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From left: Liz Huebner, Dawn Lepore, Patty Bedient, and Phyllis Campbell each sit on one or more corporate boards. They discussed increasing board diversity at an event in Seattle this week. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Ask for what you want. Intentionally build your network. Start small. Be patient.

Those are a handful of tips that four women on corporate boards shared with a packed house at an event in Seattle on Thursday. Speaking at the 2019 National Conversation on Board Diversity, board directors Patty Bedient, Phyllis Campbell, Liz Huebner, and Dawn Lepore discussed strategies to expand the number of women in corporate governance.

It’s a timely issue. Despite increased scrutiny of board diversity over the past decade, progress has been slow. Between 2010-2018, the percentage of women on the boards of Fortune 500 companies increased modestly from 15.7 percent to 22.5 percent, according to a study by Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity. The percentage of minorities holding board seats at those companies went from 12.8 percent in 2010 to 16.1 percent in 2018.

The Seattle event brought together women who have successfully landed board positions and aspiring directors to explore ways to increase diversity at the top. The panelists agreed that women should first identify the type of board they want to join and figure out what they can bring to the table.

“You have to ask yourself, do I really want to do the work,” said Lepore, the former CEO of Drugstore.com who now sits on several boards including Accolade, loanDepot, and RealNetworks. “Do I think I have something to add? Will I be able to both contribute and learn? You have to be really honest with yourself. Look yourself in the mirror and say, what can I add to a board right now? And maybe your answer is, right at this point in my career, not a lot but now I have a goal of what I want to learn over the next five years so that I am in a better position to contribute to a board.”

After that soul searching, Lepore and the other panelists emphasized the importance of reaching out to mentors and intentionally growing your professional network.

“Sometimes women don’t ask,” said Patty Bedient, an Alaska Air board member and former Weyerhaeuser executive. “They just expect that they’re going to do great work, and of course my CEO would recommend me or my board members know that. Don’t leave it to chance. If it’s something you want to do, have the conversation and learn from them.”

But Bedient cautioned would-be board directors that networking alone won’t necessarily help them reach their goal.

“Be realistic,” she said. “[Just] because you have coffee with 20 people doesn’t mean you’re going to get on board. A lot of times these things happen because of the confluence of someone who knows somebody who needs a board member … it takes time.”

It can be particularly difficult to break into the board at a large publicly-traded company. The panelists suggested starting at a private company or non-profit as a jumping-off point.

“It’s easier to get on private boards sometimes and that’s wonderful experience,” Lepore said. “Either the company sometimes goes public or introduces you to other people who then give you that public board experience.”

Underlying their advice is a tricky reality about board recruiting. It’s often dependent on the existing networks of company leadership. Board directors tend to know and recommend people like themselves, a phenomenon that many experts say contributes to slow progress toward more diverse corporate governance.

It’s an issue that has captured the attention of regulators. Last year California became the first state in the nation to pass a law demanding women have a seat on the boards of publicly-traded companies. The law applies to companies with headquarters in California but could pave the way for other states with tech hubs that struggle with gender diversity.

Corporate board diversity has also become the subject of a new wave of activism in the tech industry and a campaign issue for several Democrats running for president in 2020.

A Microsoft shareholder recently introduced a resolution that asks the company to consider putting a rank-and-file employee on its board of directors — citing “strained” relations with employees over controversial issues such as gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and government technology contracts. Shareholders will vote on the resolution at Microsoft’s Dec. 4 meeting.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has a comprehensive plan to democratize corporate governance through a series of regulations, including requiring companies to give worker representation on boards. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has a similar proposal.

The politics of boards did not come up during the panel discussion Thursday. But the panelists did speak to the business case for improving board diversity.

“All types of diversity are important and gender diversity is certainly, extremely important,” Lepore said. “It’s something that really makes the board more effective. All sorts of diversity, whether it’s ethnicity, political affiliation, background, where they’re from, all of those matter. Diversity is wanting people who think differently. Who look at things differently. That’s really what it’s all about.”

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