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The Voice of the Black Community


African American women as CEOs
They're proving to be very capable bosses
Published Thursday, April 12, 2012 10:23 am
by Wesley Carter

Wesley Carter

Of the six black chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies, only one, Ursula Burns, chairman and CEO of Xerox, is female.  Results of an investigation of black female leadership in Fortune 500 companies revealed that Burns is the only black female CEO out of 12 female Fortune 500 CEOs. In fact, in 2009 Burns made history by becoming the first black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Research indicates that the black woman’s knowledge about leadership has typically been ignored or devalued.  In a 2004 study conducted by the Catalyst Research and Development Group, “Advancing African American Women in the Workplace: What Managers Need to Know,” results indicated that African-American women contend with discrimination in the form of stereotyping, questioning of their credibility, and little or no institutional support. 

Often burdened with media depictions as loud, argumentative, and self-righteous, black women have gotten a raw deal. Yes, it is a cultural tradition that most black female leaders possess a skilled verbal assertiveness. And yes, black women leverage their verbal assertiveness to negotiate respect. In lieu of material symbols of power, skilled verbal assertiveness is a powerful weapon. In a 2001 study conducted by Parker, findings indicated that African-American female executives described themselves as direct and focused. Rarely will a black woman resort to tears or whining as a means of manipulation.

Differences in the racial and cultural makeup of professional women produce different patterns of experiential knowledge that, in turn, shapes individual reactions to situations. Since language is a tool that facilitates interpersonal relations, it inherently carries parts of an individual’s identity in its composition and use. Therefore, meaning is filtered and constructed through our individual identity.

Organizations of the 20th century are dynamic. Extremely competitive environments, borderless territories and efficiencies created by technology beg for a non-biased recognition of the leadership abilities of black women. A major component of successful leadership is the ability to create and communicate an organizational vision and to motivate and persuade employees to achieve organizational objectives.  With that in mind, black women are more than capable of leading companies, even Fortune 500 companies. Rather than relying on the success of any one demographic as the silver bullet, the combination and degree of diversity at the helm of U.S. companies will provide greater leadership effectiveness.

While they may not be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, there are many successful black female CEOs of successful companies. Oprah Winfrey once said, “there’s a lot of great work to be done in the world.”  There are thousands, no – hundreds of thousands, more like, millions of black women in leadership roles doing great work. Angela Benton, Rosalind Brewer, and Kim D. Saunders are only three black female CEOs who are intimately aware of the challenges of triumphs faced by Burns.

Angela Benton, CEO of Black Web Media, is at the helm of Black Web 2.0, a website designed exclusively for African-Americans working in technology and new media. In 2010, Benton was recognized by Fast Company as one of the most influential women in technology. Keeping with her goal to increase exposure to minority technology talent, Benton founded NewMe, a startup accelerator for minority tech entrepreneurs.

Rosalind Brewer is the first female and first African-American CEO of Sam’s Club, a Wal-Mart division. Brewer is directly responsible for more than $100 billion in annual revenue at Wal-Mart. Prior to her post at Wal-Mart, Brewer was an executive at Kimberly-Clark Corporation.

Since 2007, Kim D. Saunders has been president and CEO of Mechanics and Farmers Bank (M&F Bancorp), a state-chartered commercial bank with assets of over $300 million. Saunders has 28 years of banking experience and is frequently called on to speak before Congress and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to share her perspective on minority banking trends.

M&F Bancorp, headquartered in Durham, also has locations in Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Charlotte.

In 2003, Ella Bell and Stella Nkomo published Our Separate Ways, which detailed the how race and gender influence the organizational identities and career experiences of female executives. Over an eight-year period, Bell and Nkomo explored the experiences of 120 diverse female executives and conducted a comprehensive analysis of their journeys and make a case for the bottom line benefits of hiring black women to contribute their leadership expertise to organizational success. 

Leaders must lead the ship with feet planted firmly on the deck, row through the storms, and occasionally fix a ragged sail or two. Whether or not a leader is successful at navigating the turbulent waters of the competitive seas is dependent on more than just arriving at a destination. A leader’s effectiveness is measured on any number of variables specific to a given situation.  In fact, evaluating leadership outcomes is dependent upon leadership performance and context. Sustaining the viability of today’s high performing organizations demands that employees, shareholders, stakeholders, and external customers recognize strong leadership regardless of the packaging.

WESLEY CARTER D. Mgt., is a partner at KRS Consulting LLC in Charlotte. Email questions to wesley@krsconsult.com. Call (704) 992-1211 or email to book an engagement.


Thank you so much for this insightful article. I'm a CEO of a very successful small business which was featured in INC. Magazine as a fast growing company. Our success was achieved by being an effective value-driven leader. However, some may believe that I exhibit some of the stereotypes you've discussed, while others will say that if I were a white man...I would be considered business savvy, innovative, assertive, decisive and no nonsense. I started my company 17 years ago becuase I wasn't valued in Corporate America, and now I create jobs and economic relief in today's dismal economy. THe upside to Fortune 500 not getting it is that we are able to start our own ventures. Small businesses make up a large percentage of job opportunities and a safe haven for African-American leaders and entreprenuers. An option is to consider working within a small to medium business or starting your own. But, this should be an option in managing a career. Again, kudos to you for covering such a topic with clarity and insight. P.S. a White client/advocate sent this to me. We aren't alone. We just gotta learn to play the game from a defensive position to an offensive strategy.
Posted on April 27, 2012
Data speaks! Is it as dire for Black males? I'd be interested in seeing data reflecting the ethnicity of CEOs for Fortune 500 companies in the US.
Posted on April 13, 2012
If you obey U.S. constitution which prohibits degrading nationalities or origins, then the use of "BLACK" is a serious violation. You must give up this inferior non-sense of lebelling U.S. citizens. They are all americans and they have equal rights in the eyes of the law and the Constitution. The political thugry that goes on is hammering progress and prosperity in all nation States all over the globe. Therefore, eliminate prejudices and inferior acts all together. Thank you
Posted on April 13, 2012
Race should not be a qualification to do anything. It depends on persons ability...nuff said
Posted on April 13, 2012
African-American women contend with discrimination in the form of stereotyping, questioning of their credibility, and little or no institutional support. Often burdened with media depictions as loud, argumentative, and self-righteous, black women have gotten a raw deal.

Wow, really
Posted on April 13, 2012
This is a thoughtful yet provocative commetary. Adding to this conversation would be the importance of mentorship and sponosorship. To reach the upper eschelons of the C-suite it be most critical and vital to have in one's toolkit. And unfortunately in today's environment it is increasingly more difficult to obtain in my opinion.
Posted on April 13, 2012
Unfortunately many black women I have met in the office throughout the years do fit the stereotypes described above. Too many are loud, argumentative, and self-righteous. The assertiveness also goes to extremes at times.
Someone who has a college degree and has built a successful career does not want to be treated this way. These actions usually build more enemies in the workplace as opposed to allies.
I personally would like to see more minority men and women in senior positions. However, the first step is adjusting one?s actions to fit the professional work environment.
Posted on April 13, 2012

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