For those who find it sobering that one-quarter of publicly traded companies in California don’t have even one woman on their boards, take heart in knowing that LedBetter exists. Founded by Iris Kuo, a journalist by trade, LedBetter is a gender equality index where top brands are ranked by equality in leadership. We sat down with Iris to learn about her journey and the twists and turns that many founders face when launching a new product to market.
RampUp: What’s the smartest decision you’ve ever made for LedBetter?
Iris: The smartest decision I ever made for LedBetter was to believe in and pursue my early idea for the product. A few years ago, I was working as a journalist covering the energy industry in Houston. I liked my company and colleagues, but I was starting to stagnate. I felt a strong desire to stretch and grow professionally and personally. I’ve always been hugely passionate about racial and gender equity, but never quite figured out how to integrate that into my full-time work, even though I wanted to. I was also curious about entrepreneurship, but didn’t see an obvious way to explore that. My life was comfortable, yet I knew something needed to change. I just wasn’t sure how.
One day I spotted an interview in The Washington Post. In it, former Wall Street CEO Sallie Krawcheck said, “We may be at a tipping point. I’ve had numerous groups of women say to me they would stop buying from a company if they understood what their gender makeup was. That information is not available.”
As a reporter, this statement really struck me. Was that information really not available? After some quick research, I had my answer. The data was largely available, at least for boards and executive teams, it just wasn’t all in one place — which kept it from being useful in the way Krawcheck described. The idea started to come together in my mind: a site that would allow people to view gender parity on the leadership teams of major consumer brands. What might we discover about brands that sell largely to women, and who is leading those companies?
I emailed a friend who enthusiastically agreed this would be a worthwhile project, and we both began to spend our nights and weekends collecting data.
RampUp: Were you unsure or confident about moving the idea for LedBetter from spreadsheet to full-fledged company?
Iris: Very sure. I was excited to work on it. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me, and the more additional ideas sprung up. I could see exactly what I wanted it to be, and I knew it had to exist, even if I had no idea how it might come into being.
RampUp: How did you move forward and bring LedBetter to life?
Iris: About a year later, I’d recruited a few more folks to help and won a competitive grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation, which allowed us to hire a fact-checker and web developer. We wound up launching the site in the summer of 2016, with incredible feedback from major companies and brands that wanted to be featured in the database, as well as the media, with coverage in publications like Fortune, Inc., Forbes, CNNMoney, and CBS News. Folks were especially interested in the analysis that I’d done based on our data, such as finding several instances of women’s beauty and apparel brands that were led entirely by men. Sallie Krawcheck herself even gave us a shout-out on Twitter! It was thrilling. LedBetter became a reality.
RampUp: What effect has the California law mandating at least one woman per corporate board had on your business?
Iris: It underscores the importance of this movement towards diverse and inclusive workplaces. LedBetter launched in 2016, prior to the #MeToo movement. Since then, there’s been tremendous change and momentum on these issues, from the countless revelations of harassment and abuse to the implementation of state policies that ban asking for salary history to the pay equity reporting requirement in the U.K. The increasing attention paid to these issues by everyone from the government to the media to the public shows that data and insights about workforce equity will be critical for any forward-thinking business to act on.
RampUp: Since starting LedBetter, have you been able to quantify Sallie Krawcheck’s observation that we’re at a tipping point? Are women more likely to buy less from male-dominated companies, and conversely, buy more from female-dominated companies?
Iris: There’s research that shows that Millenials and Gen Z consumers want both brands they buy and companies they invest in to align with their values—and they’re not the only ones. We don’t currently track consumer buying behavior, but it’ll certainly be interesting to see how this market develops.
At LedBetter, we’re journalists, which means we’re big believers in the power of information and transparency. One of the companies we noted in our initial database release owned several makeup and beauty brands but had no women on its board or executive team. That was 2016. In the time since, they’ve added women to both. The takeaway is that the increasing attention being paid to these issues by consumers, investors, the media, and the government can only drive more awareness and, we hope, change.
RampUp: What sort of message does this send to marketers and business leaders?
Iris: By some estimates women hold upwards of 70% of the buying power in this country. It should be obvious that there’s a lot to be gained from empowering women. It should also tell business leaders that there’s a great deal to be gained by cultivating a diverse, inclusive workforce. Too often we talk about power like it’s a zero sum game. A world where women and minorities are empowered is a better world for everyone.
RampUp: What advice do you have for other people who dream of starting their own business?
Iris: Author Elizabeth Gilbert has this great TED talk about how ideas are always searching for people willing to bring them into the world. She shares an anecdote about a poet who felt ideas for new poems racing towards her like an oncoming train. This poet would have to leap out of bed and start writing to “catch” the idea and begin turning it into a poem before it went away. Gilbert’s belief is that ideas are plentiful and all around us. Sometimes ideas choose us. It strikes us to see if we will birth it into being. We just have to choose it back. So recognize the moment, because it can and will happen. If you’re confused about what that moment looks like, I suggest reading Tara Mohr’s chapter on recognizing callings in her book, Playing Big.
But I think it’s hard to miss. You’ll know when an idea chooses you. My advice? Choose it back.