Black Women in Boardrooms, the C-Suite and as Entrepreneurs

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Jerilan Greene

Principal and Founder, New Capacity Partners

The future invites us to see clearly.

Over the last three years, the world has seen unprecedented change. As we enter 2023, economic growth is down while inflation, inequality, climate risk, technological disruption, food and water insecurity and geopolitical uncertainty are up. The macroeconomic outlook for U.S. employment and entrepreneurship is positive but not without obstacles. At the same time, global and U.S. companies that intend to lead amidst this complexity are investing in resilience, digital innovation, artificial intelligence and sustainability along with talent and diversity to close skill gaps and gain competitive advantage.

The world ahead requires leaders who can rise to the occasion with a fresh take on growing businesses, brands, communities and technologies in a complex, polarized and constantly changing environment. 

Enter Black women. While we are not a monolith, for generations, our lived experiences in the diaspora have inspired and required us to lead in situations demanding an outsized dose of smarts, heart and courage.  A 2020 study revealed Black women are the most educated group in the U.S., enrolling in higher education at a greater percentage than other groups.

As such, the future invites us to lead all kinds of organizations, and we are doing just that, despite the all-too-familiar biases.

For the first time in history, we have six Black chief executive officers at the helm of Fortune 500 companies, making up one percent of that group.  Two are Black women—Thasunda Brown Duckett of TIAA and Rosalind Brewer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc. In 2020, Mellody Hobson added chairperson of the Starbucks board of directors to her resume, making her the only Black woman in the Fortune 500 to lead in this capacity.

Between May 2021 and April 2022, S&P 500 companies added more Black women to their boards of directors than in any other similar period over the past 15 years, according to recruitment firm Spencer Stuart. Of the new directors named during that 12-month period, 12% were Black women, up from two percent in 2008.

The people and journeys behind these statistics are powerful and inspiring, but the constrained representation of Black leaders in corporations is alarming. Just three percent of C-suite and senior leaders are Black according to the Executive Leadership Council, and recruitment firm Korn Ferry cites fewer than 10% of senior P&L leaders are Black.  Because the economic, social and political realities that businesses face are the most complex, interconnected and volatile as they have ever been, the businesses that shape our daily lives need more diversity of strategic thought and analytical leadership at the top, not less.  Some investors understand diverse and inclusive teams drive growth and profitability. One 2022 study by the University of Georgia and Stevens Institute of Technology concluded firms appointing Black chief executives on average saw their market capitalization jump 3.1% within three days of announcing the appointment.

The future invites us to co-create it. The talents of women overall and Black women are in a position to impact the trajectory of our economy and institutions more than any other previous generation.

From 2014 to 2019, Black women entrepreneurs in the U.S. grew 50%, making us the fastest-growing demographic with nearly 2.7 million businesses nationwide, according to JPMorgan Chase. However, the bank also noted that the high rates of Black female entrepreneurship may be driven by lack of opportunity in the traditional workforce rather than pursuing market opportunities. Less than 1% of venture funding went to Black women in 2022. Yet, even in the face of disproportionate challenges accessing start-up capital and long-term investment to grow and sustain their businesses, 17% of Black women are in the process of starting a business.

Progress is happening,. and many leaders and organizations in and beyond the Black community—too many to name in this short commentary—are working on it. Whether you are energized or weary on the journey, it is tempting to look around and wonder what more can possibly be done with what seems like intractable trends on some days.    

We need to stay the course on what is truly working to accelerate change and unlock economic opportunity and impact, while collaborating intentionally with fresh thinking on:

Board diversity, by addressing the lack of network access, opportunity and networks

Sponsorship, among Black women and with allies, that produces true career impact and advancement

Mentorship that grows our relationships, skills, perspectives and networks

Sisterhood that invites dialogue, and innovation grows across the institutions and organizations we are part of

Allyship that increases trust, empathy and support of Black women

Health and well-being that rejuvenates the body, mind and spirit

Pipeline development and visibility to in-demand skills and the next generation of leaders

Cultures where diversity, equity and inclusion is led from the Board and CEO and resourced as a transformational strategy similar to digital innovation, risk management and growth

Bridge-building across our ally groups as well as public and private institutions

The future is now. Let us keep each other energized, supported and celebrated on the journey.