Boosting Female Representation on Private Equity Boards: A Discussion with Frontier Capital Growth Partner Mary Anne Mason

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Haley Cheek

Haley Cheek

Vice President of Investor Relations

April 04, 2019
Thought Leadership

Mary Anne Mason, a Frontier Growth Partner and the executive chair of Frontier portfolio company AccessOne, recently was recognized at the WBL National Summit as one of the Women of Inspiration and  Influence. The WBL is a premier network of female executives across the healthcare industry who come together to discuss opportunities and challenges facing the sectors they serve.

Mary Anne is particularly active and passionate about increasing the representation of women on boards and has led multiple discussions to offer female executives ideas to better position themselves for a seat. In July of last year, Mary Anne spoke to a room of accomplished women who sought corporate board seats with private equity-backed companies, and we were there to take notes.

Here are the top five tactics Mary Anne recommends to would-be female corporate board members (or anyone wishing to be nominated for a board seat).

  1. Network, Network … and Network Some More:  85% of board seats are filled through a personal recommendation and only 15% through search firms. So what does that tell us? You already know the person who will help you with your board aspirations. It’s about personal relationships, trust and one degree of separation. You have to make your aspirations known and you have to ask. Landing a board seat doesn’t happen overnight – or necessarily with the fifth or even the fifteenth meeting. It is about being consistent and persistent in meeting with not only decision makers but also influencers and connectors who can help broaden the network and at the same time, keeping potential referral and introduction sources in mind for your sponsors.
  2. Define One’s Personal Brand:  It’s important to understand your unique value proposition. What stories help define your experience with the age and stage of the portfolio company? What combination of knowledge and unique skills is missing from that board? What is it you bring that can’t just be hired into the company?
  3. Offer Assistance: Be proactive with projects, consulting engagements and generous with introductions to demonstrate skills and value while building trust with a private equity firm. This may pave the way for the relationship to deepen and to be on the short list for a future board seat. Answer the call for advice.
  4. Demonstrate Board Experience: In a similar vein, prior service on either a non-profit or other corporate board is invaluable in demonstrating your ability to add non-operational value and have an impact in an oversight role. Such board service also builds a resume and network while providing insights, relationships, and experience that will inform and strengthen your eventual work on a portfolio company board.
  5. Educate Yourself: Be sure you understand the role and responsibilities of a corporate board. Concepts like fiduciary responsibility and the duty to protect a company and its shareholders can be nuanced and challenging to apply in complex real-world situations. Having a good grasp of governance strengthens your ability to interview a private equity firm while they interview you – and to be able to answer the question: “Is this a position I would like to hold?” Remember, you have a reputational risk at stake. And you can’t just step back when times are tough. 

In her presentations, Mary Anne suggests that women who would like to consider joining corporate boards should have a willingness to package their skills and abilities in a way that is attractive to a board plus the willingness to actively seek a seat at the table.

Generally speaking, corporate boardrooms are taking on a new look in all respects – age, gender, race and ethnicity, and skill sets. New perspectives will offer new opportunities for companies as they look to grow their market share.

Research has shown that diversity efforts among non-public financial entities lag significantly behind public company efforts. Private equity data provider Preqin reported in late 2017 that just 4.1% of private equity portfolio company directors are women, a figure that trailed even the 5.8% female representation on hedge fund boards and the 6.0% among VC boards.

We see that having a variety of voices, opinions, and viewpoints in the boardroom have two primary positive effects:

  1. Adding underrepresented voices to a board’s conversations can introduce critical considerations and concepts into otherwise stale discussions of business direction and strategy
  2. A board’s ability to welcome those same voices into the conversation can alter debate dynamics, conversational direction, and ultimately improve a board’s performance.

Like Mary Anne, all of us at Frontier are committed to reaching the right diversity mix on our portfolio company boards. In particular, the voices of women are too often absent from the conversations that shape the oversight and direction of the fast-growing companies with which we work.


Mary Anne Mason has more than 30 years of experience helping healthcare companies grow, scale and exit successfully. Her experience spans whiteboard startups to large, publicly-traded companies including Caremark, Baxter International, and private equity-backed Axia Health Management (best known for the SilverSneakers Fitness Program).

Mary Anne currently works with the portfolio companies of growth equity firms, including Frontier’s AccessOne, to tackle strategic challenges, enhance go-to-market strategies, and connect with opportunities in the market to drive growth and build value, contributing as an advisor and board member.

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