2021 is on-course to be an inspiring year for female leaders. Women everywhere are celebrating a renewed sense of hope after seeing Vice President Kamala Harris step into office, and as a female founder and CEO, I feel an even stronger conviction to grow as a leader, and find new ways to have an impact. 

One area where I see a lot of opportunity for female leaders is in securing a board seat at a company outside your own. Serving on a board is an incredible way to get exposure and learn from others; it’s an opportunity to help advance and affect change in businesses you believe in, and — let’s be honest — it can be financially lucrative as well. 

Unfortunately, this is another glass ceiling that’s still waiting to be broken. A lot has been written about lack of diversity on boards, and we know the stats are dismal: among the 3,000 largest U.S. publicly traded companies, only about one in five board members are women. At the same time, research clearly shows that organizations with diverse boards perform better. So, all of us — not only female leaders — can benefit from having more women at the table. 

We don’t often read about the steps women can take to secure a board seat, but it’s a conversation we need to have. Here are five ways to position yourself as “board material”: 

1. Read up on all things board related

It’s important to educate yourself on how boards operate, what they do, how members get selected, and understand what your commitment (and opportunity) would be, should you serve on a board. Ask yourself — is this something I can take on at this time? The time commitment for some boards can be significant and you must take this into consideration.

I recently participated in the MassTLC Board-Ready Bootcamp and I highly recommend it! I heard from many board directors and CEOs on what board structures look like. We dissected what boards do, discussed what different committees look like within these boards and workshopped our board bios. Tapping into your network, or finding a group that can help you navigate the journey, will make all the difference. 

2. Build a roadmap for your board journey

Create a vision for what kind of board you want to serve on and how you can add value. Be aggressive with your goals but also realize you may not be selected for a Fortune 500 board right away unless you have been CEO / C-level executive or have significant board experience. Think of it as a journey. A good place to start is with a non-profit or advisory board role, and build on that experience from there. 

As you build on your journey, remember that as a board member you become an ambassador for their brand. So, ask yourself: do you care about the company’s mission? Do you love their product(s)? Is there a cultural fit with the executive team and other board members? 

One of my mentors also encouraged me to think of a board position as an opportunity to learn. It will make you a better leader and a better executive, while multiplying your impact. 

3. Create an awesome board bio

Showing that you’re “board ready” requires a bio that’s different from your CV. Here’s mine if you want to get a sense and borrow ideas. The key is to clearly articulate what makes you unique and what you will contribute. Once you have a draft, reach out to key folks in your network to look it over and get their feedback. I personally reached out to several people in my network, including one of my investors who sits on my company board, and had them review my board bio. As you speak with more people, and start interviewing for boards, you will find ample opportunities to tweak and strengthen it.

4. Put yourself out there

Leaders often say “it takes a village.” That’s true for becoming a board member too. Feel empowered to tap those in your network — your mentors, peers, and even board members at your own company. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, either. Add your board bio to your LinkedIn profile and summary, and make your ambitions known. 

Don’t hesitate to extend your network, too. One way to do this is by participating in events organized by VC and PE firms, to raise visibility for yourself and make new connections. There are also several organizations that can be a resource for women hoping to land a board seat. Some of my personal recommendations include MassTLC Board-Ready Bootcamp (where you can also get access to private programs like The Last Mile Project), TheBoardlist.com, Trewstar and Athena Alliance.

5. Don’t be your own worst enemy

Throughout the process, you may doubt your ability to contribute, or question whether serving on a board is in your wheelhouse at all. If you feel this way, you’re not alone. Women experience imposter syndrome more frequently and aggressively than any other demographic. We often do not raise our hands for opportunities unless we check ALL the boxes, while men just go for it, whether they meet the requirements or not. 

I, myself, have fallen into this trap — overthinking how I position myself, doubting and questioning myself. But I have learned not to overthink it and I encourage all other women to do the same. Simply put — just got for it!

Pay it forward

If we want to see more women on boards, we need to create a culture of paying it forward. As you navigate your own board journey, advocate for other women where you can. Consider sending them to a bootcamp, reviewing their bio or making introductions. I’ve learned so much from the women around me, and am now doing my part in coaching others who have similar ambitions. So, if you’re on this journey, or want to get started, I encourage you to connect with the women around you. We’re stronger and more impactful when we rally around one another. 


  • Rana el Kaliouby, Ph.D., is a pioneer in artificial emotional intelligence (Emotion AI), the Deputy CEO of Smart Eye, and formerly, the Co-Founder and CEO of Affectiva, the acclaimed AI startup spun off from the MIT Media Lab. She grew up in Cairo, Egypt. After earning an undergraduate and masters degree in computer science at the American University in Cairo, she attended Cambridge University where she earned her Ph.D. Afterwards, she joined the MIT Media Lab as a research scientist, where she spearheaded the application of emotion recognition technology in a variety of fields, including mental health and autism. Her company Affectiva, which was acquired by Smart Eye in June 2021, works with more than a quarter of the companies in the Fortune Global 500. An acclaimed TED talk and Aspen Ideas speaker, Rana has been profiled in The New Yorker, interviewed by Tim Ferriss, named by Forbes to their list of America's Top 50 Women in Tech, and selected by Fortune for their list of 40 under 40. In 2018 she was the cohost of a PBS Nova series, and in 2019 she appeared in a YouTube Originals Series, “The Age of AI,” hosted by Robert Downey Jr. She lives just outside of Boston with her two kids.