CEO networks offer valuable support to leaders at the top, but what happens when you haven’t quite made it to the corner office—or at least not yet? Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan think female executives need that kind of peer backing earlier to prevent them from hitting the glass ceiling. With it, they believe more women can break the final barrier and land the ultimate corporate job: CEO.
That’s why the pair raised $3 million to launch Chief, a real-life and digital private network for women working at the VP level and above. Both are former VP-level executives: Childers at house cleaning marketplace Handy and Kaplan at mattress startup Casper. The organization takes inspiration from YPO, the former Young Presidents’ Organization, a global network of 25,000 CEOs that’s just over 90% male.
“[The VP level] was a moment in time where we were entering into leadership positions and didn’t feel like we had the support or a community, given we were taking on even bigger roles and challenges,” Childers says. “The biggest drop-off really does happen right at that director/VP level.”
Chief, with a founding class of 200 women based in New York, will offer workshops, fireside conversations, and networking to this peer group of women experiencing some of the same challenges across industries. The network, which Childers and Kaplan have been working on full time since this spring, raised funding from Primary Venture Capital, Flybridge Capital Partners, Accel, Box Group, Able Partners, XFactor Ventures, Silas Capital, BBG Ventures, and LearnVest CEO Alexa Von Tobel.
“As an executive at a company, it’s really lonely at the top,” Kaplan says. “As a female…it gets lonelier a lot sooner because there’s just less female representation in the boardroom.”
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Membership in Chief will cost $5,000 a year—a sum that the founders expect companies to pay on behalf of many members and that they compare to the often similar cost of attending a conference.
The group is targeting corporate VPs, of course, but it also aims to appeal to women at small startups, as well as those outside the corporate sphere who are at an equivalent place in their careers as academics or writers. All told, the founders say their potential membership pool is as large as 5 million people.
Chief’s first class consists largely of women in their 30s and 40s and skews techie, say Kaplan and Childers—not surprising given their backgrounds. But the pair hope to eventually appeal to a wide range of industries and age groups.
“We really feel this is an underserved, incredible community of women that doesn’t have a tailored experience to get them to the next level,” Kaplan says. “There’s a pipeline of amazing women in leadership positions who just need a boost.”
Chief’s app will be available for download in the App Store, but will be password-protected for members only. The digital component will supplement the focus on real-life connections and programming that will cover media training, wellness, personal finance, and more.
The network is opening up its wait list and aims to launch in its second city by the end of 2019. The end goal is that Chief helps more women make connections and gain support to make it to the very top—budging the number of female CEOs on the Fortune 500, which currently stands at 25, and eventually, Kaplan says, electing a Chief member as president.
“It’s about taking these amazing women already on the cusp of power,” Childers says, “and getting more of them into real positions where they can enact the most change.”