The Tipping Point For Women’s Leadership with Julie Castro Abrams

by | Dec 23, 2019 | Podcasts

SWGR 505 | Women Leadership


As awareness to their capacity to makes things better in this world, women leaders are constantly increasing but is still not enough to influence the younger generation. CEO of the renowned How Women Lead, Julie Castro Abrams believes that we are at a tipping point in women’s leadership. She speaks with Elizabeth Bachman about the progress that has been made in getting more women into leadership positions – especially board seats – and what is still to be done. Learn more about the future of women’s leadership as Julie shares their credo, including why having a diverse board matter today.

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The Tipping Point For Women’s Leadership with Julie Castro Abrams

Where To Go From Here?

This is the podcast where we interview experts on techniques of leadership, speaking, presenting, what it means to show up as a leader in the room and how would we make a presentation? We can get our audience to do what we want them to do because if you’re going to make a speech, hopefully you want people to do something. The cool thing is whether you are making speak to promote your company, your nonprofit, yourself, your service or maybe you’re selling a product or a service. It’s all presentation skills and there are hundreds of tools and techniques that we can use so that you can do strategic speaking for results. Before we begin, I’d like to invite you to go over to our free assessment, which is at You can take a free assessment that takes about five minutes and you can figure out whether where your presentations are strong, where you’re rocking it and where you might need a little bit of support. It is my absolute delight and pleasure to introduce my wonderful friend, Julie Castro Abrams, who is the CEO of How Women Lead. Julie, welcome to the show.

Elizabeth, thanks for having me.

I’m happy to have you here. I’ve been following Julie and working with Julie and watching Julie for some time now and I’m constantly amazed at what she does. Her bio is humongously lengthy, it would take the entire time of the podcast. I’m going to read a couple of highlights here. She is an expert in board governance and building diverse boards that are strategic advantage for a company. She’s also an experienced nonprofit CEO and entrepreneur. Through her consulting practice, she supports leaders to build high-performance boards, breakthrough performance for the leaders and high-performing multicultural teams. Julie is the Chair and CEO of How Women Lead, which is how I first met her. I had to pursue her for about six months before we could manage a conversation. It was worth it.

How Women Lead is a network of over 12,000 women who are dedicated to promoting diverse women’s voices and propelling women’s leadership forward. Julie is also the Managing Partner of BoardLeaders where she actively places leaders on corporate boards and supports them to build inclusive and high-performance sports. She’s also an active investor and advisor to startups. She sits on the advisory boards of the FinTech startup, LENDonate and also The New Search Collaborative. She’s the Governance Chair for the Women’s Funding Network, which is a network of women’s foundations across the globe. Julie, welcome to the show. Before we go into all the wonderful stuff that you have and the wonderful information that you have, there’s a question I ask everybody. If you were to interview somebody who’s now no longer in the public eye, who would be your dream interview? What would you ask and who should be the audience?

For me, because I was a Title IX baby, I was one of the first women that got to take advantage of Title IX as an athlete in high school.

Tell us what Title IX is. We’ve got an international audience who might not know.

Title IX is a nationwide requirement that universities and schools invest equal amounts in girls’ sports as boys’ sports. It changed the whole environment for girl athletes. It helped us create a whole wave of promoting women and girls in sports. On The New Search Collaborative board, one of the things the whole premise of that consulting firm is, 94% of top CEOs around the country were athletes growing up. Being a girl athlete, I watched Billie Jean King. I’m 52 years old. She was in the limelight when I was growing up. She was so courageous and she was the first person who came out anywhere as a lesbian. Her courage, she was so sassy and strong with men.

There’s this very famous tennis game with this guy who was bloviating all over the place. I thought, “This woman is such a strong, courageous leader.” In every way, I feel Billie Jean King is the person I’d love to frankly find out, “How did you get this sense of courage?” To me, moral courage is something we’re missing in leadership and women get it beaten out of them as they evolve through their careers. It’s essential that we find that foundation inside of ourselves where we can stand in our truth and our power and be authentic and she’s it. I would want to find out from her, “Where did that come from and how do you keep fueling that?” That is so you can be pushing the envelope for all of us and thank her. I want to thank her.

I have to tell you my mom was a tennis player and I chose the noncompetitive athletes. I was a dancer because I didn’t want too. My mom was the tennis player and it was scary. I didn’t want to do it. My mom did. Also, I could never win because I was playing against her and she was a champion tennis player. We followed Billie Jean King all the time. I’ll be in the audience for that one totally. You do a lot of work on women’s leadership. I’ve heard you talk about being at a tipping point now in women’s leadership. What do you mean by that?

Let’s start by saying I’m not a Pollyanna exactly. I’m an optimist. I’ve been working on this stuff for several years. There have been moments where I’ve thought we have not made a bit of progress despite all of my hard work, our hard work, a lot of us, you out there with me. Because of #MeToo and the Time’s Up effort in Hollywood and this moment in time where we have so many women with tremendous education, robust history in the workforce and rising up, at least a handful of us are getting into the C-suite and even some board seats. We have now gotten to this point where our readiness and our demand for change is equaling years of data about the success of having diversity on boards and diversity in the leadership.

Why is our moral courage is missing these days? We need to step up and be unabashedly visible. Share on X

You and I are living in this conversation these days. For our audience who aren’t, what are the statistics? What do they say about diversity in boards? Why do we care?

Honestly, it’s almost in everything you can look at. The numbers have stayed pretty bad and I’ve gone backward with some frequency. I’m going to give a couple of data points. A few years ago, 2.9% of all the venture dollars went to companies founded and led by women. It’s 2.2% in the last year. It is breathtaking. We’ve done work about women in film. One of the things that we know is that only 7% of women or the filmmakers who are the producers and the lead folks in film. In fact, the heroes and heroines in the films, only 7% are women. All of these numbers, same in healthcare CEOs, there are only 25 women CEOs in the top Fortune 500 companies in the United States.

Why should we bother to change it? Why does this matter in business? 

The numbers are very clear. Women founders in companies outperform their male counterparts for investors. It’s better for the investors and it is also completely unfair. There are institutional biases that are making it so that women get asked different questions when they’re being interviewed as a potential company to invest in. They’re asked about their risk management and the men are asked about their upside potential. These institutional biases, they have a big ripple effect. It’s not that the numbers are bad for investing in women founders. Women founders who get the investments then have the exits that then make them wealthy to become venture capitalists and invest in other companies. If you don’t have women investors, you’re not going to have the people who will relate to your business idea. That might have something to do with the huge purchasing power of women. The cycle needs to be disrupted. That’s in every place.

The corporate boardroom is an example of one of the things that we’ve tackled because we saw some movements and opportunities to intervene in this cycle. We’ve had a lot of success. We know that when there are women in the boardroom, companies are safer, their risk is better, their financial results are better as much as 26%, depending on the research that you look at. Women are paid more equitably within a company when there are at least three women on the board. The ripple effect for everyone is so powerful. You make more money, you have better companies, less risk for the whole company and the investors.

Do you have any thoughts about why? 

There are a couple things that are pretty cool. One, we’ve all been in an environment I’m sure where you’ve got groupthink going on or you understand the concept. In addition to the fact that everybody who plays by the same rules went to the same schools, has worked in the same ecosystem, they all have some groupthink going on, not what their belief systems are based on, but also who do you let be the decision-maker in the room and everyone else follows? It’s much easier. If you show up and you’re like, “Elizabeth Bachman always has the best ideas and makes the decisions that she’s done well for us in the past. We’re going to do what Elizabeth says.” That is lazy and more fun for you, but it’s bad for the results of the organization because Elizabeth probably hits it most of the time, but not all the time. If somebody else advises on, “I’ve seen a different strategy.” You have better decision making. Groupthink is what’s responsible for Enron and all these bad debacles and horrible problems with corporate performance.

We work in Uber and having troubles.

The other thing that’s interesting is there’s a researcher out of Stanford, her name’s Amy Wilkinson. She’s looked at when you create diversity in any group, it up-games everybody. Everybody performs at a higher level. They are more disciplined. They work harder in evaluating the different things that are on the table. Companies do better because everybody in that boardroom does better. The other thing that we clearly know, the CEO of Chevron, CEO of Cisco and the CEO of Stanford were all on each other’s boards at one point in time. If I’m the CEO of a company and I’m also on your board, we’re going to have an agreement about how much I’m going to push you and what questions I’m going to ask in a boardroom. That’s not necessarily good for the company. There are lots of reasons, but the great news is everybody’s better, everybody up-games in the boardroom and everybody makes better decisions that are better for the company’s governance and risk management for the company. You don’t have these massive crises where stuff is all over the page in the newspaper.

For those of our audience who are not connected to what a board does, I could see why having a diverse workforce matters. I could see why having a diverse C-level matters. Why does having a diverse board matter? Why are you starting there?

SWGR 505 | Women Leadership

Women Leadership: Companies with diverse board are performing better.


We have better results for companies and less risk. The other thing is when you see women on the board, women feel safer and more confident about going into the C-suite of that company and moving up in the company they have. There are so many issues for women in the workforce that feel like there are at least a good group of women on the board that helps you feel that had more confidence in the company and the decisions that are being made.

I have to say that it is women and diversity. It’s not just women and it’s not just white women. 

The good thing is women represent the population overall. Over half of the United States population is women of color. One of the things we know from Europe is when they first started doing mandates about gender diversity within five years, the companies had ethnically diverse boards. It changed how people behaved and how they sought out board directors. They weren’t looking at your friends, they were looking at frankly, the best-qualified people. It’s not the safest for you personally as the leader.

For our audience, you were talking about a tipping point. I’m even older than you are and I remember the ’60s and ’70s and marching in the streets and I was on the tailend of that. I’m marching for women’s equality and then things stagnated for 30 years. It seems like we’ve been through this.

It’s despite a lot of us and our hard work.

What’s different now? 

Some of this I’m going to assert and I’m not going to have exact data for it. One of the things that we know is several years ago, you didn’t have women who had been in the workforce necessarily or broken a lot of the ceilings and even had any data on women on boards at all. At this point in time, we not only have a pipeline that is robust, but we also have data on what happens for companies that do have at least three women on their board. We have long-term data. That data is giving us the impetus with frankly, it started with our asset management firms. Those are companies like CalPERS, California’s Pension Fund, which is literally the second-largest pension fund in the world behind the country of Japan. This is the money they’re investing. That is teacher’s pensions, firefighter’s pensions. This is a sacred money that for most of us, we believe that.

They’re even more careful and disciplining conservative and how they think about the results of those investments. They’re looking at the data. They were the first ones to say, when you have diverse boards, those companies are performing better. We’re going to require any company CalPERS invest in has to have at least two women on the board. If not, they’d vote against the nominations in governance chair or even the committee. It’s a big problem. These are the companies, these asset management firms buy up half of the initial public offerings, half of the stock that becomes available when a company goes public.

They’re important actors in this space and have huge influence. CalPERS started it and then some of these more maybe conservative legacy companies like BlackRock and Fidelity and State Street, they all started getting in the game. State Street has been very assertive. Do you remember that thing in New York where they’ve got the little girl, who’s the fearless girl? State Street put that out when they came out with their mandate about women on boards. We’re starting to see these institutional investors be very clear that this is the requirement for investments of theirs, that the companies have gender diverse boards.

If you are reading this and you’re thinking, “Maybe I should do this,” what should you do?

Women are coming into the greatest amount of wealth, power, and education we've ever had. Share on X

I want everybody to start thinking, “I should be able to do this,” because there are a million types of boards that you could go on but let me give you one data point. A few years ago, these asset management firms said, “We need to have two women on the board,” and they voted against thousands of nomination government chairs. A few years ago, 17% of all new directors that were appointed in the Russell 3000 were women. In the first six months of this year, it was 46%. We see a huge shift and it’s driven across the country by the asset management firms. We work on some legislation that is also moving the needle.

I would say this is how women lead.

How women lead one of the drivers of the legislative action in California, where we passed a Senate bill requiring companies have up to three women on their board within a three-year period of time or they get charged if they’re California based. The great thing is we have three other states that have approved the similar legislation and six others who are in process. There’s a big wave across the country to reinforce this, in addition to what’s happened in the financial management world. For you, this is what I want you to think about. You could go on the public company board of Apple, Uber or Levi Strauss. Those seats are very hard to get. You’ve had to be in the C-suite of a public company. Generally, I’m not qualified but I can do a lot of great work in other boards. That’s something that you need to understand that’s not all there is. In fact, there are only 600 of those board seats that generally turn over and are available in any year across the country.

There’s a ton of for-profit companies of all sizes. We all have friends who’ve started a company. Everybody has somebody who owns something. Those companies often will get to a point where they have a more formal structure and they want to create a board. Sometimes it starts with an advisory board. It may never convert into a formal governance board, but often we have witness to a friend or someone who you can say, “I’d love to serve on your board. What would that take to serve on your board?” It might be a couple of million-dollar companies and not a huge endeavor. That’s the great way to start and start getting your C-legs with that too.

The other thing that you could do is when people come to you and say, “I’m looking for $10,000 to invest in my company. I’m looking for investors.” That’s a good chunk of money, but it’s not impossible for people if they plan their finances in a certain way. You can use your retirement money. You can even use your donor-advised funds to invest in companies. When you do that, you can say, “Happy to invest but I’d like a board seat.” Sometimes they’ll say you can have a board seat until we get the $5 million from Sequoia venture capitalists. That’s fine. They can kick you off the board later, but at least you’re starting your board journey. Mapping out what’s the right board seat for you, where can you add the most value? Going and telling people, “I’m a good candidate for your board and this is the value I can bring. Keep me in mind.” Bug them every couple of months. That’s the way to do it.

One of the things I’ve never forgotten in my several years in nonprofit in the Opera world was early on, when I was working directing a show and the general director said to me, “There are three kinds of boards. You’ve got the board where there are people baking cookies.” For us, for the Opera, they’re painting the scenery and sewing the costumes. You get to a larger stage. You get to be a bigger company. You need board members who can seriously contribute money. Maybe they’re also baking cookies, but they’re the people who contribute the money. When you get to a very large company, you want people who could bring corporate sponsorship. My thought is if you’re interested in being in a board, think about where are you? What can you bring?

What’s your expertise both in size of companies, but the work that you’ve done? How would that translate to the boardroom? Which shouldn’t be doing the work. Sometimes in a very early stage company, you’re baking cookies or writing press releases or helping with something very specific. When you’re a governor of an organization, you need to be that trusted advisor with deep expertise in something enough where you can ask strategic questions. What is the right Opera for us to show next year? Should we do a theme of the similar types of Opera? Should we be very diverse and have a different thing for each one? How can we gather audience and people who can be important levers of influence out in the community for each one of those Operas you’re going to produce? As a director, as a governor, the strategy, and this is the thing, I run stuff, and I’m the CEO of a bunch of things. I always need advisors. Even if I know it in my head, it doesn’t mean I’m doing it at this moment. It’s great to have someone like Elizabeth when you say to them, “Elizabeth, how about this? Have you thought about this? Are you doing this?” It’s like, “Yes, I need to do those things. Thank you for the reminder.” Often, that’s what the advisory board does.

I’ve been impressed by sitting in on your women on the board training that you offered. There are a lot of people out there, a lot of places are doing it and they’re charging masses of money and How Women Lead has a board training program. This is affordable so that you can come and check. Sometimes people come and say, “It’s not right for me or not right for me this year.” The thing that I’ve noticed over and over again is when they do this session where people write their bio, this is women on boards and women write their bio and the women are underselling themselves. 

In all of us, it’s a big problem.

If things are better, things are improving, what can we do to not go back to stagnation?

SWGR 505 | Women Leadership

Women Leadership: Standing in your own power gives permission for other women to do the same.


Let’s start with women selling themselves. It’s hard for us to toot our own horns. Having a partner, a friend and a colleague who you can trust and have them help you write your value proposition and your board bio and toot your horn as people love to do that for you and you love to do it for other people. If you need to do a work around, if it’s hard for you to toot your own horn, go ahead, find somebody else to do it for you. Elizabeth is an example of someone who does that for me and for so many people around her. Find somebody else to help elevate and promote you. Not in one little document, which we call your board bio, which includes your value proposition, but over time helps you to get to stay fearless because we all have moments of fearlessness. It’s how do you stay there and sustain it and not dip?

It’s having allies is what’s so important. 

Also, asking for help. What I want to do is spread the word and have a way that sweeps the country where women are demanding, they’re feeling empowered and they’re not downplaying their own value that they can bring to the table.

Can you talk to us, what’s the credo for How Women Lead? I have to tell you, I printed it up and sent it to a colleague. It’s a client of mine in Germany to put up on her wall. I said, “I know you’re not going to get to hear Julie in person, but you have to know this credo. Put this up on your wall and remind yourself.” What is the credo of How Women Lead? Tell us what it is and why?

It’s extremely important for us to be self-reflective about how we are with each other in addition to changing the systems and the laws and the practices and individually getting ready. If we’re not supporting each other, we’re never going to make it. Many groups that I work within or across the entire globe, we do work globally. Women feel other women aren’t supporting them. We created a credo to us that underscores the importance of how we should be with each other. First and foremost, we need to be each other’s champion. We need to say yes when people ask for help. When they say, “Would you make this connection for me?” Say, “Yes,” first. You might have to scaffold it and ask permission to make an introduction, but spend real energy and effort introducing other women. When people did that for you, you’re going to be more successful and obviously life is easier.

Another important thing for us is to be what I say unabashedly visible. It does not serve anyone for you to be playing small. In addition to helping each other and backing each other up, when her voice isn’t heard, reinforcing that voice. It’s also you standing in your own power because when you do it, you give permission for other women like my daughter to do the same. She watches you. These younger women, even if you don’t feel confident inside yourself, you must do it for other women. It makes them feel they can then stand up stronger and ask for what they need and deserve in that seat at the table. Furthermore, Elizabeth, I’m going to ask you a seat at the table but I’m also going to set and create a whole new boardroom and set my own table. These days of us asking for entry are unnecessary. Women are coming into the greatest amount of wealth, power and education we’ve ever had. What are we going to do with it? Are we going to use that to create our own ecosystem of power? Are we going to keep asking on our knees for permission and for somebody to let us in the room? We need to start our own things.

Julie, I love talking to you. I could talk to you for hours and hours. It’s really great fun. Thank you so much. How can people find out more?

Go to and you can sign up for our newsletter there. If you’re from around the globe and you can’t come in person to the board readiness program that we do here in the Bay Area, we have webinars that you can sign on for $25, $30 and learn about cybersecurity and governance practices. There are a lot of ways.

Also, even reading spreadsheets. I love it. 

You can get ready for your board role virtually. Check out

Thank you so much, Julie Abrams of How Women Lead. This has been Speakers Who Get Results. I’ll see you on the next one.


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