Profiles in Disruption: Breaking Barriers in the Boardroom

Catalyst’s #DisruptTheDefault campaign is a call to action for individuals and companies to make bold moves that forge meaningful change for women and men in the workplace—and the world! And our Profiles in Disruption blogs showcase how others are doing this in their lives and their companies.

Each and every one of us has the power to #DisruptTheDefault: Change the way we think and act; and to challenge others to do the same.

bethstewartMeet: Beth Stewart, founder and Chief Executive Officer, Trewstar Corporate Board Services. Trewstar is a boutique search firm that focuses on placing qualified women on Fortune 500 boards. Since 2013, Trewstar has placed 18 women on boards—many of them first-time directors. Beth is a former investment banker with over 20 years of experience serving on corporate boards herself.

How did you get from investment banking to founding Trewstar?

After I retired from Goldman Sachs in 1993, one of my clients asked me to join the board of his company as he was taking it public. Since then I have served on many corporate boards, sitting on every type of committee and chairing three audit committees.  As a board director I’ve participated in the hiring, firing, and deciding the compensation of numerous CEOs, as well as navigating strategic plans, reorganizations, activist investors, and even a bankruptcy. Along the way, I ‘ve been hit by my fair share of bullets for the crime of speaking up, and then speaking up again.

About four years ago I found myself looking for a new corporate board position with no success. The landscape for adding women to corporate boards was lush and green with qualified female candidates, yet like a desert on the demand side. Women were being added to boards in alarmingly low numbers.

My Bold Move: Something was broken, and since I was one of the many women who were not likely to be asked to join a board, I decided to do something about it. Not just anything, but something very specific: I started a boutique search firm called Trewstar.  (Great name for a women and boards search firm, isn’t it?) Trewstar’s for-profit mission is to address the demand side of the equation. We do this by asking that when corporate boards are looking to fill vacancies, they consider interviewing a slate of qualified women before they interview any men.

This can be a stumbling block, especially for the men. They want a way to measure the women. I always find this funny: Why don’t they measure the women candidates against themselves? Isn’t the board filled with qualified male directors?

Saying No to the Status Quo:  I often say to men that I love men. I have a husband and four sons. But I also have one daughter. For my daughter and yours, I say, how about just reversing the way we have done things for decades and centuries? It hasn’t been considered strange to interview men first, so it shouldn’t be so strange to interview women first.

Filling Boardroom Seats with Women. As we start 2015, Trewstar has made 18 placements of highly qualified, extremely personable women. Our clients vary from Silicon Valley companies, to a Midwest mining company, to a medical devices company, to a Paris-based IT consulting firm. We always believed, and now we have proven, that we can find qualified women candidates across all industries. The key for us is to get the assignment. Once we have a mandate to find qualified women, the rest becomes easy because the women speak for themselves. Women only need the opportunity to engage with the right people at the right time. This is distinctly different from engaging with one another at women’s conferences, or with men at networking lunches.

Adding Just One Isn’t Enough. Despite our variety of clients, there is a consistent theme. In every case there is a man who was willing to take what seemed, at the outset, to be a risk. Either it was the risk of wasting time, or the risk of settling for a mediocre candidate, or the risk of embarrassing himself in front of his peers. But at the end of the selection process each client has said the same thing: “I can’t believe you found these women.” Three of our clients added two women to their boards at the same time because they couldn’t choose just one! We have two searches underway now where it is highly likely that two women will be added.  One of our clients even increased the board to 16 directors in order to accommodate his fourth female candidate!

Smart Leaders Know the Value of Diverse Boards.   I am a positive disruptor, and proud of it. But I could not disrupt without gutsy men and women inside the boardroom clearing a path for us to add outstanding new candidates to their boards—candidates who happen to be women. These leaders know that for innovative thinking and decision-making, you need women AND men around the table.

It’s a philosophy we carry through in our own staffing at Trewstar. Up to now our recruiting team has been mostly women, but thanks to our success, we are adding a new associate. This person is highly qualified, smart and creative—and it just so happens that he has a very cute beard!

Join Beth  and other “disruptors” in saying “No” to the status quo by taking our pledge today!

This post originally appeared on Catalyzing

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