May 18, 2024

A Club for the Women Atop the Ladder

Drawn from government, banking, technology and beyond, its members form a rare  — and global — power elite. Each has been tapped, in Skull and Bones fashion, by an existing member. Each searches out and grooms new talent —  people who can add to this group’s considerable wealth, knowledge and power. 

But men need not apply: this exclusive club is women-only.

It is called Belizean Grove, and if you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone. Founded 12 years ago, it operates mostly under the radar. The first time it received any real public attention was in 2009, when it became known that Sonia Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court justice, was among its 125 or so members. (She has since quit.)

Despite its low profile, Belizean Grove is fast becoming what could be considered the world’s ultimate old girls’ club. Perhaps that’s no surprise, as it is modeled on one of the nation’s most exclusive old boys’ clubs, Bohemian Grove. That hush-hush group, an extension of the 139-year-old Bohemian Club in San Francisco, has counted so many rich and powerful men among its ranks — including the presidents Eisenhower, Carter, Nixon and both Bushes — that it sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel. Indeed, in 1942, the men of Bohemian Grove, who meet each summer under a canopy of redwoods in Monte Rio, Calif., dreamed up the Manhattan Project.

Some members of Belizean Grove are working on a mission of their own: the White House Project. Its goal is to have a woman elected president.

“Grovers,” as the members are known, tend to be in their 50s and 60s, and though most are not household names, they represent a rare confluence of wealth and influence. They serve as directors of companies including Xerox, Procter Gamble, NYSE Euronext, Nasdaq, Nordstrom, DSW, PetSmart and REI. Some previously held high-level positions at blue-chip companies but then left to form their own businesses.

Members also include a Canadian senator and the chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church. Many are Americans, but others are from countries including Colombia, Ecuador, Iceland and New Zealand.

Grovers have capitalized on their network by cutting deals, making multimillion-dollar investments and hiring and mentoring up-and-coming businesswomen. Along the way, the group has become a model for a growing number of women’s business networks.

Members say they have worked and invested together and helped one another join corporate boards, but they are hesitant to reveal details of specific deals. Above all, Grovers protect one another’s privacy. 

FOR four days, members convene at a site, generally somewhere in Central or South America, and stretch out on a beach, drink some wine and talk. Conversation flows freely, from topics like leveraged buyouts and international diplomacy to the problems of simultaneously managing the care of children and elderly parents.

Catherine Allen, a Grove member who is C.E.O. of the Santa Fe Group, a strategic consulting firm, puts it this way: “We leave our egos and business cards at the door. It’s about: ‘I have this problem. I’m a C.E.O. of a corporation, what should I do?’ and this becomes a sounding board because there are other women who have been in similar situations.” She adds: “It’s about learning from each other, enriching our minds, developing true friendships. There’s a real generosity of spirit.”

The group emerged informally and without an agenda. The Grovers originally gathered because they otherwise had few outlets for their concerns as they climbed the corporate ladder. But their meetings have led to a continuing dialogue about business, with members gaining access to capital and connections outside their established circles.

Belizean Grove has connected the top women in technology to the top women in finance, to the top women in media, to the top women in law, to the top women in retail, and so on. By reaching horizontally across industries, veteran businesswomen are building critical mass and wielding more influence.

“Women in tech, media and finance have invested together,” says Ms. Allen, who has embarked on a secondary consulting business with three other Grovers. “Many sit on the same venture boards. Many got there because of other women who also sit on those boards.”

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