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Black Women Hold Only 4 Percent of S&P 500 Board Seats. A New Program Wants to Get More Black Women on Corporate Boards

Black Women on Boards has a mission of preparing Black women for possible board positions. 

Founded by veteran executives Merline Saintil and Robin Washington in 2021, both of whom have experience being on the boards of leading tech companies, Black Women on Board says it aims to increase the presence of Black women on corporate boards.

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While there have been a record number of Black women on boards in 2021, the numbers are still small. Currently, 168 Black women hold 231 spots of the more than 5,500 seats at S&P 500 companies, according to data and analytics provider ISS Corporate Solutions. While the number of S&P 500 seats held by Black women increased by more than 25 percent, Black women hold only 4 percent of S&P 500 board seats, Bloomberg reported.

According to Saintil and Washington, there is an urgent need for diverse representation on boards. In its first 14 months, more than 130 Black women from the U.S., Canada, Asia and Europe joined BWOB.

BWOB has recently organized a six-month accelerator program that includes workshops, webinars and individual coaching sessions with the focus to place high-potential executives into board roles. 

There is no cost to participants, and the goal is to have 100 percent placement for their first cohort by the end of 2022. The program is receiving financial and strategic support from Diligent (a corporate-governance software provider) and venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins, DCVC, Sapphire and Felicis.

On Feb. 8, BWOB will host a launch event in New York City to introduce its inaugural accelerator cohort. Saintil and Washington will ring the Nasdaq opening bell that morning as the exchange honors Patricia Roberts Harris, who, in 1971, became the first Black woman on a Fortune 500 board at IBM, Fortune reported.

“If you say you just want a Black woman, that’s not helpful,” Saintil told Fortune. “I need to know how that person, in the context of their profile, is going to help that organization. What competency are you looking for? Do you want a CFO profile? Are you looking for someone with enterprise experience? Marketing? We need to first solve for what is going to help the organization.”

She continued, “This is very much a legacy and purpose-driven activity for me. But I am as serious as if I was creating a company. Find the best talent, measure and have goals, big, audacious goals. But keep the bar high for talent, too.”

Saintil is the lead independent board director at Rocket Lab and a board member at GitLab, Evolv Technology, Lightspeed Commerce, TD Synnex, and Alkami Technology, Fortune reported. 

Of creating BWOB, she said, “I knew I wanted to create a system that would use that process to prepare, place, and propel successful Black women into board positions.” 

Washington is a member of the board of directors of Alphabet, Honeywell International and Salesforce. She also serves as chair of the leadership development and compensation committee for Alphabet and chair of the audit committee for Salesforce. 

There are various obstacles facing Black women who want to be on corporate boards, said Saintil, who estimates that about 80 percent of the challenges result from a lack of access to the correct network. Also, many Black female executives don’t realize that board leadership positions are available to them.

“The answer that I typically get is ‘I didn’t realize I could do this,’ ” Saintil said. “That is the thing that I hear most often.”

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