Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan were both crushing it in their careers. Childers was the SVP of operations at on-demand housework startup Handy. Kaplan was the VP of communications and brand at new-age mattress company Casper. Both of these companies were growing rapidly, and with them so were Childers’ and Kaplan’s careers.
But as they grew to more senior positions in their careers, the duo noticed something — it’s lonely for women at the top.
The boardroom is notoriously a boys’ club. Only 29 percent of senior management roles are held by women, according to Catalyst. Women account for only 6.6 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs. And of the 36 Fortune 500 CEOs in Illinois, there are only two women.
As rare women executives, other women looked up to Childers and Kaplan for mentorship and career advice, even though they didn’t have access to those resources for themselves. So, they decided to build a support system to change that.
The two left their jobs to start Chief, a private network for women executives at the VP level or higher. Its goal is to connect women leaders, and give them the support and resources to help them succeed in a male-dominated space.
“We felt like a lot of the resources out there [for women executives] were very one-time transactional,” Chief co-founder Carolyn Childers told Built In. “You can meet people at a conference or event, but there wasn’t an ongoing resource for you to build connections that went deeper than ‘what’s your name and where do you work?’”
Chief launched in New York City in 2019 with 200 founding members. To start, all members are assigned “core groups” of eight to 10 people curated by their level of experience. These groups attend monthly sessions led by a professional facilitator skilled in executive coaching and leadership training. In addition, the network offers a “salon series” of workshops on specific skills. And all events are hosted at Chief’s official clubhouse.
It’s been a hit. The co-founders raised a $22 million Series A in July of 2019. Over the next few months, Chief’s New York membership jumped to 2,000 members with executives from companies like Amazon, American Express, Google, HBO and Spotify among them. And though the network, of course, caters to women, the company said in a statement that it “proudly welcome[s] applicants of every gender identity.”
The network currently has a waitlist of about 7,000 people, most of whom don’t live in New York, and it’s expanding its footprint to include them. A Los Angeles clubhouse is slated for the spring, and a 7,000-square-foot clubhouse in Chicago’s West Loop — complete with a bar and lounge space, conference rooms, phone booths and a private roof deck — is scheduled to open this summer.
Why Chicago? Chief’s co-founders told Built In a significant portion of their waitlist calls the Windy City home. Childers and Kaplan said they’ve already lined up several women as founding members of its Chicago branch, but they didn’t want to reveal who they were yet.
“One of the things that’s been important to us is a feeling of confidentiality where you can come in and not have to feel like the CEO,” Childers told Built In.
While these women constantly have to lead and represent a company at their day job, Childers says she wants Chief to create an environment where women can look to other leaders, and represent themselves as a professional, not just the boss.
“We have so many fantastic members rooting for us that really want to see us expand to Chicago,” Kaplan said. “When it comes down to it, this isn’t a place that’s trying to build a community. This is a community that’s looking for a space.”