A Serendipitous Encounter
Mia Jung, Co-President, Oxeon Partners
Co-Authored by Austin Nalen, Associate, Oxeon Partners and Morgan Flannery, Senior Associate, Oxeon Ventures

A Serendipitous Encounter
Mia, Co-President for Oxeon’s Invested Executive Search business, is largely focused on leading the search organization and building leadership teams for high-growth Healthcare IT and Services clients across Oxeon’s portfolio organizations. Prior to joining Oxeon, Mia spent 15 years in commercial leaderships roles within the medical technology industry at Guidant, Boston Scientific, and Biotronik, launching disruptive technologies across the US, Europe, and Asia. Mia is inspired by Oxeon’s mission and is determined “to make people healthier” via her work with innovative organizations and in her leadership role here. She is based in New York City.

Most of us don’t need a reminder about the glaring lack of diversity in the Boardroom, and I won’t harp on that for this article. But I do want to provide some context for the story I will share today about women in the Boardroom.

In one respect, we’ve made great strides in this area. The national campaign working to increase gender diversity on corporate boards — “2020 Women on Boards” — stated in their 2016 mid-year report that most Fortune 1000s are exceeding expectations for increasing gender diversity: 42% reported having at least one woman on their board; and, of the Fortune 1000 companies with a female CEO or Board chair, 88% and 86% respectively have met or surpassed the benchmark of having 20% or more women on the Board.

On the other hand, the data remains discouraging. Earlier this month, Forbes published an exposé by Sukhinder Singh Cassidy and her new Boardlist Index, which plans to measure public and private Board seats filled by women. She found, as of the end of June 2016, that only 6.8% of private tech companies’ and 10.2% of unicorn companies’ board seats are filled by women.

I held my breath and decided to take a peek at the Oxeon portfolio; in a quick scan of our investments, I was pleasantly surprised. Of our 20+ investment portfolio companies, there are women on the Board at eight of them—nearly 39%. Of those eight, two are sitting CEOs and two board seats are held by Annie Lamont, a close friend of Oxeon and prolific healthcare investor in her own right.

Simple answers of gender equality aside, why does this matter? My answer is rooted partly in data—many studies correlate stronger company performance with diverse boards (gender, or otherwise), with the logic that diverse boards are better at pushing other angles of opportunity, holding themselves accountable, and thinking about key challenges in new and creative ways. But, as a mom with a young daughter, as a mentor and leader of a group of insanely intelligent, capable women at Oxeon, and as myself — a motivated, career-driven woman — I can’t go without saying the issue extends into the emotional for me. And with that in mind, the core issue here is one of access. And we can do better.

Ten percent of Board seats turn over at S&P 500 companies per year. Despite these open seats, women still weren’t represented — the churn didn’t increase women-filled board seats by even one percentage point from 2014 to 2015. Access to Boards, for anyone, is limited. This is exacerbated by women’s continued absence from major leadership roles within their organizations, another theme that has been exhausted at this point. As an executive search professional I knew I could play a role effecting change on both fronts — a serendipitous encounter showed me how.

A Serendipitous Encounter…
“And last on the standby list… Mia Jung.” I leapt to my feet, grabbed my bags, and sprinted onto the NYC-bound flight after an action-packed weekend celebrating my best friend’s 40th birthday in Miami. Time to sit back and relax…

Frankly, I remember appreciating the “airplane mode” silence as a chance to focus on one of the most challenging searches I had been given to-date. On the heels of a $25M Series C capital raise, the Board of a mobile health technology company had enlisted us to find a Chairperson. I recently, and proudly, had presented a slate of twenty “rock star” candidates to the Search Committee. While they commended me for my efforts, they were quick to highlight that all of my candidates were men. I couldn’t believe I had missed something so obvious, and committed to bringing diversity to the slate. As I re-scanned the list of candidates who fit the profile — sitting or past CEO, prior Board experience, healthcare background — nearly all were men. I couldn’t help but wonder… by the time my 2-year-old daughter Lexi was an executive, would the same challenge still exist?

Muttering to myself, I caught the attention of the woman to my left; she asked what I did for a living. I shared that I was an executive recruiter and was struggling to build a diverse slate of candidates for this particular Chairperson role. She furrowed her brow and informed me that it had been a journey to her first public board seat, and she was fortunate to have some influential mentors throughout her career. My eyes widened—what were the chances? We discussed her career trajectory within American Express, the US government, Estée Lauder, and finally to her current position at Pfizer and as a Board member for WPP. She gave me a few recommendations, her card (Sally Susman, EVP, Corporate Affairs), and wished me luck.

Well, as luck would have it, a week later, I was fortuitously asked to collaborate with Halle Tecco of Rock Health, and Leslie Henshaw of Deerfield Management, on a “Women in the Boardroom” panel discussion. We were asked to host a panel addressing the challenges women faced in becoming a Board Member—I knew Sally would be the perfect hostess. She graciously accepted, and shared her now-famous “7 tips for Landing a Board Position”, which has received more than 26,000 views on LinkedIn.

The panel was immensely successful in stimulating a conversation amongst these healthcare executives. I was surprised to be pulled aside by Leslie after the panel discussion for a brainstorming session. Leslie argued that, given the caliber of women in attendance, any one of them could have been considered “Board-worthy” but seemed to lack mentors, support, and, most importantly, access to opportunities traditionally granted to men. A-ha.

In our conversation, Leslie also called out the unique vantage points from which Deerfield and Oxeon could approach this challenge: we each had portfolios of companies we were starting, had invested in, or were working with closely, and thus, had access to a much higher volume of Board seats in comparison to other constituents. To do this, however, we recognized three efforts were vital for success:

  1. 1. We needed to commit to granting appropriately skilled women Board seats across our respective portfolios
  2. 2. We needed to assemble a select group of women to participate
  3. 3. Recognizing that many of these women may have never before sat on a Board – public or private – we must prioritize building a support network, creating a series of educational sessions, and providing access to mentorship from women who have previously served on Boards.

Women in the Boardroom 2016
Fast forward a year later. We recently completed our first Women in the Boardroom series, co-hosted by Oxeon and Deerfield, as a direct result of that brainstorming session. With the ultimate vision to match this group of women with appropriate opportunities across our respective portfolios, Morgan Flannery, Oxeon co-Founder, and Karen Heidelberger, a Partner at Deerfield, helped build an educational series. Bringing together an intimate group of highly qualified women, the series focused on highlighting the key responsibilities and challenges of a Board Member. We were tremendously lucky to have my old seatmate Sally Susman (EVP, Corporate Affairs, Pfizer), Esther Dyson (Founder, HICCUP/ Way to Welville), Catherine Bromilow (Partner, PwC’s Center for Board Governance), and Annie Lamont (Managing Partner, Oak FT/HC) as speakers across four events, covering topics ranging from how to interview for a Board, to specific case studies on the intricacies of a Board role and how to navigate them.

Many themes emerged over the course of these four sessions. Ironically, many had nothing whatsoever to do with being female, but extended into the intricacies of taking a Board seat for the first time. One clear theme, however, emerged around the power of networking. We felt, from the beginning, that a series rather than a panel, would allow women to connect and build a foundation for reciprocal relationships, which we already see happening. During one of our sessions, we learned a best practice for networking: always have the names of five women at the ready should you be asked to provide recommendations around an open Board seat. Given such limited Board vacancies, it is critical for women to be well-positioned to seize an opportunity when it arises. We feel this Women in the Boardroom initiative is a crucial next step, in not only discussing the gap in diversity, but creating an approach to act on available opportunities.

This call to action, exemplified years ago by my first conversation with Sally Susman aboard a flight from Miami to New York, is why this approach is different than other female executive initiatives. This all happened when two women made a connection, but weren’t satisfied with just “talk.” We are eager to see the fruits of our efforts to build a source of Board opportunities, but, more importantly, a network of supportive women, potentially resulting in the placements of high-caliber talent in these coveted positions. We believe strongly that small changes—acting on the power of networking—can make a huge difference, and it’s clear that this is an effort that can exist outside of the Oxeon and Deerfield networks.