How Boards Can Keep Up The Urgency On Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
DEIDiversityBoard Composition and SuccessionBoard and CEO AdvisoryDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion AdvisoryBoard Director and Chair SearchBoard Effectiveness
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October 25, 2021
5 min read
DEIDiversityBoard Composition and SuccessionBoard and CEO AdvisoryDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion AdvisoryBoard Director and Chair SearchBoard Effectiveness
Executive Summary
Ford Foundation president Darren Walker reflects on the board’s role in DE&I following a joint study with RRA and State Street Global Advisors.
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Earlier this year, Russell Reynolds Associates partnered with the Ford Foundation and State Street Global Advisors on an in-depth study of how corporate boards approach the oversight of racial and ethnic diversity, equity, and inclusion. The study provided a view into boardroom discussions and also offered a roadmap for how companies can more effectively manage and mitigate risks related to racial justice, thus making our world more equitable.

Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation, a $16 billion international social justice philanthropy, as well as a member of the Reimagining New York Commission and co-chair of NYC Census 2020. Under his leadership, the Ford Foundation became the first non-profit in US history to issue a $1 billion designated social bond in US capital markets for proceeds to strengthen and stabilize non-profit organizations in the wake of COVID-19. In addition to serving as a trustee of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the National Gallery of Art, Carnegie Hall, the High Line, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, Walker is also a nonexecutive director of Square and Ralph Lauren.

We recently spoke with Walker about the board study, his view on the role of the private sector in addressing inequality, and steps companies can take to advance equity initiatives inside their organization and in society more broadly.

You serve on three corporate boards in addition to leading the Ford Foundation. Where are you seeing forward progress on issues of racial equity in the corporate boardroom, and where do you see things getting stuck?

Over the past year, I think many on corporate boards are really starting to take seriously the notion that committing to racial equity is not just the right thing to do, but something that will impact their bottom lines. Companies that can recruit and retain diverse staff and meet the needs of their increasingly diverse consumer bases will be best set to succeed in the future. We need to ensure that sense of urgency doesn't fade, and continue to hold leaders accountable to the commitments they've made to their shareholders, customers, and employees.

Where I would like to see more action is in diversifying the boardrooms themselves. Simply adding one woman or one person of color is not true diversity, it's tokenism. Our boardrooms should reflect the societies they serve and should include leaders who understand worker perspectives and are true experts on the impact ESG can have on their businesses. 

The Ford Foundation, in partnership with State Street Global Advisors and Russell Reynolds Associates, just published a paper on the board’s oversight of racial and ethnic diversity, equity, and inclusion.  Why do you think this study is important? What is the significance of a foundation like Ford working with SSGA and RRA?

It was powerful to work with State Street and Russell Reynolds on this project as issues of corporate racial equity sit at the intersection of social justice, corporate leadership and the capital markets. When industry powerhouses take these issues seriously, they set a strong example for other corporations to follow. 

Following the death of George Floyd, we saw many executives and C-suite leaders making commitments to racial justice. But if we want these commitments to stick, we need to ensure that boards of directors are engaged and that these conversations are also happening at the board level. 

What were some of the highlights for you?

I was greatly encouraged by the report's conclusion that last summer's racial reckoning was not a flash in the pan. There is broad-based recognition among boards of directors that the summer of protests and advocacy underscored the need for discussion and changes that will continue to take place in the years ahead. 

Was there anything that surprised you? Anything you were disappointed to see or not see?

There were some surprising areas of overlap and diversion between the conversations that are taking place about diversity and equity in the UK and the US. A real strength of this report was that researchers drew from perspectives on both sides of the Atlantic. 

While the report was an excellent start, I would have liked to see some of the guidance go even further and beyond internal diversity, into thornier issues like living wages for employees and the need for business leaders to also advocate for civic and democratic ideals. We believe these issues are integral to advancing equity, although they are not always immediately what we think of when we say diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Since the death of George Floyd, there’s been a lot of talk about the role of companies in advancing racial equity. What other resources do you think are valuable?

There are several excellent related resources in the report that merit greater reading. Additionally, our grantees Policylink and Just Capital collaborated with FSG to produce A CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity, with clear steps businesses and corporate leaders can take to advance equity internally and externally. 

A majority of the director interviews were conducted before we saw a concerted effort by CEOs to speak out against voter suppression policies at the state level. Do you think responses would be any different if we started the interviews now?

Shortly after this report was concluded, a number of Black executives and allies spoke out against the attacks on democracy we've seen in the US. I'd like to think the urgency of the current moment has widened the aperture for what it means to be a corporate leader who is advancing equity. Time will tell how far we can progress, but it is my hope that business leaders will continue to play an active role in advancing justice.