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shirley leung

Finally, a woman breaks up the all-male boardroom of this Waltham company

Maria Molland.
Maria Molland.

That was fast.

About a month ago, I told readers to remember this name: “Steel Connect, a Waltham holding company that has the ignominious distinction of having no women on its board and no women in its executive suite.”

Steel Connect had become the lone “zero zero” on the Boston Club’s annual censu s of women in senior roles at the state’s biggest public companies. It was a milestone — the lowest number of these laggards in the 17 years the club has been tracking the data. There were eight in 2018.

I am happy to report the “zero zero” list is no more. On Dec. 1, Steel Connect expanded its board and added Maria Molland, the CEO of feminine hygiene company Thinx, as its eighth director.

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Patricia Flynn, a Bentley economics and management professor who coauthored the census, called the moment “a dream come true.” Bentley has put together the census with the Boston Club, a group that advances women leaders, by poring through securities filings of the state’s 100 biggest public companies. The mantra: What gets measured gets done.

Flynn also applauded Steel Connect on how it didn’t wait for a vacancy to diversify the board.

“It shows other organizations you don’t have to defer and wait,” Flynn said. “You can get started on this right away.”

Steel Connect is reluctant to give any credit to the Boston Club, even though the group has categorized the company as a “zero zero” for six consecutive years. According to club records, the last time Steel Connect had a woman on its board was in 2014. The holding company – which traces its roots to hot the ’90s Web firm CMGI — consists of two units today, one in supply chain management and the other in direct marketing.

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Warren Lichtenstein, executive chairman and interim CEO of Steel Connect, said it hasn’t been easy to break up the all-male board because he and a group of dissonant shareholders took control of the company only five years ago, and board terms have been staggered.

But expanding the board gave Steel Connect an opportunity to diversify faster, and an extensive search began about nine months ago. “The world has changed,” Lichtenstein said. “You need to do it to be best in class.”

Lichtenstein said the company picked Molland because she brings a broad range of skills from finance to operations. “She’s a dynamo,” Lichtenstein said.

Steel Connect is Molland’s first appointment to a publicly traded corporate board. Previously, she served on private boards. The Harvard MBA is serving on the board’s human resources and compensation committee, as well as the nominating and corporate governance committee.

What drew Molland to Steel Connect is that its business lines in supply chain and direct marketing dovetail with the work of the company she runs — Thinx, a New York firm that sells an eponymous line of innovative leak-proof underwear.

With nearly three years as Thinx CEO under her belt, Molland only recently began looking for a board post. Companies typically like to hire directors with CEO experience.

“I do think it’s just harder for women, a combination of culture and networks,” Molland said of women getting on boards.

What also can be hard is being the only woman at the table, but Molland isn’t fazed by that. “It’s certainly not unusual for me,” she said. “You have to start somewhere.”

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Molland, who describes herself as “opinionated,” said she plans to make her mark. “Data shows that companies perform better when they have more women on their boards and in senior positions,” she said. “As a business leader and a board member, I am focused on ensuring that more women are given more opportunities at all companies, including Steel Connect.”

So how did other companies get off the “zero zero” list?

For Endurance International Group, the answer came in the form of a new CEO, Jeff Fox, who arrived in August 2017.

In his first month, Fox recruited Christine Barry to the Burlington company, whose tech brands include Constant Contact and HostGator. It was her promotion this year to chief operating officer of Endurance Web Presence that helped knock the company off the “zero-zero” list, as well as the addition of two female directors, Andrea Ayers and Alexi Wellman.

“I don’t want to be against men,” said Fox, but “I am a strong proponent of diversity in the workplace. . . . It makes the team stronger, it gives the team more depth of perspective, and I believe that great operating teams need both strong male and female participation.”

Barry also believed the Boston Club census makes a difference.

“You have enlightened people like Jeff who don’t need studies like that,” said Barry, “but a little nudge and creating awareness is always helpful.”

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Virtusa, a global information technology services company in Southborough, got off the list when Deborah Hopkins joined the board in September 2018. Hopkins was Citigroup’s chief innovation officer and founder of Citi Ventures, and previously was the chief financial officer of Boeing and Lucent Technologies.

Deborah Hopkins.
Deborah Hopkins.

Kris Canekeratne, a cofounder and CEO of Virtusa, said that when he started the company in 1996, there were three men and three women on the board. But as the company grew with venture money, venture capitalists put their own people on the board. That meant a lot of men.

When the company went public in 2007, the focus was to bring in two strong independent directors – both of whom were men. But as seats opened up in recent years, Canekeratne had an opportunity to add a woman to the board.

“As we grew and we expanded, our intention was to focus on gender diversity,” Canekeratne said.

By adding a female director when it did, Virtusa escaped unwanted attention from the Boston Club — and this column.

“We were very happy not to be the last company on that list,” Canekeratne said.

Have we vanquished the “zero zero” list to the history books for good? The next Boston Club census is out in fall 2020.

Companies, you still have plenty of time to screw it up. Don’t.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.

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