The statistics remain grim: Only eight CEOs on the Fortune 500 this year were Black. Fifty-two Fortune 500 companies were led by women. Both numbers fall well short of Black and female representation in the overall U.S. population.
We must make more progress.
As part of our Influence with Inclusion program this year, the Washington Business Journal assembled 10 CEOs and presidents of color to discuss progress — and challenges — in creating more diverse C-suites. The CEOs spoke frankly at a private dinner at Ris in August.
The discussion was the third in the program, a four-part series dedicated to examining the barriers of entry women and leaders of color face in the C-suite and corporate boardrooms.
The conversation, moderated by Publisher Alex Orfinger and ACBJ Regional Editor Vandana Sinha, is edited here for space and clarity.
THE INCLUSION SPEAKERS
- Nasir Qadree, founder and managing partner, Zeal Capital Partners, a venture capital firm focused on inclusive investing with two funds totaling about $160 million
- Rina Bansal, president, Inova Alexandria Hospital, a 318-bed facility owned by Inova Health System
- David Wellisch, co-founder and CEO, Collage Group, a Bethesda consumer research firm focused on racial and other groups
- Irma Becerra, president, Marymount University, a 3,500-student Catholic university in Arlington
- Doyle Mitchell Jr., president and CEO, Industrial Bank, a D.C.-based Black-owned bank with $433 million in deposits
- Ellis Carr, president and CEO, Capital Impact Partners, an Arlington-based community development financial institution
- Nazzic Keene, CEO, SAIC, a publicly traded government technology contractor based in Reston with a market cap of $5.89 billion
- Bryan Myers, president and CEO, solidcore, an Arlington-based boutique fitness company
- Sonny Ganguly, CEO, Clutch, a D.C. company that matches businesses with B2B services
- Camilo Garcia, co-business unit leader, DPR Construction, a California-based general contractor with mid-Atlantic operations
THE CEOS’ PERSONAL JOURNEYS
Irma Becerra: Less than 1% of the university presidents are Latin, Latinas. The numbers are a little bit higher on community college than university president. As I was interviewing for the job of the university president a number of times before I got the job at Marymount, I figured that one of my biggest barriers was convincing people that I could do the job when there are no others that look like me. So how I prepared myself for the challenge is that as a provost, which is the No. 2, I pretty much took the role of a president when I was a sitting provost. So when I went on an interview to interview as a president, I essentially could talk to the board like, “I’ve done this job before and I’ve done it well, and these are my metrics that show you that I’ve done the job and I’ve done it well.”
Rina Bansal: I grew up in India, and when you grow up with people who look like you, you never feel like a minority. So when I moved to the States when I was 14, I had a ton of self-confidence based on my ability. I never really saw myself as a minority or as a woman. I just saw myself as Rina. But then I rose through the ranks and became the associate chief medical officer at our Fairfax campus. I was in the room with older Caucasian men, and I was the only brown woman in the room. We’re all physicians, so we have that intellectual capability and training that’s the same. But I think people who were higher than me didn’t really see me as someone who belonged. I really always relied on my competency. I can outthink most people at the table in those rooms. So that worked for me, but it was an eye-opening lesson for me that you were being looked at for your race and your gender. Diversity, equity, inclusion is a big part of what we do. And now if you look around the table, it’s a much different table than it was even five years ago. Four of our presidents are minorities and three of them are women.
Doyle Mitchell: I grew up in D.C., which was probably 70%, 80% Black. And at the same time, my father was associated with Black bankers nationally. And so I never thought it was something I couldn’t obtain. And fortunately, I grew up around a lot of different people. Went to a private elementary, I went to a public middle school and then Catholic high school. But when my father died, and the board named me president, probably about five years, six years later, I ran into this bad situation with these people called bank regulators. And at that time in the late ’90s, they were all white for the most part. That’s when I got the feeling that I was Black and a white man is white. They didn’t know the business model. They hadn’t experienced many Black-owned banks at that time. It was maybe 50 Black-owned banks out of 8,000 or 9,000 banks in the country. And that was probably the first time I wondered if I could make it in this situation.
Things need to change more because I think one of the things that regulators understand the least about our bank is our community. They don’t live in all-Black communities or Black and brown communities. So they might wonder, “Why can’t this person just put up more capital?” We don’t have capital. And our bank is some microcosm of the wealth gap and the income gap. I talked to the CFO of a bank about four times larger than we were. They were in Virginia, they had a third of our customers, but they were four times larger than us. And that was a clear example of how we’ve accumulated a lot of people with a little bit of wealth.
David Wellisch: As a Hispanic immigrant, originally from Ecuador, I was privileged to be in the uber-educated class. I went to Brown, went to Harvard as an MBA. What has become so clear to me is that America has a way to communicate in the executive world. Learning English is one thing, but there’s a way to speak. America has a way of speaking, and it’s very structured. And if you don’t speak in that way, you lose points in the context of investment, in the context of executives, in the context of the corporate ladder. If you come from Latin America, you’re verbose, you’re emotional, and you’ve got to tone it down.
ADVANCING AS A PERSON OF COLOR
Nazzic Keene: If you grow up in a culture where everybody looks like you, your confidence is greater. If you’re in a company where you don’t see people that look like you, it is very hard to imagine yourself in those roles. And that’s why it’s so important that all of us as leaders create the table that is representative of our population.
Nasir Qadree: I remember when I first came out of college at Hampton University, the historically black college in Virginia, and I entered the trading floor at Goldman Sachs, and I was literally a raisin in a pile of vanilla ice cream. That’s how it felt when I entered the trading floor. And there was a sense of imposter syndrome, there was a sense of “do I belong?” And as I navigated financial services and then later venture capital, mentorship was incredibly important. I went out and sought individuals, mainly those who were 10 years older than me — I knew it wasn’t too long ago they were in my shoes.
Camilo Garcia: It’s a big sense of responsibility. I’m leading a business that easily is about 500 people that work and depend on decisions that we’re going to be making. And so ultimately for me, it was that sense of really make sure that you can connect, to make sure that you look back and say, “You know what? I’m at a point that I can fulfill that. I can feel that the responsibility to provide is something that is going to have a long-lasting impact.” We’re making decisions on folks who really cannot even speak English, to be honest with you. And be able to connect with them and be able to engage with them is something that they’re not expecting — that the person that is running the business is somebody that can speak to them in Spanish.
Bryan Myers: As the child of two parents, neither of whom went to college — my dad joined the military and my mom worked administrative jobs — successful Black people were bankers, lawyers and doctors. And that’s really the only things that I knew about. I became a consultant, which my parents were like, “What even is that?” But the thing that I learned from a mentor early in my career is the value of risk-taking and jumping off of the linear path. When I think about my career and my path to being a CEO, especially at a relatively young age, if I had followed the linear path, I would’ve never gotten here. It’s that leap off of the linear path that a mentor really pushed me to take that ultimately allowed me to have the experiences in my career that meant that I was a CEO at 32.
Ellis Carr: Having a family that didn’t grow up in the financial services sector and didn’t know what I did, having to build your own network was super important. I had to learn over time that I could have all the technical competency necessary, but at the end of the day, you’re moving from that individual contributor or that technical expert to the general manager, to the executive manager. Somebody’s got to take a risk on you. One of my mentors said, “It’s not about who you know. It’s about who knows you.” And so as I began to get introduced to different people, I said, “So, hey, great conversation. Who else should I meet with?” And so he would introduce me to two other people that I could begin to build my network up.
BUILDING A MIDDLE LAYER OF EXECUTIVES OF COLOR
Nazzic Keene: One of the fundamental issues is the middle leadership in all of our organizations. That’s where women and people of color fall out — in first-line, second-line leaders. And until we fix that, you’re not going to have a pipeline for CEOs. You’re not going to have a pipeline for chairs, and you’re not going to have pipeline for presidents. There are so many dimensions to this challenge. But the challenge is real, certainly in public companies. We’re better than we were, but we have to fix this mid-level management to really be able to solve the issue.
When I stepped into the job, we set five-year goals, and we wanted to represent in leadership the same ratio of leaders to the employee base. And we have successfully gotten there with women. We have not successfully gotten there with people of color. And so then you have to digest why. And back to this middle-level leadership, you have to make sure the benefits support the ecosystem that you want to create. You have to create the ability for everybody to advance their career, not just middle-aged white men.
As an example, when I stepped in, we had a very, very small maternity benefit. How do you keep women in mid-level careers without maternity benefits? And so we’ve reshaped our benefit plan, and we’ve mandated that if you’re looking at hiring somebody or promoting somebody, that you look across the universe of talent, not just pick somebody because you happen to know who they are. And so we’ve put in some basic blocking and tackling to try to encourage that.
Irma Becerra: Some of the structural barriers that exist today may not be evident to most people unless you can walk in those shoes. And let me give you an example. When the pandemic happened and we were forced to go remote, we kept all our employees employed at Marymount because I knew how important it was. But we had both our culinary and our clinic services outsourced. And the company that outsourced that important part of our work quickly let go of this personnel. So people that rely on their paychecks on an everyday basis were let go. And I was very impacted because as an immigrant myself, I said, “Oh my God, these people need their salaries, they need their jobs.” But the outsource company said, “No, we don’t need them, they’re gone.” So I told my VP of finance, “We need to insource all our employees. Outsourcing is creating a blind spot for us in terms of us really providing the same level of quality care for our employees.” And we worked on that, and I’m happy that we did.
And the other thing that I thought about is that we give a very important employee benefit: All our employees get free education for them and their families. So our culinary and our clinic services that need that more than anybody else, they were being excluded from that important benefit. I was able to bring educational benefits to our cleaning and our culinary team that is now part of Marymount.
Nazzic Keene: One of the things that we do is a quarterly survey. We’ll do a targeted survey to people of color and we’ll ask them hard questions and try to get that input. What’s creating the barriers? What’s creating the challenges? And then all the way at my leadership table, we review all that data and we say, “OK, in this city, here’s a constant theme.” And then you have to make a decision. You can’t fix everything, nobody can. But it does inform our benefits decision.
Bryan Myers: When it comes to the middle layer, we form some of those unintentional structural roadblocks to advancement. It’s where women aren’t promoted because they’re perceived as being a bitch. It’s where people of color are perceived as being angry. And I think there’s work that we have to do as leaders — and frankly people who don’t look like us need to do as leaders for their organizations to build that cultural competence to question why we perceive people a certain way.
And even in an organization like mine where 95-plus% of our employees are women, we still encounter those challenges where it’s like, “This person’s a bitch.” What do you mean by that? What was the behavior that you observed? What did you receive? And it’s like, “Oh, well they were just …” I’ve been in rooms in my own organization where someone’s like, “You’re really angry.” And I’m like, “Just passionate, not angry at all, just passionate.” But what they’re receiving is anger. Thankfully I’m in the role that I’m in, so they’re not controlling whether I get promoted or not. But that is what people are facing in that middle level or mid-layer of management.
ENSURING THE NEXT GENERATION’S SUCCESS
Rina Bansal: I was at a conference recently at a panel on women in leadership and two African-American women were talking about this topic. They talked about sponsorship — how you actually take someone under your wing and then really promote them. We have to be much more intentional than just it being mentorship. You really have to be intentional in selecting the people that you want to really take under your wing and promote them in your daily work. I think that’s really the only way you can actually push this forward.
Ellis Carr: One of the things I do probably every other month is sit down with all of our employees. And I asked everybody what’s their why — why did they join this? To a “T” it’s that, “I was in this job, it was great, I got paid all this money, but I felt like I wanted to spend the time that I have here to focus on things that I care about.”
As you think about that middle-management layer, because that’s where I was before I left my previous organization, has the rubric changed around what we value to assess promotability? And when you think about the changing demographics of this country and what a core competency is about knowing your market, your market is vastly different than it was 20 years ago. And so you need to have those voices and opinions around the table who actually have market knowledge of that thing so that you can advance the business available from that organization.
Sonny Ganguly: One thing that I’ve found that works really well is in meetings I always call on the youngest voice or the newest employee or someone that is new to the team to speak first. And it elicits a really great opportunity for them, but it also allows for that to come across. And I actually believe diversity or different thoughts on a subject make a big difference. And if you don’t change that equation, you don’t extract that.
Ellis Carr: I think it goes to culture ultimately. There needs to be a culture of inclusion. There needs to be a culture of valuing differences and different opinions. And that has to start with autonomy. I have a number of nieces and nephews who are in the 20 to 30 range and they’re doing their research around the organizations — do they live my values? They may talk a big game, but are they actually executing? And they’re making decisions based off of that. And I think that corporations are going to have to change to make that happen. When I think back in our time in larger organizations, I mentored a lot of young men and women who were at HBCUs and they came from a culture of folks supporting them. And they didn’t understand that when someone said to you “great job,” they actually weren’t being sincere. They were on the performance improvement plan, they were being escorted out the door.
Sonny Ganguly: One of the things that I do is weekly CEO office hours. I do it every week for an hour in 15-minute slots. Any employee can join and I ask three questions. What’s going well? What are challenges or roadblocks. What can I help with? And it’s across the organization. Any employee, regardless of level, wherever they are, can join. I get an amazing pulse of the entire organization within 15 minutes. I cover most of our employee base through a quarter, but it’s been a good way for me to make sure that then my managers and direct reports focus on the right areas.
WHY DEI MATTERS
Bryan Myers: People look at me like, “Oh, our CEO is Black and gay and that’s why he cares about DEI.” And I’m like, “It’s actually not about that.” It is really actually about the fact that it’s the right business decision. We build a culture of inclusivity. You get the right strategic leaders around the table, you build a more diverse customer base. That is good for all parties involved. It’s good for our business, it’s good for our consumers. It is the right business decision.
David Wellisch: For me, it’s where’s the magic? And I think that the magic is in purpose, in meaning and purpose. Gen Z, they are so different than we are. They’re not going to do what we do. They’re going to tell you directly: They’re not going to. And so what I have found is that when you connect the outcomes back to meaning and purpose, magic actually happens.
Nasir Qadree: I’m investing in a lot of small businesses, many of which are led by women, people of color. And so they have the opportunity to really change the way or unbundle how we think about culture and governance and board leadership and inclusion, the ability for their employees to bring their full self. And we know the data as well. When you are a diverse management team, when you’re a diverse team overall, you outperform from a profit perspective.
MAKING WHITE PEOPLE UNDERSTAND DEI
Nasir Qadree: We’re pushing all of us here, pushing particularly white men in leadership roles, what excellence looks like and what different career paths look like with track records. All these historic factors that created these systems — whether it’s redlining or education or getting a loan in the banking sector, health equity assets and affordability — these are all systems that have not afforded women and patients of color and consumers of color and students of color and workers of color the ability to achieve the American dream. And so I think there needs to be a bit more proactiveness around asset framing. And what I mean by that, again, is around historic factors that white men do not know.
Nazzic Keene: You have to train them to have a conversation. You have to teach them. You have to push the envelope. You have to be around the table and force the conversation. It’s just like anything else. It comes with practice. The more you do it, the more comfortable you are.
Read the original story on the Washington Business Journal’s website.