Women Of Color Are Working Against The Odds
Kimberly Price recalls she was the only African-American attorney at a Twin Cities law firm in 1986 when she agreed to join the legal department at 3M Co.
The Washington, D.C., native had an impeccable education pedigree—an undergraduate degree from Bowdoin, a master’s from Princeton and a law degree from Columbia.
She also had experience in mergers and acquisitions, which is why 3M recruited her to join the venerable Minnesota manufacturer. During her job interview, attorney John Ursu, who is white, asked her what the last book she had read was. When she answered, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” she says, “He didn’t freak out.”
After concluding that 3M co-workers would respect her authentic self, she accepted the company’s job offer. “People were warm,” she says. “I didn’t feel I had to come in and wear a mask.”
Today Price is one of the top 15 executives at 3M and serves as senior vice president of corporate communications and enterprise services. Women hold three of those powerful 15 positions at 3M, and Price is the only woman of color.
As an African-American woman executive, Price is a rarity in corporate America. Women of color hold 4 percent of the senior vice president posts in U.S. companies, according to research by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org released in 2016. The same study showed that women of color occupy just 3 percent of C-suite positions, while their male counterparts of color hold 10 percent of the jobs at the C-suite and senior vice president levels. While Minnesota statistics aren’t readily available, experts believe that Minnesota women of color hold a single-digit percentage of C-suite jobs.
Several women of color who’ve reached the top tiers of Minnesota corporations have taken disparate paths to career success. However, all of them developed the self-confidence to step forward and pursue challenging jobs, and they’ve figured out how to navigate the dynamics of corporations. Their career stories offer lessons for other women and businesses.
As women have sought equal opportunities in colleges, athletics and the work world, major corporations increasingly are attempting to diversify their leadership by gender and race. Beyond equity arguments, there is a strong business case for hiring more women leaders, including women of color. Studies conducted by McKinsey and Co. and Credit Suisse show that gender-diverse corporations produce better financial results and higher share prices.
In Price’s case, a law degree was a credential that gave her access to 3M when she was just 27. Thirty years later, while the legal marketplace has changed, global companies are still looking for talented lawyers to serve as in-house counsel.
“I could come in every day and work in new industries,” Price says. “Every deal was different. I was able to lead the transactions and come to the table with all I had to offer.”
But Price notes that companies that want to diversify their corporate ranks with more women of color are going to need multiple strategies to make them feel welcome and invest in their careers.
“One of the main reasons I stayed was the African-American Network,” she says, where people can get advice on everything from deciphering a complicated financial statement to finding a dance club.
“One of my biggest accomplishments has been to bring other people of diverse backgrounds to the company,” Price says. If people move to Minnesota to join 3M, she says, they also need to have a support system in the broader community.
Some of her closest confidants in the Twin Cities are other African-American women in leadership roles in business and the nonprofit sector. Despite the small numbers of minority women in top positions, she says, “We don’t talk about what is holding us back, we talk about what is moving us forward.”
3M set a corporate goal to “double the pipeline of diverse talent in management by 2025.” The public corporation has been making progress in expanding the number of women in leadership roles.
From 2011 to 2016, the percentage of women at 3M’s vice president level and above increased from 16.7 percent to 24.2 percent. Those figures include white women and women of color. The percentage of women manufacturing-facility managers jumped from 11.4 to 17.4 percent.
Cargill’s global reach
After earning her MBA from the University of Michigan, Pilar Cruz joined Cargill in 2002 instead of returning to a banking position in her native Colombia. She has risen through the management ranks at Cargill and held leadership positions for the company in Canada, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and England.
Now she is a vice president and a role model for other women of color at Cargill. Seated in a glass-enclosed meeting room that overlooks Cargill’s Wayzata campus, Cruz says, “I am the head of strategy and mergers and acquisitions for Cargill, and we recently had a meeting with my counterparts from big companies. All of them are guys. But I am so comfortable with who I am.”
Describing herself as “a short, petite, Hispanic lady,” Cruz says, “It is such a great opportunity for me to voice Cargill’s views and opinions precisely because I’m different.” Historically, Cargill’s top leadership had been a male bastion. In early 2017, three women served on the company’s 10-member executive team.
Cruz is a visible example of a woman of color who has assumed increasing responsibility in Cargill’s management structure. Before she was promoted to her current job in 2015, she was president of Cargill Meats Europe and has had other jobs that typically had been held by men in the agribusiness industry.
Cruz says her success has flowed from a combination of hard work, embracing big challenges, self-confidence and early exposure to business and economics.
When she was growing up in Colombia, she explains, “My dad had a senior job within the Federal Reserve.” He talked with her about his travels and explained the importance of trade and how business worked. “I was super-intrigued and that’s when I said, ‘Economics is going to be interesting.’ ”
In addition to the business knowledge she learned from her father, she says his willingness to engage with her on business issues allowed her to go to college with self-assurance.
While it is vitally important for companies to offer opportunities to women of color as well as white women, Cruz says that all women need to give themselves credit for the talents they provide their employers. One reason there aren’t more women in top leadership posts at U.S. companies is because some women don’t pursue new positions with greater responsibility, she says.
“It is possibly a lack of confidence,” she says, citing studies that show many men will volunteer for jobs when they don’t meet several of the qualifications, while some women will think they aren’t qualified unless they fulfill 80 percent or more of the requirements.
Within her corporate strategy and development leadership team, Cruz says she’s made a priority of recruiting women of color. “Today, 50 percent of my leadership team is female,” Cruz says. “Marcel [Smits], my boss the CFO, is thrilled.” She reports that 60 percent of the women leaders on her team are women of color and include women from Mexico, China and Colombia.
Flexible culture matters
Sonya McCullum Roberts, who is African-American, had nearly two decades of experience in the oil and gas business when she surfaced as a potential hire for Cargill in 2007. Roberts had relocated eight times with ConocoPhillips and wanted to return home to Minnesota to be near her aging parents.
“They didn’t have a job,” she says. But Cargill was interested in what she could bring to the company. “They had me interview with a series of people across the energy and financial platforms,” she says. “And I ended up having lunch with DMac [David MacLennan], our CEO now.” She signed an employment letter in the fall of 2007 and joined the company in March 2008.
Her current position is president of Cargill Proteins-Growth Ventures and Strategic Pricing. “My office is in Wichita. I go down just about every week for a couple of days,” Roberts says. Cargill was willing to give her some schedule flexibility and did not require her to move to Kansas.
Roberts is the mother of school-age children and she wanted to keep her home base in Minnesota. She and Cargill figured out a way to make that happen.
“You can have everything, just not at the same time,” Roberts says. “So there are days I am a really, really good mom. There are days I am the best boss, and there are days I am the best friend and best daughter.”
However, she notes, “For a lot of women, they harbor a lot of guilt about having to make those choices. My kids are incredibly well-adjusted for the fact that their mom travels a bunch, and they are very proud of what their mom does.”
Cargill is retaining some of its key women of color by investing in them, Roberts says. In her case, David Dines, one of Cargill’s top 10 executives, served as a mentor to Roberts for a year. They met monthly for 90 minutes to two hours. “He was in the financial services business,” Roberts says. “I worked on the energy side, so he taught me the business. It was giving me exposure to things that I didn’t have exposure to and even to other parts of Cargill.”
She supports mentors and sponsorships to help women advance. “I am a firm believer that you find mentors, but that you position yourself so that sponsors find you,” Roberts says.
After a sponsor sees a talented woman performing well in business, Roberts says, he or she can advocate for that employee with top management. The sponsor “is wearing your T-shirt in the room,” she explains. “That’s where decisions are being made about roles that you don’t even know exist. That’s where the sponsor comes in.”
Cargill’s Lakeeta Hill talked about the company’s willingness to match Cargill’s needs with employee passions.
Before coming to Cargill in 2014, Hill was working in American Family Insurance’s Office of the Corporate Secretary in Madison,Wis.
Hill, who is African-American, says she wanted to move to the Twin Cities and work at Cargill because she was impressed during the interview process that her future supervisor cared about her career interests, not simply finding someone who could do the job.
“It’s a two-way street” at Cargill, Hill says. “We are hiring the best people to do the job, but we are also making sure that we are taking care of the people that we are bringing to Cargill to help them if they want to aspire to these positions.”
Her role at Cargill is corporate governance director, which involves serving as a liaison among greater Cargill, the board of directors and company leadership.
Hill, who grew up in a blue-collar family in Milwaukee, says that her path to Cargill was not a conventional one. She studied criminal justice as an undergraduate, but later worked as a paralegal and earned her MBA before she applied for a position at Cargill.
“One of the things that has stood out to me during my career here is they will nourish your ambition,” Hill says. “They will nourish your development, they will nourish your curiosity.” She notes that Cargill leaders also will nourish the “rougher edges” they see in employees.
Among women of color at Cargill, Hill says, “We’ve all been able to have very candid and real conversations with one another, but also with various leaders in the organization.”
Hill adds that she has received mentoring support from Cruz and Roberts. “When it comes to developing the careers of women of color [at Cargill], the door is open,” Hill says. “If you work hard and you perform, if you are talented, the door is open. The potential is there.”
Juggling work, children
Sophie Campbell-Smith relocated from Jamaica to the Twin Cities after her husband got a job in Minnesota. The move ended up being good for her career, because she landed a job with EY, formerly known as Ernst & Young.
After growing up in Jamaica and working for a private accounting firm there, she joined EY in Minneapolis in 2006 and is now an advisory partner who works with health care sector clients. She also serves as EY’s Minneapolis Inclusiveness Council champion.
In the United States and Canada, EY’s minority partners and staff account for about 35 percent of its employee population. That level of representation has nearly doubled since 2000.
Campbell-Smith says many companies talk about diversity, but that EY has taken action on many fronts.
“I have tangible and personal experience about how we’ve activated that diversity and inclusiveness,” she says. “The way that we do that is making sure that all of our people at EY are included and given a seat at the table to be their authentic self at work.”
EY has more than a dozen programs and resources to develop and recruit people of color and support them after the firm hires them. For example, Discover EY and the Launch Internship Program offer exposure and training to college undergraduates. EY Unplugged is a program targeted at incoming minority staff, which helps them build relationships with peers, mentors and sponsors.
“There is no shortage of mentors for all of our people,” Campbell-Smith says, adding that she has had multiple mentors inside and outside of EY. “My sponsor is a white female,” she adds. “She was the partner on my very first engagement when I joined EY.”
Beyond formal work-related activities, Campbell-Smith says that EY employees also conduct events that highlight their cultural differences. “We have a world showcase where everyone displays their things from their home countries,” she says. “I’ll have people come to my booth about Jamaica and someone will talk to me about reggae music. EY does a good job of making us feel we belong.”
She notes that women of color also have benefitted from some of the EY programs aimed at retaining women overall. “There are a number of women at EY who have been promoted to partner while working flexible hours, essentially a reduced schedule,” she says. When some women have newborns, they choose to return to work at 75 to 80 percent schedules.
“We want to retain our amazing talent,” she says, so it is important to offer women flexibility. Campbell-Smith is the mother of 5-year-old twins and her pregnancy did not impede her career progress. “I had just gotten promoted to senior manager in October 2011,” she recalls. “I had twins in December 2011.” She was elevated to partner in July 2016.
Securing board seats
Beyond the C-suite, women of color are underrepresented on corporate boards. In Minnesota, women of color hold only 3.4 percent of the board seats at Minnesota’s 85 largest publicly held companies. That’s according to the Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership released this year by St. Catherine University.
Cam Hoang, a partner with the Dorsey law firm, is tackling this issue when working with her corporate governance clients.
Born in Vietnam and raised in Texas, Hoang came to Minnesota in 2000 after graduating from Harvard Law School. In addition to working with business clients at Dorsey, she also was senior counsel at General Mills.
“The first step that any board needs to take is to ask: What contributions do they really want out of a new board member? Are they looking for someone who will give independent oversight over a management function?” Hoang says. “Do they want someone with a perspective of the business and knowledge of the industry, or financial expertise or technical skills?”
After that analysis occurs, Hoang adds, “The second step is where diversity becomes an issue. Board members and CEOs need to make sure that their selection criteria is not too narrow or arbitrary.”
She observes: “Is it really diverse to have a nine-member board and six of them are CEOs or ex-CEOs?”
Some women of color are passed over for board seats because a corporation is wedded to a specific “perception of what a good leader is,” Hoang says.
“A lot of women of color don’t fit into that comfort factor or that leadership mold as they are held by people in power,” she says. “So the people who are the current leaders, more often than not, come from a different background or gender and they see leadership and trust in ways that are different than what they see in women of color.”
While the NFL has included minority candidates in its coaching candidate pools, many corporations have expanded their board recruitment processes to include candidates of color. But Hoang says some qualified women of color are not selected under the banner of board “collegiality,” which is easy to achieve when everybody has similar backgrounds.
“When there is too much of a premium put on a comfort factor, directors might say it was nice to meet with X as a candidate, and then add, ‘I don’t know if I can work with him or her.’ ”
“I am afraid that is shorthand for saying, ‘That person is not like me,’ ” Hoang says. “What is right for the company and board is to embrace the discomfort. Maybe there is more of a risk for misunderstanding or dissent. But that is part of being on a board.”
Smart Recruiting and Education Choices
STEM majors can position women of color to succeed in corporate America.
Tiffany Kuehl, director of the Minnesota Society for Human Resource Management, says recruiting women of color is challenging for companies that have not paid much attention to diversifying their leadership.
If corporations are newcomers to taking this issue seriously, their leaders could quickly learn there is stiff competition for the best talent.
Kuehl, who is African-American, says women of color with substantial work experience have many good employer choices. Getting inside the candidate’s mind, she says, “You need to tell me why I should go to work for you. If I go to your website and in your executive team nobody looks like me, I may not be interested.”
A senior human resources recruiter at Versique, Kuehl entered the human resources profession in 1996 and has seen interest build in hiring women of color for leadership teams. “The reason behind that is that the diversity of experience and thought lends itself to organizations being able to be innovative, which then leads to an organization being more profitable,” she says.
Corporations that are intentional about recruiting women of color will get results in the form of more balanced leadership and greater understanding of a diverse customer base, she notes. In contrast, she says, “When you are recruiting executives and you are always going to the country club where everyone looks like you, you will get the same return.”
Sri Zaheer, dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, says both women and men need to be vigilant about filling the corporate pipeline with talented women of color.
“I don’t know that we are encouraging enough of our women to go into some of the more technical areas,” says Zaheer, who earned her undergraduate degree in physics in India. She is a big believer in making early connections with young women who should explore careers in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math. She notes that women with those educational backgrounds will have the technical competency to climb the corporate ladder.
The Carlson School offers a week-long residential business challenge, called Women Mean Business, which is open to high school sophomores and juniors. They learn about various business areas such as finance and supply chain and operations, compete in a case study competition, and are mentored by business leaders.
In addition to providing young women an early launch along a business path, Zaheer says corporations need to take steps to keep women at their corporations. “Some of the prime advancement years coincide with child-bearing,” she says. “It is the role of organizations to retain women during that period, especially during their 30s. If you lose them and have a 10-year gap, it affects women’s confidence and ability to come back and catch up.”
It is hard to reflect upon the fact that women of color occupy only 3 percent of C-suite positions in the U.S., Zaheer says. “Obviously, we haven’t made very much progress and that is disappointing,” she says. But she adds that progress can be made by giving young women early access to business roles, helping them succeed through mentor and sponsorship programs and investing in their professional development through graduate education and promotions to more challenging positions.
McKinsey & Co. research released in 2016 revealed that women of color get less access to opportunities. “They are 9 percent less likely to say they’ve received a challenging new assignment, 21 percent less likely to think the best opportunities go to the most deserving employees, and 10 percent less likely to feel comfortable being themselves at work,” according to the report Women in the Workplace 2016.
Paradigm for Parity
Cargill joins a new national coalition that aims for gender equality by 2030 across all levels of corporate leadership.
Cargill is the only Minnesota-based company that recently helped launch a coalition, Paradigm for Parity, which is committed to accelerating the pace of women’s advancement in corporate America. The companies are committing themselves to achieving gender equality in corporate leadership over the next 13 years.
In Minnesota, women held 15.5 percent of executive officer positions in 2008 at the 100 largest public companies. By 2016, that number rose to 19.9 percent at the 85 largest public companies, according to research conducted by St. Catherine University.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who founded LeanIn.Org, emphasized in 2015 that it could take 100 years to achieve parity based on anemic rates of progress. Women held 19 percent of C-suite jobs in 2016 in the United States, according to research by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org. The two organizations called for a greater focus on accountability and results to increase gender diversity.
In the study, they said, “Only 40 percent of companies report that they hold their senior leaders accountable for performance against gender diversity metrics, and employees are even less likely to see this in practice: Only 32 percent of employees report that senior leaders are regularly held accountable, and 9 percent report that managers are recognized for progress on gender diversity.”
Twin Cities Business interviewed LeighAnne Baker, Cargill’s chief human resources officer, to learn more about Cargill’s efforts to diversify its workforce.
Baker, an Ohio native, joined Cargill in 2014 after serving as chief human resources officer at Hertz Global Holdings. She earned her master’s degree in management from Stanford. What follows are edited excerpts of the interview that took place at Cargill’s Wayzata headquarters.
Q Cargill does business globally in the food, agriculture, financial and industrial sectors. In many corporations, those business areas have been male-dominated. Why does Cargill want to increase the number of women in leadership roles?
A We see diversity as a business imperative. For us, it is around making sure that we understand changing consumer trends. It’s also important as a cultural symbol. When great talent comes in for interviews, they look at how many women you have. Female diversity helps them understand that this is a culture that welcomes other ideas and welcomes ideas from the outside.
Q The 2016 McKinsey and LeanIn study shows that women hold only 19 percent of C-suite jobs in U.S. corporations. Women hold 46 percent of entry-level jobs. What are the major obstacles that prevent a larger number of women from rising to the top?
A For reasons around culture, around opportunities, around other pressures in their lives, women sometimes choose to drop out of corporate America. I was one of the founding members of the Paradigm for Parity Coalition. We looked at the same study and we said, “It’s going to take a hundred years to get parity in the upper echelon and we have to do something.” So Paradigm for Parity is actually a roadmap to help corporations figure out what are the things we can do to support women. How can we be more flexible in our working environment? How can we take out unconscious bias to help women move through the ranks? We actually can achieve parity by 2030.
Q It was December when Cargill CEO David MacLennan was among 27 CEOs in the U.S. who initiated the Paradigm for Parity Coalition. Why does Cargill believe this coalition will accelerate the progress of women?
A It is using a lot of best practices to help corporations set up the right kinds of internal environments and policies to help women advance. When Dave MacLennan was willing to sign on as one of the original signatories, it was a way for him to say we are making great progress at Cargill. But we are not sitting on our laurels. We know we have more to do. We were very interested in learning from other companies.
Q In its five-point plan, the Paradigm for Parity includes a commitment to providing sponsors to women with the talent for long-term success. To what degree has Cargill previously deployed sponsors to open doors for women?
A We’ve all had mentors, and most corporations today have mentorship programs. The difference in a sponsorship is that you have someone in the room when decisions are happening who knows the female talent and understands their strengths and weaknesses and knows what their career aspirations are. They are actually advocating on behalf of that woman. We have a saying here that says, “If you are not actively including, you may be unintentionally excluding.” Cargill is just in the early stages of getting a sponsorship program designed.
Q What strategies do you think have been most successful at Cargill in recruiting, retaining and promoting talented women?
A This is my third time to be a chief HR officer. What you have at Cargill is leadership who really believes in diversity and inclusion as a business imperative. You have to have leaders that are behind it 100 percent. I can give you a great practice that we just started in the U.S. in the last year. When we are hiring from the outside, we require diverse slates. And what we have found is that when you have a diverse slate, 70-plus percent of the time a diverse candidate (woman, minority or both) is being hired. What a great way to bring more women in. That is across the board for professionals. It can be entry level as well as higher up to a vice president.
We are doing some special development for women. We have two programs, Signature and Signature Select. One is for women at the vice president level or soon to have large P and L (profit and loss) responsibility. The second one is for women we see in the managerial ranks who are high-potential. We also have business resource groups. We have a Cargill Women’s Network that has chapters all around the globe. Cargill is in 70 countries. Almost every one of those countries now has their own Cargill Women’s Network. We also have in many locations a Working Mothers’ Network to help share ideas and talk about issues. Those kinds of things help women feel more included.
Q Are boards of directors included in the Paradigm for Parity goals? I noticed Cargill’s current 16-member board includes two women.
A Paradigm for Parity is focusing on women in corporate upper echelon, not on boards specifically. In terms of Cargill’s board makeup, there is a governance committee that looks at the current makeup and where we may have people retiring or moving off the board. Then they determine who the candidates will be.
In addition to the Cargill executive team (where three women were serving until Kathy Fortmann left in March), the CEO has four other people reporting to him. Two of them are women—our head of corporate communications and our general counsel. So when you look at Cargill, you will see quite a few women in leadership.
Liz Fedor is the Trending editor of Twin Cities Business.