Welcome Home Christie Hefner | NAWBO

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“Ideas gain traction over time,” Hefner reassures. “I have a patient sense of urgency. I want things to be better tomorrow; but, I also play the long game.” 

Christie Hefner

On May 1, 2018, Christie Hefner will receive NAWBO Chicago’s first-ever Voice Award. In this candid conversation with the former Chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises, Inc., she talks about parity at the board level, the Netflix lesson, coming home to NAWBO, and a lovely note from Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Christie Hefner’s voice tiptoes tentatively forward with cautious humility, much like the opening measures of George Bizet’s well-known aria Habanera from the opera Carmen. Ms. Hefner is composed, yet warm. On point, yet unhurried. 

There’s one more thing of note. She is coming home.

Not in the geographic sense — she was born in Chicago, grew up in Wilmette, and enjoyed both her math and music classes at New Trier High School. Today, she lives a short walk from her office on the corner of Michigan and Ontario. 

Rather, a shared passion for advancing women in business marks her homecoming. Hefner served on NAWBO Chicago’s Board of Directors in the late 1970s. On May 1, 2018, she returns to receive the first-ever Voice Award and provide the keynote address at the NAWBO Chicago 2018 Celebration of Achievement Luncheon. 

The road that led her to earn the honor is storied by firsts and spans decades. 

Hefner was the first woman elected into the Chicago Chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization in 1983. Before that, in 1979, she helped found The Chicago Network for the city’s top women leaders. It was, she says, a time “when women all over came together to provide support, help advancement and share challenges." 

Hefner was on the board for NAWBO when she co-founded the Committee of 200 member roster read like a who’s who of the country’s most prestigious women business leaders at the time. Until the group was formed, however, few knew the others existed. 

Hefner tells the backstory: “Susan Davis had been retained by NAWBO to develop a fundraising plan for them because they had new initiatives to launch. She came up with the idea of identifying 200 successful female entrepreneurs and getting each to donate $1,000. But, no one even knew how many successful women entrepreneurs there were. The Playboy Foundation gave her a seed grant to hire an assistant to find out. We started with the idea that the required minimum would be $1 million in sales.”

What happened next shocked everyone working on the project. 

Hefner continues, “Susan’s research assistant looked through business journals, contacted Chambers of Commerce and other resources like the S.B.A. She discovered that there were many more successful women business owners than anyone knew, so we raised the required minimum to $5 million in annual revenues — the requirement at the time for membership in YPO. Once we’d identified several hundred qualified prospects, we got a small group of the most prominent to write invitational letters for the contribution and to attend a conference in Los Angeles. For many of the women who came from industries like energy and manufacturing, versus say media and fashion, and from communities where they were the only successful businesswoman in a room, they were so thrilled to meet each other.”

The Committee of 200, whose members today sit on 68 of the Fortune 500 boards, is still headquartered in Chicago. The group's Protege Program helps high potential women entrepreneurs grow businesses with revenues between $5 to $15 million. Hefner said several participants, along with members of the Committee of 200, will be attending the Achievement Luncheon. 

Hefner also co-founded the Chicago Chapter of Women Corporate Directors, which works to increase the number of women on for-profit boards. When asked about the progress made here, Hefner shares, “Clearly, we have not achieved parity — on the board level or in the C-suite. I spend a lot of time thinking about this. What do we need to do to change the trajectory? I’ve come to believe that there is not one silver bullet. We need to attack this on many fronts — starting with boards.” 

She cites low turnover of board seats (only 3 percent in the U.S.) as a challenge, suggesting that average term limits could promote both gender diversity and diversity of thinking. “The old days of one woman, one African-American man and the rest being white men is not acceptable,” Hefner says. She likens it to, not a broken pipe, but a leaky pipe problem. “Pick your field. Women start out being present in equal numbers at the entry level but, as you move up the pyramid, they’re not getting promoted in equal numbers. One change that would help is recognizing the fact that women are the primary caregivers, and thus in order to help women advance and support families, we need paid family leave and flextime.” 

She talks passionately about the inherent biases of men and women about women. “Another change we need,” she says, “is for more women to have the confidence to apply for promotions before they’ve done everything in the job spec and to run for office for the first time. We also need to create organizations where women are not called pushy for the same behavior where men are called confident.” 

She also suggests that pressure can come from reforms like encouraging institutional investors to include in their evaluations of ESG (environmental, social justice and governance) the diversity of companies’ boards and among their executives.

“There’s a lot to be done, not through quotas, but through forcing transparency and making public what companies are or are not doing. And the imperative is not just to do the right thing but to do the smart thing in terms of building boards that can ask challenging questions,” adds Hefner. “If you answer the strategic questions well, you are Netflix. If you don’t, you are Blockbuster.”

It would be a mistake to relegate this long standing member of the American Civil Liberties Union as someone who makes appearances only. She is a doer. She is a worker. She is a mentor. In the years following her successful career as Playboy Enterprises’ Chairman and CEO, a role which ended in the late aughts, Hefner has personally coached women leaders through organizations like Emily’s List, which champions Democratic female candidates, and Springboard, a launching pad for women in tech. 

"I’ve long been interested in mentoring women,” Hefner comments. “And I’ve had more of a chance to do that because I’m no longer in the all-consuming role of being CEO of a New York Stock Exchange traded company. I like working with individual women entrepreneurs and coaching women. Forty percent of my executives were women at Playboy.”

Many associate Hefner with her well-known father, founder of Playboy, Hugh Hefner, who passed away late last year. His daughter’s steely determination as a die-hard difference-maker has been strongly influenced, however, by her mother Millie Gunn.

“Many of the qualities I believe are the most defining aspects of who I am — from my political activism to my love of reading and my sense of manners and style — really came from my mother,” said Hefner upon reflection.

When asked of other women who have influenced her, Hefner cites the late Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post. “I got to know her when I started in business. She was kind at a time when there was no need to be. I’m hoping people have seen ‘The Post.’ She was, for me, someone who exemplified principled leadership under incredibly challenging circumstances and she was a real trailblazer.”

Hefner also cites Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as being a woman she admires. The Supreme Court Justice was the first head of the national ACLU Women’s Rights Project, which received its seed grant from the Playboy Foundation. “I received a letter from her thanking me for that support after I wrote congratulating her on her appointment to the court. That she is still such a force on the court is awe inspiring.”

Back to the award. One might think it would be one of many lining Hefner’s shelves, like the spoils of an Olympic prodigy. The assumption, however, would be wrong. “I don’t actually do this often,” she said in that inimitable pace of measured strength. “I need to feel that the cause must be worthwhile and worthy. And it must have a special meaning to me, since I’m going to ask people to come and support the event.”

The shift in modern discourse, recast by the #MeToo movement and anomalies like CNN dubbing 2018 as "the year of women," tells us that we’ve come far, but not far enough as women in business. 

“Ideas gain traction over time,” Hefner reassures. “I have a patient sense of urgency. I want things to be better tomorrow; but, I also play the long game.”

One thing is certain: in that long game, we will not move forward quietly. The Voice Award, created by NAWBO Chicago Immediate Past President Susan Dawson and the executive committee, recognizes Christie Hefner, not for her pedigree resume, but for amplifying voices of women entrepreneurs though a lifetime of advocacy and initiatives. 

Welcome home, Christie Hefner.

By: Michele Kelly 

NAWBO represents the collective voice of over 10.1 million women-owned businesses in the U.S. and seeks to advance the interests of all women entrepreneurs across all industries. Visit www.nawbo.org/chicago for more information.