Ursula Burns wants corporate boards to add Black talent, right now

September 29, 2020, 9:59 PM UTC

Ursula Burns is not spectacular, she’ll have you know.

“When I was working with the Obama administration, people would say to me, ‘Oh you’re spectacular. You are amazing. And I was a little taken aback by it,’” Burns told me in a recent conversation.

Burns, who worked on the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, among other assignments, says don’t get her wrong. She knows who she is and she’s proud of herself. “But I was uncomfortable with it because, believe it or not, I am not [spectacular]. I am pretty good at certain things. I am really bad at other things. If I had been a white CEO, I think they would have said I was ‘good.’” 

But to be Black or brown in an elite leadership space, as defined by white men, means you have to be spectacular

“I’m convinced of this—because the only way that this white man could have me in the room with him consistently, or as a peer sitting around the table with the president of the United States arguing, etc.— is if I were spectacular,” she said.

This speaks to the heart of one of the many issues the former Xerox CEO is trying address in her latest bid to diversify corporate boards. “This system needs to be reformed,” she said told Alan Murray and me on this week’s episode of the Leadership Next podcast. She noted that there are now only four Black CEOs in the Fortune 500, all male. And in a world made still by pandemic—and rallying in profoundly new ways around racial justice—hanging on to the status quo simply won’t do. “Boards are very important because they take into account the entire mission of the company and they are responsible for assuring that there is a redo,” she added. Yes, that includes the share price. 

She is now occupied by the Board Diversity Action Alliance, a new, no-nonsense plan to diversify corporate boards in order to address, in her strong view, the glacial pace of progress in corporate diversity.

She’s the co-founder along with Gabrielle Sulzberger, who’s the former Board chair of Whole Foods, the consultancy Teneo and some names familiar to the Fortune crowd, including Crystal Ashby of the Executive Leadership Council and Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.

Signatories of the Board Diversity Action Alliance—like Dow, MasterCard, UPS, Macy’s and Uber—promise to increase the number of Black directors on their corporate board of directors to one or more, as well as disclose board demographics and all inclusion metrics.

She hopes the process will offer a spectacular reality check for board chairs who typically only consider Black board talent who have already been on boards or run a Fortune 500 company. “That’s like a list of like 25 people,” Burns said. “I promise you, white people are not held to that same standard.”

And it may help banish the idea of the thin talent pipeline once and for all.

Wells Fargo CEO Charlie Scharf was recently forced to apologize after he attempted to blame the lack of diversity at the firm on “a very limited pool of Black talent to recruit from.” The bank, which, as is allegedhad no trouble finding Black and brown families to hoist higher cost mortgages upon—sadly could find no leadership potential in those same communities.

“Enough,” Burns told me recently. “Enough is enough is enough.”

Ellen McGirt

Amplifying Black power

Is it me, or are there a lot of very powerful people convening these days? Here’s another good example.

The Black Voices for Black Justice (BVBJ) initiative launches today, with a new $10 million fund to support Black leaders doing anti-racism work in 15 states and Washington D.C. The 31 awardees are working on a variety of issues, including criminal justice reform, voting rights, environmental justice and COVID recovery. You may recognize some names among their ranks, including Brittany Packnett Cunningham, Love & Power Works; Ryan Haygood, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice; and Natasha Alford from The Grio.

The fund is is underwritten and supported by a host of philanthropies including The Moriah Fund, Galaxy Gives, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the CityBridge Foundation, and is co-chaired by Robin Hood Foundation CEO Wes Moore, actor and activist Kerry Washington, and Jean Desravines, the CEO of education nonprofit, New Leaders.

The money will be distributed in grants of $50,000 or $20,000, with no restrictions.

“The Black Voices for Black Justice Fund recognizes and supports the incredible work that’s being done by everyday heroes at the grassroots level,” Moore tells raceAhead by email. “In order for our communities to exceed the level of greatness we all aspire to, these voices must be elevated, supported and heard.”

It’s worth spending time on their new site, just a few hours old, to get a sense of the work the awardees are doing. But what is equally impressive is the massive executive brainpower running the BVBJ, extraordinary Black leaders who should be on anyone’s short list for a briefing, panel, greater investment... or a board seat.

They are out there, trust Ursula and me.

raceAhead is edited by Aric Jenkins.

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