- Executive women professional network platform Chief opened a new clubhouse in San Francisco's financial district.
- Members say the opening signifies a milestone moment for women in tech, which has a history of being a "Boys Club."
In a bustling building in New York's Flatiron district, two executive women who work at separate companies discuss marketing strategies for their respective businesses. Next to them, three retired women in their sixties share a champagne toast. Across the room, several other women, sitting at single wooden tables, have their heads down at their laptops. Whitney Houston’s "I’m Every Woman" plays in the background.
“I’m in the middle of a career transition,” says one woman to another she just met at the nearby bar. She says she works for Cushman & Wakefield but plans to change careers from her job in human resources.
“I've done big companies for far too long and I think it’s time to move on to something smaller,” she continued. “Covid did us all in,” the other woman said, agreeably nodding.
It may sound like a typical professional networking environment but one thing about this building is different: there’s not a single man in sight.
On the opposite coast, a counterpart executive clubhouse just opened in San Francisco and it holds great meaning beyond its four walls.
Start-up Chief launched an exclusive networking platform for executive women in 2019 and saw a surge in popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic. It subsequently opened physical clubhouse spaces in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Men are allowed in but members are exclusively executive women.
Earlier this year, Chief received a $100 million Series B investment led by Alphabet venture arm CapitalG with plans to use the money to open a new club where founders say they were getting the biggest demand: The San Francisco Bay Area.
The recently-opened clubhouse is located adjacent to the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco's financial district. Silicon Valley had the highest demand from members, said founders Lindsay Kaplan and Carolyn Childers. The region is home to 2,000 local members working for Apple, Meta, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Zoom and Stanford among others.
The 8,600 square-foot space features a full-service bar with specialty coffee, open lounge space, meeting rooms, private call booths and a Mothers Room. All the artwork in Chief's clubhouses comes from the women-led company Uprise Art, founded by member Tze Chun.
Over 300 members attended the launch event at the San Francisco clubhouse. Members flew in for the clubhouse opening night in late October. Some arrived straight from the airport. "So exciting!" one woman rolling a suitcase said as she greeted Childers and Kaplan with hugs. “I’ve f-----g earned this,” Kaplan recalled another saying.
Susan Cevallos Coleman, a global vice president at GoPro attended the opening night. “I just looked around and had a moment,” Coleman said.
“You have the profound sense that this is a first," said Attica Jaques, Global Head of Brand Marketing at Google who also attended the opening night.
A month after the San Francisco Chief club's opening, women say they already see it as a milestone moment that represents more than just a new building.
Silicon Valley has historically had the highest density of homogeneous demographics that favored white men in executive ranks. It’s also historically been unfriendly to women as exclusionary “boys clubs” long overtook the world’s tech epicenter. Unlike other nearby clubhouses like the Battery, Chief's new clubhouse is a place designed just for them.
“I know deeply the feeling of the tech industry led by white men,” Jaques said. “It’s interesting coming full-circle and it feels long overdue.”
Jaques, a San Francisco native who moved back to San Francisco from New York in 2019, said “we tend to always feel like we have to pull up a seat at the table if it's not there, so we’ve built a muscle around it.”
Coleman added: “The women who have somehow, some way made it to where we are now, can now influence the younger women who may be hesitant to dip their toes in the lake because what they read is it may not be a friendly place for them."
“But when I walk into the Chief space, that premise that tech is exclusionary no longer feels true," she said.
Coleman, who's spent her career working in tech auditing in Silicon Valley since the early 2000s at Sun Microsystems, said she’s looking forward to using the space as a central meeting place for her core group of Chief members dispersed across the Bay Area. Jaques said she’s looking forward to networking happy hours and programming speakers. The platform hosted a virtual event with speaker Melinda French Gates in early November when around 2,000 Chief members tuned in.
"This is the physical manifestation of what I’ve been benefitting from," Coleman said after the opening. "I saw so many amazing women, including one I worked with three companies ago."
The Covid-19 pandemic bolstered Chief's business as women flocked to Chief’s platform, which served as a support system during a time of solitude, members said. More than 20,000 senior executives have signed on from over 8,500 companies including HBO, American Express, Nike, Google, Goldman Sachs, NASA and Apple. Annual membership starts at $5,800 for women at the vice president level and $7,900 for C-suite executives. About 70% of members are sponsored by their employers.
With backing from Alphabet's venture arm and a business model that relies on subscription to its digital platform, it's more sustainable than a real-estate-focused business like The Wing, which was forced to close its doors over the summer.
The platform has a massive waitlist of 60,000 people, but Childers and Kaplan say they should be able to start vetting applicants more quickly now that the company has additional money to hire people and build out the technology.
Kaplan briefly worried about a dusty rose art piece at the center of the main San Francisco clubhouse room. “We might have to change that,” she remarked. “It’s kind of pink. I just don’t want it to be like ’this a space for women and this is pink.'"
“So often, executive spaces for women look like a space full of pantsuits and bad cheese plates in the corner but we’re in a moment where we can redefine what it looks like," she added.
A large open floor plan with leather couches and chairs and high ceilings with bookshelves makes it feel more like a living room for casual, serendipitous interactions, members said.
Bathrooms have brushed gold finishes on faucets and around mirrors. Marble countertops lie under Chief-branded disposable towels by each sink while low-volume music plays overhead. The bar features a mid-century modern design with wooden paneling and a large chandelier made of hundreds of glasses.
The space has several “phone booths” with ring lights built in for Zoom meetings. A room on the other side of the main space is much lighter with eggshell-colored walls, a grand piano, and plush white lounge chairs that appear like furniture from a spa.
"There’s a relaxed atmosphere, no competition," Coleman said. "We’re just finding ways to support one another."
“It's a beautiful space to accompany this feeling that things are profoundly changing,” Jaques said. “Being able to walk and have a new space that you feel welcomed in and meeting other women is going to be incredible and it just feels like there’s no going back to what was before.”