CEO STORIES: Cortney Stapleton, Exponent Women | Raising Women’s Deal-Making Power
Cortney Stapleton, a partner at Bliss Integrated Communications and a founder of networking group Exponent Women, talks about the group’s goals, the importance of “the ask,” and why inclusivity matters.
Exponent Women was founded by ten women from various backgrounds who had done business together with the goal of providing a “safe space” for women to deepen their professional ties. Studies show that women tend to segment their relationships and are often reluctant to mix friendship and business. Exponent encourages women to better leverage their networks, rethink boundaries, and be upfront about what they’re looking for professionally.
In contrast to groups that merely facilitate expanding their networks, Exponent makes it clear that it’s not just okay, but imperative, to go for “the ask.” The advantage of having senior women with experience in deal making is that they are all in a position to potentially work together and make things happen. Stapleton also points out that women need to set know the right time to go from offering advice and just brainstorming to asking to be paid for the value of their expertise and experience.
Originally focused on the East Coast, Exponent has expanded its footprint geographically and otherwise thanks to the pandemic and the elimination of in-person events. An adjunct organization, Momentum, will be focused on more junior women and offer mentoring. Women – and men – from different parts of the country are participating in events, and Exponent prides itself on having been focused on inclusion and diversity from its inception several years ago. In terms of deal making, the sector that is garnering the greatest interest now is healthcare.
This Is Capitalism: CEO Stories: Courtney Stapleton, Founder, Exponent Women
POC: Hi, I’m Patricia O’Connell and I’m here with Courtney Stapleton who is a Partner at Bliss Integrated Communications and one of the Founders of Exponent Women.
CS: Hi, Patricia. Thanks for having me.
POC: Well, it’s always good to talk to you, Courtney. And today we’re going to talk about your role with Exponent Women and what that’s about. First tell us what Exponent is and what the mission is.
CS: Exponent Women is an organization that I founded with a group of nine other women, there’s ten of us. And it really was to bring together and create an organization for senior women in the deal-making community. A large percentage of our women are in the private equity space but it’s really any woman who is part of the deal-making spectrum. And we wanted to give them a place for content but also for like-minded women to partner and to change the face of deal- making, literally.
POC: How is it different from another kind of networking group?
CS: One of the things that we thought about when we set out to start was, we wanted a place for senior women to come together in a trusted environment. All ten of us had done business with each other and then, of course, brought our networks together to be a little more overt about the networking.
There are organizations that are focused on younger women early in their careers and in a male- dominated sector; there are large organizations that are very focused on content. We really wanted to focus on the networking aspect and be overt about it and say, “Bring your ask. Come to the group, we’ve all done business, we trust each other, a lot of deals have been made, a lot of people have been working together and hired to do various pieces of deal making within our group.”
What we set out to do was to be very clear and bring these like-minded women together to have a deeper, more meaningful experience in the group.
POC: Why did you think it was important to make it about women coming together as opposed to “Here’s a group of ten people who I’ve done business with, we have all worked together, let’s figure out a way to really connect with our networks?” I assume “exponent” comes from the idea of hoping to drive exponential growth for all of you?
CS: It’s two things: It’s driving exponential growth but really raising women to a new power – bringing together and exponentially raising women’s power within this industry.
We started it focused on women for two reasons. One, the more obvious reason is these are very male-dominated industries for the most part – finance, private equity, even law-firm services for folks, consulting services for folks who are in and around this community – all of them are very heavily weighted toward men. So, we wanted to make sure that women had a voice and that they met other like-minded, senior women within these organizations.
The second reason we focused on women is because there’s been lots of studies done on networking in general and women in particular and we believe that you don’t really see networking the same way for women. Men, when they network, tend to have the same group – the folks maybe that they went to college with and that they play golf with and that they do business with and they go to the gym with. They all tend to be some of the same folks.
For women, it’s been shown that women have their gym friends, their college friends, maybe the friends they grew up with, and their mommy friends, and their work friends. They have different groups of friends and they don’t always cross, they don’t always feel comfortable with a friend that they might have a personal relationship with trending into the business sector. They tend to keep their networks a little more separate and because of that their network isn’t always as free and open from a business perspective. But a lot of these women have all these other roles as well as being very high-powered women in their fields.
POC: It’s kind of ironic that on one hand it sounds women probably have in a way stronger and bigger networks.
CS: Yes, they often do.
POC: But they are not as good at really leveraging those networks.
CS: Right, they’re not good at leveraging the networks and they’re not good at making the ask. It feels sometimes uncomfortable. They want to be more personal and have a deeper relationship but they don’t always then feel comfortable bringing that to a more professional level because it feels more surface sometimes when they’re thinking about their careers, even though the careers of women are deeply personal to them.
We’re just trying to open the door to allow them almost a safe space to be able to do that and talk about their careers and what they are passionate about and find other women who feel the same way and then do business together.
POC: When you talk about the ask, how are you making it clear to women that that’s really what you are trying to get them to do? It’s just the opposite of the polite “Let’s exchange information, maybe get together at some point for coffee” – back when people could get together for coffee or a drink. Obviously, I was having a little bit of a flashback there. But how do you make them comfortable with the notion of it really is okay to ask, if that’s something that women tend to be less comfortable doing?
CS: We all facilitate it and we straight up say it. In all of our networking events, when they were in person, it was easy – we would talk about it. Now that they are online, it’s just as easy. We have the main event of the content and then we break into breakout rooms. And one of us, usually a founder, is in the room virtually and we say, “Okay, we’ve got 15 minutes, introduce yourself, say who you are, what you do, and what your main ask is, what you’re looking for.”
It’s amazing. Once you give them the window, they are able to do it. And I have had just as many, if not more virtual meetings and coffees and get together online, on Zoom and Teams, from those virtual get-togethers after our main event than I have when they were in person. And people feel very comfortable talking about it.
We have also had some events where we’ve had women who have written books and are facilitators and dealing with very senior women for their careers and have done workshops on making the ask. And those have been really effective as well.
One of the things that we focus on at Exponent too is bringing women together in inspiring spaces – so not as much corporate office spaces for events but really nice, cozy, well-designed. We once had a massive space downtown that had a piano in a sunken living room and we had a networking event there. And it was very cool. We try to also bring women together in inspiring spaces.
POC: Do you have any sense of the breadth or depth of the deals that have been done, that have come out of the networking and literally the asking that you’re not asking them to do, you’re telling them it’s okay to do?
CS: We are working on quantifying that but we know it’s in the millions. I know of one deal that happened very early on of a woman who met another woman and they came together, had a deal, and it was an immediate $1.5 million fee, commission fee, for her and her firm. That was interesting. There’s been deals involving millions of dollars and people looking for buyers for companies, funds, portfolio companies, buy, sell transactions, all sorts of stuff.
We also have a lot of testimonials that are on our site and others of women who have talked about – some of them have to be anonymous because of their firms’ requirements – but we have several who have talked about what they’ve gotten out of Exponent already. In the future we’re hoping to be able to quantify some of those deals in dollars.
POC: What have you gotten out of it? I’m not asking in terms of specific business that you’ve gotten out of it or specific dollar amounts. What have you seen that it has done for you not only as the founder but on the level of having asks or asks being made of you?
CS: Obviously my main work is in marketing-communications and integrative marketing so I have had lots of asks about…marketing and public relations on behalf of organizations and on behalf of individual women, helping them raise their profiles, using LinkedIn, etc. But I think one of the things I’ve gotten out of it is I’ve brought in my own network and it has become very exciting and interesting.
I am a little bit different, I’m not in the private equity world but I’ve worked with a lot of private equity clients. I know investment banking, I know lawyers, I know consultants, accountants. I’ve worked in and around people who are around deal making for over 20 years.
I do a lot of connecting of people and I always make sure that when I have a networking coffee – virtual coffee now – after an event, I come out with at least one to three things that I’m going to do to help that person. My own personal mantra is I’m going to come out of that coffee figuring out how I can help them do something, connect to someone. And so, I have been very focused on that. And I think it has been fun and I’ve broadened the network and I’ve gotten to meet a lot of really, really incredible women. And I’ve kept in touch with them and that’s been really fun.
Also, a couple of things coming out of it too is a lot of additional speaking spots, coming into companies, helping them with executive visibility, or helping them think through their own marketing. There has been a lot of that as well.
POC: Have you been seeing any trends in the types of deals that are being done?
CS: We have a lot of events actually focused on that. We just had an event about looking at the COVID world and in the economy, what deals will be done, the fact that deals are starting to pick up, that some of them hadn’t fallen off the way that some people thought.
Our upcoming area is going to be focused on healthcare. Obviously, healthcare is a very hot sector right now, technology is a very hot. So, surprisingly there are a lot of deals getting done and a lot of people looking to do more deals.
Coming into COVID and coming into the beginning of the year we had billions in dry powder. So, I think a lot of that is still there. It has slowed down but in some sectors it has picked up and the economy has been…it’s been in interesting things. We’ve been able to have some events with some female economists come in and talk about what the different triggers are that will impact – in addition to the election – that will impact the deal making.
POC: Do you sense that there’s been any reluctance or any fear or any hesitation about deal making in this environment?
CS: I think deal making is always something that folks are cautious, are very judicious when they think about the people that they want around the table when they sit down to make a deal. I don’t think that has changed. If anything, you’re probably right, it has gotten a little bit deeper, people really want to make sure that they know the people sitting around the table and that they are trusted.
Other than wanting to be around the table with people that they trust, people also want to be around the table with people that they like. That hasn’t changed. But I do think in this virtual environment that does help. I think because you are not able to sit across from the person, mana a mana, it’s even more important that you feel a trusted connection or you trust the people just as much because everything is virtual now.
POC: Do you have any sense of women being able to take away a stronger sense of it being okay to go for the ask in their dealings outside of this group? I’m even wondering if you have felt a stronger sense of empowerment now for actually making an ask beyond the group or in dealings with people who are not connected do Exponent?
CS: Yeah, I think I have felt more comfortable with my ask. I think the more you’re around other senior women and you’re talking to them at a level where you’re trying to get to know them but you’re also comfortable saying what you do professionally and making the ask and saying “Here’s what I really want, if you come across anybody who is looking for X, Y and Z, give me a call, I’m happy to use talk to them.”
A lot of what I do is chat with people, give advice. Advice is free. I’m happy to sit with people, talk about their pain points and talk about why they may not be ready or if I’m not a good fit I know other people who might be. I think that I have become more comfortable with an ask and being very overt about what I’m looking for and asking them what they’re looking for and really pulling it out of them if they’re not comfortable.
Exponent becomes a space and a catalyst for women to be able to do that in their own offices, in their own environments, and in their work life beyond the people that they’re meeting at Exponent Women.
POC: Here’s a question that isn’t necessarily specific to Exponent but it ties into something that you said– advice is free. I think it is not uncommon for women to give too much for free, not charging beyond an initial consultation fee, not recognizing that it’s okay to monetize a situation, recognizing that their brains are not there to be picked over ad nauseam to the benefit of another party.
What advice would you give about when is the right time to either stop asking for too much for free or on the other side, when is the appropriate time to start saying to someone maybe it’s time we moved to a more formal arrangement here?
CS: It is important…because I think everyone wants to connect, right? Even in this environment people want to connect as much as possible and so they want to keep those connections alive and give advice. And I think that there has to be a very clear line for every person when that advice then becomes paid for.
Within Exponent there are a lot of, as I mentioned, private-equity and women bankers and such. So some of that is making connections, making introductions, there are very clear lines within that of what is paid for and what is not. For the women in Exponent or just generally who are in service industries, like mine in marketing or in legal services or consulting, I think the lines can be a little bit more blurred.
It’s important that women think if they are going to put down specific ideas to help someone move their business forward, I think that it’s okay to say, “Look, I feel like this relationship has moved to more of a consultative phase and we have a service offering or we charge for those kinds of services. We’d be happy to put plans together.”
When I’m going to start putting pen to paper on something vs. just conceptually throwing out a bunch of idea at lunch or a virtual conversation, to me, that’s when it becomes fee-based and those kinds of outcomes and plans should be paid for. But I do think you’re right – women, in the desire to connect, sometimes can give away too much.
A lot of people like the ideas but when it moves to an implementation phase that’s another place that you could also charge for is if it’s going to become real. If it’s going to go from conceptual to actually something happening, that is an obvious place too to say, “Hey, we can help you do that. You like that idea? That’s great, we can help you make that a reality, but then it moves to more of a professional fee for service relationship.”
POC: So there’s two kinds of asks. There’s the I would like to get your business and then there’s also the it’s time you start paying me for my business. So, it strikes me that it’s important that women understand that the ask goes both ways.
CS: For sure. The ask definitely goes both ways. I can’t really think of a situation that I have been in where that has come up in a way where either party has felt taken advantage of. It has felt very natural. I think maybe as women become more comfortable with this ask and the lines have blurred so deeply between our personal and professional lives – you’re doing Zooms and you’re seeing people’s offices, living rooms, kids, dogs, pets – you know, I think that it has actually become even easier to be able to be really clear about where those lines are drawn.
POC: Is Exponent local or do you have different chapters? Because I’m imagining that one advantage to being in a more virtual world now is being able to bring in women from all over.
CS: Exponent Women started with an East Coast focus. We said we were the largest senior women deal-making-focused organization on the East Coast. And we did have women who flew in from Chicago and a few from California for our events.
That has been the best thing as far as the shut down and the disallowance of everyone being able to come together is that we have been able to broaden to be national or international. We have had tons of women who had wanted to attend events and hadn’t been able to fly here to be able to join the events. And so we have a lot of women from California, we have a lot of women from the Midwest, all sorts of places, anywhere.
We actually also interestingly have started a new sector within Exponent Women, it is just being launched, called Momentum, for more junior women. We’re partnering with some women in Atlanta right now to have a virtual event that is focused on more junior women looking for that senior-woman mentorship and also looking to exactly where we’re focused, which is in that deal- making spectrum because it is a bit broader. And so that is a new thing that we have been able to put together and start in this pandemic.
POC: How are you delineating senior vs. junior?
CS: Junior women are starting out in their careers. They may have been somewhere anywhere from two to ten years within their various sector, within the deal-making community. Senior women, most of our senior women, have definitely been in the industry for a couple of decades and are working their way up.
POC: Is it more self-selected?
CS: Yes, it’s definitely self-selected. We aren’t saying, “Oh no, you’re only whatever age, you’re in this group.” Not at all. We are very inclusive, you can come to Exponent Women as someone who is more junior, that’s fine, but we just want it to be specific about a couple of… there had been other groups of younger women very starting out in their career, anywhere from one to three years, and we thought we wanted to just do something that was a little more targeted and specific to them.
So we are hoping to do an event every quarter that is part of the Momentum series that’s just going to be focused on topics that those women that are more junior in their careers would find valuable.
POC: You brought up the I word, Courtney – “inclusive.”
CS: Oh, yes.
POC: You were talking about being inclusive in terms of wanting to reach women at all levels of their careers. But inclusion is a big issue right now, inclusion in a lot of ways – trying to attract diversity, women of color, LGBTQI. What is your experience with having a diverse group from that perspective?
CS: Every panel we have at our Exponent Exchange – which is our big event that we have every year – always has very diverse speakers both from persons of color as well as LGBTQ. That has been something that we’ve always been very focused on. And we encourage them to talk about deals and investing in segments that are particularly focused there, as well. That’s something that in our very first events we brought to light and wanted people to be talking about that. So it’s something that we have always felt was really important and continue to focus on.
POC: I’m going to ask you briefly to put on your communications hat, Courtney. Just from a communications perspective, you devise marketing plans for companies, Bliss Integrated obviously speaks to the fact that you do all kinds of marketing in different mediums, you do marketing in all kinds of media, all kinds of companies. From your perspective as a marketing person, a senior person in marketing, what is the importance of diversity?
CS: I couldn’t stress the importance of it enough. So it’s diversity in every meaning of the word. It’s diversity of thought, it’s diversity of background, of skin color, of experience, of incomes, it is every type of diversity. Because peoples’ clients, I mean, our clients are professional services, financial services, and healthcare companies, so they’re speaking to everyone – the big banks, the big healthcare companies that we represent, they are speaking to everybody.
Their campaigns need to be for everybody. So we do a lot of both internal comms and external comms coaching folks on making sure that the voices that they are putting forward in the media or the content that they’re putting forward or how they are speaking to their employees is all very focused on inclusion of everyone.
POC: I imagine that this is something that you and your firm have been focused on for a long time.
CS: Oh yeah, this isn’t new. I think, yes, with the movement of Black Lives Matter, it has brought a lot of things to the forefront but this is something that has been important in the communications space for a long time.
POC: Why do you think other people are coming around to it now and how do you make sure – and I think this also relates to Exponent as well – how do you make sure that people aren’t just checking boxes or giving lip service to the idea of diversity and inclusion or it’s not this year’s cause and next year everyone is going to be focused on something else?
CS: I think it’s very obvious if someone is paying lip service or not. In the past it might have been easier to pay lip service and say “we are focused on diversity.” It’s not anymore. I think people are focused on it and should be and are holding people accountable. Because brands can’t just have ESR and pro bono campaigns and things. People look to brands to stand for something but they are not judging them on what they stand for, they are judging them on what they do.
Actions are speaking much louder than words at the moment. And people are looking to brands to find out, “Okay, I kind of get what you stand for but what have you done lately in that area?” And they will no longer believe them if they can’t back it up with actions vs. just the words. And I think that that will not change going forward. I think that’s here to stay.
POC: It strikes me then that there is a different level of accountability around action?
POC: Do you think that’s in part because we also live in a more transparent world because of social media – you can look up anything you want about any company or any individual?
CS: The world has become completely transparent. And it’s so transparent now that you can see people’s living rooms and what people do on Zoom, right?
It’s completely blurred. Everything. But even in the news media, right? There was an article I read not that long ago that said everyone’s a journalist and why that’s a problem. But I think that there are opportunities now for people to watchdog and to take brands to task and all of your information is out there. So, I think people really have to be walking the walk because if you’re just talking the talk, people will know and they’ll be able to call you on it.
I guess the good news on that is brands can communicate with their audiences much more easily too. So, they can talk to them more directly and I think that that is also something that I guess is the flip side of what you were saying, which can be helpful and they can be taken to task but they can also be lauded for their efforts.
POC: What do you want Exponent Women to be accountable for and the actions for it to be known for?
CS: We really want people to know what we are trying to do, that we’re trying to bring these women together, we want to highlight now many people it takes to make a deal successful, right? It isn’t just two folks over a handshake. There’s a whole group of people, there’s a whole spectrum of people, making this deal successful.
We are trying to bring people together to widen their circle of trust. Particularly in this day and age and what everyone is dealing with right now, it’s really important to be doing business with people you trust. So, we are hoping that Exponent will allow people to meet more people that they can bring into that circle of trust to get deals done and to do work in the most forward thinking, positive, innovative light that they can.
POC: I realize the name of the organization is Exponent Women but is there any role for men in this organization?
CS: Absolutely. We have had men at most events, certainly the Exchange, we’ve had many men who have come. And like any women’s organization, you need men to be a part of it. You need men to be a part of the change, you need men to be a part of the dialogue and the deal-making community has a lot of men. And so we encourage men.
A lot of our sponsor organizations have men who have attended and really have found the events to be quite even and equal. When we say we’re focused on diversity, that also means men too who can come and listen and part of the conversation.
POC: Do you think going forward that the focus will remain on deal making, which is both broad and narrow, if you will, as opposed to branching out into other aspects of business? You did say with Momentum that there would probably be a mentoring aspect to it.
CS: We’ll think about where the organization and the women who are part of it take us. So originally, we had always thought about connecting with younger women in their careers but it wasn’t a focus. Now, three years later, it is.
I think if our community within Exponent brings us to another avenue or another place or a specialty where we add to those getting more narrow within the deal-making community then maybe. But right now, deal making feels broad enough for us and the women seem to be liking that distinction and that that’s enough.
But we may branch out even further in the future. I would love nothing more than to keep expanding and bringing women to a higher power and thinking about what that means for us and for them because really this organization is for them.
POC: Courtney, where can people find more information about Exponent Women?
CS: They can find information on our website. And we also have a LinkedIn channel.
POC: Which the website is Exponentwomen.com?
CS: Yes. Exponentwomen.com. And they can find out about our events and upcoming events or they can look up Exponent Women on LinkedIn and follow us there.
POC: Courtney, thank you so much for sharing your time and your thoughts about Exponent Women and driving women to the next level of power in deal making.
CS: Awesome. Thanks so much for the opportunity, Patricia.
About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.
About Patricia O’Connell: Patricia O’Connell serves as Editor in Chief of “This Is Capitalism,” a content site sponsored by Stephens Inc., and is host of the site’s podcast series, “CEO Stories.” Patricia, a former editor at BusinessWeek and a New York Times best-selling author, brings her experience as a journalist and her passion for storytelling to “This Is Capitalism.”