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Join Susan Sly as she interviews Sarah Dusek,, Co-Founder of Enygma Ventures, on the latest episode of the Raw and Real Entrepreneurship Podcast.  Learn from Sarah’s success story and discover how she built and exited a business worth nine figures. Join her on a mission to empower entrepreneurs in Africa and unlock your own potential for growth and success.

-Sarah Dusek

Raw And Real Entrepreneurship with Sarah Dusek

Topics covered in the interview

Ideations vs Execution

Developing a pricing model

Building a scalable business model

Business Language

The importance of network

Sarah Dusek’s Bio

Sarah Dusek is a managing partner and co-founder of Enygma Ventures, a private investment fund dedicated to supporting and investing in women-led businesses in Africa. Since Enygma’s inception in 2019, over 5,000 entrepreneurs have gone through Enygma’s investor-ready programs to learn how to build valuable companies. Sarah aims to demystify the complicated and often inaccessible world of funding. Making capital accessible for women, helping them to both deliver outstanding outcomes for their own businesses and drive economic and social progressive change. 

In 2009, she founded the leading upscale outdoor hospitality brand Under Canvas, which sold in 2018 for over $100 million. Under Canvas received a spot on the coveted Inc. 5000 list in 2017, and in the same year Sarah was also named to Ernst & Young’s EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women list as a forward-thinker and changemaker. In 2022, Sarah launched a $600 million capital vehicle to drive conservation efforts globally, one of the largest investment vehicles of its kind in the world. This includes plans to invest in sustainable eco-lodging Quiver Tree Collection. 

Sarah believes in the power of leveraging challenging circumstances to propel forward change. At the helm of Enygma Ventures, she led the development of a special program in 2020 to help redefine systemic issues for female leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company selected 11 female entrepreneurs from a pool of 9000 applicants, ultimately investing $10 million to women-led startups in the Southern African Development Community region. 

Sarah is a contributing writer to Forbes, The Telegraph, and TRT World. She is chairwoman of the Women’s Giving Circle for The Global Good Fund, a social entrepreneurship leadership development program, and sits on the board of 10 and rising startup companies in Africa, as well as Under Canvas. Sarah has a Bachelor of Laws from Exeter U.K., and a master’s degree in missiology from the University of Manchester. She divides her time between the U.S. and South Africa with her husband, Jacob Dusek, and their two children. In her free time, Sarah enjoys traveling and spending time in nature. For more information, please visit 

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Show Notes

Read Full Transcript

Susan Sly 00:02
This is Raw and Real Entrepreneurship, the show that brings the no nonsense truth of what is required to start, grow and scale your business. I am your host Susan Sly.

Susan Sly 00:16
Well what is up Raw and Real entrepreneurs wherever you are in the world, I hope you are having an amazing day. And I have to tell you, my guest today is incredible. She is a world changer. She is a Maven. She is incredible. Not only has, maybe she's Wonder Woman, I don't even know but, I definitely, am maybe going to be the president for fanclub now. She not only has had a nine figure exit, which is so significant, she turned around after that and became a managing partner and co founder of Enygma Ventures, which is a private investment fund dedicated to supporting and investing in women led businesses in Africa. And if you've been listening for more than a minute, you know, my oldest daughter, Maggie is from Malawi. So we're gonna, we're gonna have some great conversations. And to the audience in Africa, sometimes Nigeria pops into that top 10. But you know, hey, just get the word out about the show. Because the show is for you. I believe anyone can become an entrepreneur. And since Enygma's inception, in 2019, over 5000 entrepreneurs have gone through Enygma's investor-ready programs to learn how to build valuable companies. And my guest aims to demystify the complicated and often inaccessible world of funding. And that's not just an Africa, we'll talk about that too. In 2009, she found it like, right at the end of the recession, she founded the leading upscale outdoor hospitality and brand Under Canvas, and that went on to sell for over nine figures. And this company earned a spot on the coveted Inc 5000 list in 2017. And the same year, Sarah was named Ernst and Young's entrepreneurial winning woman and forward thinker and changemakers. So she made that list. I mean, the list goes on and on. But we're gonna get to know the amazing guests that I have today, Sarah Dusek. So Sarah, welcome to Raw and Real Entrepreneurship. I'm so beside myself that I can't even speak. And you and I were chatting before the show. And there was so much we could have chatted about before I even hit record. So, and it is Raw and Real Entrepreneurship and I didn't have the proper login today. So we were even delayed, but thank you for your patience, and just being who you are. So welcome to the show.

Sarah Dusek 02:46
Thank you so much, it's always, always great to be able to share my journey and hopefully inspire and encourage a few entrepreneurs.

Susan Sly 02:56
Well, Sarah, you've already inspired me. I'm, maybe it's because I'm 50 and I still print things. But I've printed out your company article, I read your Forbes article, I've been doing a lot of reading and listening and learning. And I want to go back in time a bit because so many of the founders who listen to the show, or aspiring founders who are listening to the show, they always ask me to ask this question. And then because each day, we all have 1000s of thoughts, and so many ideas. How did you first get the idea for Under Canvas and how did you then take it to inception? Because that is a differentiator right there?

Sarah Dusek 03:44
Yeah, you're really spot on there. Because the difference between having an idea, and actually making it happen is quite a long distance. And many, many people have ideas and never execute on them. And I always say to the entrepreneurs that I work with, really, it's just the people who can execute that can build something of significance and can create something that's meaningful and create value and create wealth for themselves in their nearest and dearest and executions are a really, really big piece of that puzzle. And it wasn't until I became an investor that I actually realized how hard it is for many entrepreneurs to actually execute. To go back to the question, the inception of Under Canvas was really inspired by Africa. I came to Africa in my early 20s as an aid worker, thinking I was going to save the world. Latterly realized that Africa has been such a bomb from my own soul and has been such a savior in my own life. So anything I contribute and give back to Africa these days, is really just a miniscule amount of what Africa has given to me. But I fell on love with the safari experience that wasn't my job that wasn't my life. But I fell in love with the bush, I fell in love with a, with an incredible way of life of connecting with nature and living out and exploring wild places, but doing it in a way that felt safe, and supported and comfortable and beautiful sheets and lovely food and hot running water. And when I married my husband, who was from Montana, who was big, outdoorsy guy used to camping, used to being out in the wilderness used to, you know, just really roughing it. And I realized, oh, gosh, I also love the wilderness. But I don't love roughing it quite so much as he does. And then that was when we put two and two together this idea that maybe we could recreate the African safari experience in a US context. And so we pioneered a very, very small glamping site in Montana to see if there was legs to it. See if there was anything there that that other people might also enjoy.

Susan Sly 06:07
I know exactly when you, I love your descriptors, Sarah, before we went into recording, I said TIA, right, this is Africa. And if one has not been to Africa, there is a different feeling there. And to your point, there's a different soul feeling there. And to to bring, and I haven't, in Africa, I have not had the safari experience. eEery time I've gone, it's been much like you in your 20s. It's like I'm going to save the world. So I'm either building a clinic or I'm doing something or I'm sitting in a hut listening to, you know, one of the elders ask me questions and tell stories and things like that. But I can envision it when you're saying it. And so you have this idea and your husband's like this is, okay, let's give this a try. So where did the seed capital come from?

Sarah Dusek 07:07
So we, prior to Under Canvas, had been aspiring entrepreneurs before that. And we had tried to build another business before Under Canvas which was a complete and utter disaster. And I say this as encouragement that often our greatest successes are born out of failure. And ours was we had a failed business before we started Under Canvas. So we came to Under Canvas with literally diddly squat. We had lost all the money that we had, which was not a lot in the first place. My first business had failed. And so what we were left with was going to friends and family and saying we've got another idea, which was hard on the back of Oh, and by the way, we just had a failed idea. And so that was actually really tough. It was really tough to get going. My husband's family, thankfully, were up for giving us another shot, and gave us a small few $1,000 to get us up and going. And we put a whole lot of sweat and friends gave their time and energy to help us get something off the ground initially. But yeah, it was, it was tough. It was brutal.

Susan Sly 08:31
And thank you for being so transparent, because there is, I'm reading Alley Townships book about the, you know, unicorn founders. And there's, so it debunks the myths, right. And when you look at 90% of first attempts fail, but 90% of second attempts succeed, and which you know it just to go, you know, I had a failed business in the 90s. And I thought never, you know, not, I was still going to be an entrepreneur, but I really played it safe. And I helped other people build their companies and before co founding Radius in 2018, in a world that I hadn't written a line of code, Sarah, since '92. So there you go, if I can be a startup founder in the AI space then anyone can too.. But so you have, you have this deep capital, you have this idea. So how did you get your first customer?

Sarah Dusek 09:31
Yeah, so that was our biggest question, really, was how are we going to inspire people to come and stay with us? How are we going to get the word out? We did a couple of things sort of that were interesting for us when we launched. We realized we probably needed some endorsement. And so we partnered with another famous outdoor organization to sort of endorse our lodge to give us some kind of credibility when we first launched and amazingly, our first guests or TV crew, who we had put out to the university, you know, this is coming, we are opening, and they reached out and said, Ah, well, we'd love to film your opening. And we'd love to come, which was, of course, super crazy to think about your first guests being a TV crew, because like, your first guest, you have no idea what you're doing. Right? And it's all you're making it all up and trying to figure it all out.

Susan Sly 10:29
Did you lose sleep? Did you, how stressful was that?

Sarah Dusek 10:34
Well, we were still building the larlodge too. So we hadn't we, we were trying to finish building everything and have everything ready, and be ready to host guests and have a perfect experience that was going to be filmed on TV. I mean, it was, it was nuts.

Susan Sly 10:48
So when you say, when you say, there's a saying in startup, you know, we're building the plane as we're flying.

Sarah Dusek 10:55
We're literally building and flying and going around the sun. And it was, it was crazy. But those were our first guests. And so, you know, and endorsements from TV exposure, and you know, just starting to get some, get some press was probably how we acquired our first customers.

Susan Sly 11:18
So with that TV crew, was it perfect? Did it end up being amazing or were there any hiccups?

Sarah Dusek 11:26
I think it went pretty well. I don't have any like glaring, terrible memories of this event. So it can't have been that bad. It definitely wasn't perfect for sure. But the few days they were with us, they managed to get some great footage, had a great experience. And so we did manage to pull it off unbelievably.

Susan Sly 11:51
The reason I asked that is there's so much in, you know founding a company and having your first product, it's like sending your child off to kindergarten that first time or nursery school. And it's so nerve racking and there's maybe 1000s of things you worry about that never come true. And then you pick that child up at the end of the day and it's like tears of relief and cortisol goes down and everything. And it's the same thing with putting out a product whether you know, in this case, it's Under Canvas, or it's a tech product or whatever it is. So what was the capacity in your first, in that first installation? How many,

Sarah Dusek 12:34
Four tents, so we could host eight people at a time. So, and most of the time we had single groups. So it could be between two and eight people that we would host at a time. So very different than Under Canvas today. Very small scale, very upscale, and a very unique experience. Yeah, it was pretty wild.

Susan Sly 12:58
So how long did you- so many questions. How long was the time between the, you have an eight person capacity to growing it to the next stage?

Sarah Dusek 13:11
It took us three years to take that original concept and figure out what works about this concept before we re-launched the business that became Under Canvas. And our sort of our first under Canvas Camp was in Yellowstone, Yellowstone Under Canvas. And we launched that in 2012. And really that was a sort of a version three iteration between where we started and effectively the business model that we landed on which was creating tented hotels. And so that's, and that first area of Yellowstone we had 35 tents so it was a, was a very different look and feel from our four-tented camp in rural Montana.

Susan Sly 14:06
But I love that you said three years because this, there's a segment of people sometimes that wants that instant gratification. I know a young founder, and in two years he went from inception to selling the company. It was a, it wasn't a huge exit. He was only 22, wasn't a huge, I've heard him on the show a couple times. It wasn't a massive exit, it was you know, multiple, seven figures. But the point being is

Sarah Dusek 14:35

Susan Sly 14:36
Exactly, exactly. The bigger, we're seeing some crazy valuations with generative AI and all sorts of things. But the reality is that you go from eight and three years to that next level. How did you develop your original pricing model because pricing a new product, especially in a new market is is hard.

Sarah Dusek 15:02
We had no benchmark either because the glamping industry did not exist. I mean, we pioneered it, right. So I didn't know, nobody was doing what we were doing at that time. And I had no idea whether people would pay the same kind of rate they would pay to stay in a hotel room to stay in a tent. So we had no idea how to price it initially. Should we be more expensive, should we be less expensive? And the only way you figure that out was by trial and error, right, you have to test it. You have to put something out there and see what the market will bear. And so with our first iteration, we had four different types of tents with four different price points. A various different, you know, they had different standards and different experiences, the more expensive they got, the more luxurious they got, the cheaper they got, the more basic they got. And so we learned a lot actually from having different price points, because you could suddenly see what was selling, what was not selling, what was in demand, what was not in demand. And we really used that to figure out our optimal model if you like, because we use it to figure out what our sort of minimal viable product really was. And thinking about this is what the consumer really wants. This is what the markets telling us. And this, and this is therefore, how we shape our product accordingly with what the market is telling us. And then you also need to experiment. And over the years, as we got braver with Under Canvas, we realized, you know, where we thought the ceiling was on price was nowhere near where the ceiling was on price. And you only figure that out by testing, you know, be testing effectively, and you test the market and you see what kind of volume you can do and what people are buying and what they're not buying. And I don't think there's a quick way to do that. There's, you just have to test it. And I often say to entrepreneurs, now it's just like being a scientist, right? All of this with growing a business this is so like science, you know, if you think about developing a drug or developing a vaccine, you don't suddenly like, have a eureka moment wake up in the bath. And suddenly, you've developed a COVID vaccine, for example. You've been, you've been testing and modeling and trialing 1000s of things before you've got to the end result. And maybe you, then you tweaked a few more things to make it work for, you know, our COVID scenario. But effectively, you had a whole lot of noes, and a whole lot of lifts doesn't work to figure out the one thing that does work. And it's true for entrepreneurs too. And the faster we can test, the faster we can fail, the faster we can figure out what doesn't work, or what price point does work so that we know what does. And there's no way around that I don't think, unless someone tells me there's different around that then I'm all ears. But I haven't discovered there's a way around that.

Susan Sly 18:11
I love that you said braver, I'm writing that down. I'll pause on that for a moment later. But the pricing, so I took a Pricing course at MIT. And to build the model, you would have to have reference points from two other competitors. And in the space that Under Canvas was in, you would have reference points, maybe in Africa, like in foreign markets, but not what the US market could bear. And pricing a product, even with Radius when I was working on the pricing model with our team. I'm like, not even the MIT model can apply because no one's doing what we've done. And how do you create that?

Sarah Dusek 18:52
What we did was we took comparable product. So we were able to say okay, no one's doing what we're doing but hotels exist. And people pay in a hotel. Now I'm offering them an alternative to stay in a hotel. So I don't quite know what they're going to want to pay me. But I know they're already prepared to pay this price. And they're prepared to pay, you know, a certain price for a five star hotel and a certain price for a three star hotel and a certain price for four-star hotel. So I can deduct information from that, based on where I'm going to pitch myself in terms of how I'm positioning ourselves in an existing market, that I can hopefully move consumers from where they already are and what they're already used to and convert it into something that, you know, is comparable in my eyes, different but comparable. And I think so that applies in so many different contexts is. When you think okay, what is the consumer used to doing if they're doing something that's similar but different. So what is the most similar thing to mind, or what correlates in terms of, you know, say if we've got a subscription tech model, for example, what price people used to paying for subscriptions, or services, you know, and then how does my product compare with what people were already used to doing. Because the closer it is to something that's someone's already doing, the easier it will be to convince them to do what you want them to do and use your service or use your product.

Susan Sly 20:29
It's brilliant. And I hope everyone listening, especially if you're bringing a product or service to market, as Sarah said, testing, A B testing, look at comparable products. And then don't hesitate to even you know, with a group of friends, especially if you have a B to C product is say, what would you be willing to pay for this experience? And then describe your experience, your product. And I think it's, I love how you did that. So how, so Okay, now you're in Yellowstone. And it's three years later, at what point did you say we, in order to scale, because every entrepreneur gets to this point, unless they're, you know, able to bootstrap a massive company, at what point did you say we need funding in order to scale? Serious funding, not friends and family.

Sarah Dusek 21:20
There were two really key moments for us in that journey. The first piece of that puzzle was figuring out that we had a business model that could scale. So at the end of that first summer, in Yellowstone, we realized, oh, we have a business model that is scalable. I can see a pathway to growing this, to scaling this, to doing more of this. I could see a pathway for Under Canvas to be all over the country, and to replicate what we had built already. So that was step one, figuring out, do I have a business model that is scalable? And often I see entrepreneurs come to me as an investor today, coming to me with a business model that they've not through what scaling looks like. In other words, they haven't extrapolated it out, they haven't figured out you know, how big something that they've got could actually be and they've not necessarily gone to the end of the road and said, This is $100 million company and here's how I get there. Which takes us back to sort of the first comment that we started this conversation with about executing, because people who have a plan can execute. It's the people who don't have a plan that can't exit , you know, the execution plans that are very, very much tied together. So that was key for me. Having an understanding of I've got something that's scalable, and then you work backwards, and you go, Okay, what is it going to take to make that possible? What cash to, when to make that possible. And because we had, we built a business model that was profitable from the get go, we plowed all our profits, and all our future profits into bootstrapping. So we grew organically for, so from 2012, for another five years, before we raised institutional capital, and we grew from one location to four locations and had more more pipeline. So we did a lot by ourselves. But what we realized was, if we could now put more fuel in the tank, we could grow faster. If we now took more capital, we could, we could accelerate our growth. And I think that's really what venture capital is for. It's really for putting fuel in the tank and accelerating growth. And so I see it all the time. But entrepreneurs are coming to VCs, often knowing they need more capital, their cash burn is high, but without a clear pathway to accelerating growth. And VCs are not very interested in stuff that is not going to leverage their capital to accelerate the growth. So you've got to be really clear on if I'm taking capital, How is this money going to accelerate our growth? And what does our growth look like?

Susan Sly 24:29
And as you said, and in the Fast Company article, it's such an interesting time to be in a race and every conversation that, our round, we're doing is more like a B round because we have been profitable, so we haven't needed to bring in money. And every conversation is let me see your sales pipeline. And then we go through every customer in the pipeline, probability scores, and it's for every product we have. We have four of that. And it's you know, it's not like there's, there are VCs throwing money at generative AI, and they're placing bets. And it's such an interesting time. And, and I want to talk about that because one has to have a thick skin. Because especially as a woman, we know the statistics are brutal, less than two and a half percent of women lead pitches to VCs get funded. And that you're going to speak often to a junior associate who has a checklist and if you don't check every box, they don't bring you in front of their investment committee. And so it's, talking about raw and real, like, you have to be strong. So how many VCs did you go to?

Sarah Dusek 25:57
I have no idea. It wasa lot. I had so many conversations, where I didn't even get a foot in the door. And it took me, I don't know, certainly at least six months before I was even getting meetings, like before I was actually getting in front of anyone to actually give anyone a real pitch. So it was tough, because when I was raising, you know, in the early days, glamping was not a thing. And it wasn't tech. And so it was like, it was not one of these seem to be fast growing, nascent industries that was you know, it was a real estate, it was potentially, you know, high capital, low return, you know, growth path, not, not exponential. And so it was, it was a tough, it was a tough pitch. But the thing that was interesting, the thing that changed it for us was, someone else was out in the market, raising capital for an idea that they had for a glamping business. And of course, we were already doing their business, we were already making an app, and I was already profitable. And we've already had several million dollars of revenue. So we're a real company. And this guy was out in New York, pitching an idea very similar, it was not the same, but very similar. And he was speaking the right language, he was speaking in VC terms. And he was getting interest. And he was, he raised capital from some of the big, big funds across the country. And I put that down to the fact that of two things really. And if I take the gender thing aside, because I can be bitter and twisted about that if I want to, but if I take that aside for a second, and I look at that, with bare bones, the thing that gave him the edge was he had networks, one. So he was well connected within an industry where he was respected. He had played in spaces previously where it made him known to people. He had connections from from being at certain schools, which was meaningful. Women, I think, especially women tend to downplay how important networking is, we tend to downplay the significance of connections, the significance of who you know, being important. So that's one thing. And then second thing was really hear the language he was using. He was using terms that I'd never even heard of, like he started using terms like, this is an asset light model. This is, you know, has exponential potential. And, you know, just wanting to use buzzwords, but a bit like you said, you know, you've got a junior analyst checking a whole bunch of things off, are you speaking to him in a way that enables him to check his boxes? And often, women especially, don't know what's on the check sheet, right? So if you don't know what's on the check sheet, you can use the right language, you can't say the right things. You can't help position your business in a way that makes sense to the person in front of you or, you know, on the other side of the screen. And I think those two things are really, really critical. It's like learning the language is literally like learning a foreign language, learning the language that the people we deem to be gatekeepers are using so you can speak to it. You can speak in a way, you can give them a data that they're looking for, you can use the terms, you can help them see how you are the next best thing because you are going to check all their boxes. And then secondly, the critical importance of understanding. It's just who you know, who you are connected with, you know, and this is having conversations, this is having 100 phone calls, this is building relationships, this is putting value on spending time meeting people, even if you're not raising, right? Recognizing the importance of building a community of people around you who know what you're doing, that you're being seen in the right places, you're talking to the right people. And that you're being, you're getting connected. And honestly, I hate all of that stuff. It is not my favorite thing. But it is part of the reality of being a founder trying to grow and scale a company that is going to need money at some point in time. And so building your networks, building new relationships, is really, really important.

Susan Sly 30:57
I love that you said that. Because the network is so key. And I love what you said about the language and it has to be defendable. I do an exercise. We're going through with the team, every item on the Excel has to be defendable. And then one of our people, they'll say, can you defend that? And I'm like, Yeah, I can defend that. And if I can't, I have to go back and figure out a way that I can do because it's such a, between, and just being raw and real with what Sam Bankman-Fried did, and you know, all of the things Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes, so we had people who raised a significant amount of money, and there wasn't the same due diligence, and it was like, Oh, this seems like a very attractive idea. And then, you know, they had the network, they spoke the language, but under due diligence,

Sarah Dusek 31:50
Substance behind it.

Susan Sly 31:52
Exactly, Yes. And so the I think, you know, for me, we have so much substance, and I've had to, I've had to learn the language. And I'm so grateful. One of the things that I do enjoy, building the relationships. And one of the things I do, I'll give you a little secret. So when I'm at a function, and I meet someone, I'll take a photo of us, and then I'll send a note card with the photo on it. And most times I do it myself, I just do it through an app on my phone, or I'll have my assistant send it. And I have so many people saying, oh, Susan, we know a VC, Do you want an introduction? I know this person, I know this person, because it's just, you know, be a good person, show up, get to know people. And when you are ready to raise funds, people will open doors for you. But then once the door is open, you need to show up like your badass self like, because you can't afford to have a bad day, because you get 15 minutes. They're like, someone said VCs are all like, super, super, you know, low attention span. So you have to you know, keep them engaged. Yeah. So you speak to countless people. And then when did you get your first term sheet? Did it just come via email or did you know it was coming?

Sarah Dusek 33:18
My first term sheet, there's a little story behind our first term sheet and then our first term sheet, I turned down. In that, I had spent about 18 months, finally trying to get someone to back us and get someone to believe in us. And I finally got our first term sheet to the table and I was you know, whooped for joy just seeing this term sheet come in. And I had been, I had been, you know, I had to meet them in person and they had come to meet us. And we'd spent quite a bit of time together by the time we first got the first term sheet. When I got the first term sheet, the terms were horrible. And they were not terms that I wanted. And I didn't think made sense. And I had some kind of context for what this other guy had been doing and raising and his raise had been public, made publicly known. And my deal was worse than his. And I thought, hang on a minute. He's got an idea. And I've got a multimillion dollar business with its, with EBITA. And my deal is worse? And so it was rough, was really brutal. And I, the challenge of navigating that and not wanting to let go of it because it's taken so long to get a term sheet to the table. And at the same time wrestling with these terms don't feel good. They don't, I don't feel good about them and I don't feel good about this partnership. And I feel like I'm selling my soul if I do this deal. And, and having to wrestle down with this is not just about money, it's also about people. And are these the right people to go on this journey with me on the next leg of my journey, and if I'm not feeling like the terms of this deal are great for me, are we can have a great partnership? And so it was rough as I ultimately had to turn them down and ultimately said, I, this is not going to work for me this, you know, and I was so we were so strapped for cash, I mean, desperately needed the money. But turning them down, you know, just felt like if I hadn't turned them down, I'd have been lying in a bed that I didn't want to lie in for the next five years. And so, you know, it was like, do I listen to my values or do I take the money? And those moments happen all the time for entrepreneurs, you're constantly sort of, in a scenario where you're faced with dilemmas, because you've got urgent needs and urgent stressors, and it's so easy to then cut a corner, take, make a price cut, you know, do something that potentially, in a normal circumstance, you would never even consider doing. But you know, the pressure that entrepreneurship puts you under, can put you under a lot of pressure to do things that that, you know, you might not want to do or shouldn't do, or shouldn't accept. And that was, that was the case for us with our first term sheet. And so my first term sheet, I turned down.

Susan Sly 36:38
For our UK audience, the first term sheet was rubbish. And then how long between that one and the one that you accepted?

Sarah Dusek 36:49
Well, after that, I stood in front of my entire team, because everybody knew we were raising. And I had to announce, you know, it's not going to happen, guys. I'm pulling the plug. And I stood in front of everybody, and I stopped. I'm like, when you like, you choking up. And then all sudden, you're not choking up, it's all like coming out from every orifice. And, and it's ugly. And it's like

Susan Sly 37:16
the ugly cry. Yeah.

Sarah Dusek 37:20
You're like, I'm the CEO of this company, I'm supposed to be looking professional, and this moment is not professional. It's a complete wipe out. And I just, I felt so awful for everyone. But it really was the courage of my team and the encouragement of my team that said, it's okay, we believe in you, it's gonna be alright. And everyone's saying, You got this, we're gonna figure this out, we're gonna find a way and we're gonna get this done, and we're gonna keep working. And you know, it will happen. And was probably about six, seven or eight months later, we close a deal with a fantastic partner with infinitely better terms raise, you know, 15 million on that round, as opposed to seven original deal. But yeah, it was, it took a bit of time, it took me picking myself back up the floor, off the floor, putting my big girl pants on, getting back out there, deciding this wasn't over. And that we could do this. And the pain of this process is surreal. It's hard. It's emotionally draining. And you know so much about it feels so personal and feels so, this is so much about me when actually it's not. It's just about does your, does your deal the best deal that I'm seeing, and I'm seeing 1000s of them week. Is your deal standing out? And that's hard. That's hard. And is your deal of right fit for that particular team?

Susan Sly 39:01
For their investment philosophy this year?

Sarah Dusek 39:06
Exactly. Is it, does it make sense for what, what they're looking at and what they're looking for. And that's why you end up having to have a lot of conversations and trying to find the right fit. And the right folks, but yeah, we, my secret in that moment, was I ended up using a broker after that disastrous, you know, I'd spent a year trying to get a term sheet to table and finally did. After that, I was just like, I just don't want to keep meeting the wrong people. I want to meet the right people who might be a better fit for us and who could understand what we're looking for. And so, for me at that point, a broker was hugely helpful because they helped matchmake and they helped put us together with the right kind of people doing the right kind of deal with the right kind of valuation. And, and it just, it was a thoughtful process that helped me cut through the, you know, trying to figure out, are you the right fit? Or are you not the right fit? And it's like dating, right? And there's, there's no option to swipe left or swipe, swipe right? I mean, just don't get that choice. And so the broker was super helpful for us with raising capital thereafter.

Susan Sly 40:28
And it's that, and what you said, you know, it's exhausting. And it feels so personal. And that the checklist, if one can stand back and look at it, and just laugh, when we immigrated from Canada to the United States, during our green card, there was a checklist. So in my past life, Sarah, I was a professional athlete. And so every week, I'd have a training program, based on when the race was, so I was very used to checking boxes. So for the green card, I said, Okay, to my attorney, what is the Green Card we're applying for? What is the checklist, there were 15 items. And then I was very intentional. I was like, Okay, I'm gonna pray on this. And it was one of them, I had to peer review a journal. And literally the next week, my friend who was editor of a Journal said, Hey, Susan, do you want to be the guest editor for this journal, and then win an award. And then, you know, it was like, a couple of months after that, our company was nominated for an award, and it just these different things happen. And like you said, if you know the checklist, and you have the right match for the the investor, and there are strategics. And then there are you know, the VCs, if you have that match, and then you also don't want, I had a five minute conversation with one of them, I'm like, I don't think we're a good fit, you know. And so I started asking questions, I'm like, so what size of the fund? What is your average investment? What are the minimum KPIs you look for? Okay, we're not gonna waste each other's time, we're good. I'm not in the convincing business. So knowing that checklist, I have one more question about this. And then I know, like, for everyone listening, this is like, you know, if the show really is, and you know, you've heard me say it before, and in some shows, we have had wine, it's just early in the morning for me, so I'm not going to have any, but it's like these chats if we were sitting around having one, and just talking as founders, and that you get to glimpse into this world. So Sarah, selling the company, did that come through an I bank or a broker? Like out of the blue, how did the that first sort of like, Hey, I'm kind of interested in acquiring you?

Sarah Dusek 42:49
Well, we, I wasn't sn't out looking to go and sell the company, we were just raising more capital. And, you know, we had done capital raising before. And so it was time to raise more money and larger amounts of money than we'd raised before. And really, at that moment, we had an investment banker working for us trying to help us raise capital at that point. So we were trying to raise a large amount. And that process, linked us to the folks that bought the majority of Under Canvas. And it was through that process that they fell in love with the business and decided they didn't just want to put capital in, they would like to own the majority of it, and take it on its next leg of its journey. So it was unexpected, and wasn't something that we were looking for. But it happened.

Susan Sly 43:52
And that's, and there's so many different types of stories. We had one founder, my friend Will, he and his partner sold their business, I think for about $300 million. And it was similar. It was like sort of they were taking market share. He was a guest on the show. They were taking market share and food delivered before UberEATS and all these things. And they had locked down a significant portion of the southeast. And so they ended up getting acquired but the deal almost fell through. And so there, you know, when he was on the show, he's talking about all of the emotions that happen when you're under term for the acquisition and what happens potentially with co founders and emotional relationships. And again, it's like this, you know, this, this up and down and up and down. So there's so many more things I could ask, you know, and just, I'm just honestly so grateful in my heart. It's always wonderful to interview a female founder who's just kicked ass which is awesome. And now with Enygma, fueling your soul and investing in women led startups in Africa, what is the process for women to apply? Is it only in certain countries?

Sarah Dusek 45:11
We, we invest across southern and eastern Africa at the moment. And one of the things I didn't like about the VC space, which I have been advocating for in this show, has been how important your networks are. But I happen to think that being networked is can be quite a discriminative thing. It's harder for people, for people of color, harder for women, harder if you didn't go to a certain type of school or move in certain circles. I's just harder to be connected, not impossible, harder. And so one of the things that we wanted to make sure that we did was create access for founders, and would not necessarily be on the radar for the average VC in the States. Most female founders in Africa, right, doesn't mean there aren't female founders here who are growing and scaling extraordinary businesses. We've invested in some incredible powerhouse women who are seriously kicking back and making things happen and literally transforming their country. I mean, it's wild. But one of the things that was important to us was that if we could get the word out, it didn't matter if you had a warm intro, it didn't matter if someone else knew you and could introduce you to me. And so we opened with an open application process. And we do that a few times a year where we open applications on our website, and we say, here's the criteria, here's our boxes, here's our checklist.

Susan Sly 46:47
Transparent about the checklist.

Sarah Dusek 46:50
The checklist, and saying this is what I'm looking for, this is what's going to float my boat. This is what kind of person I need. Because it's not just you know, how's your, is your business meeting these, these checklists. But this is the kind of person that I think will be successful, and therefore, this is who I'm looking for. And so we make all of that really public, really clear. And so that if you're not that today, you can either have the chance to transform yourself, and rework your business to fit that or work your business so that you're growing at the rate we're kind of looking for, or doing the amount of revenue that we're looking for. So that, so that there's a much wider spectrum of people who have an opportunity to be successful. Because I am a huge believer in capitalist power. And that if you have capital, you can make things happen. And if you can make things happen, you can change the world. So I really think it matters, that a diverse group of people have access to that kind of power, because we'll build a more diverse, more inclusive world for everyone, not just a certain segment of the population of the world. And so that's how we've done it at Enygma, we just opened up applications two or three times a year, give everyone a heads up. And then if we say no to you, if we pass, we'll tell you why. And we'll tell you, Okay, we think you need to get on this. We run programs for entrepreneurs, we have a partner company that runs programs for entrepreneurs across the continent, that helps you become investor ready, teaches you how to launch, teaches you how to become investor ready teaches you about growth and scaling. And we say okay, probably need to go through one of our programs, hop on over here, and we'll teach you everything we know about this, and then come back, and we'll look at you again. And I had one founder that I invested in, sit was in 2021, 2023 now and she went through, we said no four times. She went through every single one of our programs, and she kept showing up and showing. And she showed me that this woman is really determined and I was thinking okay, if she does this determined about getting funding, she's gonna be this determined about making her business a success. I should take her seriously. And we've refunded her a small amount of capital in 2022. She's going great guns doing,

Susan Sly 49:16
Which country is she from?

Sarah Dusek 49:18
She's in South Africa, doing almost, she'll almost $2 million in revenue this year.

Susan Sly 49:24
That's amazing. Well, firstly, you had me at checklist. I mean seriously like, and I have such a heart for women in Africa. And I just Sarah, I want to commend you for what you're doing because people have not been, especially I mean, that we spoke about this earlier. I've been to Malawi many times but there are some rural areas in South Africa in Malawi, where women are forced to drop out of nursery school because they have to help with their siblings or there's so many things. My daughter Maggie was found, you know, walking the streets of Lilongwe, she had, both her parents had died and we'll go into her story but no one wanted her. And I became her legal guardian and, you know, she's now got a degree and she's working so hard and she wants to be an entrepreneur. You know, like, what is your business plan, Maggie, what is your life plan? But there are so many you know, in America or Canada we might get upset because of something we read in the news. Try having a life where you're in a rural village where you're still getting water every day in a bucket.

Sarah Dusek 50:40
Walking to go and get water in a bucket. Absolutely. Yeah.

Susan Sly 50:43
Or if you think your life is hard go to a child birthing clinic in the middle of the you know, a cornfield in Malawi. And yeah, anyway, that is a story for, we will have to have whine. I'm either going to come visit you in, or I'll go to Bozeman, but I'll come visit you in South Africa. I might actually be going there. So anyway, Sarah, it's been such a pleasure to connect with you. And thank you for, I have so many high points for the show. I've never given them in over 300 episodes, but the ugly cry, Thank you. Braver, I love that. And just you know that transparency, and you know, not taking it personally even as hard as it is to do so. Thank you for everything you're doing in the world. I said at the beginning of the show, I think I might helm your fan club. But now I'm convinced

Sarah Dusek 51:40
Well, when you exit your show, come on, invest in our firm, Susan and help us make, drive more women entrepreneurs.

Susan Sly 51:48
Well, 1000s of people around the world will witness this. And yes, I will. It's, there we go. My word is my word. My word is my word. And I'm going to get messages from Africa saying you better keep your word so, 100%. And if you ever, you know, in one of the courses or whatever want me to come and share, I'm more than happy to do that.

Sarah Dusek 52:11

Susan Sly 52:12
All right, everyone. Well, if this show has touched you in any way, as it has me, please give us a five star review because Sarah and I are gonna ask for what we want. That is our one checklist request. And if, and we'd love for you to share the show. All of Sarah's social media's in our show notes. The whole transcript is in our show notes and connecting with Enygma, you can get all the links in the show notes. So with that, God bless. Go rock your day. And I will see you in the next episode.

Susan Sly 52:42
Hey, this is Susan and thanks so much for listening to this episode on Raw and Real Entrepreneurship. If this episode or any episode has been helpful to you, you've gotten at least one solid tip from myself or my guests, I would love it if you would leave a five star review wherever you listen to podcasts. After you leave your review, go ahead and email Let us know where you left a review. And if I read your review on the air, you could get a $50 amazon gift card and we would so appreciate it because reviews do help boost the show and get this message all over the world. If you're interested in any of the resources we discussed on the show, go to That's where all the show notes live. And with that, go out there, rock your day, God bless. And I will see you in the next episode.

Susan Sly 53:33
Are you currently an employee looking to start your own business? Maybe you've been thinking about it for a while and you're just not sure where to start? Well my course Employee to Entrepreneur combines my decades of experience as an entrepreneur with proven methods, techniques and skills to help you take that leap and start your own business. This course is self paced, Learn on Demand and comes with an incredible workbook. And that will allow you to go through this content piece by piece by piece, absorb it, take action and then go on to the next module. So check out my course on, Employee to Entrepreneur.

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Author Susan Sly

Susan Sly is considered a thought leader in AI, award winning entrepreneur, keynote speaker, best-selling author, and tech investor. Susan has been featured on CNN, CNBC, Fox, Lifetime, ABC Family, and quoted in Forbes Online, Marketwatch, Yahoo Finance, and more. She is the mother of four and has been working in human potential for over two decades.

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