Boards of directors are the people who determine business decisions that shape many aspects of society. Prominent efforts to increase gender diversity on boards are making a difference, albeit slowly — in 2020 more women were in the boardroom in both private and public companies. However, in a country in which women of color are nearly one in five Americans, under 5% of Fortune 500 board directors are women of color — and this figure dips to 3% for private boards. How can a company's board make a meaningful mark on products, services, and even medical advances that serve all people?
I wanted to explore this question with two women who are doing the work and contributing a great deal to changing the dimensions of board service. They're also mentors and excellent networkers — two skills that are much needed on boards and in business.
During a recent video chat, I asked them to tell me about their current portfolios, and advice they have for women of color who are on boards or aspire to join them. One of my guests, Merline Saintil, has a distinguished career in strategic operations and product development for companies including Intuit, Yahoo, PayPal, Adobe, Joyent, and Sun Microsystems. Among her many board seats, she is on the board of GV portfolio company GitLab. My other guest, Claire Cormier Thielke, is the managing director of Hines Asia Pacific in Hong Kong, focusing on investments in real estate development across the region. She sits on the board of Zillow, and also teaches at Stanford on the intersection of tech and real estate.
Both Merline and Claire emphasized a few key elements that fuel their efforts. One is the idea that board service and advising businesses are a form of giving back to their community. Merline told us she spends a lot of time seeking out her friends and community to support, including advising a diverse set of startups. "Sometimes I feel like I have 10 jobs," she said, "but I'm really loving every single minute of it."
Claire linked board service to broader systemic patterns, observing that "only 8% of African Americans own stock, and that African Americans are 80% more likely to get turned down for a home loan when they have similar circumstances to their peers." She believes these are the "important questions to bring to mind and bring to the table, and affect business strategy. Once I saw the impact that could have, it just became such an important part of how I saw my service to my African American community."
"I would say Black women, in particular, are often over-mentored and under-sponsored."
Another key element is the ability to see beyond traditional approaches. While she was working in the office of the CTO at Intuit, Merline wondered how her collective experiences could help companies at a board level. She knew her expertise in technology cybersecurity digital transformation is more relevant than ever (even if not "traditional" for board service). Going her own way by proffering her distinctive skill set has certainly been a key to her success.
Finally, both women see incredible value from cultivating their personal networks, including mentors and others who can help open doors. Merline noted that "sponsorship is "key to helping women generally and women of color step forward. "I would say Black women, in particular, are often over-mentored and under-sponsored," she said, which led her to become active in groups such as Directors Academy, Rich Talent Group, Him For Her, ATHENA, AllRaise, and The Boardlist. She and an esteemed colleague also started a small network to meet emerging Black and Latina women leaders. As Merline said, "I'm all about accelerating opportunities for people who want to hustle in life. That's who I am to my core."
Claire has felt the encouragement from seeing the overlap between her connections and how "we are able to celebrate all of the wins that there have been in this space. It's just created this incredible sorority. You're just finding other folks who are like you, and expanding and finding ways to amplify and really try to grow representation, really for all underrepresented groups." To see what we can do and how we can help others bring something great to the table, she says, has been nothing short of tremendous.
Our conversation demonstrated this spirit of generosity and paying it forward, as it was clear these women are genuinely rooting for the success of others. Merline and Claire also understand the value that women of color bring to business and bring it in the way they've walked in the world. Here's to much, much more of that.