Digital Transformation Catalyzes Diversity in Nasdaq Company Boardrooms
Publication Date: November 16, 2017 

"Every company is now a technology company, and boards increasingly require a new kind of director," says Coco Brown, founder and CEO of The Athena Alliance, an organization dedicated to preparing executive women for board service and facilitating board matches. A veteran of the Silicon Valley tech industry, Ms. Brown talked to Nasdaq about how digital transformation is disrupting traditional board composition and creating new opportunities for women to make meaningful contributions in the boardroom.

Despite increased pressure from investors, gender diversity on boards is improving at a glacial pace of just 1% per year. Why? Because boards are still accustomed to—and most comfortable with—appointing former and current CEOs and CFOs of large enterprises, and women comprise a very small percentage of those roles.

There is, however, an intriguing exception to the male majority in the boardroom: the gender composition of non-executive digital directors. Russell Reynolds has been tracking statistics on digital directors in the boardroom since 2013. Their most recent survey tracking digital directors appointed to the boards of the Global 300 uncovered encouraging trends:

  • 37% of Global 300 digital directors are women.
  • 58% of digital directors added to Global 300 boards between 2014-2016 were women.
  • Global 300 boards with a digital director have greater gender parity than traditional boards.
The advent of digital directors heralds a larger evolution taking place in the boardroom. Companies today face a wide range of threats and opportunities related to digital transformation, most of which didn't exist 10 years ago. These include cyber risk, technology innovations (including AI and machine learning), business model shifts, digital marketing, and brand management. The rapid pace of change has left traditional boards lacking in two fundamental areas:

Cognitive and relational diversity: Cognitive refers to diversity of thought, while relational diversity is the ability to relate to a company's constituents directly (customers, employees, and communities).

Modern digital competence on a mass scale: Any company that expects to be around 5-10 years from now will need to digitize supply chains, sales engines, business processes, and customer and employee engagement, if it hasn't already.

Savvy boards recognize that to stay competitive, they must address these deficits, and continuing to recruit board members from the ranks of former CEOs and CFOs is not the answer. It is becoming increasingly common for boards to "widen the aperture" beyond traditional executive roles to recruit non-executive directors who have engineering, technology, operations, human resources, and marketing backgrounds. As a result, a whole new generation of thought leaders is beginning to take seats at boardroom tables:

  • Human Resources Officers (CHRO, CPO): These are a company's workforce and culture experts and are under-represented in the boardroom. They also advise on compensation, succession planning, stock programs, and employee and community relations.

  • Digital Technology Officers (CIO, CISO, CTO, Chief Product Officer, Cyber Security): These experts are attuned to some of the biggest technology-related threats, challenges and opportunities of the next 3 - 5 years.

  • Digital Delivery & Operations Officers (Head of Business Strategy, CMO, COO, Chief Customer Officer, Chief Revenue Officer): These roles have a pulse on the industry, shifting business environments, and evolving business models; they also have connections that can make a big difference.
Recent data indicates that recruiting outside of the CEO/CFO realm and into other C-Suite roles in small to mid-cap companies, or even SVP/VP roles of mid to large cap companies may accelerate progress towards gender parity in the boardroom: Russell Reynolds reported that while the total number of female directors of Global 300 companies stands at just 19%, women represented 26% of all digital directors appointed to Global 300 company boards between 2014-2016.

A number of Nasdaq companies have recently "widened the aperture" in board refreshment, appointing women to help lead their digital transformation in the boardroom, including:

Axon Enterprise, Inc. (Nasdaq: AAXN): Julie Cullivan is CIO and Senior Vice President of Business Operations at ForeScout Technologies, Inc. (Nasdaq: FSCT). Axon can leverage Julie's extensive sales operations, IT, and cybersecurity expertise as the company transforms its product line through AI and cloud technologies.

Banner Corporation (Nasdaq: BANR): Merline Saintil is the head of operations of Intuit's (Nasdaq: INTU) product and technology group. Banner recruited Merline to bring information technology expertise to the financial company's board.

Forrester Research, Inc. (Nasdaq: FORR): Yvonne Wassenaar, former CIO of New Relic and current CEO of Airware, is described by Forrester as "a thought leader in cloud, big data analytics, and business digitization." Forrester tapped Yvonne for the board to help guide the company as it undergoes the digital transformation of its business.

MobileIron, Inc. (Nasdaq: MOBL): Jessica Denecour is CIO of Varian Medical Systems. MobileIron believes its shareholders will benefit from Jessica's expertise in using IT to positively influence business outcomes.

Morningstar, Inc. (Nasdaq: MORN): Caroline Tsay is a technology start-up founder and former online channel division vice president at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Morningstar's investment services have moved from analog to digital technologies, and Caroline has the mix of leadership experience and information technology expertise that Morningstar's board needed.

Telenav, Inc. (Nasdaq: TNAV): Karen Francis DeGolia is on the board of AutoNation, the largest automotive retailer in the U.S., and Executive Chairman of AcademixDirect, a technology marketing company serving the education industry. She joined the board of Telenav last December and was recently named Lead Director, adding her extensive experience in the automotive industry and emerging mobility technologies to Telenav's board.

Another unexpected statistic came from the Russell Reynolds survey mentioned earlier: 78% of the Global 300 still has no digital representation on the board. As companies continue to awaken to the realization that they need digital innovation expertise and diversity of thought on the board, women will find opportunities in greater numbers to demonstrate value and relevancy in the boardroom.


Coco Brown is founder and CEO of the Athena Alliance, an organization dedicated to advancing diversity in the boardroom by preparing executive women for board service and facilitating board matches. Before founding the Athena Alliance, Brown served as the president and chief operating officer of Taos, an information technology consulting and services company based in San Jose, California. She is also the founder and CEO of Executive Kinections, a Silicon Valley consultancy that advises executive teams in strategic planning and organizational design.