During Women's History Month, we posted our second annual GV 2021 Impact List, showcasing 25 noteworthy women and non-binary people across our portfolio who have made tangible differences to their company's culture and success. This list is one of many that represent rising talent ready and able to influence change, such as taking board roles.

As companies actively begin to accelerate diversity on their boards and add independent directors earlier than in years past, we are seeing a growing number of board opportunities. Increased demand is wonderful, but given that almost half of early stage companies have no gender diversity on their boards and only 3% include women of color (compared to 18% with men of color), we've been exploring how we can improve the pathway for the next generation of board talent.

In June, we invited Jana Rich, Founder and CEO of Rich Talent Group, to share her perspective with our 2021 Impact List honorees on how to navigate the board journey. Rich Talent Group has a strong commitment to equity and diversity; in 2020, 94% of people they recruited to board roles were women, LGBT+ and/or people of color.

Here's a summary of the conversation between Jana and the Impact List group:

How do I determine if I can fit a board role in my life?

Serving on a board is a big time commitment on top of an operating role, and the average term of a board member is three years. So first, it's important to determine if you have the time to dedicate to it. You will also want to consider the difference in time commitment between a private and public company.

It's also worth noting that the average board search can take six to eight months because many people are involved in the decision (though virtual interviews and the urgency to diversify have shortened the timeline). Before you actively engage in the recruiting process, take time to get answers, permission and support from your CEO early so you don't unwittingly go down the path with a recruiter about a board only to learn you can't serve. Jana advises patience with the process — and be willing to take the call if you get it, as board recruiting is very specific and outreach is limited.

What do recruiters tend to look for to determine if a candidate is "board ready"? What skills would be interesting to a board?

As a board candidate, it's important to know what skills you bring and what types of boards you might want to serve on. Give the recruiter two or three "hooks" to remember you by (e.g., "I'm interested in healthcare companies on the west coast that are publicly traded"). That's the best way for a recruiter to understand your capabilities and interests and how to present your profile to potential matches.

When it comes to skills, there's always demand for operational roles — people who have been CEOs, executives who've managed P&L business lines, CFOs who can serve on the audit committee. There is also rising interest in a broader range of expertise in areas such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, digital transformation, go-to-market, cybersecurity, international experience, ESG, and DE&I.

The stage of a company might also have an impact on what boards are looking for when it comes to experience and expertise. For instance, large legacy companies that want "digital DNA" may be open to VP level candidates (or those just below the C-suite). And younger startups may be more interested in seasoned candidates to balance them out. For example, Stacy Brown Philpot, first COO at TaskRabbit, recently joined the board of StockX.

How do I assess whether I'll be culture-compatible with a company and its board? What are red flags to watch out for when considering a board seat?

Jana noted that board members have two primary responsibilities: 1) input into company strategy; and 2) evaluating the performance of the CEO. With this in mind, you'll want to learn as much as possible about how the board influences company strategy. For example, if a founder says the strategy is set and doesn't want the board to question it, then that's probably a red flag. In your assessment, you'll want to understand:

  1. The company's stage of growth.
  2. Their health and how they measure it.
  3. The biggest challenges they are facing.
  4. How they make decisions.

How do I suss out tokenism? What advice do you have on how to manage it?

As boards become more diverse, it's natural that some directors may be joining as the first or only from an underrepresented background. If you are excited about the company and feel they value the expertise you bring to the table, then take the opportunity to get your foot in the door to help create change. But it's also OK if you don't want to carry that burden or start your board journey in this way. Another board might be a better fit, especially if you aren't sure your voice will be valued.

Be sure to ask how they plan to prioritize and integrate new expertise into their board operation, especially if a company is bringing in its first independent board member to a primarily investor-led board. She also advises that you make sure the company is committed to change, and has the resources to support it. For example, to evaluate whether equity, diversity, and inclusion are a strategic priority, consider questions such as: How diverse is the leadership team? The board? The organization? What goals have they set around DE&I and where are they in the process?

Where do recruiters look for candidates?

Jana recommends a multi-pronged approach, because the right board roles could come through a few different networks:

  1. Connect with a recruiting firm like Rich Talent Group or The Board List to get added to their talent lists.
  2. Join a board accelerator like Silicon Valley Executive Center's Corporate Board Readiness Program.
  3. Join an industry community like AllRaise, Him for Her, or your company's employee resource group.
  4. Form a personal relationship with leaders in your industry who are one or two steps ahead of you. They typically hear about a lot of board roles and maintain a list of rising leaders they will refer to board opportunities.

Final thoughts

In closing, Jana reminded the group, "You don't have to take the first opportunity. Be patient." She noted that whichever board you choose now will affect your future board decisions based on your time constraints and interests. As you evaluate opportunities, take time to examine who else is on the board—are these people who you want to work with, and learn from? The caliber of board members will influence your experience and what you learn, and they are potential referrers for you to future opportunities.