Barry Lawson Williams has a message for companies: Find new Black candidates to serve on your board.
Over the course of several decades, Williams, who ran his own consulting and investment company for many years, has served on 14 public company boards, including prominent institutions such as Sallie Mae, Navient Corporation, and PG&E, where he was the lead director. While on boards, it was not unusual for Williams to be the lone Black member.
In January, he retired from his last for-profit board seat. Soon after, Williams, who has previously worked to collect board diversity data to shed light on the issue, released a new report – what he calls a Time Capsule Project – on his personal website. It compiled the experiences of 50 Black board directors – some of whom, like him, were on the cusp of retiring – with the goal of informing another generation of “aspiring and new Black directors.” Then something surprising happened: Companies started reaching out to him about taking on new board seats, again.
“Although I have all the energy and time in the world, I’ve used that as an opportunity to refer younger candidates,” Williams, now 76, said in an interview with CNN Business. “You get guys like me – guys and gals – who are on four or five boards at a time. When we retire you’ve got to replace across the board; I’m trying to give some other people a chance.”
For years, there has been pressure on corporate boards to ensure they aren’t made up primarily of white men – and the issue has only gained urgency amid a broader focus on racial justice across the country in recent months. Williams’ experience offers a unique window into how companies determine – and perhaps unintentionally limit – who gets picked to serve on boards.
When conducting board searches, relationships played a major role, according to Williams’ research. His findings also showed that more than 60% of the Black board members he spoke to had served on at least five corporate boards in their career.
“You see the same people being asked to serve on multiple boards while many fantastic candidates never get the position,” said Valerie Frederickson, founder and CEO of Frederickson Partners, an HR Executive Search and Consulting firm that has worked with companies such as Alphabet, Facebook and Uber. “Most boards remain extremely risk averse and only want to offer board positions to people they consider as much like them as possible.”
The first step to fixing a problem is seeing it clearly. Williams and his surveys help to shed light on the experiences of seasoned Black directors in corporate America broadly, including that most said they would have advocated more, and sooner, for diversity, or left boards that lacked a commitment to the issue.
And now Williams, who has lived in San Francisco for decades, says he plans to focus his attention on Black representation at the tech companies in his own backyard, which have long struggled to diversify within the leadership ranks.
A problem Silicon Valley is struggling to solve
Silicon Valley is known for its love of data and, in this case, the data doesn’t lie. According to Black Enterprise’s Registry of Corporate Directors, 187 S&P 500 Companies did not have a single Black board member in 2019. A recent analysis from executive search firm Spencer Stuart found that Black people only accounted for 11% of new directors at S&P 500 companies over the past year, down from 13% the year prior.
The corporate diversity problem is heightened in tech. The industry, already known for being insider and connection-driven, has notoriously fallen short when it comes to improving diversity at every level, including on boards. (At the moment, while there is some public pressure, there is little regulatory pressure. A California law requires public companies to diversify boards when it comes to female representation, but there’s no such requirement for racial diversity.)
“We know that of all public company boards, technology has the fewest number of Blacks on boards than all other industries,” said Charles Tribbett, who co-leads the Board and CEO Advisory Group at Russell Reynolds and is the cofounder of the Black Directors Conference, which Williams attends. Tribbett also participated in Williams’ research. While that’s changing, Tribbett said, “I believe they can move quicker.”
Several years ago, Williams looked at why Black board candidates were being overlooked at major Bay Area firms. Williams’ research found there was greater under representation on leading tech boards because of a perceived lack of “domain knowledge.” More recently, Williams spoke with veteran Black corporate directors who said they “wished they had more opportunities” to serve on boards in specific sectors, including technology.
Entrepreneur Tristan Walker, who sold his health and beauty startup geared towards people of color, Walker & Co, to Proctor & Gamble in 2018, would seem to be an obvious asset to many tech boards. Not only did he launch and sell a tech-enabled company, he is young, Black and has a substantial presence online. Walker said he’d “absolutely love” to join a tech company board one day, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Instead, Walker - who was not part of Williams’ survey – has recently been named to his first two board seats at recognizable consumer brands: Foot Locker and Shake Shack.
“I’ve offered, and continue to offer, a non-redundant point of view,” he said, while recognizing the rarity of his experience. “There are other folks who are just as capable, just as smart, just as hungry, and just as motivated as I to effect the type of change that I hope to.”
‘It matters who is in the room’
For tech, the board diversity problem may start early. Freada Kapor Klein, a venture capitalist and longtime leader in pushing for diversity in tech, said VC-backed startups tend to keep their boards as small as possible and filled with investors. Yet, venture capital is overwhelmingly white and male.
“It is absolutely clear to me that it matters who is in the room,” said Kapor Klein, whose firm has invested in companies including Via, Thrive Market and, famously, Uber. And the stakes are high: Not only does the diversity of leadership potentially impact corporate decisions and innovation, it also impacts consumers – especially when it comes to technology companies.
As Arisha Hatch, vice president at Color of Change, which has been advocating for diversity in the tech industry for the past six years, put it: “We cannot have a conversation about racial justice — the pursuit of creating a more humane world for Black people — without talking about the influence of technology companies and especially the people who lead them.”
Kapor Klein ticked off a list of ways to help improve the issue, including “a change in demographics of venture capital, a change in optimal board size, expansion of board observer seats, all of those can and should make a difference in terms of diversity.”
Williams said he also endorses the idea of expanding board sizes as necessary, especially as the very idea of diversity has taken on a broader definition, with the word also being used to consider adding candidates based on geography or skill set, for example.
“I’ve been on boards as small as five and as large as 16 and both types have been effective,” he said.
Silicon Valley may be more committed to change now in the wake of nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky recently told CNN his company must do better on diversity and the company announced last week that it plans to make its board and executive team 20% people of color, collectively, by the end of 2021. And Reddit, a 15-year-old startup, added its first Black board member last month.
“While there’s been change, there hasn’t been enough,” Williams said, speaking of the tech industry. He said he’d like to get some institutional support to do more to help boost diversity in tech broadly, starting with companies that don’t have a Black director and then focusing on startups. “Right now, a lot of this is me and my computer in my office during COVID.”