Minnesota Initiative Gains Momentum to Diversify Corporate Boards
Several women of color recently completed board training developed by leaders of the local chapter of Women Corporate Directors.

Minnesota Initiative Gains Momentum to Diversify Corporate Boards

Dozens of BIPOC women have completed a program that positions them for seats on for-profit company boards.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in 2020, Kim Nelson and other Minnesota members of Women Corporate Directors (WCD) assessed how they could advance racial justice in the business world.

They quickly formed the Women of Color Pipeline Committee, which has been chaired by Nelson, a retired General Mills executive who serves on three corporate boards.

At its core, the organization wants to help BIPOC women land more seats on boards for public corporations and privately held businesses.

The desire the women possessed back in 2020 to make a difference has not waned. On a hot June day, WCD leaders recently gathered at the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis to celebrate a third group of women completing a board training program.

“We want to do what we can to demystify the board journey,” Nelson said. “We basically want to do what we wish someone had done for us.”

During the early phase of Covid, Nelson, Kate Kelly, PNC Bank regional president-Minnesota, and a cadre of other women identified the content topics they believed were important to prepare women leaders to market themselves for board seats and be ready to serve when selected.

At the June event, 21 women of color were recognized as the third cohort to complete the training program. One-by-one they stood and introduced themselves while several board recruiters listened to them encapsulate their leadership experiences. They ranged from engineers to lawyers, had held important executive roles in business, and many had worked in locations around the globe.

Target executive Irene Quarshie recently joined the board of Fastenal.
Target executive Irene Quarshie recently joined the board of Fastenal.
Photo via LinkedIn

The three cohorts of women who completed the board training since the initiative began already were “board qualified,” Nelson said. But she emphasized the training provides them with additional perspective about how to be an effective board member and how to secure a board seat.

Among the Minnesota BIPOC women who finished the board training, 14 of them from the three cohorts were selected for seats on public or private corporate boards, Kelly said. For example, Gail Peterson, a veteran Ecolab executive, is serving on the board of Sun Country Airlines, which is headquartered in Minneapolis. Lorinda Burgess, who built a distinguished career in finance at Medtronic, joined the Stepan Co. board in 2021. The Illinois-based public company manufactures specialty chemicals.

The board training program typically consists of five workshops. Some of the sessions are taught by leaders from executive search firms, including Navigate Forward, Ballinger Leafblad, and Russell Reynolds Associates.

Within the workshop settings, Kelly said, many topics are covered. Those include the responsibilities and operations of boards, recruitment and readiness of board directors, professional self-assessments, building an effective board biography, board positioning and networking, and interviewing for a board seat.

Beyond the value of the skills that are developed in the workshops, Nelson and Kelly stressed the importance of the network that the women are building within their cohorts and the broader Women Corporate Directors local chapter.

Securing a public board seat

Irene Quarshie, Target’s senior vice president of global supply chain and logistics, is the first member of the third cohort of women to land a corporate board seat.

On June 9, Fastenal, a public company that distributes industrial and construction products, elected Quarshie to its board. Seven men and four women serve on the board, with Quarshie as the sole woman of color.

Quarshie’s election to the board of Winona-based Fastenal is a textbook case for how the Women Corporate Directors initiative is designed to work.

Fastenal had contracted with David Lyman, principal of Lyman Executive Search, to identify candidates for a board seat.

Lyman contacted Nelson to see whether she wanted to suggest some board candidates, and Quarshie was among the names of people she shared.

“I described the skill set, which Irene fit,” Lyman recalled. “She’s got a supply chain background, which is really relevant to what Fastenal wanted.” In addition, he said, Fastenal was “open to first-time board members.”

Quarshie had strong experience on major nonprofit boards, and she was interested in joining her first public board. Nelson had watched Quarshie in action when they served together on the YWCA Minneapolis board.

“I understood and saw firsthand the difference between governance and managing,” Quarshie said. “I’ve served on a number of nonprofit boards across the Twin Cities.” She chaired the YWCA Minneapolis board and was on the executive committees for the Guthrie Theater and Artspace boards.

During her 18-year career at Target, Quarshie also has been involved in asset protection, corporate risk and responsibility, government affairs, product quality safety, and responsible sourcing.

While attending the board workshops with other women, she said, “I felt there would be something powerful about combining what I gained in nonprofits and what I learned at a for-profit to advance other businesses.”

Early this year, she got a call from Lyman consultant Libby Utter, who requested her resume and board biography. “It was great timing,” Quarshie said, because the Women Corporate Directors training program had just conducted a session on how to make a board bio more “impactful and effective.”

Following multiple recruiter phone conversations and a joint interview with Lyman and Utter, Quarshie was told that she would be interviewing directly with Fastenal leaders.

“I had several conversations with the Fastenal board and interviews with everybody on the Nominations and Governance Committee and had time with the board chair, had time with the CEO, and had time with some of the management team,” Quarshie said.

She viewed Fastenal as a growth-oriented company that is well-run. “It is an organization that is committed to excellence,” she said. “They’ve done a nice job of assembling an amazing board and have a great management team. And they are interested in new voices, which is something that I represent.”

In assessing Quarshie’s qualifications, Lyman said, “We just loved her Target background and long tenure.”

He thinks Quarshie and Fastenal’s leadership are a good match. “She’s a servant leader, in terms of personality and approach to business,” Lyman said. “She’s just a good person. They want to be in the board room with good people who are trying to do the right thing.”

In Minnesota public companies, BIPOC women held 6.8% of board seats in 2022, according to a study conducted by St. Catherine University. White men occupied the majority of seats at 60.5%, while white women had 21.4% of board seats and BIPOC men held 11.3% of them.

In a sign of progress, women of color nearly doubled the number of public board seats they held between 2020 and 2022. BIPOC women held 24 board seats at Minnesota-based public corporations in 2020. Their ranks jumped to 37 seats in 2021 and 46 seats in 2022.

During that three-year period, the number of public companies in Minnesota ranged from 77 to 79.