Former Shopify senior leader and current founding partner of Backbone Angels Arati Sharma has been named Canada’s Angel of the Year by the National Angel Capital Organization (NACO).
This year has been a busy one for Sharma, who left Shopify in January, co-founded a new women-focused angel investment group, Backbone Angels, in March, and backed 28 startups and four funds, including StandUp Ventures.
“I do hope that this inspires more people to write cheques and back women.”
In an interview, Sharma told BetaKit that the award means people care about the work that she’s doing to help more diverse entrepreneurs succeed. “I do hope that this inspires more people to write cheques and back women, because the data shows that women are still not being backed and invested in as much as we should be,” she said.
NACO CEO Claudio Rojas told BetaKit that the Angel of the Year award is about more than just investing—it’s about recognizing an individual “who has made a significant contribution in supporting Canada’s entrepreneurs.” He added that Sharma’s support of underrepresented groups strongly resonated with the award’s nominations committee.
The Angel of the Year award, which is supported by BDC Capital, was first launched by NACO in 2014. Its past winners include Mark Dobbin, president of Killick Capital and early investor in Verafin, and Sophie Forest, managing partner of Brightspark Ventures, who played an important role in the investment, growth and exit of Radian6.
Sharma first joined Shopify after the small Toronto-based digital design agency she was working at, Jet Cooper, was acquired by Shopify in 2013.
Her angel investing journey began while she was working at Shopify, when she started writing small cheques to tech entrepreneurs alongside her husband, also a Shopify employee, leveraging the windfall she received when the retail giant went public.
At Shopify, Sharma served in a few different roles, including, most recently, director of product marketing from January 2017 to January 2021. She then left the company to focus on angel investing and Ghlee, the ghee-based skincare brand she co-founded in 2019 with her brother.
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As an angel investor, Sharma said she took a passive approach to start, but after she took a closer look at her portfolio, Sharma realized she was backing a lot of white men, and few women.
To change this, Sharma started Backbone Angels in March alongside nine other early Shopify employees who held management positions at the company.
Backbone Angels is a newly formed group of angel investors in Canada that focuses on investing in women and non-binary founders, with a specific eye towards Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC)-led companies.
To date, Sharma has invested in 50 companies. Her main focus is on Canada, but she also invests outside the country, including starting in India. Sharma’s investment portfolio includes startups like Willful, Disco, Fable, Sheertex, Kotn, and #paid.
Sharma’s strategy this year was to invest in a lot of different types of companies, from space to direct-to-consumer, wellness, and tech.
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She said she set out this year to meet with “everyone who’s raising.” She takes a lot of calls, and estimates she has met with at least 300 founders this year. “A deck can only tell you so much at the nascent stage,” she said.
“I’m really excited to talk to women,” said Sharma, who added that she relishes the opportunity to provide a boost of confidence, constructive feedback, and potentially, some capital.
Sharma advised prospective angel investors to have a clear sense of who you want to back, and invest in the founders and entrepreneurs they want to see. She added that for entrepreneurs, “I just want more women to know that this capital exists because so many people don’t,” said Sharma.
“I just want more women to know that this capital exists.”
Rojas said he has seen Sharma’s community-based investment approach reflected across Canada’s angel investment ecosystem with groups like The51 and Halo Health.
The NACO CEO argued that it is “critical” that the angel asset class becomes more accessible, from an economic inclusion and social progress perspective, adding that “we can’t risk leaving any entrepreneur behind.”
“Angels are everywhere, in all communities, and come from all backgrounds, so they can play a meaningful role in finding the next Verafin, for example, that was hiding in St. John’s,” said Rojas.
To better reflect the shifting world of angel investing, Rojas said NACO has revised its historic definition of angel investor from individuals that put their capital directly into companies to investors who put capital at risk in the early-stage ecosystem more broadly, including towards funds. Next year, the organization plans to introduce a new award to recognize the fund LP of the year.
Feature image courtesy of Arati Sharma