Getting a Seat at the Table

In 1977, Reatha Clark King became a member of HB Fuller Co.’s board of directors, and thereby their first woman and their first African American director, as well as one of the first in corporate America. In more than 40 years, the number of African American board seats has risen consistently from zero in the ’60s to 260 according to the 2004 census conducted by The Executive Leadership Council, a professional network for senior-level African American executives. But celebration would be premature. The ELC found that today 32% of the top 500 publicly traded companies have no African American board directors and 68% have at least one.

The census yielded a two-part report; the first, released in 2005, presented the numbers and identified all of the African American board members. This year, the ELC’s Institute for Leadership Development & Research released part two: Implications and Recommendations of the 2004 Census of African Americans on Boards of Directors. It presented strategies and initiatives for candidates and corporations to “build a pipeline of African American [directors],” and give an additional voice to important issues of governance.

King, a member of ELC, attributes her appointment to her doctorate in chemistry from the University of Chicago, her business background, and to an HB Fuller board member who was an advocate for diversity. “I had the educational and experiential fit — the knowledge base to make it much easier for him to present me as a minority,” she explains. King has since served on four additional corporate boards, including the General Mills Foundation where she was president from 1988 to 2002. She is currently a director on the Exxon Mobil and Lenox Group Inc. corporate boards.

Overall, however, black women hold only 2% of board positions. “Their representation is fairly abysmal,” says Erika James, co-author of the study and associate dean of diversity at Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia as well as Bank of America Research Professor of Business Administration. In comparison, white women hold over five times more board seats (10.6%) — evidence of a clear double burden of race and gender. The report suggests that although black women are comparable to their male and female white counterparts in every dimension, they are not aggressively sought for board positions.

The report examines key factors for encouraging recruitment: Directors interviewed in the report list achievement in the corporate sector as the largest consideration for board recruitment (61%). In addition, they propose that African Americans “brand” themselves as an expert in a certain area, which makes them invaluable to a corporation, and express interest to colleagues, associates, mentors, and sponsors.

King also stresses that having a mentor is invaluable. Mentors are able to answer questions and offer guidance and coaching for board positions. Altria Group, parent of Kraft Foods and Philip Morris, sponsored a multiyear initiative to help increase the number of African Americans on corporate boards. The initiative’s focus was on creating greater awareness among ELC members and getting them board certifications, which are highly coveted