Building Tomorrow’s Boardroom, Today — Part IV

Speakers pictured left to right: Baron Davis, Merline Saintil, Celia Edwards Karam, Anita Lynch, Nicole North, Tammy K. Jones, and Sydney Sykes.

As the sun set over the Hudson River on June 15, an exuberant crowd of top talent was expanding their professional networks on a rooftop garden in Tribeca next door to the Jackie Robinson Museum. The gathering, “Driving Change for Black Leaders in the Boardroom,” was co-hosted by Lightspeed and Black Women on Boards (BWOB).

Lightspeed has been organizing an ongoing series of conversations, “Building Tomorrow’s Boardroom Today,” to address the empowerment of under-represented groups in the boardroom. This event was the fourth in that series.

The timing was ideal, taking place the week that director Deborah Riley Draper’s film OnBoard, chronicling the rise of Black women on boards, launched at the Tribeca Festival.

Merline Saintil, an Executive Producer of the film, was present and gave some introductory remarks.

Saintil, who has taken six companies public, co-founded BWOB with Robin Washington in 2020. In the wake of nationwide protests over George Floyd’s killing, the two women found they were hearing increasingly from companies seeking black women for their boards — yet they knew many talented and experienced businesswomen weren’t being asked. (They tell the origin story in this one-minute video on the NYSE trading floor.)

In the last two years, Saintil told event attendees, BWOB has helped place 33 black women on boards. “So, the impact is real,” she emphasized.

The panelists represented a wide range of industries and expertise:

  • Celia Edwards Karam, President of Retail Bank and an Executive Committee member of Capital One
  • Anita Lynch, a board member at Nasdaq US Exchanges and other companies
  • Baron Davis, founder, investor, board member, and NBA all-star
  • Tammy K. Jones, CEO and founder of Basis, a commercial real estate investment platform and lender, and chair of the board of Veris Residential (formerly Mack-Cali Realty).

The discussion was moderated by Sydney Sykes, a Lightspeed partner and a co-founder of BLCK VC, a network of Black venture capitalists, and by Nicole North, Lightspeed’s partner for executive talent.

The discussion was generative, with some concrete takeaways.

Black women on boards can help companies make better decisions, and shouldn’t hesitate to do so. “You’re there to represent your perspective,” said one director at a company that recently considered layoffs. She asked about the impact on the company’s diversity, since many of the women and people of color were newer hires. Upon studying it, the research had revealed, she said, that “in some departments the layoffs would have eliminated all our diverse new hires,” so they reconsidered.

If you’re “the first or only” black woman on a board? Embrace your role as a trailblazer and find “the self-awareness to know what works for you in that setting,” one board member advised, saying that when she’s the only black woman, “I have to remind myself to speak early and speak first. If I don’t get my voice out there, I stay quiet.” She emphasized the importance of empathy and collegiality: “Yes, I may be the ‘only,’ but there’s probably someone else in this room who doesn’t feel like they belong, who’s not getting their airtime. Maybe they tried to say something, and someone talked over them. How can I create space for them? And in working to create space for them, I create space for me, too.”

Black women on boards should create board opportunities for other Black women. Lightspeed’s Nicole North quoted advice from Merline Saintil: “It’s okay to be the first. You just don’t want to be the last.”

Another panelist said she got onto her first board because her mentor, a white woman, had been asked first. “She told them, ‘You don’t want me, you want her.’” That same panelist had helped another black woman onto one of her current boards — in fact, that new member was elected this week. “I’m getting emotional now,” she said, “just remembering that it was done for me.”

Networking is essential. And always be networking outside of your own network. One board member said Thursday evening’s event was “a great example,” admitting, “I’m not good at it. I’m a diehard introvert, so these sessions are hard for me, but I know they’re important.”

“It’s all about relationships,” a fellow panelist agreed. “The reason we are not on boards [in greater numbers] is that we don’t have those relationships.” She continued, “It’s about finding pipelines. They’re out there, and there are folks looking for you.”

After the panel, many returned to the terrace to continue the conversation — and to build those networks and pipelines. Below are a few photos that captured some of our favorite moments from the event.

Lightspeed’s next event in the series, planned for the Fall, will focus on the Latinx community. If you’re interested in attending, please reach out to events@lsvp.com.

You can learn more about Black Women on Boards here, follow them on LinkedIn here, and find out about future screenings of the OnBoard documentary here.

Pictured: Merline Saintil and Nicole North.
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