Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Nothing ventured…

This week, I have a question for you:

Women in this province have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. You want to help them. Do you:

A) invest $5 million in an early-stage venture capital fund focused on women-led startups;

B) tear $5 million into tiny shreds and scatter them over the Bay of Fundy?

That’s a trick question; neither of these things will help the average Nova Scotia woman weather the pandemic. But that didn’t stop Stephen McNeil from choosing Option A as one of his final acts as premier. During last week’s COVID-19 update, as the CBC’s Michael Gorman reported:

…McNeil said the province is contributing $5 million to Sandpiper Ventures, the first all-female capital venture fund in Canada.

He said the money will help women pursuing their goals in business and investing, noting that women in the workforce were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

“We need women to be active members of our economy, we need women to drive our economy, and we need women in business and in the tech sector and we need women entrepreneurs,” he said.

I’m pleased to report that a journalist immediately asked the premier why he didn’t direct the $5 million toward child care, lack of which is often a barrier to women in the workforce, but McNeil explained that the province has child care covered — his government has been “applauded” for its handling of child care — freeing it to deal with the more pressing issue of access to early-stage capital for would-be female tech entrepreneurs.

Ladies! Start your pitches! (Just ignore that crying child tugging at your pant-leg as you try to craft your “mission statement.”)


Taking flight

Sandpiper Ventures takes its name from the bird, as the web site explains:

The female sandpiper is well known for taking the lead, and establishing and defending its territory, but that is not the only reason we adopted it as our moniker. We were also attracted to the idea of taking flight, together. Our goal is to sustain a space where driven and visionary woman entrepreneurs come together and have the opportunity to soar.

Is the female sandpiper well known for “taking the lead” or is it just that actual facts about Sandpipers — like, they “run along near the water and picking up their food of insects, crustaceans, and worms”– don’t lend themselves easily to early-stage venture capital promotional material?

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper – North East Point 2013 – A. d’Entremont (Source: NS Bird Society/)

As for “taking flight,” Sandpipers do — but then, so do most birds. And actually, given the high number of venture capital-funded startups that never really get off the ground, Ostrich or Emu or Penguin or Dodo Ventures might be a better name. Wait, let me rephrase that, might be a more accurate name — those would not be better names. Even I would hesitate before entrusting my life’s savings to a fund named for the California flightless sea-duck or the New Caledonian giant scrubfowl.

For what it’s worth, it seems Sandpiper was not the founders’ original choice of name — the firm was registered in August 2019 as the Atlantic Women’s Venture Fund and changed its name to Sandpiper in September 2020, presumably because Atlantic women, although they will defend their territory, are not known for unassisted flight.

Tim Bousquet did a nice rundown on the “investment team” and “founding partners,” all of whom are wealthy and connected (think: John Risley’s wife), many of whom have successfully tapped into government money for their own ventures. It’s a kind of inconvenient truth, really, that these women raising the alarm about the difficulties women have accessing capital have had no trouble accessing capital themselves — and from government, no less. One actually sits on the board of Innovacorp, the government of Nova Scotia’s early stage venture capital fund, where she presumably spends her time ignoring pitches from other women.


Radical disruption

These “intensely engaged, highly experienced, internationally networked women” say they are looking to “radically disrupt the venture capital landscape.”

But let’s be clear: Sandpiper is not looking to “radically disrupt” anything, it is simply looking to fund more women-led tech startups and it’s not even wedded to that idea — it’s reserved the right to fund male-led startups if there is at least “one woman in a c-level role with greater or equal company ownership.” (“This is Margaret, she’s our chief hot beverage officer.”)

Tea Lady, Steam Museum, Swindon, UK.

Tea Lady, Steam Museum, Swindon, UK. (Photo by Brian Robert Marshall via Wikimedia Commons)

What kind of ventures will Sandpiper be funding? Why:

Sandpiper Ventures is actively looking for resilient, future-fit opportunities led by founders who recognize that diverse perspectives unlock innovation and make better business decisions. We see you, and we see ourselves in you.

That kind, you lumpen proles. The kind that are resilient and future-fit and that they can see themselves in — you know, companies making mirrors and shiny kitchen appliances and spoons.

But seriously, do you know what that means? That means companies with ambiguous names — like “Blue” or “dataDA!” or “OutVest” — harnessing technology to do things that are possibly helpful (I like my CBRM garbage app), more likely useless (an app that tells you if your shoes have come untied) but potentially harmful (turning people into precarious gig workers, commodifying personal data, disseminating fake news, robbing artists of their livelihoods, facilitating hate groups).

Companies that will probably all fail.

But as Bousquet points out, even if they succeed, the goal of tech startups is to get bought out by big tech companies (and promptly shuttered), which is nice for the owner and the investors, but doesn’t generally do much in terms of job creation or supporting the local economy, the ostensible reason for government involvement in the first place.

“Hard pass,” she wrote.


We are not islands

Being me, my immediate response to this $5 million “investment” of public monies into a woman-led VC fund was to mock it.

But over at the Nova Scotia Advocate, Lenora Steele offers a much more sobering critique.

Steele contrasts the situation of the Sandpiper women — already wealthy, now given public money to essentially play with — to the situation facing many women who are patients in this province’s healthcare system:

Look over there, just there, a single mother of three returning on the bus after she’s been in hospital four nights with colitis, could there not be a car for her; a drive home? A PCW [personal care worker] for a day, two? A little help while she gathers her strength?

Steele doesn’t raise the issue of affordable housing, but that seems like another area where $5 million could do this province some real-world good.

Unless, of course, some woman-led startup is going to come up with an app for all that.


Radio CNR

I am going to quote Linda McQuaig’s The Sport and Prey of Capitalists again, but this time I can do so without shame because I am actually reading the book (it’s excellent and I’m down to the last chapter).

If you’ve spoken to me in the past two weeks, you know what I’m about to say, because I can’t stop telling people about this amazing fact I learned from Chapter 3 (The Thrill of Hearing Organ Music on a Train Across the Prairies): the CBC was formed from radio stations established by the Canadian National Railway (CNR).

Kudos to you if you already knew that, but I had no clue and I suspect it’s because, as McQuaig suggests, Canada has never properly celebrated its publicly owned corporations.

2514 with a long passenger train. Vancouver July 1938 Bud Laws Collection

2514 with a long passenger train. Vancouver July 1938 Bud Laws Collection (via Trainweb)

The story of the CNR itself is interesting — it was formed from five bankrupt railways, including our own Intercolonial line — in the 1920s as a government-owned counterbalance to the privately held Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which had hoped to simply absorb the bankrupt lines and secure a monopoly on rail transport in Canada.

The man the government tapped to head the CNR was a Brit named Sir Henry Thornton, and one of his innovations was to introduce radio on trains. Although some US lines had been “dabbling” with the idea of onboard radio, MacQuaig says the CNR:

…became the first to overcome the considerable technological challenges and actually outfit railway cars so they could receive radio signals while in motion. On January 5, 1924, the first radio-equipped transcontinental train, operated by CNR, left Montreal bound for Vancouver.

The experiment proved popular:

Passengers were delighted to be able to stroll to the train’s lounge car, put on a headset, and suddenly, almost magically, hear live music broadcast by a radio station somewhere out there in the dark.

I found this image so striking — passengers on public transportation listening to music on a headset is such a 21st century thing, it’s kind of amazing to realize it was a 1920s thing, too.

Most of the radio at this time was coming from the United States, and the signals could be heard in Canada only “in the evening hours,” so Thornton began developing the CNR’s own broadcasting stations. The first opened in Ottawa in February 1924:

…followed later that year by one in Moncton, New Brunswick, and about a dozen others across the country in the next few years, forming an early all-Canadian network of radio stations.

McQuaig provides lots more detail on this experiment — and the success of the CNR in general — but to cut to the chase: in 1932, the government of R.B. Bennett, worried that Canadian radio waves were dominated by American content, decided to create a national broadcaster, passing legislation that:

…led to the purchase of the CNR radio network and eventually to the establishment of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)…

There’s lots more to this story which is why I highly recommend you read the book.