Ellevate To The Top: CEO Aims to Mentor Leaders and Change Culture
Her 1995 high school graduating class of 64 students in a small Southern New Jersey town and her close friendships in her Villanova University sorority may have led the way for Kristy Wallace to become CEO of Ellevate Network, a leading women’s business networking initiative with 150,000 members.
“It was a good primer for where I am now,” says Wallace, a mother of three, who has spent the last two decades in different capacities of innovation and entrepreneurship.
A new study from Northwestern and University of Notre Dame shows “that more than 75 percent of high-ranking women maintained a female-dominated inner circle or strong ties to two or three women with whom they communicated frequently. In contrast, men with a larger network – regardless of gender makeup – are more likely to earn a high-ranking position.”
Wallace’s life experience of reliance on support from mentors, advisors, peers, family and friends seeded her leadership style and prompts her to return to her roots and give back. As a member of Delta Gamma in the Villanova class of 1999, Wallace returns to Villanova as an advisor for the Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship Institute.
“Some of my best friends were women I met my freshman year,” says Wallace, and I am always thinking about how to foster relationships.”
With an undergraduate degree in English and sociology, Wallace took an unusual turn to work for Key Bank in New York from 1999-2000. She was in the investment banking division, and because this was her first foray into corporate America, she says it was eye-opening.
“I liked the challenge and the work, but was dealing with sexism and discrimination that was so prevalent,” Wallace says. “So I didn’t love it.”
A good friend suggested she come to work for Vault.com, the career media company, as a sales assistant. The new company had 100 employees to start and after the market crash in 2007, had to downsize to 30 employees. The company was sold that year, and Wallace stayed on for two more years, moving from her role as vice president of North America ad sales to general manager of International Operations at Vault.com.
In 2009, her first son, Benjamin, was born. “I never know how to tell this story because it feeds into rhetoric,” Wallace says.
“But I was very career focused and my job was my No. 1 priority above all my relationships. I didn’t see how I could manage all of it. I needed a mental and physical break and that was difficult because my identity and sense of worth was tied to career success,” says Wallace, who was recognized as a Woman of Influence by the New York Business Journal.
Struggling to choose her next step in her career, Wallace joined a colleague from Vault with his new company, Zeel, an alternative healthcare company, in 2010.
“I learned a lot,” she says. “You can initially start with an idea and put your whole self into it, but you need to connect and listen to others and distill what is achievable.”
Due to customer demand, Zeel shifted into focusing on massage on demand, and after three years, Wallace “was ready for the next thing.”’
And it was because she was already connected to Ellevate through its networks, that she joined the team in 2013, and has since worked her way up to CEO. It was also the year she had her third child.
She directs the Network’s staff, is responsible for business growth and strategy, and works closely with Ellevate’s Chapter Leaders, Business Partners, and Champions to further Ellevate’s impact. Wallace is also host of the Ellevate Podcast: Conversations with Women Changing the Face of Business, where on February 20 she engages in a conversation with Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead.
Wallace is an Angel Investor with Pipeline Angels, an organization creating capital for women and non-binary femme social entrepreneurs; a Member of the UN Women Global Innovation Coalition for Change; an Advisor for the 92Y Women in Power Fellowship for Rising Female Leaders; Co-Chair of the Leadership Advisory Board for the Girl Scouts of Greater NYC; and a Board Member at Workforce Professionals Training Institute.
Wallace is well-versed in the value of women networking with the mission of changing not only their own careers, but in leveling the playing field and achieving equity.
According to Catalyst, women hold nearly 52 percent of professional-level jobs, yet they only account for 36 percent of mid-level managers, 25 percent of senior-level managers, and only 6 percent of CEOs of S&P 500 companies.
Refinery29 reports, “You may think that you should only network with people within your industry, but having a diverse group of connections can be rewarding too. ‘When women get in front of each other and realize that even if they’re in different fields they have the same struggles, that’s where the magic happens,’ says fashion designer and co-founder of the Female Founder Collective Rebecca Minkoff. ‘Getting advice from someone who isn’t doing what you’re doing every day can be really helpful.’”
It isn’t a pipeline problem, Wallace says, it’s a cultural problem. And a solution can begin with just 30 minutes per week.
Ellevate Network promotes its Ellevate Squads, with groups of six to eight women who over 12 weeks spend 30 minutes a week video conferencing with a small, diverse group of driven, intelligent women with similar career goals and challenges. More than 3,000 women nationwide have been through the program, with another 1,000 starting in March.
The results are exciting. Wallace says. More than 78 percent of Squads participants said that their Ellevate Squad gave them ideas, tools, and resources that they didn’t have before. Eighty percent claim that their Ellevate Squad made them more confident in their career, while four in 10 women who participated reported that the Ellevate Squads program gave them the opportunity to mentor other women.
There are also live Mentoring Meet-Ups in at least 20 cities with up to 50 women meeting monthly through Ellevate.
Ellevate provides members with three elements of support, Wallace says. First is advice. “You can find someone who has expertise, knowledge, and insight you don’t.” That will provide clarity, she says.
Second is support. “Leading a business can be hard, when you are in a solo role, you need help navigating that and other women business leaders offer that.”
Lastly is connection, Wallace says. “That is opportunity. I got my job at Vault because of my network and I joined Ellevate because I met with a senior leader for coffee.”
“There is power in diversity,” Wallace says. “Tapping into different stories and viewpoints can be transformational.”
With membership that includes all career levels, Wallace says Ellevate provides free access to this program to all Achiever-, Innovator-, and Executive-level members, as well as corporate partners.
“Being a woman in the workplace you face unique challenges and feeling comfort, support and a lack of judgment, makes you feel understood,“ Wallace says.
Networking has come a long way from small community groups meeting locally—like her classmates from her small high school graduating class—to a more complicated digital age where it is more difficult to create authentic connections online.
No matter how women mentor and connect with each other, Wallace says, the mission is the same.
“How do we continue to help more women get on boards, run for office, start business and how do we accelerate that pace?” She continues, “The secret to success gets back to how do you have the career and life you want?”
Wallace adds, “We can provide the tools, but we also need to change the culture pf business. We don’t want to just talk about the state of inequality, we want to talk about how to disrupt the culture and come up with actionable solutions to drive individual and corporate change.”