Women Board Directors Development Program is populating the pipeline

Milkana Brace (right) at the inaugural Women Board Directors Development Program.

In the years since graduating from the Foster School’s Technology Management MBA Program, Milkana Brace (MBA 2008) had built an impressive resume. Senior director at Expedia and Groupon. Consultant at American Express. Founder and CEO of two technology startups. Advisor to two others.

She felt ready to take on even bigger strategic challenges. She wanted to serve on a corporate board of directors. But how?

“I knew I had professional expertise and experience that were relevant,” Brace says. “But I didn’t have a clear understanding of what path to take in order to get on a board, or how I’d need to prepare. I didn’t know if I was building the right experiences, presenting the right profile or building the right networks to make me a strong board candidate.”

So, in 2015, she enrolled in the first cohort of Foster’s Women Board Directors Development Program.

Building the pipeline

This intensive seminar in the school’s Executive Education portfolio was created to address the scarcity of women serving on corporate boards—less than 20 percent of Fortune 1000 board seats are held by women, according to the 2020 Women on Boards Gender Diversity Index. And when you expand to the entire population of public companies, that percentage drops significantly.

But times are changing, says founding director, Cate Goethals. Rigorous studies by Credit Suisse and McKinsey have confirmed that companies with a critical mass of women directors perform better along a number of business measures, including productivity and profitability.

Institutional investors have noticed, Goethals says, and are pushing for greater gender diversity at the board level.

So she designed the interactive two-day seminar to help qualified, motivated women prepare to seize this opportunity. “We’re firing up a bunch of really cool, capable women,” says Goethals. “We demystify what being a board director is all about, make them realize that they could serve on boards—and show them how to do it.”

Sessions on the roles and responsibilities of boards, the pathways to board appointments and personal action plans for each participant are delivered by a powerful team of corporate directors and mentors who add their own personal stories for a dose of reality and inspiration.

Reality and inspiration

The trailblazing faculty includes women with considerable board experience, including Dawn Lepore (AOL, eBay, New York Times, Drugstore.com, Wal-Mart, Charles Schwab, RealNetworks), Colleen Brown (American Apparel, True Blue), Susan Preston (Angel Resource Institute, National Science Foundation), Bernee Strom (Webtuner, Benchmark Electronics), Joanna Lohkamp (Delta Dental, Woods Bagot), Adriane Brown (eBay, Raytheon, Allergan), Charlotte Guyman (BA 1987) (Berkshire Hathaway, Space Needle, Brooks Running), and Connie Collingsworth (Premera, Banner Corporation),

Collingsworth, the chief business operations officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is thrilled to retrace, for students, each intentional step in her decade-long journey from a law career to her first corporate board seat.

“I speak because I have a passion,” she says. “I believe that getting more women on corporate boards will bring profound change not only to individual firms, but to society overall. As I tell my daughters, this is my march.”

“We light a fire under these women so they understand it’s up to them,” says Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, the CEO of 2020 Women on Boards and author of The Board Game. “Nobody’s going to get a call out of the blue to serve on a corporate board.”

Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire leads a session of women executives.

She advises program participants to develop strategic relationships with board members, enhance their industry visibility to establish expertise and, for starters, get themselves on a non-profit board.

The network expands

Brace has taken this advice to heart. Though she is focused on getting her new venture, Jargon, off the ground, she has begun laying the foundation. She is refocusing her experiences and resume toward the requirements of board service. She has expanded her network. And she has joined the board of the Seattle Opera, logging relevant experience and networking with seasoned board members who also serve on corporate boards.

She’s also cultivating the new network of program alumnae—already 180 strong, and growing.

“I’ve referred several women who have really enjoyed the program,” Brace says. “Serving on boards requires patience and a big investment up front. But I hope that over the course of several years, we’ll see more and more graduates find their way onto boards. And, of course, now that we’re all part of the same network, they can pull along the rest of us.”

The next Women Board Directors Development Program sessions convene June 21 and November 6.