Pop quiz: What do IBM, Pepsi-Co, Dupont, Campbell Soup, Xerox and Kraft Foods have in common? They're all led by female CEOs. In fact, with the appointment of Marissa Mayer as CEO and President of Yahoo! in July, women have upped their game on the Fortune 500 list, with 20 female CEOs among the ranks.
This crack in the glass ceiling seems like a positive sign toward progress. But beneath the surface, it's still smoke and mirrors. Women continue to fight for their rightful spots in the Corner Office and the CEO title is still being reserved for those in the "good 'ol boys club."
But one woman is on a mission to widen the circle of women CEOs and she says it starts with a very basic principle - women helping other women. Marilyn Nagel is the CEO of Watermark, a non-profit membership organization for senior executive women and female entrepreneurs in California.
The company, founded more than 10 years ago, creates opportunities for women to forge valuable relationships. It goes beyond simply sliding your business card across the table and is much more about really getting to know other professionals (some who may even be your competitors).
Nagel, formerly Cisco's Chief Diversity Officer, is a seasoned pro when it comes to promoting women. During Watermark's many events, Nagel appoints "liaisons" who are tasked to connect newcomers with established Watermark members. The goal is to leverage existing connections and turn them into deeper relationships. Watermark, which has about 500 members and 6,000 others who are affiliates, hosts several informal events that range from innovation workshops and featured speakers, to neighborhood gatherings designed to forge meaningful connections. Some women have found new executive-level positions, while others have solved challenges related to their client-base by tapping into outside resources. Others have joined the group simply to get to know people (and professionals) in the area.
For example, one member joined after moving from New York to San Francisco for a work position and reconnected with a long-lost colleague that resulted in significant business transactions. Another Watermark member brought in $25,000 worth of additional business to her company every year from relationships built through Watermark networking alone.
But don't be fooled into thinking that the organization's members are all take and no give. This is not your average networking organization. According to Nagel, "We work hard to make networking easy and high value. We recognize that women build relationships first, and business second. So we ask women in our community to put their relationship foot first. And because our community is one where people feel as though they want to pay it forward, we actually don't allow people to participate in the community if they're just there to take. We have asked people to leave and refunded their membership if they're about shoving business cards."
Women Helping Other Women... It Does Exist!
While we've been bombarded with countless articles that aim to show how women aren't helping each other in corporate America, Watermark is the quintessential example of how women executives are lending a helping hand. One of Watermark's most successful programs has been to create small groups of functional experts who gather monthly to trade war stories and help one another. They have a CEO group, a CFO group and a CMO group, among others. Each group is roughly 10-15 people.
According to Nagel, "It's a safe environment... These smaller groups, like Women of the C-Suite, become almost sacred places where you can talk about an employee issue or a toxic work environment. They support each other in a way that's very unusual"
Though the organization is led by strong powerhouse women, like Nagel, it's not just women who partake in Watermark's networking - Bill Campbell, Chairman of the Board of Intuit, has been very active within the company's CEO networking group and several men often attend the Watermark networking events. A few brave men have even attended one of Watermark's premier social events held in Los Altos called "Wine, Women and Wisdom."
More and more, advancement of executive women is becoming an issue that both women and men are championing. In fact, reflecting on her Cisco days, Nagel recalls that even John Chambers, Cisco Chairman and CEO, came to realize the benefit of promoting high-powered and talented female executives.
As executive women continue to make their way up the ladder, Nagel's message is this: "Some women think there's only room for one woman at the table, and therefore she's going to elbow others out to get that seat, but it isn't a zero sum game. It's up to all of us to say, 'No, that's not the way we play this game. We're going to not only assert ourselves, but assist and support one another.'" And under that same principle, Watermark is helping California's executive women change the way that game is played.
This article first appeared on Forbes.com.