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Chicago Incubator Launches New Program To Put More Women In Startup Boardrooms

Chicago healthcare incubator MATTER launches initiative last week to help place more female healthcare executives as independent board members of startup companies.

3.8 Steering Committee members (left to right) Dimitra Georganopoulou, Libby Brunsvold, Susan Whiting, Soma Ghoshal-Diaz and Holly Copeland.

In the midst of a world that is making room for young women in STEM and professional women in the C-suite, Holly Copeland, director of public affairs and corporate social responsibility at Horizon Pharma, sat down to lunch with Maryam Saleh and Libby Brunsvold, the former sponsorship vice chair of Women in Bio, to discuss ways that they could work to open doors for women in startup leadership and investing.

“We didn’t want to waste time reinventing the wheel,” Copeland said. “We wanted to create something new.”

On Aug. 24, Copeland, Brunsvold and Saleh made an important stride toward this goal with the new program, 3.8. Launched in collaboration with healthcare incubator MATTER, 3.8 aims to place up and coming women in the boardrooms of startups within the healthcare industry. 3.8 will provide education, networking and advising support to women in an effort to build the pipeline for boardroom-ready women by matching them with the boards of MATTER member companies. The 3.8 steering committee also included Dimitra Georganopoulou, innovation and commercialization officer at Northwestern University’s INVO, and Soma Ghoshal-Diaz, program director at MATTER.

“If you looked at the startups at MATTER, very few of them had women on their boards,” Saleh said, one of the founders of 3.8 and the former vice president of programs at MATTER. Saleh and Copeland also met with other female venture capitalists, who confirmed their fears by mentioning that they were often the only women sitting on the boards of the startups in which they had invested.

While evidence suggests that companies with women in positions of power do better in terms of profit compared to their male-run counterparts, progress towards increasing the number of women in the C-suite remains slow. In particular, U.S. boardrooms lag behind other countries in terms of gender parity. A study by McKinsey & Company revealed that women in the United States hold 19 percent of boardroom positions compared to European countries including France, Norway and Sweden where the number is closer to 30 percent, due in part to legislative standards.

if there isn’t the right cultural fit and a level of respect amongst the peers on the board, things can get pretty complicated quickly.”

“It really is about intentionality of leadership—continuing to drive diversity across the company, even if you have already achieved many of your objectives. You can’t take progress for granted,” Fabrizio Freda, President and CEO of Esteé Lauder said in an interview with McKinsey.

Knowing that more established corporate businesses would be looking for C-suite women with a few decades of experience under their belts to fill their board seats, Copeland and the rest of the 3.8 team set their sights on Chicago’s budding startup scene to nurture up-and-coming women within the boardroom. According to Copeland, the structure of the program will take place over the course of a year with professional development, networking and educational opportunities being available between and immediately before quarterly board meetings.

“The first one is going to be to bring in a lawyer who would help them both kind of flesh out what should the contract look like for an independent board member,” Copeland said. “The next quarterly meeting we’re intending to bring in perhaps someone from the finance sector to help them look at a balance sheet and say okay as an independent board member what should you be looking at on the balance sheet? How can you take your skills and expertise and apply it in helpful ways for the startup? And at the conclusion of the four board meetings – our hope is that we will all reconvene and come together and say this is a really helpful process.”

To meet the needs of most startups, Saleh and Copeland both said that the prospective board members would need to be generalists who could step into any role needed by the company. Saleh calls this new program one that is “technology agnostic,” and can work for any business in the healthcare sector from equipment, to drug companies.

“When the startup first gets launched, first of all most people don’t even know what it means to have a board — they haven’t landed on their business model yet,” Saleh said.

Saleh added that the nature of the healthcare industry can present a large amount of hoops for startups to jump through. The healthcare industry is more complex in its business to end user model because while patients are often the beneficiary of healthcare services, insurance companies are typically the payers, while hospitals and clinicians are the actual service providers. This unique value chain, along with the private and heavily regulated areas of healthcare as it pertains to safety and patient data,  as well as established protocols and relationships within larger organizations, can serve as a challenge to emerging healthcare businesses. “[A]s a new entrant, you have to be aware of all these regulatory hurdles and have a good strategy for how to overcome them, so a board can help you really figure that out and help connect you with the individuals in the organizations that you’re selling into to really quickly validate your idea,” Saleh said.

Copeland also noted that introducing gender diversity in boardrooms at the start can have a lasting cultural impact within startups. “It’s very small so this is an opportunity for them to have that independent presence who has a specific skill set that they’re lacking — they can address diversity from the front end, before they start to grow. So they can integrate it into the culture from the beginning and everyone’s sort of ripe for a learning experience,” Copeland said.

Startups within the MATTER incubator were asked to nominate women who they felt could fit this generalist description and function well in a board. The businesses engaged in a “speed dating” session with prospective participants and were then asked to select the women they wished to have on their board.

Last Thursday marked the kick-off of the initiative, and also the official launch of the project although Copeland admits that 3.8 has been nearly a year in the making. Interest in the new initiative was overwhelmingly high and a sign to the founders that they had stumbled onto something important and necessary. While Copeland said they initially had approximately 50 RSVPs for the launch, the headcount quickly ballooned to nearly 150.

“It was standing room only — which was very exciting,” said Kelly Jansen Horizon Pharma’s associate director of corporate communications and content strategy. “We’re very, very lucky to have Holly. Her wealth of experience across all sectors is phenomenal and she has built the corporate social responsibility program at Horizon from the ground up – the other companies within our sectors that are approximately around our size are just not doing anything like this.”

A highlight of the night was Susan Whiting, the former vice chair of Nielsen Holdings, who served as the event’s keynote speaker. In addition to walking through the tactical aspects of how to succeed on a board as a woman, Whiting, Copeland said, also stressed the importance of  ensuring personality and philosophical fit in boards from the start — a principle that Copeland admitted was new to her.

“I think in hindsight it seems obvious but maybe not so much on the front end  –when things are going great, everyone gets along, everything’s wonderful,” Copeland said adding, “but when things start to go awry and you’re having to make tough decisions –those can be very difficult conversations and if there isn’t the right cultural fit and a level of respect amongst the peers on the board, things can get pretty complicated quickly.”

While the program has taken root in Chicago, Copeland and Saleh are not limiting its reach to only one city. “Success to me would be for Maryam, myself and Kelly — all of us to look back in five [to] 10 years time and see this huge group of women who are actively serving on boards in the Chicagoland area and beyond,” Copeland said. The program is also working to establish a pipeline with Women in Bio, who recently received an investment and partnered with J.P. Morgan to increase the number of women who are prepared to serve on boards with their Boardroom Ready program. Copeland said she hopes 3.8 can develop a feeder pattern with Boardroom Ready for graduates of her program.

“We’ve created some magic here,” Copeland said, “and I’m hoping that that magic is going to translate into something really meaningful that we can be proud of.”

About the author

Jorie Goins

Jorie is a writer based out of Chicago, Ill. A journalist by day and dancer by night, Jorie is also the founder and blogger-in-chief of DanceTopia, which she hopes will serve as a digital dance hub where knowledge and passion collide. When she isn't writing or taking dance classes Jorie can be found reading, binge watching documentaries on Youtube ("Behind the Music" and "E! True Hollywood Story" are among her favorites), or trying out a new recipe from Pinterest.

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