When Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan launched Chief in January 2019, their goal was to create a small private network for executive women to receive the resources and support they needed.
As C-suite leaders themselves, the founders knew about the lack of mentorship and guidance women received as they climbed the ranks in their career.
"The idea of Chief came from a pretty personal place for Lindsay and I," says Childers, who previously served as senior vice president of operations at the house cleaning start-up Handy, and who led the launch of the site Soap.com until it was acquired by Amazon.
"We were getting more and more senior in our careers and spending a bunch of our time managing our team, mentoring other people and realizing that there was no community or resources for us anymore as we were now the resource for other people," she says.
Yearning to fill this void, Childers and Kaplan, who had been working as vice president of communications and brand at Casper, launched Chief in New York City with a plan to get roughly 100 women to sign up. But after reaching out to executive women they knew personally or admired from afar, Childers tells CNBC Make It that word about their network spread quickly, and they launched with over 200 members.
In January 2019, they also opened up their first clubhouse location in New York City. And less than six months later in June 2019, they secured $22 million in Series A funding. This funding was led by General Catalyst's chairman and former American Express CEO Ken Chenault and Inspired Capital's managing partner Alexa von Tobel, both of whom are board members at Chief.
Now, less than two years later, the private network is home to more than 2,000 executive women from companies like Hulu, American Express, HBO and Google. Chief, which has an internal team of a little over 50 people, also has a waitlist that includes more than 8,000 women across the U.S. and internationally. Since their launch, Childers and Kaplan have expanded their reach beyond New York City to also include Chief clubhouses in Los Angeles and Chicago, where members are able to attend in-person events, workshops and group sessions.
To join Chief, women must hold an executive position at their company or be a rising VP. To apply, women can fill out an online application, or they can be nominated by a colleague. From there, Chief will evaluate a potential candidate based on the influence of their position, the length of time they've been in their role and the impact of their career.
"We really are focused on building a community and resources specifically for executive women," says Childers. One of their most popular services is their core group sessions, where members are broken up into groups of 10 and paired with an executive coach. Before the pandemic, the women in each group would meet in-person on a monthly basis to talk confidentially about the challenges they're facing at work and to get guidance on leadership development. Since the start of the pandemic, Childers and Kaplan say these monthly meetings have transitioned to online.
"It's definitely executive coaching on steroids because you're not only getting the perspective and help of that executive coach, but also a group of women who are going through really similar experiences," Childers says.
In addition to the core group sessions, Chief also offers workshops, events and digital services where members can discuss new job openings at their company, share vetted candidates, or watch in-person events online. Past speakers include Gayle King, Whoopi Goldberg, Valerie Jarrett and Amal Clooney.
Membership at Chief can cost close to $8,000 per year, but Childers says the vast majority of their members are sponsored by their company because leadership development and coaching is one of the major reasons to join.
Since Chief's inception in 2019, Childers and Kaplan say their goal has always been to focus their "effort and energy on the member experience first and foremost." It's for this reason that the founders decided to forgo a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and are only active on LinkedIn.
"It's not about what you're posting. It's not about, you know, inspiring quotes. We all read those posts," says Kaplan. "It's about action, and it's about really engaging the community."
Because of this intense focus on putting their members first, Childers says they've easily been able to connect with their community during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure that everyone is feeling supported and heard.
"We definitely did have to pivot, but not to the extent that one would think," she says. "We had always said that we were a community that happened to have a space, and not a space that then tried to build a community. And I think that played out really clear with everything that has happened this year."
Childers says that since moving their core group sessions, events and workshops online, engagement from the Chief community has actually increased.
"Chief is truly built for 2020," she says, emphasizing that the private network's "core services are still the same and in many ways more valuable now than ever."
While other venture-backed start-ups with physical locations have taken a huge hit due to the pandemic—including The Wing which laid off hundreds of staff members amid coronavirus closures and internal chaos—Childers and Kaplan say they've actually been able to lean more into their community in light of the current events.
Recently, they invited industry experts out to host virtual workshops for Chief members on how to lead through a crisis, how to dismantle racism at work and how to support your team through uncertainty.
As demands for membership continue to grow, the founders have also been able to raise an additional $15 million in capital during the pandemic, bringing their total amount of VC funding to $40 million.
"We actually had a really fortunate fundraising process," says Childers. "I think it really emphasizes the need to choose your partners wisely and have people at the table with you that truly believe in your mission and are in it for the long haul."
Their latest round of funding, she explains, came from existing investors who supported them from the beginning including General Catalyst, Inspired Capital, GGV Capital, Primary Venture Partners, Flybridge Capital and BoxGroup. With this additional money, the founders recently announced that in fall 2020 they will be expanding their services to executive women in Boston and San Francisco who are interested in joining Chief. These two cities, Kaplan says, is where a large portion of women on their waitlist are located.
As the coronavirus closures continues to affect our work life and home life, Kaplan says they've "seen just how much of a need there is right now for what [Chief] is doing," and they hope to one day be able to expand to even more cities.
Right now, the founders say San Francisco and Boston will be digital locations, and they will evaluate the need for a physical location in the future. Their ultimate goal, they say, is for Chief to remain a "tremendous resource" for women leaders so that more women can feel supported and encouraged to elevate in their career.
"We really believe that if we can get more [women] who are right on the cusp of top leadership into these roles and keep them there, then it could have a ripple effect," says Childers.