Who: Christine Comaford, President & CTO, Planet U Inc.
Players: About 30 women high-tech entrepreneurs — founders, CEOs, and senior executives
Frequency: Every 4 to 6 weeks
Purpose: To apply our collective expertise to the challenge of running a business as a woman in the highly competitive Internet space.
Why I Never Miss It: I always walk away with new business contacts and ideas, and with dilemmas resolved.
When Christine Comaford worked at Microsoft in the late '80s, she was the only woman on her engineering team and one of just two in the entire Windows group. These days Comaford — now president and chief technology officer of Planet U, the Internet promotions company she cofounded — has no trouble finding female high-tech peers. In fact, they've been regularly showing up in her living room for the past 18 months.
Comaford, 35, has gathered some of the Bay Area's highest-powered high-tech female executives — including Kim Polese, CEO of Marimba, and Mary Furlong, founder and CEO of SeniorNet and Third Age Media Inc. — into a nomadic club that meets every four to six weeks in a different member's home for potluck dinner and industry dish. The group is called Digital Dames, and this is not your mother's coffee klatch. It's a powerful consolidation of brainpower, business experience, and Rolodexes.
"There's a couple hundred years of business expertise in this group," says Comaford, who has herself founded four successful computer companies. "We're inventing our own collaborative models for leadership, support, and information exchange here."
Peer support and open exchange of information.
We do two things to create a relaxed, open — but highly charged — environment. First, nearly everyone in the group has P&L responsibility, as either a company founder, a CEO, or a division head. Second, we all sign nondisclosure agreements. We talk about highly sensitive issues — and it's a gossipy industry. The agreements enable us to learn from others at the same level without putting our businesses in jeopardy.
Eclectic potluck. Upscale takeout.
Sunday afternoon casual.
First, members tell the group what they've been doing since the last gathering, whether it's raising more capital, visiting the White House to talk cyberprivacy, or landing a major new client. Then every member tells the others what she needs — advice on handling a marketing campaign, suggestions for potential board members, or the latest word on female-friendly VCs. Nothing seems to be impossible. Here you ask for help, raise an issue, need a resource, and boom! — it's handled.
At every meeting we also feature a guest speaker. Topics range from PR on a tight budget to branding on the Web to recruiting and retaining great talent.
A version of this article appeared in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.