Fresh Insight: Lifting as We Climb

by Merline Saintil

When people first encounter our organization, Black Women on Boards (BWOB)—more than 200 senior executives shaping the future of boardrooms at the most innovative private and public companies—they are

surprised to hear that we had no grand vision of launching a global organization, nor a five-year strategy plan mapping our next steps. Instead, we simply saw a need and met the moment in a way that has fueled extraordinary outcomes.

Spark of an idea

In the fall of 2020, two things were happening. First, my cofounder, Robin Washington, and I were each continuing to get calls asking if we’d join another board, but we were at capacity. That spurred us to host a Zoom video conversation for a group of 18 Black women to explore how best to bring more Black women onto boards.

We learned that they weren’t getting the recruiting calls–—not because they weren’t qualified but because CEOs, board members, and search firms didn’t know about them. For those unfamiliar with how this works, the people who tend to get the calls are already on boards.

It was clear to us that we could help remove this obstacle by creating access and introductions. We got to work doing exactly that, behind the scenes, entirely via word of mouth. BWOB was launched.

Igniting a movement

As recently as 1971, when Patricia Roberts Harris joined the board of IBM, there had never been a Black woman on the board of directors of a Fortune 500 company. Since then, we have much progress to celebrate. BWOB alone has, since its launch, placed 40 members on public, private, and advisory boards.

But there’s still much to do. For example, about the time we were beginning this work, Deloitte found that of the 5,124 Fortune 500 board seats in 2020, at least 97 percent were held by directors who are not Black women. It’s important to seek out and analyze board trends like this to measure progress beyond the anecdotal.

I frequently tell members that they may well be the first Black woman on any given board—but what matters even more is that they’re not the last. Yes, we’re seeing a pullback in DEI commitments. But here’s the thing: there always have been and always will be headwinds. It’s up to us to find a way through.

Fueling future success

Essential to membership in BWOB is a shared understanding and commitment to always be “sending the elevator back down” to support not only other members but also, crucially, our future generations of leaders.

One of several ways we’ve done that is by creating the BWOB Rising Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization with our initial dozen early and mid-career members, which we’ll be scaling to 100 over the next 24 months.

As for BWOB, we always enjoy hearing from senior executives at various points on their public and private board journeys, and from potential sponsors to continue fueling our momentum. Learn more at DW

Merline Saintil is the lead independent director of Rocket Lab. She also serves on the board of Fortune 100 company TD Synnex, as well as the boards of GitLab, Symbotic, and Evolv Technology.


“Deloitte found that of the 5,124 Fortune 500 board seats in 2020, at least 97 percent were held by directors who are not Black women.”

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