything from a firm that up-cycles plastic waste to a company that develops an inclusive and equitable STEM curriculum to an app that helps people safely navigate urban spaces—and this to-do list goes on. Since its 2015 launch, the community has provided more than $7 million in funding to more than 100 ventures in categories spanning artificial intelligence, food sustainability, energy efficiency and biotech. Nearly half of the ventures are led by Black, Indigenous and women of color.

“Everything starts with relationships—this community was built on a solid foundation of relationships and trust,” says Danielle Cadhit, director of systems and emergence at Coralus. “Being part of this community is simple, and we emphasize being radically generous with yourself and understanding that your unique contribution is celebrated here—whether it’s your gifts of capital, your skill sets and thinking talents, your influence and connections, or simply a different outlook and perspective on life and business.”

Founded in Canada, Coralus (formerly SheEO) has since expanded to the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. The group’s mission statement draws its inspiration from the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which include good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality and sustainable cities and communities. As Coralus has scaled up, the group has responded to challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic by creating an Ask/Give app to allow members to share resources and support. “We are constantly trying new tools and technologies; we can enable our growing community to remain connected,” Cadhit says.

In the spring of 2022, the organization engaged its community to help source a new name that would better reflect its mission of inclusivity and prepare for the future. Coralus takes its name from sea coral, a “mega-builder,” with a “decentralized structure” and a “hive mind,” according to a video introducing the rebranding.

‘Radical generosity’ offers a business model

Mary Lobson, founder and CEO of REES

To fund its ventures, Coralus taps a network of more than 7,000 Activators, who each provide $92 a month or about $1,100 a year. The Activators are also women and non-binary people, ranging in age from 16 to 78. (Men can participate by gifting an Activation to a woman, whether a family member, college, entrepreneur or mentee, by providing 80% (or $880) of an annual contribution, with the recipient contributing the difference.) Funding from Activators helps provide zero-interest, no-collateral loans to the ventures.

“We are asking them not only are you willing to support these ventures with our community capital, but will you resource them with social capital and champion their success in other ways as we welcome them into this community?” Cadhit explains. “Activators go on to become these venture’s customers; they offer skill sets, connections [and] sometimes even become follow-on investors of these ventures.”

For a venture like REES (Respect, Educate, Empower, Survivors), the support and community from Coralus have proven to be transformative. REES is a Canadian-based Software-as-a-Service (Saas) platform for reporting sexual harassment, violence and assault. It offers its risk mitigation tool at colleges and universities in six Canadian provinces and is working to bring the technology to the U.S. and into other sectors.

“Coralus has provided support for virtually anything I’ve needed,” says REES founder and CEO Mary Lobson. “When you’re a new company, that could mean information about finances, funding and human resources—those basic business needs. There’s programming around those things, and there are regular opportunities to come together to talk about your challenges and your struggles.”

Building relationships, lifting the community

Relationship-building as a means of overcoming traditional barriers to entry for women and non-binary people is at the core of Coralus. “We are all at different ages and stages in life, and there is unique value in each individual’s story to add to our shared narrative,” Cadhit says. “We often say we welcome like-hearted community members who resonate with our values over like-mindedness. Everyone is welcome to be in this community of care just as they are, with an open heart to transform self and systems.”

Anu Bidani, founder and CEO of STEM Minds

Helping entrepreneurs succeed on their own terms is proving to be a sustainable model. Some 95% of ventures have paid back their loans while tallying triple-digit revenue growth and creating socially and environmentally sustainable jobs, according to Coralus. Towards the goal of creating a more equitable start-up model, Coralus says it’s normalized the idea of a 0% interest loan with no collateral and has teamed up with a Canadian banking partner to offer the same terms.

For Anu Bidani, founder and CEO of STEM Minds, which has developed an online curriculum with more than 65 courses for ages four through 18, Coralus helped solve the dilemma faced by most entrepreneurs. How do you attract funding if you don’t have a steady revenue stream? “Coralus has been a lifesaver for STEM Minds,” Bidani says. “Coralus funding was a huge help to get started when I could not get funding from banks as I did not have enough revenue to meet their threshold criteria. Access to the funding allowed us to continue to build our online offering so we could be ready to compete in a global market. It gave me the support network I needed so I could elevate and amplify my mission and take the business to new heights.”

Beyond the financials, the STEM Minds approach also ties into Coralus’ big-picture goals. Research shows that boys self-report their math skills as 27% higher than girls, and the likelihood of women pursuing STEM education and careers is influenced by the perceptions of their ability—not their aptitude. This research helps inform STEM Minds’ philosophy. “By offering positive STEM learning experiences to youth as young as age four and continuing to promote female leadership and representation within our programs and team, we work to empower girls and women, and dispel biases about who belongs in the world of STEM,” Bidani says.

Overcoming barriers to success

Jillian Kowalchuk, founder and CEO of Safe & the City app

When Jillian Kowalchuk moved from Vancouver to London, she relied on navigation apps to learn the city. But she found out the hard way that the fastest route wasn’t always the safest when she got trapped in an alley with two men who threatened sexual assault. Fortunately, Kowalchuk got away without being harmed and then was able to use the experience as inspiration to create the Safe & the City app. The navigation platform combines crowd-sourced safety information with tools to get help and report incidents anonymously.

Safe & the City has scaled up to include free apps across the U.K., Ireland and Germany, and is working to further expand to the U.S. and Canada by incorporating its i3 Intelligence SaaS into existing mapping apps. “Our ambitions are to be global and be the important bridge to offer safety for people,” Kowalchuk says.

But perhaps none of this would have happened without Coralus. According to PitchBook, women founders in the U.S. received just 2% of venture capital in the U.S. in 2021. For female and non-binary founders trying to succeed in the disruptive Tech4Good space, the struggle is especially real. REES, for example, is using technology to effect social change but is not a social services organization—a distinction that might be lost on a traditional funder. “Being part of Coralus has helped to reinforce the thinking that systemic change is possible,” says Lobson. “I’m a solo founder, and I’m from Winnipeg, and I’m working on an issue using technology. We were very fortunate to have received VC funding.”

Remaking the system

According to Kowalchuk, having the backing of Coralus amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic helped more than just the bottom line. “Since being the first cohort of U.K. ventures, we’ve also received one-to-one coaching with exceptional businesswomen who’ve scaled businesses, raised investment and can pass on that wisdom. There are few communities like Coralus that open so many doors for the Ventures and Activators in it.”

Providing these types of opportunities to flourish on founders’ own terms is one of the cornerstones of the Coralus community. “We provide a place for women and non-binary entrepreneurs to recognize that their success doesn’t always have to align with conventional business success,” Cadhit says.

Lead photo courtesy of Shutterstock