Tech

Inside the secret club that helps prepare young CEOs to take over the world

  • The Young Presidents Organization, or YPO, is an ultraexclusive social group for business leaders.
  • Monthly meetings give executives a chance to talk freely about what it’s like to run a company.
  • Its code of conduct requires absolute secrecy, which, members say, is part of the group’s appeal.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Startup founder Rana el Kaliouby said she was frantic the day she had to tell her employees that some of them were being let go because of the pandemic’s economic toll. But she had no one to confide in.

“It’s a very lonely experience,” el Kaliouby said of being a chief executive. “You can talk to your mentors, but they’re usually in a different spot. You can talk to your investors, but you have to be careful.”

Instead, she turned to the Young Presidents Organization, a global network of executives where members meet monthly in regional small groups known as forums.

Founded in 1950, YPO has a reputation as a fraternity for ultrarich white men who inherited their family’s business, and, for a time, it was. But over the years, it’s recruited more entrepreneurs, who tell Insider that the exclusive club is worth the price of admission. A first-year initiation fee is about $4,000 and annual dues start at $6,000, depending on the chapter.

When el Kaliouby sat down at her computer for her first forum meeting of business leaders from across the Northeast, she remembers thinking it was going to be “a colossal waste of time.”

Then the meeting began with members sharing the most important thing going on in their lives. For el Kaliouby, it was laying off staff the day before. She heard other leaders talking openly and so she did too.

Since then, her forum has become a crucial sounding board.

“A lot of my friends are not CEOs,” she said. “I’m the first entrepreneur in my family. I can’t go seek my dad’s advice on how to manage my board or how to raise the next round of funding.”

Absolute secrecy

Confidentiality is required by a code of conduct, and that atmosphere of secrecy is part of its appeal, members said. Executives can unload about work and their personal lives, trusting that coworkers are never placed in a forum together, and neither are competitors.

In 2015, when TaskRabbit founder Leah Solivan was CEO, fundraising was taking longer than she expected and the company was running out of money. Solivan felt panicked.

One night she took an Uber to the hospital with stomach pain. She left the hospital after a few days and went straight to a pitch meeting, feeling as if she would fail her company otherwise.

“There are so many reasons for an investor to say no to a deal. I didn’t want to give them any hesitation about my health, so I kept it a secret,” Solivan said. But she told her forum about the incident.

“Nothing leaves the forum,” said Solivan, now a founding partner at Fuel Capital.

She confided in her small group of Bay Area executives when she considered resigning as TaskRabbit CEO, and she did so again as chairwoman during the nine months it took to close the company’s sale to Ikea.

In fact, the group’s code of conduct has an often-repeated line — “Nothing, Nobody, Never.” — that serves as an unofficial slogan. It’s “drilled in” at orientation, one member said.

“Outside of forum, talk about Nothing that is said in forum to Nobody under any circumstances. Never means forever,” the code says.

Heidi Zak, ThirdLove cofounder and co-CEO; Leah Solivan, general partner at Fuel Capital; Spencer Rascoff, general partner at 75 & Sunny Ventures; and Allison Long Pettine, managing partner at Ridge Group Investments, appear on a pink background with the YPO logo repeating.

Notable YPO members include Heidi Zak, Leah Solivan, Spencer Rascoff, and Allison Long Pettine.

ThirdLove; Fuel Capital; Pacaso; Ad Astra; Melia Russell/Insider


30,000 members worldwide

The membership roster is closely guarded too. It includes more than 30,000 people, the organization says, with half in the US. To qualify, people must have become president, chairperson, CEO, or managing director of a $20 million company before age 45. They may also be eligible if the business is valued lower but hits certain revenue targets.

These days, about a third of members are people who inherited a family business, and the rest are entrepreneurs and executives. In startups and venture capital, notable members include:

  • Steven Galanis, Cameo cofounder and CEO
  • Adena Hefets, Divvy Homes cofounder and CEO
  • Spencer Rascoff, general partner at 75 & Sunny Ventures
  • Michele Romanow, Clearco cofounder and president
  • Keith Wasserman, general partner at Gelt VC
  • Heidi Zak, ThirdLove cofounder and co-CEO

The organization has become more visible, recruiting as older members age out and looking to increase diversity. The challenge is that many people have never heard of the group and, if they have, they know it as “an old white guys’ organization,” said Allison Long Pettine, an investor and an officer of the Coastal San Diego chapter.

Fees are steep, and there’s a recent spate of rival networking groups with less strict membership requirements, and some dedicated to women.

El Kaliouby will stay a member even though she recently sold her startup for $73.5 million in cash and stock, a winning end for the company she started 12 years ago. She said her forum coached her on everything from structuring the deal to announcing it to her employees.

As a newly appointed board member of her chapter, she now has the bandwidth to give back.

Are you a startups insider with insight to share? Contact Melia Russell by email at [email protected] or on Signal at (603) 913-3085. Open DMs on Twitter @meliarobin.


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