Impact Series

The Black Boardroom Initiative launches with assist from Seattle tech to spice up board variety

Perkins Coie partners James Williams (left) and Stewart Landefeld are co-leading the Black Boardroom Initiative. (Perkins Coie Photos)

Perkins Coie is launching an effort called The Black Boardroom Initiative to increase the diversity of S&P 500 corporate boards by training cohorts of potential candidates. Its goal is to increase the number of Black leaders on public boards to one in eight by 2028 — a ratio that matches the fraction of America’s Black population. Right now, Black board members are approximately one in 24.

The initiative led by Perkins Coie, a Seattle-based international law firm, is initially focusing on Washington state with plans to expand to other major cities. It has backing from Deloitte, and its corporate sponsors include Microsoft, Amazon, Zillow Group, F5 and RealNetworks. Starbucks helped sponsor the effort’s first event.

The free training runs for six months and the inaugural group has 23 members. The program is looking for what it calls “board-ready” Black executives for whom it will provide training in corporate governance issues and facilitate networking and mentoring. Companies with openings on their boards are encouraged to share them with The Black Boardroom Initiative.

“There are many benefits to a public company having a more diverse corporate board, including diversity of opinion, stronger corporate governance, and the encouragement of diversity throughout an organization,” said James Williams, co-leader of the initiative and Perkins Coie’s Seattle office managing partner, in a statement. “Participating Black executives will be supported with substantive, targeted training and networking opportunities, as well as mentorship and an opportunity to benefit from the shared experience of a leading group of Black executive program advisors.”

Adriane Brown, managing partner at Flying Fish and board member for American Airlines, Axon and eBay. (Axon Photo)

Adriane Brown, a managing partner at Seattle’s Flying Fish venture capital firm, told GeekWire the time-worn excuse that a company “can’t find” qualified Black board members is not OK.

“The Black Boardroom Initiative is about bringing equity to this coveted space. It is not about talent, that is abundant. It is about removing the barrier of access and tapping into a wealth of resources that match what boards need to drive company performance,” said Brown, who is an outside adviser for the effort and herself a board member at American Airlines, Axon and eBay.

The lack of diversity on boards has long been seen as an important inequity that needed more attention. The murder of George Floyd a year ago was a big motivator in bringing this effort to fruition, Perkins Coie spokesman Justin Cole told the Seattle Times.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson, DreamBox Learning President and CEO. (DreamBox Photo)

“I believe that diversity-inspired innovation is the best pathway to creating relevant products and services that fuel top line growth as well as organizational vitality and sustainability. Talent is everywhere but opportunity is not,” said Jessie Woolley-Wilson, DreamBox Learning President and CEO, another adviser for the initiative. “By creating pathways and trainings for Black executives to join boardrooms, organizations become more proximate to diversity, which ultimately leads to more empathetic teams and innovation.”

The launch of the Black Boardroom Initiative follows the creation of OnBoarding Women, a similar Seattle-based program started in 2014 to boost the number of women on public boards. OnBoarding Women alumnae now have 58 public and private company board appointments to date.

Over seven years, the percent of women on Washington boards has increased from 14% to 25%, according to Perkins Coie, which also helped lead that effort. Other sponsors of OnBoarding Women are Deloitte, Madrona Venture Group, Cascadia Capital and Spencer Stewart.

California-based theBoardlist is another effort to increase board diversity by promoting suitable candidates. The program initially focused on women in leadership when in started in 2015 and has expanded to include other underrepresented groups.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Starbuck’s role.

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