Credit: Richard Baker/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, as I conveyed some frustration to my colleagues about a meeting with a white entrepreneur that felt especially extractive and presumptuous, our community manager asked me: “Did he even once ask how he might help?”

The answer, to the surprise of no one in the room, was no.

To this anecdote and its broader meaning, I will return.

For the last six months, I have been a fellow in a program borne out of the need to broaden the participation of minorities and women as active members of boards of directors. This past weekend, I graduated from the Herndon Directors Institute in a grand ceremony in Atlanta.

The program this year felt particularly timely: Companies trading on the Nasdaq are up against an August 8 deadline to fill out a board diversity matrix. Because what we measure signals what we value, the stock exchange is sending a huge message on its priorities. By August 2023, companies must name at least one female director or someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ or non-white—or explain why they aren’t. Some already are announcing new board appointments to comply, a trend expected to pick up pace. Taylor Morrison, one of the US’s largest home-building companies, plans to begin a fellowship program to add diversity to its corporate board; fellows will be paid commensurate with other directors, although they will not have a vote.

After decades as a financial journalist and, more recently, an entrepreneur building multiple businesses, my experience with Herndon was a rare, front-row seat into corporate decision-making, how board diversity fits into the equation, and how its lack leads to the mistrust of institutions. It is not too lofty to say the future of capitalism and democracy actually rests on getting inclusive leadership right.

A history lesson

The Herndon Directors Institute is run by the Herndon Foundation, established out of the estate of Alonzo Franklin Herndon, who was born into slavery and went on to become Atlanta’s first Black millionaire as founder and head of the Atlanta Life Insurance Co. We toured his 15-room mansion on Saturday, grounded in and emboldened by a moment where the seemingly impossible was achieved.

“I’ll tell you a secret about Black people,” our tour guide and docent Roberta Phillips said in a shaky voice, apologizing for her memory not being what it used to be. “They did not tell their children what they had to do to survive.” Herndon, the son of a Black mother and her white slavemaster, had less than one year of schooling and worked as a farmhand, then a barber. As he invested in real estate, he entered the insurance business. Atlanta Life was the lone company willing to sell the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. his life insurance policy.

Anyone seeking to bridge racial or political divides in the US right now should seek out economic history like that on display in the Herndon home. Alonzo Herndon straddled multiple political perspectives during his ascension. He attended the founding meeting of the National Negro Business League, convened by Booker T. Washington in Boston. He was also a part of the founding of the more radical W.E.B. Du Bois’ Niagara Movement, which eventually led to the creation of the NAACP.

The rift between the two philosophies (Washington’s more accommodating “pull up by the bootstraps” versus DuBois’ focus on education, dialogue, and the seeking of racial justice) is not dissimilar from current discussions about whither capitalism. What I appreciated about the last few months immersed in my cohort of aspiring board leaders was their belief in social justice and wealth creation. Nobody was naive, but everybody was idealistic. Within those two traits emerged a pragmatic strategy to fix what capitalism has wrought: Diversify the boards of publicly traded companies to hold everybody to a higher standard. Make the people in charge look more like the stakeholders around them.

Historical luminaries like Herndon show a path.

Roosevelt Giles, current chairman of both Atlanta Life and the Herndon Foundation, has described the philosophy pervading Herndons’ approach by invoking the saying: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” In his own words, it’s the “double bottom line…you have the profit and you have the community investment.”

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Affirm, don’t fix

I’ve written before about how training programs often operate from a place of trying to “fix” talent versus allowing them to embrace who they are. Our Herndon graduation speaker was Walter E. Massey, former chairman of Bank of America and past president of Morehouse College. Massey spoke charmingly about the nervousness with which he once sat next to Queens Elizabeth II at a state dinner —and how the two hit it off, talking about her cleaning out her mother’s home and how much she missed her sister. “I needn’t have worried,” he recalled. “The Queen was so comfortable with herself and made me feel at ease and welcome.”

Pivoting to others he admires and emulates, Massey mentioned his father-in-law, the first Black janitor at the University of Chicago. “He was as comfortable with who he was as a janitor as Queen Elizabeth was with herself.”

Promoting this acceptance of self feels key for companies to attract talent of color. So much of what it takes to get ahead in corporate America has felt like an exercise in trying to be more of what you are not: Be assertive, don’t be so direct, sit up straight, be more casual, don’t say “um” or “like,” fix your accent, wear bright colors, wear muted colors. Increasingly, we will evaluate opportunities for ascension based on who lets us be, well, us. It was a big part of our training, which took place over biweekly hours-long Zoom sessions: You are enough.

Stakeholder capitalism needs to be rooted in community

A piece published earlier this week in Charter focuses on how boards can better center the needs of employees.

Women and people of color have a broader perspective on this for two reasons. One, as Giles mentions, is the idea of community uplift as a way of working. The other is demographics: A McKinsey study this week cites federal data showing that three-quarters of all Black and Hispanic employees work in hourly jobs handling customers or producing goods, compared with 58% of white workers. Again, the stakeholders of capitalism are not some faroff concept for us; they are our sisters and brothers.

One of the most moving exercises we did in our Herndon training was to write a poem off the prompt, “I come from…” Nearly everyone cited the juxtaposition between individual success and roots entangled across more complicated pictures. The desire for more power, in say, a board seat, was often driven by a desire to spread better fortunes.

As Giles often declares, and did so in our graduation repeatedly: “The boardroom is the Supreme Court of economic justice.”

What is your product? What are your values?

One of my classmates really leaned into the connection between diverse boards and the values a company projects in the marketplace. Khwaja Shaik is IBM’s CTO for the tech giant’s Financial Services Market. I followed up with him this week on why he raised this point so frequently. “When you lead with values, you will exhibit genuine humility to seek diverse opinions,” he says. “Otherwise you will be in the myopic conversations, and it will be too late to eliminate your blind spots to open the aperture for value creation and meet all stakeholder needs.”

Inclusive leadership is the model

After the graduation, a group of us grabbed drinks at the bar. I was among the first to head up to my room. It was late, and I had an early flight to catch and a column to write. On my way out, I met an executive from the first cohort of the program. He asked what I was up to and handed me his card.

“Is there anything I can help you with?” he asked. “Are there any ways we can work together or anything you need?”

It was night and day with that frustrating meeting I’d had a few weeks ago. With one sentence, he demonstrated the business principles that move us all from a system of individual competitors to inclusive collaborators. That’s the corporate governance we need right now.

Note: This article was updated to add the news of Taylor Morrison’s fellowship program.

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