The good news? The number of Black executives is growing. The bad news?
We're a long way from parity or even representation reflective of the population.
Before we look ahead to how we can drive diversity, innovation, and collaboration in today's C-suites and boardrooms, let's take a look at the current list of Black CEOs. Finding out where we are can inform the steps we take next toward more diverse, equitable workplaces.
In this article, we'll take a wide look at the state of Black executives in the U.S., including the Fortune 500, S&P 500, and Russell 3000, as well as the Black men and women within these ranks. Heads up: We've got a lot of work to do.
Trailblazing Black executives in the U.S.
It wasn't until 1987 that an African American CEO was at the head of a major Fortune 500 company. That year, Dr. Clifton R. Wharton, Jr. took the helm of what's now known as TIAA, one of the world's largest pension funds holding assets of more than $1 trillion. Wharton later went on to become the Deputy Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, the first African American to ever hold this post.
In his autobiography Privilege and Prejudice: The Life of a Black Pioneer, Wharton reflects on his manifold experiences as the first Black man to be in a number of spaces, from higher education and the boardroom to the C-suite and Department of State. In a 2016 PBS NewsHour interview, Wharton pointed to the issue of "institutional racism" that can be "built into the psyche of a people." In Wharton's view, "collectively, there's a problem."
"I think it's everybody's fault, in a sense, that we have—we have missed the opportunity to recognize what it is we're doing," he said.
The next Black executives to be named in the Fortune 500 include Franklin Raines, the chief executive of Fannie Mae in 1999, and Lloyd Ward, who took the helm of Maytag in 1999.
As for Black female CEOs in the Fortune 500, this is largely a recent phenomenon. In 2009, Ursula Burns became the first Black woman CEO in the Fortune 500 when she took the lead at Xerox Corporation. That same year, Burns was tapped by President Barack Obama to lead the White House National STEM program.
Leaders like Wharton and Burns were the first Black executives in their respective spheres. Since then, the number of African American CEOs has grown, but not by much, with the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 acting as perhaps one of the largest drivers in the recent uptick of Black representation. Ahead, we'll give an overview of the state of representation for Black executives, including Black female CEOs.
Black female CEOs
Black women represent just 1% of named executive officers, according to USA Today. And today's rankings reflect that, with Rosalind "Ros" Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., the only Black female CEO in the S&P 500, according to information from Catalyst, and the highest-ranking Black CEO on the Fortune 500 list.
And expanding to the Fortune 500, which overlaps with the S&P 500, adds Thasunda Duckett to the list of current Black female CEOs. President and CEO of TIAA, Duckett leads "a company whose mission is defined by financial inclusion and opportunity – goals and values she has upheld throughout her career."
For context, there are about 44 women serving at the top of companies in the Fortune 500. And "while things are moving in the right direction, the small, year-to-year increase in the overall number of women in CEO positions is concerning," according to the 2022 Women CEOs in America report. "Women’s ascension to CEO roles seems to move at a snail’s pace, especially for women of color." Of the 44 women represented in the Fortune 500, only five are women of color, including Brewer and Duckett.
In the Russell 3000, only two Black female CEOs are represented, Dr. Yvonne L. Greenstreet of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and RLJ Lodging Trust's President and CEO Leslie D. Hale. And in the Forbes 1000, Barbara Turner became Ohio National Financial Services' first Black and first female CEO when she took the helm as president and CEO in January 2021. (Turner left the role in November 2022).
Here are some action steps the Women CEOs in America report recommends taking to support Black women's representation in the executive ranks:
- Continue offering remote, hybrid, and flexible work arrangements.
- Implement workplace policies that take into account women of color's "higher burden of caregiving and burnout."
- Establish hiring and promotion targets for women of color.
- Invest in mentorship and sponsorship opportunities.
Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies
In the history of the Fortune 500, which kickstarted in 1955, there have only been 19 Black CEOs, according to the publication. That's 19 Black executives out of 1,800 chief executive officers. Currently, the number of Black CEOs in the Fortune 500 is at an all-time high, totaling to six Black executives, per AboveBoard's analysis.
In addition to Brewer and Duckett, Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies include:
- Frank Clyburn, CEO of International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.
- Marvin R. Ellison, President and CEO of Lowe's Companies Inc.
- David Rawlinson II, President and CEO of Qurate Retail Group.
- Robert Reffkin, Founder and CEO of Compass.
"Six Black CEOs on the list seems like a big accomplishment, on the surface, but it hits a little different when one realizes that white men still run the vast majority of these prestigious companies by orders of magnitude," writes AfroTech.
Drive C-suite diversity with AboveBoard
It's clear that leadership in America's C-suites is not reflective of the population. Currently, only 5.9% of all chief executives in the country are Black, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, Black Americans make up 13.6% of the population, per the U.S. Census Bureau.
At AboveBoard, we are on a mission to reshape the global executive workforce to be representative of the population, creating lasting and meaningful change in the world. On AboveBoard's inclusive, two-sided platform both historically underrepresented executive candidates and hiring companies have direct access to opportunities that directly drive diversity, whether you're looking for the next step in your career or the next executive to lead your organization. We're shifting the dynamics of traditional executive search, creating an entirely new model that centers access, transparency, and diversity.