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Black Corporate Directors Must Do More Than Occupy a Seat

Being selected is only the beginning of the job

Butch-graves-jrWhen I was invited to serve on the board of AutoZone, the nation’s leading auto parts retailer, in 2002, the first person I consulted was my father. As chairman and publisher of Black Enterprise, Dad served on more than a half dozen corporate boards in his career. His response was classic: “Don’t forget who you are and remember that they didn’t select you because they ran out of smart white guys.”

I got his message loud and clear. Although I strongly believed I could make a contribution based on my business experience and education, I also decided to use my seat to push for greater representation of African Americans at all levels of the organization. I felt it was my responsibility to ensure that this Memphis, Tennessee-based company would increase its percentage of employees and managers in its stores and corporate headquarters.

As a corporate director, I couldn’t find a better mentor than my father. He proudly served on the boards of some of America’s leading companies, including Aetna, DaimlerChrysler, Rohm & Haas, American Airlines, and Macy’s. Dad never hesitated, however, to bring up matters of diversity and inclusion even at the risk of making other board members and management uncomfortable. My father served as a lightning rod, holding corporate America accountable to meet its fiduciary duty related to the people they hire and promote, the companies they buy products and services from, and the organizations to which they make contributions.

It is no secret that serving on a corporate board is an extremely lucrative “part-time” job. The average compensation for a corporate director of an S&P 500 company is $242,000 per year with benefits and all expenses paid in full.

I believe that African Americans who serve on corporate boards should do more than occupy a seat. While board service is both prestigious and financially rewarding, your directorship does not give you license to put on blinders to the reality of inequities in corporate America. Left unchecked, these companies will maintain the status quo and operate without regard to equal opportunity and fairness. African American board members have an absolute duty to inquire, challenge, and advocate on behalf of all stakeholders, including people of color. CBS Corp. and Northrop Grumman board member Bruce Gordon put it best: “If there are African Americans around the table then there is an obligation to represent the community from which we come. I’m not convinced that everyone sees it the way that I do. That simply says to me that we still have some work to do to help one another understand our responsibilities as African American directors.”

In our upcoming magazine issue, we unveil our Black Enterprise Registry of Corporate Directors. We have identified 177 guardians of shareholder value from the 250 largest companies on the S&P 500. These business leaders have oversight of household names such as Starbucks, Verizon, Walmart, Ralph Lauren, ExxonMobil, General Electric, and Kellogg.

We can ill afford to be silent as issues of concern to African Americans are routinely placed on the back burner. Through our individual stock portfolios, IRAs and 401(k)s, a healthy number of us are shareholders of these corporations. We must familiarize ourselves with board members of companies in which we own shares—and vote. It should be alarming to us that in 2013, 75 or 30%, of the 250 largest corporations do not currently have a single African American director despite the fact that many of these companies enjoy tremendous market share from African American consumers. It is our duty to challenge those corporations and ask them why.

As corporate directors and shareholders, it is our collective responsibility as both board members and shareholders to hold corporate America accountable and ensure that African Americans are never marginalized or overlooked.

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