When we bring women in, it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
When I was a little girl, my daddy used to say:
“no child ever becomes anything that he or she has never heard of.”
I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, in a family of activists. My father was the first African American elected to any office in the Deep South in the 1940s. It influenced me to devote my whole life to taking risks to open doors for others.
My own activism started when I got expelled from high school at age fifteen. Catholic schools were segregated at that time. I disrupted the Archbishop and got expelled. After my reinstatement, I began protesting. My parents and many others joined those protests, which led to the desegregation of the Mobile, AL, Catholic school system.
That moment was my first insight into the power of risk-taking. When you take a stand for something that is right and just, and people support you in the process, you can be a force for change and for good.
After college, I worked in the shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi. I cared about securing real jobs for young African American men and helped open up the first apprenticeship opportunities for African Americans in the Deep South. Ray Marshall, head of the School of Economics at the University of Texas at the time, contacted me after hearing about my experience. He became one of the top influencers in my life. His academic specialization was in the building trades apprenticeship, and he wanted to know how I had integrated the trades in Mississippi. He wrote the story of my experience. I was twenty-three years old.
Ray soon asked me to move to Atlanta, Georgia, to help open doors for women of color. In 1972, I researched all the major companies in the Deep South. Not one had a single woman of color in any managerial, professional, or technical job. We helped place the first women of color into managerial jobs across the Deep South at General Motors, Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, and more.
At this time, I was running the Minority Women’s Employment Program nonprofit. A few of my mentors told me I needed the help of a board. They were right because I certainly didn’t know everything I needed to know. They introduced me to Dorothy Height, one of the Big Six of the Civil Rights Movement. She became the chairwoman of my first board.
I was twenty-five. She taught me the concepts of nonprofit work, boards, minutes, records, documentation, and advocacy. She introduced me to a network of women who became my support base. I was blessed to have such a mentor at an early age. Dorothy stayed in my life until her death at the age of ninety-nine.
Thanks to my work with her, I explored everything from women in apprenticeships to women in business to women on boards, focusing on non-traditional roles for women.
My work and connection with Ray Marshall led me to become Director of the Women’s Bureau under President Carter’s Department of Labor. Carter created the first Women Business Owners’ Initiative. I was tasked, along with the head of the Small Business Administration, to recommend a policy for this initiative.
We learned a lot about the status of women business owners at that time, and the results were shocking. Women couldn’t even obtain a loan or credit from a bank unless their fathers or husbands co-signed. President Carter was willing to remove the enormous regulatory barriers facing women.
We talked to women about what it meant to own and operate their own businesses. We explained how to put a board together and led workshops to teach business skills. We’d ask:
What are you trying to sell?
What’s your value proposition?
What type of influences do you need on a board to help grow your business?
What about finances?
The biggest difference between nonprofit and for-profit boards is the fiduciary responsibility to stakeholders on for-profit boards. A for-profit board member can be legally liable as can an owner of a for-profit business.
Running a nonprofit requires discipline and a focus on finances, because even a nonprofit can become a multi-million-dollar organization. You need to account for expenditures. You can’t be frivolous. You must ensure your spending supports your cause. Your goal as a nonprofit board member is to support the nonprofit’s cause and mission. It’s a different mindset and a different lens.
When I think of the increased involvement of women on boards, I go back to my father’s quote:
“No child ever becomes anything he or she has never heard of.”
When you’re no longer the only woman in the room, you’re no longer the pioneer. Your mere presence helps lower barriers and opens the door for other women.
When we bring women in, it’s not just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. Businesses are increasingly aware of the purchasing power of women and especially that of the younger generations of consumers. If no one on the board understands these purchasers’ mindsets, habits, goals and passions, the business will not succeed.
In addition to gender and age inclusion, racial inclusion would be extremely beneficial to boards. We must fight for a fully inclusive roster. This is, without a doubt, a tough challenge.
Historically, African American women have not been included on boards. This makes it more difficult for them to gain the access needed to build relationships with board chairs. The African American history comes from the slave tradition. We were bought and sold. Our men were not allowed to fight for us, so we learned to fight to protect our bodies and our children. The tradition of slavery and abuse is very much still in the psyche and history of black women, which is why they often preach the need to fight for what they want, even today.
I will leave you with this: You have to work hard. You have to be intentional, conscious, and purposeful. You need to have a community of support around you and a plan. It doesn’t automatically happen.
But I also know this is our moment. This is our day. We have to recognize our power. The more we raise our own thresholds of understanding about the power in our hands, the greater our success will be, not just in the boardroom but for women in every walk of life in general, today, tomorrow, as well as for the child looking forward to the great thing they want to become.