He Raised The Glass Ceiling

Darwin N. Davis Sr. broke through the glass ceiling at a time when most African Americans were prevented from ascending the upper ranks of corporate America. With his death on April 16, the black business community lost a trailblazer. Davis, named one of BLACK ENTERPRISE’s top 25 blacks in corporate America in February 1988, died of cardiac arrest. He was 74.

Between 1966 and 1998, Davis worked for Equitable Life Assurance Society of America, now a part of AXA Equitable, where he climbed up the ranks from salesman to senior vice president. In his first two years with the company, Davis commanded the attention of top management by generating more than $1 million in sales. As a result, he was promoted to manager of the Detroit district sales office. While in that position, Davis’ sales office outperformed all others in the company.

“There has long been a myth that African Americans could not succeed as sales and marketing executives with Fortune 500 companies,” says Carl Brooks, president and chief executive officer of The Executive Leadership Council and The Executive Leadership Foundation, a network of the most senior African American executives in Fortune 500 companies. “Darwin shattered the myth by being the top salesperson at Equitable year after year after year. His performance was just outstanding. It set the example that if given the right opportunity, coupled with the right support, he could be a success and the most effective salesperson in the company. That opened doors for others.”

In 1975, Davis was named a vice president and relocated to the company’s New York headquarters. In 1983, he was promoted to senior vice president, heading the company’s external affairs department. Despite several promotions, in a 1998 interview with BLACK ENTERPRISE, Davis said, “I always know that the glass ceiling is there because racism catches up with your successes.” Yet, he always maintained that African Americans had something unique to offer corporate America. “I have never hesitated in bringing the black perspective to the table, and the company expects that from me. I didn’t start out intending to do that, but as a black executive, I was thrust into that role. It wasn’t always comfortable, but it was necessary.”

Christopher “Kip” Condron, chairman of AXA Equitable, said of Davis: “His talents were evident in his success as an executive-as a salesman, manager, strategist, and community leader. But perhaps his greatest gift to AXA Equitable was his desire to always help people-at any level of the organization-in any way that he could.” Davis’ generous spirit was evident in the relationships he established with younger black executives who sought to emulate his success. “He was more about how he could help others, how he could mentor, coach, and instruct you,” says Brooks.

Davis was also a father figure to those African American executives at Equitable who came behind him, says Clarence Wright, senior vice president with AXA Equitable and Davis’ successor. “He was our father in the business. He was always the guy we would go to, whether