How did she do it? A Q&A with Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder and chairman of theBoardlist
By Linda Netsch, managing director of Golden Seeds and lead investor for Golden Seeds’ investment in theBoardlist
Golden Seeds is focused on investing in the vibrant opportunities of women-led companies. As such, we work with many talented, passionate female entrepreneurs who are doing truly remarkable things. Our “How Did She Do It?” series shares the stories, challenges and successes of the women behind the companies of Golden Seeds.
Today, Linda Netsch, managing director of Golden Seeds, interviews Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder and chairman of theBoardlist. Singh Cassidy is also the president of StubHub and member of the board of directors of TripAdvisor and Urban Outfitters.
Below, they discuss the mission of theBoardlist, and how the organization leverages technology to help private companies diversify their boardrooms.
LN: Tell us about the origins of theBoardlist.
SSC: We started theBoardlist in 2015 and launched the web platform at the beginning of 2016. This was coming from a time when there was a lot of negative sentiment in the press around women in technology, and that has only accelerated since. Women were not participating and thriving to their fullest potential in the technology ecosystem — a problem that exists beyond technology, as well. Many people were tackling this problem at the entry level by encouraging more women to enter STEM fields, while ignoring the obvious opportunity of getting more women into the boardroom and participating at the top of the leadership stack to bring their expertise and full potential to Silicon Valley.
I had been in the Valley almost 17 years at the time, and I had largely thrived, but I was aware and had borne witness to the ways in which women struggle. I had a desire to contribute, and I had a sense of where the white space was. Private company boardrooms were being completely ignored, and those organizations were missing women’s representation, diverse thought and experience in their boardrooms at a time when their companies were forming and that representation could be most impactful.
My experience on boards is a big contributor to the way I think about solving this problem. The process of getting onto a board is opaque, stagnant and flat in the way it had failed to leverage technology. Companies ended up with cloned systems driven by referral in homogenous networks. We wanted to deliver a curated platform, with trusted recommendations that might not be from your first-degree network, but could be in your second- or third-degree networks. theBoardlist effectively takes a process that happens offline and uses technology to support discovery at a larger scale.
LN: How is theBoardlist’s approach to addressing this need unique?
SSC: There isn’t really anything that is similar to theBoardlist. Existing solutions were the “binders full of women.” Women would submit themselves for consideration or someone would refer them, but that reference would literally be put in a binder. There was no technology platform to help you discover great supply or talent. Nobody approached this business like a marketplace. What’s the value of curating all those great candidates? The real value is to stimulate demand and accelerate companies’ desire for great board candidates by solving the problem of supply quickly.
theBoardlist approach is technology-driven; we leverage social networks online to create a better, faster, easier, more trusted way to discover great talent at scale. Our second big differentiator is we consider ourselves a talent marketplace. Our real job and opportunity is not just aggregating a great supply of female talent for boards, but it’s really stimulating demand and opening up a place where companies can search online and find the best board members for their own boards. It’s a two-sided talent marketplace rather than the old-school, one-sided binder full of women waiting for someone to come search it. And theBoardlist spends as much time educating founders and CEOs about how to build better boards and driving people to search the platform as it does helping to find new board members.
We’ve found that given the opportunity, leaders want to recommend great talent. And great people know great people, which has helped theBoardlist grow entirely organically. We started with 30 to 40 leaders when we launched. Today, we have over 2,000 leaders who are CEOs and senior executives with current board experience or who are retired board members who nominate on the platform. Together they’ve posted 3,000 nominations of great women into theBoardlist. On the search side, we have had nearly 500 companies that have come to search theBoardlist in less than two years since launching the platform. If you looked at a top search firm, they would do something like 300 board searches a year, so we are excited about the acceleration we’ve seen.
LN: What challenges have you encountered along the way of growing the company?
SSC: Founders and CEOs are very busy, and early on, they are drinking from a firehose. We constantly need to evangelize the benefits of building a great, diverse board early. Our potential board members are busy, as well. While both sides of our constituency love to leverage technology, we have to think about the user experience and design differently. For example, I might want to add every intricate thing to our website, but what our user base might really want is an email because they’re always on the run. We’ve had to incorporate those considerations into our approach.
LN: What milestones are on the horizon for theBoardlist?
SSC: As you know, we took seed funding from Golden Seeds in February after being bootstrapped for two years. That was a big milestone. Now, we’re preparing to hire our first CEO. We’ve always had full-time leadership in the COO seat, but funding enables us to scale to the next level. Our opportunity now is to accelerate our user growth and our impact by investing deeply in the product and scaling the community. We’re focused on creating strategic partnerships with business schools and executives networks that want to leverage theBoardlist platform for their groups of leaders. Our goal is 10x user growth over the next 12 to 18 months to get to a meaningfully scaled network.
LN: What advice do you have for early-stage founders?
SSC: Founders should spend more than 50 percent of their time recruiting. A lot of CEOs want to turn inward because product-market fit is such a challenge, so they focus completely on that. But the other challenge is getting the people you want to come work on this mission with you, whether that’s your first customer service hire or someone reporting directly to you, and the best advocate for a company is its founder. Founders need to be exceptionally hands-on in hiring and always be recruiting as opposed to passing that responsibility off too early.
Another key piece of advice is to think about how you’re going to generate demand from the start. After product-market fit, demand generation is the single biggest challenge. You see companies that delay focusing on demand generation until too late in the lifecycle, and then they realize they’ve built a product and don’t know how to get anyone to it. Testing demand acquisition early is critically important.
And finally, when it comes to raising money, my key piece of advice is don’t pitch before you pitch. Often, founders go out and have conversations with people about raising money, and they share a lot of company information before they’re necessarily ready to sell. Later, they want to go back and they might not get the meetings they want because they thought that first meeting was just a precursor, but they’ve really shared everything too early. If you want to have exploratory meetings, that’s great, but you have to run a tight fundraising process and avoiding pitching until you’re ready.
LN: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?
SSC: Golden Seeds has a great reputation and coverage inside Silicon Valley and beyond. That regional diversity, as well as the diversity of its members’ experience in various industries, was attractive. theBoardlist mission isn’t to just help tech companies find great board members, but to help all companies find great board members. It’s early days working with Golden Seeds, but they’ve already shown a lot of interest in helping theBoardlist find the right CEO and gain access to different types of talent than we might have in our own networks.