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Updated Directory Tries Again to Help Boardrooms See the Light on Diversity

October 11, 1998|MARTHA GROVES

Martha Diaz Aszkenazy has managed to compete successfully in the manly world of construction. But she can't get her foot in the door of another male bastion: the corporate boardroom.

"I have the technical know-how and experience to look at financial reports and business plans," said Aszkenazy, president of Pueblo Contracting Services in San Fernando, which built Angels Flight in downtown Los Angeles and converted historic Bullocks Wilshire into a law library. As a bonus, she knows a niche market: the Latino community. Still, despite years of volunteer service and plaudits as a businesswoman, a corporate directorship eludes her.

She hopes that will change with her inclusion in a new publication that profiles the educational, career and community service histories of 78 executives, mostly from Southern California.

Many are well-known, including Carlton J. Jenkins, chief executive of Founders National Bank of Los Angeles, and Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Others have a lower profile.

All would make excellent additions to the corporate boards of America, said Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, president of Berkhemer/Clayton Inc., a Los Angeles-based executive search firm that compiled the Corporate Board Candidate Portfolio--published Oct. 1--as a public service.

The $25,000 project was underwritten by the California Community Foundation, which makes grants to nonprofit organizations throughout Los Angeles County.

This is actually volume two. The first edition of the directory, which grew out of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, was published in 1994. Peter Ueberroth, then chief of Rebuild L.A., saw a need to provide companies with a source of candidates for director positions who would better reflect the communities where the businesses operated.

Inclusion in the first volume did not necessarily open any doors. Jenkins of Founders Bank got nary a nibble. However, thanks to a business connection with a grocery executive with strong ties to the African American community, he now is enjoying the trappings of a directorship with Fred Meyer Inc., a giant retailer in Oregon that owns Ralphs and other chains.

Jenkins, who reappears in volume two, flies aboard the corporate plane to board meetings, at which he enjoys "getting inside the club and rubbing elbows" with prominent executives.

"Some of the more proactive, market-driven CEOs are looking at this [issue of director diversity] from the bottom-line point of view," Jenkins said. "What better way to achieve market growth than to bring people into the organization who have some intimacy with that market?" And who knows a community better, he said, than a community banker.

Jenkins, the only African American on the board, said there was never an issue of acceptance. "Once you're in the room, there's an assumption made that you belong there," he said.

Licia C. Ramos, human resources director of Rain Bird Sprinkler Manufacturing Corp. in Glendora, the nation's largest maker of irrigation equipment, hopes that a mention in the new volume will help her win a seat on the board of a nonprofit. Such organizations, she said, could use her expertise in matters of legal liability, hirings and firings, and stresses on families.

About 1,000 copies of the directory will be sent free to companies and nonprofits, primarily in California. In addition, the contents are posted on the Internet at http://www.calfund.org, the address of the California Community Foundation.

Historically, the presence of women and minorities on corporate boards has been meager, acknowledged James Darazsdi, interim president of the National Assn. of Corporate Directors, based in Washington. Its broadly based corporate governance survey in 1997 showed that all-male boards still predominated, accounting for 59% of those surveyed, unchanged from 1995. Seventy-nine percent of boards had no minority directors. But Darazsdi expects improvement in the 1998 study.

Catalyst, a New York organization that promotes women in the workplace, will soon publish a new census of female board directors at Fortune 500 companies. Last year, 84% of companies it surveyed had one or more female directors, up from 69% in 1993, when the annual census began. In 1997, 54 female directors, or 12.2%, were women of color, holding just 1.4% of total board seats.

"The overwhelming majority of Fortune 500 companies have at least one woman," said Catalyst President Sheila Wellington. "Having one woman on the board just won't cut it anymore.

"Obviously," she added, "the issue is that women and people of color bring different and fresh perspectives to the boardroom. They reflect a consumer base. Women make 70% or more of buying decisions. That's not just lipstick and face powder, but everything from cars to electronics."

As one CEO noted in Catalyst's census last year: "It's easy for boards to get club-like and ingrown. The notion of a bunch of old men who grew up in the same environment governing a company--it's the best formula I know for getting out of step in a changing world."

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Has your company achieved a commendable level of diversity? What has it meant to the bottom line? Write to Martha Groves, Corporate Currents, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Or e-mail martha.groves@latimes.com.

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