Coco Brown is the founder, CEO and board member of Athena Alliance, a digital platform dedicated to revolutionizing leadership, from senior management to the boardroom. Founded in 2016, Athena Alliance aims to transform the current boardroom towards a modern composition model. Coco has led the organization to amass a network of over 1000 C-Level women, VCs, and CEOs from over 150 companies, including Walt Disney, Genentech, Viacom, Cisco, Microsoft, Intuit, Autodesk and Alphabet / Google. In the organization’s first three years, Coco and her team have supported 434 interviews of women for board seats and 97 board placements. Beyond board seats, women come to Athena for white glove leadership coaching, board opportunities, exclusive events, one-on-one mentorship, and more. Slone Partners is delighted to present this exclusive interview with Coco Brown, a boardroom diversity trailblazer.

Welcome to the 21st Century
Slone Partners: You’ve framed the modern company, and therefore the modern boardroom, as entities that should exist not merely to represent business but to fairly represent its customers. In order to properly serve its customers, its leadership mix must reflect the diversity of its customers. It’s a simple yet powerful concept, so how do companies get there?

Coco Brown: The world has changed. I see three powerful societal shifts that are driving the world to a more diverse set of leaders at the top – diversity of all types. This is not a movement, a time in history, but three fundamental shifts in the way things work.

First, consumers are now in the driver’s seat, not companies. Historically, companies have always had the funds and power to shape the narrative, to tell us what to think and what to buy. With a universally democratized ability to listen, learn and share one’s voice on social media, money and power no longer dictate who shapes the narrative. Today, if you want to tell companies or your friends something, all you have to do is post it on social media privately or publicly. Consumers are now telling companies how to behave. That’s a big pill for many companies to swallow, and some companies have been very slow to get it.

The second shift is the rise of conscious capitalism. We’ve had social movements for better business behavior throughout history, but the difference now is that Wall Street is leading the consciousness – large institutional investors who collectively own about 80% of all indexes. These large investors are now saying to companies, “you need to care about the environment, the communities you affect and serve, your purpose, culture and employees. Oh, and by the way, also your shareholders.” It represents a total one-eighty. Why? Because Wall Street knows their index investing customers are in the driver’s seat These investors are demanding that companies do not simply focus on quarter over quarter returns, but on long-term viability. For the companies not listening, these big investors have the power to vote directors off their boards, and they are doing so.

Third is the rise of the feminine archetype. I’m not talking about the rise of the woman, although that’s happening. I’m saying that in business terms, if one is to have success while dealing with the pressures of the first two shifts, one must elevate the importance of embedding the characteristics of nurture, service to others, collaboration, community, community development, and vulnerability – the so called “soft skills”. These skills are essential in roles that function closest to the humans of the business-like customers, suppliers, and employees – roles like CHROs (people), CMOs (marketing), CCOs (customer), and even CPOs (product). These roles were largely undervalued in the past – either non-existent, embedded under another C-suite function, or marginalized compared to the CFO, CRO, and CTO roles. Hard skills need to be balanced by these soft skills.

Companies that get these three shifts and how each shift leads to and necessitates the other, are elevating a wider range of roles and individuals into power. That is the first real needle-mover for diversity.

Representing your customer
Slone Partners: As customers / consumers, women make 80% of household healthcare decisions and 89% of financial services decisions. Can boards that steer companies and policy genuinely speak to these customers without substantial female representation?  

Coco Brown: Women are equal decision-makers in business and super-majority decision-makers in matters of the home, and yet they have been woefully underrepresented a) in research around their needs and wants, b) in funding to advance innovation for them, and c) in representation in the businesses that sell to them.

Companies know who their buyers are and they know when they are predominantly women. The status-quo argument against more women constituents in boardrooms has been that company boards need “people who have run the whole company,” or “people who have run the full oversight of the financials.” Yes, boards need three or four of these types, but the average publicly-traded or large company board is 11 people (7 people for midsized companies and 5 people for smaller companies). This leaves plenty of room on boards for a more diverse group of people who bring other skills.

Most boards are still made up of CEOs and financial experts. Women make up 5% of CEOs and 11% of CFOs. By comparison, women comprise 35% of CCOs (customer), and 32% of CMOs (marketing), and 55% of CHROs (people). For women, moving up the ladder is getting more achievable.

It’s a newfound revelation, this idea that the board should do more than simply focus on things like regulatory and financial risk and compliance, CEO compensation, and performance and succession. The real long-term stewards of the business are the board as a collective. So no, in a world where women are equal economic forces, one cannot leave us off the roster at the top and be viable in the long run.

Women on Boards
Slone Partners: Women now comprise a milestone 20% of seats on Russell 3000 boards. How important is this milestone? How instrumental do you believe California Bill 826 was to achieving this? And do you believe this mandate will spread to other states?  

Coco Brown: If you were one of the women who blazed the trail to get us to 20% in these large public companies it’s an incredible achievement. It took a lot of work by some really amazing female leaders of the modern suffrage movement who started ten and twenty years ago on this crusade. Better is not good enough.

I’d suggest there is a bigger, deeper issue here. Women make up only 7% of board seats in private companies; moreover, 60% of private company boards have no women on them at all. Women start as many companies as men, but they aren’t starting enough companies that will change the world for us (think fem tech), and women have greater difficulty getting funded. Of the billions of annual dollars in venture funding doled out, only about 2% of it goes to women. Women comprise only 9% of investors. Systemic change is needed, so that more women have access to more capital and the cycle of support between the investment community and female entrepreneurs grows stronger.

The big value in the California bill, and other states thinking of following suit, is the public attention. Now, everyone is thinking about women on boards – my friends, neighbors, and family who had no idea that board gender diversity was even a problem are now asking about it. I am starting to see private companies take proactive note now, too. That is all good. I’m an eternal optimist, so I say women will continue to make progress and hope that adoptions of similar bills will accelerate in other states.

Slone Partners: Some interesting new data came in. Bloomberg, citing a study from S&P Global Market Intelligence that studied 6,000 publicly-traded companies over 17 years, reported that female CFOs averaged 8% better stock returns and $1.8 billion in additional profits than male CFOs. They said “Companies looking for better financial returns should consider a female Chief Financial Officer.” If the point of capitalism is generating more capital, how do you expect companies to react to this?
Click here to read the Bloomberg article.

Coco Brown: In the face of research like this, one would think there would be greater growth of women now holding 11% of CFO roles to, say, 50%. I have two perspectives on this. First, those who are skeptical about this type of research are resisting a world that is not the comfortable one they know. Secondly, we really should not be making this a gender conflict – it’s more about needing and finding balance. Look at the role of CHRO, where 55% are women. Generally, this is a role associated with women, and yet it is balanced. I think that is right. In the end, CEOs and boards need to make sure they are promoting men and women meritoriously yet equally, and if women make great CFOs, then companies would be smart to promote them to where these talented women belong.