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The Black Corporate Board Readiness Program: How It All Began

When he gave his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs famously said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.”

Looking forward from the ‘dots’ when the Black Corporate Board Readiness (BCBR) program emerged, who would have predicted where we are today? After all, the original dots included ‘co-founded by two white men’ and ‘hosted by a university not known for racial diversity.

But looking backward, a number of deeper and more important dots become evident. We co-founders—Thane Kreiner, Ph.D., and Dennis Lanham—share a passion for fostering a more just, humane, and sustainable world. We also share an abiding belief that collective action is essential to effect social justice.

Through our mutual ties to Santa Clara University, a Jesuit university located in the heart of Silicon Valley, California, we first became colleagues, then friends. We each have experience leading centers at Santa Clara University: Thane at Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Dennis at the Silicon Valley Executive Center at SCU’s Leavey School of Business. We often explored strategies for aligning our centers’ efforts with the greater good.

The Idea for BCBR Takes Shape

By 2020, the emergence of the global COVID-19 pandemic coincided with a deepening awareness of structural racism in the United States. From our professional experiences spanning corporate, academic, and nonprofit worlds, we recognized that increasing diversity on corporate boards—where decisions have wide-ranging economic and societal impact—can have powerful ripple effects.

The dearth of Black membership on corporate boards struck us as truly stunning—and seriously problematic. In 2019, 37% of S&P 500 companies lacked a single Black board member, and Black directors comprised a meager 4% of Russell 3000 board directors. And yet, research has shown that increased board diversity—in terms of gender, race, economic level, lived experience, and more—leads to measurably better business outcomes.

We knew from our own networks and connections that the problem isn’t a lack of qualified Black professionals: people with the education, credentials, and skills needed to hold leadership positions in corporate boardrooms and executive suites.

And so, in early 2020, we began exploring the idea of a program to increase the number of Black leaders holding corporate board seats.

We didn’t have to look far to find a model for building pathways to board seats for underrepresented people. SCU’s Women’s Corporate Board Readiness (WCBR) program, launched in 2019, was not the first program for prospective women corporate directors, but it has a unique approach. Every participant is paired with a mentor who has experienced being a female corporate director, and most of the content is delivered by women.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered. In response to the outrage and pain triggered by that murder, we resolved to turn our ideas about the BCBR into reality, leveraging the same principles as WCBR. Because WCBR had successfully transitioned to virtual delivery during the pandemic, we felt confident launching BCBR initially as a virtual-only program.

First Step: Build the Network

Before setting anything in motion, we knew we needed to learn directly from the community that this program would ultimately impact. Immediately, we started reaching out to Black leaders in our networks.

Thane’s network drew from his extensive experience in Silicon Valley and included mentors from Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Stanford business school classmates, venture capital and private equity firm partners, and executive recruiters. Dennis looked to both his personal and professional networks—which, due to the fact that he was raised in a predominantly Black community, comprised a large number of Black professionals—as well as champions within SCU, including the WCBR network.

On June 30, 2020 Shellye Archambeau, an experienced CEO whose board memberships include Verizon, Nordstrom, and Okta, responded to a blind communication from Dennis on LinkedIn requesting advice on the program concept. She was preparing for the launch of her book, Unapologetically Ambitious, and referred us to Robin Washington—a high-powered CFO and board member at companies including Alphabet, Honeywell, and SalesForce—who agreed to an exploratory conversation.

After that conversation, Robin introduced us to Barry Lawson Williams, who serves on the board of Management Leadership for Tomorrow and had created a Black Corporate Directors Time Capsule Project. Barry volunteered himself to BCBR and introduced us to Ken and Caretha Coleman and numerous other Black corporate directors, all of whom said, “If Barry is in, I’m in.” By the end of August, we had met with dozens of Black corporate directors and were encouraged to move forward with the BCBR program.

In early September 2020, we formed a Program Advisory Council (PAC) to guide us on strategy and help hone the program design. The PAC includes Robin Washington, Barry Williams, Caretha Coleman, Mark Goodman, Desirée Stolar, and Almaz Negash.

The PAC emphasized the need for a safe space where BCBR participants could discuss the challenges and responsibilities of being Black on a board, breaking the ‘fit’ code, and other topics that became central to the program content. They also advised us to set an outcome metric of 100% placement for program alums within 12 months of completing the program.

BCBR Launches

We set the launch of the inaugural BCBR cohort for February 2021 in honor of Black History month. Based on the experience of the WCBR, our goal was to reach at least half capacity of 25 in that first cohort. PAC members recruited individuals from their own networks to facilitate modules and serve as mentors, and they also recruited from their own lists of up-and-coming Black executives for participation in the program.

In late October 2020, we hosted information sessions and met individually with potential BCBR applicants. Joe Hurd, a long-time senior tech executive and Harvard Law School graduate, was the first to commit to the program. We ended up oversubscribed with 28 remarkable Black executives for our first cohort and a waitlist of other interested participants.

That first cohort of the BCBR program was so successful that demand exploded from Black executives all over the nation. In fact, demand grew so quickly that we decided, with advice from our PAC, to add a third cohort in the first year—enabling the BCBR program to graduate a total of 82 alumni within 12 months, far exceeding our initial expectations.

In the months leading up to the BCBR launch, we also held a public series of ‘Conversations on Diversity in Silicon Valley’ to bring attention to the lack of diversity on corporate boards, in the C-suite, and at VC firms. To accomplish our 100% placement goal, we needed to bring visibility to the incredible concentration of talent that the BCBR program had attracted.

Again, we leveraged our networks to identify potential sponsors. Our goal was to create a ‘receptor network’ among talent partners at VC and PE firms, search consultants, and sitting directors who could help the board-ready Black talent find appropriate public or private corporate director positions.

The BCBR Difference

As with the Women’s Corporate Board Readiness program, BCBR is far from the first or only program aimed at boosting the ranks of Black board members. Still, we believe BCBR is filling a gap that no one else has filled so far. What makes this program different? We—and our PAC members and other supporters—have identified our ‘secret’ as including:

  • Curriculum creation and personalized mentorship by people with first-hand experience of being a Black corporate board member, and often the first or only one.
  • More than courses and book-learning, with attention to the intangibles that Black board members must navigate.
  • A sponsoring university built on Jesuit principles, including a commitment to social justice.
  • The speed and dedication with which we moved: following up immediately on every potential connection, and getting the first cohort up and running quickly.
  • Thinking big, and believing that changing corporate governance can help change the world.

Among our first two completed cohorts, more than 50% of participants have been placed on corporate boards, and we’re continually adding to that number.

The BCBR story is far from complete. The program, and its results, will continue to expand far into the future. But now, looking back a mere two years since we co-founded the BCBR program, and on the one-year anniversary of beginning our first cohort, we can connect many more of the dots.

And we’re determined to continue finding and connecting additional dots, until we see widespread authentic corporate board diversity throughout the nation.

We are deeply grateful to everyone who has contributed so far to the success of BCBR. We invite proven Black leaders to apply to a future cohort, and we encourage anyone with advisory or decision-making roles for corporate boards to contact us to be matched with accomplished Black leaders to add to your boards.

Through our collective action, we can help bend the future’s arc toward greater social justice.