Private women’s membership start-up, Chief, is currently in hot water for what some have called displays of exclusion, bias and white feminism. The woman-led start-up was founded in 2019 and was able to raise over $100 million dollars in funding, reaching unicorn status. In 2021, Chief was recognized as one of the 10 most innovative workplace companies by Fast Company. Self-described as “a powerful rolodex of senior executives from diverse backgrounds, industries, and organization,” Chief boasts a 20,000-member network. But some have claimed the group is not all it’s cracked up to be. Several women have taken to LinkedIn to express their frustrations with the group. Several past, current, and prospective members from underrepresented racial groups agreed to be interviewed about their experiences.
In a now viral LinkedIn post on International Women’s Day 2023, Denise Conroy shared that she was canceling her Chief membership. In the post, Conroy explained that her decision was based on the group’s prioritization of white feminism. Conroy explained her many issues with the group including the apparent bias that is baked into their practices. “Members are supposed to be able to refer qualified women for membership. I’ve referred three…all women of color. All three have been ghosted. Neither I nor they have received even any acknowledgement of their candidacy. I’ve learned from others this experience isn’t unique.” It is important to note that although women from underrepresented backgrounds have sounded the alarm about Chief in the past, it wasn’t until Denise Conroy, a white woman, shared her experiences that a statement was made and actions were taken by Chief.
In an email statement in response to the backlash Chief has been receiving, the co-founders Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan shared: “Recently, there have been concerns and even some mischaracterizations raised about Chief and our values that we want to address—specifically how we think about building our community, the identity groups represented, our approach to intersectional feminism, and how we support the advancement of underrepresented groups in business. We take all feedback we receive from members of our community very seriously, and we are providing a forum to have these important, honest conversations. There is always more work that can be done, and this is an ongoing journey for all of us—something in which we’ll always be invested because it’s the foundation of the impact we want Chief to have in the world. We are committed to improving and building on our existing foundation.”
CEO and lead consultant of equity firm DSRD Consulting, Dr. Samantha-Rae Dickenson, shared her thoughts on Chief’s reaction to the recent criticism and backlash. Dickenson explained “on their website they dedicate an entire page to DEI efforts and the diversity of their community, however, numerous women of color, particularly Black women, who meet the requirements have shared they were denied membership, treated as an afterthought or ghosted. To retroactively issue blanket statements, without reaching out directly to the community they claim to serve sounds like the goal is to save face rather than fix the issues and be truly inclusive.”
Seeing the sense of camaraderie and community from group members was what initially piqued Natasha Bowman’s curiosity. “I was interested in joining Chief after seeing so many executive women sporting the green sweatshirt and talking about how supported they felt in that community. At the same time, I was messaged by two founding women who told me that they had nominated me for membership. I never heard from Chief so I decided to reach out to them. During our conversation, they informed me that I wasn’t qualified as the requirement was that you must lead an organization with at least 300 people in the reporting structure…shortly after, I saw white women were joining Chief who did not meet the eligibility requirements,” she explained. Bowman is a leadership firm president, speaker, and author who has earned recognition for her work. After Bowman shared her experience, Chief reached out to her. “I wrote a LinkedIn post about being denied membership. It was only then that they reached out and extended an invitation. I never received an explanation as to why I was denied membership to begin with.”
Prior to Denise Conroy’s viral post, Chief marketing officer advisor Lola Bakare had shared her thoughts about Chief and the apprehension she felt about joining the group in a LinkedIn post. Bakare shared “I’ve read that the mission is to help women reach the most senior levels of leadership…I’ve also read that target members are women at the most senior levels of leadership. What am I missing? I ask in public because I’m one of the many women who believes in the mission and is considering joining the ranks, but feels a little iffy about the inclusiveness of the approach. I do want to join a women’s advocacy group. I don’t want to join a women’s country club.” Many women, particularly those from marginalized groups, may have felt that Chief was out of reach for them.
With the high price tag, members who join the group expect to feel valued and supported but for Netta Jenkins, this wasn’t the case. “I officially joined Chief on March 1, 2022 to connect and take my businesses to the next level,” Jenkins shared. Jenkins is an executive, founder and author. “Upon joining, I was direct about the $8,000 fee being extremely high of a price point. I inquired about grants and received their grant of $3,800.” In 2022 it was reported that Chief membership fees were $5,800 a year for women at the vice president level and $7,900 for those within the C-suite, with many members getting their fees covered by their employers. Despite exorbitant annual fees, the group may not have done enough to prioritize the needs of their members. “My cohort group kicked off and I loved my group. Things quickly took a turn after my cohort instructor passed away. The group received an email about the passing. I was devastated. Someone that was coaching us for close to a year passed and the founder didn’t personally send us an email. They didn’t visit the group to check in. It was treated as business as usual…the new instructor was kind, but I was disgusted by the lack of empathy and it had me question if Chief founders saw people simply as a number,” Jenkins explained.
Some Chief members have decided that the membership simply isn’t worth it. Senior executive Sibil Sebastian Patri shared in a LinkedIn post that she ended her membership because from her vantage point Chief is “not centering women of color and other intersectionalities, and [they] can grow and apologize and be better. This will require lots of work.” President and CEO Dr. Nika White shared that she recently canceled her membership after seeing how Black women were treated. “Hearing stories from multiple Black women in my network…was off-putting to me. As a Chief member making that hefty investment, I had to interrogate that further to learn for myself how my experience could be so vastly different from other Black women in and outside of my circle. It was during those conversations that I become more deeply exposed to how commonly Black women were harmed by some type of engagement with Chief, either as a prospect eager to join or as a member. These discoveries made me re-evaluate my membership.” White went on to explain, “Although my intake experience was the opposite, as a Black woman, and equity practitioner, I could not in good conscience justify renewing my membership for a second year.”
It is important to reflect on the timeless words of bell hooks who wrote in Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, “There could be no real sisterhood between white women and women of color if white women were not able to divest of white supremacy, if feminist movement were not fundamentally anti-racist.” Any group, community or organization that is tailored for women must be designed with the most underserved, underrepresented and marginalized individuals in mind. As hooks has written, it is possible for women to achieve self-actualization and success without dominating one another. It should be noted that any approach to women’s advancement that does not consider intersectionality will fail. This situation should be a learning lesson for everyone. Creating a community where every member is able to thrive requires you to prioritize the members that are on the margins; those from the most vulnerable populations. Failing to center their needs means that any group, community or organization will not be sustainable.