Innovator Interviews: Chief’s Lindsay Kaplan

Innovator Interviews: Chief’s Lindsay Kaplan

Companies with women on executive teams are 25% more likely to report higher than average profitability and companies with more than 30% female executives are more likely to outperform companies that don’t, per McKinsey. And yet, many women left the workforce during the pandemic to care for family members. 

Lindsay Kaplan, co-founder and chief brand officer of the women’s networking club Chief, is on a mission to help change this by bolstering the success of women executives. Along with her co-founder Carolyn Childers, Kaplan has created a place for women to find mentorship and community. “There are social platforms that are not friendly towards women, and not necessarily places that are healthy to have great progressive dialog around what great leadership looks like,” says Kaplan. 

Chief aims to solve this problem by offering mentorship for the mentors – a place for like-minded executives to network, share ideas and find success. The New York City-based organization, which is valued  at $1.1 billion, offers digital content and in-person meetups designed exclusively for women executives to work on their potential. 

The focus of the platform is digital meetups and in-person events. Digital meetups include monthly peer groups in which 10 members with the same job level meet with an executive coach. Additionally, Chief runs in-person events and runs four meetup and event spaces in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

“Women have always been powerful,” says the organization’s website, which also lists an impressive roster of brands with members including: Walmart, Google, Spotify, Amazon, Netflix, Toyota, Uber, Nike, Disney, Universal Music Group and many more.

“We specifically chose to not go into a very gendered aesthetic or even showcase pictures of women on our website because we really wanted the words to be powerful,” explains Kaplan. “We didn’t want to necessarily prescribe what a powerful woman looks like. We wanted somebody to get to and read what Chief stands for, and relate to it.”

Brand Innovators caught up with Kaplan from her office in New York to discuss mentorship for women leaders, purpose and how marketing leaders are weathering the economic downturn. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What was the impulse behind creating Chief and what you’re hoping to accomplish with it?

The impulse came from a really personal place. My co-founder and I were both growing in our careers –both executives at our startups – and we realized we were both asked to mentor people and to speak on panels about leadership. While we were being this face of the mentor, in reality, the challenges, the pressure that are happening at that VP level are stronger than ever.

We both had this thought around, who’s mentoring the mentors? Where are we going here? Where are we mentoring and telling people about our careers? Where are we going for guidance? Where is our support and community? That led us to founding chief in 2018. We launched in 2019. Our mission is to change the face of leadership. So we are a vetted network of the most powerful women executives, we are currently at 20,000 members across nearly 10,000 organizations. Seventy-five percent Fortune 100 companies have a member in Chief.

What is the community doing to support women at the executive level?

We look at Chief as really supporting community, as well as leadership growth. Our most important service that we offer is called Core. It’s an industry-agnostic, hyper-curated peer group of 10 executives that meet monthly with an executive coach in the room. It really becomes a personal board of directors. Again, that goes back to those who are mentoring the mentors. Members are pretty evenly split between C-Suite and VP level.

We have an incredible community that is both digital as well as IRL, meaning we have community groups on our proprietary platform. We have a lot of member meetups and community gatherings in person. Then we also have programming and workshops specifically designed for a woman in leadership. So really timely content around managing through the economic downturn, operationalizing DE&I within your organization, board services in order to drive more women into the boardroom and a lot more. 

What are some of the big challenges that you’re hearing among marketing leadership in your community?

We’ve seen that social platforms, in particular, have become a really tenuous place to both advertise, as well as to have built a community. We’re seeing that through the degradation of the value of Facebook and the advertising explosion on Twitter, executives are looking at new channels and new platforms, and doing that in the face of some economic uncertainty where you need to take chances. But you also need to feel like you can deliver results in uncertain times.

Can you talk about purpose in marketing and how the brand marketers you are talking to are showing up in their purpose?

A lot of brands over the last few years spoke up around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. A lot of companies have taken a stand when it comes to wanting to do what’s right. We are seeing right now the fact that many companies are. It’s easy to talk a big game, but it’s harder to walk the walk long term and build that approach into the DNA of the culture, the business you’re running, what you stand for as a brand, how that shows up and the platforms you appear on. It was easy to make a statement, it’s a lot harder to operationalize what that means throughout every facet of your business. 

I’m hoping that as brands take these really provocative actions. Longer term, they will see that by taking a stance on polarizing issues, that they can forgo short term profits for purpose and invest in campaigns that address societal issues. We know younger generations will reward those brands with loyalty, because people care about what companies stand for, what they’re delivering on their promises, and what their purpose will be in the world. 

What does DE&I look like at Chief?

We’ve had a commitment to inclusion since day one. Only 18% of women who are in executive level positions identify as women of color. Prior to launch, we said, we need to make sure we’re building a membership that at least doubles that. So 35% of our members identify as women of color right now. 

That is something that is important for us not just in terms of representation, but when we think through the programming we’re doing like operationalizing DE&I for others and also bringing those groups together to make sure that we have facilitated identity groups, that we have confidential places on our website for groups to get together and make sure that there’s a feeling of deep community within those groups within the subset of Chief. Finally, when it comes to our commitment to DE&I, in 2021, we doubled our grant program. We committed $1 million annually to nonprofits and charity organizations aligned with our mission to change the face of leadership. 

It is really important for us to not just talk the talk, but really walk it through the DNA of our business, what we’re doing today and what we’re committing to tomorrow. We hired our first VP of impact and inclusion, and are very excited to give her the charter of not just owning inclusion, both within Chief on our team, as well as all of our members, but also owning that remit of the $1 million spend. It’s not just somebody who’s overseeing inclusion, but also driving impact out into society.”

How is senior marketing leadership talking about how they’re adapting to the uncertainty in the marketplace? 

People right now are just trying to be really responsible with their marketing budgets and being really thoughtful about how they can harness the power of their brand marketing to really build voice and build into organic to ease up some reliance on paid. 

Can you talk about some of the predictions that you have for women in leadership for going into 2023?

My hopeful prediction is that companies will continue to invest in DE&I and women leaders. We’ve seen during downturns before, like the pandemic, we’ve seen caregivers, we’ve seen women leave the workplace at astounding rates. My prediction is that companies will dig in and continue to invest in making sure that they keep their best talent and we can make sure that we continue to be progressive in workplace policies to ensure that women caregivers and marginalized people of color can continue to stay and grow in their organizations.