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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Six-continent survey of board members says women help boards make better decisions

A study involving more than 100 male and female directors on boards around the globe, aimed at determining the relationship between board effectiveness and the contribution of women directors, has concluded that boards make better decisions when a healthy number of women sit at the table.

Cate Goethals, a University of Washington academic leader who conceived and co-authored the Better Boards Project, says there's a growing sense that the financial crisis of 2008 was in part the result of a sort of "group think" of public-company boards, which are inevitably composed mostly of men.

Goethals, who has created three programs at University of Washington's Foster School of Business to connect women leaders and global business, says that this emerging line of thinking has led to a growing focus on the composition of public-company boards, including legislative involvement in board makeup in some countries.

Goethals, who co-authored the Better Boards Project with Susan Bloch, a management consultant and author of books on management, noted as an example that Europe has seen requirements for quotas of female board members, including France where 40 percent of the directors of boards of certain types of public companies must be female.

"Even in countries like the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Canada where there are no legal requirements, more women are being appointed to boards than ever before," said Goethals.

The study sought to answer a series of questions, including do women contribute differently in the board room, how do they contribute to board effectiveness and why are the numbers of women on boards so low.  

Supporters of greater representation for women on boards of public companies do see improvement and cite several reasons for that.  

For instance, a number of interviewees noted that the presence of female directors has come to be increasingly viewed as a marker of a progressive, forward-looking board. What company wouldn't want that image?

And the report noted that generational shifts and the call for different types of experience are also changing the landscape. An example was the need for a more youthful perspective and savvy with social media and new technology becoming a particularly acute need.

What clearly was a knock on the prevalence of all-male boards was the basic agreement among interviewees that "women provide a much-needed safeguard against group think and rubber-stamping of policy, which continue to hinder board effectiveness."

But noting that women are still joining boards at a slow pace, the report suggested the way boards look at themselves is a key factor in that, including the practice of identifying potential new board members on the basis of "who do we know." Men generally know other male prospects.

Neil McReynolds, who has been in board leadership roles and consulted with CEOs and boards and also been involved in helping boards recruit new board members, says he thinks "a combination of factors" will be necessary to make a difference to bring more diversity to boards.

McReynolds says that he frankly finds it surprising the increase in the number of women on corporate boards has come as slowly as it has, "especially for those companies in consumer products and services where women make a large percentage of purchasing decisions.

"It's going to take investor pressure, outspoken CEO's, active support by executives and board members, and improving the pipeline by making it easy to identify qualified women directors," McReynolds said.

When asked about the ways their boards are seeking to improve, most directors said their boards were doing very little and cited "ineffectual board assessment practices and, to our surprise, an almost complete absence of reviews of the performance of individual directors," the report said.

In an area like Seattle where women business leaders and entrepreneurs have been a prominent part of the business community leadership and non-profit board landscape for years, men, and even some emerging women leaders, might find it difficult to accept that women have faced an uphill battle in getting board slots at public companies.

After all, we have Phyllis Campbell, regional head of JPMorgan Chase and former Washington president of U.S. Bank, currently a member of the board of Alaska Airlines who has served on three other major boards. And Judith Runstad and Deanna Oppenheimer come quickly to mind.  

Runstad is former co-managing partner of Seattle law firm Foster Pepper, a member of several public company boards and prominent in business locally since before Rotary permitted women members. And Oppenheimer, who left Seattle to become head of Barclay's operations in England and now back in Seattle. is a member of several boards nationally.

But Cate says it would be an indication of complacency for those in this area, particularly men, to assume we are somehow ahead of the game in terms of board opportunities for women.

"Washington state is pretty good, with about 20 percent of public company board positions being filled by women," she said. "but the technology industry is almost the reverse, with most boards composed entirely of men. Most are boys clubs, because venture capital firms like dealing with men."

And business prominence apparently doesn't necessarily convert to the kind of business networking that leads to being sought out for public-company board roles when mostly male boards sit around and ponder who should join them.

One who is seeking to change the networking challenge is Janis Machala, an entrepreneur, involved early in the formation of the Seattle's women's angel group called the Seraphs, and in recent years in academic efforts relating to entrepreneurism.

She is setting up a women's CEO roundtable in the Seattle area to boost networking opportunities for female top executives. Presumably, one of the goal is to help each other become more generally visible in the business community.

As Machala puts it, "they need to learn to be the external face for the company."

Susan Preston, a Seattle attorney who actually launched the Seraphs as the first female angel group in the country back in 1999 and has been a entrepreneur in residence for the entrepreneur focused Kauffman Foundation, is in the process of creating an angel fund, which would provide women investors networking opportunity with angel peers.

Machala and others have been circulating the Better Boards report, hoping it will start what she calls "more conscious decisions about board composition" adding, "what's needed is advocacy or women and other diverse populations and not just referrals or board member talks about this."

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Organization focuses on teaching women philanthropists to become angel investors

Pipeline Fellowship, a national "bootcamp" to teach women philanthropists how to become angel investors as part of a strategy to boost funding opportunities for female entrepreneurs who are starting for-profit social ventures, is being launched later this month in Seattle.
Natalia Oberti Noguera

 

The program, created in New York in 2007 and already in place in several cities around the country, is being put together in the Seattle area under the guidance of Susan Preston, a Seattle attorney long-prominent in helping entrepreneurs and a founder in the late '90s of the local women's angel organization called Seraph Capital Forum.

 

The Seattle launch of the Fellowship is likely to get a visibility boost because of a national award that Preston will be receiving as Small Business Person of the Year, selected by the Small Business Council of America. She will receive the award in Washington, D.C. in early May.

 

sue preston
Sue Preston

Preston returned recently to Seattle from the Bay Area where she had served as general partner of the California Clean Energy Fund (CalCEF) since its formation six years ago.

 

Pipeline Fellowship founder and CEO Natalia Oberti Noguera explained in a telephone interview that women who want to participate in the bootcamp must be "qualified investors," pay $4,500 to join the six-month program and commit two full days a month to learning about and getting comfortable with the process of angel investing.

  

She said the bootcamp includes presentations from various female entrepreneurs seeking start-up capital and at the end of the program, participants will each commit to invest. Each Pipeline Fellow commits to invest $5,000 in the same woman-led for-profit social venture at the end of the program.

 

The coming of the Pipeline Foundation program to Seattle will represent a reunion of Preston and Oberti Noguera because it was at a seminar Preston was conducting for the Angel Resource Group where Oberti Noguera was a student first learning about angel investing.

 

Preston, who has written a couple of books including Angel Investing for Entrepreneurs, apparently was a good instructor because it was soon thereafter that Oberti Noguera, at the age of 27, founded the Pipeline organization. Its impact and her successes have led to her being named last year as one of the "30 most important women in tech under 30" by Business Insider and being featured in the New York Times, Fast Company and onLatina.com's "25 Latinas Who Shine in Tech."

 

Oberti Noguera said women with the means to be investors "need to get much more comfortable with investing, not just donating," a reference to the practice of many such women to be philanthropists.

 

The requirement that the women be "qualified investor" means each must meet the requirement of the Securities and Exchange Commission of having a net worth of $1 million, excluding primary residence value, and have annual income of $200,000 a year, or $300,000 in couple income.

 

Women entrepreneurs need to pay a $40 application-processing fee for the chance to secure funding at one of the organization's "Pitch Summits."

 

Oberti Noguera explained that companies eligible to apply to be part of a Pipeline Fellowship Pitch Summit must be co-owned or founded by a woman, have a for-profit legal structure, have a social or environmental mission and be a U.S. company.


She says the outcome of the Pipeline Foundation efforts has been to "activate more local women angels in the cities where the foundation is operating and to create more capital for women social entrepreneurs."

 

Seattle is one four cities where the Pipeline Fellowship will launch in the coming months, with Los Angeles, Austin and Miami, along with Seattle, joining Boston, the Bay Area, Chicago and Washington, D.C., as locations that will help women of wealth begin to focus on how to invest in women entrepreneurs.

 

.Both Oberti Noguera and Preston described the launching of pipeline-Fellowship investing in Seattle as an important milestone, noting that alumnae of the program have gone on to join later-stage angel groups, and have shared their conviction that the angel-investing bootcamp gave them the confidence to take that bigger step.

 

"Seattle was ranked as the third best city for women entrepreneurs by one national organization and our presence will create additional funding for women led, for-profit social ventures," said Oberti Noguera.

 

The decision to launch in Seattle came after an event here last June to discuss such a step in a session at which Seattle attorney Barbara Prowant, who is president of Seraph Capital and has been a leader in efforts to increase diversity in the V.C. and angel communities, keynoted.

 

Oberti Noguero, who says that while she is a connection rather than being an angel investor, joked during our phone conversation that as a woman who is half Italian and half Columbian, she believes in "the hybrid business model."

 

With respect to Preston's forthcoming award, it is to honor an American businessman or woman for outstanding accomplishments in promoting a favorable environment for the small businesses of America.

 

"I am particularly pleased to have the Council recognize the value that is provided by angel and other early-stage investors, whose, high-risk capital is essential to build a strong start-up business environment," said Preston.

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Clean-energy angel leader sees greater challenges ahead for cleantech investing

As the California Clean Energy Angel Fund that she launched five years ago winds down, Susan Preston's analysis of the opportunity to create a second "cleantech" fund has guided her to conclude "the bloom is off the rose of clean-energy investing."

 

"We have done a great deal of analysis into raising a second fund, and unfortunately, market timing is quite bad," said Preston, the former Seattle attorney who formed the first-of-its-kind angel fund for seed and start-up stage clean energy companies in August of 2007 and became its general partner. "The public and private markets are down on clean energy and the venture model itself is being questioned."

sue preston
Susan Preston CalCEF 

Byron McCann, co-chairman of the Northwest Energy Angels, agrees with Preston's assessment to the extent that "there isn't the excitement in the market that there was. All the fervor and bluster have faded to the point where we do deals that make sense on their own."

 

But McCann, whose angel group focuses on young "cleantech" companies in the Pacific Northwest, disagrees to the extent that he says he has seen "a robust deal flow, increased membership and angels interested in the clean-tech space."

Byron McCann
Byron McCann
Energy Angels 

In fact, his angel group, formed in 2006, had its best first half this year, by July investing more than $1 million in six companies, with the investments focused on energy efficiency, green-building technology and biomass power

 

Preston and McCann will be together on a panel Friday in Seattle at the Northwest Energy Angels Leadership Breakfast, where the topic of discussion will be Portland author Ron Pernick's new book, "Clean Tech Nation."

 

Pernick indicated his sense that "without a concerted energy policy, pieces of the energy puzzle may be in trouble," but added "states and cities are pushing for" clean-energy initiatives.

 

Pernick, Preston and McCann all agreed, in separate telephone conversations, that the erosion of venture-capital interest in clean-tech investments this year has brought challenges to the angel side of investing in the sector. Statistics indicate that venture funding in the clean-tech sector is off about 30 percent this year.

 

"Venture's turn off means venture funding no longer represents second-round financing for young companies, and IPOs are not likely, so that limits the exits and that limits the interest," Pernick said.

 

"Venture interest is down, but hasn't disappeared," said McCann. "A venture investment usually takes more money than investors anticipated and that's even more of a challenge in clean tech, which takes more money and more time, making it more complicated than what a lot of us are used to."

 

"So it's a challenge for angels, who have to decide what kind of a deal is this? Am I bridging to a venture round or is this an angel deal where we're going to grow the company," McCann said.

 

Preston, in her typically direct fashion, said "a lot of the cleantech companies were walking dead and VC's kept putting money into the walking dead. We all have these walking dead or zombies that we keep piling money into looking for some turnaround and instead the outcome is a turnoff."

 

Early this year, I had Preston keynote a gathering at the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership in Palm Desert and she was bullish about the sector and about the prospects for a new fund.

 

But what she found in the months that followed was the erosion of venture-capital interest and waning interest on the part of major institutional investors.

 

"All the individual investors wanted to do another fund and we had positive feedback from all the limited partners," Preston explained. "But the institutional investors were going to funds focused on later-stage investing and fewer were looking at cleantech."

 

I asked her if there was any cleantech area for which she was still bullish and she said "I see a lot of opportunity in energy efficiency," noting that one company in which her fund invested is Berkeley-based Alphabet Energy, which captures waste heat and turns it into energy.

 

Preston helped form the Seattle women's angel network, Seraph, in the late '90s and was a Kauffman Foundation entrepreneur in residence in Seattle. She was retained by the non-profit California Clean Energy Fund (CalCEF) six years ago to develop the model for a seed-stage clean energy fund.

 

She moved to the Bay Area to manage the $11 million boutique fund, in which the non-profit CalCEF was the key funding source, supported by a group of individual investors.

 

Preston, McCann and Pernick all agreed that the predictability that attracts investors requires a national energy policy.

 

"This country has a choice to make relating to energy and right now clean-energy has been villanized by partisan politics," said Pernick. "All energy industries from oil, coal and nuclear to renewable and clean require government support, both regulatory and financial."

 

McCann scored "the vaguery of energy policies" and Preston suggested that "what would really help is a clean-energy act," noting that "regulation is essential in our industry." But she added, "My hope of federal legislation is very low."

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Clean-energy leader Sue Preston dismisses criticisms of loan-guarantee as 'political'

Susan Preston, whose image as a leader in clean-energy investment has grown in her years overseeing the nation's first angel fund for seed and start-up clean energy companies, has reason to look toward 2012 with optimism. And she dismisses the criticism of those who would deter federal efforts to spur such investments as "purely political."

 

Preston, general partner in the nearly four-year-old California Clean Energy Angel Fund (CalCEF), acknowledges the high-profile bankruptcy of solar-power start-up Solyndra may suggest improvements are needed in federal energy-loan guarantee programs..

 
 

"But you don't throw the baby out with the bath water just because some politicians are using the bankruptcy to make political hay," Preston said.

 

"Overall, the government will show a nice profit on the loan-guarantee program," she says, moving on during an interview to things she'd rather talk about, like the successes of CalCEF and the likelihood that she'll focus next year on raising a new clean-energy fund.

 

And she enthuses about the possible resurrection of a tax-break for start-up investors that she conceived and that was gathering support in Congress before the economy went flat.

  

That "political hay" that Preston calls "purely political" has been made over the last couple of months by Congressional Republicans over the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a Fremont, CA, solar-panel maker. It was treated  by the Obama Administration, including a visit by the President himself, as the poster child for investment in renewable energy.

  

Solyndra was the first beneficiary of the federal loan program and, as a company with new technology and support from a group of venture-capital firms, it seemed to be an ideal candidate for visibility.

  

Thus when the company went bankrupt this past September, defaulting on a $528 million federal loan, Republicans seized the opportunity to make it the poster child for what they viewed as excessive Obama enthusiasm for alternative energy.

  

 "The loan guarantee program from which Solyndra received money has a number of other companies in the program, the vast majority of which are involved with project financing of large, utility-scale facilities with 20 to 25 year power purchase agreements," Preston said.    

 

In fact. the U.S. Department of Energy web site indicates the federal agency has made $35 billion in loans and created almost 65,000 jobs as a result.  

  

"If you want to talk about wasted money, let's look at the billions and billions of dollars spent on defense technology which completely fails," she added.

  

Preston, while a partner in a major Seattle law firm, helped guide the launch of the nation's first women's angel group, Seraph Capital, in Seattle in the late '90s. And in a six-year stint as Entrepreneur-in-Residence for the entrepreneur-focused Kauffman Foundation, she became a widely recognized expert on angel financing, including authoring numerous articles, white papers and books on the topic.

  

It was that angel-financing expertise that resulted in her invitation in 2008 to guide the launch of the CalCEF Clean Energy Angel Fund, for which she proceeded to raise $11 million to invest in early-stage clean-energy companies. The angel fund was launched by the California Clean Energy Fund, a non-profit that hired Preston to create the angel fund and then became a limited partner in the for-profit CalCEF.

  

Preston is confident the political flap won't have a negative impact on either the CalCEF angel fund, or in a new fund she expects to begin raising money for early next year.

  

At this point there has been no official announcement on plans for the second fund, which she says will be "much bigger" than the current fund's $11 million, adding that while "we have not come to complete agreement on the name, it will likely be CalCEF Clean Energy Ventures."

   

Despite the financial challenges that have prevailed almost since CalCEF was launched, it has produced a positive return on investment with its four fundings, which averaged about $750,000, Preston said.   

 

Although Preston emphasizes that there are no geographic restrictions on investments by the CalCEF angel fund, "on a practical basis, and because of the strong prevalence of clean energy companies in the Bay Area, we have not made an investment outside this area."

 

But she notes that she and her partners "have been to several other places in California, and elsewhere in the country, to explore possible candidates for investmernt."

"Clean energy has seen a bounce back in the last 18 months and at a greater rate than some other technology sectors," Preston said, adding that "within clean energy, certain areas are performing better than others when you look at global indexes.  For instance, wind is down, but smart grid related technologies are performing reasonably well."

  

Asked what kind of energy startups are likely to generate the most interest over the next couple of years, Preston responded: "Energy efficiency, smart grid and storage are my bets."

  

"Grid storage will be an interesting area to watch because the problem with wind power is that the wind blows more at night while most of the needs are during the day," she said. "We are really in need of storage technology."

  

Preston is enthused that a proposal she put together about four years ago for an income tax credit for investors in start-up companies, an idea that drew bi-partisan support in both houses of Congress before the economic chaos shunted it aside, has seen a revival of interest in recent months.

  

The Access to Entrepreneurs Act (ACE) may move forward this coming year, she says, but it will have to be without her assistance because the first priority will be launching the new fund while continuing to oversee administration of the CalCEF fund.

  

"Our goal is to do well while we are doing good." Preston says.  "Our first priority is to make money for our LPs, but because we invest in clean energy, we get to do good at the same time."

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