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Women on Boards Project to teach companies how to diversify Getty Images

Women on Boards Project to teach companies how to diversify

The WOB Project partners with private equity firms, creates an initiative to educate businesses and offers webinars to increase the number of female board members in the natural products industry.

Women are having a hard time finding a seat at the board room table—and, too often, that's because the men at the table say they don't know women who are qualified.

The natural products industry's Women on Boards Project is out to change that. With a consortium of seven private equity firms and a partnership with The Boardlist—a database of female executives—Women on Boards Project is ready to help all companies find the diversity that is increasingly valued by investors and consumers.    

"The whole deal here is to help make invisible people visible, so that companies can no longer say, 'Hey, I don't know a woman,' 'I can't hire a woman because I don't know a woman,' or 'I can't hire a woman because I only have an investor's seat.' We have to shift that way of thinking. That's what we're trying to do," says Sheryl O'Loughlin, co-founder and co-chair of Women on Boards Project. She previously served as the CEO of REBBL Inc. and Clif Bar and was a co-founder of Plum Organics.

"We're an industry of private companies that are controlled by PE firms, so we have a different dynamic," O'Loughlin says. "Government's not going to force this kind of change, so we're going to enable companies to make this kind of change."

Whether a company is public or private, investors expect the same diversity. In January, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. announced it would no longer accept initial public offerings from U.S. or European companies that don't have at least one female or diverse director. Other investment firms are also refusing to work with companies that don't have a female director, Bloomberg reported.

The Women on Boards Project is tackling the issue on all fronts. With its 20 Company Initiative, it will work pro bono with 20 companies to find women and diverse candidates for the boards. The project will help each company write a job description, find candidates and negotiate the terms of employment—all for free. A new cohort of companies will enter the initiative program every six months.

O'Loughlin valued the services at between $50,000 and $100,000. The Boardlist, with 14,000 women in its community, as well as the networks of the Women on Boards Project founders will serve as two resources.

"This is not just (a human resources) thing; this is a holistic approach that we need to shift as an entire industry in order to be able to see change," O'Loughlin says.

Cassie Nielsen, co-founder of Women on Boards Project and vice president of talent at VMG Partners, which helped found Women on Boards Project, said in a press release, "Women currently drive 70-80% 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."

Beyond the initiative, the Women on Board Project also will offer webinars on systemic bias and managing diversity to help companies' leaders learn how their company culture or offhand comments can make others feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

The Private Equity Consortium includes seven firms that have committed to seeing one woman named to a board of a company in its portfolio every six months, O'Loughlin said.

Encore Consumer Capital is one of those private equity firms. "In order to take brands within our portfolio to the next level and ensure all represented at the company have a voice, we need to make sure we are hearing from a diverse team. With the help of this initiative, we will be able to find the perfect candidates for the boards of companies such as Ancient Harvest,” Robert Brown, co-founder and managing director at Encore Consumer Capital, said in the press release.

The consortium likely will include more firms as the Women on Board Project matures, O'Loughlin says.

Who is involved in the project and the initiative

The board of the Women on Boards Project includes women from equity firms, entrepreneurs and executives:

  • Kara Cissell-Roell, general partner, VMG Partners
  • Mita Mallick, head of diversity and cross cultural marketing, Unilever
  • Brianna Rizzo Brown, principal of talent, Stripes
  • Alex Hanifin, vice president marketing, the Good Crisp and former CEO Alpine Start
  • Melissa Facchina, founder, Siddhi Shots
  • Cassie Nielsen, vice president of talent, VMG Partners
  • Sheryl O’Loughlin, former CEO of REBBL Inc. and Clif Bar and co-founder of Plum Organics

The WOB Private Equity Consortium is formed of industry leaders who are committed to diversifying the boards of their portfolio brands:

The Women on Board 20 Company Initiative includes familiar brands and smaller companies from a variety of categories in natural products:

 

Editor's note: Women on Boards Project had planned events at Natural Products Expo West. Because of concerns about the coronavirus situation, Natural Products Expo West has been postponed.

Update, March 4: O'Loughlin wrote in an email that the webinars were going to be recorded at Natural Products Expo West. Because the event was postponed, the webinars are delayed. However, the 20 Store Initiative and the Private Equity Consortium are proceeding.

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