Diversity in Memphis boardrooms can mean green for companies, leaders say

MEMPHIS, Tenn-- When it comes to racial and gender diversity on some private and public corporate boards, there are still several empty seats at the table.

but at the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, where African-American and females make up about 50 percent of its board, things are also changing at the top.

"I think it speaks volumes about where the chamber is moving and their vision as to where they need to be moving in the future," said Beverly Robertson, the interim CEO and president of the Chamber.

"They've never had a female, they've never had an African-American in that position," Robertson said.

That was until now. The former president of the National Civil Rights Museum, who also operates Trust Marketing with her husband Howard Robertson, hopes to help shatter the glass ceiling at the corporate level.

"I don't think there's been much consideration given to people who are minorities or females in terms of board service on these corporate board," Robertson said.

The Chamber named Robertson as its interim leader, replacing the late Phil Trenary, who was killed last year.

"He did a lot to grow that and I think, in many ways, that will continue into the future," Robertson said.

Harold Byrd, president of the Bank of Bartlett, said Robertson "just happens to be an African-American female, but she's the right person for the position."

But is the right person for a position on the corporate suite or C-suite always considered and should corporate boards be more reflective of Memphis, a city that's predominantly African-African?

"Is it because you're not aware of those who are capable because we have many capable people willing to serve on these corporate boards or have you just not thought about adding that type of diversity to the board?" Robertson asked.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland says the private sector should lead by example in making strides towards inclusion.

"We're very proud of our record and I think that's the way to lead by example," Strickland said.

Business leaders such as Byrd agree, but he admits some corporate boards in Memphis must think outside their comfort level.

"You know diversity is the moral thing to do, it's the right thing to do. It's also an economic thing that you should do," Byrd said.

In recent years the Bank of Bartlett appointed music legend David Porter and former US Attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis as board members

"We reached out and got the best two people on our board. One happened to be female African-American and one was male African-American"

Inside the Midsouth Minority Business Council Continuum, the focus is on being an economic accelerator for minority and women-owned business enterprises in the Mid-South.

"In a community that is a majority African-American community, the demographics and the people are here. So, it`s hard to make decisions and just ignore that you've just seen all these people of different ethnicities, whether you're Hispanic, African-American or whatever ethnicity that you are," said Jozelle Luster Booker is the CEO and president.

In 2008, the MMBC Continuum set out to prove the power of economic inclusion through diversity. Nine major Memphis corporations and their CEOs, ranging from FedEx Express to St. Jude, agreed to and signed a resolution called the model diversity corporation initiative.

"So 10 years later, do you think many have lived up to it? I think many of them have lived up to it," Booker said.

The MMBC Continuum recently revealed new data showing those corporations have achieved above average profits and their boards have become more diverse.

"In those companies, we're seeing about, just those numbers, we're seeing about 17 to 30 percent. Round it up to about 20 percent. So we're seeing ethnic diversity within those boardrooms," Booker said.

Booker says it imperative other Memphis companies groom and recruit minority and women to become C-suite executives, which helps pave the way for a stronger and more diverse Memphis.

"When corporations do not any type of formal or structured succession plan, or executive development program, they really need to look that and the community in which we serve," Booker said.

"The businesses and corporations that understand and realize the benefit of that are going to be the ones that prosper and are more profitable in the future," Robertson said.

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