Shaping the Future: How Him for Her is Transforming Corporate Boardrooms
Corporate diversity has been a growing concern over the last several decades. While many companies have hired Chief Diversity Officers and diversity leaders to spearhead DEI efforts, we often forget the faces of decision makers at the very top – the board of directors. The board of directors, advisors to the CEO and company strategy, are an important and powerful part of the conversation.
That’s where Him for Her comes in. The organization, led by CEO and Founder Jocelyn Mangan, was created out of the knowledge that companies with diverse boards perform better – it’s just a matter of connecting qualified candidates with decision makers at the top. Him for Her is the connector between board-building companies and diverse, board-qualified candidates, making the process of finding diverse talent easy.
Learn more from the summary of the recent conversation between Mangan and Council for Inclusive Capitalism CEO, Meredith Sumpter, or listen to the full recorded conversation.
I hope that you could share with our listeners how the mission and work of him for her came about. How did you recognize the need for better networking and create this organization as a solution for it?
The idea started when I was a Henry Crown Fellow of Aspen Institute in 2016. Part of the fellowship is starting a project that you think will be world changing. I’ve always really loved my career, so I knew I wanted to do something around women at work. I chose to focus on the boardroom because of my lived experience. I was brought into the boardroom early, at the age of 28, to pitch an idea and saw the lack of diversity firsthand. As I was brought in throughout my career, I understood the altitude of that room and realized if we could change the makeup of people, the world could really look different.
I’m a product person at heart and when I looked at the audience of the people in the room, it was mostly men. When I went and interviewed my audience, I learned two things that really shaped our unique approach to this. The first being that everyone wanted to help bring more diverse, qualified people into the room but they didn’t know how. And the second thing is when I asked them how they found their last board member, they had a personal network story. So, my “aha” coming out of those conversations was understanding that this isn’t a pipeline issue – this is a network opportunity. If we could find ways to expand the network of the people who are already in the boardroom, this landscape could shift.
We started not knowing it would be a company, it was a project, a private networking dinner. That set up was born out of the many stories I heard that board members met their future colleagues at a dinner. That pilot project launched our business and our approach.
How does diverse board leadership, especially with respect to gender and race contribute to the success of a company in terms of the value that it generates?
Companies have a huge influence on our lives. All you have to do is turn on the news or pick up the newspaper to see it, so we believe that a company is a great lever for change. We’re always using companies’ products, companies’ policies are shaping how long we take leave, or our routines. There are so many things that are guided by companies
The boardroom sits above the CEO, between shareholders and the rest of the company. When you understand the power that those boards hold, it underscores the importance of cognitive diversity. If you look at what we’ve all been through in this world over the last three years, it hasn’t been easy. And you wouldn’t want the same demographic shaping policies and decisions around such hard topics. Groupthink can be the riskiest thing, not just for innovation, but also for business as a whole. So diversity, and cognitive diversity is really important.
Could you speak a little bit further about how having more women in positions of business leadership impacts society?
We’re half the population. We are consumers, we are buyers, and we have a valuable unique perspective. Some of the things we’ve heard from the CEOs who have added diverse candidates, who’ve added women, who have added independent board members, is that it helps them think more long term than short term. It’s important to make sure we are not shaping our future based on a single lens. It helps employees see themselves in that board member. It helps that the board think about policies differently as it relates to things like compensation or leave. It brings an operator’s point of view. Oftentimes in many private companies, on a board you’ve got a CEO or founder and a series of investors who are all smart people, but the CEO is looking for guidance and partnership around operating talent. And many times that voice is missing.
The point here is that gender plays an important role because it introduces a new lens of thinking that brings other benefits to it like operating skill sets.
We have read some of the research findings Him for Her has shared in partnership with information company Crunchbase on the diversity of boards of large, privately funded companies. What are some of the most striking trends you are observing in the gender makeup of private company boards?
We began by researching public boards because that information was readily available. What many people don’t realize, though, are these public companies are the vast minority – most companies are private, but we couldn’t find the data on board diversity for private companies. Knowing the influence of these private companies, we started our own study.
In our study, which covers the most highly funded venture-backed private companies, we found nearly a third of private boards are still all male. Only 4% have a woman of color – that only jumped one percentage point year over year and stayed static for the years prior. In fact, in the prior year, there were more CEOs named “Dave” than women of color on boards. Only one in seven directors in this space is a woman. So there’s a lot of opportunity here because there’s no shortage of women or people of color to fill every open seat. The challenge is ensuring that the people who hold the opportunities are meeting these incredible, diverse candidates.
What challenges has Him for Her encountered when working with companies? What is your process for bringing these diverse candidates into the room?
The challenge today is most boards start by asking, “who do we know?” Versus asking “what do we need?” That results in the “who they know” looking a lot like the existing board members. But if you can create environments where people who hold the opportunities get to know these great women, then the magic happens, the conversations begin, the introductions get started and the seats get filled. We go about doing that in a few different ways.
We convene what we call “executive roundtables”, both in person and remote. We make sure that these roundtables are gender equal. That they represent both people who are qualified to sit on boards alongside people who can actually put them on boards. And we create a curated off-the-record conversation that allows people to meet those they wouldn’t have otherwise met. We’ve also realized that partnering with the investment community is key because they’re sitting on all those private companies. When you get to know investors, you learn who’s looking to add a board member, and we can always introduce talented people.
A key ingredient to what we do is we’re a nonprofit. We wanted to create a model that put commercial friction in the background. We don’t charge women to participate in our work, we equally don’t charge for introductions to the women in our network, and that’s allowed us to make a lot of progress in a short amount of time.
In your experience, what are investor’s reactions to increasing diversity? Are people lining up and eager or is there push back?
We’ve been around about 4.5 years and we launched our strategy to partner with the investment community about two years ago. Today, we’re working with over 100 investment firms. I was told that it might be a challenge to get investors to pay attention to our work, but we haven’t found that at all. What I see in my work is that the boardroom will never lose its importance and the people in it guide the success of the company’s future. CEOs are hungry for strong board members to guide them towards success. And strong means diverse, and diverse means thinking differently. We can point to those 100+ firms to show that the interest is there.
If anything gets in the way, it’s inertia. CEOs are so busy, it is so hard to run a company today. And oftentimes that independent board member seat that’s open, maybe isn’t at the top of the list. So we try to make that a lot easier.
Tell us a bit about the boardroom excellence fellowship that’s facilitated by Him for Her’s for-profit arm Illumyn. How is it supporting historically underrepresented executives on their path to the boardroom?
We realized there’s lots of talented executives who are already qualified for board service, but they’re almost invisible to the boardroom for a few reasons. One, their titles at these large corporations may not make sense to the outside world. The other is that they don’t necessarily gain board exposure inside those giant companies because board meetings are so small. And yet, what they’re managing could be larger than many private companies. Similarly, private companies are looking to scale, and want board members who have that direct experience.
We knew this was a big opportunity to connect talent, so we started a corporate program to place top executives on boards. We also know when you’re on a board, it makes you a better operator so it’s really a win-win for everyone. It’s an opportunity for top executives to broaden their executive experience by becoming a board member while they’re also an operator and by doing so they show up at work with a different perspective. It’s also a great way for CEOs to create opportunities for underrepresented executives already at the top of their game.
Could you share with us a bit about how experiences as a board member yourself influence your work at Him for Her?
It’s like anything – if you’ve lived something, you have more empathy around the topic. I serve on three boards: Wag, Papa John’s and ChowNow. In both the cases of Wag and ChowNow, I was not only the first woman, but also the first independent director. I’ve sat in that seat of the “only” and by sitting there, I know how hard it is and how much better it is when you’re not the “only”. I’ve seen the value of my conversations with the CEO because I have a different operating background. I’ve seen first-hand how conversations change as the board changes, and how important diversity is in practice. It’s valuable to work in a problem space where you’re also a participant – you feel firsthand the kind of change your organization is helping other boards achieve, which is truly a powerful thing.
What do you think are the greatest opportunities that you see ahead for boards to strengthen company performance in the next five years?
We’ve learned that a crisis is around the corner all the time. Today, being a prepared leader is very important and to expect a crisis before you know what it is. We need to ensure we have both mental capacity and talent around us to absorb the crises, respond and care for our employees and customers. I’m also not the first, nor will I be the last, to talk about the power of AI and how it will change companies. Most boards need to be asking: “how can we leverage this technology to create a better company?” And “what do we need to be looking out for, in terms of this technology, that could threaten the way we do things today?”
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Image by Christina @ wocintechchat.com.