Over the course of several decades, Williams, who ran his own consulting and investment company for many years, has served on 14 public company boards, including prominent institutions such as Sallie Mae, Navient Corporation, and PG&E, where he was the lead director. While on boards, it was not unusual for Williams to be the lone Black member.
“Although I have all the energy and time in the world, I’ve used that as an opportunity to refer younger candidates,” Williams, now 76, said in an interview with CNN Business. “You get guys like me — guys and gals — who are on four or five boards at a time. When we retire you’ve got to replace across the board; I’m trying to give some other people a chance.”
When conducting board searches, relationships played a major role, according to Williams’ research. His findings also showed that more than 60% of the Black board members he spoke to had served on at least five corporate boards in their career.
“You see the same people being asked to serve on multiple boards while many fantastic candidates never get the position,” said Valerie Frederickson, founder and CEO of Frederickson Partners, an HR Executive Search and Consulting firm that has worked with companies such as Alphabet, Facebook and Uber. “Most boards remain extremely risk averse and only want to offer board positions to people they consider as much like them as possible.”
The first step to fixing a problem is seeing it clearly. Williams and his surveys help to shed light on the experiences of seasoned Black directors in corporate America broadly, including that most said they would have advocated more, and sooner, for diversity, or left boards that lacked a commitment to the issue.
And now Williams, who has lived in San Francisco for decades, says he plans to focus his attention on Black representation at the tech companies in his own backyard, which have long struggled to diversify within the leadership ranks.
A problem Silicon Valley is struggling to solve
“We know that of all public company boards, technology has the fewest number of Blacks on boards than all other industries,” said Charles Tribbett, who co-leads the Board and CEO Advisory Group at Russell Reynolds and is the cofounder of the Black Directors Conference, which Williams attends. Tribbett also participated in Williams’ research. While that’s changing, Tribbett said, “I believe they can move quicker.”
Instead, Walker – who was not part of Williams’ survey — has recently been named to his first two board seats at recognizable consumer brands: Foot Locker and Shake Shack.
“I’ve offered, and continue to offer, a non-redundant point of view,” he said, while recognizing the rarity of his experience. “There are other folks who are just as capable, just as smart, just as hungry, and just as motivated as I to effect the type of change that I hope to.”
‘It matters who is in the room’
As Arisha Hatch, vice president at Color of Change, which has been advocating for diversity in the tech industry for the past six years, put it: “We cannot have a conversation about racial justice — the pursuit of creating a more humane world for Black people — without talking about the influence of technology companies and especially the people who lead them.”
Kapor Klein ticked off a list of ways to help improve the issue, including “a change in demographics of venture capital, a change in optimal board size, expansion of board observer seats, all of those can and should make a difference in terms of diversity.”
Williams said he also endorses the idea of expanding board sizes as necessary, especially as the very idea of diversity has taken on a broader definition, with the word also being used to consider adding candidates based on geography or skill set, for example.
“I’ve been on boards as small as five and as large as 16 and both types have been effective,” he said.
“While there’s been change, there hasn’t been enough,” Williams said, speaking of the tech industry. He said he’d like to get some institutional support to do more to help boost diversity in tech broadly, starting with companies that don’t have a Black director and then focusing on startups. “Right now, a lot of this is me and my computer in my office during COVID.”