What a Difference a Year Makes
By April Hall

Looking at the 2021 Fortune 500 list, one could believe DEI in corporate America has hit a tipping point.

There are a record 41 female CEOs on the list (up from 37 last year, which was also a record). But more than that, two Black women CEOs made the list, and each helms a Fortune 100 company. This is a massive accomplishment. In the 67-year history of the Fortune 500, there was only one other Black woman CEO — Ursula Burns when she helmed Xerox (although Mary Winston was interim CEO for part of 2019 when Bed Bath & Beyond was on the list).

In the list’s 67th iteration, Roz Brewer, former CEO of Sam’s Club, helms Walgreen Boots Alliance at number 16, and CEO Thasunda Brown Duckett, former chief executive of Chase Consumer Banking, now leads number 79 TIAA.

Karen Lynch holds the distinction this year as the CEO of the highest-ranked company led by a woman: CVS Health at number 4. In fact, no other woman has led a company as high on the list.

I spoke with Ryan Whitacre, a partner with search firm Bridge Partners, to ask if better diversity in the C-suite and the boardroom will now be the norm.

“There are records being made here which should be celebrated,” he told me, but then noted a Deloitte study in collaboration with the Alliance for Board Diversity that showed diverse board appointments had stagnated in 2018 and 2019.

“I don’t think this is long-term DEI work coming into bloom,” he says. “Something just happened in 2020.”

What he means, of course, is the killing of George Floyd, which mobilized protests against systemic racism. Also, in the face of the pandemic, reports showed that women were dropping out of the workforce in rec­ord numbers, closing many of the inroads toward gender equality in business.

Whitacre points to Heidrick & Struggles’ 2021 U.S. Board Monitor for an example of the about-face in appointments.

In 2019, 10% of new board members at Fortune 500 companies were Black, according to the report. In 2020, that statistic jumped to 28% — three-quarters of those appointments were made after Floyd’s death, according to the report.

Another example may be the fact that Lynch, Brewer and Duckett were hired into their current positions in the first half of this year, perhaps an indication boards are making a concerted effort to bring diversity into the highest levels of management at the top corporations in the country. But there is also longer-term leadership on the list — six of the 41 women on the list have been CEO for five years or more.

The takeaway from the overall increase in diversity last year? “Corporations reacted,” Whitacre says. “They are walking the talk on diversity. This needs to happen more and more.

“The quick uptick since George Floyd showed that companies can act. They can do this if they have meaningful intent.”

One organization moving with intent is the new Herndon Directors Institute. This fellowship program is intended to introduce minority and female businesspeople to how boards work, both formally and informally. The inaugural class completing the program this July consists of 19 fellows.

The institute is supported by The Alonzo F and Norris B Herndon Foundation. Alonzo Franklin Herndon was a former slave who built an insurance company that would become Atlanta Life Financial Group, the only African American-owned and privately held stock company in the country with a financial services platform that includes asset management and insurance. The foundation’s goals include a heavy concentration on minority entrepreneurship and education.

The program not only will make the fellows strong potential directors but also will work directly with U.S. corporations to place the fellows on boards.

Lastly, this issue includes our annual “Directors to Watch” feature that highlights outstanding women directors. I regularly use both of our annual “watch” lists to find fresh sources for our magazine and events. For our articles on research and development we were able to tap Gail Lione, Kimberly Casiano and Merline Saintil to share some great insights. Our fourth quarter edition of the list will highlight ethnically diverse directors.

I look forward to discovering new sources every year and expanding not only our collection of sources, but also your pool of talent.

April Hall is managing editor of Directors & Boards. She welcomes feedback at april.hall@directorsandboards.com.


Other related articles