A snapshot of the boardrooms of corporate America in recent years suggests that while more seats are now going to underrepresented groups, the average boardroom is still overwhelmingly white.
Some studies suggest that barriers to networking and lack of access to companies on a personal level is preventing many Black directors from getting noticed by boardrooms. That’s a dynamic that a new social venture enterprise, Take Your Seat, is attempting to repair.
“Marketplace Morning Report” host Sabri Ben-Achour spoke with co-founder and CEO Jerusha Stewart about what Take Your Seat is doing to improve boardroom diversity and why that’s important for diversity in the workplace as a whole. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Sabri Ben-Achour: Why do you think minorities are so persistently underrepresented on corporate boards today?
Jerusha Stewart: Well, Sabri, you know, they’ve said that there’s a pipeline problem. I think we all know that it’s a problem of perception and that minorities have been hiding in plain sight, and that step one is getting those who are of color into the networks where they would be with the board leaders and the nominating committees that are making those decisions, to invite them into the room.
Ben-Achour: There was a study published in the American Sociological review in 2019 that suggests networking is a real barrier, as you mentioned, and that Black job seekers, for example, are less likely than white job seekers to know someone at the companies where they’re applying. Is this something that you have seen yourself?
Stewart: Yes, this is something that I’ve experienced personally, as well. There is a networking gap that’s leading to that lack of Black leadership at the highest levels in corporate America. It’s one of the reasons we’ve invited both candidates and the higher-ups, the board leaders, the CEOs, to join Take Your Seat, so that they can create a safe place and be in that ecosystem to create very rich and deep relationships.
Ben-Achour: How are you tackling the problem? What’s your strategy?
Stewart: So our strategy is two parts. We are focused, step one, on board placement. And what I mean by that is getting the candidates and the board leaders to meet one another and to deepen their relationships with one another in our ecosystem on our digital platform, takeyourseat.co. We’re also focused, step two, on board health. And what I mean by that is creating an inclusive culture at the board level, because it starts at the top, where candidates and employees and executives who are different will feel a sense of belonging and a sense of being valued, and their voices heard.
Ben-Achour: To what extent does diversity in the boardroom influence diversity in the rest of the company?
Stewart: I believe that’s where it has to start. Diversity in the boardroom signals a message to the rest of the organization that the company is taking this seriously, that they are looking at their leaders to be models in terms of where to move forward. It also shows that on three levels — because it takes three levels for transformation to happen, awareness, knowledge and skills — that the board has bought into having a culture of diversity. Because in the past, HR directors, chief diversity officers, didn’t have very long terms at companies because they didn’t receive the support that was needed. So when it starts at the top, then everyone knows that this is a bottom-line initiative and that the company is truly focused on making a difference.
Ben-Achour: You know, that brings up an issue that comes up anytime we’re talking about representation, which is retention. It’s one thing to make America’s boardrooms look like America, but it’s different to keep them looking that way. How do you address that challenge?
Stewart: You are so right. And that’s why at Take Your Seat we are very focused on leading and leaning into board health. We know that once you’ve placed people into the boardroom — and often it’s one person at a time that is taking that new director seat — that you have to create an environment of inclusion. And that oftentimes, when someone steps into the room, of course, who’s different from you, people get uncomfortable. So we are providing training, experiences, connections for board leaders to be able to gain the skills and the knowledge they need to move forward to create a place where their new board directors will feel valued and that they can have their voices heard. Because when that happens, that new board member will give 100%.
Ben-Achour: There’s obviously a social justice case to be made for making boards more diverse, but do you ever have have to make some sort of bottom-line or business argument for the importance of this?
Stewart: There’s the business imperative, there’s the moral imperative and there’s what we refer to as the leadership imperative. Most companies, and especially because our largest partnership is with B Lab [which certifies B Corps], they already have the “people, planet, profits” built into their DNA. They know about the business imperative. They know that this is kind of the right thing to do. What they may not know is how it’s going to affect their bottom line or why it’s affecting their bottom line. And I think that may be true with a lot of companies, is how do you direct these efforts to get it to affect your bottom line? And one of the fastest ways is at the board level, because they’re advising the CEO on strategy and innovation.