Debra Janssen, the chief operating officer at Bankers Trust, received a phone call earlier this year from a former colleague asking if she wanted to be considered for a slate of dissident director candidates nominated by an activist investor for embattled tech giant Yahoo!'s (YHOO) board.
Janssen said she jumped at the opportunity, which she said was brought to her through "the power of networking." The prospect of participating on an activist slate can scare off some director candidates, worried that putting themselves up for election in what typically becomes a heated director battle complete with mudslinging on both sides stigmatizes them for life. But not Janssen.
"They wanted a C-Suite level women with tech expertise," Janssen said. "It didn't bother me at all. When people heard that I was on this slate they were supportive, saying, 'What a great experience.'"
The contest was ultimately settled and four of activist investor Starboard Value's Jeff Smith's nominees were installed on Yahoo!'s board in a deal that helped ensure the tech giant's auction process concluded in a sale -- Verizon (VZ) agreed to buy Yahoo! in July for $4.8 billion.
However, neither Janssen nor another Starboard female candidate were included in the final slate. "I spoke to Jeff multiple times and when the agreement came down about how many of his slate were going to be on the board, he called personally to tell me," Janssen said. "I'm optimistic I will hear from Starboard again."
The experience was positive for Janssen. Yet, her experience is unusual when considering that only a small number of women have ever been nominated by activist investors in director-election battles. According to a study completed by relationship mapping service BoardEx, a service of TheStreet, the 10 top activist investors nominated 408 individuals over the past six years and only 20 of those were women, including Janssen.
Starboard led the pack in terms of women candidates, nominating 10 female board members, including four at Darden Restaurants (DRI) that became board members and two, including Janssen, at Yahoo! that did not. Nevertheless, while that does sound impressive, Starboard also nominated 126 men candidates over the five-year time frame, according to BoardEx.
The other biggest activist funds engaging in the most director contests all have included a smattering of female candidates among their male director nominees. These include Carl Icahn, Pershing Square Capital Management's Bill Ackman, Barington Capital's Jim Mitarotonda, Corvex Management's Keith Meister, Elliott Management's Paul Singer and Engaged Capital's Glenn Welling.