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Gender Imbalance Rife at PE Portfolio Companies

By Alexandra Garfinkle

In 2018, 5% of Fortune 500 companies had a female chief executive, and in 2019 the S&P 500’s CEO pool was also roughly 5% women. Such figures on public companies have resonated with many as lawmakers, activist groups and others striving to make changes at public companies.

But the private segment of the corporate world, filled with private equity, venture capital and family-owned businesses has gotten less attention. However, recent data from BoardEx, a relationship mapping service and sister company of The Deal, suggests that the private sector is disappointingly on par with the public sector in terms of female representation at the very top of the corporate ladder.

The BoardEx analysis looked at 12, 221 privately-held businesses, owned by just over 1,000 PE and venture capital firms globally — though nearly 75% of the companies surveyed were based in either the United States or the United Kingdom. Of those 12,221 companies, only 897, or 7%, had female CEOs.

Despite the overall numbers, some PE and VC firms are actively looking to amp up their female leadership.

Some private pools of capital have an emphasis on cultivating female CEOs, including New York-based VC Great Oaks Venture Capital, Comcast Ventures, Kapor Capital, Omidyar Network and Collaborative Fund.

Additionally, specific firms do report higher numbers of women in executive roles. For instance, New York-based General Atlantic’s portfolio company management teams are composed of about 25% women and, across its portfolio, about 10% of its CEOs are female, a firm spokesperson told The Deal.

The women who do become the CEOs of PE-held companies often “create the opportunities, and therefore are taking the [CEO] role,” said Elana Drell Szyfer, CEO of ReVive Skincare LLC, which is backed by Tengram Capital Partners LLC.

And Drell Szyfer, who worked for decades at L’Oreal SA then Estee Lauder Cos. Inc. (EL), knows — she partnered with Tengram to carve-out ReVive from Shiseido Americas Corp., a subsidiary of Shiseido Co. Ltd. for an undisclosed sum in November 2017.

Drell Szyfer left her SVP job at Estee Lauder for the chance to run smaller brands.

“I think the likelihood of me becoming brand president at Estee Lauder was high, but my likelihood of becoming a CEO was non-existent,” she said.

Prior to her tenure at ReVive, Drell Szyfer held the top spot at Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories Ltd. and Tengram’s Laura Geller Beauty LLC, which she led to a successful exit to Warburg Pincus LLC- backed Glansaol LLC in December 2016.

So, does Drell Szyfer think the corporate model in its current incarnation serves women?

“It serves women much more than it used to,” she said.  “[But] I don’t know if that translates to opportunities for women to become CEOs.”

While there are a number of organizations that are helping place women in senior levels of management, others are more focused on placing women in MBA programs and positions that could lead to a top executive role down the road.

The 30% Club, for instance, a nonprofit that primarily helps place women on corporate boards, also has so-called “pipeline initiatives” that, among other things, coordinate with business schools to offer scholarships to women in senior executive, MBA, Executive MBA and other masters programs.

Janice Ellig, CEO of inclusion-focused executive search firm Ellig Group, told The Deal that private equity will be able to shift gender inequality in their portfolio companies when firms prioritize looking for leaders outside their own existing networks.

“I don’t do much searching in private equity,” she said. “But some of the larger search firms have people who have come out of private equity and now are doing search in private equity. So they have those contacts, but it’s not moving very fast at all. It’s still very much a male group of leaders who know each other.”