Patricia Roberts Harris was a civil rights leader, a law school dean, and an all-around trailblazer. She was the first Black woman to become a U.S. cabinet secretary in the late 1970s, and the first to be named U.S. ambassador when she was appointed to Luxembourg in 1965.
But Harris, who died in 1985, was also the first Black woman to sit on the board of a Fortune 500 company when she joined IBM as a director in 1971.
A documentary that debuted at New York City’s Tribeca film festival earlier this month highlights Harris’ contributions to the business world. OnBoard, a history-making film in itself, cements Harris’s legacy as a corporate glass-ceiling breaker and honors the women who followed her.
“If my life has any meaning at all, it is that those who start as outcasts may end up being part of the system,” Harris once said.
OnBoard traces the history of corporate boards, from their old-boys’-club beginnings, to Harris’s era in the 1970s, to today. The present-era scenes focus on Black Women on Boards, a networking, training, and mentoring group launched in 2020 by Merline Saintil, a former Silicon Valley CTO and COO who now sits on the board of Rocket Lab, GitLab, and three other companies; and Robin Washington, Gilead Sciences’s former CFO, and a director at Salesforce, Alphabet, and Honeywell. The group started as a casual network of friends and quickly grew to become a global venture.
One of BWOB’s earliest members, Shannon Nash, CFO of Alphabet’s drone delivery company Wing, came up with the idea of capturing the organization’s growth in a documentary, as the nonprofit quickly recruited new members, connected with the next generation of business leaders at Spellman College and Harvard Business School, and made its own historic firsts with appearances at Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange.
“This was by far the easiest film that I’ve ever made, in the sense that I didn’t have to call 15 favors to get one thing done,” Nash told Fortune. “I basically called one person and they were like, ‘Yes, okay, yes, I want to be a part of it.’”
That one person was documentarian Deborah Riley Draper, whose other films, including Twenty Pearls, about the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, spotlight Black history. Now, Draper and Nash have to remind Saintil, who became a coproducer for the first time with OnBoard, that most films do not simply sail into festivals like Tribeca. “Like, this isn’t normal,” Nash says.
OnBoard is a celebration of Black executives supporting one another as they make headway into the upper echelons of American business. But it’s also a reminder of why, as Nash says, Black women “can’t take their foot off the gas.” As of 2022, Black women only represent about 4.6% of Fortune 500 board members, according to a new report from Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity.
Yesterday was Juneteenth, a holiday that companies often mark with great fanfare but little action. I mention that because OnBoard will continue to appear at festivals in the coming months, but it’s also available to companies who want to arrange private screenings. Consider this your nudge.
See the film’s website for more.
“She just was fearless in going into new and different places and showing the quality of who we are and what we bring. I’m excited to walk in her footsteps.”
—Gina Loften, former CTO at Microsoft U.S. and current TIAA advisory board member, on Patricia Roberts Harris
On the Agenda
👓 “Most boards could stand to raise their A.I. game,” writes Fortune contributor Nick Rockel in this comprehensive examination of what that would look like and how to get it done.
🎧 The very competent organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro Premuzic joined the 3 Takeaways podcast to explain why incompetent and overconfident men are so often anointed leaders.
📖 Bookmark Deloitte’s Missing Pieces report on board diversity (referenced above) for its multiple data slices, at-a-glance charts, and mix of hopeful signs among stubborn statistics.
– In Norway, women represent about 20% of all corporate boards compared to 15% two decades ago. That pace of change is too slow for its current government; now, medium-sized and large companies will have five years to reach 40% female representation on boards, Bloomberg reports.
– A fixed hybrid schedule is the least preferred option for office workers, according to the BBC. As many companies settle on requiring two or three days in the office, businesses that allow employees to choose which two or three days will likely see the best results.
– Deutsche Bank’s brightest say the chances of a hard landing are near 100%. Others see the start of a bull market.
– Beyoncé’s concert tour didn’t create inflation in Sweden, but a frenzy over tickets likely contributed to rising prices overall, the New York Times finds.
– The chatbots—“never shy about selling more”—have arrived at fast food drive-thrus, the Wall Street Journal reports. So far, A.I.-enhanced order takers haven’t impressed customers.
The Long Read
Bloomberg Businessweek recently published a wild story of corporate wrongdoing and a cautionary tale for business leaders that “get caught between the U.S. and China in their escalating clash over technology.”
In 2019, Denmark’s largest telecommunications company, TDC Holding A/S, was considering bids from equipment makers for a contract to upgrade the country’s telecom infrastructure. But a last-minute change to a proposal from the Danish arm of China’s Huawei made it clear that someone at TDC was sharing information. TDC’s ensuing inquiry turned life upside down at the company before the top brass finally uncovered a sophisticated scheme between a TDC employee and a Huawei worker living in Copenhagen. “Jason Lan, as he was known to non-Chinese acquaintances, made it his business to befriend people. He liked to hold court at the bar of the Hotel d’Angleterre, a gleaming 268-year-old pile on Kongens Nytorv square, where you can order a $1,700 bottle of whiskey or a $6,700 bottle of Champagne and look out at the giant illuminated Huawei logo perched above the bustling Nyhavn canal,” the story explains. His bonhomie paid off. Read the piece, here.
Read the full article here