When former Google exec Sukhinder Singh Cassidy was trying to decide how best to advance women in Silicon Valley, she turned to a familiar topic: company boards.
But unlike many boardroom diversity efforts, which focus on large companies, hers is aiming at a much earlier target: putting more women in independent board seats at young startups, as early as their first round of funding. Many startups don’t take advantage of the independent board seat, she said. More should be filling them — and filling them with women.
“It’s an unrealized opportunity,” she told FORBES. “This is massive whitespace.”
To help with board member search, which can be time-consuming, Singh Cassidy is launching The BoardList, a database currently in beta of more than 600 women who could serve on private company boards, she said Wednesday at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo. The candidates are sorted by areas of expertise and nominated by an inaugural group of about 60 Silicon Valley influencers, including venture capitalists, founders and C-suite executives from companies like Box , Twitter and Lyft.
Boardroom diversity is often discussed as an opportunity for public companies, Singh Cassidy said, “when the reality is the founders of most growth-stage companies need diversity on the board as much, if not more, as their public company counterparts.” Founders don’t always fill their independent board seats early, but by the time they’re closer to a Series C, “they realize that from a governance perspective, they don’t want it to be dominated by VCs,” she said.
To Singh Cassidy, who runs video-shopping site Joyus and oversaw Google’s Latin America and Asia Pacific operations, the solution was obvious. She already fields requests from her network to serve on or recommend women for startup boards. Building a centralized place to add and find candidates just makes the task easier.
By her estimate, 23% to 32% of private companies have women on their boards, compared to 100% of S&P 100 companies and 62% of the top 150 public tech companies.
She hopes to grow the Boardlist to 2000 board candidates by the end of the year. The project is funded by 18 venture capital firms that will pay around $2,000 to $5,000 a year for access — enough to break even, she said.
Pushing for more women on boards isn’t new. Some European countries have even passed laws implementing quotas for large companies to meet. The efforts cite studies that show gender-diverse boards lead to better decision-making and profits. The hope is also that more women on boards would lead to trickle-down diversity in companies — more family-friendly policies or a decrease in the gender pay gap, for example. But recent studies suggest quotas have one obvious result — more women on boards — but haven’t yet shown that they bring much more.
Singh Cassidy’s effort isn’t even looking that far. It will already be difficult to know if the Boardlist leads to more women on startup boards, she admitted. There’s no way to test results right now except for self-reporting. And because independent board members are often paid in equity, founders may recoil at the idea of giving away more of their company than absolutely necessary.
But she’s hopeful: venture capital firm supporters have committed to reporting the board makeup of their portfolio companies, and in the future she hopes to focus less on filling the list with candidates and more on educating founders on the importance of independent board members and board diversity. She sees the push as something that all parties can agree would benefit the company.
“Over a year ago, I pitched it to the first VC, and they said, ‘What can I do on gender diversity?’” she said. “I said, ‘Today, you could declare that 100% of your startups would have a woman on the board.’ I believe in this goal because it’s tangible, it can be highly efficient, and I can imagine the product in my head.”
By Ellen Huet