WOEOn March 30, the Michigan Chronicle hosted a Women of Excellence women’s empowerment panel at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel titled “The Insiders Circle: Pathway to Obtaining Corporate Board Appointments.”

The panel was moderated by Pam McElvane, CEO and publisher of Diversity MBA magazine. The panelists were M. Alexis Scott, publisher of the Atlanta Daily World; Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom, vice president of Community Health Education and Wellness, Henry Ford Health System, and Michigan’s first surgeon general; Vivian Pickard, president of the General Motors Foundation and director of Corporate Relations at GM; and Faye Nelson, president and CEO of Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

McElvane said women in the corporate boardrooms shouldn’t be a dream, but a career aspiration.

She said that in 2011, Catalyst, an organization that works to advance women in the workplace, did a survey of Fortune 500 companies.

“Only 16.9 percent of those boards have women,” McElvane said. “And of the 16.9 percent, 13.3 percent are White, and 3.3 percent are women of color. Of the 3.3 percent 11.3 percent are African-American.”

She added that 83.9 percent of board members are men, and estimated that 21 percent of them are men of color.

McElvane also said Diversity MBA benchmarks leadership.

“Our statistics for 2011 show that for our top 50 companies, 21 percent of women are on boards, and 18.8 percent of people of color are on boards.”

She noted  that with the average board size of 10, that’s one woman or one male of color for each board.

For the top 10 companies, the Diversity MBA found that the average board’s pool of diversity is 47 percent.

“Then if you’re in an industry that’s traditionally women-owned, women-managed, or penetrating with women, like financial services or healthcare, you really should have a 50 to 55 percent pool of diversity.”

She pointed out that the panelists come from different industries and backgrounds, but all have made it a priority to both serve the community and position themselves on paid boards.

McElvane asked the panelists how early board service has helped them position themselves for opportunities in their professional careers.

Scott, whose paper was recently purchased by Real Times Media, the parent company of the Michigan Chronicle, said she went on boards where she cared about what they were doing, so she could bring passion and energy. She also looked at what her bosses were interested in. If she did a good job for them, she would receive professional recognition.

She currently sits on several nonprofit boards, some industry related and some community service related. She also sits on one paid board, The Atlanta Life Financial Group.

Wisdom said she decided to serve on boards that focused on areas where she had a genuine interest.

“Find something you care about, that you have some passion about,” she advised.

Earlier this year, Wisdom was appointed by President Obama to serve as a member of the advisory group on prevention, health promotion and integrated and public health.

She said the various boards she’s served on, including former U.S Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher’s Satcher Health Leadership Board; the Public Health Institute, a board in California; and a Washington, D.C., board called the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, have played a critical role in her growth and development as a professional.

“But also I think there have been great opportunities for those people and those organizations to learn from a community health perspective, from a health care equity perspective,” Wisdom said.

Pickard, who said her most significant board experience was serving on the board of National Council of Negro Women after getting a call from the late Dr. Dorothy Height, always tried to do whatever she could to make a difference when it came to her community.

Nelson agreed with the others, and said it’s important to serve community, to affiliate with boards for which you have a passion.

She serves on several large nonprofit boards, including the Henry Ford Health System, the Parade Company, Tech Town, University of Detroit Mercy and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. Those experiences have helped her prepare for the for-profit board experience of serving on the board of the Compuware Corp.

She also said that being on a for-profit board has honed her skills and made her a better nonprofit executive.

As president and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Nelson reports to a 44-member board of directors. 

McElvane also asked the panelists how they positioned themselves to be invited to sit on boards.

Pickard said you never know when someone is watching you. Her philosophy is do your best whenever you can and make sure you’re doing the right thing at all times.

Nelson warned attendees to not underestimate the importance of experience. She noted there are a variety of area boards to consider. 

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