Building Tomorrow’s Boardroom, Today — Part III

Last week, Lightspeed and Rich Talent Group had the pleasure of hosting our third annual “Building Tomorrow’s Boardroom, Today” event, bringing together 130+ business leaders virtually, with a focus on the Latinx community.

The theme of this series is to promote Action, Access, and Learning, with a mission to drive greater diversity in the boardroom. While many top business leaders have made public commitments to be more inclusive, there is more work to be done, particularly in regard to the largest minority group in the US.

Despite accounting for 18% of the US population and 25% of national GDP, Latinx people occupy fewer than 3% of board seats in the Fortune 1000. Latinas account for less than 1%. Three-quarters of those companies had no Latinx directors at all in 2020.

What should organizations do to change this? How can members of the Latinx business community make their voices heard?

For our third event in this series, we convened a panel of distinguished Latinx business leaders to discuss what tomorrow’s boards need to look like, led by a brief keynote by US Senator, Alex Padilla. Our panel included:

  • The Honorable Aida Alvarez, Business Leader, Public Servant and Philanthropist (Boards: Hewlett Packard, Inc., Oportun, Stride, Fastly)
  • Elena Gomez, Chief Financial Officer, Toast (Boards: Smartsheet, PagerDuty)
  • Andrea Perez, Global VP/GM Women’s, Jordan Brand, Nike (Boards: hims & hers)
  • Raul Vazquez, Chief Executive Officer, Oportun (Boards: Oportun, Intuit, Latino Community Asset Builders)

Beyond gender and ethnicity

“The good news is that the conversation around the need for more diverse boards is trending in the right direction,” says Elena Gomez, CFO of Toast, a cloud platform for the food service industry. “It’s really heightened in the last 24 to 36 months. But we still have many years to go before we no longer need to have that conversation.”

However, the need for diversity on the board extends beyond gender and ethnicity, argues Gomez, who also serves on the boards of Smartsheet and PagerDuty. A successful board needs people with diverse backgrounds, experience, and skill sets.

As a result, companies are taking more time and looking in new places for board members, says Raul Vazquez, CEO of Oportun, which provides personal finance services for consumers with limited credit histories.

“Boards spend a lot more time on critical self-reflection than they used to,” adds Vazquez, who has a seat on the boards of Intuit and National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB).

“There’s more work towards filling in the gaps and looking at a broader set of skills, in order to achieve their business strategy,” he adds. “That’s led to a lot more opportunity for the people like us on this panel.”

Filling seats during the era of COVID

Seeking to fill board seats during a pandemic only added to the challenge, notes The Honorable Aida Alvarez, who ran the US Small Business Administration during the second Clinton administration and serves on the boards of Oportun, HP, Stride, and Fastly.

As chair of Oportun’s Nominating, Governance, and Social Responsibility Committee, Alvarez was tasked with finding candidates for four of the company’s board seats over the last year. The process, which was almost entirely virtual, took nearly eight months.

“We ended up with a really great group of people who were diverse in every respect in terms of race, gender, and different skill sets, but we did have to go the extra mile to come up with a slate that met all of those objectives,” she says. “You have to see a lot of people before you can say here’s a really great fit.”

Andrea Perez, who heads up the women’s business for Nike’s Brand Jordan, was added to the board of hims & hers last March, while the pandemic was still raging. Most of her interactions with the executive team and fellow board members have been virtual.

“The foundation of a great board is trust, and that’s a bit harder to establish in the virtual world,” she says. “When it comes to onboarding, I think it’s a good idea to meet with every member of the team and the board, and hear the strategic questions they need clarity on. It takes time, but it helps establish a basis of trust so you can have the hard conversations that are necessary.”

Lifting up others

Every Latinx who is asked to serve on a board has a personal responsibility to lift up others so they’re more visible, says Perez.

“Once you’re on one board, you become an attractive target for other boards,” she adds. “It’s an opportunity to have a conversation about other amazing business leaders. Who are the other leaders we’ve worked with that we think these people should know?”

It also helps to position yourself as a kind of product or a brand, adds Vazquez, who says he’s spent a lot of time poring over LinkedIn looking for potential board members.

“Be intentional,” he suggests. “Make it known in your profile that you are a Latinx and looking for a board position. “

Of course, being the first of anything (e.g., woman, person of color) to be on a board can be challenging. And while ideally the board focuses on creating a sense of belonging so that each board member feels confident and respected, the key to overcoming imposter syndrome is your own mindset.

As Vazquez puts in, “In life we get to choose the stories we tell ourselves. I strive to tell myself empowering stories. I choose to see being a Latino as my superpower. It gives me a unique opportunity to add value and be a fantastic board member.”

Tips & Advice

  • Don’t appoint your friends. If you’re looking to fill board seats, look outside your inner circle. CEOs need people who are willing to speak truth to power, regardless of the consequences.
  • Fill knowledge gaps. Look for members who can fill in where your company’s expertise might be lacking. Diversity is about more than gender or race; it’s also about finding people with varied skills, backgrounds, and perspectives.
  • Be intentional. If you are looking to serve on a board, make your desires known, via personal contacts or things like your LinkedIn profile.
  • Establish a buddy system. After you’ve been on-boarded, find a fellow board member who can answer your questions and give you the lowdown.
  • Find your voice. Figure out where you can add the most value, and strive to fill that niche.
  • Understand the issues top of mind for boards. Today’s boards are paying more attention to social and environmental issues (e.g., culture, Covid, climate), as well as digital transformation and cyber security. Bringing expertise in one or more of those areas could make you a more attractive board member.

For more tips, read about our previous “Building Tomorrow’s Boardroom” events here and here.

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