Diversity lags in executive suites and boardrooms

By Steven Overly
Monday, February 28, 2011

Warren Thompson had just hung the shingle on his hospitality company in 1992 when the parent company of the breakfast chain he franchised, Shoney's, was ordered to pay millions of dollars as part of a discrimination lawsuit settlement.

The reverberations reached Thompson's Herndon office, and he eventually sold off the restaurants and paid down the lingering debt. Now chairman and president of one of the nation's largest food service companies, Thompson said the experience served as a lesson in diversity.

"I learned very early on that it wasn't something I did [but that] I was the franchisee of a company that didn't support diversity," said Thompson, who is African American.

Today, the C-suite at Thompson Hospitality is predominantly made up of women and racial or ethnic minorities. The staffs at his restaurants, which include American Tap Room and Austin Grill, reflect the mix of people and cultures found in Washington, he said.

But gender and racial disparities in the workplace, particularly among corporate leaders, continue at many publicly traded and privately held organizations, making the executive makeup of a company like Thompson Hospitality the exception rather than the rule.

Indeed, a Capital Business analysis of 90 publicly traded companies in the greater Washington region shows that of 93 chief executive positions, four are held by women and eight are held by people of color. (Some of the companies had two chief executives.) Additionally, of the 677 board positions across the companies, 76 are held by women and 67 are held by people of color.

This disproportion has been a persistent quandary for both corporations and the groups that work to advance the roles of women and minorities within them. But now some think that the solution to diversity at the top of a company may begin at the bottom.

'The sticky floor'

Whenever Washington-based Carlyle Group fills a position within the asset management firm, its charge is to sift through a pool of candidates that's deemed both highly qualified and diverse. Sometimes that leads the privately held firm to a female or minority hire, such as the recent addition of Adena Friedman as chief financial officer.

But in the field of finance, much like science and engineering, the shortage of women and people of color often begins at the collegiate level or earlier. In fact, Carlyle was founded by three white men 24 years ago. So the firm partnered in 2009 with the Robert Toigo Foundation, which aims to increase diversity in finance, to design a post-MBA fellowship for minority students.

The year-long program aims to provide a broad overview of private equity by having the student spend time at Carlyle, as well as one of its investor and portfolio companies. "There's the prospect that they would then be hired by Carlyle. [We want to] promote and foster a pipeline, for the industry in general, but Carlyle in particular," said spokesman Chris Ullman.

Eric Peterson, the manager of diversity and inclusion initiatives at the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, said many companies overlook the pipeline. Thus, when senior positions become vacant, there aren't always female or minority candidates who have been groomed for the role.

"I know of many, many people who say our senior leadership is not as diverse as we would like it to be," Peterson said. "I think it's a myth that [female and minority candidates] are not there, but I think they're rare. And it's because they don't get the career coaching early in their career.

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