Boards Need Black Directors

Boards Need Black Directors

Steven Rogers was less than 40 years old when he was approached in the mid-’90s by William D. George, then-CEO of SC Johnson Wax, about joining the board of the prestigious family-owned company.

For Rogers, it was a surprising honor, but it made all the sense in the world to George.

“The CEO said he wanted a Black person on the board of directors,” Rogers says. “And he said it should be someone who had owned their own business, who had experience in the business world, but could still be described as ‘up and coming.’ He wanted someone who hadn’t necessarily been in the corporate world for a long time, but he knew he wanted me and wanted to give me a chance, and to diversify his board.

“I ended up staying on that board for 23 years, longer than anyone else had ever been on there.”

This interview was part of the 2020 Private Company Governance Summit held online in September. Registration is still available to watch replays of the sessions. Register now...

Rogers, a director of Oakmark Mutual Funds and W.S. Darley & Co., is a longtime board member of private and public companies. His story of his first board appointment illustrates the idea that in order to solve the diversity problem in corporate America, CEOs must be open to recognizing “Black brilliance” and hiring Black board members.

Rogers has been speaking about this topic for years and now he’s speaking out with even more urgency as protests over social injustice have highlighted the difficulties of Black Americans in many aspects of society, including the workforce.

To that end he’s launched a podcast, “Lessons on Black Excellence in Business with Professor Steven Rogers,” and in June he released “A letter to my white business friends, on what they can do” to foster social change.

“You’ve got a huge disparity of wealth, with the average white family having a $176,000 net worth, and the average Black family having 10% of that,” Rogers says. “So I believe the solution to our racial problems is economic. We have a financial apartheid in this country, and one way to fix that is for [private] corporations and publicly owned companies to have Black board members. Ideally, those Black board members can be instrumental in helping to address this financial apartheid by sending money to and doing business with Black-owned businesses, which are the largest employers of Black employees in America.”

Rogers believes in a three-pronged approach to recruiting Black board members:

  • Make a mandate that when a board seat comes up, you will hire a Black person for the job. “You have to have the mindset as the head of a company that if you get exposed to a brilliant Black mind, someone you believe has the ability to be a great board director, then make that move — engage them and hire them,” Rogers says.
  • Have a business world version of the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires pro football teams to interview at least one minority candidate when a head coaching job comes up. Much as it does in the NFL, Rogers says, this would give more African-American businesspeople the chance to meet with boards and begin building relationships.
  • Finally, Rogers believes in “The Board Challenge,” launched in September, in which companies pledge to add at least one Black director in the next 12 months. He says 40 companies have currently pledged to do that, but he wants that number tripled.

“You’ve got 150 to 200 publicly owned companies saying they don’t have a Black board member,” he says. “If these three things happen, it’ll have multiple impacts. It’ll add Black brilliance to your company, but you’ll also become a contributor to your entire community, and the stakeholders in your company are the broader community. If you have more diversity in your boardroom, you’ll start seeing more Black employees and the sharing of wealth, with people putting money in Black banks and doing business with Black-owned businesses.”

To that last point, Rogers has come up with what he calls “The 8.46% Pledge.” The number represents the number of minutes a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, an African-American man, killing him.

Rogers wants 8.46% of a company’s money invested in a Black-owned bank, and the same percentage of a business’ charitable donations going to a Black-supported charity or another Black community institution.

He cites Netflix’s recent decision to invest $100 million into Black-owned banks as an excellent step.

“We need a diverse board, but we also need Black people on those boards to have the desire to speak up, who believe in their job having fiduciary responsibility, but also to speak up on behalf of Black employees. We need Black directors and white directors who have the mindset of ‘How can I help the Black community?’ That’s what it will take to see real change occur.”