From 2017 – 2019, there was an explosion in women’s co-working and collaboration spaces. Among them, Chief, which bills itself as the only organization specifically designed for executive women. Programming for Chief’s 5,000 members caters to VP through C-level executives and there is currently a membership waitlist extending into the thousands. Co-founders Lindsay Kaplan and Carolyn Childers are on a mission to drive more women into positions of power and impact change from the top down.
Amy Shoenthal: What made women’s co-working spaces all the rage in 2018-2019? What were they trying to accomplish?
Carolyn Childers: That was a period of time where the level of conversation around the lack of representation and leadership, not to mention everything happening in politics, was creating a heightened awareness of all of this. So it’s not surprising that there was a big focus on creating support in this community to really drive change. It was exciting to see all these companies going at it in very different ways.
As Lindsay and I were getting more senior in our careers, managing and mentoring our teams, the big irony in the way you show up as a leader was that you spend all your time helping others to learn and grow yet you don’t have any resources to continue learning yourself. You spend all your time mentoring and managing but not really learning.
We saw this really huge gap. There are five million women in the US who are VP and above, and no one was focused on them.
We have a physical space, absolutely, but we would never put ourselves into a co-working category. We’re modeled after leadership organizations. The space really just served as the format through which those services were provided.
That showed itself as we went into the pandemic, as we were fully able to run services for all of our members despite the space not being available. The services were around community and the leadership development that happened around that community.
Lindsay Kaplan: There are lots of women’s groups and we think they’re all spectacular. What we realized was if you are the senior executive, and you join one of those women’s groups, you become the speaker and you become the mentor. We wanted to create Chief as this supportive place for senior executive women. It’s really lonely at the top and it gets so much lonelier so much faster when you’re a woman.
Shoenthal: Is it annoying when you get lumped into this co-working space category?
Childers: It’s nice to be included in anything, but we want to articulate the value our members get when they join. We don’t want them to be disappointed. If the main reason you’re joining Chief is because you’re really excited about a space, it’s probably not the right organization for you. It’s much more about the community and growing as a leader.
Shoenthal: Tell me about your experience when the pandemic first hit in early March of last year. You had just opened the Clubhouse in New York, you were about to open your second location in Flatiron, I imagine there were some moments of panic at that time.
Kaplan: Carolyn and I first started hoarding toilet paper weeks before the pandemic. We were very closely watching the news for over a month. We had been planning for the worst. We had to think through how to do best by our community, and make sure everybody is healthy, taken care of and psychologically safe going through this. And we had to think through that across all three of our communities – our internal staff, our Core Group (executive coaching group) guides, and our members.
Childers: We had a board meeting a month before the pandemic really kicked in. Even in that board meeting it was a huge topic of conversation. We started to think about and prepare for this even earlier, which allowed us to make the pivot to virtual. We didn’t miss a week. Core groups ran every week. The team was starting to think about it early so we were able to make those transitions in a way that was really supportive to our team.
I’m not going to lie though, it was a tough time. Our investors were having conversations about which companies they were most worried about. Because all of our services had been running in person, we were at the top of that worry list. So it was stressful, but I’m so proud of how our team has pivoted. We went from the top of the concern list to the ‘wow this is opening opportunities we never heard of’ list.
Engagement in the product went up even more as we went virtual. We had people trying to navigate something unprecedented. And when do you need a community more? Everyone needed help leading their organizations. It even democratized access in a way, they no longer needed to walk into a clubhouse. It allowed us to expand to more cities and allow women to join a community when they needed it most.
Childers: After the murder of George Floyd you had so many companies pushing for ways to support employees. It was a catalyst for some companies to think about how they were investing in their people.
Shoenthal: How did you respond to that moment in time when companies had a renewed focus on getting more women into leadership positions but even moreso on getting women of color there?
Childers: Diversity of our community has been our focus from day one. There was a McKinsey Women in the Workplace study that revealed women of color make up 18% of leadership roles. It was our mission from day one to be double that within our community. We’re not quite there, right now only 33% of our members identify as BIPOC.
Last summer, we rolled out a six part DEI workshop series. We wanted to ensure more people had access, so it was actually the first time we allowed members to bring a guest to events. So they could bring their head of HR, their CEOs, anyone they thought might benefit.
Shoenthal: How are you measuring success in general? Is it by determining how many women have grown into C suite executives since joining Chief?
Childers: Success for all of our members is always slightly different. There are many members who want to go from VP to C Suite. We have a ton of people who are C level executives who are so happy in the job they have they just want to be better at it. Some people really just want to join a board. Negotiating for a fair and equitable salary. We have countless stories, but no one metric we can use to show success. The number of times we’ve heard from members about how with the encouragement of their Core group they pivoted into the career they’re in now, or someone went to a Chief event and connected with a person who put them in touch with their dream job.
One definition of success is not everyone’s definition of success.
Kaplan: One woman convinced her CEO to allow her to work four days a week, and on her fifth day she’s pursuing her passion as a musician. Carolyn and I would love to figure out how to measure this, but it’s just so different. There are also so many women who come in and think they want one thing, but then their goals change.
Shoenthal: How do you address criticisms over the high price point ($5,000 – $8,000) of a Chief membership?
Childers: I fully appreciate when someone sees our price and thinks it’s too expensive, but if you look at what an executive coach would be, it’s $30,000, which is at or above our pricing. Look at what a three day conference with travel and accommodation would cost. I appreciate that it feels like a high price point, but we provide tremendous value at that price. For a lot of companies thinking about how they’re investing in their leaders, our company is actually a no-brainer relative to some of those.
Shoenthal: You have a few new spaces that just opened/are opening. Can you tell me about those?
Childers: When we closed our physical doors in the pandemic, we just had one location in New York, and now we’ve opened up the Flatiron location in New York. We opened a new space in West Hollywood and a new space in Fulton Market in Chicago. It’s great because you can get all the value Chief has through the digital experience, but we also know that as the world opens up people are excited to get together with their Core group and meet them in person. As a member you have access to all of our spaces across the country. Especially now that people are now a lot more nomadic, if they originally joined in New York, they may no longer be there. We know that in this summer of fun that is upon us, people are really looking forward to seeing each other. The physical spaces are a really nice supplement.
Kaplan: Now more than ever, people need community, they need Core groups. To see that waitlist explode in cities where there was no Clubhouse and to see those communities start growing was a real affirmation of what we’re doing. It was never about space, it was always about bringing leaders together.
Shoenthal: With these physical spaces open, how are you envisioning the future of events at Chief?
Kaplan: We have three types of events. First, we have our workshops, which will continue to live on line. It’s important to keep that online so everyone can still have access to it.
We have to look into what our big moment speakers look like and want to make sure that can be democratized. When we were only in New York, we could only have 100 people there at a time. So we need to make sure that everyone can tune in and access our speakers. We don’t want to lose the incredible dynamic we have there.
Third, I’m really proud of our team because I think we really cracked the code on how to network over Zoom. We have great speed networking community events and amazing new member breakfasts. These work for so many members, even the ones located in New York City who can go to a clubhouse. Think of the caregivers, those with long commutes, those who just can’t get out of work early. People love our digital networking because you can get a great dose of meeting people without committing that time you might not have.
Shoenthal: What are you most excited about?
Childers: This is so cliche but in 2020 most companies, especially early stage companies, were just going through survival mode. I’m excited to shift from surviving to thriving.
Kaplan: I’m most excited to tease Carolyn for using that line right after this interview.
Childers: And I so deserve it.
Kaplan: In 2020, we did over 300 virtual events because we wanted to meet everybody’s needs. We had to be reactive. So I’m excited to now go into a phase where we’re thinking more proactively for how Chief grows.