Black History Month: A Dearth of African American CEOs at Fortune 500s
Every year, millions mark the contributions of African Americans during Black History Month. An observance started in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson as National Negro History Week, Black History Month as we know it came about in the 1960s after the Civil Rights Movement and was officially recognized by President Gerald R. Ford in 1976.
When looking at the corporate world, one staggering realization is the lack of Black talent in CEO positions. Due to a wide range of factors, only four Black CEOs are presently running Fortune 500 companies, with another scheduled to take on the role in the coming month. The number of Black CEOs at Fortune 500s has always been depressingly low, having peaked in 2012 with only six.
Before looking at the four current Black CEOs, we must first recognize the trailblazer. When Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., was named Chairman and CEO of financial services giant TIAA-CREF, he became the first African American to hold such a position at a Fortune 500. Before accepting the position, he was also the first African American president of Michigan State University and was named chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation. Yet his impressive career did not stop there. He later became President Bill Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State – again becoming the first African American to hold the position.
Now known as the more verbose Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund, the former TIAA-CREF is headed by another African American CEO, Roger W. Ferguson. Formerly Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors for the U.S. Federal Reserve, Ferguson spent 12 years at TIAA, overseeing its mission to provide lifelong income to working-class people. The 69-year-old Ferguson announced his retirement effective March 31, 2021, potentially reducing the number of Black executives at Corporate America’s highest level.
Since its founding as a hardware store nearly 100 years ago, Lowe’s Companies, Inc. (Tii:LOW) has positioned itself as one of the market leaders in the home improvement space. At its helm is Marvin Ellison, who was instrumental in the company’s turnaround. Previously the CEO of J. C. Penney Co., Ellison brought his years of retail leadership over to the home-improvement sector, dramatically improving sales and operations. As a result of his leadership skills, Fortune named Ellison to its World’s Greatest Leaders list in 2016.
Sadly, in addition to Ferguson, the Fortune 500s will soon lose yet another Black chief executive. Kenneth C. Frazier, CEO of Merck & Co. (Tii:MRK), announced plans to retire this June. Frazier, who earned his Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School, became the first African American to serve as CEO of a major pharmaceutical company when he accepted the position in 2011. Previously general counsel for Merck, Frazier was credited with overseeing the company’s defense against claims that the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx had caused heart attacks and strokes. Under his watch as CEO, Merck made several pharmaceutical breakthroughs, including Gardasil 9, a vaccine used to prevent certain strains of HPV, and Keytruda, an antibody used in cancer immunotherapy.
As Chairman and CEO of M&T Bank Corporation (Tii:MTB), René F. Jones helped change the way the bank operates by making it more customer-centric. The son of an African American sergeant who met his future wife while in Belgium during World War II has led the $139.5 billion bank holding company since 2017. In addition to improving customer service, Jones is also focused on improving M&T’s workforce diversity and strengthening connections with communities of color. To that end, M&T has identified ways to invest in diverse communities that include establishing a minority-owned small business group in Maryland and hiring Korean-speaking tellers in Howard County, MD.
While not currently a CEO, Rosalind Brewer will soon join the ranks of Black CEOs heading major corporations. Currently Chief Operating Officer for Starbucks Corporation (Tii:SBUX), she will depart the coffeehouse chain to take up the CEO mantle at Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc. (Tii:WBA) on March 15. This will make Brewer the very first Black woman to head a Fortune 500 company. A former president and CEO of Sam’s Club, a Walmart Inc. (Tii:WMT) division, one of her first tasks will undoubtedly be ensuring the smooth rollout of the coronavirus vaccine. Walgreens was selected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide vaccination services across 15 states and jurisdictions.
While Black representation at the highest level of global public corporations stands at a meager 1%, perhaps the successes of these executives combined with inclusive corporate recruitment practices and executive searches will ensure a more robust list of Black CEOs in coming years.