Apr 22 2021

The Startup Ecosystem Needs More Independent Board Members – That’s the Clearest Path to Having Better and More Diverse Boards

I love having independent directors on my Board.  They are a great third leg of the stool alongside a CEO/Founder and VCs.  They provide the same kind of pattern matching and outside point of view as VCs — but from a completely different perspective, that of an operator or industry expert.  The good ones are CEOs or CXOs who aren’t afraid to challenge you.  Equally important, they’re not afraid to challenge your VCs.  At Return Path, I always had 2 or 3 independent directors at any given time to balance out VCs, and some have become great long term friends like Scott Petry, Jeff Epstein, and Scott Weiss.  At Bolster, we’re already having a great experience with our first independent, Cristina Miller, and we’re about to add a second independent.  And I’ve served as an independent director multiple times.

So as you can imagine, I was shocked by one of the headlines coming out of the Board Benchmark study we ran at Bolster across 250+ clients (detailed blog post with a bunch of charts and graphs) that only ⅓ of companies in the study have any independent directors.  Even larger companies at the Series C and D levels only have independent directors 60% and 67% of the time.  What a missed opportunity for so many companies.

Less surprising, though still sobering, were the numbers on diversity that came out of the study.  79% of the directors in the sample are white.  86% are men.  43% of boards are completely racially homogenous (most all-white) while 80% are mostly racially homogeneous (meaning only one diverse member); 56% are gender homogenous (most all men), while 87% are mostly gender homogenous (only one female).  For an industry that is spending a lot of time talking about diversity in leadership teams and on boards, that’s disappointing.

Here’s the linkage of the two topics:  The solution to the board diversity problem lies in having more independent directors, since management and VC board seats are often both “fixed” and non-diverse.  Independent seats are the easiest to fill with diverse candidates.  Conveniently, more independent directors also leads to higher quality boards.  

In partnership with some DEI experts, our study also includes some suggested actionable tips for CEOs and board leaders, which I encourage you to read. There are really three simple (IMO) steps to having more diverse boards, and there is some good news in the Bolster study around these points:

  1. Add independent director seats.  50% of the companies in the survey either have or expect to have an independent board seat open within 12 months.  That’s a good start, but honestly, I can’t imagine running any board without at least 1-2 independent directors (up to 3-4 for larger companies), starting on Day 1.  Given that only ⅓ of companies in the sample have any independent board members at all, the 50% number feels quite low.
  2. Open the recruiting funnel to include first-time directors.  Historically, companies have mainly targeted current or former CEOs or people who have board experience to be independent directors.  That is a recipe to perpetuate having mostly white male board members.  But Bolster has done a few dozen board searches so far, and 66% of those clients have expressed a willingness to take on first-time directors, as long as they are “board ready,” which we define as having been on any kind of board, not just a corporate board; having reported to a founder or CEO and had regular interaction with and presentations to a board; or having significant experience as a formal or informal advisor.  Once you widen the funnel to include all candidates who meet those criteria, you can very easily have a diverse slate of highly qualified candidates.  Bolster is a great source of these candidates (this is a real focal point for our business), but there are plenty of other online or search firm sources as well.
  3. Have the courage to limit the number of management/investor board members.  Whether or not you can add independent board members may be a function of how many seats you have to play with in your corporate charter.  Of course, you can add seats indefinitely, but there’s no reason to have a 7-person board for your Series A company.  My rule of thumbs on this are simple:  (a) Only one founder member of the management team on the Board – more than that is a waste of a valuable board slot; and (b) VCs should always be less than 50% of your board members, so as new ones roll on, old ones should roll off – or add a VC and an independent at the same time.  Both of these take serious effort and courage, both are worth it, and both probably merit a longer blog post someday.

The Board Benchmark study also had a wealth of information about compensation for independent directors — cash vs. stock, what kind of stock, how much stock, vesting and acceleration provisions. 

Here’s a Slideshare of the full survey results, in case this and/or the Bolster blog link isn’t detailed enough for you:

If you’re interested in learning more, the survey is free to take and all the granular results (including comp benchmarks) are available to benchmark against your company if you take it. Just email me if you’re interested at [email protected].