How Women Lead‘s goal is to get women in the highest places of power so that they can influence the country. If you look at the top 50 venture firms in the United States, most of them have zero to five women CEOs in all of their investments. That is a huge problem, and our guest today, Julie Castro Abrams is trying to solve that. Join Elizabeth Bachman as she talks to Julie about the inequality of women in corporate boards. Julie is the CEO of How Women Lead and believes that when women lead, everyone wins. Learn how women lead, invest, give & inspire today.
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How Women Lead, Invest, Give & Inspire With Julie Castro Abrams
My guest in this episode is one of the first people I interviewed. I’m happy to have her here on my 100th episode. Julie Castro Abrams is the CEO and the Chairman of How Women Lead, which is a network of over 20,000 women dedicated to promoting diverse women’s voices and propelling women’s leadership forward. She is also the managing partner of board leaders, where she actively places leaders on corporate boards, supports them to build inclusive and high performance boards.
She is an expert on board governance and building the first boards that are a strategic advantage. She is also an experienced nonprofit CEO and entrepreneur, and through her consulting practice, she supports leaders to build high-performance boards breakthrough performance for these leaders at high-performing multicultural teams.
Julie is also an active investor and advisor to startups. She sits on the advisory boards of the FinTech startup LENDonate, The New Search Collaborative, and is the governance chair for women’s funding network and a network of women’s foundations across the globe. As the leader of How Women Lead, she has also created How Women Invest, which is an investment fund to support female-led organizations and How Women Give, which is a venture capital fund for women-led startups. Julie Castro Abrams is one of my favorite people in the world. I can’t wait to have you meet her.
Julie Abrams, welcome back to the show.
Thank you for having me. It is an honor.
We have all been online for years now. It has been a couple of years since I interviewed you. You are one of my very first interviews. Last time, you talked about the tipping point for women’s leadership. Before we get into that, however, I would like to ask you what I ask all my guests, which is if you could interview someone who is no longer around, who would it be, what would you ask them, and who should be listening?
Maya Angelou. I have a list as long as my arm of brilliant, mostly women throughout history. For me, she represents this absolutely overcoming the most difficult challenges and then becoming so peaceful, centered, powerful, impactful, and with an intellect like nobody’s business. I would love to cash out one thing. I would love to understand what it is that made her feel like she could take up that much space. Many of us shrink from our power and this woman ended up becoming the voice. Everybody in the United States has been impacted by her, if not, much of the world.
I do not know anybody who does not go, “I love Maya Angelou.”
There are so many beautiful poems like Phenomenal Woman that would give us that sense of, “Everybody is invited. It is all possible.”Be gentle with yourself, forgive yourself, and invite yourself to state the new way you want to be. Click To Tweet
Speaking of phenomenal women, you and I have known each other for several years now. In the context of your company, the organization that you founded and you run, which is How Women Lead. I know, like any other social justice organization, there have been ups and downs. We last spoke in December of 2019, having no idea what 2020 was going to bring. In 2020 and 2021, it seems to me like How Women Lead has grown and expanded and stepped into herself.
The pandemic has been such a massive loss for so many. I want to acknowledge that, including my father-in-law, we lost him to COVID. Knowing that backdrop and feeling great pause and compassion for everyone actually provided an opportunity to reset for many of us and to think, “How do we do things differently?”
For my organization, I used to see you in person every other week. We would do events in person and they were beautiful and amazing. If anyone would have said, “Put everything virtual.” I would have said, “That is insane. You can never do it.” Everyone was forced to learn how to use Zoom and change our way of being. In fact, many people were very hungry for connection, we figured it out very quickly.
How to create virtual programming and because of that, we are a place for safety and connection for people. We immediately had a daily gathering. People would generously offer their time to hold a container, and maybe it was a leadership lesson or meditation and check-in and safety. We did that for a long time in the beginning.
I work in a community and everybody stepped up in the community. Once we saw that, people were like, “I have got this.” We went to pivoting to creating rich content. I found that we could deliver more content because I was not driving and planning what were the appetizers and how were we going to set up the chairs?
We also were able to reach people all over the globe, whereas we were only in the Bay Area when I last talked to you. That is such a short amount of time ago if you think about it. In our lifetimes, we have completely transformed 30% of the people participating right now outside of the Bay Area. We are actively engaging people in other communities like we are creating DC and New York hubs, for example.
Before you go any further, how do you define what the organization is or who it is for?
This is an organization designed for women like us. It is designed for women who have met a certain level of career success, and frankly, even a certain age. There are developmental things. Life is different when you are starting in your mid-40s. We need different things. It is designed for women who have been in careers, who are now in that life stage, and they are looking to have an impact and do things together.
We use the lever of these powerful women who have so much experience, goodwill, and energy into each other to make a change in the world. Our goal is to address the inequity for women. We do that at the very top of the funnel with the intention that if we get women in the highest places of power and influence in the country, we all are better. We know that when women lead, everyone wins. That is what the organization is about.
Before we go on, I would also like to touch on the credo. I pulled it up so I could read it out loud because I like to read it out loud, which is, “Be fierce advocates for each other, say yes, to connecting each other, reinforce your voice, and be unabashedly visible.” Where did that come from?
I grew up in an era where that is counter-cultural. In the culture I grew up in with women being mean girls, we have movies about it. They are stabbing each other in the back. There is fear about, “If you in my circle, do I have to fear you?” It is terrible. Women were not making introductions for each other. They would hold their connections close to their vest and men were not like that.
The credo came was because I was saying, “I wish we were better with each other.” I would encourage people to be these ways. I’m on a journey myself. At a certain moment in time, I reflected and said, “What if I put this down and define it as a culture and an aspiration, and ask everybody to step up and do their best efforts to be this way with each other?”
When we were in person, you would watch the wave in a room, go across the room. I hope you remember that. All of a sudden, people would be like, “Those are the rules of the road. We are going to be nice to each other.” I felt fear that some of the guardrails would drop down and you would watch people. Everybody likes to help other people, so the invitation to do that in real-time was a gift to every single one of us, me included.
I also think so much of it is because there have been advances in the last few years that this whole thing about women being afraid of recommending other women was because there was only room for one. You could only have one woman. If another woman came in, people thought that meant you would lose your space.
I can remember times when I was trying to step up and lead, I have my own scars on my head from glass ceilings and realize later that if they had let a girl in, they would have had to let another couple of girls in. There were men who did not want to have a girl on their playground. I have to say, I wasted years thinking that it was my problem. It was something wrong with me.
Your story is everybody’s story, Elizabeth. What I truly believe in my bones is there are all these things that we know. We say, “Women don’t ask for the money.” We used to blame women and say, “Buck up, learn how to ask.” We now know it is honestly gotten. There are penalties for women who ask for compensation. There are penalties all over the place and often, nobody tells you outright. You learn it the hard way. My recommendation to everybody is be gentle with yourself, forgive yourself, invite yourself to state the new way you want to be, and invite other people to join you on that.
The gift of having done that myself with this credo is that everybody steps up. Now, for every single engagement we have, we read the credo outside or at the beginning, we invite everyone to do a thumbs up. It’s an invitation to buy-in. People write me messages every single day or verbally thank me and tell me that they are living it. They have got it on their desk. They tell other people. To me, if that becomes a wave that takes over and we replace the culture with this new culture and way of being, imagine the potential and the opportunities we could all have.
I have had it on my wall ever since I met you and I send it off to my clients all the time. When we first met, we were talking in the context of getting women on boards and How Women Lead was very instrumental in having the governor of California signed a bill requiring women on corporate boards. I know that you were part of the movement that made that happen. What have you seen in the last couple of years in terms of progress?
I’m thrilled to say we have seen substantial progress in California. We went from 15% of the public company board directors in California were women, now it is 29%. There is a bit of this concept that maybe there is a meritocracy in our country and that the best people were getting the board seats. Somehow, you were lowering the bar if you required women on boards, and that is not true.To pretend that the only people who can be good governors are white CEOs of tech companies is very short-sighted and wrong. Click To Tweet
Now we know that is wholly untrue. We’ve seen not only a shift in the composition of those boards and people’s attitudes about it, but we’ve also seen not just gender composition. I’m not sure the law had all that much to do with it. Maybe it inspired some, but we’ve had new demands instead of all CEOs and CFOs on boards. What we’re looking for are people who have HR experience, crisis communications experience, tech, and more.
Having people who were CEO years ago on a board does not help you with your technology, cyber security, or other cutting-edge issues because that person is often no longer in those operation ruins. They are out of touch with some of that stuff. They have lots of other things I can certainly bring to the table, but what we now know is a diversity of all types is absolutely essential. In addition to the California legislation which is being replicated in six other states, we also in California passed a law for sexual orientation, ethnic, and racial differences. The combination of all of those, in fact, is now part of a NASDAQ requirement.
For our international readers, NASDAQ is one of the stock exchanges.
Nobody legislated that to NASDAQ. NASDAQ made a decision themselves that they were going to require it. If you want to be listed on the NASDAQ exchange, you are required to have diversity on your board. Eighty-five percent of board seats come through relationships, referrals, and word of mouth. Most of us, our networks are like us with similar education, age, ethnic, or other identities. One of the things that we know is with 30% of the board representation being women right now in California. When you are looking for your next board member, that 30% of women get to be part of that referral network.
When people used to say, “We can’t find women or women of color.” They are now finding them because the networks are now much broader because of the representation of people who are on those boards. I feel hopeful that the law gets shot down somehow, which I cannot see. We have a couple of lawsuits of very right-wing or very fringe organizations. My belief is that we will never go back.
I heard you once say that the magic number is to have three, three women or three people of color. Can you explain that a little bit, please?
There is a lot of evidence, anecdotal and literal, that if you are the one exception in a room, often you do not get heard and you definitely do not change the culture. What we also know is that if you get three people in a room, they back each other up. When someone speaks and isn’t being heard, the other person can amplify them. It’s a power shift.
Most boards are 7 to 10 people. Most public company boards are even 6, so having 3 women on a board is a substantial voice. That certainly is part of it. The data says that you have about 26% better financial returns when you have a diverse board. You also have all kinds of other beautiful things like recalls happen three times faster.
A product recall. A dangerous product. Something that went out in the market that you have to recall. It happens three times faster when you have diversity on a board. Now, there is a friend of mine who is a professor at Stanford, Amy Wilkinson. She’s done research that shows that when you have diversity in a group, boards or otherwise, it up games everybody. Group think what is very dangerous. You and I, Elizabeth, are in many ways similar cohorts. A group of women like us, if we get together, you’ll be like, “Julie will always bring the updated information on the corporate board stuff. I’ll bring all the information about what are the best frameworks for speaking.”
I’ll over-rely on you and you’ll over-rely on me for the things that we each do because we know we think the same, we trust each other, and we trust each other’s expertise. We know we think the same because we grew up very similarly. That is actually dangerous because then everybody is relying on me to bring all of the research and the perspective for that one area. Often there are a couple of people who do all the work and a couple of people who are yes-people on those groups.
That’s human behavior. That’s what we do. We like being around people who are us because then we can shortcut conversations. We can have references about different cultural or business things. I can talk about Jim Collins’ book with you much easier than I can with a 25-year-old. There are all these things that happen, which makes it more fun and much easier to make decisions, but they’re not necessarily the right decisions. That’s the rub. When you have three people on a board, it up games everybody.
Three people of three different types?
It’s different kinds of people. If you have a bunch of white guys who are 50, who all went to Stanford, and then you put a 40-year-old Black woman on that board, three of them, it is a whole different thing. Everybody, all of a sudden, starts reading the board materials and preparing differently because you know you need to bring your perspective because there are multiple perspectives in that room. You don’t get lazy and relax and think, “Elizabeth will take care of it. She always does the homework.”
Julie, we have been talking a lot about boards. For those who are not sure why having boards of trustees, people who are not living in the corporate world and are international readers, a couple of sentences about why women are on boards of trustees, why that matters?
Trustees is not the name that you use for all boards. A corporate board is what I would be referring to. The legislation around public company boards means this company that grew up is seeking more money, more cash, or the people who started the company want to make money. They are selling the entire company to the public. It’s called an Initial Public Offering, an IPO. Now we can put our retirement money into that company. I’m an owner in that company then. You have public ownership. If we have a public owning a company, we have a responsibility to manage that company on behalf of the public.
Therefore, we need a board of governors, the corporate board of directors who oversee the company at the highest level to ensure that it is being managed well for the public investors. That’s the way to think about it. That’s not the way a lot of these boards or leaders in companies think about it. I am an owner of your company if I own stock in your company. You need to do a good job and represent my interest when you are leading that board. Nineteen percent of Americans are Latinas and about 1% or less, depending on what index you’re looking at, of corporate board representation is Latina.
How is that representative of all the Latinas investing their money in those public companies? It’s not. We still have a big disconnect. We are not representing the public investors in those public companies. To pretend the only people who can be good governors of those companies are White men CEOs of other companies is very short-sighted and wrong. We have a shift in our thinking. It’s often been you get paid to be on those boards, big money. If you are on three of them, you make $2 million just from the board seats alone.Latinas, the most underrepresented on corporate boards, are the lowest compensated in the United States. Click To Tweet
We all need to reset our thinking about who we’re responsible to and who can add value when you are on a board. It doesn’t add value when you’ve got people who are shirking their responsibilities, not preparing for board meetings, having group think, and make bad decisions. That’s why Enron was such a disaster. We’ve got countless examples of this in history and even now. What happened with WeWork? What happened with the governance of that company that went public? How could we have allowed that to happen?
Think about this as not only my money being invested, it’s all the employees working in those very large companies. Women and people of color are not paid equitably. Latinas, the most underrepresented on corporate boards, are the lowest compensated in the United States. They make, depending on the number, you’re looking at about 54% of what a white man makes. We need to be better if we want to have a healthy future. It’s not good for anybody when she’s making less. In some cases, it means that she is on needing to rely on public resources to support her family because she’s working plenty. She’s not getting paid equitably.
Are you seeing progress in other leadership fields besides boards? It is like a trickle-down effect.
We have a science around how we do disruption here. We will pick different categories of disruption. Our science is you work on systems, regulation and legislation. You do movement building. I did a program for the Chicana Latina Foundation and I got an email from someone saying, “I never even thought about going on a board, but I could.”
You’re planting the seeds, getting people thinking about it, changing how they think about just like I was talking about representation on these boards and who they’re responsible to. The other thing is training women so they have all the skills, preparation, and consonants to take those board seats, then we placed women on boards. We would work across that system. We are also doing that in venture capital. Elizabeth, what percent of all venture capital dollars go to women-founded companies?
Two percent. If you look at the top 50 venture firms in the United States, most of them have 0 to 5 women CEOs in all of their investments.
You mean the companies that they are investing in.
Exactly. That’s a problem. It’s a mistake. We are all losing out. That is bias and it’s costing us money. It’s costing us jobs. It’s costing us products that we want to see. I am a big strategy across my system to work on systems, legislation, regulation, and do movement building. I want 10,000 women to start investing in venture. I want women to understand how you start playing big in this space.
You have How Women Lead, How Women Invest, and How Women Give, right?
We do. We started a venture fund in 2021 and we are raising our second fund right now. We are making investments in companies founded solely by women, co-founders, with a big focus on women of color. Our investors are women and women of color. We make it easy for first-time investors to on-ramp and start investing and learning about venture. I’m happy to say that in 2021, we asked people not too long ago, “Have you invested in another venture firm?” Thirty percent said yes. I am thrilled that people are finding their sense of power, influence, and connectivity in that way.
Julie, I’m so happy to have you here. How Women Lead is such an incredible organization. I’m so glad I found you and I have been a member for several years now. When I see all the things that How Women Lead does, I’m always in awe. Because How Women Lead sponsors so much, where could somebody start? If there is someone who is reading this and curious, where should they start?
If you go to our web website, HowWomenLead.com, we have something called an Ecosystem Call. It means we will give you an overview of what the organization is up to. You do a self-assessment and figure out, “Where do I fit? What is good for me?” This is the truth, Elizabeth. You started showing up, you made yourself visible, you said hi, you started offering to share your experience and skills, you coached me, you coached other people in speaking that are part of our community, you gave off your heart and your skillset, and because of that, you started to feel a part of this community like you owned it. That is how that works.
There is no fee to become a member. Everybody pays $50 to come to things so that we can pay for our staff. Beyond that, it is not exclusionary. It is inclusionary, intentionally. It is designed for women who are top leaders in their organizations because they are the levers for these big changes we want to make in the world. I want people to feel they can see themselves as investors, board members, and in other halls of power in this country. I want to thank you for being an amplifier. You live the credo. It is such a gift to be your colleague and to see all the impact you are having in the world.
Julie Castro Abrams, you are one of my favorite people in the whole entire world. I love having this opportunity. You were just about my first guest and now you are my 100th guest to celebrate how we are moving forward. Anything I can do to amplify the great work you are doing, I’m going to keep doing it and shouting from the rooftops.
We need to hear from women and thank you for creating a platform for people’s voices so that we can get results. Thank you for all you do.
Thank you, Julie. If you’re curious about how your presentation skills are doing, you can take our free four-minute quiz at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That is where you can see where you are strong with your presenting skills and where perhaps a little support might help you get the results you need and the recognition you deserve. Thank you, Julie Castro Abrams, for coming back to honor this show. I will see you on the next one.
- How Women Lead
- The New Search Collaborative
- How Women Invest
- How Women Give
- The Tipping Point For Women’s Leadership – Previous episode
- Amy Wilkinson
- Chicana Latina Foundation
About Julie Castro Abrams
Julie Castro Abrams is an expert in board governance and building diverse boards that are a strategic advantage. She is an experienced nonprofit CEO and entrepreneur and through her consulting practice she supports leaders to build high-performance boards, breakthrough performance for the leaders and high performing multicultural teams.
She is Chair and CEO of How Women Lead, a network of over 12,000 women dedicated to promoting diverse women’s voices and propelling women’s leadership forward as well as the Managing Partner of Board Leaders where she actively places leaders on corporate boards and supports them to build inclusive and high-performance boards.
Julie is the host of the podcast, How Women Inspire, where she interviews ground-breaking female leaders.
An active investor and advisor to start-ups, Julie also sits on the advisory boards of the fin-tech start-up LENDonate, The New Search Collaborative and is the Governance Chair for the Women’s Funding Network, a network of women’s foundations across the globe.
Julie has won many awards including the Jobs Genius Award, Morgan Stanley Innovation Award, Cisco Innovation in Technology, “Women Who Could Be President” League of Women Voters, Stevie Award for Best Non Profit Executive, Human Rights Award from the Commission on the Status of Women, the Women of Color Action Network, Leadership California and the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011.