ST. LOUIS – Johnson Publishing CEO Desiree Rogers, Linda Johnson Rice, chairperson of Johnson Publishing with Yanick Rice Lamb during the Executive Leadership Council Women’s Leadership Forum in Minneapolis last month, which focused on leadership development and increasing the representation of African-American women in senior leadership positions in corporate America. (Courtesy of Stephen Allen)

The Executive Leadership Council (ELC) recently hosted more than 200 African-American women executives for the annual Women’s Leadership Forum and Black Women On…Power series at Target Field in Minneapolis. The meeting focused on leadership development and increasing the representation of African-American women in senior leadership positions in corporate America.

This event spoke directly to ELC’s mission and aspirational goals, a recently launched effort to promote corporate diversity. Over the next five years, the ELC will work with corporate America to add at least one African American at the CEO level or one to two levels below at each Fortune 500 company, for a total of 500, and to increase the number of African Americans on the boards of publicly traded companies by 200.

“The ELC is a national organization of current and former African‐American CEOs and senior executives at Fortune 500 and equivalent companies, and we develop the next generation of African-American business leaders from the classroom to the boardroom,” said Ronald C. Parker, interim president and CEO.

“Our goal is to make sure that African Americans have a seat at the decision-making table in corporate America, and that includes African-American women. This group will play an important role in bringing diversity of thinking to the table which spurs innovation and leads to stronger, more profitable corporations and better communities.”

The immediate past president was Arnold Donald, the St. Louis-based executive and philanthropist.

The ELC is taking the lead on elevating the issue of corporate diversity because recent statistics have raised concerns about minority representation, specifically for African Americans, at the senior levels in Fortune 500 companies.

Of the more than 35,000 senior executive positions at the CEO level or those one and two levels below CEO within most Fortune 500 companies, it is estimated that only 3.2 percent – or fewer than 800 – are African-American.

Furthermore, even within that group, African-American women are disproportionately underrepresented. According to the Alliance Board for Diversity, of which the ELC is a founding member, the number of Fortune 500 board seats held by women and minorities has remained flat compared to 2004, and they were already severely underrepresented.

Even worse, the number of Fortune 100 board seats held by African Americans has actually declined. In 2012, there are only six African-American CEOs, accounting for barely one percent of the chief executive officers of the 500 largest companies in the United States. Of the six, only one is an African-American woman, which is Ursula Burns who heads Xerox.

“The Women’s Leadership Forum is a great way to help build our pipeline of corporate leaders,” said Laysha Ward, president, community relations for Target, and board chair of The Executive Leadership Foundation.

“With a focus on ‘Potential. Purpose. Power.’, we will provide critical tools to help African-American women executives tap into their promise and power as they advance in corporate America.”

The first ELC Women’s Leadership Forum was held in October 2003 in Washington, D.C., for ELC members active on public policy issues. Since that time, the forum has grown, and previous host cities included New York and Chicago.

“During the forum we hosted a range of leadership development workshops and panels, and we brought together some of the most powerful women in business, politics and academia to share their professional playbooks for succeeding in corporate America,” said Leilani Brown, vice president and chief marketing officer for Starr Companies, and Women’s Leadership Forum co-chair.

“Today’s forum helped us prepare talented and creative African-American women for leadership positions in corporate America and on boards, ensuring that we have a voice at the decision-making table.”

Participants also heard from Judy Smith, founder and president of Smith & Company and inspiration for the hit ABC–TV show, Scandal; and “The Black Women On…Power” panel, which featured journalist, educator and blogger Yanick Rice Lamb; Chairman of Johnson Publishing Company Linda Johnson Rice; and Johnson Publishing CEO Desiree Rodgers.

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