Start and Grow
FrontFundr’s Jill Earthy uses her entrepreneurial drive to bring more women investors into the venture capital world
It’s hard keeping up with Jill Earthy. Positively fizzing over lunch, the 44-year-old is just back from working for two weeks in Whistler, across Alberta and in Ottawa at the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference, the intensive invitation-only meeting of leaders from business, labour and government. Assigned to a group looking at how Alberta can move away from the oilsands, she describes the June event as “an amazing social experiment, getting four hours of sleep and exposed to so many different stakeholders.”
Named one of B.C.’s 35 most influential women last year by this magazine, Earthy is chief growth officer at Vancouver-based FrontFundr Inc., an online platform that connects entrepreneurs with investors across the country. Previously she owned and sold two national businesses and led the charge at two non-profits for entrepreneurs as CEO of the Forum of Women Entrepreneurs (2007-12) and director of Futurpreneur Canada for B.C. and Yukon until 2015.
“As my husband says, I’m never satisfied,” Earthy admits with a laugh while picking at a goat cheese salad at Provence Marinaside restaurant, around the corner from her Yaletown offices. “And that’s OK. At this point in my career, I know I’m an initiator—I like to start things, transition projects in a positive way and then pass it on.” Although she clearly has antennae for moving on (“I feel antsy, a feeling that there’s something more I can do”), she stresses that there’s plenty to keep her at FrontFundr.
The firm, which has closed 13 deals, is now working with five companies seeking capital and another 25 in due diligence. Earthy—unsurprisingly as a champion of myriad women-in-business organizations—sees female investors as vital. She’s involved with groups like the Raise Collective, an effort to engage more women in the investment world, and the Web Alliance, a collective of more than 25 women’s business networks in B.C.
“As a new investor myself, I felt I needed to be handheld even though I felt I was fairly comfortable with finance,” she recalls, pointing out she wants to break down any blocks women have about investments. Touting the “collaborative, transparent and accessible” approach at FrontFundr, which has 16 staff members, she believes it appeals to nascent female and millennial investors as well as seasoned backers of both sexes. “We are changing how investments are done and creating a new model,” says Earthy, who joined in 2015.
She ponders the possible differences between the sexes and their approach to seeking venture capital. Citing the statistic that far fewer women than men access such financing—only about 2 per cent of VC dollars in the U.S. went to them in 2016, according to data provider PitchBook—she believes one reason is that women don’t ask for money. “They want the right type of investment from values-aligned investors and tend to build more sustainable companies over a longer period of time,” Earthy says, adding that studies show investing in female-led ventures results in better returns. “We have to change our definition of success.”
Kerrisdale-raised Earthy has always focused on entrepreneurship, making it a key part of her MBA studies at UVic in the late 1990s. There she also met her husband, Cameron Dustin, who manages operations engineering services for Federal Express Canada Corp. (The East Vancouver couple have two soccer-obsessed daughters, aged 10 and 13.) In 2000, she co-founded Frontline Staff Inc., a national staffing company in Toronto, selling it two years later to Nasco Staffing Solutions Inc., where she was a director until 2007. Her second business, sold in 2011, was Momcafé Network Inc., which supports working mothers through professional networking.
It’s a dynamic resumé that, according to Earthy, smacks of her desire to never be bored.
THREE THINGS ABOUT… JILL EARTHY1. Earthy has a BA in psychology from Western University, where her undergraduate thesis involved studying how eye size influences what others think of us: “Bigger eyes mean people perceive you to be more trustworthy and honest,” she says. It was published in the Journal of Psychology.
2. A keen jogger, she recently ran her first half marathon, and once a week she has to hike in the North Shore Mountains. “It’s a gift to be able to go there–and it’s what makes me sane, although I do enjoy wine, too,” she adds with a smile.
3. Earthy has travelled all over Asia. Her wish list includes hiking Machu Picchu in Peru and spending at least three months touring Spain and Italy.