(5542)#foodcooking | Women leaders are ‘invisible,’ but a new initiative looks to change that

About eight months ago, Sheryl O’Loughlin, former CEO of Rebbl and Clif Bar, was talking with a "very progressive CEO" who was interested in putting a woman on his company's board of directors. When she followed up to ask what happened, the executive told her that he talked with the board and some advisors to get recommendations and he got names for two to three women. But none were available — so they just moved on. 

"That kind of stuff makes me crazy because they are out there, they are just not obvious because they haven't been part of the network. They've been left out. They're invisible," she told Food Dive. "We want to make these great women visible. That's what we're doing."

O’Loughlin is co-founder and co-chair of the Women on Boards Project, a nonprofit that unveiled an initiative today that hopes to create a large network of female leaders so that companies can no longer use access to women as an excuse for why they don't hire them.

To kick it off, the Women on Boards Project is partnering with top private equity firms and an inaugural group of 20 consumer private companies to increase gender diversity and inclusion on their boards.

Of the inaugural 20 private consumer companies that have signed on to the initiative, more than half are food and beverage companies, including Magic Spoon, Ancient Harvest, The Good Bean, Alter Eco Foods and Velocity Snack Brands. 

Permission granted by Women on Boards Project

"There are a lot of reasons that companies give as to why they don't have more inclusive boards. But part of it is we need to work together as an industry in order to make it so that people know who the candidates are, so the boards are encouraged to be able to make this change," said O’Loughlin.

How will the initiative​ work? 

Every six months, the WOB Project will support a new cohort of 20 companies who join the initiative by helping them pro bono identify candidates for their boards. The WOB Project will collaborate with each company on a candidate scorecard and compensation parameters, as well as interview and research strategy. Then the group will provide five to 10 names to each company that fit their criteria.

To find these women, the project partnered with theBoardlist, which is made up of 14,000 women, along with the network of veterans within the consumer products industry that WOB Project has already developed. O'Loughlin serves on the board of several companies, including Foodstirs and Once Upon a Farm. 

"I can't tell you how many countless women come to me now because they know that I've served on some boards to say, 'How do I do it? I don't know how to get on a board. Nobody's asking me. I'm trying to see what companies are out there,'" she said. "We've got to change that dynamic. I know there's companies that see the need. I know there are tons of women that have the ability. It's just that they're invisible to each other. We're helping to make the match."

Although more women have secured board positions in recent years, the overall numbers are still low and the gender gap is still wide.

Permission granted by Sheryl O'Loughlin


The WOB Project will also work with top private equity firms, including VMG Partners, L Catterton, Swander Pace Capital, Alliance Consumer Growth, TSG Consumer Partners, Encore Consumer Capital and CircleUp. 

O’Loughlin said the PE firms committed to putting a woman on the board of one of the companies in their portfolio every six months. 

"Why that is so critical is because a lot of our industry is private equity-backed, and the private equity is really the doorway to the board. So by having them a part of this movement, they're really going to be the key to actually making it happen," O’Loughlin said. "So as we start to get this going, and companies see the great women out there, and women see the companies that are looking for women to be on their boards, it starts to create the momentum that's needed to actually make this stick. We don't want this to be a flash in the pan. We want this to be a radical movement that is going to shift dramatically the makeup of our boards."

In picking the first group of 20 companies, WOB looked at various criteria, including if they were in the PE consortium and if they had enough financial momentum to be successful, as well as making sure they had a diverse group.​ The initiative plans to announce a new cohort every six months to align with the Natural Products Expos, since the WOB Project also works with the Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion (JEDI) Collaborative.

Diversifying the top voices 

The benefits of putting women on boards can help companies financially. Cassie Nielsen, co-founder of the WOB Project and vice president of talent at VMG Partners, said in a release sent to Food Dive that women currently drive about 70% to 80% of all consumer purchasing. 

"Without immediately addressing diversity and inclusion in our boards and leadership, our companies and industries will not meet the needs of our consumers and drive the innovation and fact-based decision-making needed to drive growth and profitability in this evolving marketplace," Nielsen said. 

A report from McKinsey found that companies in the top quarter for racial, ethnic and gender diversity were 35% and 15%, respectively, more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.

But industries across the board have struggled with diversity. In 2018, there were less women in leadership positions than men named John. ​And for years, food companies have faced a lack of female leadership. 

"We don't want this to be a flash in the pan. We want this to be a radical movement that is going to shift dramatically the makeup of our boards."

Sheryl O’Loughlin

Co-founder and co-chair, Women on Boards Project

O’Loughlin resigned as Rebbl CEO in 2019 after four years with the plant-based beverage brand, and before that she helped to turn Clif Bar into a household name as its CEO. She also co-founded baby food company Plum Organics, which was bought by Campbell Soup for $250 million in 2013.

She said it is important for the food industry to increasingly diversify its leadership. 

"For food companies, we're serving the consumer, and the consumer has shifted dramatically," she said. "Over time, we have not matched what we do inside with what's happening outside. And until we bring that perspective to our companies so that our leadership is matching what is happening in the marketplace, we're going to be blind to the opportunities that are out there to better serve the marketplace."

O’Loughlin said that if companies are only talking about the one point of view of a homogenous group of people, then the industry will not be able to solve problems and serve products to communities with all types of people.  

"Women and men and people along the gender spectrum each are looking at the world in a different way," O’Loughlin said. "By bringing all these people together, we will really be able to address the issues of food needs because women bring a different perspective than men do."

But the problem extends beyond board members. Women have also struggled to get funding to start companies. 

U.S.-based companies that were founded solely by women were on pace last year to set all-time highs for their annual share of all venture capital deals at just 6.7% and capital invested at only 2.8%, according to data from Pitchbook. Although the numbers were record highs, they were still dramatically low.

Some companies have been putting money and initiatives toward diversity. Two years ago, Constellation Brands announced it would invest $100 million in female-founded alcoholic beverage companies by 2028 to boost support for women in a predominantly male industry. There is also a women owned certification and label run by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council and WEConnect International to create support for women-owned businesses.

O’Loughlin said she hopes this new initiative could help to bring more change to how women are funded and get more females in networks where they are considered for top roles.

"As women are seen as the leaders that they are, and they get exposure to a lot of these companies, not only will they have much more of have the ability to be able to be part of the so-called network that recognizes and funds people, but also they're going to be now at the top of the list to say, 'Here is a woman that we can take in as CEO of the company,'" she said. "This starts the whole ball rolling."

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