Board 2020 vision allows more Asian Americans a chance at corporate boards
By Jenny Chen
In the year 2020, corporate and nonprofit boards will look very different from the ones today. At least, that’s the belief that panelists Virginia Gambale, director of JetBlue; Helene D. Gayle, director, The Coca-Cola Co. and Colgate-Palmolive Co.; Michael D. Rochelle, director, Military Officers Association of America; and Clara Shih, director, Starbucks said during a session at the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) Board Leadership Conference held at Gaylord Conference Center from Oct. 12th to 15th.
Panelists discussed preparing for businesses for 2020 by making sure that board diversity is a priority. “Ensuring a board is prepared to embrace emerging technologies starts with an effective onboarding process. Boards must do a better job of thinking about diversity as more than numbers,” said Gayle.
This increasing emphasis on board diversity provides Asian Americans a good opportunity to consider joining boards themselves. But it’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake. “My interaction with business and philanthropy is better because of my family and experiences, not just because of the race I was born in,” said Vilas Dhar, an Indian-American lawyer based in Boston, Ma. who has sat on both nonprofit and corporate boards
Why Join a Board?
The benefits to joining a corporate board are abundant. First, people often join boards for personal development reasons.
“People in corporate boards are generally the tops of their fields. I learn a lot. I get to see the best of the best and learn from that. Your network greatly expands, each board has a large sphere of influence,” said Edmund Moy, a Chinese American who served as the 38th Director of the U.S. Mint and current chief strategist with Morgan Gold, and formerly served on the board of directors of L&L Energy.
Being a member of a prestigious board also lends you credibility, particularly if you’re still fairly new in your career. “When an organization entrusts you with a position like this, it is like an public endorsement of your value. It is also an affiliation you can be proud to share and promote,” writes Jennifer Kushell at Your Success Now, a career consultancy for young professionals.
If you’re lucky, your board work will tie into the work you do during the day. Amy Zhang, the owner of Affinity Fund Management Services, LLC a San Francisco based hedge fund firm, sits on the board of the CalCPA Society San Francisco Chapter and she says it gives her a chance to network with other CPAs in the area.
Sitting on a board can also be very fulfilling. In addition to sitting on the board for CalCPA, Zhang also served on the board of the Children’s Council of San Francisco from 2008-2012. “I did it to honor my mother who gave up her career to take care of her kids,” Zhang said.
Being on a corporate board can be just as fulfilling. “We talk a lot about giving back as a community,” said Dhar. “What better way to do that than to represent your community?”
But Before You Join…
At the same time, Moy is quick to caution that board membership is not for the faint hearted.
“There’s a real art to board governance,” said Moy. “It can get really complicated for those who have not had experience with it before.”
Moy also noted that as a director on a corporate board you have financial liability as well. In 2009, a case was brought against Citigroup in Delaware. This case involved allegations that the directors of Citigroup had violated their fiduciary duties to the corporation by approving a multimillion-dollar payment and benefit package upon the retirement of Citigroup’s CEO.
While the Delaware Chancery Court found Citigroup not guilty in this instance because there wasn’t any evidence of bad faith, Bloomberg Business Week used this case as an example of the rising public scrutiny of corporate boards due to the recession.
Moy also cautioned that sitting on a board – whether corporate or non-profit can involve a large time commitment and is something that people should consider before accepting a board position.
So How Do I Find a Board Position?
Depending on which sector you are looking for a board position, getting your first board position may be difficult. In the corporate board world, companies are increasingly looking for people who are leaders in their field and who possess unique skill sets lacking in the company said Mark Rogers, Founder and CEO of BoardProspects, an online community that connects boards with potential board members.
“In the past, when a company wanted to find a board member they didn’t look for the most qualified but somebody who knows somebody. That seems so outdated. It’s a great starting point but it shouldn’t be the beginning and end of the process,” Rogers said. BoardProspects allows boards who are searching for potential board members to search by skill set, geographic location, gender, and more. This emphasis on diversity gives a chance to people who may not ordinarily be connected to a board to be found.
Moy says that because of the growing emphasis on skills sets, it’s become more important than ever to focus on what you are good at. “You have two choices,” Moy said. “You can either be good at one specific thing and apply it to your demographic or you can have a general leadership focus.”
Dhar agrees. He says that until you have an expertise in a specific field, few companies will be knocking down your door to get you to serve on their board.
“If you position yourself not just as an Asian American but as an expert in a specific field and how that field applies to Asian Americans, then that is attractive to boards,” said Dhar.
On the nonprofit side, organizations are looking first and foremost for people who can further their mission.
“[When we’re looking for board members] we don’t think about race,” said Daniel Wu who sits on the board of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the nonprofit Game Changer. “It’s just about whether they have the passion. Does this person have a direct connection to the charity?”
One way to break into a nonprofit board is to start by volunteering. That is what Jackie Huang, who is on the United Nations Association Young Professionals board started by doing. With her communications background, she started by helping the UN Association her skills and gradually graduated to having a more active role on the board.
“If you have gifts and talents and skills you should share them and that applies to everyone not just the Asian Americans,” said Huang.