By Ellen McGirt
Updated: March 1, 2018 1:37 PM ET

While Black History Month 2018 will long be remembered as the year that we all went to Wakanda, it will also be notable for a less happy reason. There are now only three black CEOs who head up Fortune 500 companies, down from six on the 2012 list. The last time black representation at the top was this low was in 2002.

I hope Kenneth Frazier at Merck, Roger Ferguson Jr. at TIAA, and Marvin Ellison at J.C. Penney are all taking their vitamins — and examining their talent pipelines closely.

RaceAhead editor Grace Donnelly digs into the situation in a must-read and share piece:

In total, there have been just 16 black CEOs at the helm of Fortune 500 companies since 1999. Currently, Roger Ferguson Jr., CEO of TIAA, has the longest tenure of the three black CEOs on the list.

With the December 2016 departure of Xerox’s Ursula Burns (the first and only black woman to run a company on the Fortune 500 list), that number now includes only black men.

The racial diversity of Fortune 500 boards isn’t much better. Four out of five new appointees to boards in 2016 were white, according to last year’s Board Monitor report from Heidrick & Struggles.

One of the things that raceAhead has tried to do since its launch in May 2016 was to amplify the idea that the talent pipeline is long and complex, and the path to the C-Suite (or any place you dream to be) starts at birth. It has given us the courage to elevate the thorny issues of history, state violence, image-making in marketing and pop culture, and the systemic barriers people of color and other under-represented groups have always faced. This philosophy is central to the extraordinary work that my (mostly) sisters in inclusion at The Broadsheet (subscribe here) and the Most Powerful Women franchises do every day.

But I have occasionally been taken aback at the intensity of the times we live in. I’ve been known to joke that when I started this joint, I thought I’d be covering mostly diversity research and job promotions, not police shootings, newly-minted white supremacists, or whether Robert E. Lee was a nice guy or not. But I quickly learned what the experts I cover clearly knew: Uncomfortable conversations (and data) are the only way to make lasting change. We live in uncomfortable times.

And yet, there is clearly a movement afoot, as big companies in the Fortune universe are increasingly finding ways to do well in business by doing good in the world. This includes tackling issues of race and justice in their workforces and in the markets they serve.

So, for now, let’s call these often disappointing diversity numbers a lagging indicator, a sign of the bottom that will only be visible from a more inclusive perspective yet to come.

And let’s keep having these uncomfortable conversations with empathy and grace, as we few, we happy few, we band of siblings, continue to do the work in the face of very troubling odds.

I know, I know. Inclusive-talk is weird sometimes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.



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