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Shouraboura and Branson
Hointer CEO Nadia Shouraboura gets in on the discussion with Virgin founder Richard Branson. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)

To boost women’s status in business, Virgin billionaire Richard Branson says the United States and other countries should follow Norway’s lead and require corporations to put more women on their boards … or else.

Having 40 percent women representation on corporate boards would be a good target to shoot for, Branson told GeekWire in an exclusive interview today. The British entrepreneur was in Seattle to celebrate the start of Virgin Atlantic’s nonstop air service between Seattle and London – and headline a VIP forum for entrepreneurs at Axis Pioneer Square.

“Not every Virgin company’s got there yet, and we’ve still got work to do,” Branson acknowledged. “But I think if a law could be passed, that would focus the minds of an awful lot of chief executives, who are generally male in companies.”

The idea isn’t new: Norway established its 40 percent quota in 2003, and other countries such as France, Spain, Iceland and Germany have since followed suit.

Companies that don’t meet their quotas for gender representation could face public shaming, fines or even delisting on stock exchanges, depending on the country. Branson said he didn’t have any recommendations on the potential penalties.

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Surveys estimate women representation on the boards of S&P 500 companies in the U.S. at 19.9 percent, compared with a high mark of nearly 47 percent for Norway and a low mark of 3.5 percent for Japan.

The concept is controversial, and some research suggests companies suffered reductions in valuation because the quotas forced executives to put less experienced women on their boards.

“Obviously the danger of pushing something like that through is, you’re going to get the same women on multiple boards, in the beginning,” Branson said. “But once you’ve proactively made a move like that, I think in time … there’ll be just as many women to choose from as men.”

Indeed, research shows that countries with quotas eventually boost female participation in managerial ranks. And this month, a study by Credit Suisse indicated that companies with more women on their boards tended to have better financial results than companies that had fewer.

Richard Branson on panel
Virgin billionaire Richard Branson discusses the frontiers of entrepreneurship with GeekWire’s Jonathan Sposato and Hointer CEO Nadia Shouraboura, at left, and KING5 anchor Mimi Jung at right. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)

The current political climate may not be conducive to legislative mandates on gender representation in the United States. But business leaders can always take matters into their own hands, said Jonathan Sposato, a Seattle entrepreneur who serves as GeekWire’s chairman.

Two years ago, Sposato pledged to make new investments only in startups that have at least one female founder.

“I know exactly how the opposition feels, when there’s pushback … or ‘What’s wrong with the current playing field? It’s level, so if you don’t see a lot of women in the C-suite, well, it must mean there aren’t very many qualified women,'” Sposato said during today’s forum. “That’s all bullshit. The playing field is not actually level, and we need to change it.”

Anger can be a powerful motivator for women in the startup environment, said Nadia Shouraboura, who left Amazon to found Hointer, a Seattle company that’s pioneering robot-powered shopping.

“When I left Amazon, I opened my own store, and every asshole from Amazon would come in to my store and make fun of me,” Shouraboura recalled. “After a year of that, I decided, ‘This is it. I am going to step up.’ And that’s what kept me going: the assholes.”

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