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Getting more Black women on corporate boards is this new program’s urgent mission

February 1, 2022, 8:00 PM UTC

Merline Saintil and Robin Washington, two veteran executives with substantial track records on the boards of leading tech companies, have joined forces to improve representation on corporate boards. They have the experience, backing, and know-how to do it. Their group is called, appropriately, Black Women on Boards.

Washington is a director at Alphabet, Salesforce, and Honeywell International. In a statement shared with Fortune, Washington cited a report which noted that just 4% of board seats at S&P 500 companies are held by Black women.

Saintil is the lead independent director at Rocket Lab and a board member at GitLab, Evolv Technology, Lightspeed Commerce, TD Synnex, and Alkami Technology. She describes Black Women on Boards as a “passion and legacy project” that she has been working on for a little over a year. 

Now the pair are going forward with a more structured operation. Black Women on Boards will take the form of a six-month accelerator program that includes workshops, webinars, individual coaching sessions, and whatever else it takes to place high-potential executives into board roles that are a good fit. 

“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.

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

There is no cost to participants, and the goal is to have 100% placement for their first cohort by the end of 2022. The program’s founding partners are Diligent (a corporate-governance software provider and a sponsor of Fortune’s Modern Board vertical), and venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins, DCVC, Sapphire, and Felicis. In addition to financial support, these companies are providing strategic support.

The VC firms “are really invested in figuring out how they connect with these women, so ahead of an IPO, we have meaningful relationships already developed and ready to go,” Saintil said. This includes “providing visibility, networks, and sponsorship to propel Black female leaders into public and private board seats.”

Saintil estimated that about 80% of the challenges Black women face in earning a board seat are the result of a lack of access to the right network. She hopes Black Women on Boards can be a beacon that attracts high-potential executives and guides them in the right direction by quickly solving the network problem. Building awareness of the opportunity is also crucial, however, as many Black female executives don’t recognize 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.” She added that many people did not know they could be board leaders full-time or didn’t know they could do it on top of their full-time executive jobs.

After the awareness and the network components, Saintil said the next step is figuring out how to demystify the job and the pathways into it. Aspiring candidates can prepare for board leadership by pursuing relevant career opportunities, such as an international assignment, management of a business unit rather than a department, or joining an ESG task force.

Black Women on Boards will be hosting a launch event in New York City on Feb. 8 to introduce its inaugural accelerator cohort. They will also be ringing the Nasdaq opening bell that morning as the exchange honors Patricia Roberts Harris, who became the first Black woman on a Fortune 500 board in 1971, at IBM.

Washington and Saintil know the history of promoting diversity on boards, but Saintil mentioned the increased support from different corners of power in the business ecosystem, for her own initiative and for others as well. They know the pipelines for leadership go far deeper than executive and board levels, and Saintil says she encourages all of her program’s participants and other aspiring leaders to consider the importance of mentorship and paying it forward.

“I’ve been a big proponent of women in tech my whole career, I’m just now doing it at the board level,” Saintil said. “We are very much believers in ‘lift as you climb.’”

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