There are many in Silicon Valley who’d like to find better ways to integrate female operators and investors into the tech scene but who think it will simply take time – time for more women to enter engineering programs, time for more women to join tech startups, and time for more women to form their own venture firms, as some have begun to do.
Sukhinder Singh Cassidy is not one of those people. Today, Cassidy is taking the wraps off an idea she’s been working on for the last couple of months called BoardList. In a nutshell, it’s an online repository of more than 600 women who are “board ready” and who, Cassidy believes, can and should be placed on the boards of early-stage startups.
Her argument is twofold: First, broadly speaking, most companies don’t think about an independent board member until they’ve hit their Series C (or even later) funding round. Until that point, they tend to rely heavily instead on advisers. But that’s a mistake, says Cassidy, who has held a variety of operational positions in Silicon Valley over the last 15-plus years and is today the founder and CEO of the venture-backed startup Joyus.
Cassidy says her own independent directors (two men, including Ido Leffler, co-founder of Yes To, a natural beauty brand) have provided invaluable direction to her company and that they’re far more invested in its success than would be an adviser.
“A lot of founders think, ‘I’ll get an adviser as opposed to using a board seat. But with an adviser, you’re in a very unaccountable relationship. They don’t have enough skin in the game,” she says.
Cassidy also believes strongly that startups looking to incorporate more diverse viewpoints into their day-to-day operations are missing out on an easy solution, and one that’s available today, right now: independent female board members.
“The data is clear,” Cassidy told us yesterday in a sit-down meeting about BoardList. “More diverse views lead to stronger businesses. Meanwhile, we estimate that just 23 percent to 32 percent of privately funded tech boards have a woman on board, meaning that upwards of 75 percent do not.”
Whether BoardList will bridge the gap remains to be seen, but it looks like a very smart start.
For one thing, Cassidy isn’t selecting these would-be board members herself. Instead, over the last month or so, she has solicited the feedback of roughly 50 venture capitalists and C-level operators (men and women), asking them who they would recommend to a startup’s board — whether or not the candidates have previous board experience or even tech experience.
Cassidy also asked each business leader to provide specifics, including what stage of the company might make the most sense for their candidates (Series B through Series F), what each candidate’s functional and industry expertise is, and what it is that each person excels at particularly.
The outcome of those efforts is an easy-to-navigate, still-in-beta platform that VCs and startup execs alike can start using to search for strong independent board candidates. (VCs will have to pay upwards of $10,000 for the privilege, depending on how many members of the firm are accessing it. For C-level executives who use the platform, it will cost nothing.)
To keep the quality of the candidates and the feedback high, BoardList is a members-only platform. Founding members include a very long list of venture firms, including DFJ, Greylock Partners, Battery Ventures, Harrison Metal, and Accel Partners, as well as a long list of executives, including Box CEO Aaron Levie. Going forward, Cassidy hopes to grow the tool meaningfully but organically on an invite-only basis.
Still, it will have its challenges. For one thing, talented board members are typically given more of a company’s equity than advisers — typically 1 percent versus .5 percent.
In Cassidy’s view, it’s well worth it — a point with which Jared Simon, co-founder and COO of HotelTonight, would agree. His company, which runs a popular mobile hotel booking application, brought in Zillow CMO Amy Bohutinsky during its Series D round. But Simon says that knowing what he does now about Bohutinsky’s skills, knowledge and network, HotelTonight would have invited her onto its board even sooner.
BoardList will also need to build out an educational component to persuade early-stage startup founders of the potential value of an independent board director. Indeed, Cassidy says she has structured BoardList as a subsidiary of a parent company called ChoosePossibility partly with an eye toward creating similar, complementary products, including around board education.
The good news, in the meantime, is that BoardList appears to have plenty of support from the people who will be using it most. “Participating in this is a no-brainer for us,” says Roger Lee, a general partner at Battery Ventures. “More diverse boards mean better performance for companies” and BoardList “makes it easy for VCs and others to share the highest-quality women in their networks and fine new board members they might not have thought about previously.”