The group working to get more Minnesota women of color onto corporate boards

Diversity is critical for everything from financial success to innovation in the business world, but white male boards still dominate. A group of women is trying to change that.

By: - July 20, 2021 6:00 am

Lorinda Burgess is the vice president of finance in the Americas region for Medtronic. Courtesy photo.

Lorinda Burgess is an accomplished businesswoman. She’s worked at Medtronic for over 23 years, rising through the ranks to become the company’s vice president of finance and its chief financial officer of the Americas region. Burgess has no desire to leave Medtronic, but she found herself still hungry for ways to develop and network as a professional, so she began looking into serving on a board, which wasn’t easy.

“The main challenge for me was not being the CFO of an entire company,” she says, even though her region within Medtronic is larger than many companies themselves. “People are very narrowly focused in terms of what they look for,” Burgess says of the board selection process. 

Although women as a whole are making progress on the corporate leadership front, the same isn’t true for Black women. The 2020 Census of Women in Corporate Leadership found that the percentage of women directors at Minnesota public companies rose to 24.8% in 2020, the highest it’s been in a decade and above the national average of 22.6%. Black women comprise just 3.9% of people on corporate boards.* 

Boards likely don’t consciously decide against having more women or women of color in their ranks, but they’re often excluded by virtue of the qualifications that boards look for. Many seek out CEO experience when making appointments and — despite a record-setting year for female Fortune 500 CEOs — women still make up just 8.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs, while women of color comprise just 1.2%.

An initiative of the Minnesota chapter of Women Corporate Directors — the world’s largest membership organization of women corporate board directors with chapters around the globe — is looking to change that. The Minnesota chapter started a Women of Color initiative to increase the number of women of color on corporate boards across the state.

The initiative, led by a four-woman steering committee, is taking a three-pronged approach to getting more women of color on boards. They’re focusing on increasing the diversity and inclusivity of the Minnesota chapter of Women Corporate Directors itself, which isn’t immune to the issues they’re working to tackle.

They’re also looking to increase the chapter’s connections across the state’s board placement community and develop a pipeline of Minnesota women of color who are at a point in their careers where they’re ready to serve on boards to recommend as positions become available.

“Color blocking”—a lack of racial diversity—”is occurring in terms of women in corporate leadership. That’s why these kinds of initiatives are particularly important,” say Rebecca Hawthorne, professor emerita in organizational leadership at St. Catherine University, who has been leading the Census of Women in Corporate Leadership since it began 13 years ago. 

Over those years, “there has been incremental advancement, but we often refer to it as glacial change,” she says of getting more women in leadership positions. “We started in 2008 with just below 15% women corporate directors, and now we’re at 24.8%. So that is growth, but when we look at your workforce having over 50% women, our leadership is not proportional to the number of women represented in the workforce.”

The same can be said for Black women. “There is a trend that has presented through the last 13 years that has become glaringly obvious again in 2020, and that’s the situation for Black women,” Hawthorne says. “They’re significantly behind white women, white men, and BIPOC men.”

This lack of diversity isn’t just troubling on the equity front, but it poses a problem when it comes to the success of businesses as well. “We know through research that diverse viewpoints and diverse experience really enhances corporate governance and leads to more effective financial performance and increased innovation,” Hawthorne explains.

But winning these dividends takes work: Hawthorne says research suggests that only when women make up 30% of a board are they seen and heard as individuals rather than perceived as speaking for all women.

Kim Nelson spearheaded an effort in Minnesota to identify “board-ready” women of color and help prepare them to serve on corporate boards. Courtesy photo.

What the Women of Color Initiative does is create a clear and supportive pathway to the boardroom for women of color. While the initiative was conceived in June 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the pandemic slowed them down. November was when their work really began to take shape. That’s when they identified their first cohort of 28 board-ready women of color from across the Twin Cities. Kim Nelson spearheaded that effort.

“Companies often don’t have a line of sight into women of color [candidates],” she said. “They’ll say things like ‘the pool is very narrow,’ which really isn’t true; they just don’t know anyone.”

Within two months of the pipeline team’s first meeting, they identified 78 women of color with experience that qualifies them for board service. From there, the group was whittled down to the first cohort of 28 by cross referencing who was ready for board service with who was also immediately interested in placement.

From there, “We created a series of five really meaty workshops that addressed everything from giving [the cohort] an overview of what a board search looks like to understanding what matters to boards and helping them network,” Nelson says. 

To date, the initiative has placed five women in board positions, including Burgess, who began serving on the board of Stepan Company in January

“What I liked about this is that there are very few programs and avenues that you can engage in to learn how you become board ready,” she says. “There are $20,000 courses you can take at Harvard, but to have something that was a very realistic initiative that was also led by women who really had a passion for bringing women into this arena” was critical for demystifying the otherwise opaque world or board placements.

There is, however, still a long way to go.

“My hope is that more and more boards value and become proactive in building a diverse board of directors and move towards a critical mass,” Hawthorne says.

*This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the number of Black women who hold Minnesota board seats. The incorrect information arose from the 2020 Census of Women in Corporate Leadership.

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Cinnamon Janzer
Cinnamon Janzer

Cinnamon Janzer is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist dedicated to covering lesser-told stories across Middle America.