Members pay up to $7,900 for admission to the Women’s Leadership Network in Chief. It gives them executive coaching, big-name speaker sessions, a Rolodex of women executives and, for an additional cost, access to five luxurious clubhouses. The Chief is essentially an “old boys’ club”—for women. The venture capital-backed company has grown to over 20,000 members and is valued at over $1 billion since launching in 2019.
This month, in the battle of social media, some of its members have begun to ask: What is their club of high-powered women? On LinkedIn, some core members have criticized the community’s approach to racial diversity and its response to political issues such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and some have announced plans to leave.
Chief’s founders, Lindsay Kaplan and Carolyn Childers, say they have donated to abortion access groups, issued statements in the wake of racial violence, and acted on feedback from their members while focusing on the company’s primary goal, which That’s the corporate advancement of women. But in conversations with two dozen current and former core members, some said they wish the network was more socially and politically engaged.
“The cost is really high for people who may not care deeply about how they are responding to these important issues,” said Nika White, 47, president of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultancy. this month.
Other members defended the organization, such as Amani Duncan, formerly a senior vice president at ViacomCBS. “When I started seeing the posts on LinkedIn, I was shocked,” said Ms. Duncan, 52. “I didn’t realize how much the Chiefs needed me until I joined. It was kind of luck.
This is a he said, she said story. But it’s one that raises a thorny and long-simmering question: Is the pursuit of power for corporate women a worthy goal in itself? Or should women executives, as they rise, prioritize uncovering the many social and economic issues that are holding back more marginalized women?
The recent upheaval at Chief began in early March, on International Women’s Day, when Denise Conroy, a member of the network, announced on LinkedIn that she was leaving the flagship and accused the group of sidelining political issues and ghosting women of color who applied for membership. (Ms. Conroy, 51, later accepted that he had been reprimanded internally for trying to sell tickets for an outside workshop he was running on Chief’s platform, which was against company policies.) His post, which generated more than 5,000 responses, This provoked great debate within the Chief about the future of the community. ,
Supply chain executive Rachel Hussle is one of the core members who decided to leave the organization this month. She recently participated in a discussion that was hosted by Ms. Conroy about the book “White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How to Do Better”, where some of the core members of the Organization for Racial Inclusivity Disappointment was shared with the approach of Ms. Hassall began to feel ashamed of her membership.
Ms Hussle, 37, said: “I didn’t join thinking it was a political or social revolution.” ,
Chief’s founders told The New York Times that their mission was to advance women’s leadership in business, not social advocacy. He also pointed to statements issued to the community following the killing of George Floyd, a shooting targeting Asian Americans near an Atlanta-area spa, and other incidents of racial violence, as well as donations to racial justice nonprofits . Thirty-three percent of the Chief’s members are women of color. And the founders said the organization treated all applicants equally. It only sends the acceptance email, not the rejection.
“Primarily, we always wanted to make sure that our values were clear,” Ms. Childers said. “But we’re also not a social activism organization.”
Annual membership to the Chiefs costs $5,800 for vice presidents and $7,900 for C-suite executives; 70 percent of the members’ fees are covered by the employers. Membership Access to chic clubhouses in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles alongside high-profile women like Michelle Obama and Amal Clooney, as well as access to executive coaching, career workshops, in-person meet-ups, a job board and speaker sessions provides access. , San Francisco and London at an additional cost. Women may apply or be nominated for membership, and for admission the chief considers their titles as well as the size of their companies and the teams they manage.
“Climbing the corporate ladder as a first-generation immigrant was challenging,” said Gabby Hirata, chief executive of Diane von Furstenberg. “Chief gave me the opportunity to see how SVPs and C-Levels carry themselves.”
But some of its members now argue that the Chief’s group coaching is better suited to support the professional experiences of white women. Sybil Patri, 41, vice president of an asset management company, recalled that when she was first accepted as Chief, she felt a high that she’d been following since adolescence when she was cut from the cheerleading squad. Was given: The feeling of being in the team The cool girls club.
It didn’t take long for his sense of belonging to fade away. Sitting in on group coaching sessions, she realized that white women could not relate to the professional problems that women of color were sharing. Last year, he quit. She emailed the Chief to say that the network needed to have “stronger curated experiences for women of color”.
“The Chief is a white ladies’ club,” Ms. Patrie said. “If you’re a group created by white women to help white women without focusing on any other intersections, that’s fine, but you need to be prepared for that.”
“We’ve really tried to make sure there is no ‘only’ within those groups,” Ms. Childers said of the Chief’s coaching groups, adding that their guides are trained to facilitate difficult conversations. Are. “There’s a lot of training that we try to put in place – we’re doing inclusive training specifically with them. But there’s a lot more to do.”
The company said the retention rate for women of color this year was four percentage points higher than for white women.
And some women of color in the community said they don’t share the inclusivity criticisms. Sandhya Jain-Patel joined the network in 2019. She enjoyed what members referred to as “the main disease,” which was the women’s enthusiastic support of each other for entrepreneurial ideas being batted around in clubhouses.
“Someone would be like, ‘I want to do this,’ and everyone else would be like, ‘Sure, I’ll help you,'” Ms. Jain-Patel, 48, recalled. “I remember saying to someone one day: ‘I have this website idea. That’s what I really want to do.’ She grabbed my phone, picked up GoDaddy and said, ‘I’ll register it now.'”
Ms. Jain-Patel, however, has her own frustrations with the chief. “Besides this core group, what are you doing for us?” He said. “Why are you charging us so much money?”
When Chief’s founders, Ms. Kaplan, 38, and Ms. Childers, 43, were building their own careers, access to an executive women’s network seemed like a resource worth paying for — not to mention coaching, Which he told could cost tens of thousands of dollars. Just over 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. Ms Childers, who was previously a vice president at the company Handy, recalled getting constant pleas for advice from younger female colleagues early in her career. Ms. Kaplan worked at a start-up where she was the only senior woman, and she had to help design her own maternity leave policy.
The two met in 2017 at a networking event in the basement of an Italian restaurant in New York City, and two years later they started the Executive Women’s Network. Initially, they thought they would accept members near their clubhouse. But then the pandemic struck, most of his programming went virtual, and he decided to expand his reach.
The network exploded—its waiting list grew to 60,000—as did its valuation, propelling the flagship to become one of the fastest-growing female-founded unicorns. Last year, Chief raised $100 million in a Series B round led by CapitalG, Alphabet’s growth fund.
Chief is a girl power effort drenched in girl power lingo. (Its members like to cite one particular Madeleine Albright quote.) But its ascent followed a peak era of so-called girlbosses, a term popularized by Sophia Amoruso, founder of the fashion company Nasty Gal, which went bankrupt in 2014. . 2016.
Before The Chief was former Meta executive Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book “Lean In,” which built thousands of women’s support circles — and then faced backlash for letting women focus on turbocharging their careers. There was also The Wing, a women’s co-working space whose chief executive, Audrey Gelman, stepped down in 2020 after facing criticism from black staff members, and which is due to close in 2022.
Leading a company working toward women’s empowerment became especially difficult last year, when the Supreme Court struck down nearly 50 years of federally protected abortion rights.
Ms. Kaplan and Ms. Childers said their organization’s mission was to promote women’s leadership, and they think reproductive choice is more complicated than that. So the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson joined Don’t Ban Equality, a coalition of businesses opposing abortion restrictions; donated $250,000 to organizations supporting reproductive choice; hosted educational programs; and expanded abortion-related health care benefits for employees. The company also held “listening sessions” for members, which Ms. Conroy felt “like a scene from Mean Girls, where everyone gathered at the gym and shared their feelings.”
But some members of the Chief wanted the company Roe v. Do more to permanently and publicly address Wade’s rebound. A group of Chief members sent an email to the founders listing actions they wanted to see Chief take, including diverting some of Chief’s advertising money to statements on reproductive health and even “women without Day” to support the idea of strike.
“Not being willing to take a very strong stance on women’s choice was the proverbial nail in the coffin for me,” said Lisa Gralnek, 45, founder of Moving the Needle, Chief’s internal social impact group, who joined the network in 2019 and Last year decided not to renew my membership.
Other core members defended the company’s relative restraint. “If I wanted to be politically active, I would have joined an organization with that mission,” said Michelle Ferguson, 65, who joined Chief in 2019 and the conversation led to her book (“Women Mentoring Women.” ) came up with the idea. Club House.
With 20,000 members of the leadership community, and nearly as many opinions about what its values should be, Chiefs is facing a period of turmoil.
“When you have a brand that has a really strong emotional connection, people tend to take it personally,” said Kenneth Chenault, former chief executive officer of American Express and board member of Chief.
Ms. Kaplan and Ms. Childers have spent this month considering member responses and conducting listening sessions.
“As Madeleine Albright – who I love – said, there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women,” Ms Gralneck said. “I have no interest in seeing these girls fail. I think they need to start listening to someone other than the VC and their ego.
audio produced by Kate Winslet,