Welcome, Wonder Women: Two Fortune 500 African American CEOs

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Any list of top CEOs is a reminder of the leadership void from communities of color. Strikingly glaring is the absence of women of color. In the workplace, African Americans and Latinas are slowly moving from invisible to visible, an anomaly to normalcy; the struggle is real, especially for women in the executive ranks and even more so for women of color. It is no secret that there is a short supply of Black CEOs, a persistent challenge, especially for women. Signs of optimism are abounding as the glass ceiling shattered in the White House and the C-Suite. Rosalind (Roz) Brewer, former COO of Starbucks, recently stepped into the top post at Walgreens drugstore chain as its first African-American CEO and the third African American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Despite a spotlight on global diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, progress is slow, suggesting a recalcitrant boardroom problem as the number of women of color CEOs remains woefully low.

On May 1, TIAA welcomes Thasunda Brown Duckett, its first African American female CEO and the fourth Black woman CEO in a Fortune 500 company. TIAA, a Fortune 100 financial services company, has deciphered the code—as it continues to break barriers for inclusive excellence. (Disclosure: I am a member of the TIAA Diversity Council.) Long before it created its first office of Diversity and Inclusion in 2008, the enterprise was an early adopter of women in corporate leadership. Its pacesetting governance structure dates back to 1940, appointing its first woman to the Board, Ada Comstock Notestein, then in 1957 Luther H Foster, its first African American appointee. The cataclysmic moment in its corporate DNA happened in 1987 when Dr. Clifton Wharton, Jr. stepped into the top post as Chairman and CEO, the first African American ever to lead a major US Corporation.

Pause, raise the bar, as TIAA lauds the first-ever African American CEO succession as Ms. Duckett follows the remarkable Roger Ferguson as its third African American CEO. A trailblazing leadership story and a first for any Fortune 500 company, presumably this spring, the clouds will part when two African American women take the helm at Fortune 500 companies.  Celebrate this significant leadership coup with applause and analysis. 

Do not understate what a historic moment this is, especially with African Americans’ lagging progress in corporate leadership. A Coqual study explains that a “majority of Black professionals experience racial prejudice at work, and experience certain microaggressions at higher rates [across racial groups] than all other professionals.” Blacks regularly experience more microinsults, microinvalidations, and microassaults in the workplace. The findings offer interventions that help, as African American women are more inclined to stay with an employer if there are “clear expectations for inclusive behaviors.” Companies like TIAA lead from the front, building and nurturing a corporate culture with deliberate equity-minded efforts and career development programs addressing hiring and career progression bias. 

Yet, there is much room to grow for women of color. Academic studies show that a small subset of Black women in the workforce beat the odds and rise to positions of influence within the executive ranks. Resiliency is paramount because of the “frequency with which they [Black women] encountered obstacles and setbacks resulting from the intersecting dynamics of race, gender, and other identities.” Typically, propelled by an innate drive, they tend to have impeccable academic credentials with advanced college degrees and accolades from selective institutions. Women of color say they must consistently outperform, be better than great, and work harder than everyone else works.

A study that interviews 59 Black female executives explores layers of complexities and intersectionalities as the women “must contend with living in two pervasive hierarchical societal structures: one gender-based hierarchy, where they are subordinate to men, and another race-based hierarchy, where they are subordinate to Whites.” The interviewees describe common denominators with themes like unbridled familial support, self-assurance, and authenticity as necessary to ascend. To push forward, Black women navigate their workplace as an “outsider within.” They recognize barriers before them. They understand the necessity to access professional networks that include coaches, advisors, mentors, and sponsors, including support from White men. For women of color, it is easier to get derailed than to get ahead.

TIAA’s competitive edge is intentionality, course-correcting to maintain a culture that recognizes and embraces diversity as its strength. Seemingly and persistently developing systems and practices leading to visible role models at every level, career pathways, and an array of women’s voices in the C-Suite. Today, women comprise 47% of TIAA’s Board. Its leadership is consistently paving paths for women, including its ninth recognition as one of the Top 70 Companies for Executive Women and a decade on the Top 100 Companies for Working Mothers. Melissa St. Clair, VP Inclusion and Innovation shared with its external Diversity Council that “55% of its executive team are people of color and 38% of its senior leadership team are women.” Amongst its female employees, 50% of them are in P&L positions. A 2020 Working Mother of the Year Awardee, Cynthia Qualls, Director of Client and Business Services, Nuveen, TIAA, states, “I really found my groove when I started working for extremely progressive and supportive female managers at TIAA, whose support enabled me to show up for my kids while excelling in my career.”

As corporate America is confronting the pandemic’s impact on women and the workforce, the Economic Policy Institute indicators state, “Black and Hispanic women experienced the most significant and disproportionate job losses in the pandemic recession.” Amidst crises brought about by the pandemic and racial injustice, TIAA pivoted. Ferguson’s leadership is front and center; he is confronting inherent privilege and perennial racial inequities with what he calls, the “Be the Change initiative tailored on building the future in a more inclusive and anti-racist way.” Be the Change is a game-changer and lays the groundwork for learning, acting, and leading with an active anti-racist mindset. Dr. Mildred Garcia, Chairwoman of the TIAA Diversity Council, says, “It is a companywide effort that challenges everyone to think-forward, recognize disparities and work to dismantle systemic racism. It sets the stage for active anti-racist policies and practices, with thought-provoking educational programs that empathetically guide an environment for women and communities of color.”

TIAA perpetuates its success, poised for its first female CEO, Thasunda Brown Duckett, one of the most powerful female bankers in the industry, and she has a longstanding commitment to inclusion and financial empowerment. Now is the moment to shift mindsets, stand-up, and acknowledge their perseverance as these two powerful women transcend the leadership scene. Poet Amanda Gorman says, “There’s always light, if we’re brave enough to see it, if we’re brave enough to be it.” It’s Women’s History Month, and the door for change is open; Thasunda Brown Duckett and Rosalind Brewer are the shining beams of light swinging that door open.

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