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How a Shared Mission Turned Chief Into a Unicorn

Chief's mission isn't corporate jargon. It's a rallying cry. And it's created a network effect that's powerful and rare.

Chief, a global executive network for women that launched in 2019, has reached a valuation of $1.1B, attracting over 12,000 members worldwide.

They did it by building a community around a powerful mission: "to drive more women to the top and keep them there."

Chief shows how a shared mission across a large network can create exponential growth.

When Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan first met, the scene was all too familiar: another women’s event with, “name tags, warm white wine, uninspired speakers, and aimless networking.” 

Each had worked their way to the highest echelons of the corporate sphere. Childers served as SVP of Operations at Handy and led Amazon’s while Kaplan was VP of Communications at Casper. Yet they knew at a gut level that something was off. And it wasn’t just the existential dread of another bland corporate conference.

The C-Suite at the top 1,000 revenue-producing corporations in the U.S is only 25% female. There are more CEOs named James, Robert, or John than there are female CEOs. For all the talk about shattering the glass ceiling, it remains largely intact.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, achieving gender parity at its current growth rate would take 217 years. Kaplan and Childers decided they couldn’t wait another year for a sluggish uptick.

“Change isn’t coming quickly enough within the inner sanctums of hundreds of thousands of businesses,” Childers and Kaplan wrote

(Disclosure: Chief is an A.Team customer.)

So what does it really take to start a movement on that scale? According to Childers and Kaplan, it requires building a network around one highly relatable mission: to drive women to the top, and keep them there.

“We were both senior executives in the startup world and realized how much time we spent mentoring other people,” said Kaplan. “But we had no way to invest in ourselves and find a community.”

That’s what led Childers and Kaplan to co-found Chief, a private membership network focused on connecting and supporting women executive leaders.

Today, Chief has become one of the fastest launch-to-billion-dollar valuations for a solely female-founded, venture-backed U.S. tech company. Though their offerings are still evolving, Chief’s members already gain access to monthly executive mentorship sessions, leadership workshops, and exclusive spaces dubbed clubhouses in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and a growing list of cities worldwide.

Just four and a half years after its inception, Chief’s membership includes over 12,000 senior executives from the likes of Morgan Stanley, Accenture, IBM, and Zoom. With a global waitlist of more than 60,000, it seems like their momentum isn’t letting up.

Harnessing a network effect on their own terms

In an age of artificial connections, what does a meaningful network really look like—and how can it spread sustainably? 

The network effect refers to the dynamic where a product becomes more valuable as more people use it. Chief is, of course, tapping into the power of networks; but their approach isn’t focused on quantity. Instead, Childers and Kaplan make a conscious effort to bring in high-quality members committed to its mission, with diverse viewpoints that can usher in a new era of female leadership.

That makes Chief's network effect much more powerful.

There are more CEOs named James, Robert, or John than there are female CEOs.

“There’s immense power in a tight and diverse network, and this network effect is amplified for women who face cultural and political hurdles that men do not,” said Childers. “The more diverse these networks are—in terms of cognitive thinking, experience level and industry—the more effective they become.”

A study on cognitive diversity published in Harvard Business Review found that it has less to do with gender, ethnicity, or age and more to do with differences in perspective or information processing styles. It’s really about how individuals engage with new, uncertain, and complex situations. The study also found that teams with greater cognitive diversity solved problems faster.

Chief’s founders drew off one another’s differing strengths. As detailed on the podcast Masters of Scale, Kaplan could be “maniacal about any experience we were launching,” while Childers was oriented toward long-term scalability. At the end of the day, they acknowledged, “you should never get a co-founder who is exactly like you.”

There’s one thing they agreed on from the beginning: A clear mission is absolutely key to inspiring and empowering belief in a new project. Whether it’s Apple’s imperative to make elegant and accessible technology or Patagonia’s promise to cause no unnecessary harm to the environment, a strong, concrete mission acts as a guiding light, informing everything from growth strategy to product design.

Chief's mission—to drive more women to the top and keep them there—holds a similar power. It's not corporate speak. It's a rallying cry. The stuff movements are made of.

Kaplan and Childers have said that word of mouth has been Chief’s secret weapon. It helped garner interest from the world's most powerful women and is attracting VC partners in a way that traditional trade associations never could. Membership in Chief isn't a status symbol; it's a mission-driven call to action. That's inspired its powerful members to actively spread the word and achieve their shared mission together.

As Childers and Kaplan wrote: "We don’t need a seat at their table. We’re building our own.”

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