Executives, board members, and the early employees and investors at technology companies have among the greatest opportunities to generate wealth and impact society today.
However, these positions are still overwhelmingly held by people from a single racial and ethnic background, even though there is ample evidence that companies with diverse executive teams and boards of directors perform better than those without.
Executive search firm Daversa Partners is among the leaders of the charge to change that reality. The firm, which serves the technology industry, has focused on increasing overall diverse representation for years. Now, Daversa has developed a new program dedicated solely to ensuring there is Black leadership on the boards and executive teams of the most important companies and investing firms in technology today.
The program, called Dreamscape, partners with tech companies and venture capital firms to connect Black talent with leadership opportunities. Dreamscape was formed in 2020 and is publicly launching with more than 3,000 members in its network. Early partners include Robinhood, Brex, and AppLovin, as well as venture capital firms Greylock and Venrock.
“Daversa has a history of being brutally intentional. We pick a problem, we apply all of our resources, and we guarantee an outcome. Candidly: that’s how we do search,” says Clinton Browning, who recently joined Daversa to run Dreamscape. “Black executives are the most underrepresented in boardrooms and leadership teams. We feel if we’re going to take something like this on, it may as well be something that no other firm would sign up to do. We want to be the game changer.”
Browning, along with his colleague Michelle Comendul, recently joined the Greymatter podcast to discuss the mission of Dreamscape. Greylock executive talent partner Holly Rose Faith, who works closely with Daversa, also joined the discussion.
You can listen to the conversation here.
Let me start off by welcoming everyone to Greymatter. Thank you so much Clinton Browning and Michelle Comendul from Daversa Partners and Holly Rose Faith from Greylock. Thanks for being with me today.
Holly Rose Faith:
Great to be here.
Clinton Browning, Michelle Comendul:
Thank you for having us.
Let’s get right into things. Let’s start with a little background on Daversa. Michelle, you’ve been there since 2015. Tell me about the firm.
We are a specialty firm that builds management teams for tech startups and late stage private companies. Our model is to work horizontally at the C-suite. We have specialists in every functional role across your executive team, both for B2B and for consumer [tech]
Our focus is building full teams for private, venture-backed companies. Through this work, we’ve done a lot of team building work within Greylock’s portfolio over the years. Which, when we started this new division Dreamscape, kind of made it a natural evolution to approach Holly Rose about a potential partnership with her and the Greylock team.
Dreamscape is an entirely new division, entirely focused on creating more opportunities for black representation in tech.
This launch is dedicated to ensuring that there is black leadership represented on the boards and on the executive teams as some of the most important companies and investment firms and technology that are being built right now.
We started this division in 2020, and essentially we spent the first nine months entirely focused on building network building relationships.
The firm had always had strong relationships in the black executive community, but we wanted to take a beat to expand our aperture and also identify talent outside of our network and work on uncovering who is the next generation of black leaders: people who are rising through the director ranks and in the next few years will be ready to step into VP and C level roles.
We spent the better part of 2020, really doing this work. We did not talk about this externally. We did not actively seek out client engagements, but we did invest a ton of time and a ton sources into making sure that we really had a solid network as the foundation of the project.
Then, come late 2020, early 2021, we started to actively look for clients and partners who were aligned with our mission that could help us actually put the work into motion by creating connections and opportunities for these black executives in our network.
When we were thinking about how to partner externally, we decided on two avenues to start. The first being, direct partnerships with clients to add black representation to their boards. The second being, partnerships with venture firms to help them close their network gap.
When we were in this network building mode last year, we realized that all too often, when we’d have these introductory conversations with executives. When we’d ask them, do you have relationships with partners or talent partners in the venture community? Nine times out of 10 the answer was no.
What we wanted to do was figure out a way that we could build a bridge between the black talent in the industry and the venture communities as they build their portfolio companies. Whether it be for a role that’s open right now, or a role that’s open three months from now. We had conversations with 10 to 15 of the top venture firms and Greylock was wildly enthusiastic about coming on board.
Then, in terms of where we’re at in our life cycle, we’ve kind of got our early proof of concept at this point. We’ve proven we can do it and as we look at the next chapter, it’s really about scaling this impact. Which is why we recruited Clint to join us.
Well, Clint, that’s your cue. Tell us about your new role. I’d love to hear also a little bit more about your background of how you worked up to this.
Right, thank you. My background started almost 25 years ago. I was fortunate to be at Korn Ferry as they were creating and launching their first ever diversity practice. I played a role in helping to drive that initiative on a global scale. What that really led to was a professional life of being very focused on and around executives, diversity in executives.
Most importantly for me, was that the outcome, not just the search, not just the slate, but that the outcome, the winning candidate would be a diverse candidate. That kind of calling card became part of what I did.
In reference to the role, Daversa is an organization that has been known for going above and beyond kind of stepping out into areas that others have not. This opportunity felt like the right opportunity at the right time with the right kind of organization who was really saying, “How do we go about actually making an impact? Not talking about it, but really executing on what so many others are simply talking about.”
That’s really kind of where I’ve come from and what led me to be attracted to the Dreamscape opportunity.
Why did you land on this model as it means to expand representation in leadership positions? How does the tech and VC ecosystem tie into everything?
Yeah, in today’s world, I think venture firms play a huge role in building teams and surfacing talent for their portfolio company. If I’m a founder, I turn to my investors first, when I’m thinking about making an executive level or board level higher, because they have incredibly powerful networks. They don’t always have incredibly diverse networks.
I think more so now than ever before, there truly is this demand and this will, and this want to change. I think there’s a whole spectrum of clients and venture firms out there who are at 100% on the readiness scale when it comes to figuring out it’s time to figure out how to do it. We wanted to capitalize on that.
If I may, I want to talk about the backdrop to all this.
"If you want to see more Black leadership at scale (in companies being built in the venture ecosystem) there needs to be bridge between the talent and the venture community, so that they're in the room on these opportunities. We feel as though that's really the missing link in many ways."
Right. Let’s talk a little bit more about the venture side.
Holly Rose, you lead executive talent recruiting for Greylock, and expanding representation has been a huge area of focus of your work. Working with Daversa and Dreamscape is a great example of the ways that firms are taking a much more active approach.
How does a firm go about figuring out how to get involved with organizations like Daversa. How does it help you do your job?
The first question, Heather, in terms of the assessment of the program, myself and the Dreamscape team had a very open and honest conversation around why this is important to each party involved and to make sure we were aligned.
What I really respected in my dialogue with the Dreamscape team is that it wasn’t the focus on how they can work with Greylock, but Dreamscape evaluated us to make sure we would be good partners to them and the executives that they have relationships with.
Beyond some of their more recent relationships, they have years and years of relationships with executives and hold those really valuable to their firm. Neither of us viewed this as a transactional partnership and very much wanted to be on the same page for how we wanted to help change the startup ecosystem to have more executive teams and boards with black representation.
If there was a firm out there thinking, “Hey, the Dreamscape team would be a great partner to us,” – to what Michelle said earlier – [it allows you] to really kind of hold the mirror up to yourselves and to make sure this is something you’re really committed to.
To the second part of the question, for the executive talent function at Greylock: diversity’s talked about in every search and we recognize we can have an impact in helping to close the network gap. We are believers that change comes from more than one person, company, or firm. Having an external thought partner has been incredibly valuable in getting to know black executives that otherwise weren’t on our radar.
In addition to that, our partnership has given us the opportunity to have raw and honest discussions of how our industry needs to do better, but also a deeper understanding of the point of view of the executive. That’s been incredibly valuable to both myself, my team, and the broader Greylock firm as a whole.
What is the process and approach for searching for a board member? When you are working proactively with an organization like Daversa, what does that look like?
I think sometimes there’s this misconception that it’s about checking a box because of some of the requirements that are starting to happen. But it’s much bigger and broader than that.
I’d say that’s one of the first places that we start – helping our companies understand the value that exists in having diverse representation on the board.
I’ll turn it over to Michelle and Clinton because I know they too approach pretty directly with founder CEOs when they’re doing searches as well. They’ll be working hand in hand with them too.
Yeah. I think in general, tech as a whole needs support in learning how to do exactly that. How do we run an inclusive process? The Dreamscape approach to how we go about a board search is a lot more consultative than a traditional search. There’s a lot more education and enablement in bringing people along for the journey.
Our major framework is actually pretty simple. It centers around what we call the Two I’s. The first being inclusivity: being inclusive about where you’re sourcing candidates, the way that you scope the profile. That makes a huge difference in who you are actually able to recruit for the role.
Then the second, is intentionality, right? Being intentional about making black representation, a centerpiece of the process because these outcomes don’t happen by accident, right? You need to curate your entire process to ensure that you’re going to get the outcome that you want.
If I could just piggyback there. I think the next question that comes up is, “Why Black only?” Even when I first heard about Dreamscape, I said to myself, “Can you really do this if you only focus on black representation?”
What I’ve come to understand is really two things: Daversa has a history of being brutally intentional. We pick a problem, we apply all of our resources, and we guarantee an outcome. Candidly:that’s how we do search.
The second thing is, in the context of diversity, Black executives are the most underrepresented in boardrooms and leadership teams. We wanted to take it head-on and we decided that now was the time. Some might say we’re crazy for being this narrowly focused on black representation.
Candidly, not every potential partner we’ve spoken to was willing to jump into this with us. Those aren’t the right partners for us. Others have even called us gluttons for punishment. We feel if we’re going to take something like this on, it may as well be something that no other firm would sign up to do. We want to be the game changer.
Brutally intentional. I love that. That’s great. Could you walk us through any examples? What does this look like in practice?
We are really proud to finally be able to talk about some of the work that’s been happening behind the scenes. We’ve had kind of a cascade of announcements over the last couple weeks, but we announced Thasunda Duckett Brown, CEO of TIAA, to the board of Brex. Dara Treseder, the SVP of marketing at Peloton is joining the board of Robinhood. We’ve also placed the chief legal officer at Gusto, a woman by the name of Alyssa Harvey Dawson, to the board of App Lovin.
The board work was really the short term play. How do we make an impact right now? Our longer term play is really the second avenue when it comes to venture partnerships.
Obviously, Robinhood’s mission is How do we democratize finance for underserved, under-banked populations? It was super important to them that, as they were thinking about building their board, there was more representation to reflect that mission.
When we kicked off the search, we scoped the role really inclusively to make sure that we could find their perfect board director. Traditional board profiles are pretty limiting. Historically, only sitting or retired CEOs or CFOs are candidates that have access to these types of opportunities. That is not traditionally a very diverse population. If a company’s really serious about bringing more diversity onto their boards, the profile of a board director has to expand.
In the case of Robinhood, we decided that brand and that marketing were super important. It was a perspective that they really wanted to have on their board. That became our avenue for engaging with Dreamscape candidates for the seat.
We went through a similar process with AppLovin. They decided one of the areas where they could really use an additional voice on their board was legal compliance and data governance, given the nature of their business. That’s how we ended up bringing on someone who’s a chief legal officer to the board.
I think one thing that’s been really interesting over the last year is we’ve become really passionate about taking on clients where there are multiple open board seats. When it’s not one seat with the pressure of multiple diversity requirements – must be a person of color, must be a woman – it gives the search team the flexibility to be more thoughtful about how we can partner with you to design your board in a way that actually lifts up new board talent.
Robinhood and AppLovin are two super influential, important, $30 billion plus market cap companies who deviated from the norm that we see other companies get stuck in. Most founders are trying to optimize for “Been there, Done that,” in every role on their executive team. They look to their board as a safety net for that. If this person’s done it before, then they are going to be my safety net that can help me get to the next level. If some of the highest flying companies in the world, like Robinhood, can think differently about that, I think it sets a tone in the standard for the others that are up and coming at this time. That they have permission to think differently about what they look for in their board directors.
That’s great. Overall, how do we think of about the next generation of board directors really intentionally?
I think if you solely look at macro population trends yes, statistically there is a shortage of black leadership to fill these potential board roles. That hasn’t entirely been our experience with what’s going on right now in tech.
I think people at large have used the pipeline problem tagline as more of an excuse for what’s a lack of willingness to put in the work and to think more creatively about how to leverage the amazing black talent that is actually out there. Our approach right now is about how do we create the right networks, the right connections for executives, while elevating the next generation of black leaders.
Yeah. Board rooms, 10 years from now, will look very different than they do now, both in terms of diversity of color, of gender, but also in terms of background, and functional expertise, and archetype. That next generation of board talent is being built right now.
"Board experience, ultimately, cannot be the prerequisite for a board role if we want to truly create this kind of change. Collectively, we need to create a system that fully engages and lifts up this next and new generation of directors. My hope, very selfishly, is that one day soon we're living in a world where venture firms are so diverse that we're building diverse boards from the start."
Where founders really think about this earlier in a company’s life cycle and we have more directors willing to give up their seats to build more diverse boards, period.
Yeah, I think in general, there’s a lot of work to do, right? Even right now, every pre IPO company in tech is trying to add diversity to their boards. For the most part, they’ve been built exclusively up to this point. As they move towards being a public company, they want to add one seat to their board. They look around the room at who’s currently on the board and they realize they need to hire a woman and it also needs to be a woman of color.
There’s this whole generation of amazing executives who happen to be black men who are not getting calls on the types of board opportunities that they deserve because of this phenomena. Even as the industry takes huge steps towards inclusivity, there’s still exclusivity here. It’s a direct result of how long this has been going on and how systemically boards have been built in a non-diverse way.
I think that the one build I would have from working with Dreamscape (and also my perspective from Greylock) is over the last year there’s been more education to portfolio companies, founders, and boards around looking at executives that aren’t in the tech ecosystem.
I think there’s been a historical mindset of – or I guess you could call it the tunnel vision of thinking – “Well, who’s an executive that knows tech and has been there and done that before?” There is more of a push and a conservative effort of helping people recognize that executives from kind of tangential industries are as exceptional as executives that come from tech industries. I’m seeing much more of a shift in that mentality, which allows companies who have that mindset to tap into executives they otherwise wouldn’t have crossed paths with.
Yeah, Holly Rose, I think you’re spot on. There is a huge component of this that is about education. I agree with you. We agree with you that we are seeing entities across the board who are becoming more receptive to opening the aperture and looking at profiles that, as you said, two, three, five years ago, would not have even been considered.
As we see more of those individuals find their way to board seats and begin to have positive impact with significant outcomes, I agree with you. I think that’s part of what’s going to help us move the needle throughout our collective industry.
Ultimately, there is no shortage of work to be done. It’s why we signed up to do it. This is why we selfishly are so grateful to partner with clients like Greylock and Holly Rose, because we can’t solve it alone. We’re going to all have to band together and we’re going to have to figure out how to be relentless in creating a more inclusive ecosystem in tech.
I think that under our “2I ” concept: it starts with inclusivity at the top and it includes being, again, brutally intentional in each step, in each decision that we make.
I think also the greatest ideas and the greatest change that we see globally are often fostered at the venture level. We’re not seeing the mammoth, 100 year old companies, create game changing technologies and delivering game changing opportunities to industry. Our position is that if the companies we’re doing business with already are the game changers of tomorrow, they’ve got a great opportunity to also be the game changers around diversity.
Everyone, thank you so much for joining me here today. It sounds like you’re all doing excellent work that is so needed, right now and always.
Thanks again for joining us today on Greymatter.
Thank you for having us.
Thank you very much.