By Thomas Lee
San Francisco Chronicle.
One glance at Karla Martin’s LinkedIn profile and you know immediately what she wants to do with her career.
A former director of global strategy at Google, Martin serves on the boards of three nonprofits and the advisory boards to five startups. Sensing a theme?
Despite her impressive credentials — she was also a lawyer and executive at a high-powered consulting firm — Martin is unlikely to get a full-fledged board seat at a major corporation or even a Silicon Valley startup, where men dominate top leadership. The Choose Possibility Project estimates that nearly three-quarters of private U.S. tech companies have all-male boards.
Since companies tend to recruit executives and directors from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, Martin, who is also African American, faces a tough time getting noticed.
But she does exist.
“We may be rare, but we are not unicorns,” Martin said. “There are more than you think.”
That’s the thinking behind the Boardlist, a professional social network that helps companies identify female talent for board positions. Founded by Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, CEO of Joyus in San Francisco and also a former Google executive, the invitation-only site allows investors and executives to nominate women as board candidates. Companies can then search the database for a woman whose skills and background meet their needs.
“We curate the community,” Cassidy said. “Every woman who has been nominated is trusted.”
The Boardlist, which now has more than 600 names, began in July and placed its first board member in just two months: Martin, who joined the board of Challenged, a Los Angeles startup that connects people with celebrities to work on social challenges. She also recently became an adviser to Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco, where she hopes to mentor and support new entrepreneurs.
While much of the diversity debate in Silicon Valley has focused on the lack of female engineers and entrepreneurs, Cassidy says the Boardlist offers companies the immediate chance to do something by going straight to the top, where directors determine the strategic priorities of a company.
Placing women on the board of a startup is also much easier than placing them at Fortune 500 firms. Those companies usually hire pricey search firms to recruit directors, who then must be elected by shareholders. Only 16 percent of directors at S&P 1500 companies are women, a figure that has not moved much over the past decade, according to Ernst & Young. The numbers are even worse in California: A recent UC Davis study concluded that women hold 13.3 percent of seats.
Gaining visibility and experience through a startup board could boost a woman’s chances of eventually landing a corporate board seat.
“The Boardlist is a real concrete thing, an attempt to seed one part of the ecosystem with something very tangible as a solution,” Cassidy said. “If people see a solution, they can get behind it. If they don’t see a solution, they focus on the problem.”
In many ways, the Boardlist helps reconcile Silicon Valley’s competing impulses. The valley prizes meritocracy, but there is a growing awareness that the tech industry, which created things like Facebook and Twitter, needs to look beyond its immediate horizon for talent.
“We want our companies to always select the best board member, diversity aside,” said Jeff Markowitz, who leads the executive talent team at Greylock Partners, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park. “But we don’t want people just in our circle.”
Cassidy personally has never had trouble getting noticed in Silicon Valley. She worked as a business development manager at Amazon and co-founded personal finance software company Yodlee before serving as president of Latin America and Asia regions at Google. But Cassidy says her personality drove much of her success.
“I see the value of meritocracy,” she said. “As you build success, your success breeds trust, respect, access to opportunity. Once you have a track record, people will look at it.”
At the same time, Cassidy said, “I’m aware packaging matters. I’ve always been aggressive. I’ve been someone who can sell. I’ve been considered high energy. It’s the core of who I am. Had I been a different archetype, maybe I would not have looked like the classic entrepreneur.”
Still, for women who do not fit Cassidy’s archetype, she hopes the Boardlist will boost their profile.
“It’s in its early days,” Markowitz said. “But the potential to build something very interesting is there.”