Did you know California will be the first state in America to impose a female quota on company boards? I am sure this topic is sparking all sorts of debates and unspoken and spoken resentment. The EU took similar actions last year requiring boards to be comprised of 40% women. In Norway, (not an EU member), 42% of board seats are held by women after similar laws were passed in 2006. In comparison, today, women make up 20% of boards in the US.*
The Financial Times recently quoted senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who wrote this controversial California bill that is being introduced. She told the paper in a recent article, “With women comprising over half the population and making over 70% of purchasing decisions, their insight is critical to discussions and decisions that affect corporate culture, actions, and profitability. The time has come for California to bring gender equity to our corporate boards.”
During my graduate school days, a mere three years ago, I spent countless late night hours reading class assigned business case studies and interpreting what worked, and what didn’t. I learned about boards and their impacts on the direction of companies. Through those readings, I couldn’t help but think back on my career in tech, and as a woman, not being able to recall one single company that I have been part of where a woman served on the board…except when it comes to school and neighborhood boards…where the majority of members are volunteers and women – ‘the soccer moms.’ (I loathe that phrase as these women are far more than great parents supporting their kids as they learn leadership, physical and team skills.) I realized I was one of those women too, serving on neighborhood boards in Oklahoma City where I lived for three years, and currently in San Francisco where I now reside. I am also on public school boards as an auditor and social media chair, and on a political parent action board, serving as a communications co-chair. They have all, I believe, made for better and safer communities but, at the core, ones filled with unpaid volunteers.
That all changed about a year ago for me.
I became determined to find board opportunities. I asked myself, how can my MBA and 20 years in Silicon Valley serve companies as they grow? I talked to two companies who specialize in finding women board seats. One convinced me to pay an ‘initiation fee’ and then a reoccurring monthly fee to be listed on their site and to have the opportunity to apply to board roles. The experience led to ZERO opportunities. The other company wanted thousands of dollars upfront in exchange for a seat at meetings where investors came together to discuss topics. The founder would introduce me to them in ‘hopes’ that these people would hire me. I declined the ‘opportunity’ after asking myself, do men pay to be on boards?
Last year, I had nearly given up on finding a seat at the table when a company based in Tel Aviv, Crowdvocate, asked to meet with me in San Francisco as the two founders were here for Advocamp. I didn’t know why they wanted to meet with me but I am a huge proponent of Customer Advocacy. After meeting Gal Biran and Gal Briner, (co-founders) and reviewing their product, I knew I wanted to be part of the customer advocacy category they are building. “According to Bain and Company, a 5% increase in customer retention can increase a company’s profitability by 75%!” Your customers offer a huge potential. Are you tapping it?
When they asked me to be on their advisory board, I was shocked because they offered me a stake in their company in exchange for my feedback and experience in customer success & customer marketing. It was like they knew I wanted to work with companies as a strategic advisor after years of experience in these fields. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity and we sealed the deal a couple months later.
Fast forward six months.
Two brothers, Edward and Kevin Chiu, contacted me about joining their advisory board. They have built a customer success platform, Catalyst, and are seeking to “rebuild customer success from the ground up with an integrated software platform.” The founders showed me their product and shared their vision. I have implemented two customer success platforms in my career and see tremendous value in leveraging this type of technology to proactively manage customers. I accepted the two-year opportunity in exchange for an attractive stock options package and each month I look forward to our meetings as we review the product, their goals, challenges, and strategy.
What have I learned during this process of seeking board opportunities and finally landing a couple?
1. The volunteer boards you contribute to do count as ‘real experience.’
What I learned by being on neighborhood boards and two school boards over the past decade has served me well. Not only did these opportunities give me a way to give back to the community but I have learned
- how to communicate more effectively at a leadership level,
- how to cooperate with people who have very different views than I do,
- how to manage a budget (take on the auditor role – you will quickly learn!).
If you have this experience, put it on your resume & your LinkedIn profile. It counts!
2. If you want a board job, then network, leverage social media, write, & give back.
I know that making time to go to meetups, to write blogs and to volunteer is hard work after a full day at work. It is a balancing act. For me as a mother, it means giving up some nights with my children to go to events and to travel, getting up early and staying up late to write, and volunteering my time to teach, coach, mentor, and serve on volunteer boards. For me, it’s worth it and I have a supportive partner who does his equal share of the childcare and household chores. It also helps that my daughter are now 7 and 12 and fairly independent compared to 5 years ago.
3. If you are going to take a seat at the table, speak up with respect.
I went to a board meeting yesterday when the president showed up 10 minutes late and didn’t notify anyone in advance of her tardiness. We had as a group decided to start the meeting right on time as we all had other commitments to get to and the agenda was quite packed. She showed up and you feel her anger and frustration over the fact that we had proceeded without her. She pulled out her cell phone and immediately disengaged until I directed a question at her. That’s when all hell broke loose. I called her out on her disrespect and told her that if she wasn’t pleased with us starting then she should dial into the meeting, apologize once she arrived, and move forward with being a leader and contributor. After her blow-up, she decided to engage and we were able to make some critical decisions. I don’t hold a grudge and don’t take it personally either. You are a team at the table making decisions that will impact people and businesses you care about.
4. Being on the board means not always agreeing with the executive decisions.
I’m not suggesting you make board meetings a place to have quarrels but if you don’t agree with someone, speak up. Tell them why and engage in a conversation around it. One of the advertisements that a company was going to release really upset me as I felt it was an attack on women over 50. I told the founder why I couldn’t resonate with the ad and how much it actually insulted me. I told him the ad had absolutely nothing to do with the product and releasing the ad potentially risked his reputation and that of the company. The ad campaign was scrapped.
Often women hold back as do people with more junior titles. I have learned over time that you are doing the board and company a disservice by not sharing your views. If you are on a board, it is your responsibility to engage in a conversation. You have been elected to share your ideas. Do it!
Bringing All Together
You don’t have to be on a board to speak your mind and make a positive impact on communities and company direction. Find the courage, back up your ideas and speak up!
If you have a story or advice to share about joining a board, please share yours and inspire others to consider inviting women on their boards. We make up 50% of the customer’s voice. Isn’t it about time we too had a seat at the table?
Fortune, Claire Zillman, November 20, 2017, The EU Is Taking a Drastic Step to Put More Women on Corporate Boards, https://for.tn/2NVrxQN
Brotopia, 2018, Emily Chang, Chapter 5, Super Heroes and Superjerks, The Role of Venture Capitalists. https://amzn.to/2QcF88d
Medium, The Evolution of Her Seat, October 24, 2017, Rachael Quon, http://bit.ly/2O0Vv62