Fast Company

How Twitter Can Shatter Its Own Glass Ceiling

To become the revolutionary public company it aspires to be, Twitter has to break free of the tech world's male-dominated business-as-usual. Here are six women who would fit well on its board.

Once the IPO papers were filed, it didn’t take long for the world to notice, and suddenly care, that Twitter’s board of directors consists entirely of white men. We all seem to know how meaningful board diversity is, yet few seem to make it business-as-usual.

This is a big deal for Twitter in particular, not only because public perception will make very tangible impacts on the soon-to-be publicly traded company. Its culture hinges on the idea that it’s more than a slick new way to serve up advertising. If you buy into its world-changing mission, Twitter is the engine of revolution, an accelerant in cultural infernos, from the Arab Spring to elections here in the U.S. But what’s revolutionary about an all-white, all-male board? Mission aside, there’s also the plain and simple fact that about the same percentage of men and women use Twitter. So why isn't there an influential woman on its board?

While reporting for Fast Company’s November feature, I was treated to the sight of a 38-week-pregnant Chloe Sladden, Twitter’s head of media, gliding through the company cafeteria looking every bit the no-nonsense fertility goddess. Hey, if they're lucky all young companies grow up. But not even that sight changes the fact that Twitter, like so many tech companies, has a built-in bro culture. It’s aware of it. And its board members even kid each other about it, according to Kara Swisher of All Things D, who noted in a recent post that “the lack of a female director on its board even caused one board member to make a naughty joke that has been widely repeated inside the company--and forgive me in advance for this--that Twitter’s governing body has to expand beyond ‘three Peters and a Dick,’” referring to CEO Dick Costolo, investor Peter Currie, former News Corp COO Peter Chernin, and Peter Fenton of Benchmark Capital. Get it? It’s a penis joke! About how many men sit on Twitter’s board! Is this thing on?!

If Twitter does take the criticism more seriously than the boardroom anecdote suggests, that didn’t come across when CEO Dick Costolo later tweeted a joke that one of his critics on this matter, Vivek Wadha, was "the Carrot Top of academic sources."

In his own way, Costolo is calling this criticism a hollow one, sort of like lamenting that the HBO show Girls (or Friends before it) doesn't have enough realistic black characters. Who are we kidding? These are shows about the kind of people who don’t typically have black friends. And Silicon Valley has not been, for the most part, the kind of place that typically invests in female founders or seriously cultivates female executive talent. For all the “democratization of everything” talk we hear so much about around S-1 time, few of the latter-day tech titans have even pretended that board diversity mattered. As of early 2011, Facebook, Groupon, and Zynga still had no female directors. (LinkedIn, which launched in 2003, added a woman in March 2010.)

No doubt, the Peters have been supremely helpful to the once struggling company, helping them make important cash, resource allocation, talent, and strategy decisions, as filtered through the unique lens of an early stage, West Coast based, tech startup. And, as the Twitter+TV=Money equation rose to prominence at the company, Chernin clearly proved his worth. More than one insider has shared the benefit of having a built-in television industry “explainer” on their team. “He understands how decisions are made, what priorities are, what the pain points are.” He can get meetings. He can craft talking points. And, like all board members should, “he asks really, really good questions. He can show us instantly when we’re off base.” See? Value.

But it’s time to move on. The culture of technology and the Valley isn’t as relevant to this conversation anymore, certainly now that Twitter is about to hit the market. What matters now is what Twitter is going to grow into. I truly believe Costolo is both serious about diversity and about not wanting to simply “check a box” for tokenism. So now he gets to show some real leadership. Because the next board member should be someone who can help scale the next best version of what Twitter could be. Because if Twitter’s bet on TV is right, they should have the operating cash to invest in some of those truly world-changing ideas they love to talk about--ideas that won’t need to have an obvious business model associated with them to pass muster. It’s time to turn away from Miley Cyrus and think Nobel Prize.

An easy place to start is away from their home court, to someone who operates far outside the cozy confines of Valley confirmation bias. No hoodie, no cry. Besides having experience and contacts to offer, board members have another unique advantage: They don’t have to navigate a company’s (or a town’s) culture every day in order to have an impact. They observe the roller coaster, not ride on it.

Consider, as an example, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the renowned Nigerian economist, who in between becoming the first female Nigerian Finance minister was on the short list to run the World Bank. There are few people with her understanding of how to solve systemic problems and do business in Africa, a continent where the rate on return for foreign investment has been higher than any other developing region, and where everyone will, soon, have a mobile phone. Many of the tell me she’s the most powerful woman they know, which makes her a pretty good friend to have.

Here’s a more traditional pick, and a purer play in the pan-African business and advertising marketplace, Nunu Ntshingila, the Chairman of Ogilvy South Africa. Never heard of her?

How could Shaifali Puri, the executive director of Scientists Without Borders, begin to help Twitter use their global, conversational dataset to crowdsource scientific inquiry or develop the potential of millions of citizen scientists to tackle the planet’s biggest problems?
Listen to her.

Who better than the market-minded Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of the social investment firm, Acumen Fund, to help figure out how Twitter might help entrepreneurs, researchers, and other humans address the root causes of poverty?

What could Karen Tse, the UN lawyer turned international legal rights expert, help Twitter discover about crime and criminal justice across the globe?

Rumor has it that the company has been floating the idea of wooing Hillary Clinton to the board. Right impulse, wrong Clinton. Instead consider Chelsea, who not only has access to her parents’ endless contacts list, has grown into a formidable health care analyst with an astonishing set of experiences and datasets at her fingertips by virtue of her earnest work at the Clinton Foundation. (Plus, she speaks McKinsey, which will make Ali Rowghani and Chloe Sladden quite happy.)

I could go on and on--and I hope you do, in comments. But my point is simple: Rather than finding a female version of a usual suspect, why not tap an unusual woman with the experience, conviction, and ambition that could help Twitter unleash the real, not easily monetizable, power of their open, democratic, and conversational platform? Who knows? They might even inspire the rest of Valley as well.

And that’s no joke.

[Image: Flickr user Eric Schmuttenmaer]

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4 Comments

  • Maryam

    I'm of the opinion that Dr. Iweala will perform excellently if appointed on the board of Twitter. Her wealth of experience in Abuja and Washington will be useful. 

  • Elisabeth Bryan

    Oh my gosh .. I'm starting to believe this is a real issue in the tech industry. Just read a recent article on the Hill discussing exactly the same thing from a talented young lady: http://thehill.com/blogs/congr...

    It's absurd that women are not playing a stronger role there. It makes me wonder that something must be really wrong down there. 

  • marc zazeela

    Ellen,

    Good read. I enjoy your perspective.

    From what I have been hearing and reading,Silicon Valley is generally unfriendly towards women. It smacks of old boys clubs, sophomoric humor, and juvenile pranks. Are all geeks genetically predetermined to share the Peter Pan syndrome?
    Certainly, in the case of Twitter, it would make sense for the board to be as diverse as their users. How better to keep in touch with the mindset of the people that will make or break their success?Cheers,Marc

  • Rick Marro

    I have an idea, how about you or some other NON WHITE MEN invent and take to market a globally social life changing way to communicate and then you can configure your board of UNICORNS if you wish.