585 Michele Ashby :
Corporate America is changing as women break through more glass ceilings… in management and executive leadership… yet big gaps remain … on corporate boards, where women make up only 20 percent of all directors. We’re going to talk about why this must change and how to change it.
I’m Melinda Wittstock and today on Wings of Inspired Business we meet an inspiring entrepreneur who has made it her mission to train 1000 women to take their place on corporate boards.
Michele Ashby is founder and CEO of two companies – ACE and Ashby Consulting Enterprises. She has 30 years of experience navigating the male dominated worlds of mining and finance, working her way up also as an independent corporate director and successful entrepreneur. She was named one of the Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Colorado.
Michele will be here in a minute … First…
Michele Ashby is your secret weapon if you’re an accomplished woman in business who now wants to open up a whole new world of opportunity with a paid seat on a board of directors.
Today we dig deep into how to navigate your way on to a board, what it takes – from networking to building your board resume – and much more.
Michele has herself been an independent director on six corporate boards since 2005, and she shares how she made that leap. Awarded one of the Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Business in Colorado for 2019 by Colorado Chamber of Commerce for Women, Michele is currently the Compensation Committee Chair and Audit Committee Chair on one public board and has formed and served as chair, trustee, or board member on numerous non-profit boards and trade association boards since 1988.
How has she done it? Michele’s experience includes over 25 years in finance, mining, energy, marketing, international business, organizational and strategic planning, working with hundreds of CEO’s of public and privately held companies and large institutional investors to improve values and capitalize major projects. She also founded an international trade association, the Denver Gold Group, serving on its board for over 18 years while CEO. She went on to form new company in 2005, working with resource and energy companies and major investors globally, before founding ACE, where she trains qualified women for corporate boards.
Her mission is to recruit 1000 women into lucrative corporate board seats – and today we learn how she’s doing it.
Let’s put on our wings with the inspiring Michele Ashby.
Melinda Wittstock: Michelle, welcome to Wings.
Michelle Ashby: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here with you, Melinda.
Melinda Wittstock: Well, I’m excited about your mission, because still after everything, women are still wildly unrepresentative on corporate boards no matter the size of the company. How are things changing? Where are we now? And where do you think we can be by when?
Michelle Ashby: Okay, great question. We do have a long way to go. On the Fortune 500 companies in the United States, and those are the largest companies trading on the public stock exchanges, we’re at about 20% women on boards. So, that means 80% are still men. My goal is to see parity. In other words, I want to see 50/50. Women inhabit… We’re half the population. And so, it makes sense that we should be half the leadership at the table. When we look at the Russell 3000, which are the smaller companies, but still publicly traded on the exchanges in the United States. We’re also at about 20%, and that number has come up since 2016 from 14%. So we’re making progress and there’s some increasing pressure from external sources to get more women on boards and more diversity by the way, minority men as well.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely. I imagine there are a number of blocks to this. What are the major ones? Is it just that women are invisible to the people who are making these decisions around boards? Or is it that women don’t really know how to get on boards or just that we’re not networked into the board selection process.
Michelle Ashby: Right. Yeah. On the first question, I think that that’s shifted a lot in the last three years because there’s so much more pressure on companies to have more women on their board. So, I would say the awareness of not having a woman on your board has been heightened significantly. So, that one, not as much as a block. The second, it may be more good old boy culture. They’re aware of it but they may not want it, that’s a different thing. And then, the second is about what do the women know? What I did was I interviewed about 200 women over 18 months, and this was from 2016 to 2017, to find out why aren’t there more women on boards? Why aren’t you on a board? And tell me about your career path.
And when I did that, what I learned was that there are these amazing women who have incredible backgrounds, but they don’t know how to get on board. So, they didn’t even know that a board was a paying gig. They didn’t know what a board was really like. So, they lacked that education, if you will. And it’s an informal education that I got from my mentors through my career. And so, that’s why I created this curriculum to help teach women what all those gaps are, to help them get ready, and to be able to walk into that room prepared and know what they’re getting into.
Melinda Wittstock: Michelle, what makes a great board member and what are the qualifications that women need to really be just a no-brainer for, say, a Fortune 500 company.
Michelle Ashby: For a Fortune 500 company, ideally you will be a woman who’s been running major projects or major corporations. You’re making decisions that are affecting potentially thousands, tens of thousands, or even 100,000 people who work for the company as well as big budgets. So, your P&Ls could be in the billions of dollars. You want to be able to not blink an eye when you’re making decisions in those particular size of entities, if that makes sense. As we get smaller, the same could be said, right? If you’re a pro at startups, a startup might be the right place for you to be on the board in the right sector. And of course you want to have that industry experience or expertise that they’re looking for. So, let’s say you’re a cyber security expert and I’m in mining, and we need a cyber security expert at our table, but you don’t have the mining background. We may make an exception because we need your expertise to help us be a better corporation. Does that make sense?
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely, it does. Well, that cross-fertilization, if you will, is vital. I mean, I’ve just learned that growing businesses from idea to eight figures, right? And in that case, the more I can bring in a real diversity of expertise on my team, and I don’t mean only diversity of men, and Black and Brown people, and LGBTQ, but diversity of expertise and experience, the stronger the company is.
Michelle Ashby: Right. And I’ve been on boards for 16 years. And my experiences is we do have diversity at the board table. And the diversity means diversity of background as opposed to what you just were describing as far as gender and race, that type of thing.
Melinda Wittstock: What’s the process? Say if a woman is saying, “Okay, that sounds like a pretty cool gig. I have lots of business expertise, I have lots to give, I have this amazing track record. I don’t really know where to start, but it sounds cool.” From that position, especially given it’s a paid gig, where does she start?
Michelle Ashby: The first step that I teach is board resume. Your board resume is different than your professional resume. And it’s quite a process to go through because you’re going to be highlighting different aspects of your career than you do in your professional. So, in other words, your profile summary is really a compilation of what you’re quantifying and qualifying, the things that you’ve accomplished in your career at the biggest level, right? So, the largest P&L you were in charge of, or the largest number of people, or the highest percentage of money that you saved the company, depending on what your activities were and are. So, that to me is the first step. And there are many steps after that and like I said there are these gaps of understanding what it is to get on a board.
And the bottom line is your network. And you’re really good at this. It is your network, it’s who you know, who knows you and who knows the person who knows you. And I’ve been invited to every board that I’m on. And the first one I had no idea I was even being looked at. And it was just a tap on the shoulder. Actually a phone call from the chairman who said, “I’m forming a board. I’m interested in you, Michelle, would you like to join this board of directors?” And I said, “Yes, I would.” And off to the races we went. That was 15 years ago. It’s much more formal now, much more competitive to be honest with you because there are now many more women who are trying to get on those board seats. And there are only a few board seats, they’re limited, and they’re not that kind of thing that have term limits necessarily. So, once you get a good one, you could be on it for a long, long time.
Melinda Wittstock: And so, what were you doing at that moment in your life where you were tapped to be on that board?
Michelle Ashby: I was running a trade association for the gold mining industry. And my background is a mining analyst and I was running this trade association, but I had started it. So, I was the founder. And through that jobs, through that corporation that I put together, I was interacting with the CEOs of all the publicly traded gold mining producing companies around the world and their largest institutional investors. So, my network was extremely valuable.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. So, you were known. I mean, I think that’s a critical, critical thing. And I think it’s something that women generally don’t do or do enough of even though we’re so naturally suited for networking, right? And yet I find many women really just focused on the competency, heads down, driving results, doing these amazing things, but it’s just like, nobody knows they’re doing these amazing things.
Michelle Ashby: Right. And that’s one of the big aha’s that you would have, it’s like, “Wait a second. I spent all my energy doing that.” And the reason was I was hoping someone would recognize how great I am and then they would bring me up to a higher level. Not necessarily. They’ll let you keep doing that because you’re really good at it. So, you’re actually digging yourself into that hole. And it can be very difficult to get out especially with people who know you, bosses who know you, bosses who are actually benefiting from all of the hard work that you’re doing and successes that you’re building for his team, if that makes sense.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. You become indispensable in that particular role, which ends up trapping you there.
Michelle Ashby: There you go. Trap is the right word, yes.
Melinda Wittstock: And so, how do you get around that? What are things that women should do? We’re talking a little bit more about the corporate world, but say in the corporate world or even in the startup world, the emerging growth companies, entrepreneurial companies, what should a woman be doing to really grow those networks?
Michelle Ashby: Right. My experience in working now with hundreds of women on these topics is, first of all, know what you want. Before you go blabbering out there, you want to really spend some time, and you may need to get a coach or someone who’s going to help guide you through that, to determine what it is that you actually want. When you have that clarity and it’s authentic, it’s really what you want, it’s not what your husband wants, it’s not what your… other things, it’s what you really want, then you start to articulate that. And as you articulate that, there will be… You have to shift yourself inside before you can get it externally, if that sounds like-
Melinda Wittstock: It’s true.
Michelle Ashby: Too crazy [crosstalk 00:00:11:01].
Melinda Wittstock: No, it’s true of all things in life. I mean, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll get somewhere, but not really necessarily what you actually want. So, knowing what you want is really important. For the entrepreneurial woman, what is it that qualifies them for a board seat? Is it at that point where you’re into the eight figures, you’ve scaled successfully, perhaps beyond the eight figures into the nine figures, you have some big exit. Is that the moment or is there a moment before that?
Michelle Ashby: Yeah, that’s a good question. I really recommend that women do this search and figuring out and putting those feelers out before they get to the exit. And the reason is that you’re much more interesting to the company that’s trying to get you if you’re still involved. Now, if there’s a conflict of interest and they have to wait and they really want you, they’ll wait, okay? But it’s important for you to do it on the way there.
And your question about entrepreneurs. I’m an entrepreneur, I’m not a corporate girl. I did not have the experience of going through the corporate world. I was on the outside of the building, found a ladder, lay it on the ground, leaned it up against the building, climbed up to the executive office, broke the window and went in. So, I have a different approach. But I want to say that both work. So, if you’re saying to yourself, “But I’m not that and I’m not that.” You’re getting in your own way. You’re creating limitations, and what you want to do is eliminate those limitations and be super clear on where you’re going.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely. I mean, you’ve had so much success, Michelle. Over three decades in two very male dominated industries, where it’s pretty hard to have the support of other women. How did that impact you? And what did you learn along the way through that journey? It’s not easy.
Michelle Ashby: Yeah, exactly. Well, I was in mining and finance. I had very few women colleagues. I didn’t trust women to be honest with you, other than the handful that were proven not to stab me in the back. I didn’t affiliate with women. I didn’t belong to women’s groups. I knew that the men had the power and the money and that’s where I needed to be if I was going to climb up this ladder. And I was really fortunate in that I had many gentlemen who included me and who mentored me throughout my career. And I was curious, I really have always been like that. I like to learn new things and I like to succeed. So, all of those things combined, I think were the things that helped me endear me to the guys so that I actually became part of the good old boy network. Because once you are on the inside, then you’re one of them. And so, there was a huge comfort level, they trusted me. And that’s what the key is, to earn their trust.
Melinda Wittstock: What was it about the other women that you couldn’t trust them? What’s that all about the backstabbing stuff? And do you think that’s receding a little bit? I mean, that was my experience years and years ago when I was coming up late 80s into the 90s, but it seems to have receded some, but what causes that?
Michelle Ashby: Okay. Yeah. For me I think competition still is there. I don’t know what it’s like right now if I were 30. I have a daughter-in-law who’s 27 and I watch her and she seems to be going through the process quite easily and without any of those kinds of things. But I had women who were doing things like spreading rumors to my board of directors when I was running the trade association and were telling people in the industry that I was sleeping with all these men and that’s how I got the position. So, I come to a board meeting and one of the guy goes, “Hey, did you hear the latest gossip out there?” And I go, “No.” “Well, the gossip is that you’re sleeping with us one at a time. It’s my turn this week.” Okay. Take that and put it in your pipe and smoke it. That will burn your trust for women.
The other question you asked is why do women behave that way versus men? And what I made my own mind up along the way was that men have very specific ways of being and doing what they do, we call it the patriarchal model. But they grew up in team sports, their bathrooms didn’t have walls. There’s lots of differences between the way that men and women are raised. Women are raised actually to compete for the man if you look at the old school kind of thing. The prettiest is going to win the guy that’s got the biggest castle or whatever. These are the generational things that are embedded in us and we’re very unconscious of. And so, I learned how the rules worked for men. A man would come to my face and say, “I don’t like you. I don’t like what you’re doing. You need to stop it.” And then, they’d walk away. And then, they’d come back and they go, “Will you forgive me? Because I need something from you.” Men are objective, women are relational. We don’t forgive, we don’t forget.
Melinda Wittstock: Never forget. Yeah, that’s [crosstalk 00:17:14]-
Michelle Ashby: Right?
Melinda Wittstock: Right. It’s so different.
Michelle Ashby: It’s very different. And so, I just didn’t trust women at all, but I trusted men to behave as men. And whether they-
Melinda Wittstock: It’s more above board, right?
Michelle Ashby: Yes. Yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: But you see, I think that a lot of that is caused by scarcity, because when there’s very few women around, then the message is like, there are very few women, so women are competing against women for scraps. And it causes that or it can incentivize that kind of behavior. But how sad for the women who do think that the only way they can get ahead is by pulling someone else down. It doesn’t work. When we’re lifting each other up, we can all be more successful.
Michelle Ashby: Right. And that makes me laugh. There’s a part of me that laughs because, “You’re lifting me up?” Right. I want to just mention, because now my goal is to train 1,000 women to get on board, that I’ve gone through a major transformation in myself in order to do this work with women. And so-
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. I was going to ask you how you went from not trusting women to helping women, because you are essentially lifting, like on this podcast, you talked about lift as we climb. What is it that we can do to really incentivize, empower women to buy from other women, invest in other women, promote other women, mentor other women, We all fly higher when we fly together. What was that moment or epiphany and the transformation that led you to really be focused on women?
Michelle Ashby: Right. Well, first of all, when you say lifting up, I want you to take a visual… You visualize yourself, Melinda, reaching down and pulling another woman up behind you, right? And we’ve seen this… I actually have a statue of it of the Native American, this is one of their teachings. But this is how I envisioned myself, I’m under the person who’s behind you. And I’m like pushing their butt and I am pushing them up. I don’t know why, but that’s the way I see it is I am pushing them. In fact, I want them to be in front of me. My job is to push, to promote, to cheerlead and to help as much as I can to get them in the role. So. I switched it from being about me to being about them. And that was the biggest shift.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that. Yeah. You’re pushing them. Talk to me a little bit about that transition of how you’ve gained trust in other women over the years.
Michelle Ashby: I have pretty deep spiritual practice and it was a process. My mind wanted to do it by reading and studying. So, I did a lot of analysis on women inequality and the why, why do we do this? Kind of what you were asking and that type of thing. And at the same time I was doing a lot of meditating. And what I realized was that the only way this would shift is if I changed myself. And so, I had to shift to a place where I could fully trust every person in the room that I’m standing in front of. And the only way I can do that is to be authentic, and to be open, and to be raw, and to be willing to be hurt or stabbed in the back or whatever and still be there. So, showing up in that way in my loving and in my intention as pure as I possibly can, and so far it’s worked.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. That’s so beautiful. I mean, all change happens from within. All too often, we think, “If that thing that’s external to me changes, then I’ll be happy.” But the impetus for it is always from within. I too have a very deep spiritual practice in my transformation. And I find that when we focus on being the change ourselves that we want to see in the world, all kinds of things start to line up a little bit differently. And so, when we trust ourselves enough to be vulnerable and authentic, that’s the thing that inspires trust.
Michelle Ashby: Yes. And it’s true. I can say I’ve witnessed it because I have witnessed it over the last few years of training women. And it’s just the biggest fulfillment that I have to be honest with you.
Melinda Wittstock: What was it that led you on your spiritual journey?
Michelle Ashby: That’s a big question. I had two children, a son and a daughter, and my daughter was diagnosed with cancer when she was 18. And she had a very rare type of bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. And she went through horrendous treatment for 16 months, and she passed away when she was 19 and a half. And she said to me, “Mom, we were picked for a reason.” And so, I’m a successful business person. She goes away, I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to go find a cure for her cancer.” The one thing that I know how to do is raise money. I’m going to start a nonprofit. I’m going to raise a million dollars to give away for research. Well, having a nonprofit is way different than a for-profit. I’m just going to share that with everybody.
Michelle Ashby: That’s a little tougher. But those first two years after losing her were so rough, and I had such a big hole inside of myself. I was an alcoholic, basically a functioning alcoholic. Because I was drinking a lot, I was spending a lot of money, I was eating a lot, I was an alcoholic of everything. I’m trying to not feel the pain. And I found a really amazing grief counselor who guided me to a group out of LA, and I started going to their events and retreats and that type of thing. And that was the turning point for me. And that was the thing that has really helped me and sustained me and that I’ve incorporated into my life.
Melinda Wittstock: I’m so sorry about your daughter.
Michelle Ashby: Thank you.
Melinda Wittstock: I really am. My heart goes out to you. I can’t imagine. I think it’s so interesting though too, on this podcast, there are so many women who have had these big spiritual awakenings. And they’ve tended to happen as a result of either a tragedy, or a big setback, or something in their lives that’s really forced them to think in a different way. And it’s so common that I think more than almost 600 interviews on this podcast now with high performing women, and I can’t think of a woman who hasn’t gotten into their 40s or perhaps 50s without some massive tragedy, or setback, or whatever that set them on a new course.
Michelle Ashby: And you know what I believe is that the generations before us all had these tragedies as well, but they didn’t have the opportunity to really change and make the choice to the change like we do. This is such an amazing time, and this is why it’s so important to me that women need to get into these leadership roles, because I feel that happening, I feel that push, I feel that the universe is crying out for us to step up and to be in these leadership roles. And it takes courage, it’s not easy but we need you. And so-
Melinda Wittstock: But we do, we do.
Michelle Ashby: That’s why I’m like, “Get over it, ladies. Pull up your panties and get in the game. We need you.”
Melinda Wittstock: I couldn’t agree more. I mean, that’s the very reason why I launched this podcast. I have that profound feeling too. I feel like we’re being called. At all aspects in all different areas of business, because when we step into the power of our authentic feminine, and I don’t mean like femininity. I mean the feminine power of the archetypal sense, of the empathy, the intuition. What used to be called… Or maybe it still is, soft skills, they’re strong skills. We’re really leveraging all of that at this moment in time in history when there’s so many things that need to be fixed about our world, I’m a big believer in using business for social good, for social impact. My company is a social impact company. We can really reimagine a lot. We bring different perspectives and they’re so needed right now. Just the ability to think differently, or think outside the box, or connect the dots in ways that haven’t before.
Michelle Ashby: I totally agree with you. I’m on your side. I’m in your team, ditto.
Melinda Wittstock: Right? This is why this is so great that you’re doing this, Michelle. And I think so many women are now beginning to approach this from all kinds of different ways and different parts of the problem or whatever, but getting women in leadership positions on boards, this is really important. You offer training to help women get prepared. Can you go through the details of what that involves and the type of people that you’re looking for that would qualify really for your trainings?
Michelle Ashby: Absolutely. I train women from their 30s to their 70s, and I’m looking for characteristics. The characteristics are to have people who are brave enough to step up into these leadership roles. As I said before, it takes courage. And I am talking about the boardroom and the CEO role as well. The way that I do this, I have an eight-week program that I do the certification. And I train in small groups, 8 to 12 women. Of course, it’s all virtual now. We cover board governance, financial acumen, how to get on boards, risks and responsibilities, and how to behave in the boardroom. We have one full day where we do board role-play and every candidate is assigned or appointed to a board of directors of a very well-known company that has lots of controversy, always in the news, and they are assigned to their committees. And they’re given some kind of ideas of what they might be talking about in their board meeting.
And then, they go through and role-play the whole thing. So, we create this safe environment where you can test it out, this is the committee, I’m the audit committee, and I put people in uncomfortable situations. I’m not about helping you take the easy road at all. We would do your board resume, which takes the full eight weeks because you go through three drafts before I finalize your draft and put it in a place that I feel you’re ready to show that to the world. And then, I bring in experts. I bring in securities, attorneys. I also bring in auditors that go through those financial red flags and that type of thing. And I interview every single person. So, they have to apply through me. And I have women all over the world. My current group, I have four women from Canada, four in the U.S., one in Switzerland, and one in Ecuador. Women need to lead no matter where they are.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s fantastic. How do you help them or do you help them with the networking piece of this as well that we talked about earlier as being a pretty critical part of this?
Michelle Ashby: Right. I’m in mining and I train women in every industry. We just, in our last group, had a woman who was a former CEO of a Disney group company, and she was just appointed to the board of Pinterest. So, I know nobody in her network. What I do is teach you and you walk away with a playbook that you make up your own. So, I do the guidance and here’s how you do that. Who’s your top 10 companies? Who are the people you need to talk to? And then, it’s up to you to take that and go out and execute. So, we have a woman who’s going to make a presentation to our group in another month. And her presentation is how I got on five boards by following the ACE playbook, basically. So, we give you the playbook, it’s up to you to do the work.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s fantastic. And so, how many women that have gone through your training now are now on boards?
Michelle Ashby: We have 81 certified candidates, and we filled 43 corporate boards, and also five CEO seats. And two new companies have been formed by ACE graduate so far.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s fantastic progress. That’s wonderful. And so, where do you want to be say by the end of the decade?
Michelle Ashby: By the end of the decade? Well, way before then, I want to get to my 1,000 person mark. I also have a primer course online that you can go on and take at your own pace. And it’s got just four basic parts to it like your board resume, and interview, and that type of thing. And I’ve had over 400 women sign up for that so far. So, if I count both of those groups, I’m almost to the halfway mark of 500. Single-handedly by myself in three years. I’m pretty proud of that. But here’s where I want to be in a decade. That’s a really good question. I really do want to keep my role as helping other women to get on boards and to keep educating and to keep lifting or pulling or pushing, whatever it takes to get them in those seats.
And I hope that I’m enjoying a world that has more women that are in these leadership roles, because I fully believe that all of us will benefit from that, and our outcomes will be really good. Really good for employees, for clients, for consumers, for shareholders, the entire enchilada. It’ll take some time because that doesn’t happen overnight. Once women are in there and we’re at the 50/50, it’ll take a little time, I think, to see how things roll out. But at the same time, I want to see it before I die, because I’ll tell you what, my research tells me that it would take us 70 years to get a parity if we keep going at the rate we’re going. So, that’s why I talk fast, that’s why I’m pushy, that’s why I’m really motivated, because I don’t want to wait. I’m very impatient about this.
Melinda Wittstock: Gosh, you and I have a lot in common.
Michelle Ashby: I thought so too when I was reading about… I was like, “Oh, my gosh. I need to meet this person in person.”
Melinda Wittstock: That’s wonderful. Well, I want to make sure that everybody knows how they can sign up, whether it’s the online course or working with you personally, what’s the best way?
Michelle Ashby: The best way is to go through our website, that’s at the acellc.consulting. And you can sign up for the primer right there online, and you can also apply for the certification course on the website and that’ll come directly to me.
Melinda Wittstock: Fantastic. Well, Michelle, thank you so much for putting on your wings and flying with us today.
Michelle Ashby: Thank you so much for having me. And the bird that I envisioned myself as is the eagle, the bald eagle.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that. Thank you so much.
Michelle Ashby: All right. Thank you.