Profile: Women Corporate Directors

by Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

It may be hard for some to believe, but an organization that now has a global network of 525 high-powered members who serve on 675 boards began rather humbly with a home-cooked meal around a small dinner table in a New York City apartment. Susan Stautberg, President of PartnerCom Corporation, first began her organization Women Corporate Directors (WCD) in 1999. The premise: to bring together like-minded women who serve as directors of corporations for a communal meal and some shared advice.

Janet Clarke, President of Clarke Littlefield, has been with the organization since its inception and can attest to the fact that times have definitely changed. “We used to sit around this tiny table in Susan’s apartment, talk business, and eat the dinner she’d prepared. At the time, there was always a dog around that we could feed our scraps to,” Clarke said. Major changes in leadership, locale and structure have since taken place, but one thing is for certain: Stautberg has created a truly unique community for executive women.

WCD co-founder Alison Winter, founding President and CEO of President of Personal Financial Services in the Northeast for multi-bank holding company Northern Trust Corp, became fast friends with Stautberg after a chance meeting at a Committee of 200 conference in Washington D.C. After a little convincing, Winter decided to join Stautberg in creating what, at the time, was treated as nothing more than a dinner series. “Susan was doing the dinners in New York and, after enough heckling, I decided to start a chapter in Chicago. It quickly became clear that Susan was the entrepreneur with the creative ideas and I was the corporate executive. I wanted the organization to have formal structure and cohesion, so I began working on a logo with my company’s graphics department,” said Winter.

Around 2004, formal requirements for membership were put in place. Members are usually very senior, influential executives (Chairmen, CEO’s, COO’s and other C-level executives) and on average, serve on 3-4 major corporate and/or non-profit boards. 85 percent of the women in WCD are directors of public or large private company boards, while the other 15 percent have or will soon serve on public boards and currently serve on private, mutual funds or major non-profit boards. All members of the organization are either hand-picked or recommended and they represent a dizzying array of industries; some serve as directors of both the New York and NASDAQ Stock Exchanges, while others hold top positions at recognizable American companies such as Black and Decker and Hormel Foods.

Maryann Bruce, who is the President of Aquilla Distributors and acts as WCD’s Charlotte, NC co-chapter chair, is a prime example of how the organization brings women together. “I am also a member of the National Association of Corporate Directors and I must say, it’s very male-dominated and I often feel like I can’t relate to my peers there. With WCD, I can relate to many of the women concerning a whole host of things that are relevant not just to women, but to professional women with high-powered jobs.” WCD became an official organization in 2002, but even in its earliest stages, it was clear that the fledgling dinner series would be for women exclusively. “The dialogue is different when it’s just women; women are able to get into deep conversations when they feel the environment is safe and supportive, rather than competitive,” Winter said.

In addition to its new chapters in Atlanta, Boston, and San Francisco, WCD is going global with new chapters set to open in Beijing, Hong Kong, Lima, and London. Says Clarke, “There’s no other organization out there just for women that’s networking on a global level. Despite the size of the network, our meetings are small, private, intimate affairs that have a very nurturing environment.”

The chapter dinners, which are held three to four times a year, give the member women a chance to network, share ideas, and get to know other women with similar positions in varying industries. “I really like that the meetings are private and ‘off-the-record’,” Clarke said. “We often discuss classified information pertaining to our individual boards; it’s nice to share, receive advice, and just let your hair down and speak freely.”

Even though each dinner begins with a cocktail hour, potential members shouldn’t expect a casual dinner filled with socializing. As a matter of fact, after cocktails, it’s strictly business. “We purposely host each dinner around one large table so that it’s reminiscent of a business meeting. Of course, it’s nice to see each other, but once dinner begins, all chit-chat ends,” Winter said.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about WCD is not that they are all women in high-ranking corporate positions but, rather, despite their great success, they are still hungry to learn how to be better board directors. And while the dinners are primarily about sharing new ideas and attaining knowledge, for many members, the organization has become more than that – it has become a safe place where ideas can be exchanged without fear of judgment, a place that inspires, and, perhaps most importantly, a place where lifelong friendships are made.

“WCD has provided inspiration and encouragement like I’ve never encountered before. Sure, women are underrepresented as corporate directors, but getting to know all of these highly successful, high-powered women has shown me that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This organization helps advance women and for me, it’s not just a business association; it’s become a personal association. I have made good friends with women in similar professions that literally live in my neighborhood and not only wouldn’t I have known that they existed, but I could have never become friends with them any other way,” Bruce said.