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How Women on Boards is working to place more women in the boardrooms of consumer companies

The nonprofit says it has made 35 placements over the last two years, and hopes to reach a “larger scale” this year.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

For all the talk about giving women a seat at the table, the chairs in boardrooms have been consistently monopolized by men. This is especially true for privately owned companies, where just 14.2% of board members are women, per a recent study by Bolster. But the Women on Boards (WOB) Project is pushing companies—particularly in the consumer space—to go back to the drawing board.

Since its debut in February 2020, the nonprofit has worked to increase representation and says it has helped place 35 women on boards thus far (over half of whom are first-time board members).

  • In February, ear-piercing startup Rowan announced two new board members: former Delia*s CEO Tracy Gardner and former Beautycounter COO Ana Badell.
  • Julep Beauty founder and former CEO Jane Hyo-Sung Park said she would join Glo Skin Beauty’s board in January, while Perfect Day CMO Allison Fowler took a board seat at Copper Cow Coffee last October.

One of the “key observations” that kicked off the WOB Project was recognizing that a lack of boardroom diversity doesn’t stem from a shortage of women suitable for these seats, noted co-founder and Executive Director Cassie Burr.

“That whole framing is really problematic,” Burr told Retail Brew. “There’s not a supply problem—there’s more than an ample number of amazing women. And the phrase ‘board ready’ is also really problematic. It’s like this magical threshold that you’re supposed to achieve to now be considered for boards. And that’s just not true.”

  • The WOB Project is also pushing against the idea that board members can only be retired CEOs, noting that boards are increasingly interested in candidates with “deep functional expertise.”

Connect the dots: Burr said the group’s “secret sauce” is a “white-glove approach,” given its breadth of industry connections. In addition to Burr, talent partner at PE firm VMG Partners, WOB’s co-founders include former Clif CEO Sheryl O’Loughlin, Siddhi Capital General Partner and co-founder Melissa Facchina, and VMG co-founder and Managing Director Kara Roell, who died last year.

  • The nonprofit partners with PE firms like L Catterton, TSG Consumer Partners, Encore Consumer Capital, and CircleUp—who have “a position of influence,” Burr noted—to work with their portfolio companies on changing board composition.

Adding a board seat is an effective way to put a woman in a power position without replacing someone in the C-suite, Burr noted: “It’s a really powerful signal to the organization that diversity matters when your CEO’s boss is a group of individuals that better represents the consumers the company is serving.”

WOB collabs with companies on candidate scorecards, compensation plans, and interview and research strategies. It sources candidates through a partnership with talent marketplace TheBoardlist, plus its own contacts. The group asks that companies interview at least 70% of the candidates it identifies, Burr said.

“We’re obviously talking about gender diversity, but it’s important to look at intersectionality and other aspects and demographics around diversity, too,” she said. “And that means we don’t want our companies cherry-picking.”

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  • Burr said the WOB Project aims for 40%–50% (or more) of candidates to be otherwise underrepresented, like being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, disabled, or a military veteran.

Work in progress: WOB Project is one of many initiatives working to elevate board diversity. Goldman Sachs said in 2021 it wouldn’t take a company public if it didn’t have two diverse board members, with at least one woman. And a 2018 California law established quotas of woman board members for the state’s publicly held companies, a “bold” move that Burr praised.

  • In the retail industry, 37 of the 56 companies this law applied to met the requirement by the end of 2021; now, 33% of retail board seats in California are held by women, per a California Partners Project report.
  • A similar California law requiring board diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender identity that went into effect in 2020 was struck down by the Los Angeles County Superior Court earlier this month.

Boarding up: WOB Project has already established six committees this year to grow its impact, including a community and mentorship team working to connect the group of women it’s placed in board roles and a sponsor relations committee that aims to double its investor sponsors to ~20.

  • A new strategic partnerships group, meanwhile, collaborates with other initiatives like Him for Her, another (but non-industry specific) organization working to boost board diversity. It’s also working with someone at Nasdaq, hoping to “benchmark” partner companies’ performances against peers to demonstrate the benefits of a gender-diverse board.

WOB Project doesn’t have a hard target for 2022 placements, but with the extra help, Burr expects “a lot bigger scale.” It’s also hoping to expand its reach to other segments like gaming and marketplaces, but will remain focused on private consumer companies, she said, where its team has the most expertise—and where there’s often less transparency than public companies.

“Women are driving 80% of purchasing decisions yet are rarely represented on boards. And this group of women, we really have an opportunity to change that,” Burr said.

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