An OG Woman in Private Equity and a Prolific Board Member

Focus Search Partners Team Smiling

Despite significant strides, men still outnumber women on Fortune 500 and Russell 3000 company boards, accounting for about 70% of seats. Private company boards favor men even more at approximately 86%. As part of Focus Search Partners’ mission to increase female representation on boards, FSP is interviewing a select group of women, including today’s guest, Suzanne Kriscunas, a board director and senior executive leader at The Riverside Company.

This series reveals different paths that women can take to the boardroom through each guest’s unique story of breaking that particular glass ceiling. From their distinct vantage points, they identify how women can improve their chances of reaching the boardroom and succeeding once they get there.


A Conversational Series: Women on Boards

As a Ph.D. candidate in French, what happens when you realize that jobs for language professors are few and far between? If you’re Suzanne Kriscunas, you pivot to an MBA program thinking a second language will combine nicely with a degree in international business. This led her to a bank credit training program and an eye-opening rotation in the institution’s venture capital subsidiary. That experience rerouted her professional trajectory in ways she never imagined.

Suzanne’s impressive career includes the last 22 years at The Riverside Company, a global private equity firm that invests in smaller middle market companies. She is a founding partner of its Riverside Capital Appreciation Fund (RCAF), which primarily focuses on companies with EBIDTA between $10 and $40 million. She started and grew the firm’s Dallas office and built the RCAF into a team of 42 investing and operating professionals. She has held 19 board seats throughout her career.

In this conversation, Suzanne talks about her four-decade career in private equity—which began long before it was known as such—and shares her advice for women following in her footsteps.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FSP: Who have you leaned on in your career?

SK: I was fortunate that some of the men that I worked for gave me a chance at different things. Then in the 1990s, I joined a group of other professional women in Dallas and found career soulmates, women who were also one of a few in their fields. Our challenges were things we could talk about together and coach each other on.

FSP: How do you juggle your various board responsibilities?

SK: As a private equity investor in our firm, most of my board work has been for our portfolio companies. We normally target having four board seats at a time because they’re pretty time intensive between quarterly board meetings, monthly finance calls, and other calls. And, of course, when things aren’t going perfectly according to plan, which happens, they become even more time intensive.

You need to think about the time that you have to devote to boards compared to your other responsibilities. To do a good job, you have to get to know the company and put in the work.

FSP: Does your perspective differ as an investor versus an outside board member?

SK: As an investor, I’m representing my limited partners money and often my own. So, you feel a tremendous responsibility to make that company successful.

As a director, I still feel that same responsibility to company success, but my voice doesn’t carry the same weight as when I’m the lead partner of the majority shareholder. As an outside director, you have to figure out where you can have the most influence and focus your efforts there.

FSP: Were other women ever on the same boards with you?

Suzy: I began sitting on boards in the 80s and 90s, and there were never other women on them and very few women in private equity. When I joined Riverside, I was the only woman partner, but there were other women coming up through the ranks.

FSP: What dynamics have you seen play out to advance more women on boards?

Suzy: People began to recognize that having different backgrounds resulted in better decision-making throughout all aspects of corporate America. To the extent that there’s variety in life experiences, that can be very helpful to boards because it brings different perspectives to the table.

There is a much more concerted effort now among private equity firms to push for diverse boards and to interview diverse candidates. And we have more women now who are coming up through the ranks who clearly have the experience to add to the boardroom.

If you’re trying to exclude women or are not reaching out to them, you’re neglecting 50% of the American population. And by and large, women are graduating college at higher rates than men. You just have many more women coming up and more men who are of a different generation who see their spouses working and how effective they are in their careers. It’s been very slow coming, but I think there is really a general recognition now that this is important and that we need to keep it up.

FSP: How can women develop their leadership confidence and find their voice to prepare them for a future board role?

Suzy: Take advantage of any opportunity to attend board meetings. Observe what goes on, the kinds of things that are discussed, and to what level of detail. Watch the different people on the board to see how they interact. You can learn from that and develop your own style that you feel comfortable with.

Early on, I spent more time observing than anything else. If I wanted to say something, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just repeating something that someone else said and that I had something meaningful to contribute. When you do speak up, do so with confidence by knowing your stuff and the material. That knowledge gives you the confidence to share your ideas and opinions on things.

FSP: What advice would give your younger self if you were entering private equity in 2023 and wanted to eventually join the boardroom?

SK: One of the keys to my story has been my ability to take advantage of opportunities and to pivot as needed. I haven’t been afraid to try something new, and that’s something I always urge young women to do in their careers. Don’t be so set on a path that you don’t see other doors that might open for you.

It’s also important to develop advocates along the way, people who have your back and stand up for you when it’s needed.

For example, when a very close friend of mine was a young litigation attorney at a very prestigious law firm, the managing partner assigned her a case to represent one of their top clients. That client called the managing partner and asked him to reassign the case to a male attorney or else he’d move his business elsewhere. The managing partner said, we’ll get your files ready for you to pick up. That’s an advocate. And that woman is now a very experienced federal judge. She was very capable, but she also had people who had her back along the way, which was very important.

FSP: What’s left on your professional bucket list?

SK: I’m interested in philanthropy and mentoring young women along their career journeys. My husband and I sponsor some scholarships at my alma mater. Each year, I reach out to the recipients to hear their stories. One young woman in particular, who graduated in 2020, I talk to her monthly to see how she’s doing and offer advice.

FSP: Final thoughts about women breaking the glass ceiling?

SK: There are a lot of opportunities for women now, and they’re going to prove to everybody that they’re just as capable—in many instances much more capable—than the men who have been running things all these years.

Interested in discussing leadership opportunities that can help you reach the boardroom? Contact Focus Search Partners today.