As companies see a record number of women leaving their jobs in “the Great Resignation,” Google parent Alphabet is putting money behind an initiative that could help them stay.
Launched in 2019, Chief is a membership-based company for female executives that’s designed to provide meetups with curated groups of peers, mentorship and fireside chats with people like former first lady Michelle Obama.
The start-up has physical spaces in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and, as of last month, a fresh $100 million in cash from Alphabet venture arm CapitalG. The money will help Chief open a clubhouse in San Francisco this summer that will feature a bar with specialty coffee, open lounge space, meeting rooms, private call booths and a room for moms.
“Tech is such a male-dominated industry so I think it’s a great ability to tap into something that breaks from that mold a little bit more,” Chief co-founder Carolyn Childers told CNBC in an interview. She said San Francisco is the company’s fastest growing city, and “we’ve seen amazing members join from early-stage start-ups to the big tech giants.”
The Covid-19 pandemic bolstered the business as women flocked to Chief’s platform, which served as a support system during a time of solitude. More than 12,000 senior executives have signed on from over 8,500 companies including HBO, American Express, Nike, Google, Goldman Sachs, NASA and Apple.
Annual membership starts at $5,800 for women at the vice president level and $7,900 C-suite executives. About 70% of members are sponsored by their employers, Childers said. Beginning this year, members can pay an additional fee to gain an all-access pass to Chief’s clubhouses, where they can host clients, reserve meeting rooms and connect with other members.
‘Lonely at the top’
Childers and co-founder Lindsay Kaplan said Chief was born from experience, as they both had senior roles at companies and struggled to find support. It’s one of the main reasons female workers don’t stay in the tech industry, studies have shown.
Childers was formerly a senior vide president at Handy and Soap.com, where she worked as general manager through the company’s acquisition by Amazon. Kaplan was vice president of communications and brand at Casper and did marketing for various startups.
“We were managing teams and mentoring others but no longer had the resources for ourselves,” Childers said. “It can get really lonely at the top, especially when you’re quite literally the only woman in a room full of men.”
Chief expanded nationally at the beginning of the year. There are some 60,000 women on the waitlist, but Childers and Kaplan say they should be able to start vetting applicants more quickly now that the company has more money to hire people and build out the technology.
Laela Sturdy, a partner at CapitalG, said the company has an “incredible business model” but also benefited from the timing, given the many stresses of the pandemic.
“I started hearing about Chief because I have a lot of friends who are senior executive women and execs in my portfolio who were joining Chief and I was honestly impressed by the brand momentum and organic love that chief members were showing,” Sturdy said. “It’s very rare to have members and users talk about a platform that changes their life.”
Childers says the company is now positioned to get even more momentum in a post-pandemic world as people are craving in-person events.
“When everything went completely digital, the biggest thing is it democratized access,” Childers said. “You didn’t have to be in a specific place. For networks and communities, having the opportunity to meet in person physically is a huge benefit.”
In April, the platform featured members-only fireside chats with Arielle Gross Samuels, the global head of Meta’s environmental, social and corporate governance initiative, and former Netflix CMO Bozoma Saint John. Topics range from workplace inclusion to work-life balance.
Childers said it’s a particularly diverse community, with 35% of members identifying as BIPOC, or Black indigenous and people of color.
Taking it to companies
Chief is raising hefty amounts of capital from top venture capitalists, which means investors have expectations for the company to scale in a way that can justify a tech valuation. Other backers include General Catalyst and GGV Capital.
Chief says a big way it plans to grow is by going directly to companies. For example, it could potentially customize features and program based on the needs of their female executives, whether that means a focus on events or professional growth, Sturdy said.
“We really want to make deep investments into making relationships with those companies so that sponsorship becomes a no-brainer of a company you’re an employee of,” Childers said. “There’s a lot of opportunity to think of where Chief is even beyond the U.S.”
Sturdy has a role to play in the expansion. She’s seen 10 of her investments turn into companies worth $1 billion or more in the past year, and she’s spent more than a decade at Google in various leadership roles. She said that Chief can serve as a valuable retention tool as companies consider ways to keep their top performers.
“What is exciting about this expansion is the vision to go into Google or Nike and say, ‘Hey, there are already five, 10, 20 of your senior executives who are Chief members and here’s all the ways we could expand to serve more of your population,'” Sturdy said.