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Study Reveals That Early Stage Companies Have Smaller, Less Independent and Less Diverse Boards

A Bolster study of 250 private company boards uncovered that homogeneity on boards is more common at earlier company stages. Sixty-two percent of boards with no racial diversity and 64 percent of boards with no gender diversity occurred at the Series A stage and earlier. Independent Directors can help CEOs build boards and companies with diversity in mind from day one.

Bolster recently announced the preliminary results from their Board Benchmarking survey. Bolster is a talent marketplace that connects CEOs with on-demand, executive-level talent. Their biggest practice area of the business is board building and helping CEOs find independent directors from diverse backgrounds. Bolster received more than 250 responses from startup and scaleup CEOs. The company has uncovered for the first time the important role that Independent Directors play on diversifying private company boards.

Key findings include:

  • Only 32 percent of startup boards have independent directors. However, half of the boards have open Independent Director seats they expect to fill in the next 12 months.
  • Compared with investor or management directors, women are three times more likely to hold independent director seats. Men hold 86 percent of seats. Fifty-six percent of early stage private company boards have no gender diversity at all.
  • Individuals who are White / Caucasian hold four out of five seats on private company boards. Forty-three percent of boards are completely homogenous with regard to the race/ethnic diversity of their directors.
  • CEOs are broadening their searches to diversify their boards. Two-thirds of CEOs are open to bringing first-time directors to their boards. Meanwhile, 41 percent of independent directors surveyed have either some college or an undergraduate degree only (vs. a post-grad degree).
  • Board composition tends to over-index on investors and management directors. Fifty-nine percent of boards have more than one management or founder director. Fifty-nine percent of boards have two or more investor directors.
  • Male directors seem to have a slightly higher average earning potential compared to female directors at like companies. This was measured in basis points per year and grant value.

Building diverse boards

Bolster is working toward building the most comprehensive data set around private company boards. See their full results here.

“The earlier CEOs bring on Independent Directors to their boards, the easier it is to build boards and companies with diversity in mind from day one. Ultimately, this unlocks more potential for that business to reach broader audiences among its customers, its employees and all the stakeholders of that business,” says Bolster CEO and co-founder Matt Blumberg. “Through Bolster’s member base, we hope to encourage CEOs to think differently about the composition of their board, as well as all of the artificial barriers that might be inadvertently excluding diverse candidates from their pipelines.”

Boards for the 21st century

Unlike other reports of its kind, CEOs themselves directly reported this information. This study also exposes for the first time what boards look like even at the most nascent stages. For instance, more than 50 percent of responses come from companies at a Series A stage or earlier.

“USV has been doubling down on our efforts to help our portfolio companies build more diverse boards in the last year and we are pleased with the progress we are seeing on those efforts,” says Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, an early stage investor in Bolster and board observers. “However, this report from Bolster shows that we have so much more work to do here. Bolster can be part of the solution as it has built a large and diverse membership of “Board ready” candidates that CEOs and Boards can recruit from.”

Bolster’s survey will remain open indefinitely. It will appear as a real-time benchmarking application on Bolster’s platform for startup and scaleup CEOs and heads of HR. CEOs can participate in the study by signing up as a Bolster client here. By signing up, CEOs can receive a more in-depth look at our results. They can also receive an e-book by Bolster’s CEO on “How to Build your Board.”

About this study

This data, effective March 17, 2021, was gathered first-hand from CEOs or other executives from 250 private companies from more than 250 venture capital firms in Bolster’s data set. There was no fee to participate. The distribution of companies based on stage was: Founder Funded (2%), Seed/Angel (34%), Series A (23%), Series B (15%), Series C (15%), and Series D+ (12%). While the majority of respondents are from U.S.-based companies, we did have some international companies in the data set. The largest geographic markets represented in this study included California, New York, the midwest (including Indiana, Colorado, and Illinois), and international markets.

About Bolster: Bolster is an on-demand executive talent marketplace that helps accelerate companies’ growth by connecting them with experienced executives for interim, fractional, advisory, project-based or independent board roles. Their network today includes 3,500 executives and 700 CEO clients, and includes nearly 50 membership partners that refer talented professionals from diverse backgrounds to the platform. Bolster also provides on-demand executives with software and services to help them manage their careers as independent consultants and provides startup and scaleup CEOs with software and content to help them assess, benchmark and diversify their leadership teams and boards. For more information, visit

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