Commentary by Marc H. Morial, President National Urban League
NEW YORK - What do American Express, Merck, Xerox, Darden Restaurants, and Citibank have in common? All are Fortune 500 companies headed by African Americans: Ken Chenault, Chairman and CEO of American Express; Ken Frazier, President and CEO of Merck; Ursula Burns, Chairwoman and CEO of Xerox – the first African American woman to head a Fortune 500 company; Clarence Otis, President and CEO of Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Red Lobster and Olive Garden; and Dick Parsons, former Chairman and CEO of Time Warner, Inc., now Chairman of Citibank.
That is an impressive line-up of corporate titans. But African Americans still represent a miniscule fraction of board-level corporate leadership in America. The National Urban League, in partnership with Advance America, has established a new training program to give other qualified African Americans the opportunity to follow in their footsteps.
According to a 2009 study by the non-profit Executive Leadership Council, the percentage of African Americans filling Fortune 500 board seats actually declined from 2004 to 2008. It now stands at a meager 7 percent, despite the fact that Blacks now comprise 13 percent of the population.
This lack of representation has negative consequences for consumers and corporate America. African American voices and perspectives are needed on corporate boards to ensure that business decisions affecting Black America are both responsible and sensitive to the needs of our communities. And with growing economic clout of African American consumers, it is just plain good business sense for public companies to promote inclusion and diversity up and down the corporate ladder. We know that companies with board members reflective of the gender and ethnic diversity of the consumers they serve generally produce higher profits and greater value for their shareholders.
Thanks to the efforts of Congresswoman Maxine Waters, last year’s Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act included an amendment addressing the need for greater diversity in the workforce of government contractors with the establishment of a new Office of Minority and Women Inclusion. In October the National Urban League and Advance America, the nation’s leading provider of cash advance services, took it one step further by teaming up to address the serious under-representation of African Americans on various NYSE and NASDAQ boards of directors.
Clint Allen, Founder and President of the Corporate Directors Group, an organization of nearly 1100 public company board members, and which offers the only professional director certification said, "this group of seven outstanding National Urban League director candidates completed a minimum of thirty hours of education including public company director governance, regulation and strategy. They are prepared to serve a public company as professional and competent board members."
The goal of our Director Inclusion Initiative is to equip qualified professionals with the tools and training they need to be successful in the boardroom.
Advance America Board Chairman Billy Webster said his company “is honored to partner with the National Urban League in this endeavor to empower dozens of new executives. As a board chairman I know that this initiative offers some of the best and brightest young professionals an opportunity to maximize their potential in the public company structure, while also enhancing the business capabilities of the companies they will serve.”
We agree. There is a growing pool of qualified African Americans ready to take their place at the helm of Fortune 500 companies. The Director Inclusion Initiative is a long overdue opportunity that will give them that chance.