Carolyn Childers learned early in her career that it’s lonely at the top, especially for women, but that a strong support system can help you stay there. Social and digital networks are great ways to connect, but people crave a sense of community to build deeper, more meaningful connections. At a venture capital event for women, Childers met Lindsay Kaplan, who was running communications for the mattress company Casper. The two built a connection and later co-founded Chief, a network that launched in 2019 to unite and support executive women at the highest levels of leadership across industries. Less than a year later, Chief had more than 2,000 members, with upwards of 8,000 people on the waitlist.
On Tuesday, December 17, 2019, as part of the Cornell Tech @ Bloomberg Speaker Series, Bloomberg Television’s Scarlet Fu interviewed Childers about Chief’s network and operations at Bloomberg’s Global Headquarters in New York City.
Childers started her career in investment banking. Next, she worked for female CEOs at Victoria’s Secret and Avon, which were established direct-to-consumer companies with a female-dominated customer base. As an individual contributor, Childers didn’t view workplace issues through a gender lens until she gained more seniority and started building a team. She noticed that there were few, if any, other women in boardrooms and senior leadership teams. People would often ask her questions to ensure she felt included, but despite any positive intent, this created an atmosphere that felt unnatural.
Once she reached senior leadership positions, Childers craved a community and support system. She started dealing with work and life in a very different way. That was the catalyst for her to build something to address this problem.
“[Chief] is meant to be a place where you can really be your authentic self and talk through your biggest professional personal challenges,” said Childers.
Building Chief’s Network
Childers and Kaplan had a modest goal of recruiting between 75 and 100 members. They started with cold emails to senior women executives. On their first day, a C-suite leader at a Fortune 10 company signed up.
“That’s when I think we realized that there’s a need here, and it’s only really taken off from there,” said Childers. “Now we do a lot less cold emailing because we have been able to really have word of mouth take effect.”
Chief is a vetted network that focuses on vice presidents and above, with membership for C-level executives priced at $7,800 and vice presidents at $5,400. While all members are women, men and people of all gender identities are welcome to join. Chief focuses on support and coaching, so many members are company-sponsored, since a Chief membership is less expensive than an individual career coach. Beyond professional experience, a candidate’s level of societal influence helps to determine membership eligibility.
“It is our biggest job to make sure that it truly is a network of senior executives,” said Childers. “They feel like it is at the right level of seniority, that they are not the mentor, but actually have a peer group.”
Chief’s memberships are in such high demand that the company does not need to spend money on marketing. This is a stark contrast with other startups that tend to spend a lot on marketing to fund growth, which is what venture capital expects. To safeguard the privacy of its members, Chief also does not have an official social media presence. The company currently has members in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, as well as surrounding metropolitan areas.
How Chief Works
“We focus really specifically on cognitive diversity and want to make sure that our member base comes from every different background, industry, and function,” said Childers.
Members from different backgrounds are put into Core groups, which offer a peer coaching experience. Chief conducts a deep onboarding process with new members to understand their levels of seniority and their goals to create a group of career contemporaries. In that process, executive coaches are matched to each group to act as facilitators.
Meeting every four to six weeks, Core groups are designed so that people get perspectives from other members operating in different environments and with different approaches. There is no curriculum, and members discuss what is important and valuable to them at that moment.
“It’s not just a one-to-one conversation with that coach. It’s actually an ability to tap into the perspective of all of the other women that are in the room that have experienced similar types of situations, which oftentimes the coach hasn’t,” said Childers. “It’s a really great dynamic to see take place.”
Chief also holds numerous large monthly events with guest speakers like Tina Fey, Amal Clooney, Mickey Drexler, and Mark Lowry. These were mainly in-person pre-Covid and are now held virtually.
Chief uses a subscription model and wanted to move fast to have an impact now, rather than in decades. The model that allows startups to move fastest is venture capital. In June 2019, Chief closed a $22 million Series A investment round with General Catalyst and Inspired Capital. Staying true to their mission with a consistent pitch helped Childers and Kaplan find investors who believe in their mission of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
“The people that you have as investors who are in that boardroom have a really deep impact on the way that your business is going to grow. And if it’s not the right fit, really make sure that you understand that and be true to yourself, because it’s not like you get the money and they go away. They’re now in your boardroom,” noted Childers.
You can watch the entire discussion below: